Hunting Jaguars in the Pantanal
I had originally intended to cross the border into Brazil shortly before the end of my trip, spending just a few days in Rio before flying home. But the more I heard from others who had travelled there, the more intrigued I became by this massive country.
My notion of a few days in Rio grew into an entire month in the south of Brazil, taking in ecotourism activities in Bonito, the colonial town of Parati, the beach paradise of Ilha Grande, and as much as possible of what Rio de Janeiro has to offer. But first, the Pantanal, an Amazonian wetland that enticed me with abundant wildlife, jungle treks, and the chance to spot the elusive jaguar.
Warned about dodgy tour operators, I decided to go with Pantanal Discovery, after reading positive reviews online. Arriving at my hostel in Campo Grande, after thankfully getting picked up from the bus station, I washed the stench of two overnight buses off me and went to meet Discovery’s owner, Gil, at Hotel Nacional, just around the corner from my hostel.
Gil turned out to be a charming and enthusiastic man, and my excitement about the trip grew as he described seeing giant otters from a canoe, floating down the river while spotting capybaras, and of course, encountering the famous jaguar. Hearing about the incredible experiences others have had made it easier to hand over a sizeable chunk of my budget for the three day trip.
I spent the evening wandering amongst capybaras and joggers in Campo Grande’s park, and, bright and early the next morning, I packed up my rucksack, headed back around the corner to the hotel, and somehow managed to get lost. I asked a man for directions, and, in my first experience of the famous Brazilian friendliness, he insisted on taking me there on his motorbike, despite not knowing where it was. After asking for directions, arriving at the wrong hotel, asking again, and being told it was a few doors down, I thanked my driver profusely, insisting I could walk the rest of the way.
After an incredible buffet breakfast, I climbed into the jeep to meet my new travel companions, Rich and Helen, a newly married British couple who were on a six month backpacking honeymoon (that I was now crashing). We passed the four hour journey chatting and watching videos of the animals we may encounter in the Pantanal, until our driver swapped the disk for a music video collection. We all shared a laugh as the videos of anacondas were replaced by Nicki Minaj’s ridiculous “Anaconda”, which seemed destined to be our anthem for our trip.
Arriving at the scenic Lontra Pantanal lodge, we tucked into the lunch buffet and then started what was to become a new tradition of post-lunch beer club by the riverside. We were soon approached by a man who introduced himself as our guide, Pepinho, and told we were going to go floating down the river.
After changing into our swimsuits, we climbed into a boat, and made our way up the river, before Pepinho handed us each a coloured pool noodle and told us to jump into the brown water. Arguing over who would be the first to take the plunge, we eventually all clumsily lowered ourselves into the river. It turned out to be pleasantly warm, and we floated peacefully along, spotting birds flying overhead, until our lodge came into view and we paddled furiously towards the steps on the riverbank.
I returned to my dorm room to meet Karin, a girl from Holland whose trip had started later than ours that day, and was understandably annoyed by this. After we had rinsed the river water off us, Pepinho gathered us, with Karin, to the riverside for some piranha fishing. I opted out of this, being a vegetarian, and instead armed myself with my camera as the others attached chunks of meat to their hooks and cast them into the river.
We nervously commented on how the steps we were now fishing from were the same steps we had used to climb out of the river, and Pepinho explained that piranha aren’t dangerous in rivers where they have plenty of food; they will only bite humans under extreme circumstances.
I readied my camera as one of the group felt a tug on their line, and yanked it up to reveal a hook with neither piranha nor bait. “Catfish” Pepinho said to explain the missing bait. These catfish were well fed over the next hour or so, as time after time someone would lift their rod to reveal an empty hook.
I decided while the others were taking on the role of hunters, I would become the gatherer, and dutifully gathered some cold beers from the bar. I returned to find the others were starting to have some success, and a couple of piranhas lay lifeless in the bucket. I took photos of the mighty hunters and their catch, and they showed me the “veggie” pile where they were keeping all of the plants they managed to catch with their hooks for my dinner.
After watching the sunset from the nearby bridge, we sat down to eat. The piranhas had been breaded and fried, and, though I was told they were delicious, I was happy with my rice and beans.
The following morning we piled into an open truck and bounced along the road, spotting a beautiful array of birds, including comical looking toucans, colourful kingfishers and stunning blue macaws. We disembarked to continue the tour on foot. Climbing under some wires and entering the jungle, we made our way forward, feeling like intrepid hunters in the wilderness, albeit hunters armed just with cameras.
We had only walked for a few minutes before Pepinho signalled us to be quiet. We crept forward, that is, Pepinho, barefooted and agile, crept forward, while the rest of us stomped forwards in our hiking boots, not even knowing which animal we were hunting for. Then we saw him, an anteater scurrying on the ground ahead of us.
Understandably timid among a group of giants, the tiny creature raised himself on his hind legs, spread his arms and made his hair stand on end. He was clearly trying to make himself look as big and fierce as possible to protect himself against us fearsome predators, not realising this made him look even more fluffy and adorable.
We continued onwards, sweaty in the humid jungle, until we heard the distinctive wail of howler monkeys. We caught fleeting glimpses as they leaped through the trees above us, and also saw a a few coatis (raccoon-like animals) peeking through the undergrowth.
Unfortunately our next wildlife encounter was less enjoyable. This time, it was the wildlife that hunted us, as a swarm of wasps descended on the group. As usual, Pepinho was the first to notice, and he instructed us all to hurry out of harms way. I thought we were hurrying towards something, and wasn’t even aware of the wasps until Helen shouted in pain at being stung. Her hand instantly began to redden and swell, and wouldn’t return to normal for several days. I think we were all grateful to reach the end of our trek, none more so than Helen, whose hand was already starting to resemble a boxing glove.
After another trip floating down the river, this time with two noodles each (naturally, we each used one to float and one to sword fight), we took the boat downriver to begin our hunt for jaguars.
We saw small caimans floating in the water, and a family of capybaras relaxing on the river bank, but as the sun went down, I accepted the fact that our chances of seeing a jaguar were diminishing quickly. Which is why, when Pepinho steered the boat towards the river’s edge, I expected there to be perhaps another capybara, or maybe something more exciting like an anaconda. But there she was, in plain sight, the beautiful jaguar we’d all been hoping for.
She sat on the riverbank, her gorgeous spotted coat standing out amongst the green. As we got closer, she gave us a wary look and turned as if to go. We grabbed our cameras, eager to get our trophies of this amazing find. Rather than be startled by the flashes in the increasingly dimming light, she seemed to decide we were no threat, and lay back down to chew on the end of a branch. Lowering our cameras after taking many grey pictures with illuminated eyes, we sat and watched her as she started to pace around and stretch her strong limbs. She then seemed to decide we were worthy of her interest after all, and, leaping gracefully into a tree, she crept along a low branch to get a better look at us.
Wary of the tables turning and our prey becoming our predator, we backed the boat away from the riverbank. As the last trace of daylight began to disappear, we returned along the river to our lodge, shining torches in the water to see the eyes of caimans light up like fireflies.
We thought we had escaped the titular rain in our trip to the rainforest, but on our final morning, the sky clouded over and it began to drizzle as we set off upriver in the boat.
We regretfully left our cameras behind as we climbed into canoes in search of giant otters. Karin and I attempted to steer our canoe alongside the netted plants where the otters live, but the river seemed to take us in random directions as we peered intently into the greenery with no luck. Paddling fiercely against the current, we heard a loud grunt near us, and steered as best we could into the plants to look for the otter. Right in front of me, a cat-sized head popped out of the water. Looking at me, he bared his surprisingly long fangs before disappearing with a splash. I excitedly asked Karin if she had seen it but she had only seen a splash.
Helen and Rich caught up to us and told us that they had had no luck either. Determined, we paddled on, and thankfully encountered a couple more small otters bobbing their heads out of the water. By the end everyone had seen a glimpse, but we were all a little disappointed that they were not the six feet long ones we had heard about.
Parking our canoes, we climbed back into the boat and turned back to the lodge to catch our jeep. The Pantanal had one last treat in store, however, and as we rounded a bend in the river we saw, sitting on the riverbank, a full grown giant otter. Wary but curious, he slipped into the river, but peeked his head out to get a better look at us. Despite the drizzle, we reached for our cameras.
Just then, the rain turned into a full blown downpour, and we headed as quick as we could back to the lodge. The rain was unbelievable, hammering down on us and stinging our skin as we zoomed along. Directly over us, a flash of lightning appeared as thunder instantly roared through the sky.
Shivering as the wind and rain tore at our skin, we were all relieved to get back to the lodge for hot showers. Warm and dry, we managed to fit in one last beer club by the river before catching our transfer, and raised our glasses to an incredible journey in the Pantanal.