A non-African safari: Brazil
Posted 14 January 2008 - 07:51 PM
But our trip to Brazil was a very "safari-like".
For example, it featured a few days in the Pantanal (a wetland similar to Okavango yet much bigger), in a lodge that hopefully will become a new standard ove there. Well... the owner got his ideas in Africa, and we certainly liked what he's accomplished so far. And others seem to like it too, since the lodge got the "Tourism Of The Future" award last year. The only similar company to have achieved the same is ...Wilderness Safaris.
On top of that, I also came into contact with people running wildlife projects over there. And those organisations really, I mean REALLY deserve our attention.
So here goes...
Before I start, please note:
- This trip was made in September 2007.
- I will try to write the hole report as soon as possible, but things are really busy at the office so... oh well... one day at a time.
Posted 14 January 2008 - 07:52 PM
First flight: Brussels -> Lisbon. This was a flight to forget ASAP. Next to me, a guy fell asleep with his mounth open even before take off. He snored so hard that they looked at him from five rows of seats further. Quite an accomplishment on an airplane in flight (noise). Even worse was the stench from his mouth. Something must have crawled in and died there.
But that wasn't the only smell. Behind us was a b*tch who took off her shoes and rested her feet on the end of our armchairs. Unfortunately we only found out when we were almost there. Made a bad face... she put her shoes back on...
The 2nd flight, Lisbon -> Sao Paulo, was better. We had only one hour to get from one plane to the next. So when we got to our gate, most people were already aboard. We feared the worst, but our prebooked seats were still empty! (at the emergency exit, with more leg room, not a luxury, since I am about 1m90. En route; read a few mags, rested, watched Shrek 3. All was great. Meals too.
When we arrived; less good news: our luggage stayed behind in Lisbon. Really annoying. But it became even more annoying when we found out there was only ONE desk taking care of lost luggage. Result; two hours of queueing for 20 people (we were 2nd to last in row). It was a fight against sleep, as we'd been awake for a really long time (travelling in the same direction of the sun means; a long day).
The overnight stay in Sao Paulo Airport hotel Marriot was short. We were only able to take the shuttle bus to the hotel at 10PM. So we checked in (welcome cocktail in the bar? No thanks!) and went straight to bed.
By the way; Sao Paulo Airport hotel Marriot isa tall building, typically a hotel for passengers in transit. It's only 5 minutes away from the airport and the shuttle bus is free. No remarks to be made; large rooms, comfortable bed, copious breakfast buffet, etc... A bit unpersonal, but that's normal for this size of hotel.
Posted 14 January 2008 - 07:53 PM
We had to get up real early for our next flight to Campo Grande. In other words; we weren't rested at all. A quick breakfast (not hungry yet), and then back to the airport. Actually, we went even an hour earlier than needed, to buy some necessary stuff that now was lost (in uor luggage); some clothing, toilet stuff... Luckily for us, shops were open, even at 7AM, and even on Sunday. Unfortunately for the insurance company; stuff wasn't cheap.
Here's when that "no fluids" BS rule really started to annoy us for the first time. I guess airport security doesn't think of scenarions like this when the issue new rules. What happened? Well, the fluid to clean our contact lenses was now in our luggage, as we could not take it on board. And we desperetly needed it. But now we couldn't find any. Aargh!
De first flight with TAM (local company) went great, but they left a little too late. In Campo Grande a van was waiting for us. That day, only two vans went to Caiman, so we had to wait a bit for some other people (coming from other flights). After that the transfer to Caiman Lodge. It's a trip of fuor hours. First 2h30min on asphalt, then a stop of 30 mins at a gas station (with restaurant and big shop), and then another hour on dirt roads. But that didn't really bother me; it was the first time I saw Brazil, and the whole time there was plenty to see. Also, that whole trip I was wondering "when does the landscape become flat?" The Pantanal is supposed to be flat, right?! Well... it only got flat AFTER having passed the gate of the Caiman property!
"Estancia Caiman" has three lodges. A "main lodge" with 11 rooms (of which some have three beds, which means 25 people max), a smaller - very intimate one - at a lake (5 rooms), and another smalle one (altough a bit bigger) with 8 rooms, at a swamp. All have a swimming pool.
We dropped off some people at the main lodge, and drove on to the lodge at the swamp.
There, we were welcomed by our guide and introduced to other group members (who arrived earlier that day).
This is the "swamp lodge" (aka Cordilheira lodge), seen from the opposite side of the swamp. Note that this is dry season, so not that much water remained.
To the left is the dining area, in the middle is the pool, to the right are the rooms (you can see the hammocks on the balconies).
The first thing we noted; all rather young people (no 50-plussers). I assume they do this for a reason. All older people were dropped off at the main lodge that morning. Groups with people of about the same age... it just works better.
Our guide, Barbara, was Brazilian, wih university diploma (biology), and she spoke fluent English. Fantastic! Later, we understood that EVERY guide as the lodge is like this.
Here's Barbara (note; pic is actually from a few days later):
First we got some general info. On a blackboard, one cuold see which activity was planned when. There was always a morning activity, an afternoon activity, and sometimes also an evening-activity.
All activities were done with the complete group. So for us that ment; 14 people (7 rooms were occupied, room no. 8 was for guides and personnel apparently. So a full house after all. So the group at this lodge is never bigger than 14 people + guide.
If you're not intereted in an activity, you are free to remain at the lodge and do whatever you want. If an activity is planned at the main lodge (or the gruop has to pass the main lodge), you can also decide to spend your free time there. The main lodge has a boutique, internet connection, etc... You can also book individual trips, at an extra cost. For example; there's a day trip with Victor, a man renowed for his knowledge of local birds.
When the bell is rang, that means it's time for dinner, or time to leave for an activity. Meals are buffet-style. THat night (as every night); fresh vegetables, a chice of two main dishes, and desserts and fresh fruit. All self service, and all incredibly delicious.
This is the dining area:
That evening; no planned activities. Good for us, as that ment; catching up on some sleep. All rooms are very large and have airco and a ceiling fan. Beds are very good, closet room could have been more (not that we cared... we had no luggage!). There's also a bathroom with large walk-in shower and a toilet. Great!
