Bruce and Marija go to Brazil

Old Sep 18th, 2009, 10:06 AM
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Choosing a Lodge

Caiman Ecological Refuge ( http://www.caiman.com.br ) seems to be the largest eco-tourism resort in the Southern Pantanal, housing 28 guests in two separate lodges. Although it generally receives good reviews we were apprehensive about participating in structured activities geared to fairly large groups, either 12 or 16 people depending on what lodge you're assigned to and whether it's full. Caiman appeared to be fairly regimented accepting guests only on Sundays and Thursdays for programs of either 3 or 4 nights. (A couple in the Amazon who had stayed at Caiman confirmed that it was too regimented for their liking.)

We also considered the Jaguar Research Center, but they failed to respond to inquiries and a google for alternate e-mail addresses uncovered some allegations which gave us pause. Barranco Alto's (http://www.fazendabarrancoalto.com.br ) reviews were quite positive and, except for its difficult to reach location, it seemed like a good choice with flexibility for individual interests--but it was fully booked. Based on a recommendation from Brazilian Nature Tours we selected Embiara Lodge (http://www.embiara.com ), which had only recently opened for tourism, with two newly built cottages and a maximum number of 6 guests. It currently shares an air strip with neighbor Barranco Alto, only 20 minutes away by road, though its own private airstrip is scheduled to open soon. Although we had five nights the hassle of changing lodges, especially when they are far from each other, prompted us to stay in one place.

Getting to Embiara

Although this was supposed to be the dry season it was raining sufficiently hard when we landed at Campo Grande (pronounced Granje) that the airport was closed to small planes, forcing us to scrap our plan of flying directly to Embiara. (If we had arrived later we would have had to return (again) to Sao Paulo since the airport was closed to all traffic!) Brazilian Nature Tours is headquartered in Campo Grande so they knew the weather conditions and met us with the news that we would be driven to Aquidauna, a two hour ride on a good paved road, and flown to Embiara from there, weather allowing. (You can also get to Embiara by driving 6-7 hours from Campo Grande, the last 4 or so on a gravel road.)

Aquidauna airport is just a hanger with several planes, surrounded by fields. We watched with ever increasing apprehension as a plane was fueled, surrounded by an old man with a very unsteady gait and shaking hands, a barefoot 12 year old, and a slightly older fellow sporting flip-flops. The assortment of possible pilots was not reassuring, especially as it continued to rain. When our driver reappeared we were relieved to learn that he was the pilot, although he had left his plane in Campo Grande and was borrowing an unfamiliar plane here. After some discussion with the locals on the operation of this plane he took off with two nervous passengers. We knew if this little plane crashed we would always be remembered for our stupidity. What were they thinking flying in a tiny plane in the rain in the middle of Brazil to go see some birds and anteaters?!
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Old Sep 18th, 2009, 06:40 PM
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It appears the trepidation over the plane ride from Aquidauna (which I would have experienced too) to the free lunch at Sao Paulo's airport to the blow gun security issues are all my fault. I take the blame but how nice of you to give me so much credit.

Can't wait to see what the Pantanal held for you!
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Old Sep 19th, 2009, 08:12 AM
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After further thought, I realize I can claim credit or take blame only for the Pantanal portion. Therefore if your blow gun never makes it out of Dulles on the way back, don't blame me.

"You can also get to Embiara by driving 6-7 hours from Campo Grande, the last 4 or so on a gravel road." I'll keep that in mind for Embiara or Barranco Alto.
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Old Sep 21st, 2009, 04:32 PM
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After some discussion with the locals on the operation of this plane he took off

That's reassuring!

You certainly had your share of flight mishaps but it's making for entertaining reading. Will there be photos? Looking forward to more!
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Old Sep 22nd, 2009, 05:49 PM
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Lynn--we continue to be in your debt. Patty--Bruce is gathering his photos and I'll post the link when he's done. I took video. Thanks for reading!
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Old Sep 22nd, 2009, 06:04 PM
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Embiara Lodge

Despite the intermittent rain, the flight and landing were exemplary (we made it alive!) and our touchdown was witnessed by an enthusiastic group: Marina from Barranco Alto, her little daughter, five of their guests and the owner of Embiara Lodge, Paul Grol, together with a ranch hand. The Barranco Alto guests had been waiting since early morning for a no-show plane that was to take them to Campo Grande and they were hoping to catch a ride with the pilot that brought us. That explained the enthusiasm and the crowd for our arrival. (Since they didn't know that the airport was closed they were very concerned about missing their connections.)

Paul's concern was not about our blowgun but about lunch which was waiting for us at the lodge, so we climbed into one of Embiara's comfortable cars without further security checks. (There are two vehicles for activities, both with enclosed cabins and elevated three in a row outdoor seating.) In twenty minutes we were seated at the table feasting on steak, vegetables and salads, an excellent introduction to the incredible dishes that spring from the kitchen and that will provide extra padding for that trip home if you're not careful. Lunches were "local" dishes, fish and beef from the area, cooked in a traditional manner, while dinners were "international" including tortellini al brodo, Indonesian shrimp and rice, and lasagna. The local dishes were our favorites since we like to eat regional cuisine.

Paul has owned the property for ten years but this is the first year it's open for tourism. Despite many spirited conversations I remain confused about his exact background: he's a Dutchman/Brazilian/Brit who lived in Rio, among many other places, but now has a home outside of London and a varied work history including financier and banker. What's most important is that he's a great hands-on host with genuine concern that you enjoy the Pantanal and Embiara. He accompanied us on many of our activities and joined us for dinner and caipirinhas every evening. (You have to muddle the caipirinhas yourself since the kitchen seems to skip this important step!)

Guests stay in one of the two recently built "cottages" which are furnished with a large bed, sitting area with table and pull out couch, large bathroom with hot shower and two sinks, and a wonderful large wraparound veranda with a hammock and rocking chairs, overlooking a pasture, or in a slightly less expensive room in the main lodge. We quickly settled in to our well appointed cottage, glad that we were staying for five nights and could actually unpack.

The lodge was now full with six guests but two would peel off each day and we would be left alone for the last three nights. There's usually a morning and afternoon activity with meals interspersed, as well as a hide (a.k.a. blind) by the river for observing during free time. You can take walks around the area unescorted, except when wild buffalo are in residence, as they were during most of our visit. We were never bored (or hungry!) and could modify the guided activities to suit us. Embiara hires free lance guides, as do many of the lodges. Our fluent English speaking guide Manoela was excellent, constantly amazing us with her observational skills and encyclopedic knowledge, plus her ability to call birds with recordings played on an amplified iPod.

Our first activity, an evening safari with Paul, came to an abrupt end due to a fierce storm but not before we befriended a jabiru stork who followed our vehicle, perhaps thinking we were fishermen who would throw out some tasty morsels. Weather patterns in the Pantanal, like in so many places, are deviating from the usual--a dry rainy season and now a rainy dry season. Before our arrival a huge storm broke the grip of an intense heat wave and toppled many trees which slowed driving; throughout our stay the weather was quite cool and the possibility of rain ever present. Good planning (thanks, Lynn!) to bring rain jackets and warm clothes.

Over caipirinhas we met the other guests, a jolly pair of women from Scotland and a babymooning English couple, cutting it very close with a seven and a half month pregnancy. Why would you travel to such a remote destination so late in a first pregnancy with a high-risk "old" mom?! That made some of our questionable decisions seem downright sensible. The expectant parents left the next morning, fortunately without the stork making a return appearance.

In the morning we set off for a long walk with Manoela, stopping repeatedly to listen to birds and to see them when we were quick enough to follow her directions. This was also the scene of my greatest ornithological triumph: a bird with a white rump is perched in a tree and I whisper loudly: WHITE RUMPED MOJITO, (the most famous bird of the Pantanal for fodorites everywhere.) Our companions are awe struck by my brilliance, Bruce is doubled over with laughter, and Manoela gently corrects me: White Rumped Monjita. Oops! but close enough to be staggeringly brilliant. It was downhill from there for me on wildlife identification...
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Old Sep 24th, 2009, 06:38 PM
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A large group of giant river otters inhabits the river close to the lodge and we observed them for some time from the hide. In particular the rituals surrounding their toilet behavior were fascinating to watch: they very carefully bury their treasures in the sand, and prior to river re-entry all otter offspring were required to make a pit stop and then clean up. The highlight of our evening drive was observing an amazing giant anteater with her child -- a creature which makes a wildebeest seem graceful, well-designed, and thoughtfully constructed. Anteaters were definitely our favorites.

