Deep in the
Pantanal

    But how could you put up with this? I suddenly asked, with a human bone
    choking me.
    By Brazzil Magazine

    Mato Grosso do Sul

    CAMPO GRANDE

    Founded around 1875 as the village of Santo Antônio de Campo Grande, Campo Grande
    really began to grow when the railway came through, in 1914. The city became the capital
    of Mato Grosso do Sul in 1977 by decree of military President Ernesto Geisel, when the new
    state splintered off from Mato Grosso. It is known as the Cidade Morena because of its red
    earth. Manganese, rice, soy and cattle are the sources of its wealth. Campo Grande lies
    716 km south of Cuiabá and 403 km southeast of Corumbá.

    There are no tourist attractions in Campo Grande, but because it’s a transport hub,
    most travelers end up staying here overnight before heading out. Like all big cities,
    Campo Grande has plenty of hotels and restaurants, and gets lively on weekends when the Gaúchos
    come to town.

    Museu Dom Bosco

    The Museu Dom Bosco, Rua Barão do Rio Branco 1843, is the only museum in town that’s
    worth a look. It has an excellent collection of over 10,000 insects, including 7000
    butterflies. There are lots of stuffed animals, and interesting exhibits about the Bororo,
    Moro, Carajá and Xavante Indians.

    Reasonably priced handicrafts are also available. The museum is open daily from 7 to 11
    am and 1 to 5 pm.

    For places to stay and places to eat, read the book.

    CORUMBÁ

    This port city on the Rio Paraguai and the Bolivian border is the southern gateway to
    the Pantanal. Corumbá, or Cidade Branca (White City), was founded and named in 1776, by
    Captain Luis de Albuquerque.

    By 1840 it was the biggest river port in the world, boasting a dozen foreign
    consulates. Ships would enter the Rio de la Plata in the South Atlantic and sail up to the
    Rio Paraná to its confluence with the Rio Paraguai, then continue up to Corumbá. The
    crumbling but impressive buildings along the waterfront reflect the wealth that passed
    through the town during the 19th century. With the coming of the railway, Corumbá lost
    its importance as a port and went into decline.

    The city is 403 km northwest of Campo Grande by road or rail. Due to its strategic
    location near the Paraguayan and Bolivian borders (Puerto Suarez is only 19 km away),
    Corumbá has a reputation for poaching, drugtrafficking and gunrunning. Be cautious if you
    come here.

    Orientation

    The train station and bus station are near each other, six blocks from the center of
    town. The waterfront is three blocks from the center in the opposite direction.

    Things to See & Do

    Corumbá’s star attraction is the Pantanal, and you can get a preview of it from Morro
    Urucum
    (1100 meters). Tourists looking for something different might consider a
    two-day excursion to Forte Coimbra, which is a sevenhour boat trip south on the Rio
    Paraguai. In days gone by, the fort was a key to the defense of the Brazilian west, and
    you still need permission from the Brigada Mista (at Avenida General Rondon 1735) to visit
    it.

    Daily boat tours of the Corumbá environs are available through all
    travel agencies. An allday trip on the boat Pérola do Pantanal will set you back
    $25, including lunch. Other packages include sightseeing trips to Bolivia and day trips by
    road.

    Pantanal Tours

    Many budget travelers are choosing to go on cheap three to fourday tours into the
    Pantanal. These trips, generally costing around $20 a day, can be very roughandready
    affairs—try to imagine boy scouts on cachaça. Accommodation is in hammocks,
    under thatch or in somebody’s shack. Food is generally pretty good, though you must take
    water, and the trucks may break down. Some of the `guides’ are exalligator hunters, so
    their attitude towards animals leaves a lot to be desired. You’ll see lots of birds and
    plenty of alligators, but the mammals are understandably a bit shy, especially when being
    chased by a truck at 80 km/h.

    If you want something well organized, and riding around in the back of a pickup truck
    doesn’t grab you, pay a bit more and stay at a hotelfazenda for a few days. If
    you’re prepared to take it as it comes, you might have a good time.

    Before signing on with one of these trips and certainly before parting with any cash
    there are a few things you should check out. Firstly, find out how far into the Pantanal
    you will be going—it should be at least 200 km preferably more. Then ask about the
    itinerary, and get it in writing if possible. Is the program flexible enough to account
    for sudden weather changes? Check out the truck. Does it look OK? Does it have a radio or
    carry a firstaid kit in case of emergency? A bite from the boca de sapo snake will
    kill in half an hour if left untreated.

    Expect to spend at least one day simply traveling deep into the Pantanal, and one day
    returning. Then allow at least two days for seeing wildlife at close quarters. Definitely
    insist on doing this on foot—vehicle should be used only for access, not for
    pursuit. Your chances of enjoying the Pantanal and its wildlife are greatly increased
    if you go with a reputable guide who: forsakes the `mechanical chase’ approach;
    accompanies small groups (preferably less than five persons) on an extensive walking trip
    through the area for several days; camps out at night (away from drinking dens!); and
    takes you on walks at the optimum times to observe wildlife—before sunrise, at dusk
    and during the night. A trip along these lines will require at least four days (preferably
    five).

    Insist on meeting your guide (or make it clear in writing that you will go only with a
    designated guide), and avoid signing on through an intermediary. How many years has your
    guide been in the Pantanal? Remember that speaking English is less important than local
    knowledge. Someone who has spent their life in the Pantanal won’t speak much English.

    There are a lot of shonky guides around. In Corumbá they’re known as guias piratas (pirate
    guides). They’re not registered with the Associação dos Guias (Guides Association), so
    if you have some complaint or want your money back, you have no course of action. On these
    shonky tours, there is a lot of cachaça drinking, the theory being that since cachaça
    is cheaper than gasoline, it costs less to convince drunk tourists that they’re having a
    good time. Then there’s no need to drive as far as promised. Tales of woe with pirate
    guides include abandonment in the marshes, assorted drunken mayhem and even attempted
    rape.

    For places to stay and places to eat, read the book.

    Things to Buy

    The Casa do Artesão, in the old prison at Rua Dom Aquino 405, has a good selection of
    Indian art and artifacts, as well as the best Pantanal Tshirts in Corumbá.

    AQUIDAUANA

    Aquidauana and Anastácio are twin towns situated on the Rio Aquidauana, 138 km from
    Campo Grande. They represent the beginning of the Pantanal and there are a number of
    excellent hotéisfazendas in the area. In Aquidauana there’s not much to interest
    the traveler, though it’s a pleasant place in which to spend a night.

    For places to stay and places to eat, read the book.

    COXIM

    Coxim is a small town about halfway between Cuiabá and Campo Grande, on the eastern
    border of the Pantanal. Its drawcard is the piracema, when fish migrate up the
    Taquari and Coxim rivers, leaping through rapids to spawn. The piracema usually
    takes place from September to December; if you’re traveling this road during that period,
    it’s worth stopping off to have a look. The fishing (pacu, pintado, curimbatá,
    piracema end dourado) is good from August to December. A fishing license is
    required. There are also some pretty waterfalls in the area, notably the Palmeiras falls,
    on the Rio Coxim.

    For places to stay and places to eat, read the book

    BONITO

    Apart from the Pantanal, the small town of Bonito is one of the major tourist
    destinations in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul. The town itself has no attractions, but
    the natural resources of the area are impressive. There are many caves in the region, the
    main ones being Lago Azul (an underground lake that’s 156 meters deep) and Nossa Senhora
    Aparecida. To visit the caves, you need a guide, because the caves are locked and the
    guides have the keys.

    Another attraction of the area is the incredibly clear rivers, where it’s possible for
    divers to see the fish eyeball to eyeball.

    Tours

    Hapakany Tur (2551315), at Rua Pilad Rebuá 626, is a wellorganized outfit. Sérgio da
    Gruta, who runs it, is a good guy and knows the area very well. He offers several
    different excursions, including a rubber rafting day trip. Prices vary, but are mostly
    around the $30 mark.

    For places to stay and places to eat, read the book.

    PONTA PORÃ

    Ponta Porã is a border town divided from the Paraguayan town of Pedro Juan Caballero
    by Avenida Internacional. It was a center for the yerba maté trade in the late
    1800s, long before it started attracting Brazilians, who like to play in the Paraguayan
    casinos, shop for perfumes, electronics and musical condoms, and hang out in ritzy hotels.

    Tripping through the Pantanal

    I ended up staying over a month in Corumbá, going out on fours tours, so I sort of got
    an overview of the whole scene—and a lot of stories (good and bad) from the other
    backpackers.