The only weird thing (which proved to be the same almost everywhere); toilet paper was not to be flushed. You were supposed to put it in the trash can. Weird, and not easy as well; try to counter an automatism you practiced for 30 years. :oops:
This was our room:
Before I proceed to describe all the event that happened at this lodge over the next days, there's a few things I should mention (to get it over with so I do not have to keep on talking about the lodge in the next posts):
1) I've been asked which of the three lodges is best. Well... there's some pros and cons to all of them I guess. The main lodge is close to their shop and to internet access, it's also closer to the buildings which host the wildlife projects, plus you can stay longer at the BBQ (you'll read about that later). All this means; less time to travel around, more time to enjoy the neighbourhood (it's located near a big lake so there's plenty of birdlife and mammals)or more time to rest/sleep. But a disadvantage is certainly; rooms are in hacienda style, around a square (well, in this case a pool). So no spectacular views from your window. Another disadvantage; it's the biggest lodge, so your group will be rather big too.
Cordilheira lodge (our lodge) is the most remote, so you do spend a lot of time on that open truck, travelling "to and from". But on the other hand; you see plenty of stuff at those moments. Another advantage is; 14 people is sometimes a big group for some safari-like activities. But a big advantage is it's setting; mounted on wooden platforms, in the middle of nature. We were up EVERY morning before dawn, sitting on the terrace, and watching the animals come out (or going back and forth to the swamp).
The third lodge is definitely the most intimate (so; small groups), and I guess the most beautiful setting too (our view was great, but this one is at the edge of a lake!). So maybe this is the best. However, I don't know how far it is from the main lodge. And also; since it's so small; maybe choice of meals is limited?
2) I've been asked to compare this lodge with lodges in Africa. Well...
This lodge is the best wildlife lodge I ever had, and it outranks any African experience I had so far. And, being an Africa-lover, that means a lot, if I write this. I'm not just talking about the lodge itself here, I'm talking about the whole experience. But that is for later (the only thing left for me to discuss later is how this lodge was started).
One final thing: their weblink; http://www.caiman.co...fault.aspx?pt=2
And now... on to the safari activities!
Posted 14 January 2008 - 07:54 PM
Sitting on that terrace in the morning, waiting for the sun to come up... believe me, it's worth it! My best tip for you would be to do the same! That first morning, I saw a Jabiru stork flying overhead, two blue macaws, two roseate spoonbils, cattle egrets and lots of parrots. And on the ground it was equally interesting: coatis, chaca chacalaca's, agoutis, en wild pigs (with piglets!)
It was still very dark but the pic of the spoonbills worked out great:
After a rich man's breakfast buffet we left for our first gamedrive. These are done in an open (yet roofed) truck. A local guide/driver is behind the wheel, all the rest go in the trunk (including "main guide" Barbara). All around the edges are benches (with pillows). Barbara was always standing in front (to spot animals, and to tap on the roof of the driver's cabin if she wanted him to stop the truck). It doesn't matter where you sit; everyone can see everything.
We drove to a spot where lots of blue acaws are. They were there bacause of some sort of palm tree (they like the fruits of that one). On our way we saw our first toucan, but also: black headed parrot, pampas deer, roadside hawk, lesser kiskadee, black vultures, crab eating fox, cardinal, armadillo and grey-hooded parrot.
This roadside hawk was sitting (would you believe it) in a tree next to the road:
Something I noticed; that big truck makes a lot of noise of course, so animals keep their distance. But when the truck stops, it is apparently a sign for the animals to run/fly away. That is to say; if you make a lot of noise. So; the typical "first conversations" (where are you from?" , "what do you do for a living?", ...) are best kept for a later moment.
The truck stopped at a small house (where a few locals live and work for Caiman). We went on foot to the "macaw palms", and sure enough; there they were! Three or four of them. I took plenty of pics.
Afte that, we walked around a small lake. Here too we saw plenty of animals; perdatory birds, roseate spoonbill, caymans, cardinal, rheas, and a greater kiskadee on a horse!
After that we went back to the lodge for lunch, and a siesta (too hot between 12AM and 3PM to do much). At 3PM there's cake and coffee, and then another activity. This time it was a safari on foot. We started at a small forest right next to the lodge.
We were barely walking for five minutes and already saw a woodcreeper. And a bit after that; howler monkeys from really up close. These guys make a lot of noise in the morning, and can be heard from 5km away. If you're on your terrace in the morning, and you hear a strange sound (like a hippo with an empty stomach), well that's them! After that, we saw a nine banded armadillo, and everybody watched it for a rather long time.
Here he is:
The group was rather noisy (you know how it goes; getting to know each other...) so I decided to skip ahead. When I looked back after having walked a few minutes, I saw nor heard anyone. And at that vey moment, some animal started coming towards me from the other side. I could hear the dry leaves cracking under it's feet. It was clearly rather large. But which animal was that large, and IN a forest. Surely not a cow or horse; they prefer to stay on the open. The only thing I could think of was a leopard.
Well, running away is the worst you can do. So I crouched don and waited. All of a sudden it came out of some bushes next to a tree... a giant anteater! Mira came looking for me and was able to see it too. She left again, to get the others, which she shouldn't have done because by the time she came back, it was gone. Well, I got pics from really close (it came to about two meters from me, and only then it saw me (it heard the shutter of my camera). So I could show them pics.
After a while we left the forest and started walking back to the lodge, this time in the open. Again, we saw lots of birds flying overhead, including lots of toucans. We also passed a little swamp, resulting in some great pics of caiman, but also of the sunset over the water.
A caiman. This is a wide angle shot, by the way. But note that they are rather small (2m in length maximum) so there's not much to fear.
By now I guess you're wondering: "goddammit, why doesn't he show pics of the howler monkeys, or the anteater, or (etc)... ?" Well... it's because I'm not releasing some of the images yet. I'm organizing an expo with these shots, and they will be for sale too. The profit will go to... a currrent jaguar project at the Caiman lodge! Stay tuned for more info on that!
The walk ended at the manège of the lodge (again great shots). By now I started to realise that, as a wildlife photographer, I ended up in Walhalla.
After dinner, a night walk was planned. With a rather large light, Barbara scanned the fields around us. We saw more foxes, a horse (promptly baptised as a new species; THE NIGHT HORSE!). We also saw a nighjar warming itself on the road. But the most impressive of all was the sky. I never saw the milky way that clear in my life! It's like I could grab it with my hands.
Posted 15 January 2008 - 12:07 AM
"Return to old watering holes for more than water; friends and dreams are there to meet you." - African proverb.
