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january 13, 2005 -> getting wet in brazil  

Nori was neck-deep in the river, fishing for piranhas.  Like the rest of us, she was using a simple rod: just a stick with a short length of line and a hook at the end.  The hook was baited with hunks of cow heart, and extra bait was tucked into the pocket of her shorts.  It was obvious that there were piranhas all around her; each time she cast the line, she felt them nibbling, but no real strikes.  A few minutes later, the bait was gone.  As if this situation wasn't idiotic enough, there were a couple of small caimans lurking nearby.  Our guide had to smack the water intermittently to shoo them away.  Oh, and massive anacondas are sometimes encountered in the wetlands of the Pantanal.  The guide assured us that no one had ever been hurt doing this, although Jacob – a funny Dane in our group – did get a small bite on his nipple. 

Our last few weeks in Brazil had a common, though unplanned theme: getting wet.  Near the town of Bonito, we snorkeled down pellucid streams packed with fish.  In the Pantanal, we trudged through brackish water on wildlife walks and fished for piranha.  Finally, at the frontier of Brazil with Argentina and Paraguay, we got completely soaked on a jet boat ride that took us directly underneath Iguazu Falls. 

On Marcelo's recommendation, we had flown southwest from Rio de Janeiro to Campo Grande (“Big Field”), the capital of the state of Mato Grosso do Sul.  From there, a trio of long bus rides brought us to Bonito (Portuguese for ‘pretty,') a small, but booming tourist town.  As we discovered, we weren't the only ones who didn't know much about Bonito.  Most tourists seemed to have ended up here on the way to either the Pantanal or Iguazu Falls, and many ended up staying far longer than intended.  Bonito had two main draw-cards: the clarity of its lakes and streams, and its network of caves.  One of its most famous sites was a combination of both - the Lagoa Azul (Blue Lake), a crystal-clear lake in a massive cavern, well below the surface.

There are dozens of excursions in the Bonito area, but the most popular are snorkeling trips down the Sucuri and Prata Rivers.  We did both.  After donning wetsuits, masks, snorkels, and boots, we plunged into the cool water.  The water was so clear that we could see more than 30 meters ahead.  We drifted past large schools of unfamiliar fish that seemed unfazed by our presence.  Nori spotted a rare pintado, something like a large, spotted, shovel-nosed catfish.  Monkeys chattered in the trees above us, and bright kingfishers hovered above the river.  It was incredibly relaxing and beautiful. 

While Nori visited the Lagoa Azul, I joined a tour to the Abysmo Anhumas, a narrow fissure at the surface that soon widened into an enormous cavern.  A frigid lake covered giant stalagmites at the bottom.  First, we rappelled 80 meters down to a wooden raft floating far below.  Then, after putting on thick wetsuits, we snorkeled around the subterranean lake.  Narrow beams of light pierced the darkness like lasers, slowly migrating across the surface of the lake in the opposite direction of the sun's path.  It was amazing to see optics at work.  Part of the light refracted at the surface of the water, illuminating underwater stalagmites like stage props under a spotlight.  The rest of the light reflected off the surface at a right angle, giving a ghostly, shimmering light to the roof of the cave.  The climb out of the cave was exhausting; a 15-minute, arm-blasting ascent that left huge welts on my thighs from the climbing harness.   

The Pantanal is an enormous area of wetlands in southern Brazil renowned for its wildlife.  It was a surprise to learn that almost all of the Pantanal is privately owned ranchland.  Many of the trails that we followed were blazed by cattle, and there were cow patties everywhere.  Barbed-wire fences are not permitted, and the cattle ranchers have to obey certain environmental restrictions, but it still amazed us that one of Brazil's most popular wildlife parks wasn't a park at all.  Each camp had a contract with the land owner, and we spotted cows and cowboys nearly as often as the endemic wildlife.  

We had joined a 3-day budget safari that included two nights in a camp deep within the Pantanal.  Unfortunately, most of the first day was spent in transport (including a 4-hour wait at a place we called the “Skeeter Shack,”) the ‘little' camp had space for fifty people (and was mostly full,) the bunk rooms were next to the bar, and the food was bad.  To make matters much worse, Nori was being eaten alive by mosquitoes and was extremely unhappy.  At least our guide was good.  We followed Mario on long marches through the marshes and into palm ‘islands.'  We saw capybaras (huge rodents), a wild boar, armadillos, an anteater, koatis (like a raccoon), giant jabiru storks, toucans, macaws, and even several tarantulas (yuck.)  One evening Mario caught a baby caiman and tried to hypnotize it by rubbing its belly (it didn't quite work.)  The sunsets were beautiful, although they signaled the arrival of the mosquito hordes. 

We nearly skipped Iguazu Falls.  We had already seen quite a few waterfalls on this trip – including the titanic cascades at Victoria Falls in Africa – and were getting a little tired of them.  That is one of the major problems of a trip of this length: apathy.  Do we need to see another big waterfall if we have already seen the biggest?  How many times can you get excited about a cave?  Local tourism industries always find a way to hyperbolize their sites.  Who can forget the “World's Largest Outdoor Seated Buddha” (I'm not kidding) at the Tai Po Monastery on Lantau Island, Hong Kong?  Thankfully, we overcame our waterfall boredom and took the long bus ride from Bonito to Puerto Iguazu.  Not only were the Falls amazing, but also we met a great couple in the process: Robert and Marianne, from Holland. 

We spent two days exploring Iguazu Falls.  The first was on the Argentine side, where we strolled along elevated walkways that took us around the edge of a long, curving cliff.  Dozens of waterfalls spilled off the edge, crashing onto the rocks below, where they flowed together before thundering off a second ledge.  The arcs of concentric rainbows shone through the fine mist.  We took a fifteen-minute jet boat ride that had us screaming as we crept almost directly underneath the thunderous falls.  We might has well have gone for a swim we were so soaked.  The key attraction of the Brazilian side of Iguazu Falls is the viewing platform just beneath (and nearly within) the semicircular cascade of the Devil's Throat - the most powerful of the falls.  Unfortunately, it was more of a hassle than we expected to get there from Argentina, and it seemed much more crowded.  In summation, both Igauzu Falls and Victoria Falls are worth visiting.  If Victoria Falls was the ‘Beast' of cataracts, then Iguazu Falls was the ‘Beauty.'