Swimming with Piranhas in the Pantanal

resized_DSC_0115After going back and forth for awhile considering the cost and distance, Paul and I eventually decided to make the plunge to visit the Pantanal in Brazil.  It is the world’s largest tropical wetland and home to at least 1000 bird species, 300 mammalian species and 400+ reptile species, making the Pantanal an important part of Brazil’s diverse ecoosystem.

There are two gateways to the Pantanal – Campo Grande in the south, which is geared towards the backpacker crowd and Cuiba in the north, which is located deeper into the waterways and offers some more indepth exursions.  In the interest of time and budget, we opted for South Pantanal.  Campo Grande was already a 15 hour bus ride away and Cuiba was just too far and expensive for us to consider.

After a freezing cold overnight bus ride, we finally arrived in Campo Grade station where Gil from Pantanal Discovery was already waiting for us.  He resized_DSC_0120generously treated us to breakfast before transporting us to a waiting shuttle bus for the five hour drive to our lodge in the Pantanal.  By the time we actually set foot in the lodge, we had been travelling for nearly 22 hours and we were eager to get off our butts.

Since we arrived well into the afternoon, our activities for the first day were pretty limited.  Our guide boated us upriver a couple of kilometers and told us we were free to jump in and ‘float’ back to the lodge.  Paul and I were hot and sweaty from travelling all night and day and we jumped in without any second thoughts.  We only found out much later we’d been swimming with a river full of piranhas.  That night, we also did an evening boat safari down that same river looking for caimens (crocodiles).  So in hindsight, perhaps I should have given the swimming some more consideration.  As the saying goes, ignorance is bliss, but i’m sure it was safe enough!

resized_DSC_0192The next day, we embarked on a 3 hour jeep safari looking for more wildlife.  One of the major highlights for visitors to the Pantanal is jaguar spotting.  While we did run into some fresh tracks, we were not lucky enough to spot the actual animal.  We knew going into the tour that there are better chances of seeing jaguars in the north but we couldn’t help being hopeful anyway.  We did see several capybaras, monkeys, and too many birds to name.  My favourite was seeing the toucans and macaws in their natural habitat although the ones we say in the Iguacu Bird Sanctuary posed for far better photos.  The Pantanal has got to be the bird watcher’s dream come true.  Of course that evening we went fishing for piranhas and trust me they were all over the bait.  In the end, Paul and I only caught one each after feeding them a full buffet of cow hearts.  We capped off the night with a beautiful view of the sun setting over the Pantanal.

On our last day, we did another boat safari and saw a family of otters playing on the banks.  We also got the chance to canoe for about an hour before heading back to the lodge for lunch and check out.  It has been a very long time since Paul and I have paddled and we were reminiscing resized_DSC_0238about our dragonboating days. We decided to try and do a 6-16 (a power start for races) and almost tipped our canoe. Opps.

And that concluded our 3D2N tour of the Pantanal.  All in all, we’re glad we made the effort to come because it is definitely an area worth seeing.  But at the same time I have to admit we were a bit disappointed with the overall experience and getting value out of money.  Perhaps Paul and I were spoiled rotten with our South African safari where there were lions, buffalos and elephants around every corner but I was expecting a little bit more from a tour and tour guide that cost just as much as Africa.  We paid roughly $750 CAD for two people for 3D2N, which works out to be around $125/pppd.  We only paid $160/pppd in Africa and at the very least it was more informative.  To be fair to the Pantanal, I know animals don’t appear on demand but it’s safe to say the overall experience depends heavily on the guide’s knowledge and excitement to share that information.  While ours was good at pointing out and explaining things we did see, the boat/jeep was silent for the majority of the safaris.  Maybe he’s been guiding for too long but it seemed like resized_DSC_0155he was lacking some passion and interest.

So is the Pantanal still worth visiting? Definitely!  But if I were to do the trip again, I’d find the extra time and pay a bit more to go to the northern part and find myself a better guide.  Or, I’d fly back to Africa to mingle with the lions.


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