How to create your gallery album and upload images.
How to post images in the text.
Posted 15 January 2008 - 10:36 AM
In the morning another safari on foot was programmed. This time we went the other way; around the swamp in front of our lodge. We saw lots of wil pics and a fox. And a turtle. I made some shots of the lodge too, as this is an angle I'd probably wont be seeing again later on. We walked through some fields (we had to open a few gates), and soon we were in some foresty area again. This time the photographic loot was a bit less; we saw howler monkeys but from further away. And no ant eater, lol. But, we saw one new (and beauiful) animal that we hadn't seen before; a trogon! What beautiful colors! (nope no pic. I told you why ;-) )
Here's another pic. Oink oink.
After that, we saw some vultures, some crocs, etc...
The way back was mostly on a dirt road, which ment; direct sunlight. and the sun was gaining in power fast. The guides always take water with them, and we drank a lot. And in the end we really kept up a fast pace, just to be out of the sun as fast as possible. We paid less attention to nature around us that way, and stopped rarily (except for a beautiful green lizard). At the lodge, they were waiting for us, with fresh drinks all ready. I can't say this enough; they really got it all covered here!
At noon, Mira made perfect use of the hammock, heh. So I grabbed my cam and explored (on foot) the lodge's surroundings. Underneath the trees (where the personnel often sits) I ound a purplish jay, another woodcreeper and a lot of rufous breasted thrushes. And on the road in front of the lodge I found a buff-necked ibis. I went back to the room and found another animal there. No not the snoring one. The one on the ceiling; a moth of some kind. As big as the brick she was sitting on!
Yes, I havegot images of that, but not real macro's like I would haveliked (I couldn't get to it). Here's another fella instead:
In the afternoon a canoe trip was planned. Mira doesn't feel comfortable at all on a canoe, but as a real brave girl, she decided to participate anyway. I took my spare camera body, just to be on the safe side (should anything go wrong, then I'd still have my good cam ...there'd be plenty more pics to take on this holiday). It still was a risk, as the lens I took with me was my only "real" tele-lens (i mean; with a serious tele-range). I took that one as it was a second hand one, and as my other "tele" was a new 70-200 F2.8 IS L that I just bought prior to leaving for Brazil. And that one is waay more expensive. Luckily all went well.
To canoe we had to go to the main lodge (as that is where the lake is), so we got another gamedrive first, in that open truck.
We all got a life jacket, and one canoe per two people (they were rather big canoes) and a peddle. Steering and peddling was fairly easy and we learned fast (I'd never done it). But it was a sweaty business sometims, trying to get around and over a lot of water plants. On the water we saw a lot of kingfishers, an eagle, and a donacobius! And caiman of course. One bit out a piece in the canoe,and Mira lost a finger. Just kidding!
We also saw the most beautiful sunset over the water. And back on land; a greater kiskadee, martins and black headed parrots. Too bad it was getting dark fast.
Here's Mr. Donacobius:
That night, another gamedrive was on the menu. Barbara was in front, on the truck, as usual, but this time she used a big headlight to find the eyes of animals around us. We saw another nightjar, capybaras, foxes, deer, wild pigs, etc... and of course a lot of cows too. And another horse that was prompty baptised again as a "night horse". The group was really getting along very well, and as a result new species were discovered regularly. Like the "roadside cow" (hey, if there's a "roadside hawk"...) and a "blue jar" (which differs a bit from the nightjar, as it is bright blue and looks exactly like ... a jar. Duh!)
Posted 15 January 2008 - 10:37 AM
This morning it was a bit clouded. I don't know if that is the reason but I saw less animals while on the terrace. But the sunrise, with that dramatic skyline with little fluffy clouds (The Orb moment) made up for that.
This morning on the programme; "the Caiman tour". That actually means; paying a visit to the wildlife projects located on the Caiman estate. For the guests at the main lodge it's probably a short "trip" as it's right next to the lodge. For us it ment, as usual, an extra gamedrive to and from the main lodge. And a good one too! This time we saw a jaribu stork from up close while it was fishing. We stayed with it until it caught a fish. Great pics!
Here he is;
The Jaribu is the symbol of the Pantanal. Big bird; 1m80 of wing span I believe.
At the main lodge we visited two wildlife projects. The first is the blue macaw project. Using a slideshow, we were taught what they did, and how. I must say; it is fantastic what they accomplished so far. it's like this; there are, on the entire globe, only three remaining populations of blue macaw. On in the Amazon, one near Brasilia (the capital), and one in Pantanal. All populations were under severe pressure, mostly by (need this be said) humans. People want the feathers for ornaments, and the palm trees that this bird needs are chopped down, etc...
As a result of that, the species was on the IUCN red list of endangered species. WAS on the red list! Because in the meantime the population in Pantanal is doing much better. There were less than 500 left, but because of this project there are more than 5000 now. They stopped counting, actually.
Here in Pantanal, the species is now protected and is no longer hunted. Nest sites are protected, improved, and monitored too. They now have plans to use the same techniques for the other two remaining populations. And then exchange birds between all populations. Because the macaw will only be really saved when populations exchange genes.
If you visit this project, they definitely earn your support, so be generous! You can find them on the web as well: http://www.projetoar...l.org.br/arara/
The building next door had a photo expo on the Pantanal, with lots of info, but I only gave it a quick look, as I'd much rather be taking pics myself. Luckily I did this, as I was awarded with incredible pics while everybody else was still inside; a blue macaw in flight (sorry, expo pic), a giant kingfiher up close (sorry, idem), and a plush rested jay in a tree. OK, I'll give you that one then!
(got better ones for the expo, njeh njeh)
After the expo, we visited another projext; the Jaguar Conservation project. The jaguar actually has it even harder than the blua macaw. Cattle means income for the people, but for a jaguar it means food! As a result, it is hunted down But not on the cayman estate! Here, the owner has forbidden his staff to shoot them. On top of that; he does not mind having some cows killed by jaguars. He does not even want a compensation for that (there is a fund for this, another attempt to save the jaguar from getting hunted).
I must say; this is a noteworthy initiative! You have to admit, rowing against the current like that; hats off for the owner of Caiman! We found out he really is a remarkable man. Perhaps I'll end this post here and give you the story on that first, OK?