The many jaguar footprints around the lodge encouraged Manoela to plan a 4:30 AM jaguar safari for the next morning. Based on historical data from both Paul and Manoela, I knew this was a long shot, but we compliantly poured ourselves into the vehicle and set off. Although we only saw jaguar prints, we were comforted by knowing that the jaguar probably saw us... Although the jaguar eluded us, we did see a puma and a jaguarundi during our stay. We also witnessed a black-and-white hawk eagle (Manoela had never seen one) standing atop a partially devoured toucan. When we returned half an hour later, on the way back to the lodge, eagle and toucan were high in a treetop.

Our days were happily spent enjoying the remarkable variety of birds and other animals which call the Pantanal home (see Lynn's list for details!), except when it was storming. We even saw a giant anteater with the baby off her back. On our last day, Bruce's birthday (hint: the two digits add to 12), he wanted to find interesting small objects to photograph with his macro lens so we set off for another walk. Photos of flowers, nuts and seeds were painstakingly (and artistically, of course) snapped. Then we came upon a fire ant nest which I saw as something to flee, while Bruce saw it as an opportunity for photographic expression. The fire ants celebrated Bruce's birthday with 70 or so bright red kisses to his legs... (Somehow, he didn't even get any good pictures). The day was salvaged by a special birthday barbeque and incredible cake from the Embiara kitchen.

The unpredictable and sometimes stormy weather concerned me. Every time it rained, I wondered what would happen if our plane couldn't come get us. When the sun reappeared I debated trying to flee the Pantanal while we could. (Since it's at least a 6 hour drive to Campo Grande, we couldn't catch our early afternoon flight to Sao Paulo unless we left well before the scheduled plane arrival.) When we were ready to leave, luck was with us and our plane landed in Campo Grande with only a slight glitch--the onboard transponder didn't work so we couldn't land in the big Campo Grande airport, but had to land in a smaller one a half-hour drive away.

Once we arrived at the Campo Grande International airport, all attention focused once again on that ridiculous blow gun. As we approached the check-in counter a woman directing traffic addressed us loudly (in Portuguese) and shook her head no, as Bruce leaned very lamely on his cane. The man issuing the boarding passes laughed her off and told us (in English) that she thought the cane was a bow-and-arrow. This was a discussion we didn't want to have so we smiled, grabbed the boarding passes and headed for the cafe for some lunch. (The Camp Grande airport has a fairly large restaurant with both buffet and menu items. It's to the left of the check in counters if you're facing them.)

There was a long line at the security counter so we slipped by unchallenged. My fear now was that Bruce was overdoing his lame act and would break the flimsy, hollow device by putting too much weight on it. We couldn't abandon it now, it was almost part of the family. Our final destination was Rio, but we had to pass through Sao Paulo again, a sinkhole that had trapped us before. Despite delays in Sao Paulo and more discussion about the blow gun with security we reached our hotel in Ipanema without any problems. It was poor planning to return to Rio for one night before catching another flight that inevitably went back through Sao Paulo, but that was the price we paid for free tickets.

The flight to Dulles was uneventful, except for security checks in Rio and Sao Paulo where puzzled screeners huddled over x-ray cameras before letting Bruce through. The screeners in Dulles must have had a special session devoted to "unusual and lethal" devices since Bruce was summoned back to the security area while putting his shoes on and subjected to extensive interrogation while several agents inspected the innocent hollow cane and speculated about the purpose of smaller side tubes--which in fact were intended to mimic quivers of curare-laced darts. When he emphatically proclaimed "this is my mobility assistance device," they relented, perhaps recalling a buzzword from their training, although one agent suggested they could search the web for images of similar objects.

Too soon we landed in Chicago and this trip that clearly exceeded expectations came to an end.
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Old Sep 24th, 2009, 08:49 PM
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I bet that's the last blow gun you buy as a souvenir. With 70 fire ant bites, Bruce is lucky he didn't need a "mobility assistance device." That must have been terrible.

You saw a puma!? Hardly anybody sees a puma. Where? When? I bet your guide was surprised. And few people see a jagarundi.

The hide/blind seems interesting. Are any of your photos taken from it? If so, I'd like to know which ones.

Monjita, Mojito, what's the difference among friends anyway? Glad we could give Bruce a laugh with that one, though.

The black and white hawk eagles must be entering the area. That was the birding highlight of our trip and the guide's behavior certainly indicated the rarity of the sighting. And your guide had never seen one before either.

That's great you saw the anteater with a baby. The otters are a lucky find too and witnessing bathroom behavior is unique.