    The Guides

    You don’t have to find a guide, they’ll find you. They meet the buses and trains at the
    stations, they come to hotels, they approach you in restaurants or outside the Banco do
    Brasil (a very trying place to be on the last Friday of the month)). The sales pitch is
    pretty standard: albums of photos taken on their tours, letters of recommendation from
    satisfied tourists, and often a bit of badmouthing the other guides thrown in for good
    measure. Sometimes this last technique includes showing you `letters’ from tourists waxing
    lyrically about how terrible Guide A or Guide B was. These left me pondering a) why anyone
    would write a letter of complaint not to the guide but to someone completely different,
    and b) that someone whose publicity consists of telling you not how good they are, but how
    bad everyone else is, lacks imagination, talent and ethics. All offer three or fourday
    tours, including bottled water tents and/or hammocks.

    All the guides know the Pantanal well, they’re predominantly born and bred in the area.
    Most speak only Portuguese, although Corumbá is a border town so quite a few are familiar
    with Spanish too. Some of them know the names of some of the wildlife in English or Hebrew
    that they’ve picked up from tourists.

    Generally a tour is made up of a guide, a driver, a cook and five to ten tourists.
    These guys tend to freelance, alternately forming a team or competing with each other.
    Some of the ones I met and/or heard about from others who did tours with them:

    Katu—he’s the elder statesman of the bunch, he’s been a guide for over ten years.
    He doesn’t leap off the truck and sprint around and catch armadillos and alligators with
    the same vigor as the younger ones, but he’s got tons of experience and everyone likes
    him.

    Murilo Reis—the second most experienced, he started working as a guide when he was
    a teenager. He has lived in Hamburg for a year, and in April 1993 returned from London
    where he went to work with some Brits and Kiwis that he’d met when they were in Brazil.
    So, although he’s spent most of his life in the Pantanal, he speaks very good English and
    German.

    Gil Tours—Gil is a smooth character, he speaks English but doesn’t usually take
    tours out himself; he hires guides (who don’t speak English). He seems to have the habit
    of keeping people waiting about without telling them what’s going on, but the tours
    themselves are fine.

    Tucanturs—the star attraction is Pedro, who worked with Murilo for four years. He
    doesn’t speak English but understands a bit, and speaks Spanish. Great guide.

    Johnny Indiano—has spent his life in the Pantanal and is especially good at
    finding nests and newborn animals. There seem to be a lot of guides who’ve adopted the
    name Johnny.

    The Tours

    We spent the first day basically driving out there, and the last day driving back,
    which was good because we got a long way into the Pantanal. Sometimes they have trouble
    with the trucks. It’s difficult terrain for any vehicle, but the drivers really knew what
    they were doing, and they were all capable mechanics who quickly and effectively fixed
    anything that needed repairing on the spot. They never chased animals with the truck, only
    on foot, to give us a closer look and then they released them.

    The food was good, they provide for vegetarians like me, and there’s plenty of bottled
    water. Round the campfire at night, sometimes caipirinhas were offered, but most of
    us stuck to hot tea or coffee. We slept in a big tent with a very good mosquito net, or in
    hammocks strung up in an outside (mosquito screened) room on a farm. Before we left the
    campsite, all the rubbish was burned, or put in bags to take back to Corumbá. We went on
    lots of lovely long walks early in the mornings, and again in the evenings. It’s amazingly
    beautiful in the Pantanal, the landscape itself is so interesting even without all the
    incredible creatures that live there. The sunrises and sunsets are spectacular, and the
    night sky takes your breath away.

    The main thing to take is effective insect repellent, and apply it liberally in the
    evenings. There are about one zillion mosquitoes, all extremely partial to tourists. They
    never seem to bother the guides—one of those intensely unfair little facts of nature!

    Maryann Sewell New Zealand

    Excerpts from Brazil – A Travel Survival Kit, 3rd edition, by
    Andrew Draffen, Chris McAsey, Leonardo Pinheiro,  and Robyn Jones. For more
    information call Lonely Planet: (800) 275-8555. Copyright 1996 Lonely Planet Publications.
    Used by permission.

    Buy it at
    Amazon.com

    Lonely Planet
    Brazil – A Travel Survival Kit

    by Andrew Draffen, Chris McAsey,
    Leonardo Pinheiro, Robyn Jones,
    704 pp.

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