Posted 15 January 2008 - 10:38 AM
It goes like this: his father (an owner of a big paper mill in Sao Paulo) owned a large area in Pantanal, and divided that over his five sons. One son goes to Africa, on safari. There, he sees how eco-tourism works, and learns the value of wild animals and unspoilt areas.
So he realised: "I've got the same at home, and can do the same there". Alea jacta est! From that moment on, he combined three things on his Caiman estate:
1) cattle ranching, as usual. But no more hunting of wild animals!
2) eco-tourism; his three lodges, and using the "low volume, high price (*)" technique also seen in Botswana/Okavango.
3) hosting conservation-projects. A win for wildlife is a win for him too!
(* altough still much much cheaper than in Africa)
And it works! It works really well, as his efforts are so succesful that he was awarded the “tourism of tomorrow” award (see: http://www.tourismfo...alists.htm#cons ).
The only similar company to have achieved the same is ...Wilderness Safaris in Botswana. But there is a difference between WS and Caiman; the price! Caiman costs about 250$ pppn, while you can easily pay four time as much in Africa! I'm just saying; Caiman is definitely a bargain at this moment! And thus definitely worth the money.
To be honest, I hope his eco-business keeps on flourishing, as hopefully then his "neighbours" will follow his example. And THAT would definitely be good news for the Pantanal, and any endangered species living in it (like the Jaguar)!
So I really do hope everybody reading this pays them a visit as well!
Posted 15 January 2008 - 10:38 AM
Well... that's for a big part because this kind of projcet needs much more funds (compared to f.e. the macaw project); it is very difficult to track a jaguar. It is even more difficult and time consuming to capture it. And after a doctor has measured it and taken blood samples, the jaguar should pereferably be "tagged" (like with a collar). I larned that they have a few colors, yet they are the old type; they collect data, but that data can only be retrieved when the collar is retrieved (ic when the animal dies of natural causes, is shot, or captured again).
In othe words; there's still much work to be done. They can use your support. So if you want to make a difference, send them some money. Your money will be better spent here than at a large wildlife organisation. Here, your $$ go straight to where it's needed, and not to (for instance) publicity.
More on the jaguar project can be fuond here: http://www.jaguar.org.br/index.htm
After these projects, Barbara took us to a pool that had a huge number of caimans, and gave us some great info on them.
Here's a close up...
In the afternoon, a horse ride was on the program. This is less interesting when it comes to wildlife-spotting, but we decided to join anyway. Something else for a change, right?
We left when it was still rather hot, and the landscape was rather dull (we were really in the middle of huge plains with nothing but cows). And on top of that, everybody still needed to "understand" his horse. But soon all went a lot better, and on the way back (after a stop for a drink and to take a group foto), it really became lotsa fun!
In the end, we did get to see a lot of animals. Birds mostly. I had a cam around my neck, but because of the weight, only a wide angle lens. So I only took pics of ourselves. We came back to our lodge when it was already dark. The afternoon had flown by! Many of us (including me) found it a pity to have to lead the horses back to the stable.
Here's a pic of us;
That evening, a typical "Pantanieros BBQ" was planned at the main lodge. That was excellent for Mira and me. It was our 10th honeymoon anniversary that night. And I had a surprise gift.
But after having dozed off (after a showe), she felt a little sick, en she really didn't like the thought of having to ride in that open truck to the main lodge again. Well, it IS a long (and slow, and bumpy) ride.
Luckily for me, she decided to come anyway. Alse because she was offered the front seat (next to the driver). And in the fresh air, she regained most of her strength.
The BBQ was a typical, yet a bit touristy, affair. Including the two musicians who played some local songs on guitar. But the food was delicious and authentic! Cow meat on long sticks, grilled over an open fire. Incredibly tender. It's been years since I've tasted anything like it.
Here's the grill:
I also have a wide angle pic of a fox that came real close. I guess it was hungry.
Mira's present was actually an image of her real present waiting for her at home. But Itransformed that image into... a puzzle. So she had to puzzle a bit before she found out... that this guy was waiting for her at home:
A small black jaguar! She promptly named it Thiago, after the manager of the guides there.
(so Thiago, if you're reading this...I hope you're honored!)
After dinner and the "normal" desert, the staff showed up with yet another desert especially for our anniversary; a chocolate cake so big it was enough to feed us AND the rest of all people in the Pantanal! So I ened up dividing the whole cake amongst our group members. After that, we needed some time to regain our conciousness.
What better place to do that than at the camp fire:
Posted 16 January 2008 - 12:35 PM
Normaly we had a "free morning", as normally everybody leaves at a different time (some with the morning shuttlebus, some with the afternoon shuttlebus, depending on the departure time of their flight in Campo Grande). However, our group was lucky; everybody's flight was late in the afternoon. So, Barbara proposed to do another safari on foot, this time around the lake near the main lodge. We could opt to go cycling there as well.
Well, we liked the sound of that! Because at the lake, there's plenty of wildlife, and some of it still managed to elude us the previous days. Like capybaras, which we only saw on our arrival (we were still in the van) and at night. Plus there'd be plenty of birds around the lake for sure.
In the end about half our group went cycling, the other half went for a walk. I chose to walk too, and Mira as well. We saw a lot of birds that morning; I got pics from seedeaters, martins, more blue macaws, a rufescent tiger heron, etc... all up close! And a capybara too!
And here's another one:
An hour before we were supposed to leave we were all relaxing in the garden of the main lodge, when all of a sudden the staff pops up with a bottle of Champagne. Apparently they forgot to give us that last night, for our wedding anniversary. But we did't like the thuoght of taking the bottle with us on the airplane, so we asked for a cooled one, and opened it there. We gave everybody who was present a sip of Champagne, the perfect way to end our stay at Caiman.
Time to leave. And I didn't like that AT ALL. Id liked to have stayed a little longer. Like a century or two. No, make that three.
A last image from the Pantanal. Sniff...
BTW: That is actually a fairly typical landscape for the dry season.
The trip back to Campo Grande was unfortunately as long as it was when we arrived. And the airco was still blowing as fiercly. Looks like it's like that all around the world. Somebody should tell the airco-builders to create a model with a setting somewhere between "off" and "hell freezes over"
Posted 16 January 2008 - 12:37 PM
The flights Campo Grande -> Sao Paulo and Sao Paulo -> Iguazu were OK, but as always:they left too late. As a result we arrived in Iguaçu after midnight. There, we met our guide for the ucoming two days (Carlos) and his driver. No "group" this time. This was a "personal trip", we were their only "customers".
