Bonito is bonito and Pantanal is mais o menos

Leaving the wonderful home and comforts of Madalena’s house in Belo Horizonte was going to be difficult regardless of where our next stop would be, but we didn’t make it any easier of an adjustment by picking Pantanal as our next stop. Everyone knows about the Amazon rainforest, but not too many non-Brazilians know about the Pantanal and Bonito, the Brazilian savanna (mixed with a little rainforest too). Lucky for us, Otavio showed us pictures of both while we were in Fortaleza, and we were easily convinced to make it a destination.

The Pantanal is a vast region of tropical wetlands mostly in Brazil, but with portions in Bolivia and Paraguay. It is not a national park or reserve, but a series of private farms and cattle ranches with federal rules regulating how the land can be used – for example, no hunting is allowed. The region is home to jaguars, pumas, caymans, an incredible number of birds and insects, a variety of lizards, bats, foxes, deer, and howler monkeys. It has 2 distinct seasons – dry (now) and wet (when it’s largely underwater). There are 20-something million cattle in the state of Motto Grosso do Sul and only about 2 million people. Pretty sure we ate an entire cow during our almost 7 weeks in Brazil, so it makes sense to have so many.

We booked a week-long tour with Eco Adventures Tours, a budget friendly option, and opted for 3 nights in Pantanal and 3 nights in Bonito. We landed in Campo Grande, the capitol of Motto Grosso do Sul, and were immediately assaulted by the intense heat and powerful sun rays (even though it’s winter). The sun rays in this region, especially between 2-4pm, are unlike any I’ve ever experienced. I don’t know if it’s the angle or global warming or what, but you can literally feel your skin burning after just a few minutes. And I’m not even white. We were lucky that the tour company got mixed up and provided us with a private car transfer to the pousada (almost 5 hours away) so avoided a lengthy bus ride. We arrived at the Pousada Santa Clara in the middle of the Pantanal just after the most spectacularly colored sunset we’ve ever seen – the many wild and slash/burn farm fires give off smoke that makes the sun look brilliantly hot pink and very large.

Pousada Santa Clara is a full-service hostel and tour company – we stayed for 3 nights in a private room and all of our meals were provided (and remarkably delicious – with veggies!). We were essentially staying on a private farm, which was a new experience, and the grounds were really well maintained and home to wild pigs, a wide variety of birds, and plenty of other farm animals. The tours had great potential, and we were excited for our brief but activity-filled stay. On Thursday morning, we went on what would end up being the best tour, a boat tour of the river a few kilometers behind the farm. The Rio de Abobra was incredibly still and black; the water moved only when a flying fish disturbed it (and me, by jumping into our boat directly at me) or a cayman or bird caught some prey. The caymans numbered in the hundreds and were simultaneously scary and exciting. They are harmless to humans (except maybe babies/very small kids) and were easily scared off – once we realized this, they became infinitely less exciting. But there were tons of them, and it was remarkable to be able to get so close to such a creepy-looking animal. We also saw a multitude of birds whose names I cannot remember, but many were very beautiful, and even though we are not bird aficionados, we appreciated the opportunity to witness such airborne majesty. My favorite was the Kingfisher, since that’s the name of India’s biggest (and pretty tasty) beer.

After lunch and some A/C respite from the physically exhausting heat, we went horseback riding. Our Nicaragua horseback riding experience was terrible, and I still have a large scar on my ankle from my injury. Neither of us was enthused to do it again, but we paid for it, so we figured what the hell. It wasn’t really a tour of anything except the farm, which was unfortunate, and it lasted for 2 hours, which was also unfortunate. We saw one deer, which as Americans was less-than-exciting, though the Europeans thought it was just so neat. My horse had exactly the type of personality my dream horse has – chill and in no hurry to get anywhere. The few times she decided to trot were relatively manageable, though I was never comfortable with it, and judging by the smirks and smiles of other people watching me, never exactly gave off an aura of being “happy” or “in control” while on the thing. Tyler’s horse kept trying to eat his pants, but otherwise, his was pretty tame too. These horses were much healthier and better taken care of and thus responded to commands much better than their Nicaraguan cousins. Our asses only hurt for 3 days after and no scars (!!!) means horseback riding success for the Mastersons, but methinks never again.

