Brazil’s Pantanal is known as the largest tropical wetlands in the world. Covering more than 100,000 square kilometres, it is famous for being a great place to spot thousands of species of animals that live there.
Luckily for us, the border town just across from Bolivia is Corumba – known as the ‘gateway to the Pantanal’. After dropping our bags at our run-down hotel room, which was complete with a roofless bathroom (it had collapsed due to damp), we made our way to the bus terminal where we had been promised by many a guidebook that there would be hundreds of Pantanal tour reps waiting to talk our ears off with offers.
On reaching the terminal, we were disappointed to find that there wasn’t one tour rep in sight. While deciding our next move, we were approached by an English-speaking homeless man who told us that he would be more than happy to take us to the ‘best’ tour company in town (which turned out to be just across the street).
The rep from Crocodile Tours bounced out of his office and told us that he would take us to a nearby hostel to chat through the specifics. A little bewildered, we followed the man for about six blocks (making a mental note about the location of another tour company – Indi Tours – along the way) until we reached a dilapidated hostel and waited in the kitchen for his ‘associate’ to arrive. Sure enough, a car soon pulled up with three mafia-type men piling out onto the driveway. One of them, shook the rep’s hand (before he made a hasty exit) and sat opposite us. After confusing us by talking about what his company ‘Ecological Expeditions’ could give us, Mafia Man #1 explained that Crocodile Tours, Ecological Expeditions and another company called Pantanal Trekking were actually all just one company with different names. He offered us a two night stay in the company’s best pousada (a cattle farm come guesthouse) around 40km into the Pantanal. It would include a jeep safari, boat safari, night safari, bush walk and piranha fishing.
We thanked him for his time and hurried off to see what deals we could get elsewhere. Walking back to Indi Tours, we were confronted by Indi himself who proceeded to tell us how awful Crocodile/Ecological/Pantanal Trekking was… for half an hour. When I managed to get him to talk about what HE could offer, we were given a brochure to a posh Pantanal hotel that he had clearly stolen and stamped with his own company details. He then told us for a further ten minutes how bad the other company was again.
“There’s only two Pantanal tour companies in Corumba”, he said. “One of them is run by criminals, the other is mine. It’s your choice.”
A little dejected, we left Indi Tours office and were heading back to the hotel when Dale noticed a familiar car parked a little further down the road. It was Mafia Man #2 and #3 watching us.
Safely back in the hotel room (which was now crawling with ants), we decided to do some research online about Pantanal tours from Corumba. We were dismayed to find that there were mixed reviews for all the company names we’d come across, with no clear ‘winner’. After hours of research and deliberation, we were on the brink of deciding to scrap our plan and head to Campo Grande – where apparently there are far more options – when there was an unexpected knock on our door.
It was Mafia Man #2, who launched a polished sales-pitch about how he was the owner of the pousada in the Pantanal we’d been told about earlier and that he could offer us a reduced price, including private room, transfers and also a night’s stay in his hostel at our next location (Bonito) if we were interested. A little creeped-out that he’d appeared at our hotel room door at 10pm (and that the hotel had let him in rather than call us down), we took his details and said we’d be in touch. A quick google search showed that his info was good – he was the owner of the pousada and the hostel in Bonito – and so we decided to bite the bullet and go for the deal. Although we felt we’d got a good price, we knew this was going to be a trip that we’d have to take with a pinch of salt.
The very next morning, we were travelling in the back of a pick-up truck through the Pantanal on a bumpy and dusty dirt-track road towards the pousada.
Every now and again the truck would stop and the driver would point out animals that could be seen from the trail. I enjoyed the trip and we’d read enough reviews online to know that this ride was our ‘jeep safari’, but a few others in our group were surprised to learn this later.
On reaching the pousada, we were introduced to our guide – Nick – who went through our itinerary over the next few days. I felt a bit sorry for Nick, who seemed to have lost the will to live as he talked over the plans with zero enthusiasm, but I was excited to get going and start finding some of the Pantanal’s wildlife.
While at the pousada, Dale and I heard the now-familiar sound of a macaw squawking away and, on following the sound, we found a group of beautiful hyacinth macaws! These lovely birds are a gorgeous blue, except for their black beaks and a dazzling yellow around their eyes. Apparently these birds are very rare and only found in this part of the world, so we felt very lucky to see them.
Our first scheduled activity was the night safari – which was basically another ride in the pick-up after the sun had gone down. Nick sat up-top with us and controlled a huge spotlight, which attracted loads of bugs that tended to hit us in the face as the car bounced along the road.
Along the way we saw caiman – their red eyes shining in the darkness – some capybara, a tawny owl and a massive brown tarantula. We also saw huge swarms of fireflies that flashed fluorescent green in the darkness. We felt like we could have gone on far longer, but all-too-soon Nick was directing the driver to turn back.
