Some places on this majestically overwhelming planet are grossly under-appreciated. It’s hard not to include the Usual Suspects in a Bucket List: The Amazon… seeing the Northern Lights in the Arctic Circle… going on an African safari…
Of course they’re incredible. But what about the lesser-known, equally impressive natural wonders that are ordained to exist in the shadows of their glory-hogging brethren?
I’d never even heard of The Pantanal until a few years ago when a visiting Brazilian veterinary student mentioned a swampy, vine-covered wonderland with capybaras as far as the eye could see. My attention was piqued. (The capybara just happens to be both the largest rodent in the world and Mr. M’s very most favorite animal.)
In planning our trip to Brazil, I heard a few lone- but determined- voices who insisted that not only was the Pantanal equally as impressive as The Amazon, but maybe even (gasp) more so.
Days #11,060-61: After a fair amount of difficulty actually getting there (not speaking Portuguese becomes a huge problem when your plane is re-routed mid-flight and no one can translate into English or Spanish to tell you where you’re headed or what’s going on), we finally made it to the Pantanal. Sort of.
The Pantanal is the world’s largest wetland… this alone has me baffled as to why it’s not better known.
Since the best wildlife viewing is towards the interior of this basin, getting from the local airport to your camp can be an adventure in and of itself.
It took Mr. M & I six hours to drive across corrugated cattle ranches and oozing marshes to Embiara, our lodge for the next few days.
In the morning we set off bright and early with our guide Antonio; an older, silent gaucho named Adolfo (the Brazilian version of the Most Interesting Man in the World who “smelled” wildlife from half a mile away, carried a machete, wore jeans branded “Bad Horse,” and rolled his own cigarillos- which he only smoked while leaning against palm trees); and a very nice, but slightly insane American couple intent on seeing every species of bird in Brazil and nursing a serious Coke Zero addiction. The Mrs. finished two cans before breakfast and took another on our walk, “just in case.”
More interesting characters could not have been crafted in a fiction bestseller.
I was highly amused and a little curious as to which archetype I was meant to portray.
When you head somewhere off the beaten path, the other people drawn there are often almost as interesting as the place itself. Almost.
While The Birders were drawn to Serious Birds (ie, exceedingly rare… require binoculars to see… all look like some sort of dull sparrow to the untrained eye), Mr. M & I were a lot more enthusiastic about spotting this brightly famous showman.
While we were walking, Adolfo, Gaucho of Few Words, raised a finger for us to stop, froze, and then took off in another direction.
When in the wild, follow the man with the machete. Adolfo had heard a family of giant otters!
Sludging through the swamps of the Pantanal, it’s a good idea to watch your step… for a couple reasons.
Being vigilant whilst walking is a smart idea for both humans and animals.
As Mr. M & I learned over a caiprinha-fueled lunch, Paul- the Dutch owner of the lodge- was passionate about animals, charmingly misogynistic with a penchant for brazenly talking politics ( zero verbal filter), and desperately in love with his proper British wife Tina, who wore jodhpurs & riding boots in the stifling August heat and ruled the household without mussing her perfect blond ponytail.
After a much-needed afternoon siesta, Paul took us and another couple out in his jeep for a drive. Much to our supreme happiness, we soon learned that the morning’s tracks didn’t lie!
Paul was as over-the-top excited as any of us; wild tapirs are shy creatures and very difficult to spot for more than a second or two, right as they scurry back into the brush. Our juvenile tapir actually stuck around for a minute or two to show off.
Just like the better-known Big Five of African Safari Fame, there also exists a Big Five for South American wildlife watchers: giant otter, tapir, maned wolf, giant anteater, and jaguar. In 24 hours, we were astounded to have seen three out of the five.
Upon learning that one of our jeepmates was an avid fisherman, Paul squealed like a small child, swung the jeep around (nearly flinging us non-fisherfolk out the back), and hit the gas for his favorite fishing spot.
Rods were magically produced from the back of the jeep, and Paul & The Visiting Fisherman braved the dusk mosquitoes for a chance at hooking dorado fish for dinner.
The sun melted into the horizon, smearing yell0w-orange rivers across the sky, and the rest of us chatted over ice cold Coca Colas & beers and savored the ripely magical feeling in the air that only comes when you’re really, truly in nature. It was an exceptional moment.
We were all shocked out of our reverie when we heard a scream and saw The Fisherman running full-speed from a caiman alligator who’d decided to pounce from the lake and steal his newly-caught fish for dinner… while it was still attached to The Fisherman’s line, which was still attached to his hand. Paul stood at the water’s edge laughing like a hyena and retold the story several times over dinner (“That caiman jumped, and you should’ve seen him RUN!”) until Tina gently told him one could only laugh at one’s guest so many times before being considered boorish.
I was absolutely, completely blown away by the sheer scope of nature in the Pantanal… by the number of rare creatures we were able to see in a single day without running into another person outside our camp. When pressed, I had to admit: given the choice between seeing The Amazon and The Pantanal, I’d recommend the latter. Go to the Amazon to satisfy that primal desire to Go to the Amazon. Go to the Pantanal to see everything you thought you’d see in the Amazon.
The unexpected wonders of this place I knew almost nothing about before going had me thinking: what other gorgeous natural wonders do you think are grossly under-appreciated?
Details of the Day:
Travel to the Pantanal: It’s definitely not easy getting to the Pantanal, but like most things in life that are not easy, it’s also definitely worth it. (Like my friend Muki’s mom told me when I was struggling through vet school: “If it were easy, everyone would do it, and then you wouldn’t want to.” Moms always know.) Plus, the curious folk willing to travel this far off the beaten path will provide you with as much (human) animal-watching as you can handle.
Flights to the Pantanal are through local airports in Campos Grande (for the southern Pantanal) or Cuiaba (the northern). The shorter your transport time from the local airport to the lodge, the less your chances of seeing great wildlife. Plan on at least three full days in the Pantanal to make the transport time worth it- and it will be!
I’m also obligated to admit: many camps offer the option of taking a super-expensive and death-defying light aircraft rather than driving. In the aircraft’s defense, Paul laughed heartily when I denounced the toy plane that flew overhead as a “veritable death trap” and said I had a higher chance of dying by being gored by a wild peccary on our hike.