Brasilia, So. Pantanal & Bonito

Old Jul 30th, 2016, 12:38 PM
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Brasilia, So. Pantanal & Bonito

May 25 - June 8 marked my fourth trip to Brazil with all new destinations. Travel was via American Airlines and TAM from Miami. I traveled with a group from Friendship Force International and our first stop was a homestay in Brasilia followed by an eco-tour of the Southern Pantanal and Bonito.

The goal of the homestay is to learn how the locals live, establish friendships and experience daily life. My host and I discovered that both of our great-great grandparents had immigrated in 1857. Mine arrived in Canada from England, while hers arrived in Brazil from Portugal, so that was just one thing besides our love of hummingbirds that we had in common.

Our hosts generously opened up their homes, shared with us birthday celebrations, a party at one of the embassies, tours of the city and as a bonus, we got to view the sawdust "carpets" being designed and created by youth groups for the Corpus Christi holiday.

Our first night we went to hear Brazilian guitarist, Turibio Santos, at Clube do Choro. Our front row table was right up against the stage and he was just fantastic. The next day was the Corpus Christi holiday so everything was closed, but someone arranged for us to privately visit the CAIXA headquarters to see the beautiful stained glass windows that represent each state. Fantastic!

We brought donations for a local non-profit organization called Abrace which helps children with cancer and their families. We toured their facility and were quite impressed with how they assist children throughout Brazil.

Brasilia is a city unlike any other in Brazil (or maybe the world!) with its modern architecture and planned neighborhood units. The JK museum was quite informative and it was interesting to learn about him and Oscar Niemeyer along with the background and design of the city. The Dom Bosco church with its cobalt blue stained glass windows was stunning and the ultra modern cathedral with the flying angels was amazing. We loved the echo circle at the Indigenous Peoples Museum and the JK Bridge has to be one of the most beautiful bridges in the world.

During our stay with our Brasilia hosts we took an overnight trip to the charming colonial town of Pirenopolis and what a contrast it is to Brasilia! The tiny cobblestone streets, tiled roofs, markets and outdoor cafes on Rua do Lazer were wonderful to explore on foot or via tuk-tuk. We stayed at Hotel Pousada Mandala - large, clean rooms and a great breakfast buffet. We had lunch both days at Restaurante Tempero do Rosario right across from the church on the main square and their buffet certainly offers something for everyone.

The caipirinhas at Emporio do Cerrado were delicious and for ice, they use a caipirinha popsicle - what a great idea! We spent the evening having drinks at a streetside table, but loved the decor of the restaurant with every table using different dinner and glassware. We spent a relaxing morning at Refugio Avalon enjoying the waterfall and gardens with its quirky art.

Next we flew down to Campo Grande in Mato Grosso do Sul and headed for Pousada Fazenda San Francisco. We had our own transportation and private English speaking guide, Luiz Paiva Filho, who was fantastic, so knowledgeable. He was concerned that we wouldn't see much wildlife since it was the transition season (early June) and the rains had not yet stopped. As everyone kept saying the rain gods didn't realize it was almost winter! But, wow, we were so impressed by seeing 5 ocelots in 45 minutes on our first night safari. Luiz cautioned us that this was quite unusual and that we were very lucky.

We spent three nights here and went on day and night photo safaris and had many sightings of giant anteaters, jabirus, capybaras, a 10' yellow anaconda, brown capuchins, wood storks, hyacinth macaws, giant river otter, blue & yellow macaws and 54 more species of birds that I noted. There were many more that I didn't write down, so needless to say, this is a great area for birders. The night spottings of the owls, caimans, giant anteaters, ocelots, foxes and deer were excellent. The safari trucks hold about 20 people with each row of seats raised so everyone has a good view from each level. The safaris go along the irrigated rice fields, canals and native forests.

