Where Jaguars Roam

We have been bumbling along the dusty, red-earth tracks in Brazil’s Southern Pantanal for the last hour. Since we left the lodge I have been searching the horizon.  Searching every tree branch, blade of grass and river bank, hoping for the slightest glimmer of a jaguar or any other wildlife for that matter. As we trundle along I am beginning to think I am considerably out of luck. Caiman Ecological Refuge boast a 95%  jaguar sighting rate. Our vehicle changes direction and I accept defeat as we head back towards reception.

A Small Victory

As I  ponder what type of cocktail I will have from the lodges sun-downer menu we travel along a raised track which is sandwiched between thick forests and open flood plain. We slow a little as the distant sound of a barking capybara gains clarity. We spot the large male capybara half-baked in a sticky bog. It’s difficult not to laugh at an oversized guinea pig barking, but I celebrate a little wildlife victory. My guide turns to me and explains that the capybara is barking for one of two reasons. He is either gearing up for a seasonal mating ritual OR – most exciting of all – he has spotted a jaguar and is sending his warning signal.

We jump up from our seats and scan the horizon. From the corner of my eye I notice that the capybara is scrambling away from us.  I’m too occupied to take proper notice knowing that a jaguar could be nearby. Sure enough, 50 metres away from where we are standing, a jaguar announces its arrival with the cool slinking of it’s tail above the reeds of grass.

Felino and Nusa

Not just one, but two jaguars emerge from the grass. My guide recognises Felino and Nusa (a male and female) by their familiar markings. The two of them settle down in plain view, oblivious to us staring at them with wide eyes. I watch on astonished, as mother nature begins to take course and Felino looks to expand his family tree.

The two of them lay for a while, playing in the dusky light as we continue to watch in silence. As the darkness of night begins to creep in, I watch them head off across the flood plain in search of their next meal. I only hope that our barking capybara has managed to make a bit of headway as Felino and Nusa march towards the rainforest.

 

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Fernando de Noronha – My New Favourite Place

Fernando de Noronha has become my favourite spot in Brazil after only one day. I have been lucky enough to visit much of Brazil but the laid back island lifestyle, natural beauty above and below the ocean does it for me.

Fernando de Noronha is one of the most beautiful in all of South America, an exclusive island with less than 500 visitors allowed per day. It is located off the north east coast of Brazil, reached by a one hour flight from Recife. It is an archipelago of 21 islands and islets offering fine scuba diving and snorkelling, in fact 70% of this archipelago is a marine national park. It also has superb beaches with no fewer than 16 to choose from.

I decided to hit Conceicao Beach for some late afternoon sunshine. Snorkelling was my aim and it was fantastic. As the only person snorkelling in this beautiful bay, I was privileged to be amongst thousands of colourful fish before a sea turtle swam up to the surface a few metres from me. All the while I had to watch out for missile-shaped masked-boobies diving for sardines. I followed the turtle into the rocky shallows for a few minutes before spotting three more. Quite an amazing experience.

Conceicao Beach is the only one on the island with a bar on the sand, my top tip is to take a beer or caipirinha whilst watching the sunset, the surfers and locals playing volley foot. This bar reputedly has the coldest beer on the island, I’m pretty certain they do.

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Wherefore art thou jaguar – searching for jaguar in the Pantanal

Gliding up and down the Cuiaba river, eyes desperately searching along the banks and into the vegetation beyond, just to catch the glimpse of a tail or a whisker, or better still the sleek silhouette of a Jaguar. No such luck. The clouds came out of nowhere, the wind picked up and suddenly our boat was turning around and heading back towards the pier at Porto Jofre.

My heart sank as I realised that, despite a generous handful of sightings the day before, I was not going to see one of the elegant cats with my own eyes.

My experience of the Northern Pantanal last year was wonderful, and the icing on the cake would have been a Jaguar sighting, but of course it is never guaranteed and with only one day on the water searching for the famed feline, my chances were already reduced. Throw in some unusually bad weather and the likeliness of cat spotting was pretty minuscule.

