Pantanal & Amazon Rainforest
A group of eight of us embarked on this fascinating tour to Brazil between 17 and 31 October 2016. We all had different expectations, and for some of us this was the first trip to South America. For others, it was the opportunity to see other parts of this continent and, in particular, a mighty Jaguar, as the country praises itself on providing the best viewing of this cat in the world.
However, before we started our tour to the Pantanal, which is the largest freshwater wetland in the world, we took a three-day pre-tour extension to the Amazonian rainforest and the Cristalino Lodge, one of the best eco-lodges in the Amazon Basin. Here, daily walks and boat rides provided us with astonishing experiences. The history of the lodge was interesting in itself: in 1992, Victoria Da Riva Carvalho, bought 1,730 acres of the rainforest and built a lodge in one of the most biodiverse areas in the Brazilian Amazon. Eight years later, when loggers threatened to purchase a nearby plot of old-growth forest, Carvalho scraped together the money to buy it herself and subsequently created a 24,000-acre private reserve of primary forest. It was not only a pleasure to stay in this lodge and taste its amazing food, but the nature all around us was fascinating. The two towers offered 360 degrees breath-taking view over the pristine Amazonian forest, revealing the beauty and its enormous size. The birds could be seen here at eye-level and nothing prepared us for the splendour and multitude of colourful birds. The most impressive, though, were the macaws flying in the distance or towards us with their colourful plumage standing out against the lush and dense foliage of the forest. On one occasion, a flock of 14 Scarlet Macaws flew across and soon, equally impressive Blue-and-yellow Macaws followed, taking our breath away. Some of us voted this experience as the most memorable moment of the tour. The boat rides were also eventful and allowed us close encounters with several species, including the most sought after Sunbittern. Although we saw them later on the tour, seeing them foraging on the water’s edge almost within touching distance from the boat, was particularly memorable. The diversity of butterflies was simply overwhelming and encounters with xx species of monkeys were also good. Seeing a group of White-whiskered Spider Monkey interacting, while attending their babies was particularly impressive.
The Pantanal provided a totally different experience. The fact that we stayed in three different lodges and used boats and open safari vehicles to explore the area provided us with varied and different experiences every day and generated numerous highlights. Needless to say, the birdlife was astonishing, with 20 species of birds of prey, 11 species of doves and pigeons, ten species of parakeets, parrots and macaws, 13 species of woodpeckers, 26 species of waterbirds (ducks, herons, egrets, ibises, storks, etc.) and a plethora of colourful toucans, tanagers, seedeaters, cardinals, flycatchers, trogons, jacamars and kingfishers, to name just a few. The birding highlight for some was seeing Hyacinth Macaws. These are the largest parrots in the world and their size and striking colour clearly stood out, particularly when, on one occasion, we saw as many as 12 feeding together on the ground. Seeing a pair of them mating was also a highlight for some.
The most engaging encounters, though, were those with mammals, in particular with a Brazilian Tapir, Capybara, Giant River Otter, Ocelot, Azara’s Agouti and South American Coati. We were all hoping to see a Jaguar, but seeing it on five different occasions exceeded our wildest expectations. We observed them in all different circumstances: foraging, eating, swimming, resting and walking. The first encounter, though, was most memorable: in a heavy rain (but under protective canvas of the boat), we spent just over two hours observing a Jaguar and following its every step. Its peculiar behaviour involved digging into the sand at the bottom of a sand cliff, then climbing up the cliff to rest on the top of it, only to jump back down to the same spot and dig into the sand again. The Jaguar appeared to be on a mission, frustrated at times, but not giving up. We put forward various theories to explain its behaviour, but it all became clear when we saw a Jaguar struggling with a caiman. The caiman must have been buried accidentally by the collapse of the sandy wall of the cliff, and the cat had tried to regain its prey by digging it out from the pile of sand. The caiman was too big to be dragged up the cliff, so the Jaguar spent time biting it in half. Eventually, it succeeded and carried one half of the caiman up to the top of the cliff in one big jump and out of sight! What a privilege it was to watch the whole spectacle so close and with an unobstructed (almost) view. This must rank as one of the best wildlife experiences one could encounter.
Equally memorable was one of our face-to-face meeting with a group of Giant River Otters. The encounter was truly superb and soon transpired into a captivating show, when we watched them swimming, diving for food, eating the catch, playing and communicating with each other while producing intriguing sounds. We could not believe our luck, because watching them from so close was very special. For some though, the highlight was seeing a Yellow Anaconda, just a few metres away, as it was smoothly gliding amongst short vegetation.
We concluded the tour with a two-day visit to the scenic Chapada dos Guimarães National Park, comprising the highly threatened Cerrado habitat. This rich wooded grassland is the second largest biome in Brazil after the Amazon, covering 21% of the country’s territory, but not nearly as recognised as the Amazon. Despite its unique flora and fauna, less than 3% of the area is currently protected by law, and the rest of the habitat is being destroyed and under continuous threat from unsustainable agricultural activities, particularly soy production and cattle ranching, as well, as burning the vegetation for charcoal. We explored the area with great interest and admired its beautiful landscape, interesting rock formations and cascading waterfalls. The most memorable event here must be the last evening, when in the gentle light of the setting sun, we observed at least five species of hummingbirds and related species (White-vented Violet-Ear, Black-throated Mango, Versicolored Emerald, Ruby-topaz and Guilded Hummingbirds) that were busy scooping the last nectar of the day from a group of flowering bushes. This could not be a better end to this fabulous tour.
Altogether, 380 species of birds and 29 species of mammals were recorded on this trip. Additionally, 14 reptiles, one amphibian and 10 insects were identified. The Hyacinth Macaw was best bird of the trip and seeing a Jaguar swimming was the most popular memorable event.
To view more pictures from the tour, please visit the Gallery; for the itinerary of the tour please go to Tour Details; A Report of the tour is also available.