Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Brazil's wild wetland

You won’t find many tourists in the Pantanal. What you will find are more than 35 million inquisitive alligators

I have been to the Amazon a dozen times. Its dimensions are certainly awe-inspiring, yet its wildlife often fails to live up to expectations. The animals are frustratingly unsociable, disappearing into the rainforest at the slightest rustle of binoculars.

But Brazil’s Pantanal – the world’s largest wetland, covering an area almost the size of the British Isles – is a carnival of flamboyant fauna. On my first day there, I saw more animals than in all my Amazon trips put together. Egrets, storks and herons assembled on the riverbanks, howler monkeys and iguanas crouched in the trees, and toucans and parakeets flew across my path.

For the past ten years, the Pantanal’s reputation as a wildlife paradise has attracted increasing numbers of visitors. Unknown even by most Brazilians, the region’s fame grew when it featured in John Grisham’s bestseller The Testament, and it was declared a World Biosphere Reserve by Unesco in 2000.

Yet tourists go almost exclusively to the southern part, which is nearer to Brazil’s built-up coastal region. I visited the Pantanal from the northern side, which is largely undisturbed by human activity. Arriving at the eco-lodge Pousada Rio Mutum by boat, I passed through a submerged landscape of flooded rivers and lakes.

The Pantanal remains one of the world’s most vibrant wildlife areas. Human beings here are vastly outnumbered by animals. The region has between 10 and 35 million caiman, the South American alligator. I was the only guest staying at the Pousada Rio Mutum, although I didn’t feel alone: several pairs of reptilian eyes observed me as I stepped off the boat on to the wooden jetty.

At the lodge, you do not need to be adventurous to see colourful species. From my breakfast table, and before I had finished my coffee, I counted caracaras, cardinals, flickers, kiskadees and a purplish jay in a neighbouring tree. Lala, a domesticated macaw, kept me company by squawking in Portuguese. (She has a vocabulary of about 700 words.) If birdwatching was this easy, we would all be doing it.

I had flown to Cuiab�, a city that has become rich through Brazil’s soya boom. Alice Galvão, who owns the Pousada Rio Mutum, is a former bank manager who retired when she saw the chance to develop environmentally conscious tourism in the Pantanal. “It’s all new here. The first lodge isn’t even 20 years old,” she says. “Tourism hasn’t been prioritised because the state is preoccupied with soya. And it’s difficult to get here – in the wet season, the roads are all flooded.”

Galvão bought the land, a disused ranch holding, and has built 22 small cabins and a large circular central hut.

The lodge blends in with the scenery – in fact, it is the scenery. The lawn was overrun with dozens of wild capybara, the world’s largest rodent, a dog-sized guinea-pig with a rectangular head. Their incessant grass-munching makes a remarkable sound like the pattering of rain.

More than half the 652 bird species in the Pantanal have been spotted from the Pousada Rio Mutum. At the entrance, high in a tree, is the bird that is the symbol of the region. The jabiru stork has a wingspan up to 6ft (1.8m). The Pantanal has more large birds than any other region in the world.

Which animals you see depends on the time of year you visit, and on a fair amount of luck. In the wet season, from November to March, the water level is high and it is particularly good for birds. In the dry season, river levels are lower and animals congregate in huge numbers by the shrunken water sources. I did not see any big cats, but visitors at Rio Mutum have seen jaguars, panthers and pumas, as well as anacondas and rare creatures, such as giant anteater and marsh deer.

When the water level is low, the lodge organises walking treks through the vegetation. During the wet season you use the local transport instead – the Pantanal horse. Descended from the Andalucian horse introduced by Portuguese explorers, the Pantanal horse has adapted superbly to its new environment. It has uncharacteristically strong feet to wade through muddy water and can eat submerged grass.

I took a ride. The water reached the stirrups as the horse negotiated the flooded path. A few metres away, a caiman ogled as we passed. “The caiman aren’t aggressive and wouldn’t go for the horse,” my guide said. “The only problem comes if the horse stands on one by accident.”

As we trundled through reeds and bushes I saw howler monkeys and, in the clear water, shoals of small fish. In this fecund landscape, even the trees seemed to come alive – especially the “strangle-tree”, whose trunk and branches entwine dramatically around other species.

Late one evening we took the dinghy to a road, where a four-wheel drive was parked. For a couple of hours we drove down a track with torches trying to look for big cats – we were unlucky, and saw only a few foxes, but the landscape at night had a magical charm.

Need to know

Alex Bellos travelled with Journey Latin America (020-8747 8315, www.journey latinamerica. co.uk), which includes three nights at Pousada Rio Mutum (www.pousadamutum.com.br) as part of a 13-night holiday in Brazil. The cost, from £1,953pp, includes domestic flights, accommodation with some meals, and excursions, but not international flights, which can be arranged from £728. Reading: Insight Guide Brazil (£16.99).

Toucans, boobies, howler monkeys and more
Caroline Hendrie

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