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RAPIDINHAS

RAPIDINHAS

By Brazzil Magazine

Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul are separate states, although until the late ’70s
this region was all Mato Grosso state. The vast wetlands of the Pantanal extend across
parts of both states.

Mato Grosso

There’s a well-known story about a naturalist in the Mato Grosso. Disoriented by the
sameness of the forest, the naturalist asked his Indian guide—who had killed a bird,
put it in a tree and, incredibly, knew where to return for it at the end of the
day—how he knew where the tree was. ‘It was in the same place’ the Indian replied.

To begin to appreciate the Mato Grosso’s inaccessibility and vastness, read the classic
Brazilian Adventure, by Peter Fleming. It also happens to be one of the funniest
travel books ever written. Fleming tells the story of his quest to find the famous British
explorer Colonel Fawcett, who disappeared in the Mato Grosso in 1925 while searching for
the hidden city of gold. For a more scientific report on the region, see Mato Grosso:
Last Virgin Land, by Anthony Smith.

Mato Grosso means bundu, bush, Savannah, outback; an undeveloped thick scrub. Part of
the highland plain that runs through Brazil’s interior, the Mato Grosso is a dusty land of
rolling hills and some of the best fishing rivers in the world, such as the Araguaia.

This is also the land where many of Brazil’s remaining Indians live. They are being
threatened by rapid agricultural development (which is bringing in poor peasants from the
south and Northeast who are desperate for land) and by a government, which is less than
fully committed to guaranteeing them their rights. In 1967, an entire government agency,
the Indian Protective Service, was dissolved. No less than 134 of its 700 employees were
charged with crimes and 200 were fired. In two years, the director had committed 42
separate crimes against Indians, including collusion in murder, torture and the illegal
sale of land.

There’s a saying in Brazil that ‘progress is roads’. Key routes such as the Belém to
Brasília and the Cuiabá to Santarém roads have catalyzed the opening of vast stretches
of the Mato Grosso to cattle, rice, cotton, soybean, corn and manioc, as well as to
mining. Goiás, where wealthy ranchers fly from one end of their huge tracts of land to
the other in private planes, is one of the fastest-growing agricultural belts in the
country.

Cuiabá is a frontier boomtown. New roads have opened the lands of the Mato Grosso and
southern Amazon, bringing to the area peasants desperate for land, and increasing exports
of agricultural products. Since the 1950s, Cuiabá’s population has been growing at 14%
annually, a national record. It is the boomtown in the country of boomtowns. In
1969 Cuiabá got its first TV channel, the litmus test of progress in Brazil. It was named
the boca do sertão (mouth of the backlands).

This is Brazil’s frontier, the Wild West, where an often-desperate struggle for land
between peasants, Indians, miners, rich landowners and hired guns leads to frequent
killings and illegal land expropriation.

CUIABÁ

Founded in 1719 by gold and slave-seeking bandeirantes, Cuiabá has little
historic or cultural heritage to interest travelers. However, it’s a lively place and a
good base for excursions into the Pantanal and Chapada dos Guimarães, as well as a rest
stop on the way to the Amazon and expeditions to Parque Nacional das Emas and the Rio
Araguaia.

The city is actually two sister cities separated by the Rio Cuiabá: old Cuiabá and
Várzea Grande (where the airport is located, by the Rio Cuiabá). We found the people
here incredibly friendly and gracious.

History

A Paulista, Pascoal Moreira Cabral, was hunting Indians along the Rio Cuiabá
when he found gold in 1719. A gold rush followed, but many gold-seekers never reached
Cuiabá. Traveling over 3000 km from São Paulo by river took five months; along the way
there was little food, many mosquitoes, rapids, portages, disease and incredible heat.

There was usually one flotilla of canoes each year, bringing supplies, slaves and
miners and returning with gold. Although there were several hundred people in a flotilla,
including many soldiers to protect the canoes against Indian attacks, the expeditions
often failed. With the end of the gold boom and the decay of the mines, Cuiabá would have
disappeared, except that the gold was never completely exhausted (garimpeiros still
seek their fortunes today); also, the soil along the Rio Cuiabá allowed subsistence
agriculture, while the river itself provided fish.

As in many mining towns, there was tension here between Paulistas and recent
Portuguese immigrants. In 1834, the small town was torn apart by the Rusga (Brawl), in
which a nativist movement of Paulistas, inspired by wild rumors following Brazilian
independence, slaughtered many Portuguese on the pretext that the victims wanted to return
Brazil to Portuguese rule.

