Angela Fairbank Photography

Cuiabá and The Pantanal, Mato Grosso, Brazil

Getting out of Bogota international airport is a nightmare. You go to the usual line up to check in to your flight, but if you've been in Colombia for less than 30 days, you are told you can leave your suitcases with them but you have to go clear across the airport to get your passport stamped so that you can be exempt from paying part (half?) of the airport tax, which you can pay in USD or local currency (which comes to thousands of pesos). So you get that done and you extract the exact money from your money belt and line up at your airline desk again. You are then told that, in addition to the airport tax they mentioned before, you also have to pay a second tax. So you pull more money out of your money belt rather grudgingly. You will get two receipts, one for the first tax, and one for the second. Why can't they just tell you the full amount you will have to pay when you reach the desk in the first place? I was in a foul mood by then so by the time I got to the desk where I got my ticket and handed over my bags, I think I put fear in the airline staff and was not in fact asked to pay the luggage overweight penalty. In the coffee shop, as I was having a cappuccino after customs and security and before walking to my gate, I overheard an American comment on all this constant harassment for money and checking of bags to his Colombian girlfriend and she told him, yes this is the land of “Qué más?”, literally “What more?” or “What next?” implying that the corruption of this country is even worse than the others I had been through - perhaps you've already read about my experiences in Mexico City.

In any case, my next flight was to Buenos Aires, Argentina, and this being about my fourth visit there, I was well familiar with less expensive transportation options to my hotel. For a great deal of the flight, we were flying over the Amazon River with its wide, chocolate brown meanderings, surrounded by dense, dark green forests. I could not understand the concerns for disappearing trees in this region, they all looked present and correct to me and working in the wood business this is a question I am often asked (about the growing scarcity of Brazilian species). Unfortunately, as there was a slight haze (or perhaps the airline window was too dirty) none of the photos I took, look the same way as I saw it.

I had business contacts to visit within two full days in Buenos Aires, but as I have photographed here plenty before and have a web page dedicated to this area of the world already (Argentina), there was no need for me to plan another tour. As it was, I did not even have to chance for a walk round the streets of my hotel. My flight the next day was at 5:45a.m. so that meant I had to get up at 2:00a.m. to take a taxi to the airport as the airport bus does not travel there at that hour.

Tired and bleary eyed, I flew to São Paulo and waited for my connecting flight to Cuiabá in Mato Grosso, one of the main timber areas of Brazil. There is no properly protected area in this airport, in the most populated city in South America, to take a safe rest (I had been hit on for money in this airport during a previous visit), so I ended up walking around to keep awake and moving, trying to find a money changer at a decent rate (impossible - money changers, yes, but decent rates, no) and putting up with the inevitable pungent odour of pão de queijo. This curiously enough reminded me of the, contrarily, deliciously sweet pan de queso (cheese buns) that I'd had in Merida and loved - the ones in Brazil are savoury and the sweat-like smell permeates the entire airport!

Having finally left São Paulo (photo 1), although I was dozing in and out of consciousness on the plane, I woke up sufficiently to witness our landing in Campo Grande among lush green fields full of crops and livestock (photos 2 and 3), and then took off again to land finally in Cuiabá, gateway to The Pantanal, around 5:00p.m. However, there was a time change somewhere between São Paulo and Cuiabá, which meant that we were now in the same time zone as Santiago de Chile though we were still in Brazil.

My business contact came to my hotel in the evening for a meeting and kept me up until midnight (after I had been up since 2:00a.m. that day!) Incidentally, it was Hallowe'en night and as Brazil is famous for its flamboyant Carnaval, I was expecting to see elaborate costumes, dancing, and hear a cacophony of noise, but there was nothing. A young Australian tourist I compared notes with a couple of days later as I was leaving Chile for Dallas and he was leaving Chile for Sydney, told me that he had been in Quito, Ecuador on 31 October, and the entire city had put on a splendid party. Absolutely all ages were in costume and dancing and drinking went on into the wee hours. He also told me that their Presidente was visiting Russia at the time and had banned such celebrations in previous years so I guess it was a question of “While the cat's away...”

