Exploring the Amazon and Pantanal regions of Brazil

Tristan Whitworth

25 Sep 2017

Day 1: Hello from Cristalino Lodge!

Day 1: Hello from Cristalino Lodge!

Today I arrived in the Southern Amazon and got to the lodge at around 3pm. I immediately went and walked one of the trails, before heading out by boat along the river.

Sightings so far have been; an enormous tapir, a capybara rolling around in the sun, scarlet macaws, red-handed howler monkeys, toucans, capucins.

Now it's now time for dinner and a good sleep! Can't wait to see what tomorrow has in store!

PS: It. Is. Hot.

Day 2: The Sierra Trail

Today was another scorcher of a day in the Cristalino Reserve. Leaving the lodge at sunrise we hiked up the Sierra Trail - through 3 different types of jungle habitat - to arrive at a beautiful lookout over the jungle, just as the Amazon was coming to life.

This afternoon treated us to another stunning hike in primary rainforest, under intense heat and a very dense canopy. I was lucky to marvel at a towering 800 year old Brazilian Nut Tree, while a group of 30 to 40 white-cheeked spider monkeys followed our every move for about an hour.

Countless numbers of birds (a lot of scarlet macaws overhead near the lodge), 3 capybaras, 6 tapirs (including 2 in the rather advanced stages of a date...), 5 giant river otters that we followed along the banks for 30 minutes (this was my highlight!) and a very rare Tayra (body of an otter, face of a bear) that hadn't been seen in several months.


Day 3: A 360 Degree View of Amazon Wilderness

Day 3: A 360 Degree View of Amazon Wilderness

Not being much of a bird specialist and with no greater expertise than "wow that toucan has a bright bill!", I was in two minds about the excursion to the bird tower this morning.

Now, after climbing up and down the 50 meters of the steel structure and spending 2 hours above the canopy, i could not recommend it enough to anyone with any affinity for the natural beauty of our planet. Yes, the bird sightings were plentiful with channel-bill and white-throated toucans, a beautiful spangled cotinga, numerous macaws and many more. We also saw playful rare white-nosed saki monkeys in trees below us. But what will stay with me forever is the 360 view of Amazon wilderness and splendor, as far as the eye can see.

Day 4: Northern Pantanal

Day 4: Northern Pantanal

This morning I was introduced to Jovem ("young" in Portuguese), a beautiful Pantaneiro horse, as we head out to explore the grasslands on horseback at around 7am.

They are absolutely essential to the livelihood of the people of the Pantanal, a region built on the shoulders of cattle ranchers and farmers. Long before the iconic Transpantaneira highway was constructed (think dirt road...just a really, really long one!) the farmers only had their horse to take them into the big city to sell the fruits of their labour, and the journey could take up to a month! No horse, meant no trade, it was as simple as that. Araras Eco Lodge, where I am staying, owns over 100 Pantaneiro horses and here's a fun fact: Pantaneiro horses, originally Andalusian breed, have over time developed the ability to hold their breath long enough so they can still feed off the grass that is submerged during the Pantanal's ruthless wet season. Talk about adaptability!

While we spotted many birds and a few capybara over the next couple of hours, this morning was about more than just the resident wildlife. It was about gaining an appreciation for the industrious way of life lead by the people here, and the upmost respect and gratitude they have for their horses.

After a dip in the pool and a struggle with myself to accept that temperature is just a number (it reached 42 degrees celsius, 106 fahrenheit, IN THE SHADE today, and this is winter...), I followed my guide Aynore on a trail that lead us to the property's own observation tower, 25 meters above ground (this further put into perspective the 50 meter tower that treated us to some stunning views over the Amazon a few days ago!). 

Day 5: Northern Pantanal

As I head out for a boat outing on the Pixaim river, it takes me about 30 seconds to realise it was the wrong day to forget sunscreen and my water bottle! 

My guide, Gonzalo, was born and raised along these waters, so he is literally in his own back yard. Every day I am astonished by the level of expertise that our guides have and, after working in travel for all these years, I still truly believe that they are what can make a good trip and life-changing one. Gonzalo not only sees all, he hears all; detecting the call of an approaching black-collard hawk that isn't even a dot on the horizon at this point.