In addition to the safaris, we went out on the double decker boat called a chalana on Corixo Sao Domingo where we fished for piranhas. There were several caimans, capped and cocoi herons, more kingfishers than I've ever seen before (three species), anhingas, Neotropic cormorants, chestnut-earred aracaris and even the golden collared macaw. Brown capuchins were spotted swinging in the trees. We also took a smaller boat out on the Rio Miranda one morning with more wildlife being spotted and saw the meeting of the waters with the distinctive colors of each river. Our guide said he had never seen the Rio Miranda this high and the amount of recent rain was unusual.

We went horseback riding along the roads and paths of the fazenda. The horses were very well trained and knew exactly where to go. We passed by hundreds of termite mounds rising up out of the fields and numerous groups of capybaras.

We also were able to walk on the boardwalk (during the rainy season, the boardwalk is often flooded) to the observation tower with great views. Along the boardwalk we saw caimans, waddled jacanas, a vermillion flycatcher and a tree full of black-crowned night herons. One of the fazenda managers took us there and pointed out jaguar poop - even to the extent of what it ate (caiman, capybara) since she could tell from the teeth and hair that was in the poop. There were jaguar footprints in numerous locations, including one on the boardwalk that wasn't there when we went to the observation tower! Sadly we never got to see one, only footprints and poop. Usually one out of every three people will see a jaguar here. Because I had zero expectations of seeing a jaguar, I wasn't disappointed, but was thrilled to see so many giant anteaters, ocelots and jabirus!

Activities are well coordinated and organized. The staff went out of their way to make sure we all saw and were able to photograph the various birds and wildlife, both on the day and night safaris.

Fazenda San Franciso is huge with a total of 15,000 hectares or 37,000 acres. Much of the land is leased out to farmers for rice production and the rest is conserved for the environment and wildlife, including a hyacinth macaw project. Roberta is one of the managers and speaks English, while most staff members do not. Her family owns the property and she is the fourth generation to be working there. We met her parents and sisters who all work for the fazenda. The rooms were clean, spacious and had a/c and small refrigerators. We stopped before getting there so we could purchase large bottles of water to have in our rooms, instead of buying smaller bottles each day.

Meals are buffet style with a few options to choose from with most of it varying from day to day. Eggs are available at breakfast if you ask for them. Although some comments mentioned the influx of day-trippers, we didn't feel overcrowded at any meals. Usually we were gone on our tours before the buses arrived, so only saw large crowds for lunch, but there is ample seating. Most drinks are not included and you are given a card to keep track of your drinks. Wi-fi is available in the lobby/patio area, but is very weak. You are quite isolated, so it's nice to have it at all! The night sky is incredibly clear with thousands of stars and it was fun to pick out the Southern Cross.

This was a great introduction to the Southern Pantanal and we were quite impressed with the family's dedication to the environment and the different research projects that are conducted on their property.

We left after lunch and traveled about three hours to Bonito, the center of Brazil's eco-tourism activities. I had never heard of Bonito prior to working with Tropical Travel and had considered staying at Fazenda San Francisco for an entire week. My travel agent (who is Brazilian) suggested Bonito for change of pace and activities from the Southern Pantanal. Wow, was she right!

We stayed five nights at Pousada Olho d'Agua located about 1 1/2 miles outside of Bonito. It was a good choice with large rooms, great food (B.,D) and heat - yes, we needed some heat in the evenings as the temps were dropping and it still rained off/on. Toco toucans were in the trees and agoutis were hopping around on the ground.

Our first day we went to Gruta do Lago Azul and walked down the 300 steps (easy walk) to the bottom to an absolutely fantastic blue lake. I've never seen the vivid royal blue color of water like this - it all has to do with the refraction of light from the opening of the cave. There are some interesting formations on the walls, but the main point of interest is the incredible color of the water. This was a rainy day so it was a good activity for the morning.

That afternoon was spent at Estancia Mimosa where we hiked to seven beautiful waterfalls. Since I live in a very flat area with slow moving bayous, waterfalls are a special treat. Toco toucans were in the trees along with bare-faced currasows, chacalacas, gray necked wood rail, plush-crested jays and a red-legged seriema. A tapir was in the forest walking up the hillside and was the first sighting of one. Luckily the rain had stopped.