Information
Tourist Office

Funcetur (322-5363), the Mato Grosso tourist authority, is in the city center, in
Praça da República. The staff are helpful, speak English, and have information on hotels
and pousadas in the Pantanal. The office is open Monday to Friday from 8 am to 6
pm.

Money

Bemat, the state bank, has an exchange on the corner of Rua Joaquim Murtinho and
Avenida Getúlio Vargas, which changes cash and travelers’ checks; it’s open from 10 am to
3 pm Monday to Friday. The Banco do Brasil, a bit further up Avenida Getúlio Vargas, also
exchanges money.

Post & Telephone

The post office is in Praça da República, next to Turimat. The posto telefônico is
on Rua Barão de Melgaço, near the corner with Avenida Isaac Póvoas.

Health

Remember to start taking your anti-malarial tablets prior to visiting the Pantanal.
Cuiabá’s municipal hospital (321-7418) is on Avenida General Valle. Hospital Modelo
(322-5599), a private clinic at Rua Comandante Costa 1262, is within walking distance of
the Hotel Mato Grosso. Hospital Universidade (Jaime Müller), on Avenida CPA, is open only
during business hours.

Museu do Índio

Cuiabá’s tourist brochures make much noise about satellite-tracking antennas, but the
antennas are no big deal. The Museu do Índio (Rondon) is, however, played down. The
museum has exhibits of the Xavantes, Bororos and Karajás tribes and is worth a visit. It
is at the university, on Avenida Fernando Correia da Costa, and is open Monday to Friday
from 8 to 11.30 am and 1.30 to 5.30 pm. The university also contains a small zoo. To get
there, catch a No 133 bus, or any other ‘Universidade’ bus, on Avenida Tenente Coronel
Duarte.

Market

The market by the bridge that crosses the Rio Cuiabá is a good one, at least before
and after the heat of the day. It’s interesting not so much for buying as for looking at
the people and their products. Try the waterfront bars for a drink afterwards.

Santo Antônio de Leverger

Santo Antônio de Leverger, Mato Grosso’s cidade morena, is where Cuiabanos
go for river-beaching from June to October. It’s on the Rio Cuiabá, 28 km south of
Cuiabá in the direction of Barão de Melgaço.

Organized Tours

Travel agencies in town arrange reservations, guides and transport for photo-safaris
into the Pantanal or weekend trips to Chapada dos Guimarães, and can help with the
logistics of more ambitious trips to the Parque Nacional das Emas. Ametur (624-1000), Rua
Joaquim Murtinho 242, close to Turimat, has been recommended. The tours are expensive
(around $75 a day), but well organized.

An alternative and relatively cheap excursion is with Joel Souza, a very enthusiastic
guide who speaks fluent English, German and Italian. His office (624-1386) is at Avenida
Getúlio Vargas 155A, but he often meets incoming flights. Joel’s two-day trips into the
Pantanal cost around $120, including food, accommodation, transport and the boat
ride—you won’t find anything cheaper than this in Cuiabá or Poconé.

Festival

The Festa de São Benedito takes place during the first week of July, at the
Igreja Nossa Senhora do Rosário and the Capela de São Benedito. The holiday has a more
Umbanda than Catholic flavor; it’s celebrated with traditional foods such as bola de
queijo and bola de arroz, and regional dances such as O Cururu, O Siriri,
Danças do Congo and dos Mascarados.

For Places to Stay see the book

Places to Eat

Cuiabá offers some great fish dishes, including pacu assado com farofa de couve,
piraputanga assado and pirão de Bagre—try one at the floating restaurant Flutuante,
next to Ponte Nova bridge. Six km from the center, it’s complicated to reach by public
bus. From the waterfront market, though, it’s a 20minute walk. The restaurant is open
daily from 11 am to 11 pm.

On Rua 13 de Junho, next to the Casa do Artesão, O Regionalíssimo serves
excellent regional food. The cost is $4 for buffet-style meals—lots of fish and the
sweetest of sweets. It’s open daily for lunch and dinner (closed on Mondays).

