Before I begin my tale of our Brazilian wildlife adventure, I guess I should tell you a little about what inspired this trip. I am an avid reader of travel guides and upon perusing my Lonely Planet Brazil book last year, I discovered that the second rated thing to do in Brazil, besides visit the Christ statue, was to see the wildlife in the Pantanal. In September we always get a week off to celebrate the Chilean National Holiday, el Dieciocho, and this usually ends up being a trip designed most for Jon´s tastes. Last year, for example, we went to Iguazu Falls, which he had been dying to see. After a bit of research into the Pantanal, we both decided it was definitely worth putting on our travel agenda for our September spring break.
The Pantanal is a wetland area located in the Amazon basin in the central/ western part of the country. We learned that there is a wet season and a dry season in the area, and so we were pleased to find that September falls in the middle of the dry season, the best time for wildlife viewing. Our first big challenge was finding a tour company to take us on our Brazilian safari. We did a lot of internet research and found some trips we liked, but they all seemed pretty much the same. After I re-read the guidebook I encountered a paragraph about a company called Focus Tours based out of the states that specializes in ecological preservation of the region. The book said that if you were short on time (we only had a week…) and didn´t mind paying more, than this was the best company to go with. Normally we don´t mind paying more for quality trips, so this wasn´t really a problem for us. When we contacted Focus Tours we discovered that their trip sounded pretty amazing, but unfortunately, was WAY out of our price range. It was going to be over 4,000 dollars a person for a week, not including flights. We contacted the company and said we loved the tour, but asked if there was any way to bring down the price by perhaps making the trip public so others could share in the costs of food and fuel.
Almost immediately, a man by the name of Douglas Trent contacted Jon back and said that he was a researcher associated with Focus Tours. In fact, he used to run Focus Tours but only until he started this non-profit environmental project called Bichos do Pantanal. He offered to have us sponsor his research (cutting the cost of the trip in half) and that we could then accompany him on his boat for the week. We could help him count species of wildlife and take pictures, or simply come along for the ride if we didn´t want to do any work. Well, after hearing this Jon was over the moon. He was more excited about this trip than I´d ever seen him before. You see, before Jon met me he was definitely more of the adventurous type. After college he spent a month in the Wyoming wilderness (without showering) while completing a challenging NOLS certification course. The summer before our move to China he traveled to Madagascar with a group called Earth Watch in order to help a scientist there study the fossa, a mixture between a cat and a mongoose, featured in the Disney movie. During our first year of China, he was famous for sleeping on a bench in Guilin with another colleague because they could not find a hotel room. On our first big trip the summer after we met, he spent an extra three weeks trekking through Borneo while I went to London for my International Teaching Courses. Anyway, the long and short of it is, that since Jon has met me our travel has definitely become less adventurous and more comfortable, which I sometimes feel guilty about. I can no longer really stay in hostels and have become accustomed to creature comforts. I´m hoping it´s a sign that we´re getting older and have outgrown the backpacker lifestyle, but maybe it´s because I´m spoiled. Probably a combination! As soon as I stepped foot on the Bichos do Pantanal boat and saw where we would be spending the next 7 nights of our trip I knew I would have to get used to my former style of traveling. But more about that later!
Arrival in Brazil
Jon and I departed for the Santiago airport directly after our annual Dieciocho faculty party on Friday. This was the first time we had left for our vacation on Friday afternoon and I would definitely not do it again. We had to pack in the middle of a busy workweek which is never fun. I was also pretty ill leading up to the trip as I got a bad case of food poisoning from some swiss chard two days before we left and had lost most of my bodily fluids. Needless to say, I forgot a few things, but luckily, Jon was very adept at packing all the outdoor necessities we would need for our wildlife trip. He made sure we had all of our camera gear, bug spray, and sunscreen; all I had to do was pack a few items of comfy clothing.
On Friday afternoon, I performed in the Dieciocho show. I was a back-up dancer with six other ladies to Venir Al Sur, a popular Spanish song that most of the Chileans in the audience knew. Since the theme of the party was Welcome to the Nido Jungle, us dancing ladies were dressed accordingly in animal prints with leis, etc. We were the opening act, so I had just about enough time to change back into regular clothes after our performance before we had to hit the road. Usually Jon and I like to stay till the bitter end of the Dieciocho party for the dance session with the maintenance staff, but I had been told the Santiago airport can be a zoo right before the national holiday, so we left pretty early.
And, unfortunately, our prediction was correct. Despite arriving at the airport three hours before our flight, we barely had time to grab some Subway before boarding the plane. (Yes: Subway is now more prevalent worldwide than McDonalds….) After waiting in line on the tarmac for a good 30 minutes before we could take off, we were on our way! The three and a half hour flight to Sao Paolo was good and I even managed to doze off for a bit. Despite the major airline disasters that have occurred recently, I´m a much better flier now than I was before. I figure if something happens then I´ll just deal with it or be dead and I won´t have a lot of choice about it. Or maybe it´s the Melatonin that I take now before flights that helps keep me calm. Either way, I know Jon´s not complaining about my new attitude towards air travel. I also liked Gol Airlines, which seemed to be Brazil´s version of a low-cost airline like Southwest. They had relatively modern planes that apparently were first owned by Delta, but no first or business class and everyone was seated at the same time.
However, despite the smooth flight, when we arrived in Sao Paolo we discovered that it was only about ten minutes before our other plane to Cuiaba was boarding and we were still on the other plane. That meant we would have to navigate the giant airport, pass through immigration, pick up our bags, get through customs, re-check our bags, go through security, and find our new gate in less than 45 minutes if we wanted to catch our flight. Well, let me tell you- it was a harrowing 45 minutes and involved a lot of stress and running through the airport. When our bags didn´t arrive on the carousel until 25 minutes before our other flight was leaving, I thought for sure we were going to miss our flight. But somehow, we cut a bunch of really long lines, sprinted through the giant airport, and made it onto the plane 5 minutes before takeoff, panting, sweating, and feeling seriously nauseous. I pretty much passed out all the way to Cuiaba and was pleasantly surprised, upon landing, that our bags had made it too.
We arrived in Cuiaba after midnight and checked into our hotel that had been arranged for us. I wouldn´t recommend the Diplomata Hotel unless you are really only looking for a bed to sleep in, but that was pretty much all we needed so we were good to go. When I walked into the extremely hot room I also realized that the fleece and down jacket I brought in case of cool nights were going to be completely unnecessary. In fact, I should have packed a lot more tank tops and shorts. Oh well! Jon and I were both excited and just wanted to sleep so we could get to our destination and see some animals.