The next two days (Sunday and Monday) were family holidays in Brazil to celebrate All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day and as it was my first time in The Pantanal, I again asked at the reception desk after breakfast what tours they could organise for me. Once again I was told it was the off season and it was better to be more than one person, but there was nothing I could do about that, so I had two different receptionists working on the case for me. Once again I lucked out, for instead of getting the recommended tour agency linked to the hotel I was found a perfectly respectable and educated tour guide who actually spoke English! I was sufficiently impressed as I listened to the various phone calls that were made by the receptionist on Sunday morning as one person referred another and that one another until they found someone who was free and willing to take me on a tour around his city (mirroring my experience in Guayaquil). My Portuguese is not my strongest language, but I can get by (I had gotten by talking a mixture of Spanish and Portuguese with my business contact for several hours the evening before) and I had offered the information to the receptionists that I also spoke French and Spanish fluently if they couldn't find an English speaker - they seemed to think finding a tour guide with English was necessary, though I never requested it specifically.

I then spoke to Elionil, the guide whom they had found to take me on a tour of the city, on the phone myself to see how his English was, to negotiate a price and to arrange a time to meet. When we finally met around 1:00p.m., I was delighted by his smiling face and friendly personality and (almost immediately) booked him to guide me into The Pantanal the next day. The receptionist had actually put me in contact with another guide, so that I could save a little money and travel with two other people, but that guide spoke only Portuguese, and, as it happened, he had to cancel the tour, because the other two people never showed up! Could the gods be smiling on me again?

Sunday was a hot day and the sun was bright, so we first started out to visit the Cuiabá River, the old, broken bridge and the fishermen of stingrays (photo 5). However, as it was a Sunday, and a holiday weekend, unfortunately, the museums and public buildings were closed so we headed to the University to photograph the animals in the (free!) zoo, animals that hopefully I would see in the Pantanal the next day, although at this time of day most of them were sleeping. Again it was a shame that so many of the birds were caged, but we did manage to see Jabiru storks, (the official bird of Brazil), capybaras (a rather prolific, large rodent), tapirs (photo 6), an anteater (photo 7), caimans, an ocelot (photo 8), coatis (photos 9 and 10), various hawks and owls (photos 12 to 14), a harpy eagle (photo 15), a sedentary river otter (photos 16), rheas (photo 17), and Elionil also introduced me to some of the fruits of the region including mango and cashew fruit (the nut which we prize in our culture he just broke off from the top of the fruit and threw away). The last two photos in the zoo series are of two darling little girls, visiting the zoo with their mother and enjoying an ice cream on such a hot day. I could not resist asking if I could photograph them (photos 18 to 20).

We then made a stop at the River Museum, but the aquarium was closed for repair or renovation and everything else for the tourists was closed, so Elionil suggested two options that were left to us: 1) visit the Metropolitan Cathedral or 2) stop for a beer or two with a promise that he would take me to visit the Handicraft Museum/Shop (Casa de Artesão) on Wednesday. I figured I had seen enough cathedrals this trip already and due to the hot temperature and the kind offer to relax and to get to know my friendly guide a bit better, I opted for the beer, or two!

On holiday Monday, we started off fairly early on an overclouded day, south-westward toward the Mato Grosso Pantanal National Park. The largest floodable wetland in the world, it offers a wide variety of flora and fauna. I learned that as it was the off-season, I would expect to see fewer birds and animals than I would in the high season of May to September, but I was here, I had my camera, it was a holiday and therefore impossible to make any factory visits; I was prepared to see what I could and the good thing was that it was not yet the rainy season so I could expect to remain sufficiently dry. We were on paved road for a couple of hours, made a stop in the town just before the edge of the park to pick up some water as it had by now become another hot day, and then changed to unpaved road once we entered the park gate. Immediately, off to the side, we spied a rather strange large lizard-like animal walking slowly and flicking out its long, bright red tongue to catch insects (photo 21). There were also masses of birds some of which I managed to catch on (digital) film. At about 11:30a.m., we arrived at the Pousada Rio Clarinho where we would have our lunch of vegetables, beans, rice and beef and pork. While waiting for our meal, there were hammocks to lie and relax in and natural bird sounds to listen to. After lunch, Elionil showed me a massive book containing pictures of hundreds of birds (some endemic) that could be found in the Pantanal. I tried learning some of the more amusing Portuguese names of these birds, but now, of course, almost four weeks later they have flown from my memory.