The introduction was short, the drive to the hotel too. Altough the drive stopped once, to show us a deer that was hiding in the woods, by the roadside. But I guess we were a bit too tired to enjoy.
The hotel was fine. At least; the part(s) we saw. Nice rooms, big bathroom. Clean too. Hotel Das Cataratas is actually one of the only two hotels that are located IN the nature reserve that surrounds the falls (the other hotel is at the Argentinian side).
We chose this hote purely because of it's location; we had no time to lose with bus rides to and from the falls.
Describing Das Cataratas is simple; it's everything an American tourist would want. With that I mean; it's very luxuruous, guest are really pampered, and meals are copious and extremely fattening. The amount of sugar that was in the various types of bread that I tried that morning was enough to almost burn a hole in my stomach.
For us, it was a bit over the top. Waaay too big too. So much blocks and halways and corridors and rooms. I'm a bit of a pigeon (I mean I always seem to go the right way), but Mira really had trouble every time locating our room.
Another thing we liked less were the noisy aircos; everyone seemed to switch theirs on throughout the night. We'd rather have preferred to hear the falls roar outside, or the birds in the morning. To give a comparison; in Pantanal there was airco too, but almost nobody switched it on, let alone for thewhole night. By not using airco (too much), everybody acclimatised real fast and had no trouble with the heat during daytime activities. But here at Iguaçu, I saw people leaving their room that started puffing immediately, complaining it was too hot outside. Well no wonder if you sleep in a refrigerator! :? Why didn't they just open a window for some fresh air at night?
We were up early again that morning as that morning a visit to the Brazilian side of the falls was planned. So we kept breakfast short too (altough the setting was nice; we sat on the terrace and - altough we could not see the falls, we could hear them. Like a non-stop train passing by. Hard to describe.
The trip this morning started at the front door of the hotel. The path goes slowly downhill, and every five meters (or so it seems) a different spectacular view of the Argentinian falls on the other side.While walking you are also harassed a lot by coatis who made the obvoius connection between "humans" and "food". They like to pose though.
Here's a view:
While most people were fooling around with the coatis we had more eye for another magnificent beast that is present there; tarantulas! Most people don't know this, but while they are standing with their noses towards the falls, there's something crawling around behind their backs. 8)
That's because the atmosphere (80-90% humidity) is perfect for them. Of course, most hide in trheir holes during the daytime. So, we wentto a place with a lot of holes next to the path, waited until everyone was gone (*) and poked around with a stick, trying to lure one out. We did get to see one (at least, the front legs), but then people showed up again so we left it at that.
(* we didn't want people imitating us as this is not without danger; there's another spider type out there that's more aggressive: it jumps at you and bites you. And it is very venomous. So it's better to leave the poking up to someone who knows which type of spider is in what hole. Carlos knew; he is a biology student)
At the end, the path takes a turn right, away from the hillside, towards the "devil's mouth", which is the place where most water falls down. A real climax. It's impossible to actually see the foot of the falls (too much smoke), but still; a great view.
Note that the path to that view passes in front of some smaller falls. So prepare to get wet, and hide your camera gear if not water proof. Or bring a leather (you know; the type you wash your car with). Comes inhandy to clean your front glass.
This is a (resized) pano of the end of the walk on the Brazilean side. In the back is the "Devil's mouth":
For the big-bellied among us, there's an elevator that takes you back up, and even a type of bus to drive you back to the beginning of the walk (in front of the hotel). We decided to take the same way back, on foot. This time, we had more eye for butterflies and catterpillars. One hour later we were back at the hotel, and we had just time enough to freshen up and check out. And by that time Carlos and his driver were already waiting for us to bring us to Argentina.
Getting to Argentina was easier than I expected; for tourists, border formalities are kept to a minimum, and there's a special queue. Soon we were passing the three-countries-point (on a bridge over the river, Brazil behind us, Argentina in front, and to our left (where the river joined another river: Paraguay).
Posted 17 January 2008 - 02:46 PM
At the border, we were greeted by people from our lodge (Yacutinga lodge): our guide and a driver. The driver's nickname was "Senna", and after five minutes in his van we understood why. To be honest; what he did was not really dangerous. The road was empty, and in good condition. But the speed limits were set ridiculously low.
We also know now why he drove so "fast"; to get to Yacutinga really takes a long time. We spent more than two hours in that van, to end at... the Brazilian border again. Yes, you are reading that correctly! We were at the border again, yet much further away from the falls now. It looks absurd, but apparently this way is the shortest. At that border, we switched vehicles; the remainder of the trip was done in an open truck, much like the one in Pantanal. But this one made a lot more noise. And the seats were made for school children.
The lodge itself lies in a private reserve, and that private reserve is actually a bend in the river. The strange thing is; if you'd take a boat from the lodge to the falls, it would take you less than half an hour! However, this is impossible; border patrols do not allow it (as then they cannot control who goes in and out of the country), and also the depth of the river can fluctuate enormously.
Yacutinga lodge is a dream come true. the main building has two stories. Below a salon with a huge fireplace, above the restaurant. They have used local materials (lots of wood) but also recycled materials (used bottles in the walls, etc). In total, it mad almost the same positive impression on me than Caiman Lodge in Brazil. So I'm not just talking about how it looked; they have wildlife projects here as well, and during the summer hey invite school children here, to learn about the value of nature.
More on those things later. First lemme describe the lodge a bit more. The rooms are grouped by four, and got their "backs" (the bathrooms) to each other in a cross-form. Here too, the same materials like in the main building have been used. Lotsa windows too, so jungle all around your bed. Man, what an experience!
This is the salon of Yacutinga;
The food was fantastic too. At dinner we soon found out that the other two people that were with us in the van were the only other two guests in the whole lodge. They were from the Isle of Mann, and were in Argentina for business but decided to prolongue their stay with "some days to relax at a nice hotel". Seems they booked solely by pics they saw in a brochure (pics of the hotel garden; lush forest, a small pool, hammocks...). So they had no idea they would end up in an ecolodge at all! Seems they were not used to this at all; the food (sometimes with "local flavours") was not what they expected as their plates were sometimes untouched. And the guy only had office pants to wear in the jungle! And i mean; the real "grandfather-type" classic pants with iron-folds (what's the right term for this) and all. And worst of all, the woman had a fobia for ...insects!