In what is a constant cacophony of bird calls throughout the safari, he also hears the sound of a giant river otter tearing apart its fresh catch behind a dense overhang of vines (have I mentioned how incredible I find these creatures? Short of any jaguar sightings to this point, the giant river otter stands out for me so far). 

After 2 hours on the water, I return to the lodge dehydrated, happy and grateful for Gonzalo's expertise (and for giant river otters).

Tomorrow I continue down the Transpantaneira highway towards Porto Jofre, as I make my way to the SouthWild Jaguar Flotel, deep in jaguar territory.

Day 6: Jaguar Land

Day 6: Jaguar Land

What a day today has been! From an adventurous 90km on the Transpantaneira this morning, to my first jaw-dropping jaguar sighting this afternoon, I will remember today for a long time.

I like to think that the best travel moments are the ones that need to be earned. Like a reward for putting in the sweat or the miles. My first jaguar required both of those! We departed the Jaguar Flotel at 2pm, and travelled 58 miles by speed boat over the next 4 hours (on the Cuiaba, Piquiri and Three Brothers rivers) Distance: check. Temperature was 36 degrees Celsius/97 Fahrenheit. Sweat: check! And what a reward it was. Two jaguars - Estrela and Peter Schmidt - lazing on the river bank.

We knew they were both there as we could hear them in the bushes. Those few minutes before they appeared out of the vegetation will stay with me forever. My heart was pounding in my chest as the anticipation grew and there they were. Majestic. Just... beautiful. 

Tomorrow morning we head out again. Hopefully more jaguars. Hopefully better words to express these feelings! 

Day 7: Jaguar Land

Day 7: Jaguar Land

In the Pantanal, the early bird catches the worm, and by 7am we are on the speedboat flying along the Piquiri River, downstream.

Within minutes, our first jaguar sighting of the day. We don't get a very clear view as the female cat has dropped to the ground and is hidden by bushes. This sighting does however provide evidence of the jaguar's incredible camouflage, key to them being the apex predator in this habitat, as they are a stalk and pounce hunter, unable to sustain long chases like a cheetah for example.

Our 2nd sighting comes after another boat gave us a signal over the radio. Full throttle heading toward the Three Brothers river, we come to a stop along the bank where the jaguar was seen a few minutes ago. The sound of the occasional snapping branch leaves no doubt, the jaguar is still there somewhere. Our turn to be patient and stalk. Suddenly - about 20 meters downstream, behind us - a big splash draws our attention to another spot where a large Paraguayen caiman sensed it was being considered for jaguar brunch. A second later, the jaguar appears and an intense staring competition ensues for 10 minutes as the big cat tries to gauge her chances of getting to her prey before the caiman vanishes under water.

In the end, the jaguar didn't like his chances and disappeared back into the forest. 

Half an hour later, back on the banks of the Cuiaba River, we were able follow another male on the prowl. For 30 minutes, our 3rd sighting of the morning, he put on a show for us as we admired the display from about 20-25 meters. After intermittently disappearing behind some bushes, the jaguar reappeared out on a clearing and beach, treating us to an incredible unrestricted view.

Our 4th and final sighting of the day would be Carly, a female who developed over the past few years the ability to climb trees and stalk prey from above. This behaviour is common to jaguars further north, in the jungles of Central America, not so much down here. A few years ago a guest here at SouthWild made a video of Carly jumping into the water from about 8 meters high. As if jaguars weren't already skilful enough, now they can fly?!

Today Carly wasn't as acrobatic, and fell just short of catching a caiman. We arrived on site just as she was returning into the deep the vegetation, her confidence probably intact despite her prey getting the upper hand this time. Such is the aura of the jaguar here (jaguar is the Guarani word for "he who kills with one leap"), this is their land and they don't stay hungry very long.

Day 8: Jaguar Land

Day 8: Jaguar Land

Today's best sighting consisted of 3 jaguars, all in one spot, at the same time. Perfect, right? Here's the catch: you could only see a combined 3 inches of cat! A female was perched up in a leafy tree making her presence known only by the flapping of her tail visible through a small gap. A male was resting at the base of said tree, a few rosettes visible in the space left by the fork-split trunk. Jaguar number 3, also a male, was sleeping 10 feet to the right, hidden behind a dense bush.

