Most people have never heard of the Pantanal, even people here in South America haven’t. It was news to me, too. But as I read more, and began making my decisions about where to go in Brazil, Pantanal rose quickly in my list of priorities. The Pantanal is the largest tropical wetland in the world, extending through one whole state of Brazil, and into Bolivia and Paraguay. Depending on the season, you can arrive to find the Pantanal flooded, or with low rivers, but regardless, it is known for teeming with wildlife, everything from fishing birds, to alligators, anacondas and jaguars.
|Pools like this are all over the Pantanal! They look super peaceful and quiet, but they come alive with life! |
Plus you never really know what is lurking under the surface!
As soon as I heard this, of course, I had to go. It didn’t matter to me that this was the worst time of year for sightings, that this was the season of insatiable and numerous mosquitos. All that mattered was that it was a wildlife photographer’s paradise. I was going. So I turned up in the “nearby” town of Campo Grande around 8am one morning (really 4-5 hours away depending upon where in the Pantanal you are headed). There was a tour agency right inside the bus station, and upon my inquiry, I found that a tour was leaving in 30 minutes, with space for me! So off I went!
I spent the following five hour van ride chatting with the other folks in the tour: an older gentleman from London traveling around Brazil on his own for a month, a young Dutch couple at the start of a trip around South America, a young British guy in the middle of a trip of unknown duration, and 3 Israelis traveling for a year. We swapped travel stories, photos, and discussed the state of the world between jokes that set us all laughing.
When the van finally stopped, we mistakenly assumed we had arrived, but instead found that we were switching to other vehicles, each headed to the specific fazendas where we were staying. The guests and luggage were transferred to the proper vehicle, and we headed off for another 2.5 hours in the back of a truck, winding our way down a rustic, bumpy dirt road to our fazenda. We spent the first part of this ride getting to know our new group, since the previous guests had been sent other places. Our Dutch couple was replaced by a nice Danish couple, the 3 Israeli guys headed to another fazenda, and the two Brits were still with me. Now that our view was unobstructed by windows or walls, we started paying attention to the sights outside the truck: flooded sections of river, lily pad filled pools, and birds of prey perched on tree branches and telephone poles hither and yon.
Our bottoms were most thankful when we finally pulled up in front of our new (temporary) home. We unloaded, checked in, and received a brief orientation of the plan for the next few days. We would stay as a group, with the same guide for 4 days, each day participating in 2 different activities, with meals placed between. We settled into our rooms, trying to adjust to the powerful heat and humidity now that we didn’t have wind from a moving vehicle to cool us down. The electricity was also out, so there were no fans or air conditioning to help. I settled for a shower, and an open window, thankful for the screen mesh keeping thirsty insects on the outside.
Over the next few days, we went on walks, boat rides and “car safaris,” ate lots of great food and relaxed in the beautiful property of the fazenda. We had some incredible animal sightings, so despite the miserably thick clouds of mosquitos, I decided to extend my stay. In the end, I stayed 8 nights. I saw groups come and go, went with a few different guides, and even was allowed to take the canoe out alone on the river one morning for a few hours.
It turns out the rumors were true: it was not the best season to see wildlife (apparently August and September are the best). I'm content with what we saw, but I can see where there's the potential for so much more. Most especially, they were right about the mosquitos. I went on one hike where the mosquitos gathered in thick clouds. Being my usual insatiable-to-mosquitos self, I suffered terribly despite all of my precautions. I didn't go on any more hikes after that.
Over time, I learned a few tricks:
- always wear long sleeves and pants. It’s only unnecessary if it is really windy,
- give up on repellent because it doesn’t last for more than 30 minutes with how much you sweat. Instead,
- carry a scarf or cloth that you can swat around to keep the mosquitos away,
- avoid wearing black, it actually attracts mosquitos,
- the best time for photos is always the worst for mosquitos, so, just be forewarned
- different animals like different weather conditions, so cloudy days you tend to see different things from sunny days,
- most importantly, spend as much time as possible soaking in the pool up to your ears. Mosquitos can’t bite what is submerged.
I left the Pantanal very content, though definitely itchy. I had seen so much that I want to go back again in the high season! Unfortunately, though, my telephoto lens had begun malfunctioning in El Chaltén, and I’ve noticed that the image quality is severely diminished, so for now, wildlife photography is on pause until that is resolved.
Here are some of my favorite images from the Pantanal. (Awesome sightings that I did not manage to photograph: a tapir! One early morning car ride, the guide stopped the truck, and shone his searchlight to the right. There was a very large tapir, meandering amongst the bushes about 100 feet from us! Also, a giant otter! As we rode in the boat one morning, I said to the person next to me, “You know, the only thing I really want to see, that we haven’t, is a giant otter.” Not 5 minutes later, to my right, and enormous otter sprinted across the river bank and splashed into the water. I was as giddy and excited as a school girl!