So how come we were only with four? Well, it was actually still their "winter time" (actually, we heard from a couple in Caiman/Pantanal that the week before it had been very rainy and cold, so we had the first warm week of the season I guess).
Here's a pic of our room:
Tomorrow, we explore the Yacutinga jungle!
Posted 18 January 2008 - 02:12 PM
In the morning (after a healthy breakfast) we left by rubber boat. A sort of a "dinghy", but rather big, so you can sit on the sides.
The boat tour started not far from the hotel. We were accompanied by a local guide from the Guarani-tribe. In the start, it was very quiet. We were on a little stream, with a rather low water level, altough by the color of the leaves (brown vs green) that during the rains of last week it had been much higher. It was still rather cold in the morning too. We saw tanagers (mom, dad ands child!) and little kingfisher, and we got a good explanation on the Guarani tribe and their connection to this area.
The small river eventually ended in the main river. Here the water was moving visibly (towards the Iguaçu falls), and it was hotter (the sun no longer being obscured by any trees). We saw cormorants and black vultures (a cow that drowned somewhere upstream ended up here on the riverbank, hence...). It was incredibly quiet on the river, no people, no boats (even though the river is very wide here). But as explained before; the river is not very usefull as an "express route". At least not all the time.
Ab bit further we disemberked (lol) and started our 2nd part of the trip; back to the lodge on foot. On the "pier" I photographer an incredibly beautiful butterfly with a blue fluerescent color. It was sitting on capybara dung, so I guess it will never be a pic to send in for a photo contest.
Close to the river were a few small buildings, a rather primitive research center where biologists are staying. And there was also a small plantation wich was ment to supply the lodge with fresh fruits and vegetables. Here we saw our first colibri, but inside a bush, so no decent pic.
Here's us in the jungle (well, still on a fairly big road/path):
From here, a path went straight into the jungle, and we followed it. After a short while we came across another building. Fairly large this one, and built in the exact same style as the main lodge. The guide explained that this building was for school children, who spent their summer holiday here, free of charge (well; paid by normal guests, meaning a part off the profits made is put into this project). The purpose is to teach school children the importance of the jungle and biodiversity in general.
I must say, hats off for yet another lodge owner with the right mindset (just like Caiman)! Seems the owner of this lodge spared cost nor effort for this project. The building really is a beauty, with separate floors for boys and girls, an open dining area, etc... As an eco-tourist, there is no greater joy for me than to notice that my money is spent on this sort of initiatives and not solely on the manager's payroll.
At this building was waiting a big surprise for us; a couple of trogons! They had incredible colors, and let us come rather close. Then we understood why; they were building their nest under a roof of the building.
Here's one of the trogons;
After that, we "dissapeared into the jungle again. On our way to the lodge, it was the butterflies who stole the show. Seemed our path was full of them, in the most diverse and beautiful colors, and in all shapes an sizes. There were also some who had the number 80 and 88 on their wings. the guide told us that actually there were FEW butterflies; it was still their "winter". We could hardly imagine what the number of butterflies must be like in the summer.
After a loverly lunch and some rest, we went out into the jungle again. This time on a small and curly path through the most dense vegetation I had ever seen. This was primary forest, that was quite clear. Bit by bit the trees grew taller. Our guide gave us a lot of info on various trees and plants. At a certain moment, we were also accompanied by capucin monkeys.
At dusk, we arrived at a small swamp. We had to climb down a fence to get to it. This is where a group of capybaras are living. The goal was to wait for them when they come out of the swamp to eat. They do this every evening, as they get some extra food from biologists. The purpose of that; they want to get the group to "expand" faster.
However, they still have to search for part of their food (meaning; this way they stay at least "half-wild"). So why "breed" capybaras? Well, this is another project of the lodge. Seems everywhere capybaras have dissapeared; hunted for their meat and fur etc...But now these people (farmers mostly) miss the capybaras. Seem they do some good as well. So the goal is to re-introduce capybaras at some farms in the neighboorhood.
Here's one of those huge rodents in it's natural habitat:
Before the capybaras arrived, we saw another pair of surucua trogons. These were building their nest under the roof of a hide! We also saw a fork tailed flycatcher (with a long tail). After a while the capybara came out of the water. The passed by real close so photographs were easy. There was a youngster too. Quite cute.
Also interesting are the dead trees in the swamp. There's holes in these, and at night all kinds of birds seek shelter there as it is very safe and far away from predators. We got to see three Cuviers Toucans, a bird that's not even in the "De La Peña" bird guide.
Speaking about guides, here's some good tips for you: on diverse (ecotravel-)related sources and fora on the net, we were advised to choose a combination of two books to cover all wildlife here in Brazil. These are:
- Travellers' Wildlife Guide, Brazil (Amazon & Pantanal) door David L. Pierson & Les Beletsky (ISBN 1-56656-593-6)
- Birds of Southern South America and Antartica door Mertin R. De La Peña en Maurice Rumboll (ISBN 0-691-09035-1).
The first one is a general guide that tells you everything (nature-wise) about the regions you visit, and the animals that live there. You can actually better read this book BEFORE starting your trip. However, do take it along as well, as it contains some species that are not present in the second book (obvious as the 2nd book is only about birds).
The second book (Princeton edition) covers perfectly what the other book lacks; more in-depth bird-info (plus much more species are discussed in the first place).
We found out that every animal is always in one of either books.
That night we also got a small presentation on yet another wildlife project that was started there; this one is about colibris. Seems it's not easy to study these birds.
Oh, and before I forget, the lodge also has an insect show; a blacklight with a white sheet in front. At night, lots of insects are drawn to the light, so do make sure you don't miss this. I noticed that there are some really weird creatures crawling around in the jungle! the woman with insect fobia passed the "insect show" staring straight at the ground, and kept quite a distance.
Posted 18 January 2008 - 08:46 PM
Posted 24 January 2008 - 10:20 AM
This day we had to get back to the falls, so after a nice breakfast, hup, onto the truck for the long ride back.Pfff...
At the border we were again greeted by Carlos and his driver, and they brought us bach to iguaçu falls. A short ride this time, as we were already in the "right" country. After Carlos took care of admission fees, he gave us a little briefing. The Argentina side is much bigger. There's a tourist train from the entrance to two "stations". The first station is where most walks start. A second station takes you to the "devil's throat" (the highlight of the falls).
