Ever since I was given a book, aged 6, about South American wildlife I have dreamed of one day seeing Maned Wolf, Anacondas, Toucans, Giant Anteaters, Ocelot and of course the legendary Jaguar. I am lucky enough to have several friends and former clients who have travelled extensively in Brazil over the last 4 years and with their help and other contacts within Brazil I put together a 34 day recce trip of the country; what follows is a summary of that epic journey - hold onto your hats!!!
First stop was Canastra National Park located in Minas Gerais state and known as one of the best places in Brazil to see Maned Wolves and Giant Anteaters, along with a huge variety of birds. The park is divided into 2 main areas; the lower and upper Canastra. For our first drive we headed to the lower, which is good for birds, monkeys and marmosets. We were rewarded with some excellent views of Toco and Red Breasted Toucans, as well as the much sought after and critically endangered Brazilian Merganser.
Later that afternoon we drove up the upper Canastra, a huge grassy plateau, where the Sao Francisco River originates and then drops over 200M to form the famous Canastra falls. An expert guide is essential in this sort of habitat and for my trip I was personally escorted by the best I have encountered in 10 years of wildlife travel. My guide soon spotted our first Maned Wolf and set up his Swarovski scope so I could have an even better view. At this time of year, the burnt red coat of the Wolf (actually a member of the Fox family) stood out from its grassy surroundings and we watched for 15 minutes as he elegantly walked along the grasslands. Before we left that day we saw another individual, this one was radio collared as there is an ongoing research project being conducted by Brazilian scientists.
So far the Giant Anteater had eluded us but our luck was about to change as my guide, during our frequent 'scanning' sessions, spotted an individual about 1 km from our raised viewing platform. We went back to the car and drove down the valley before heading out on foot. The anteater does not have great eyesight so, with some care as to where the wind direction is, it is possible to approach quite close and obtain some amazing views and photographs without disturbing the animal.
The following day we returned to the park and were immediately rewarded with our third sighting of a Wolf and this time he was hunting. We watched, fascinated, as he slowly moved towards his prey in the long grass and we were genuinely upset for him as he missed a large unidentified black bird by a couple of feet. He then headed off up the hill towards 5 alert Rheas, but we were sure that these were a little beyond his capabilities!
Our next destination, Caracas, is famous as the location of an isolated Roman Catholic monastery which was built in the late 18th Century as both a religious building and a resting point for the many Portuguese arriving in Brazil keen to exploit the countries resources. About 20 years ago one of the Priests had several close encounters with Maned Wolves and started to feed them. As a company we have always had a very 'ethical' attitude towards wildlife viewing (like many of our clients) but I was encouraged at least to view the experience for myself; which I decided to do.
At around 07:00 one of the Priests brought out a tray of chicken and the 7 guests present waited patiently. Sometimes they call to the Wolf and rattle the tray to encourage the individual to come. I found the whole experience very surreal; while the Priest was taking evening mass for just 2 people, the 7 of us waited a few feet from the entrance to the Church while a silent 'ghost like' Maned Wolf glided up the steps in front of us. Your first view is a pair of huge ears, shortly followed by a large fox like face and then the rest of its tall elegant body.
There is no doubt that a larger group of people could spoil the experience and perhaps give it a more of a circus experience than a wildlife one. However we were a respectful audience and even I confess to enjoying the close up views of this beautiful animal, which are rarely possible at Canastra. He was much less concerned about us than another Wolf arriving and he constantly walked towards the steps (away from us) and scanned with his ears to detect any 'intruders'. My guide had witnessed two Wolves arriving at the same time and he told me that the noises that came from the fighting Wolves were blood curdling.
Even if this type of experience is not for you, there are many other reasons to visit Caracas and stay in the unique accommodation on offer. They have done a fantastic job of preserving the forest around the monastery and you really have a feeling on being isolated in a wilderness area. They have some fantastic easy grade walking trails, which give you a chance to see Capuchin Monkeys and Marmosets, as well as a great variety of birds. The Monastery is located at around 1400M, so the climate is perfect and with a specialist walking guide you can head off to climb the spectacular mountains which rise up to 2100M and fill the morning view from your bedroom window.
After Caracas we drove back through Belo Horizonte (the capital of Minas Gerais) and drove on to the famous Caratinga sanctuary, where for the last 20 years researchers have been conducting the famous study of the Muriqui Monkey (a type of Woolly Spider Monkey). There is a very high density of monkeys here, with one group having nearly 100 individuals. The researchers are very focused on doing their own thing, but our guides know many of them well and can learn important information about the recent movements of the group.