The next day we were up bright and early for another ‘jeep safari’ to the dock, where we would start our boat tour. I had expected the wetlands to be more wet and that we’d have to get from place to place by boat rather than by car, but our trip on the water actually seemed to be down a river rather than a huge swamp-like area.
Nick was at the helm, looking as miserable as ever, and I was starting to get a little disappointed that all he’d pointed out was kingfishers and egrets (over and over again) for about an hour. It seemed like he was just concentrating on driving the boat rather than looking for wildlife and he only slowed down or stopped when one of us pointed at something or grabbed our cameras to take a picture of a bird in the trees.
The scenery was pretty though and, just when I’d given up hope, we spotted a group of howler monkeys and even an otter!
In the afternoon we were due to do our two-hour bush walk. We were a little apprehensive as we were expecting it to be scorchio, but Nick led us through a swamp and into a mostly shaded area that was a little cooler than being in the sun. Wading through the swamp was a little scary – I was afraid I would step on something slimy, squirmy or even bitey in the knee-deep brackish water, but thankfully I kept all of my toes.
While Nick left us to look at a crane’s nest in the trees for five minutes, Dale spotted a huge lizard running away and I went after it to try and get a picture. I lost the lizard, but was surprised when something hit me from above. I jumped back and tried to see what it was, only to have another projectile narrowly miss me. It was the remnants of some kind of fruit and, on trying to spot where it fell from, I saw a monkey face peering down at me!
Eventually, the rest of the group came over to see what I’d found – followed by Nick who paused to look up briefly and then said uninterestedly: “Oh. A howler monkey.”
After the monkey excitement, we followed Nick onto a field of cows where we managed to scare the living daylights out of a marsh deer, which came haring out of a nearby bush and almost mowed down several people in our group!
A little disappointed that we hadn’t gone far from the pousada and not seen all that many animals (apart from the ones that seemed to find us), a group of us decided to take a night-time stroll down the road to see what we could find on our own. The advantage of walking was that we were far quieter than the jeep, which was very noisy and probably scared most things away. As a result, we saw more capybara and caiman that night than we’d seen in our entire trip! The downside was that we didn’t have the protection of the car, and we only made it about a kilometre down the road before deciding to turn back in case we ran into something that thought we might be a tasty snack!
The next morning Dale and I decided to get up extra early and take a quick walk to see if we could see anything extra at dawn. We saw an amazing view, some more marsh deer and some capybara, but not much else…
After breakfast, the jeep took us far further into the Pantanal than we’d been before. This was more like I was expecting the Pantanal to be – wide open planes of marshland as far as the eye could see.
We saw some more of the usual wildlife along the way. We even saw a majestic-looking stag in the distance as it was taking a morning drink.
We were on our way to a bridge, where we would be given a bamboo fishing rod and some meat to try our hand at piranha fishing. Nick’s monotone explanation was: “Put some meat on the hook and put it in the water. When you feel a bite, pull it out.” Easy enough. But not so easy to actually catch anything! Just watching the piranhas was amazing as they swarmed up out of the depths to reach the meat. I was lucky enough to catch the first one, although straight away I wished I hadn’t as it flapped wildly and spun around on the line – I didn’t want to go near the thing!
Dale managed to catch three piranhas (and one random fish), but I didn’t have much more luck after my first. It seemed like we were mostly feeding the piranhas rather than catching them. As soon as the meat touched the water you could feel the little blighters tugging this way and that. It was only when the line went completely slack after a few seconds you realised that they’d devoured the whole chunk!
Unfortunately, we ran out of bait after only an hour of fishing and, after a half-hearted attempt by Nick to find some more, we packed up and started to walk back towards the pousada until the jeep came to get us.
Our last treat was a lunch of fried piranhas. They were fun to try and catch, but not much fun to eat – for creatures that only eat meat, there didn’t seem to be any meat on them!
Leaving the Pantanal I had mixed feelings about our trip. Our guide had been awful, but the pousada was ok and we’d actually had a lot of fun (although this is mostly down to the lovely group we were with).
After reading so much about the wetlands, I had the image in my head of a glorious ‘Noah’s Ark’ type scene – where wild animals can be spotted roaming around all the time. I think my expectations had been too high – we actually saw more cows on the Pantanal than anything else. We weren’t the only ones to be a bit disappointed either. It seemed everyone we met (including those that had come from other places and used different companies) had been underwhelmed.
Apparently the ‘Pampas’ tours in Bolivia offer many of the same experiences we were expecting in the Pantanal and, in contrast to the Pantanal, we heard fantastic things about the Pampas from other travellers. We didn’t go there ourselves because we were already looking forward to our highly-anticipated ‘Brazilian safari’. But, because we had such trouble finding a reputable tour company in Corumba and our ultimate experience, I’m left with the unfortunate thought that maybe the Bolivian Pampas would have been a better choice. That said, we did see lots of amazing animals and we had a great time getting to know some lovely new friends during our Pantanal stay.