Carlos advised NOT to take the train from the entrance to station 1. On foot, it's much more interesting. You walk through a forest where lotsa birds are. It may be hot (so, expect to sweat a lot), but it's wortrh it. We saw lots of tanagers and plush crested jays.
The area here was full of colourful birds, like this guy:
A half hour later we were at the first station. Here, a few routes start, all towards various falls. We first ate a snack at the restaurant, and then did all these "tours", one after the other. With the exception of the trip that takes you all the way down to the base of the falls (where you can take a boat that brings you to an "island"), as we had no time for that.
I can advise everyone to do all the tours! They all are unique, and after every turn awaits another spectacular view that begs to be photographed. Make sure your physical condition is OK, and even more important; to wair decent shoes. Shoes to hike, not to dance with. You cannot imagine how much women come there on high heels. Pretty silly, given the fact that all paths are made of steel gratings (easy to loose your heels).
Here's one of the "smaller" falls:
And here's another one:
And here's a (resized) pano of the whole area:
The white spot in the forest on the other shore (way in the back) is hotel Das Cataratas in Brazil.
After all this walking around, we were quite convinced that we were seeing the most beautiful falls on earth. And we hadn't seen the best part yet! Because of all the photo stops, we were rather late, so we hopped on the last train going from station 1 to station 2 (to the "devi's throat"). At the end station, we waited for the crowds to go ahead. We first drank something. When everybody was out of sight, we started the walk towards the falls.
When we came to the devil's throat, we were one of the last. A platform takes you to the edge. My jaw just dropped and I could not get it back up. This really IS worth the name "devil's throat". This place means; goose bumps all over your body.
A round pit, about 100M deep, and at 2/3rd of it's edges, water falling over in enormous quantities. In the distance, that water flows away (to where we were a few days ago on the Brazilian side). The bottom is hardly visible. Swallows/martins shoot from left to right underneath you. For them, the steep cliffs and all the water around means a 100% secure nest.
A pano image:
And a fish-eye view:
This is a place where you feel very tiny.
I took a ridiculous amount of pics, with different lenses (warning! moisture!), and afte rthat we took the last train back to the entrance. However, we got off again at station 1, and continued the walk on foot to the entrance, but with a small detour (near the lighthouse), as that is another spot of which carlos knew there were lots of animals. His advice was gold-worth. Lotsa tanagers again, campo flickers, red rumped caciques, another plush crested jay and a toucan. All sat very close. We saw some guineapigs as well.
Here's one of those cacique's:
Carlos told us this is one of his favourite spots. He turned out to be a biology student and a birder.
In the evening, we crossed the border again, to hotel Das Cataratas, where we stayed another night. We checked in (another room, even slightly better, as this one had been renewed), and claimed our luggage right away (we had left a bag at the hotel while we were in Yacutinga), and then went for dinner. After that; to bed straight away, as - yet again - we needed to get up real early the next day.
Posted 24 January 2008 - 12:40 PM
The fact that we had to leave early today had it's reasons; so far all our internal flights were rather short; a bit more than one hour (without checking in & out). But from Sao paulo to Manaus; that's a serious distance and a flight of about 5 hours.
Again flights by TAM. Again departure was too late (altough not much), and again the rest was A-OK. By noon, we were in Manaus. There we were welcomed by a guide who did his usual speach. He said he descended from the local indians. Well... a bit strange as he was not like them at all. He was not tall & small, but was wider than he was high, and he was sweating more than Me, Mira and all the tourists in the Amazon combined. But oh well... suspension of disbelief.
What he was saying was even more unattractive. He started explaining by what we were going to do the next days, and that did not at all correspond with what we had on paper. Their program (in their brochure, and on their website) is all about indians; visiting local tribes, visiting plantations, plus spending a whole day on the water to see the famous "meeting of the waters" (where Rio Negro and Rio Amazonas meet). As we did not like that, we had that changed. For us, that day on the river was absolutely not worth it (hey, you can see the meeting of the waters on satellite images. Big deal). And we'd rather spend our days in the forest or on small rivers. we'd rather see the forest as it is supposed to be, we're not interested in seeing it destroyed (cfr that plantation visit).
But somehow, our change of plans seemed not to have reached the paper in his hands. Or not correctly anyway. We did have one day of trekking, but the day on the water was still present. One activity that we definitely wanted to do (another jungle tour) was taken out.
We pointed that out to him, and he responded with a really lengthy explanation which basically came down to "we'll switch the two days for you". Aargh! Things went from bad to worse. He was a sweaty indian on speed, rattling on and on, and not actually listening to what we said. His blahblah took so long that we were all-of-a-sudden at the lodge. I had hardly noticed that we switched from van to boat. I have seldomnly seen a guy that can get on your nerves like that.
Anyway, we had arrived at the "Amazon ecopark lodge". Keep that "ECO" in mind, you'll read more on that later.
We thought "screw him, we'll explain at the hotel desk". Well... it appeared the guy behind that desk only spoke Portugese. On top of that, our sweat-indian started rattling to that guy now, probably telling him the wrong things. But how to make him stop?
Fortunately, they dragged in a girl who spoke French (she had worked a few years in Switzerland). To her, we could explain it all in French, and she translated to Portugese. Unfortunately that guy behind the desk was on speed too. Every time one sentence was translated, he immeditely wanted to take action, and started to make phone calls. Where to? God only knows. He was also extremely rude, makingsome funny remarks, laughing at us in our face, as he knew we could not understand what he was saying. Disgusting individual.
Anyway, after an incredible TWO HOURS of "negotiating" all was arranged as should be. In the mean time all other guests had checked in, freshened up, and were ready to do the afternoon trip. We hadn't even eaten yet. Even the welcome drink had passed before our noses. We decided to skip the trip and to relax a bit in our room. But first we wanted some food. Well, seems we were not allowed in th restaurant, as "nothing was foreseen for us". We should have been on that afternoon trip, I suppose. So in the end, we had to buy some sandwiches at the bar.
Even though we had missed th afternoon trip, staying in the lodge proved to be an excellent idea. Mira relaxed on the "beach" and worked on her suntan, while I scouted the hotel garden. I found a lot of parrot species, tanagers and golden-winged caciques. Good! We also discovered the natural pool (a dammed off small river). It was completely deserted. We took a dive. It was surprisingly cold.
