Pantanal is a magical world spread over Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay. Pantanal is home to magical beings that include Caimans, capybaras, ocelots, macaws, piranhas, anacondas and jaguars to name a few. Spread over two hundred thousand square kilometres, Pantanal is the world’s largest swamp. I spent a magical 4 days at Pantanal and it turned out to be a unique experience, very different from any other i have ever had.
To say Pantanal is a large swamp would be an understatement. Since Pantanal is spread over 200000 Sq. KMs you would do well to plan before venturing here. Broadly speaking there is North Pantanal accessed from Cuiaba and South Pantanal which is reached from Campo Grande. While coming from Bolivia, access is possible from the border town of Corumba.
The best time to spot wild animals would be the dry season. Hence it would be good to visit Pantanal between June and October. This is the time when you can hear the cacophony of millions of breeding birds as well. If you plan to visit Pantanal during the wet season from November to March, go to the North Pantanal as it is on higher ground hence offers a better chance of spotting animals. The south would be flooded during this time.
I had chosen Southern Pantanal as it was closer to Sao Paulo where I had gone on work. I took TAM airways flight from Sao Paulo to Campo Grande. I was received by a guide and was driven to Hostel Campo Grande. After a sumptuous breakfast of dozens of fruits and coffee, I joined a gang of tourists in a bus that would take us to Pantanal.
The bus took 3 hours to take us to the outskirts of the wetlands. We shifted to a truck from there to enter the Pantanal wetlands. A 4 hour journey was to follow right through the heart of southern Pantanal. Initially I was excited to spot Caimans sun bathing along the dirt road we were on. But soon I realised there were a million of them and familiarity breeds contempt!
The landscape was amazing and of a kind I have never seen. We passed through scores of rivers and spotted an amazing variety of birds. Towards dusk the sky became a mixture of crimson and blue. Words are difficult to describe the beauty of this surreal landscape.
It was nearly 7pm and quite dark before the truck came to a screeching halt besides a river. Suddenly 6 speed boats came out of nowhere like a James Bond movie, only to take our luggage across the Paraguay River! We took a barge to reach our camp on the other side of the River.
Based on the advice of the Guide I woke up early for the sunrise against the protests from my body. Sunrise was magnificent as the camp was set on the banks of the River Paraguay which had a teeming bird life.
As the sun rose, the colours of the sky as well as the reflection on the water was breadth taking.
Food was a big challenge. Wetlands of Brazil is a tough place for vegetarians. My diet was restricted to fruits and rice. But the sheer variety of fruits on the table ensured I did not go hungry.
Our guide took us on a long walk besides the Paraguay River after breakfast. He gave each of us fishing rods and a few tips on how to catch fish. It was exciting to be told that we were going to fish Piranhas, Phantom style! A couple of us did manage to catch a Piranha which was immediately dressed up by our guide after removing the poisonous glands. These Piranhas were going to be served for lunch!
After the fishing expedition I took a long walk into a stretch of wetlands which had a few villages. The huts were built on stilts as the water levels come up really high during the wet season. I spotted an amazing array of birds including parakeets, ibis, macaws toucans, nightjars and lapwings to name a few I could identify.
While the rest of the gang feasted on their well-earned Piranhas, I had more fruits to fill my stomach. The siesta that followed was blissful.
I had spotted a nice hammock just on the banks of the River Paraguay a little distance away from our camp. It was right under a massive tree and the cool shade was irresistible. I don’t remember for how long my siesta lasted when I was woken up by loud shouts. I woke up with a start and spotted the cause for the alarm was slithering right below my hammock. It was a 3 meter long Anaconda. After the initial shock, I was mesmerised by its yellow and black appearance.
The guide came running and calmed the situation. He just pulled it by its tail and threw it back into the River! It seems Anacondas are a pet in the Amazon basin, kept to eat the mice that create havoc in the rice fields. So much for the scary Anaconda movie! When probed the guide did say that this one had just had a meal and hence was okay to handle! When hungry, Anacondas are indeed dangerous and tend to crush their victims which are usually fish, amphibians, capybara and the occasional jaguar!
I went on a boat cruise over the River Paraguay in the evening. It was an exhilarating experience as we sped past the teeming water hyacinth growth.
We stopped after a while and our guide threw another surprise. He said it was time to swim in the Piranha infested river! As long as no cuts were on the body, he said it was safe. Four of my fellow tourist took the plunge into the icy waters based on the assurance of our guide. I stuck to taking photographs contemplating why I never learnt swimming.
An interesting experience was in store for us on the last day of our Pantanal tour. Our guide took us deep into the swamps and then asked us to remove our footwear. The plan was to wade through all the muck barefooted, across the swamp. Since we had no real options, we did just that.
After the initial apprehension it did seem fun. Childhood memories of splashing in muddy waters came back to my mind. Only difference this time was the possibility of another encounter with an Anaconda or a Caiman! As fate would have it, we only met some Capybaras.
On the way back from the Swamp walk towards the road back to Campo Grande I finally managed to spot a family of the magnificent and endangered Blue Macaws.
It was a beautiful way to end this magnificent trip. I never knew Swamps could be magical until I came to Pantanal!
For my travelogue on other hotspots of nature, visit Great Holiday Ideas.