The next day we went to Nascente Azul for a short snorkeling excursion of about 30 minutes. This was a good introduction for those who hadn't snorkeled in a while or for their first time. The natural spring water was incredibly clear and you could see the water bubbling up from the sand. There were several different types of fish and you could easily see the bottom. Although there were other activities offered, we only snorkeled and then ate a good buffet lunch. Sadly, I didn't have an underwater camera, so have no photos of the crystal clear water here or at Rio da Prata.

In late afternoon we enjoyed floating down the Rio Formoso in large rafts. It's a calm river with three or four waterfalls, so you can't call it white water rafting. Brown capuchins were snoozing on tree branches and beginning to settle in for the evening. There are many other activities available at Rio Formoso but it was almost dark by the time we returned, so we headed back to the hotel.

The next morning we went to Rio da Prata for more snorkeling. After we suited up and were driven to the river path, the guide at the dock made a motion to quiet us. He pointed to the springs pool and there was a huge tapir gliding towards us! It swam right across from us, walked out of the water and disappeared into the forest. Talk about a magical moment - what a way to start a snorkeling excursion, just unforgettable!!

Rio da Prata has the clearest river water that I've ever seen and the best snorkeling I've experienced anywhere. (Great Barrier Reef, Bahamas, Costa Rica and Colombia's Rosario Islands) The water was crystal clear and we saw loads of different species and colors of fish. There are a total of 31 species found in this part of the river. The golden dorado was gorgeous! It rained while we were in the river, but it didn't matter. The river was running fairly fast and we had to get out at one point and walk around some fast rapids. On the way back to the center we spotted buff-necked ibis and greater rheas in the fields. While eating lunch there were red and green macaws, a gilded emerald hummingbird and toco toucans in the trees. This will go down as one of those days you'll always remember!

That afternoon we went to Buraco das Araras or Macaw's Sinkhole which at 407' or 124m deep is the largest sinkhole in South America. Red and green macaws nest along the sides of the canyons and were perched in the trees along with peach-fronted parakeets and a few blue and yellow macaws. There's a trail that goes around the sinkhole, two observation decks and a lagoon with a few caimans in the bottom. The owner, Modesto, was there and talked to us about his conservation program. He also brought out his berrante which is used to call the animals in from the fields.

Our last day was spent at Rio do Peixe where we walked the trail to the several waterfalls. A few people were swimming (w/o wetsuits), but they looked pretty cold! There are numerous brown capuchins in the trees around the grounds and I got the best monkey photos that I've ever taken. There were also three types of macaws in one tree - the hyacinth, the red and green and the blue and yellow. It was pretty awesome to see these three macaws at one time. We also spotted another tapir on the grounds along with a red-legged seriema, giant anteater and capybaras.

Although Zika was a concern prior to our trip, we saw very, very few mosquitoes. I counted 6 in two weeks and we were in prime mosquito territory. I had taken enough repellent to last a month and brought most of it home. Luiz told us that he had 18 tours cancel out on him because of Zika concerns.

This was a fantastic experience with many new friends made in Brasilia and wonderful experiences in the southern Panantal and Bonito. I highly recommend this region for all wildlife and nature enthusiasts as you will not be disappointed. Maybe it was the time of year (or Zika concerns), but at the vast majority of places we visited in Bonito and during our stay at the fazenda, we were the only English speaking visitors. It certainly is a gem and Brazilians are quite fortunate to have all of this in their country!

Here is a link to some of the photos from the trip:
https://www.flickr.com/photos/145349...57670719886562
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Old Jul 30th, 2016, 03:18 PM
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Thanks for the report. It was an enjoyable read.
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Old Jul 30th, 2016, 04:14 PM
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Thanks! It was such a fantastic time, especially to a place (Bonito) that I had never heard of before planning this trip.
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Old Jul 30th, 2016, 04:53 PM
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Thanks for sharing. I enjoyed your wonderful report and accompanying photographs. Brazil is high on my list for a return visit and the Pantanal is on it.
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Old Jul 30th, 2016, 05:08 PM
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The Pantantal is a dream come true and you will love it!
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