Here's part of our "pool":
And here's a guy who sat in the hotel garden:
Dinnertime. A big buffet and delicious. But some things were a bit odd. For example; there was no fresh fruit, it came from cans. Oh well, all the rest was OK. ...until sweatyhontas came hanging above our plates (literally), and started rattling again on what was in store for us the next days. Maybe he was trying to cheer us up, which was not needed at all. But he did succeed in doing the opposite, as what he was saying again did not correspond at all with what was agreed. Now our jungle trek had become a survival tour, where they would teach us how to catch animals and prepare them / cook them over a fire. Say what?? I nearly lost it at that point. Here we were, in the middle of the jungle, and apparently they'd never seen an eco-tourist before, let alone know what such a tourist would like. Poach animals? I'd rather see them alive than on my plate, if that's OK with you, Mr. sweatyhontas!
Oh well, he finally decide to go rain above someone else's plate. So we could go to bed.
This guy was sitting on a pole of the resaurant:
And this fella was in our room:
A little something about the climate there; I had experienced high humidities before, but this topped everything. The temperature was higher too. On top of that, we had a bungalow that lay in the sun throughout most of the afternoon. For us that ment we had to use the airco (altough we normally avoid this). We put it on while we were in the restaurant, so we could return to a fresh room.However... things heated up quite fast again. Things would have been much better if the room would have had a ceiling fan, but now the air was not moving at all. Opening all windows did not help either; the mosquito netting stopped all airflow.
Posted 24 January 2008 - 01:12 PM
Since our jungle trek (which we had asked "as a replacement of") could only be done on day 12, we started today with a small "jungle walk", and we would have a boat tour in the afternoon. Normally, these activities should have been done with the "group" but, as those people had the "meeting of the waters" thingie today, we had to do todays activities on our own.
No problem for us, but it was a problem for the hotel as they did not have any guide. Well... they had one, but he spoke only Portugese. So they wanted somebody who could translate. The guy at the desk again started doing what he does best; phoning around, while looking angry at us, making gestures at us. And obviously making fun of us was past of his job as well. In the end they fund no better option than to send the French girl along. She had been there for two months, but had not been in the jungle yet. So they went looking for some rubber boots for the damsel in distress (she wasn't very confident in this adventure).
Off we went! You should have seen us. Me and Mira completely in the correct clothing, the guide wore a white T-shirt and she wore a (canary-)yellow one. The guide realised at one point that this was actually not very smart. So he took off his shirt, and gave it to her. OK... now the yellow was hidden and we only had one T-shirt left to scare away all the animals.
The tour itself was a joke. Everything the guid said, needed translating in French. But she failed to find the words. Well what didthey expect anyway? That someone who worked in a hotel in Switzerland learns all the French words for things that are to be seen in the Amazon? Fortunately, I had read a lot before coming hee, so I ended up doing the translations for het, in English and French.
We did not see much that morning. Some insects. And the guide did his little trick with the stinger ants (luring them out of their nest by blowing smoke in it). When it was alost noon, our guide told us he went "to the turtles". That sounded cool, until we realised they were actually talking about some turtles living in captivity (below the pool area, another part of the small river was fenced off for them).
Here's one of those strange creepy crawlers in the forest:
And here's another strange animal:
(anyone seen the movie "predator"?)
Oh well. Back to the lodge. There, for a change, they had again forgotten that we needed lunch at noon. So again sandwishes at the bar.
Posted 24 January 2008 - 01:48 PM
In the afternoon, a boat tour was planned. But that appeared to be a problem too. Who would be our guide? In the end they found a young boy to do that. Our first step appeared to be no more than 100m further on the river. That was the monkey-refuge. Andit was just time to feed those monkeys. Such coincidence! There were even some benches to sit on, so you can sit down to watch the monkeys being fed!
Sorry, I'm in a sarcastic mood. The monkeys liked being photographed from every side and one even sat on Mira's head. All great pictures, but it was so ridiculously obvious that this was no real refuge. This was all set up just for the tourists. The proof came the day afterwards, when at the very same time, a group went to the "refuge", and got the same "show".
Here's one of the stars of the monkey show:
After this "show", the boat tour brought us to some small side-arms (duh) of the river near the hotel. Nature was very beautiful, and very peaceful there. We did not see lots of nimals, but we enjoyed this anyway. The trip was too short though. I'd preferred a "river" that was longer than 500M...
Here's what I'd liked to have spent a couple of hours on:
On the way back, Mira started summing a few things up; both trips of today were below par, and for the day after that things didn't look that good either (survival instead of trekking). On top of that, we had paid for our lunch twice now, while actually we had paid for an all-in arrangement.
She convinced me to go to the front desk once more, and to get it all sorted out. While I didn't like the idea at all, and while I didn't look forward to another meeting with RingRing (that was his nickname by now, as he did nothing else but call al the time), I knew she was right. Because if we didn't, the day after that would be $@#§ç as well.
Well, it ended up being exactly what I feared; loooong discussions, with Mr. RingRing calling half of Brazil again, and laughing at us. In the end, I just exploded, and demanded to see a manager. They always said that "he was not there", but this time I did not give in. When I got angry, all-of-a-sudden he WAS there after all!
What a relief! This guy spoke fluint English, he let us finish a sentence. He heard our complete story, and easily concluded we were 100% right.
After that he made ONEphone call (learn something, Mr. RingRing) to the local tour operator (office in Manaus). And that very operator proved to be the culprit. The change of program WAS sent from Cosmic Travel (our Belgian tour operator) to this tour operator, only this local operator forgot to pass it on to the lodge. According to the manager this had happened before, hence why he knew who to call straigh away.
Next he took care of a couple of things, and gave Mr. RingRing the order to pay back our two lunches. What followed next, nobody can believe. Neither could we. Mr. RingRing objected! Well, the manager raised his voice a bit, and Mr. RingRing bit the dust.
At dinner, another sobering experience; the parrots a saw in the garden yesterday turned out to be "hotel pets". They came begging for food, and the tourists happily provided them with all they wanted. The most greasy and unsuited food first.
We also noted something else; even though me & Mira are in our late 30's we appeared to be the youngest people in the hotel. All other guests were 50 or even 60+, most of them were in a big group of French people and a group of Japanese people.
We went back to our room and hoped the day afte that would be better.
Here's one more creepy crawler for you: