That time we explored a piece of land the size of Great Britain looking for jaguars.
Where? Pantanal, Brazil
When? July 2018
With whom? Martin, Meghan, Rhys, Danny and Pools.
It all started with some drinking games and a domino’s pizza. We love domino’s and probably eat it too much when we’re at home and we’ve never had a problem. But we weren’t at home, we were in Rio, celebrating Meghan’s degree results in the stereotypical British way of getting smashed. We had great intentions of going out for dinner and heading to the Lapa District of Rio as we had had multiple recommendations that it is a decent place for bars, but as we continued to drink the cheap hostel beers, our plans became a distant memory. Martin led the crowd with his heft experience with these sorts of games and eventually, at about 11pm, someone pointed out that we hadn’t eaten that evening. A drunken chorus of “Domino’s” chimed out across the room and we unanimously ordered three pepperoni pizzas. What could go wrong?
When it arrived, we greedily dug in and thought nothing of it as we continued our night and eventually went to bed.
D-Day. (Domino’s Day, or at least the effects of it.)
We all had early flights to Campo Grande from where we had a transfer to the Pantanal. The morning was a disaster. There was vomiting from some group members and diarrhoea from others, and one unlucky fellow who had both. What could have done this to all of us? We counted the beers we had shared and decided we hadn’t drunk enough for that to have been the cause. Could it be, our beloved domino’s pizza that had betrayed all of our trust? It was the only explanation.
Our point of contact in Campo Grande who organised our transfer for us, Gil, took pity on the six very sick twenty somethings that turned up at the airport. He told us that his wife is a doctor and that we’d stop by a pharmacy to get us drugged up. He wasn’t kidding, at the pharmacy we each swallowed three different pills and had two concoctions of water and drugs, each medicine tasting worse than the last.
With each of us napping during our ride, before we knew it we had arrived at the Sao Jao, the lodge we had booked for two nights. We were shown to our room with about 15 hammocks hanging from each side of the room (we opted for hammocks as the more economical option than beds) and were told we had no mosquito nets, so make sure you don’t leave the door open and try to keep the lights off.
We’d had mosquitoes since we had arrived in South America, so nothing was new there, but these mosquitoes were the gods of the mosquito world. They were huge buggers and could bite through your clothes, and when they did, you felt it because it hurt. Judging from the number of bites we had each obtained so far, Meghan and Martin were the tastiest of the bunch so I sneakily positioned my hammock between the two of them. We nibbled at a few grains of rice for dinner, feeling sorry for ourselves as we were missing out on a feast of a buffet on offer.
The next morning seemed brighter and more positive for all involved as we got up for our first activity: the swamp walk. This is exactly as it sounds; we took a walk through a swamp. The water was cool and refreshing and seemingly quite clean. At points the water came up to our waist and we were careful not to cut our feet on the snail shells that were the only remnants of the herons’ dinner.
As we walked we saw big fish, little fish, jumping fish, spiders, cows, horses… We got to smell the plant used for Vicks Vapour rub or Vicki Vapiori in Portuguese. We kept our eyes peeled for jaguars and anacondas as we trudged through the water. Our guide, Paulo, would occasionally make convincing animal noises, which would sometimes be received with a genuine one. We heard caimans (a small alligator), monkeys, but most excitingly, a jaguar. It’s safe to walk through the caiman-infested swamp as they tend to be flight animals.
Occasionally, we left the swamp to explore a dense part of the rainforest. When we did, we were fortunate enough to be graced with the presence of an anteater. It was a baby in a tree who stopped and stared at us for a while until it wandered off. He had clearly found a decent spot for grub as I didn’t notice until I had been bitten that a gigantor red ant had crawled up my entire body to my armpit. I was met with a searing pain as I flicked the critters off me, making sure I did this in a direction that had no other humans. As the pain faded my arm began to go numb, and when I reached the point that I could no longer move it, I decided to tell Paulo. He had a good squeeze of the bite, releasing poison that resembled puss leaking from a spot. (After about 20 minutes my arm felt normal again.)
Our next treat was coatis! We saw them before at Iguazu Falls, stealing peoples food and tampons, but these were completely wild and timid of humans. There were over twenty of them so we each separated and silently stalked one or two each.
Our afternoon activity was a boat ride and piranha fishing for our dinner. A lot of us had our hands in the water as the boat sped down the river, and what was really fun was poking people’s hands from under the water and watching them jump out of their skin. Paulo found somewhere for us all to swim, which had a great tree from which we could jump in, each of us competing with the last person by trying it from the next branch up.
The piranha fishing is unlike any other fishing I’ve seen or done; we didn’t have to wait for hours for a catch at all – we dangled a piece of meat as bait and within seconds we felt the tug of the piranha thinking it had got lucky with dinner. Pulling some of them out of the water was a struggle as they were huge, and others were pretty tiny. Having so much choice meant that we could throw back those we felt were inadequate (the really small ones) and keep the ones that looked the meatiest.
Our journey back gave us a great view of the sunset before piranha dinner. We did not like.
That night we went for a caiman spotting walk, where Paulo shone a light over the swamp and we could see hundreds of little beady eyes looking back. We also saw a snake wrapping its way round the mail box. I did not want to collect the post the following morning.
Our last activity before making our way to Bonito was a horse ride. These were trail horses, so very well trained. We each hopped on a horse and made our way through the swamp again. This allowed us to get very close to caimans as they seemed less threatened by the horses than they did the humans. It was a different part of the swamp from yesterday, as parts came up to our waist when we were in the horses, so would have completely submerged at least Meghan and me, the littlest two, if we were walking.
We saw some toucans and macaws flying overhead acting as silhouettes against the blazing sun. It was a great way to put a different perspective on nature, and we had a lot of fun trying to spook each other’s horses or trying to coax our own into cantering or at least trotting.
Info: the Pantanal sells itself on the jaguars, but realistically it is very unlikely that you will see one. Their camouflage is top notch, they run quickly and in the opposite direction to oncoming humans, and there are 11 of them in the area that is bigger than Britain. It’s a very touristy region that offers great activities, and despite the pizza fiasco, we all had a great time.
Product of the week: we bought some mosquito repellent in the UK before we left, and we bought some in country (repelente). The silver one called Lifesystems Expedition Plus we brought with us has had approval from the locals in the Pantanal, in Bonito, and in the Amazon, all saying that it is the best one. It’s heavy and it’s greasy but the alternative is wanting to shed your skin like a snake to rid yourself of itching.
Tip of the week: Eat local food. Stay clear of the street food in the cities, as that has been reheated until it’s sold, so you might get lucky with a fresh plate or you might get a dish that has been reheated 17 times. There are plenty of cheap local places to eat and Brazilian food is really good. Other than the terrible idea that was Domino’s, we ate local food and were all completely fine. I would recommend fejouada.