By Marilyn Diggs
A Visit to the Heart of South America – the Pantanal
For the twenty years that I have lived in Brazil, I’ve always heard the word impressive” used to describe the Pantanal, the Brazilian wetlands. Recently I decided to see it for myself, only to discover that “impressive” doesn’t come close.

The Pantanal-bound traveler’s first decision must be whether to go in the dry season when the mammals are prevalent, or rainy when the area floods and the flora and bird life flourish. I opted for the former. Bonito, a favorite spot for ecotourism since the 1990s, was another spot I’d always wanted to visit. So, on a clear August day I boarded the comfortable Gol plane in São Paulo and headed west to Campo Grande, in Mato Grosso do Sul state.

After a short 90-minute flight, it takes another four hours by van or car to reach the Brazilian side of the Pantanal. The enormous depression covered in savanna and scattered groves of tall trees, extends over 77,000 sq. mi (200,000 sq. km.) at the extreme north of the Plata River basin in Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay. It is the home of 650 different species of birds, 40 species of mammals, and 15 species of reptiles.

My choice of accommodations was the Caiman Ecological Refuge near Miranda (pictured below), a 131,000-acre working ranch and an 18,850-acre nature reserve – the perfect location to learn about the wildlife, topography and regional cooking.

Caiman Ecological Refuge
As we rolled along the rough dirt road up to the ranch’s headquarters past emas (type of ostrich), white Brahman cattle and a pond surrounded by caimans (regional alligators), I knew I’d come to the right place for ecological tourism. Passing though the rustic stone faade of the main lodge, it seemed like I’d walked onto a split-level movie set divided into two lounging areas – a patio with sofas is under a white canopy in front of an over-sized stone fireplace and on the next level, rooms surround a swimming pool where hammocks under a thatched-roof cabana invite you to relax between programmed activities. There are four lodges on the grounds, each cozy, comfortable and surrounded by a unique environment. It is no wonder that Caiman lodging is listed in the prestigious, Roteiros de Charme (Guidebook to Charming Locations in Brazil).

I wondered just how much I would see during my 3-day stay in the area. The answer was a lot since the day outings begin early, at 7 a.m., and continue into the night. The experienced staff conducts safaris in open-ended trucks and horseback rides into the grasslands to spy on wild boars, deer, birds, jaguars and other critters. I lost count of the storks, ibis, cranes, parrots and herons. By far the most impressive flight is of the tuiuiui (Jabiru stork) whose wingspan can reach almost three meters. I had especially come to see this black-headed, red-necked, white-bodied bird, symbol of the Pantanal, but what really won my heart was the silky, meter-high anteater whose young latches onto the mother’s back for quick get-aways.

Blue Macaw parrots are abundant due to a preservation project on the premises, and they fly overhead competing with toucans and Blue Silk butterflies for visitors’ attention.

One can also explore the Aquidauana River in a chalana (local watercraft). At a certain point, our group climbed into canoes and rowed down narrow rivers that reminded me of Disneyland’s Adventure Land jungle ride, minus elephants and gorillas. Think alligators and monkeys. Caimans lounge, open-mouthed, warming themselves. The guide reminded us to keep fingers inside the boat, so as not to become piranha bait. I wondered if he was kidding, but decided not to test it. The Pantanal is famous for its magnificent red sunsets, better yet when seen as a climax to a canoe ride though water lilies and undergrowth where colorful birds share fish with snow-white egrets. Night walks and night safaris, spurred by hopes of seeing spotted jaguars, are enlivened by nocturnal anteaters, wild foxes and fireflies camouflaged by sparkling stars on clear nights.

Too soon my stay was over and I was back in the air-conditioned van rumbling down the road, stopping occasionally for straw-hatted gauchos herding white cattle, lumbering anteaters or scurrying cabybara(dog-sized rodent relatives). To break up the drive to Bonito, the next night’s destination, we stopped at Boca da Ona (Jaguar’s Mouth) Ranch with over 8 waterfalls along hiking trails. Smiling, I shook my head in disbelief as nature guides told about trees whose fruit monkeys (and locals) use for eye drops, and a tree bark whose pulp makes tasty desserts and can be stuck back onto the trunk with clay to regenerate.

Part 2 next week…

Marilyn Diggs is an American living in Brazil for over twenty years. She is a freelance writer, artist, lecturer and author of nine books – two about Brazilian art history. As an art reporter and travel writer she has two monthly columns in Sunday News, Brazil’s English language newspaper that circulates in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Brasilia. She has written for the Miami Herald and Museum International , a UNESCO publication. Marilyn has a degree in Latin American Studies and is often contracted by intercultural training services to give talks on expat challenges.

Previous articles by Marilyn:

Spending the Night in the Lost City of the Incas – Machu Picchu
Brazil: Happy Moonlit Trails To You
Brazil: Paradise Found – Fernando de Noronha

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