Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

In the Wilds of Brazil

Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

In the Wilds of Brazil

Article excerpt

Speeding toward the setting sun in a small boat, my heart began to race when I heard our guide say that a jaguar had been spotted further downstream.

After less than a day in the Pantanal, we were on the verge of an encounter with the big cat, but navigating at night in the tiny craft was unsafe, and as the light began to fade so did our chances. Rounding the river's many bends, we held onto our seats and clung to the hope that the wildlife mecca would live up to its stellar reputation.

Often overshadowed by the legendary Amazon, the Pantanal, meaning swamp or marsh in Portuguese, is arguably the better place to see many of Brazil's incredible animals. Unlike the dense rain forest of the Amazon, the Pantanal is full of open spaces, small beaches and riverbanks that offer excellent opportunities to view wildlife. The region also proudly boasts the physically largest jaguars in the world and the highest concentration of the big cats anywhere on the planet.

Encompassing an area of almost 75,000 square miles, the Pantanal lies predominantly in Brazil and extends into portions of Paraguay and Bolivia. Flooding during the wet season causes many animals to head for high ground, but in the dry season, roughly April through October, when rivers shrink and watering holes begin to vanish, animals tend to congregate at the river's edge, making them easier to find.

While the chance to spot an elusive jaguar in the wild was the main reason for our visit, my girlfriend Anne and I were also eager to see many of the Pantanal's other fascinating creatures. We did not have to wait long.

Starting in the city of Cuiaba, which is about 800 miles northwest of Sao Paulo and in the exact center of South America, we were picked up by our guide and driver Ailton.

Our gateway to the Pantanal was the Transpantaneira Highway, the start of which is about a 1 1/2-hour drive from the city of Cuiaba. The Transpantaneira cuts close to 90 miles into the Pantanal before ending at the Cuiaba River in Porto Jofre.

Despite the "highway" designation, the Transpantaneira is actually a pothole-filled dirt road that can become impassible after a heavy rainstorm. The lack of a sealed surface and more than 100 wooden slat bridges makes for a bumpy ride, but the Transpantaneira is a wonderful place for spotting wildlife and our first encounter occurred almost immediately.

Moments after passing under the large, wooden "Transpantaneira" sign that serves as the highway's unofficial start, we were forced to yield as a large caiman leisurely crossed the road, welcoming us with a toothy grin as it lumbered along.

Driving through the enormous, open wetland, we spotted countless birds searching the shallows for food such as the imposing jabiru, a white, black and red stork with an 8-foot wingspan. Scattered among the colorfully feathered birds and caiman were partially submerged capybara; these large semi-aquatic rodents can weigh more than 100 pounds and look a bit like giant guinea pigs.

With wildlife all around us it was difficult to know which direction to look; often as Ailton was enthusiastically telling us about a species we had just seen, another fascinating creature would appear. While some animals lingered, unperturbed by our presence, others like the lesser anteater and ring-tailed coati allowed only a fleeting glimpse before scurrying away.

About an hour into the drive we spotted an anaconda crossing the road; only its tail was visible and the majority of the 10-foot snake was in the brush moving away from us. We pulled over, jumped out, and followed Ailton to a spot ahead of the snake at the water's edge where we quietly watched as the entirety of the anaconda slithered past us, a few yards away.

The Transpantaneira is renowned for wildlife viewing, but the waterways of the Pantanal are said to be even more incredible, so when we arrived at Porto Jofre we were eager to meet our new guide, Chaco, and boat pilot, Zizinho. …

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