Some people like spending their holiday relaxing on a beach while others prefer swimming in a river surrounded by crocodiles and piranhas, feeling their skin being nibbled at, unable to see the culprits through the black water. I prefer the latter.
On my recent trip to South America I stayed a few days at Fazenda Barranco Alto — an eco-friendly lodge in the southern Pantanal area of Brazil. If I recall the statistics correctly, the Barranco Alto ranch spans about 11 thousand hectares, whereof 9 thousand are not utilized for farming and are dedicated to the protection of wildlife. The ranch is owned and operated by biologists with an admirable interest in preserving the wilderness of the Pantanal area.
The adventure started on a Sunday afternoon at the airfield of the small town of Aquidauana — I say airfield rather than airport since the runway was laid with grass rather than asphalt — where one of the owners of the Barranco Alto farm picked us up in his four seat Cessna. Given that I am no fan of the combination of small planes and stormy weather, I had some reservations about the flight when I saw a thunderstorm approaching us on the horizon.
Fortunately we could avoid the storm and the 45 minute flight from Aquidauana to the Barranco Alto farm was a fairly smooth one — or as smooth as one can expect in a small plane, flying at low altitude. On our way we could enjoy the view of the tropical wetland — the fields, the trees and the Black River (Rio Negro).
Having landed safely on the farm we spent the first afternoon and evening settling in, planning the activities for the coming days, getting to know the other guests and celebrating my birthday with good food and strong caipirinhas.
The mornings at the farm were dedicated to activities, such as boat trips, canoeing, horseback riding or piranha fishing. We would start the morning early and finish the activities before lunch.
The first morning at the farm started with an early six o’clock breakfast before we set on a boat trip on the Black River. During the boat trip we had our first encounters with the fantastic fauna of the Pantanal wetlands.
The beaches were laid with caimans — smallish alligatorid crocodylians which we were told not to be afraid of since we the humans were bigger the caimans, they were the ones that were afraid of us. For me, it took some time getting used to the idea of not being afraid of crocodiles. I guess I am just too biased by the idea of big man-eating crocodiles I see in the movies.
Sailing along the river, we got a nice view of the Pantanal birdlife. We saw big birds, small birds, colorful birds as well as color-dull birds. As I have problems fixing bird names in my memory, I focused on getting the birds’ figure onto the memory card in my camera.
As for the other animals we saw during the boat trip, we came across the first examples of capybaras — the World’s biggest rodent — an animal that we would see plenty of during our days in the Pantanal area.
As for the animals we did not see during the boat trip, we learned the important difference between exploring animals in the wild compared to exploring animals in zoos (or for that matter … on the Internet). On a short hike inland from the river we came across fresh footprints of a tapir (if I recall the animal correctly), but not seeing the animal itself, reminding us that when exploring animals in the wild there are no guarantees of successful spotting and we rely more on luck, patience and right timing.
Our guide was very knowledgeable and dutifully told us the names of the birds and animals we came across — names that flew in and out of the goldfish-like memory unit I call my brain. He also filled us with curious bits of knowledge. He told us which fruits were edible and which ones were better suited as eye drops. He taught us how the produce of a palm tree could be used to make useful artifacts such as drinking contains and whips to ward off mosquitos.
On our second morning in the Pantanal, we made an even earlier start than the first. At five o’clock we drove away from the farm, dragging behind us a trio of canoes. Some 10 kilometers upstream from the farm we floated our canoes on the Black River and started pedaling back towards the farm.
It was very relaxing to slowly pedal into the dawn, listening to the forrest waking up around us. We listened to the tweets of birds, the howling of monkeys and other animal sounds originating somewhere among the trees.
When the sun had come up we landed on a sandy beach and had our breakfast. During a pre-breakfast sand exploration, our guide pointed out to us fresh jaguar tracks. The cat had been on that same beach not so long time before us. Again we were reminded of the luck, patience and right timing required when exploring animals in the wild.