But it was all worth the wait. As soon as she was back on solid ground, the closest male made his move, and just like that the mating began. We didn't see much - which would have been rude anyway - but the growling left no doubt. All of 10 seconds later (these loving displays of affection don't last much longer than that but can occur up to 100 times a day!) both males left downstream, while Carly found a nearby spot to relax and reflect on her relationship status.

This is exactly what I would have in mind when I would dream of the Pantanal. It's hot, dusty and the mosquitoes are more like Airbus A380s, but moments like this are pure bliss. 

After a few minutes we decided to leave Carly in peace and jumped of the boat on to the bank behind us, facing directly west. The sunset we witnessed was stunning and added to this eventful outing. I couldn't help but peek over my shoulder towards the other bank just in case our furry friend was on the move. Surely enough, she started making her way upriver, and there she was again, basking in the golden light, relishing in this moment where all eyes were on her.

I have a hard time imagining what could have been a better ending to my 4 days in "Jaguar Land".

Tomorrow I travel back along the Transpantaneira to catch a flight to Campo Grande, gateway to the Southern Pantanal. 

Day 9: Jaguar Land to Cuiaba

This morning I jumped on a speedboat bound for tiny Porto Jofre, where a van awaited to take me back to Cuiaba along the Transpantaneira, via a quick stop for lunch at the SouthWild Pantaneira Lodge.

Plenty of caiman, jabiru storks and capybara later, and a couple of strong black coffees to keep me going, I’m now relaxing at a comfortable hotel near Cuiaba airport. 

Wake-up call is set for 2:45am (seriously whose idea was it to schedule 4:45am flights?!) and this time i'll be flying to Campo Grande, before another transfer to Refugio Ecologico Ararauna. I can't wait!

In the meantime, it is 6:50pm. Good night!

Day 10: Cuiaba to Southern Pantanal

Day 10: Cuiaba to Southern Pantanal

This morning's 2:45am wakeup call was the easiest so far (said nobody, ever, in the history of wake up calls). Nonetheless, my moody self headed to the airport for an early flight to Campo Grande, in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul. Quickly, I was buzzing to see how the Southern Pantanal was different to the north. Once in Campo Grande, I met my guide, Carole - a biologist who has lived and guided all around this region for years - and we starting driving west. Already I noticed a difference in landscapes with the north.


We stopped for lunch in the tiny town of Rio Negro, the last sign of urban life before we hit more dirt roads and go deeper into the open grasslands.

In terms of infrastructure, one big difference between Northern and Southern Pantanal is that down here all the lodges are sprinkled around the region, as opposed to strictly in one place, as is in Northern Pantanal where the lodges are strictly along the Transpantaneira. Access here is only possible on long winding dirt roads, opening the hundreds of gates and fences meant to keep cattle in. The gates and fences are the South Pantanal's answer to the wooden bridges up north. 

After 5 hours, we finally arrived at Refúgio Ecológico Ararauna, a simple family owned "fazenda", originally built on grounds belonging to the University of Environmental Development of the Pantanal.

I'm sure glad I listened to that bullish inner-voice as we went on a fabulous hike around the property, including a climb up the 30 meter observation tower.

These towers have become one of my favourite features here in Brazil as the views are always breath-taking and the vantage point guarantees wildlife sightings that wouldn't happen from down below. Have I mentioned how stunning the sunsets are? On this excursion we saw coati, agouti, different types of macaws, howler monkeys, marsh deer, six-banded armadillo, tiger heron, capybara, toucan... and feral pigs. Let's talk about them for a second. Pigs arrived here with the Paraguayan soldiers during the Brazil-Paraguay war of the 1860's, and were used to feed the army. When the latter left, the pigs remained and have since adjusted to life in the wild, and have become absolute balls of energy, running in every direction at all times. It's fascinating and quite funny to see. There must be something in the soil here, and I’ll have whatever they are having next time I need to wake up at 2:45am.