That night we went on a “jeep safari” which really just consisted of riding on the back of an open-air truckbed and trying not to get thrown off while driving up and down the main road outside the Pousada. I don’t know much about animals, but what I do know is that they don’t usually hang out around roads. I’ll let you guess how many jaguars we saw. Oh, but we did see a tiny little fox, which totally made the bumpy ride on our sore asses well worth it. Night jeep safari FAIL which left us ever-more-skeptical about the next day’s “day time jeep safari.”

A note on bugs. There were many, including in our room, and I’m really good at killing them after our many encounters over the last 6 months. That said, the mosquitos in this region are of nightmare calibre – without malaria but with one helluva mean bite and an itchiness comparable only to that of poison ivy. They could care less about your <not enough % DEET> repellant and your long pants/shirts – even denim is no match for these little buggers. Their only rival on our trip so far has been the sand flies in Belize, which are still the most annoying insect for whom I’ve ever had the displeasure of being dinner. The 3 mosquito bites I received on my face ~4 days ago are still there, still itchy, and are going to make my mom once again question my sanity about doing this trip when she sees me on Friday.

I will spare you the details of our Friday because it was, quite frankly, mediocre. Suffice it to say that the 2nd jeep safari experience was marginally better than the first because we got to see otters and hear them make the most ridiculous and hilarious noises. The afternoon was supposed to be a “hike” but was really just a walk around the farm. We saw howler monkeys, which were very cool, but the weather was anything but, and the mosquitoes were especially wretched. I’m glad we were able to see the animals we did, despite our disappointment in not seeing the ever-elusive jaguar. Coming from the US, we had some expectation of the Pantanal being a national park or reserve, not just private farms with relatively little organization. I think our expectations were a bit high, and we were overly-excited about what the Pantanal had to offer – we forgot our #1 Rule – NO EXPECTATIONS. It’s the best (only?) way to travel.

Prior to leaving Pantanal for Bonito on Saturday, we went piranha fishing. This exercise consisted of piercing a bit of raw red meat to a hook attached with string to a very simple bamboo rod. Plop it in the river and wait approx. 15 seconds. Try and yank up a piranha onto the shore before the VERY nearby caymans steal it from you. Repeat, and remember not to scratch your itchy face or wipe your sweaty mouth with your raw meat covered hand. I caught one large enough to eat, which made me happy, although when we ate it later, I was less than impressed – very little meat and very many bones. After all of that (and 1 more mosquito bite on my face), we were excited to move on to Bonito in hopes of a better experience and less blood-thirsty bugs.

By no means is my next statement an exaggeration: your next nature-type vacation should be 1 week in Bonito. To say it is unrivaled in its unique natural beauty is selling it short. Mother Nature has literally made sure that very few (and perhaps no) other locations in the world can be similar because of its unique combination of geography and geology. Bonito is also mostly a series of privately owned land, but the focus on eco-tourism and the organization of the landowners really made it seem like a well run national park. The focus on the environment is evident – many former cattle ranchers have allowed the savanna to grow back and actually make more money by allowing tourists to visit. When we arrived on Saturday night, we went to dinner at one of the better rated restaurants and ate grilled cayman (chewy like octopus, but texture like pounded chicken) and catfish in a tomato/cheese sauce called urucum <check name and insert link>. We especially loved the latter, and I’ve linked to a recipe so you can try it at home (and so we can too, someday).

Our Sunday began at the Gruta do Lago Azul – the Blue Cave, a large cave with a luminous underground lake and stalactite formations. No picture captures the blue lake inside quite correctly. The lake gets its remarkable color from the high amounts of magnesium and other minerals and metals accumulated in the water by the rocks. It is the type of place that would only make sense in a fairy tale – a welcoming darkness, like a house in the woods made out of gingerbread. T&I love caves for that reason I think – your heart beats just a little bit faster when you’re in one. After the cave tour, we headed to Estancia Mimosa, a gigantic ranch-turned-ecotour destination. Lunch was phenomenal – a variety of organic fresh veggies for salad, the most melt-in-your-mouth pork I’ve ever had, pumpkin polenta, rice, beans, bitter eggplant, fall-off-the-bone chicken, and 4 different desserts. After fully stuffing our faces and resting in the hammocks (I love South American afternoon siestas – they’re so civilized), we set off down the trail to visit 12 different waterfalls on the property. Yup – 12. And that’s just on this 1 farm. The trails were beautifully maintained, and the waterfalls, though not incredibly high, were all beautiful. We jumped into the freezing cold ponds/waterfalls a number of times and enjoyed the refreshing mineral water. There was a cave behind one small waterfall, aptly named the Cave of Desire, once you discovered the hilarious naturally-formed rock. At the deepest pond, the owners have built a 6m tall platform, which T jumped off of no less than 10 times. It was a perfect afternoon, only made better by seeing 15 capuchin monkeys vigorously defending their property (think Jack Sparrow’s sidekick) on our hike back to the farm at the end of the day.