The forest in Caratinga is considerably taller than in Caracas and when you walk into the interior; you cannot fail to be impressed by the size of some of the tree specimens. My guide was constantly alert as this forest is home to 4 primate species, one of them being the Muriqui and the other 3 are the Marmoset, Capuchin and Howler Monkeys. We managed to see both the Capuchin and Howler Monkeys in the morning and after lunch had a brief but exciting encounter with a group of Marmosets; very Gremlin like if you remember the film? We were starting to worry about missing the Muriqui but were delighted when a group of around 8-10 individuals showed up right by the research and educational centre and gave us some close up views.
Our next destination was the world famous Pantanal and initially we were going to explore the north of this huge wetland area. I was lucky enough to have my own driver and a guide who had been visiting the area for 11 years. It is this type of quality backup and the local contacts they have formed over the years that make a clients visit here extra special.
As soon as the road changed from paved to gravel/ sand we started to encounter a huge variety of birds, especially wetland species, as well as hundreds of Caymans, several Capybara and the odd Marsh Deer. It was pretty spectacular for a road journey and I was a little disappointed when we finally turned off the main track and drove to our accommodation for the night; that disappointment was not to last long however.
After dinner we headed off on our first spotlighting session of the trip; an activity that was to be a regular part of the overall wildlife experience in the North Pantanal. We had enjoyed good sightings of a Crab Eating Fox and a brief one of the similarly named Racoon, when the excitement level reached new heights. In our lights we spotted the eyes of a small cat and immediately cut the engine and waited to see how curious it was. My guide started to imitate one of its prey species and every few minutes we switched the spotlight on again. By this method we were able to get a beautiful Ocelot within 15 feet of the vehicle and I captured a lovely short video to show my two girls at home.
Feeling elated, we started the journey back to the hotel only to have even more luck as we came across the smaller relative of the Giant anteater; the Southern Tamandua, which although brief was memorable for the incredible sounds coming from the road side as it noisily went about its business of breaking into termite mounds and ant nests and eating up the contents. I stumbled into my room feeling euphoric and wondering what other experiences lay ahead in the magical Pantanal.
There is no doubt that for me one of the highlights of this trip was a chance to see the Giant River Otters, an animal that has enthralled me when watching wildlife documentaries about South America, and one that you have an excellent chance to see in the Pantanal. We boarded our small private motor boat early the following morning and were amazed at the sheer number of startled birds flying across our bow and after making several stops for photos we eventually cut the engine near a large area of water hyacinth (favourite eating area for Otters) and waited. After about 10 minutes we heard the faint sound of Otters calling to each other and I was transfixed by my first Giant River Otter 'periscoping' with its distinctive individual throat markings clearly visible, as it checked us out. There was actually a pair and I frantically tried to capture a couple of photos (not easy!!) as they constantly ducked and dived around us, before moving on a considerable distance with effortless ease - magnificent and another wish fulfilled.
The next day we drove further south down the road to where it ended and checked into a lovely hotel located on the banks of a broad river. This is one of the best locations in Brazil (and possibly the World) to see Jaguars and as usual with our wildlife tours I had given myself a good chance of a sighting by booking a 4 night stay. This was certainly not the 'norm' as I was shocked to find out that most of the tour groups and many individuals only had one boat safari booked as part of their 'Jaguar' tour. Although there are considerable costs involved in taking such a boat safari, you can imagine that I was not too surprised that many people left disappointed.
The following morning we left in our private boat at 06:30 for our first 5 hours on a boat that is normally reserved for a total of 8 hours per day. We had some very good views of River Otters and Green Iguana in the first couple of hours and came across the relatively fresh tracks of a large male Jaguar on a sand bar that we moored up against. However we were pretty much resigned to heading back to the hotel without a sighting when my guide spotted not one, but two Jaguars resting on an 8 foot bank on the left hand side of the river. We headed back upstream elated, cut the engine and slowly drifted down in front of both Jaguars. There was plenty of vegetation and it was not easy to get clear pictures, but the Jaguars were completely relaxed (the male was actually asleep for most of the time!) and we did 3 runs before alerting another boat to the position of the Jaguars. There were very few boats on the large river (I think 3 that day!) so we were happy to do this, especially for some clients and a Brazilian guide that we knew.
We decided to do one more drift after the other client's boat and it was then that I enjoyed an even bigger stroke of luck. After sitting around 10 metres apart for the entire encounter the female suddenly got up and walked over to the male and nuzzled him. Everything that I witnessed from then on (and heard, as they disappeared in the forest for some deserved privacy!) indicated mating of these two magnificent animals and I was lucky enough to capture some of this interaction on the memory card of my camera. When you are drifting there are only have a few seconds when you are in the right position to take clear photos, but lady luck was certainly smiling on us that morning!