In the center, a cheap, wholesome lunch spot with comida por kilo is Casa
Branca, at Rua Comandante Costa 565. Vegetarians can lunch at Naturama, on Rua
Comandante Costa, near the Hotel Mato Grosso. In the evening, Choppão, on
Praça 8 de Abril, is always packed with locals, who come to drink the excellent chopp
and to dine from the varied menu. Likewise, Tucanos Restaurante e Chopperia, Avenida
CPA 674, has a good pizza and gets pretty lively, even during the week.

Entertainment

When the sun sets and temperatures drop a bit, the city comes to life. A great place to
go, especially if you spend only one night in Cuiabá, is Ninho’s Bar, at Rua Laranjeiras
701. It has a spectacular view of the city, good chopp, and live music almost every
night. There’s a popular disco, Operalight, a stone’s throw away, if you want a change of
pace.

Things to Buy

The Casa do Artesão, on Rua 13 de Junho, has lots of local handicrafts, including
ceramics, woodcarvings, straw baskets, paintings and hammocks. The FUNAI Artíndia store,
at Rua Barão de Melgaço 3944, is open from 8 to 11.30 am and 1.30 to 6 pm on weekdays.
It has Indian baskets, bows and arrows, jewelry and headdresses for sale. Guaraná Maués,
at Avenida Isaac Póvoas 611, has lots of guaraná products.

For Getting There & Away Read the Book

CHAPADA DOS GUIMARÀES

After the Pantanal, Chapada dos Guimarães is the region’s leading attraction. This
rocky plateau is 800 meters higher than and 64 km northeast of Cuiabá, in a beautiful
region reminiscent of the American southwest. Surprisingly different from the typical Mato
Grosso terrain, this place is not to be missed. We spent two days here but would have
loved to spend a week.

Véu de Noiva & the Mirante Lookout

The two exceptional sights in the Chapadas are the 60-meter Véu de Noiva (Bridal Veil)
falls, and the Mirante lookout, the geographic center of South America. Both are quite
easy to find. Six km beyond Salgadeira, you’ll see the turnoff for Véu de Noiva, on your
right. It’s well signposted.

Alta Mira is eight km from the town of Chapada. Take the last road in Chapada on your
right and go eight km; you’ll see a dirt road with a sign saying ‘Centro Geodésico’. Turn
right and drive the couple of hundred meters to the rim of the canyon. The view is
stupendous; off to your right you can see the Cuiabá skyline.

Start walking downhill over the bluff, slightly to your right. A small trail leads to a
magical lookout, perched on top of rocks with the canyon below. This is Chapada’s most
dazzling place.

On your way back to town, stop off at Alambique Jamacá, a small distillery which
produces some fine local cachaça. There’s a sign, so you can’t miss it. They
produce one with a special root that is renowned as an aphrodisiac. José, who makes it,
is living proof of its efficacy—he and his wife have seven kids.

Other Attractions

Driving to Chapada, you pass Rio dos Peixes, Rio Mutaca and Rio Claro, which
are all popular weekend bathing spots for Cuiabanos. The sheer, 80-meter drop
called Portão do Inferno (Hell’s Gate) is also unforgettable.

Take a waterfall shower at Cachoeirinha and peek into the chapel of Nossa
Senhora de Santana,
a strange mixture of Portuguese and French baroque. A hike to the
top of Chapada’s highest point, Morro de São Jerônimo, is well worthwhile.

A bit further out of town is the 1100-meter-long Aroe Jari cavern and, in
another cave, the Lagoa Azul (Blue Lake).

Organized Tours

If you don’t have a car, your best bet is to take an excursion with Jorge Mattos, who
runs Ecoturismo (791-1393), on Praça Dom Wunibaldo in the town of Chapada. Jorge, an
excellent, English-speaking guide who really knows his way around Chapada, meets the 8 am
bus from Cuiabá every day, when it arrives at 9.30 am. He runs three excursions: to the
national park (which contains the most spectacular waterfalls), to the Blue Lake and the
Aroe Jari cavern, and to the stone city. To the park and the stone city, it costs around
$15; to the lake and cavern it’s $30—much cheaper than if you organized something
similar in Cuiabá).

Unfortunately, if Jorge doesn’t find at least five people, the price goes up. All tours
take between four and six hours, depending on the enthusiasm of the group. If you want to
spend just a day there, he can have you on the last bus back to Cuiabá (at 6 pm).

