Friday, August 6, 2010

The Pantanal, Brazil 1: Howler Monkeys, Caiman and Peccaries

Traffic jam in The Pantanal (photo by Luis Bastardo)

Finally, it's time to travel to The Pantanal! As much as we loved spending time in beautiful Bonito, we needed to move along fairly quickly as the area of the Pantanal was drying up quickly. It was the time of year when the rains stop, the dry season starts, and many of the birds and animals move to wetter climes. We reserved two seats on a minibus through the Hostelling International hostel in Bonito, along with a young Canadian and four young Dutch travelers, that took us along a combination of bumpy dirt tracks and smooth paved roads for about four hours, stopping periodically for police-escorted cattle drives. When we reached a river crossing, the minibus driver told us that was as far as he went and that we would have to cross the bridge on foot carrying our backpacks. A pickup truck on the other side would take us the rest of the way, so off we trudged in the stifling heat and brutal sun to the other side of the river to wait for our second ride. We arrived in a very small town of about 20 buildings, but luckily, with lots of shady trees and a snack concession run out of someone's kitchen window that sold ice-cold beer. After about a half an hour, the truck appeared and we continued our trek, icy beers in hand.

  Sim trying to work out how to get into the truck without dropping her beer (photo by Luis Bastardo)

We arrived at the Pousada Santa Clara late in the afternoon, where they checked us in, advised us of the schedule for the next four days, then showed us to our cabin. The schedule included nature walks, nighttime nature "safaris", bird-watching, horseback trekking and the much anticipated piranha fishing excursion. We had a couple of hours before the twilight nature walk began, so we dropped our gear and plunged into the very inviting swimming pool. The pousada (meaning inn or hotel) was more like a ranch, open and spacious, and along with the sparkling clean pool, included well-kept grounds with thatched tiki-type huts filled with hammocks for napping, which sounded really inviting, but it was almost time for our hike. The surrounding fields were filled with cattle and goat corrals, horse stables and various tame and semi-tame animals. Pecking around the place, we discovered colorful and vocal parrots and blue and yellow macaws squawking in the tree branches and feeders, peccaries (a type of wild pig very distantly related to the wild boar) tiptoeing delicately through the shaded areas, storks alighting softly on the fence railings,  gentle capybaras (the world's largest rodent) lounging in the grass and the usual array of cats and dogs.

    Sim making new porcine friends (photo by Luis Bastardo)

At dusk, our guide rounded everyone up for the nature walk and off we went into the brush for a look at the local wildlife. Our first glimpse was of a yellow armadillo scurrying through the fallen leaves, followed by a pair of capuchin monkeys high up in the trees, who, according to our guide, are the only two that lived in this area of the Pantanal. No one had ever seen a baby though, so he speculated that they were either both of the same gender or gay. Now there's something you don't see every capuchin monkeys. Living in the trees with the capuchins we saw more typical monkeys such as howlers and lower down the trunks, large, hairy, scary-looking tarantulas. The Pantanal is also home to more than 700 species of birds including the crested caracara, which looks and moves a bit like an accountant (sorry, Luis) with a bad toupee. Dusk is an excellent time to spot birds and we also were lucky enough to see kiskadees, bare-faced curassows, rheas, anhingas, ibis, and the magnificent jabiru storks. We wanted to stay and look for more birds, but the sun was starting to go down and we just had time to eat a quick dinner before setting out on our nocturnal wildlife-spotting safari.

 The Crested Caracara with his bad rug (courtesy of

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