I couldn't believe that such an encounter could have happened on our first boat safari and I also reminded myself that just to see one Jaguar in 3 to 4 days is a good achievement; little did I know that by the end of the day having compared pictures we had seen 4 separate individuals!
We headed out again at 15:30 for our final 2-3 hours and it was soon clear from another boat in the area that one Jaguar (a male) had been seen by the shore and he had then walked back into the riverine forest. The other boat was very intent on waiting but we fancied our chances further up the river and it is sometimes good for two boats to cover different areas; unfortunately this time we made the wrong decision! It was soon apparent by the increased activity levels on the other boat that the male had returned but this time he entered the water (oh what a shot that would have been!) and actually paused for a while standing in the relatively shallow water at the side.
It was exactly at this time that we noticed another Jaguar (a female) standing in the long grass right in front of us. It was a much better plan to enjoy this animal in good light, rather than rush over to see the male Jaguar swim with considerable ease over to the other bank. This is an activity a Jaguar will often do several times a day and helps to explain the relative 'regularity' of sightings at the river banks.
The following day we again got lucky, this time first thing in the morning with a sighting of a Tapir (my first of the trip) swimming across the river. We kept a reasonable distance from the animal and really enjoyed its comical features and rather ungainly exit from the river. There certainly was plenty of meat there to keep a Jaguar or a man (some people still hunt them even though they are protected) going for several days. No further luck with the Jaguar, but yet another encounter with a small group of Giant River Otters and for me they are always a wonderful distraction.
The afternoon also drew a blank for the big cat and our night drive was also fairly unproductive. However it was hard to feel hard done by after our purple patch and we decided to not take any more boat safaris and focus on some good birding walks and more night safaris in different areas. There is another location about 40km from where we were staying that is famous for Jaguar sightings, near both the road and one of the many low wooden bridges that you find in this part of the world. In fact, in the 3 days that we had been staying in our hotel, a male Jaguar had been seen with a Capybara in its mouth in this area and a Puma had also been observed.
We headed there in the afternoon with the plan to spotlight all the way back to our hotel. First we headed out to the farm of a friend of my guides, where we saw about 30 beautiful Hyacinth Macaws, about half of which settled on the same tree. These are incredible birds which are over a foot tall and are always curious to see what is going on around them. Later in the afternoon we headed off back to the hotel and were delighted to spot the Great Horned Owl perched on the side of the road, but even better sightings were to follow!
Firstly, we stopped for a small snake about 18 inches long which although we were not certain about its identity, we guessed that it was probably a very young Anaconda. About 10 minutes later, there could be no doubt, as a bright yellow 8 foot specimen slowly crossed our path. What a beautiful sight and I took a couple of pictures of the incredible markings. We were only 6km from our hotel when my guide spotted a pair of eyes in the car headlights (I was holding the spotlight at the time!) and we stopped the vehicle to see if the animal would come further out from the grassy verge. My guide would not commit at this stage to the type of animal, but did indicate that it was large due to the height of the eyes. We waited patiently before driving on and when we did not see anything, we made the decision to turn around and carefully spotlight around the area. 100M down the road I swung the light round to my right and a large pair of red eyes followed by the magnificent, partly submerged, body of a male Jaguar came into view only 15 feet away, as it swam down a channel and then slowly climbed out onto a grassy bank. Incredible - 5 separate Jaguar sightings in 4 days and this was all the more enjoyable for the hard work (well, sort of!) and patience we had shown - another drink please.
After my stay in the Pantanal I took a flight north to the town of Alta Floresta and was then transferred to an amazing private lodge located in the pristine lower Amazonian forest. The final part of the transfer was by boat and this was a wonderful way to arrive and appreciate the magnificent surroundings of the lodge. The lodge has both Portuguese and English speaking guides and although a famous location for birds it is also fantastic for primates and for the chance to walk inside the protected forest on several marked trails. There is also a spectacular metal 50M watch tower, from which you can enjoy stunning sunsets and the wonderful antics of the acrobatic Spider Monkeys as they 'fly' through the trees.
The lodge is owned by a Brazilian lady who has dedicated her life to conserving the forest on her private land, which is some of the most diverse habitat found in the lower Amazon. This is very much a battle ground between conservationists and landowners hungry for land to plant Soya and other crops on an industrial scale. If landowners sensitive to the needs of wildlife are to win then they need the support of both politicians and tourists, who come to the lodge and marvel at the diversity of fauna and flora to be found.
