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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