An alternative is to hire a car and explore the area on your own, stopping at different
rock formations, waterfalls and bathing pools at your leisure. If you do have the use of a
car, drop by the Secretaria de Turismo (on the left-hand side as you drive into town, just
before the square), open from 8 to 11 am and 1 to 4 pm on weekdays. A useful map is
available—you’ll need it!

Places to Stay

There is good camping at Salgadeira, just before the climb into Chapada, but if you
want to rough it, you can basically camp anywhere.

Lodging in the area ranges from the very basic but friendly Hotel São José (791-1152),
at Rua Vereador José de Souza 50, which charges $3 per person, to the Hotel Pousada da
Chapada (791-1171), a couple of km from town on the road to Cuiabá, charging $50 a
double (book at Selva Turismo in Cuiabá).

In between are a couple of good alternatives. The very popular Turismo Hotel (791-1176;
fax 7911383) is at Rua Fernando Correa Costa 1065, and is run by a German family.
Single/double apartamentos here cost $18/25. The Hotel Quincó (791-1404),
at Praça Dom Wunibaldo 464 (next to Ecoturismo), has singles/doubles for $9.50/19.

All of these places, with the exception of the Pousada da Chapada, are close to the rodoviária.

Places to Eat

On the main praça, the Nivios has excellent regional food—all you
can eat for $8. Also popular is O Mestrinho, at Rua Quincó Caldas 119. The Turismo
Hotel has a restaurant.

Getting There & Away

Buses leave Cuiabá’s rodoviária for Chapada dos Guimarães every 1½ hours
from 8 am to 6 pm. In the other direction, the first bus leaves Chapada dos Guimarães at
6 am and the last at 6 pm. The cost is $3.50.

CÁCERES

The city of Cáceres, founded in 1778 on the left bank of the Rio Paraguai, is an
access point for a number of Pantanal lodges and for San Mathias (in Bolivia). Cáceres is
215 km from Cuiabá on BR070, close to the Ilha de Taiamã ecological reserve.

Lots of travelers arrive with the misunderstanding that they’ll be able to get a cement
barge to Corumbá. You’d have to be very lucky, and unless you have unlimited time to hang
around, forget it. Even the port captain has no idea when the boats are likely to arrive.

If you’re going to Bolivia, get a Brazilian exit stamp from the Polícia Federal office
at Rua Antônio João 160.

Places to Stay

Cáceres has a number of modest hotels and restaurants for visitors. The best cheapie
near the bus station is the Capri Hotel (223-1771), at Rua Antônio Vargas 99. It
has spacious, clean, air-conditioned rooms and friendly staff. Singles/doubles cost
$11/16. The Hotel Avenida (221-1553) is just around the corner, in Avenida 7 de
Setembro. It charges $5 a head for basic quartos. Closer to the river, the Rio Hotel (221-1387),
on Praça Major João Carlos, is a good option. Its apartamentos with fans cost
$12/18 a single/double. You could also try the Hotel Comodoro (221-1525), on Praça
Duque de Caxias, with apartamentos for $16/25 a single/double.

The Hotel Barranquinho (221-2641, ext 3, or 011-285-3022 in São Paulo), at the
confluence of the Jauru and Paraguai rivers and 18 km from the Pirapitanga waterfalls, is
72 km and 2½ hours from Cáceres by boat. Frontier Fishing Safari (011-227-0920 in
São Paulo) is 115 km by boat from Cáceres.

Places to Eat

A good fish restaurant, the Corimba is near the river, at the corner of Rua 6 de
Outubro and Rua 15 de Novembro. The Pilão, in Praça Barão do Rio Branco, is a
decent churrascaria.

Getting There & Away

Regular buses make the journey between Cuiabá and Cáceres ($11, three hours). To San
Matías (in Bolivia), there is a daily bus, at 4 pm ($10, 4½ hours).

BARÀO DE MELGAÇO

Along with Cáceres and Poconé, Barão de Melgaço, 35 km southeast of Cuiabá, is a
northern entrance into the Pantanal. Nearby, there are ruined fortresses from the
Paraguayan wars, and Sia Mariana and Chacororé, two huge bays full of fish.

Places to Stay

The Nossa Senhora do Carmo Hotel (713-1141), at Avenida A Leverger 33, is 600
meters from the bus station. Double apartamentos are $20. The top-end place is the Barão
Tur Hotel (713-1166, or 322-1568 in Cuiabá), which charges $70 a double.