The accommodation is simple but very comfortable and there is a relaxed ambience to both the activities and the meals taken in the central lodge. There are many walks that can be done from the lodge, although for safety reasons it is necessary to always take a guide. I spent most sunsets at the magnificent tower, enjoying the antics of the Spider Monkeys and catching glimpses of the rarer Saki Monkeys.
During my stay we also headed far up river for a full day trip to see the spectacular Hoatzin bird, famous for its prehistoric features and the chicks' ability to escape predators by jumping out of the nest into the river and then climbing back up the tree with specially adapted claws. The birds tend to favour trees located on small lagoons away from the main river and we were lucky enough to see them (if a little obscured by vegetation) at all 3 of the locations we visited.
I dragged myself away from the tranquillity of the lodge and headed south to Campo Grande, which is one of the gateways to the South Pantanal. I was met by the owner of a riverside lodge and farm, who had just started his conversion from a working farm to a wilderness lodge. However our first stop en route to his properties was near Miranda where we stayed in stilted wooden cabins and took boat safaris out on the river. This was a location where one of my clients had seen 3 Jaguars in 2006, but he travelled in the dry month of September when sightings increase considerably. Due to a delayed flight and my tight schedule for the reccie, I only had one full day out on the boat. Although we did not see Jaguar we had a wonderful encounter with a group of 4 Giant River Otters and also saw a mating pair of Green Iguanas. There is also a smaller river off the main one which is great for birds and with a sensitive boatman and guide I was a very happy man on my return to the lodge for dinner.
We then headed north to Corumba where we boarded a speed boat that would take us nearly 200km up the Paraquay River. This was an exhilarating experience as just the three of us set off on one of the great rivers in Brazil; it felt like a true wilderness adventure and this feeling was enhanced when we reached Armando's small property, with the charming guestroom being modelled on a traditional Indian round house. Surrounded by large screened windows giving panoramic views of the river and the beautiful Abalar Mountains; truly spectacular.
In the afternoon we headed out to the farm which Armando is still working, but is of particular interest to birders, as there is the meeting of the higher forested ground with the flooded river basin, producing a high number of different bird species. There are also Hyacinth Macaws nesting here which were very curious to see the human arrivals. En route we had also had distant views of a Giant Anteater, close ups of Marsh Deer and an Agouti feeding on the grass in front of the farm.
However it was the return journey to the riverside lodge that was to bring about one of the highlights of the trip so far. We had taken a smaller boat to navigate the many narrow clear water channels packed with water hyacinth and on our return as dusk approached, we heard the full frog chorus which was incredible, but not as amazing as the 50 to 100 fish-eating bats that flew alongside the boat, often within inches of our faces; incredible and with the sun rapidly descending over the Abalar Mountains, it was hard to think of a more beautiful part of the world than this.
The following day we headed about an hour upstream to the entrance of the Pantanal protected area. I didn't think the scenery could get any more spectacular, but it did, as the mountains became even more impressive and the complex of tributaries and huge lagoons increased in number. We did not see a huge amount of wildlife on this tour, but I clearly saw an opportunity of connecting the South and North Pantanal by a spectacular boat journey, rather than taking the much less exciting route by plane or car.
I was eager to explore this area in more detail and show my fishing 'prowess' to my wonderful hosts, but it was time to visit the Amazonias proper and a flight north to Manaus was my next adventure. After a short sleep at a colonial style hotel located near the river I caught another flight west and then a boat transfer to a lodge on stilts surrounded by water about an hour away by boat. Spending time on the water had been a big part of my trip and one that had been incredibly enjoyable and resulted in incredible wildlife encounters and the chance to see some beautiful habitats. It has convinced me to invest in a boat on my return to the UK, so with my daughters help I will launch a 6 foot inflatable on the River Calder some time in August and who knows what we will see!
Anyway back to the plot! The lodge is famous for its successful partnership with the local community and this as many people will know is of particular interest to me. I was incredibly impressed with what they have achieved, not only with generating employment for the community, but also food and a 50% share in the revenue. Believe me; such projects are very rare worldwide, which is a sad reflection on the tourism industry.
I went out that evening for a short canoe trip - just two of us with our own personal guide and paddler - no polluting engine in sight; bliss!!! It was my first experience of canoeing in the 'flooded forest' and it was incredibly atmospheric and pretty productive from a wildlife point of view. The other canoe saw Sloth (I couldn't pick it out which was very frustrating!) and we all saw Capuchin and Howler monkeys, as well as Toucans, Parrots and Tiger Herons.