I loved these birds more as I saw them. In the shade, they look like ordinary black birds, but when you catch one in the sun like this, you see that really they shimmer with many shades of blue.
|Red-Crested Cardinal (male)|
These little guys spent a lot of time snacking on small seeds in feeders by the fazenda. The males have this dramatic red crest, and the females are identical, minus the crest.
Though I have already seems lots of these divers on my trip, it was a treat to see them again up close. I happened to catch this one just as it got it's lunch. I'm not sure what fish it is, but it certainly is strange.
When I first saw these birds, I thought they were the young of another. They were noisy and skittish, always chirping to one another as they flew between trees. I love their spiked mohawks.
We drove by a part of river with about 50 egrets perched on a tree. It was beautiful. I snuck down to the shore with my camera, but they startled and flew away before I could capture it. I caught them in motion instead.
You have to look closely to find it, but I managed to catch one decent shot of a hummingbird. I love the name in Portuguese: Bejaflor- kissing flower
The name for this bird really does not do it justice. They can be seen pecking along the shore of the river.
|Rufescent Tiger Heron|
Though we saw a lot of this heron, it was very hard to photograph, quick to flee when we approached. It's very thick neck has vertical black, white and maroon stripes, and it's about the same size as a Great Blue Heron.
When I first saw one of these herons perched at the water's edge, I immediately thought it was a Great Blue Heron, but on closer inspection, the markings on this bird are much more dramatic.
One of three types of Ibis I saw on the Pantanal. They are all about the same size and body shape, with coloration as the only variation.
|Jaibru, (male left, female right)|
This is the official bird of the Pantanal. These very large heron-like birds have a very thick, black neck. The females have a bright red ring at the base and the males a faded red/pinkish ring.
I was so lucky that this Jaibru happened to fly right over my as we were out in the boat. I caught this one good shot before it was out of sight.
|Amazon Kingfisher (male)|
I had only heard of Kingfishers before, never having seen one with my own eyes. I was excited to find that there were 5 types to be found in the Pantanal. In the end, I only saw two types, but they were both spectacular.
|Ringed Kingfisher, (male)|
I was not able to get any good shots of Kingfishers my first few days in Pantanal, but once I learned more of their behavior, I got better about knowing when to catch them.
These little noisy guys were also regulars at the bird feeders. They would swarm the area in groups of 20 or more, chatting to one another as they ate.
You could hear a flock of parakeets coming a few minutes before they reached you. They are constantly calling to one another, and making their presence known.
Much like with the Egrets, a large flock of these birds were resting on a fallen tree as we happened by. They startled at the sight of our boat, but I caught this one image before they were out of sight.
This huge tower was completely covered with vultures. It makes sense, since they were the tallest things around for miles. Every pole had at least a few on it, but this one was impressively full.
After many failed attempts, I was glad to finally get a clear shot of a Toucan in flight. This one crossed the river as we floated downstream.
This was by far the coolest bird on the Pantanal. It's small, and was not a frequent visitor, but it's bright colorations, unusual proportions, and scarcity made it a favorite sighting.
This was the bird I have seen all over, but I loved this in Black and White, or as they say in Portuguese, preto e branco.
|Red-and-green MacawThe pair of them, wrestling and playing in the dirt.|
|Red-and-green MacawThe same pair, snuggilng.|
This was easily my favorite macaw. It is a cross breed between the Red-and-green and the Blue-and-yellow macaws. He comes by the fazenda every so often. He was the most beautiful shade of orange, unlike any bird I've ever seen.
|Hyacinth MacawsThese are more from the same group above. You can see the large seeds in their beaks. They would grip the seed firmly with one foot, persistently breaking off the thick shell to get to a soft, waxy nut inside.|
I almost didn't see this feather, as it was turned over, revealing the grey underside and obscuring the spectacular blue. I'm pretty sure I yelped audibly when I realized what I had found.
Another common sight on the banks of the rivers and ponds were caiman. The smallest we saw was probably 1 meter/3 feet, up to as big as almost 3 meters! I loved this one. You can tell he is really watching me.
It was a rare day that the river was this calm. I was excited to catch this perfect reflection.
One hot day, all the Caimans we passed had their mouths open to cool off. It gave me the unique chance to see just what their teeth are like... I think I'll keep my toes out of the water, thank you.
I can see you.....
This smaller Caiman lingered around this spot for a while. It took me some time before I realized that the large, rock-like lump to the left is actually the bloated abdomen of another dead one.
One of the 2nd generation peccaries.
|White-lipped PeccaryThese two are the newest generation of Pecarry around the fazenda. They were the smallest and most wary of people, but boy were they cute!|
|Howler Monkey (female) This was one of the females caring for her young, though her young seemed much older than the other. Although this looks like some sort of ferocious protective instinct, really she was just yawning.|
So no jaguar sightings for me, despite the reputation. Apparently it is more common in the north (I was in the south) and in the season I mentioned earlier. So, I guess, the only questions is, how soon can I come back?