A fortuitous trip to the Southern Pantanal has provided me with a second chance to explore the area and whilst the distances are large to get to the best lodges, the reward is vast expanses of farm land belonging to each fazenda where wildlife is plentiful and can be explored by horseback, boats and jeeps. By a happy coincidence, the lodge that I am staying at, Barra Mansa, is the same fazenda that Michael Palin chose for his BBC series on Brazil.

This morning we set off on horseback as the sun was rising, passing lakes full of capybara, South America‘s enormous rodent, and riding through clusters of bacuri palms with a scattering of colourful macaws and toucans. I didn’t even dare to hope that we would have a cat sighting but suddenly my guide Joao pointed underneath a tree about 10 metres ahead of us where a magnificent puma was resting. No time to take a photo, I could only enjoy the moment as I looked it in the eye, then, just as quickly as it had appeared, it vanished, leaving only its tracks behind.

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Brazil Holiday: Discovering the Pantanal

If, like me, you love wilderness and open spaces then the loneliness and vastness of the Pantanal will move you deeply. Yet there is far more to the Pantanal than openness – it is the world’s largest tropical wetland area hosting a number of ecosystems and covers up to an estimated 75,000 square miles. Importantly this means that it’s the best place in the Americas for wildlife – its open spaces make wildlife far more visible than in the Amazon rainforest.

Thus it is no surprise that the Pantanal is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, making it a must visit whilst on your Brazil holiday.

Dotted with lakes, lagoons and rivers, rainforest and riverine forest – throughout its expanses the wildlife viewing is incredible. Populated with hundreds of bird species such as kingfishers, parakeets, toucans, the purple/blue Hyacinth Macaw, the lanky Jabiru Stork and the rare Pygmy Kingfisher. Not forgetting the mammals and reptiles that include herds of the guinea pig-like capybara, Giant Otter, tapir, Giant Anteater, monkeys, ocelot, the maned wolf, anaconda and millions of caiman. And of course, the poster boy of the Pantanal, the elusive jaguar.

Simply, the Pantanal is divided between the north and the south. Each area providing you with a very different holiday experience. First, I flew to the more accessible north, with the Transpantaneira only one and a half hours by road from the city of Cuiaba.  I was struck by the flatness of the region – making it prone to flooding – and the more aquatic form of flora and fauna, with many migratory birds. The accommodation was simple yet comfortable and on my daily excursions – whether by day or night, whether riding or walking – I was blown away by the variety.

The highlight of the North for me was the Cuiaba River. I took boat trips up the smaller tributaries and experienced the region’s beauty and variety and got a real sense of it being South America’s Wild West. In the dry season, the only water is in the rivers and thus the animals are drawn to their banks to drink and hunt.  Between August and September, there is a high probability of sighting Jaguar, making it one of the foremost places in the world to see this elusive cat. Unfortunately, I travelled in June and did not see a jaguar but any disappointment was more than made up by seeing Giant Otters.

Next I travelled to the Southern Pantanal via Campo Grande and a long but engrossing three hour drive. This region is best visited by plane creating a fantastic flying safari holiday. I loved the southern Pantanal for its greater variation of topography with small mountain ranges, allowing for greater concentrations of wildlife on the high ground during the flooded season.

I stayed in farms that are huge cattle ranches that are also open up to tourism, therefore you experience the Pantaneiro cowboy culture as well as the amazing wildlife. The remote lodges gave me a more intimate and less touristy experience – I was staying with the owner’s family and experienced and shared in their day to day way of life.

For me, a highlight was Caiman Ecological Refuge. They run the Oncafari jaguar project, where you can observe Jaguar in the wild that have become habituated to vehicles.

I am not a writer and do not feel that I have done the Pantanal justice. Simply put it is the world’s largest wetlands and is a magnet for wildlife lovers and a must see for any wildlife enthusiast. Call me and I will try and enthuse you further.