The lodge is amazing and importantly I think has got the right balance between comfort and accommodation that is appropriate for a remote Jungle Lodge. The rooms are spacious with two beds covered by good quality mosquito nets, though the well screened rooms allow very few in. Each room is allowed 200L of water a day (more than enough) and low energy light bulbs or candles provide the lighting. Each cottage has a small balcony with a view of the river and a hammock to relax in; and you will relax.
The following day we went out on a larger motorised canoe (maximum 8 people) to explore one of the main channels and were rewarded with our first sightings of the famous Pink Dolphins. They have a resemblance to the Gangetic Dolphins in India that some of our clients will be familiar with and they are equally frustrating to photograph! They enjoy playing around the boats and it was wonderful to see and hear their noisy blows as they surfaced and quickly dived again. They are a highly effective predator and can eat up to 80kg of fish a day; but in the undisturbed Amazon basin there is plenty for everyone.
Later that day we changed our program (there is flexibility to do that) and were out with our favourite guide on the canoe again. We were keen to give ourselves a chance of the rare, endangered, Uukari (bare faced monkey). This is a pretty shy primate and the more quietly you can approach them the better, so just 3 people in a paddled canoe is ideal. Firstly, we were lucky enough to have wonderful sightings of our third primate, the aptly named Squirrel Monkey. A group of about 8 tore through the trees but not before their own curiosity allowed me to get a few shots off.
Nelson then heard the calls of the Uukari and we left the main channel and headed off into the flooded forest. Nelson saw them first and I got the camera ready, as I imagined that any opportunity to photograph would be short. I passed the tree that obstructed my view and a pink faced monkey with a 'white fleece' jacket stared down at me from above. Two clicks later and he was gone and the rest of the troupe soon moved out of range, although we could still make out their movements in the canopy above. The boat ride continued to amaze with a total of 5 sloth sightings including a mother and baby and the Pink Dolphins following us all the way back to the lodge; this place is very special and I could have easily stayed a week.
As it was I had to return to Manus and boarded my return flight to the capital of the Amazon the following day. Not many people have good things to say about crowded Manaus, but a visit to the incredibly well preserved Opera House is a must and when the refurbishment of the Central Market (built in a Hanover style) is completed that will also be well worth a visit. Aside from that, visiting the former homes of the Rubber Barons and trips to the meeting of the Rio Negara and Rio Solimoes Rivers are popular activities.
My next destination was the famous Iguazu Falls located in the south of Brazil near the border that it shares with both Argentina and Paraguay. Coming from the Amazon the temperature change was quite a shock to the system and when I arrived at my hotel located next to the top the falls late that evening, I was glad of the roaring fire in the beautiful colonial style drawing room.
The following morning was cold but with beautiful blue skies and I got up early to go on a birding tour of Iguazu National Park. There is some excellent birding in this park on both the Brazilian and Argentinean side and we have linked up with an expert birder who can design a tour around your particular needs. If you are not birding then the big advantage of staying in a hotel close to the falls is the chance of an early start to beat the crowds and enjoy the majesty of the falls. They truly are spectacular and we were very fortunate both with the weather and the fact that recent heavy rains in what should have been the dry season, had increased the volume of water significantly.
There is no doubt that a visit to the 'Devils Throat' on the Argentinean side is a highlight for most visitors, but I also enjoyed visiting the 'Upper Trail' early in the morning after crossing the border. We were the only people walking the trail and my birding guide told us to proceed very quietly as thousands of 'white eyed parakeets' would still be roosting in trees above the falls. Normally as you approach they take off in huge flocks, with plenty of noise and commotion before returning to settle down again. However for us they just stayed in the trees and gave us some fantastic photos as their plumage shined in the early morning sun.
After my short but memorable stay in Iguazu it was time to fly back to Sao Paulo to connect with my international flight home. It's hard to put into words (although all of the above is my attempt!) the wildlife experience that is Brazil. Without a doubt it has one of the richest habitats in the world and without a huge amount of effort I was able to see 28 different mammal species (not including small rodents or bats), as well as a huge variety of stunning birds from the man sized Rheas to the finger sized humming birds. The people were warm and friendly and the food if a little repetitive was of a high standard with no hygiene issues. Above all, it was the quality of the guides that will be my abiding memory, as they shared with me the beauty of their country and all of its incredible wildlife.
We are now offering bespoke tours to Brazil and as a starting point I have included three suggested itineraries for you to take a look at. As usual these are just a taste of the countless variations we can offer, but we hope they inspire you to consider a 'Jaguar Trail' with us in the near future.
Allan and all of us at Wildlife Trails