Back at the lodge, a traditional Brazilian barbecue is being prepared, and a Caipirinha awaits (make that two Caipirinhas please). A quick note on tonight's meal: I have been referred to as a meat-snob by my loving wife. I don't know what she's taking about, but let me tell you that this is hands down the absolute best barbecue I have ever had. Ever. The cuts of beef, lamb and chicken were marinated and grilled to perfection.

Day 11: Southern Pantanal

Another beautiful day in Brazil! This morning we enjoyed a 2 hour horseback ride around the open grasslands of the lodge. Lakes, marshes and forest, under the close supervision of howler monkeys, pampa deer, coati and those insanely entertaining feral pigs. Some people are in the gym by 7am, but I’ll take this any day! It is 40 degrees Celsius by 9am, at which point we are almost back at the lodge where a refreshing beetroot and lime juice awaits.

In the afternoon, we made our way by pick-up truck to the banks of the Rio Correntoso ("the river with current"). Ararauna owns approximately 12km of river, about 19 miles, offering the chance to admire the wildlife and pristine habitat from the water.


I felt like I was watching a live tennis match. Left, right, left, right...from the minute I took place in my canoe, I didn't know on which bank to look! Capybara on one side, coati on the other and caiman straight ahead. A little further down river: a dozen peccary to the left, howler monkey to the right and a king vulture straight ahead. I could go on and on, but you get the picture.

In the Pantanal, the hype belongs to the jaguar, and rightfully so - the 3rd biggest cat in the world deserves all the recognition it gets. They are mesmerising. But let there be no doubt, when it comes to wildlife and natural beauty, there is so much more to the Pantanal than just those elusive rosettes. 

As I let myself float on the Correntoso, once again admiring an otherworldly sunset, I reflect on another day under the sun.

Day 12: Southern Pantanal

The more time I spend on water, the happier I am, and in the Pantanal there is a lot of water! Even now in the dry season, the region is a succession of forest areas in the middle of which run rivers, and of vast open grasslands where the heavy rains of the wet season never completely recede and create a beautiful green landscape dotted with small ponds and lakes (each of which represent little habitats for a variety of animals).

Anyway, this morning when we boarded our speedboat to see what we could find upstream on the Correntoso, I was in my element. A perfect start to the day, only slightly tarnished by a broken engine, 11km (7miles) from the lodge. This was actually a blessing in disguise as really this just meant more time on the water and more wildlife sightings. Do you like lists? Well, this is what we saw this morning between the hours of 7am and 11am: jabiru stork, cocoi heron, tiger heron, great egret, sungrebe, greater rhea, southern screamer (their name is all the description you need!), green ibis, green kingfisher, amazon kingfisher, great black hawk, savannah hawk, roadside hawk, southern caracara, bare face curassow, chaco chachalaca, hyacinth macaw, toco toucan, blue crowned trogon, great potoo... those are just the birds on the river banks and I probably missed a few! On to the mammals: marsh deer, giant otter, pampas deer, collared peccary, capybara, crab-eating fox, neotropical otter, coati, agouti (the "gardener of brazil" due to its prominent role in spreading seeds and fruit). Last but not least, today's reptiles: caiman (there has got to be at least 3 billion caiman in Brazil...surely someone has counted right?) and Amazon whiptail. 

Whether you are an avid birdwatcher, passionate about fugitive wild pigs or just a general natural world enthusiast such as myself, there is enough to go around. 

Tomorrow will be another day on the road as I travel to Caiman Lodge for the final 3 nights of my trip. There is a fascinating jaguar conservation project run there, and I look forward to learning more about it! 

Day 13: Ararauna to Caiman Ecological Refuge

Day 13: Ararauna to Caiman Ecological Refuge

As we leave the warm hospitality of Ararauna this morning, I’m on the road again heading to the Caiman Ecological Refuge, 5 hours away. I was going to write about this and tell you all about how smooth travel days are down here, considering the remoteness of all these places. The lodges really are well organised and no detail is left to chance, which has left me very impressed.

Then I thought I would report back on my fortunate encounter with a giant anteater instead. They are mostly seen out in the open, head down, sniffing up all the ants and termites they can find - the main components of their high protein diet. The anteater is virtually blind, and we were lucky enough to be downwind from it, meaning it couldn't smell us approaching either. Telling that story, however, would only have shed light on how unprepared I was today, as I jogged across open grassland in my shorts and flip-flops and no insect repellent, to catch a better view of this huge creature about half a mile away.