After breakfast we continued pedaling downstream, admiring the beautiful landscape and wildlife. Apart from a plethora of birds, caimans and capybaras, we saw a group of giant otters swimming upstream and a pair of howling monkeys sitting high up in a tree.
Around the corner from the lodge, we decided to end the canoeing tour by going swimming in the river. When I say swimming I really mean bathing. As the river was very shallow it was hard to do any proper swimming. It was a weird feeling to being submerged in a black river, seeing caimans floating in a distance, knowing of piranhas somewhere below the water surface and feeling something nibbling at your body from time to time.
Having seen a number of scary movies it was hard not to wonder whether it were the piranhas or the alligatorid crocodylians that were responsible for the nibbling. We did however put aside the idea of anacondas since they were apparently very rare. There was however little reason to panic since we had been told in advance about the nibbling creatures. They were indeed no piranhas, caimans nor anacondas, but a small dead-skin-cell-nibbling fish similar to the Garra rufa that is used for fish pedicure.
On our third morning in the Pantanal it was time to get better acquainted with some of the domesticated animals at the farm. We went horseback riding about the estate. Although one can say that horses are not as exotic as most of the other animals in the Pantanal, for me, the horseback riding was an adventure in the sense that it is not something that I do on a regular basis. Having only been on the back of a horse a few times in my life, it always fascinates me how smoothly they change gears … ehm … I mean … how smoothly they change gaits. For an amateur rider there is always an adrenaline thrill if the horse starts to canter. I doubt that we ever went fast enough for the horse to gallop.
After each morning activity there was a generous lunch break and relaxation period, before we set on a jeep safari around the estate, each day driving a different route to get a varied view of the wildlife. As in the morning tours the guides aided us in spotting birds and animals, while sharing their vast knowledge of the area — its flora and fauna.
On most jeep safaris one of our guides was a visiting giant anteater researcher who was doing her field research at the farm. She informed us about her research topic as well as about other animals we came across. Unfortunately we never encountered a giant ant eater during our stay in the Pantanal, but on our jeep trips we saw assorted birdlife, such as, macaws, toucans, owls, caracaras, curassow, and greater rhea … birdnames that I have looked up on the Web while writing this post. As for animals, we came across marsh deer, capybaras, foxes, wild boars, turtles, brazilian rabbits, foxes and some more animals that I cannot remember.
On one of the jeep safaris we were unlucky enough to get the car stuck in the middle of a stream. While one of the guides arranged for the jeep to be tugged to shore the other guide went with us on a short hiking trip to a nearby abandoned farm. Although the farm had been abandoned by human inhabitants, other settlers had taken their place. Each of the two farm houses had been occupied by a species of bats. In one house lived a species of vegetarian bats, but vampire bats occupied the other.
We had a look into both houses to pay a visit to the inhabitants. The vegetarian bats kept a relatively nice and tidy home. The home of the vampire bats was something completely different. The place was incredibly smelly with walls and roof beams covered with blood stains. There was blood all over the place. If the bats ever invited me to joint them for a drink, I’d prefer the company of the vegetarian bats.
Every evening, just before sunset, we stopped by a lake and enjoyed a picturesque view of the sun disappearing below the horizon. The strategic location next to a lake guaranteed nice and symmetric view of the landscape and its reflection. The sun went down together with a can of beer, other more substantial refreshments and lively discussions.
After the sunset we made our way back to the lodge though the dark night. One of the guides took out a strong spotlight and introduced us to the nightlife of the animals. It was impressive how trained the guides were at spotting animals in the dark. The highlight of the night-time animal-spotting was when we saw a couple of pumas in a distance and when we drove past a nest of tarantulas.
On Thursday, our time in the Pantanal was up — at least our current visit. My friends used the morning to go piranha fishing, while I relaxed in the shade of the mango tree, writing in my diary stories of the amazing adventures I had experienced in the days before. After lunch we climbed into the Cessna again and flew back to Aquidauana.
The stay at the Fazenda Barranco Alto was one of the best holidays I have had. Exciting and relaxing at the same time, as well as educating and entertaining. I surely want to go back one day.