We had another rest in the relaxing hammocks to digest our meal and then Elionil called me over to the river to watch a deer (photo 26) that was walking along the bank. With domestic cows and horses lumbering near by, it was physically very close to them yet showed no fear. Meanwhile, Elionil had fetched a plastic bag of raw beef chunks, a large oar and two simple bamboo fishing rods, I changed into long pants and heavier boat shoes and we drove a short way along an unpaved road toward a clearing where there was a local family having a picnic lunch and fishing from the shore (photos 27, 28). Elionil pushed one of the two boats that were lying there out into the water, suggested I hop in and then, standing at the bow, proceeded to pole the boat along the brown-coloured river. There was not a terrific amount of bird activity since it was the low season, but we did see kingfishers, hawks and eagles, ibises, herons and various other aquatic life that I was unable to identify (photos 29 to 31, 33, 34 and 39). Elionil was good at imitating the bird calls and we were both very content in the silence as we moved upstream on our own (photo 40). There were no other boats on the river and only another couple of men fishing from the shore. The only mammal we saw was a large, fluffy, light coloured monkey that climbed toward the water along a tree branch, but as soon as it spied us it doubled back quickly (photo 38). There was also a rather amazing caiman lying in the water, its eyes wide open but unblinking. We moved close to it, silently, in the boat. I took a shot with my camera, we floated even closer, I took another shot, and then, closer still, I dared to take a third shot but suddenly, still not having blinked, it made a quite surprising plash into the water and disappeared (photo 32).

We had been on the river for more than an hour when I suggested we head back. Elionil turned the boat around, set it to drift and then pulled out the rods and the meat and began to bait his hook so that he could demonstrate the knack of fishing for piranha. He had mentioned earlier that if I had brought my swimsuit we could swim among the piranha and I had laughed and asked, “Isn't that rather dangerous?” Well, apparently, piranhas don't actually eat humans, so it is quite safe to swim in the same water with them. After Elionil caught his first piranha fairly quickly (photos 35 to 37), I managed to catch one and then Elionil caught another. It was not all that easy though because even though the idea is to dangle the line in the water and, when you feel the tug, flip the line back and bring the fish into the boat, more often the fish would grab the beef in small bites and knew when to quit when it felt you start to jerk the line. In any case the ones we caught were rather small and looked harmless. I read later that they are quite nice to eat and have aphrodisiacal properties. But we fed our catch to the birds as we were not staying for dinner and anyway, I had no way to cook mine at my hotel in town!

Returning to the place where we had collected the boat, there was a platform that had been built at the top of stairs that wound up the sides of a tree, so I climbed up and was provided with a fantastic overview of the area from above the arboreal canopy (photos 41 to 43). After freshening up at the pousada again and helping to put away the boating and fishing gear, I had time for a quick beer then we began the drive back to Cuiabá first experiencing a sunset drive where we saw capybara (photo 44), tortoises (photo 45), and various wildlife crossing the road (photos 46 and 47, this latter of a large winged insect about 3 inches from tip to tail, dragging a dead tarantula at such a quick pace that I had to chase after it to photograph it). The sun then set and our drive turned into a night drive where Elionil stopped the car, pulled out the searchlight and plugged it into his car engine battery. It was interesting to see eyes light up on the ground, in the bush, in the trees, but I did not have my extra flash so my photographic efforts in limited light were below par. I was lucky with photo number 50: a large spider, again about 3 inches across, walked across the road slowly at night time. Elionil with his 12 years of experience looking for wildlife in the dark, noticed it, stopped the car and held the car battery light closely over it while I managed to get my on-camera flash to go off as well.

We arrived back in Cuiabá at about 10:00p.m. so it had been a long but successful day; very relaxing and very much communing with nature. Just what I needed at the (almost) end of a long business trip. There was still Santiago de Chile and my day there was filled with three factory visits and three office visits so no time again to tour around.

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