It later occurred to me that I really should tell you about the ocelot we saw at dusk within the grounds of the lodge. Here's the stage: I’m with two guides - a biologist and our driver, who grew up on this land - and we are heading to a traditional barbecue at one of the other homes on the property. Crossing a small bridge, Wendel, the driver, makes a sharp right as if to turn and drive under the bridge we just crossed. The water is almost all dried up, and these spots make for easy shallow hunting pools. Jaguars also like to take refuge under the small bridges as the temperature is about 5 degrees cooler under there. No jaguar under this one, but to our surprise and amazement, a male ocelot! These cats live in the shadow of the jaguar which gets all the hype, but the ocelot - mostly nocturnal - is actually much more difficult to spot. It is of course much smaller than the jaguar, and usually keeps to the forest, whereas the jaguar likes to venture in open spaces. This one didn't seem to mind us at all, as it rolled around in content after dinner, and let us watch on for about 20 minutes.

That would have been a good enough story from today right?

About an hour later, today's real highlight took place (I know, I also thought it would be impossible to top my flip-flop expedition). Before I proceed, it's important to know about the Oncafari Project. The name comes from the jaguar's scientific name, Panthera Onca. Created 6 years ago, Oncafari is a conservation initiative designed to promote ecotourism in the Pantanal mostly through the protection of the jaguar and educating travellers about the species. There is a full-time team of biologists and vets here on-site, whose job it is to monitor the many cats that either live within the gates of the refuge, or are just passing by. When apprehended, the jaguar is subject to full health tests and measures are taken if the animal presents any signs of poor health. If the subject is old enough (at least 2 years old) it may be collared for tracking and monitoring purposes. The collar will automatically release after a year maximum, or when the team has collected sufficient data.

I see how this can raise some eyebrows, but it is crucial to understand the passion that these people have for their work and for the jaguar. These are professionals, whose sole objective is to guarantee the safeguard of the species. Nothing is done to alter the natural behaviour of the animal. Furthermore, the jaguar has become habituated, but not domesticated. They are not trapped, fed or put under any kind of unnatural duress. The results have been outstanding as the jaguar sightings in the area have increased every year since 2012, when less than 15% of guests reported sightings. Last year, this number had climbed to 75% (even upwards of 90% if you take out the wet season).

So we are enjoying another heavenly barbecue, when we hear on the radio that a jaguar has been captured only 1km for here and we were invited to go and watch the Oncafari team do their work. (I forgot to mention that there are only 3 "capture" seasons in the year, each resulting in 2 or 3 new collars placed). This is important as it means that only a small minority of jaguars are collared in the reserve.

The scene is impressive, as Juju, a 1 year old female is at the back of a pickup truck, sedated, while the specialist run their tests. It's a humbling sight to see such a powerful beast look so vulnerable, but I understand the process and do firmly believe in the bigger picture. We stand at a safe distance so as to not get in the way of the team, and after about 15 minutes, Juju's mother can be heard close by. She can see us, and would very much like to be reunited with her daughter. This is our cue to leave, as the Oncafari team releases groggy Juju, remaining with her until the mother arrives to make sure Juju is safe and well.

The scene was something I had never imagined being a part of and for that I feel privileged. Being there with such a devoted team of experts was also heart-warming and inspiring at the same time.

After this eventful day and barely surviving Flip-Flop Gate, I went to bed exhausted and looking forward to tomorrow's adventures.

Day 14: Caiman Ecological Refuge

Day 14: Caiman Ecological Refuge

How do you beat a day as eventful as yesterday? By spotting another ocelot on a spotlight drive back to the lodge, that's how!

I must admit that after today, the ocelot is knocking on the door of my top 5 sightings on this trip. Actually, scratch that. It has managed to push it open just enough to squeeze its stealthy little frame right through and steal the show! 