Thanks for a most entertaining report.
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Old Sep 25th, 2009, 10:49 AM
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I loved following the adventures of the blow gun. Thanks for your report and looking forward to the photos!
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Old Sep 25th, 2009, 12:35 PM
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Thanks so much for taking the time to write this report. I loved reading it and looked forward to every new chapter. I know how much work goes into one of these reports, and I really appreciate your doing it.
I'll be going to Brazil in April and will try to do as good as job as you did re-telling the journey.
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Old Sep 25th, 2009, 10:25 PM
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Marija,

thank you so much for this great report. How lucky to see a giant anteater with young, and a puma and jaguarundi.

Hope Bruce recovered from the fire ants OK, what a way to celebrate a birthday.

Cheers,

Pol
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Old Sep 26th, 2009, 07:44 AM
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fire ants!!!
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Old Sep 27th, 2009, 08:21 AM
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Thanks so much for this detailed and entertaining report! It is so helpful to learn about lodges this way, though this hasn't made it any easier to pick a Pantanal lodge -- Embiara sounds really nice! I am having a hard time deciding between North and South Pantanal..
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Old Sep 30th, 2009, 09:53 AM
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Thanks for your comments. Here are some photos:

http://www.kodakgallery.com/ShareLan...localeid=en_US
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Old Sep 30th, 2009, 01:39 PM
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Thanks for your photos! I like the underwater dolphin with the air bubble. Nice macaw taking off! Is that the Akubra Bruce is wearing?
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Old Sep 30th, 2009, 06:03 PM
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You had otters all over, in the water and amazingly out of the water. Nice variety of macaws too. The blue and yellow are hard to find. The anteater with the baby is just precious--a really outstanding sighting. The ant bites are just awful. Nice and close with the dolphins.

A most successful trip!
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Old Oct 7th, 2009, 05:50 PM
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Now where are Bruce and Marija going?
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Old Oct 15th, 2009, 05:58 AM
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Thank you for the wonderful report. We also did Amazon and the Patanal in our 12-day trip. Here's my takeaway:

1. Booking.

I suggest finding a tour operator for non-city trips in big countries. I did my own planning and booking for Ecuador and CR. But with Brazil, I couldn't get far creating an itinerary on my own.

We worked with BNT. Emailed them for a suggestion on "spending 12 days, to the Patanal, and if possible, the Amazons."

Heard back right away with a few itineraries at different price points. From the descriptions, we choose this one:

4 nights at Anavilhanas Lodge (later, Anavilhanas said they were actually booked up, so we changed to Juma Lodge)
4 nights at Embiara

2. Air travel.
Get ready for some serious flying if you want to do Amazon+Patanal. We must've spent a total of 2 full-days on plane seats. Brazil is such a big country.

3. Lodges
Juma was alright overall. Food was good and filling. Guides were good. Rooms were nice. The lake view from the room was *excellent*. It was a screen saver. The only 2 things I wished were different was 1. noise construction of new cabins (as of Aug 2009) and 2. motor boat traffic on the lake.

Juma did upgrade us from standard room to lake view room though. And they tried to do the construction around the times we were out on activities. I give them credit for doing that. But the speed boats on the lake couldn't be helped, I think, since it is a large lake, and almost all the boats we saw around were motor ones.

We liked very much Embiara's lodging, atmosphere and wildlife. Thanks to Paul preserving it. We also had Manoela as our guide. She was superb.

All in all, we had a good time in Brazil. The highlight of the trip was actually working with BNT. We had some issues with my credit card. It took 2 months to resolve. Never once did John push us during this time. At the end, everything was resolved.

It really made a difference for us feeling that we had someone to help us in a big country.

Happy travels everyone!
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Old Oct 15th, 2009, 09:40 AM
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Leatherback-- I agree with everything you wrote with the exception that "the highlight of the trip was actually working with BNT." I find giant anteaters and Amazon sunsets much more amazing than BNT, although I very much appreciate the great services provided by BNT.

Patty--yes, that's Bruce's infamous Akubra which survived its trip to East Africa.

Lynn--we're thinking South East Asia but who knows where we'll end up. I saw that you're considering India and tigers. Check for school groups before you book!
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Old Oct 16th, 2009, 03:41 AM
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Marija, re: India and tigers what do you mean "check for school groups before you book"? We've already booked this for Feb 2010...uh oh?

Good to hear a second thumbs up on Embiara...it's filed away for future use.

Marsha
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