As awesome as Sunday was, Monday was an “oh my God, how is this my life?!” kind of day. We started it at the Rio do Prata ranch, owned by the same guy as Estancia Mimosa, and after a 35 minute hike through beautiful rainforest (trying to avoid tick bites), we prepared for a 2 hour snorkeling tour down the river. Rivers are of course usually quite brown and murky, but because of the calcium carbonate and magnesium deposits, the Rio do Prata and a few other rivers in Bonito are wonderfully blue and completely clear. It felt like we were snorkeling in an aquarium. We were equipped with 5mm wetsuits to provide buoyancy and warmth in the 23 degree Celsius water. The sun shone brightly so the water was extra clear and breathtakingly beautiful, as you can see from our many pictures taken with our rented underwater camera. We saw a number of fish, though unfortunately no anacondas or caymans, and fortunately none of the nocturnal piranhas. There was also a few rapids that we snorkeled through which was exhilarating – the river current was pretty consistent the entire time so you never really had to swim, and through the rapids, I actually went so fast, I ran into the French guy in front of me. It was one of the most fun experiences of our trip, and we didn’t want it to end. I could easily do the same thing everyday for a week and never be bored for a second.

After yet another delicious lunch and some hammock chilling, we ventured to the Buraco das Araras, what is essentially an upside down cave (i.e. a gigantic sinkhole). The story is the owner bought hundreds of hectares for a cattle ranch in the 1980’s, and after purchase, discovered 1 hectare taken up by this giant, trashed sinkhole. People say that during Brazil’s military regime of the 1970’s, people would dump dead bodies into the sinkhole. That’s also why they think the 2 caymans who live at the bottom of the hole in the small river are there – placed to eat the human remains. After 10 years of putting a fence around it so his cattle wouldn’t fall in, the owner finally realized what an environmental gem the sinkhole could be, and paid for climbers to repel in and get the trash out. The only thing remaining are 2 cars, now hidden by the trees. After cleaning it up, the red and green macaws started building nests in the walls, and it is now home to 50 macaw couples (who breed with only each other for their entire 60-70 year lives). The owner closed the cattle ranch and all of his land is now back to its natural Brazilian savanna state, open to tourists to explore. We saw an armadillo (blind during the day and waddles when it walks) as well as a ton of macaws, a few falcons (they live outside Atlanta?? haaaa – NFL joke), parakeets, toucans, vultures, and a number of other birds. The macaws are truly beautiful birds to watch, especially in flight, and since it is breeding season, they were especially active and vocal. On our ride back to our pousada, we spotted 2 anteaters chowing down on termite hives in the fields and even crossed a fence onto a private farm to chase after one in true National Geographic style. They’re pretty large, hideous looking creatures, but actually quite graceful and timid, and we enjoyed watching them as the entire area was lit up by a golden pink hue from the setting sun. Most excellent Monday ever? Quite possibly.

Today is a travel day, and as I write this, I’m riding in a shuttle van from Bonito to the Campo Grande airport (about 4.5 hours). We have a flight to Iguazu Falls (Brazil side) this afternoon – total journey of 12 hours. We will spend the next 2 days in Brazil, visiting the Falls, catching up on work, and preparing for Friday, when we will bus to the Argentina side of the Falls and meet my parents, brother, and his girlfriend, Kristal. I can’t believe the week of their visit is finally here, and T&I are both incredibly excited to see them. I’ve never gone this long without seeing my parents or Jay, despite having lived in different cities for the past 11 years, so it’s a reunion I’m desperately looking forward to. All of this traveling has only increased our appreciation and love for our family and close friends. Any contact (email, phone, online chat, blog comment, Facebook like) is cherished, and an actual visit is unparalleled – we appreciate their effort to make it happen and will thoroughly enjoy our week together experiencing all that Argentina has to offer (especially wine and red meat)!

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