Get in touch with us for more information on a holiday to Brazil, call us 01285 880980 or email inspire@steppestravel.com.

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Returning to Brazil

Just 1 day to go and I will be returning to Brazil, my favourite of the many wonderful countries in South America. This time to explore the historic gold trail through Minas Gerais, the vast sand dunes of Lencois Maranhenses and, fingers crossed, to try and spot a Jaguar in the Southern Pantanal.

There is always such a warm welcome, and with a good dose of sunshine and a few caipirinhas, who wouldn’t feel relaxed? Whilst Brazil is well known for its laid-back charm, it is also full of colour, music and vitality which, for me, make it quintessential Latin America.

As a country which has been in the media spotlight several times since my visit a year ago, I’m eager to return and see whether Rio’s vibrant atmosphere is notably different. The protests this Summer were reported to be the largest for over two decades, with close to two million people protesting in various cities and towns across the country. The vast crowds were voicing their concerns and frustration at both the increasing cost and poor conditions of public services and the exorbitant sums of money being spent on the World Cup.

Earlier this week there were further demonstrations in downtown Rio, the catalyst being a strike by many teachers for better conditions and pay. Of course, being Brazil, a certain number of protesters were wearing Carnival wigs and dancing as they demonstrated.

It certainly seems that Brazilians feel the country is on the verge of change and want to make sure that development focuses on the essential such as education, health and transport, rather than just the football stadiums.

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Brazil Whale Watching

Having recently returned from my holiday to Brazil, I wanted to share the new places I discovered and the amazing whale sightings.

Having flown into Sao Paulo, we were transferred the 2 and a half hours to Fazenda Catucaba. This is an old building dating from the 1850’s that was formerly a coffee farm and has been converted into a comfortable boutique property. There are 5 villas spread out around the Fazenda, the property includes an organic farm, swimming pool, fantastic horse riding, rivers, lakes and rolling hills covered with Atlantic Rainforest. Fazenda Catucaba offers relaxation, outdoor adventure and great service, located close to the coast and a few hours from both Rio and Sao Paulo.

We then flew south to Florianopolis and drove just over an hour to Praia do Rosa (pink beach). This area offers stunning beaches, great surfing and during the season whale watching. The southern right whales travel along the coast, often with their calves, between July and November where you are almost guaranteed to see these huge cetaceans that reach up to 17 meters in length.

Finally I flew up to Rio de Janeiro, passing Maracana football stadium where they will be holding the 2014 world football cup and seeing where they will be building the 2016 Olympic Stadium. We headed to the Private Reserve of Ibitipoca, where they have an ambitious programme of reforestation of native flora and planting a wildlife corridor.

The centre piece is the Fazenda do Engenho, dating from 1715, the traditional farmhouse has been rebuilt creating 8 sumptuous guest rooms. Fazenda do Engenho offers a choice of relaxing or adventurous activities including; horse riding on Anglo-Arabian horses, 4×4 trips, explore on foot the natural waterfalls and mountains or relax and enjoy the spa, sauna and hydro-massage pool.

I visited such a tiny part of Brazil, the fifth largest country in the world, that offers so many sights and sounds – I must return soon as I only scrapped the service of this amazing country.

For more information about planning your own holiday to Brazil, contact the Latin America team, who specialise in tailor made holidays to Brazil, on 01285 885 333.

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Jaguars in the Pantanal

Our recent group trip to the Pantanal has just returned having seen 3 jaguars.

Our local guide Munir called us with the news and was very excited by such a prolific tally! “We have seen jaguars, one, two and three! This is not a lie!!”

Tourism in the Pantanal is still in its infancy and consequently accommodation has a long way to go before it matches the kind of camps one can enjoy in Africa. For lovers of big cats however, seeing jaguars from a river boat in the Pantanal is a real privilege and one that is only made possible through local entrepreneurs realising the value of their land through responsible tourism.

To see amazing images of mating jaguar taken by a lucky photographer on his trip to the Pantanal take a look at Wildlife Extra’s latest posting.