So for our spotlight to find a second one within 24 hours was highly unexpected and made for an exciting evening. Hearing us approaching in our truck, it sprinted in front of us across the path, giving us just enough time to recognise what it was. We had seen about a dozen foxes already tonight, but this was clearly a different encounter. Luck was also on our side tonight as the ocelot found a low-hanging branch to its liking right by the side of the road, giving us ample time to admire it. After a few minutes and some great photo opportunities, my new favourite feline turned heels and dashed off into the forest.

On a post-ocelot high, we made our way back to the lodge for dinner (do I need to add that this involved copious amounts of grilled meat and enough fresh fruit juice to send you to food heaven in a minute?), and discussed plans for tomorrow and what will be my final full day in Brazil. I will get a chance to meet with Liliana, the Oncafari Project coordinator, so I look forward to congratulating her and the team for their incredible work here. 

Day 15: Caiman Ecological Refuge

Day 15: Caiman Ecological Refuge

Due to the sheer size of Caiman Ecological Refuge (53,000 acres!), every single journey across the ranch turns into a safari. You'll often be riding in one of the jeeps or trucks as you are driven to the lake for some sunset canoeing, or to a bush trail for one of the hikes, and such is the abundance of wildlife around the property that you are in for a treat each time. In addition to this, you are guaranteed a spotlight safari every evening. Every vehicle is equipped with different sorts of spotlights and your guide will be scanning what lies around as you make your way back to the lodge. My 3rd and final night drive was a beauty!

First of all, another ocelot! You already know about my newfound fascination for this diminutive predator, so spotting a 3rd one in as many nights was certainly more than I ever could have hoped for. 

This time our ocelot was in the open, on the prowl for some fish on the banks of a small pond. One of the few remaining with sufficient water for a happy group of caiman. A large group of big happy caiman to be precise. What followed was a tense couple of minutes as the feline kept its head down looking for dinner, seemingly unaware that a row of caiman had formed probably less than 3 feet away. Guilherme, our guide, confirmed that, although not that common, if big enough, a caiman won't have any problem diversifying his menu and ordering ocelot for take away. Luckily the ocelot sensed our telepathic thoughts pushing him to safety and calmly returned to safer grounds in the forest. Phew! 

Minutes later, a tapir crossed the path in front of us on his way to the mango orchards. Smart fellow, as the ground is currently a mango buffet, as if especially prepared for the largest land mammal in South America. In order to get a better view, we decided to continue on foot (this time with proper shoes! Rules 1 and 2, remember?). The poor tapir is virtually blind, doesn't hear all that well, however is blessed with a very good sense of smell. Although tonight, luck is on our side again as we are down wind, so as long as we tread carefully, the tapir won't be spooked. I did see several tapir in the Amazon and Northern Pantanal, but never this close. Apart from not having much clue about what's going on, and the occasional 150kg jaguar lurking, tapir live a pretty peaceful existence in the refuge and can often be seen in the higher ground of the land, where temperatures are slightly cooler.

The third main sighting this evening was another jaguar, a female, who we suspect to be Flora. This is the most exciting part of this sighting: we don't know much about this jaguar. This is because we are located right on the border of an untouched natural reserve. In Brazil, every owner of land over a certain size is required by federal law to make 20% of the land a protected area. Now, the people of the refuge already take great care of the land and invest so much in conservation, but this 20% is off limits. No vehicle, no human, no entrance whatsoever. It is essentially given up to nature and left in its most pristine state - even the biologists of the Jaguar Project can't go in. So we know there are a lot of jaguar there, but because they have never really been approached or habituated, we know very little, and Flora's reaction to our truck approaching is what you would expect from a wild animal: she ran. We spotted her leaving a pond in a hurry where she was hunting for caiman, dashing into the forest and making herself comfortable under the tree line, just out of our sight. It was also pitch black outside, so she must have felt very safe in her hiding place.

I feel very fortunate for this particular sighting, as it demonstrated another type of behaviour, very different to the many other habituated jaguars I saw. It's also comforting in a way to know that for as long as she calls this part of the forest home, she will remain just an elusive jaguar full of secrets, watching us from the tree line.

Tomorrow my exploration of the Amazon and Pantanal comes to an end, as I journey back to Campo Grande (hey I wonder what dirt roads are like!) for my flight back to the UK. Well that's what my boss and my wife think... I believe I might just stay at Baiazinha Lodge for a couple of months.



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