Getting There & Away

There are two buses a day that make the three-hour, $11 trip from Cuiabá, leaving at
7.30 am and 3 pm.

POCONÉ

The northern entry point to the Pantanal from Cuiabá, Poconé marks the beginning of
the Transpantaneira ‘highway’. In May, the pink city of Poconé celebrates the weeklong
Semana do Fazendeiro e do Cavalo Panteiro with a cattle fair and rodeos. Most of the
locals are descendants of Indians and blacks. Many have hunted the onça (jaguar)
and have amazing stories to tell. They also wear some excellent straw hats!

Orientation

When you arrive at the rodoviária, you are two km from the start of the dirt
road, which becomes the Transpantaneira; the center of town is about halfway. To get
there, turn left as you leave the bus station, walk the couple of blocks down to Rua
Antônio João, then turn right and walk up six blocks—you’ll be in the town square
(more like a rectangle). The Hotel Skala is 100 meters to your right. On your left, behind
the church, is the road that leads to the beginning of the Transpantaneira. There are a
few pousadas here.

Places to Stay & Eat

The Dormitório Poconé, on Avenida Anibal de Toledo, near the rodoviária,
has basic, rundown rooms with fan for $6. The nearby Bar e Restaurante 4 Rodas is
better; good, cheap rooms with fan cost $8, including breakfast. They also serve over a
dozen cheap, hearty dishes—all you can eat. In the middle of town is the Skala (721-1407),
Rua Mal Rondon 64. Rooms with fan start at $15/22. There are some rooms with bath, for the
same prices.

The best places to stay, especially if you intend to hitch on the Transpantaneira, are
out of town, near the beginning of that road. The first one you’ll pass is the Pousada
Centro-Oeste (721-1220), on the right-hand side, which charges $15 a double (though
they will bargain). The rooms with fan are a bit on the dingy side, but it’s a friendly
place, and serves a decent prato feito. Just up the road, on the same side, is the Hotel
Santa Cruz (721-1439), where apartamentos cost $25 a double. A further 400
meters up, on the left-hand side, the Hotel Restaurante Aurora do Pantanal (721-1339)
has spacious apartamentos with fan for $ 15125 a single/double. They also serve prato
feito.

Getting There & Away

There are six buses a day from Cuiabá to Poconé, from 6 am to 7 pm, and six in the
opposite direction, from 6 am to 7.30 pm. The 100km, two-hour ride costs $5. The bus is
often packed, so get a seat early if you want to appreciate the vegetation typical of the
Pantanal’s outskirts: pequis, piúvas, babaçus, ipês and buritis. The bus
passes the airport at Várzea Grande.

THE PANTANAL

The Amazon may have all the fame and glory, but the Pantanal is a far better place to
see wildlife. In the Amazon, the animals hide in the dense foliage, but in the open spaces
of the Pantanal, wildlife is visible to the most casual observer. It’s not easy to get to,
and almost impossible to do on the cheap, but if you like to see animals in their natural
state, the Pantanal—with the greatest concentration of fauna in the New
World—should not be missed.

A vast wetlands in the center of South America, the Pantanal is about half the size of
France—some 230,000 sq km. Something less than 100,000 sq km of this is in Bolivia
and Paraguay; the rest is in Brazil, split between the states of Mato Grosso and Mato
Grosso do Sul.

The Pantanal (Terra de Ninguém, or Nobody’s Land) has few people and no towns.
Distances are so great and ground transport so poor that people get around in small
airplanes or motorboats; 4WD travel is restricted by the seasons. The only road that
plunges deep into the Pantanal is the Transpantaneira. This raised dirt road sectioned by
89 small, wooden bridges ends 145 km from Poconé, at Porto Jofre. Only a third of the
intended route from Poconé to Corumbá has been completed, because of lack of funds and
ecological concerns.

The road and a strip of land on either side of it comprise the Transpantanal national
park. Although IBAMA is trying to expand its jurisdiction to protect the entire Pantanal
region, it administers only one other park in the Mato Grosso portion of the Pantanal: the
Parque Nacional do Pantanal Matogrossense, which encompasses the old Cará-Cará
biological reserve. The rest of the Pantanal (around 90%) is privately owned.

Geography & Climate

Although pântano means ‘swamp’ in both Spanish and Portuguese, the Pantanal is
not a swamp but, rather, a vast alluvial plain. In geological terms, it is a sedimentary
basin of quaternary origin, the drying remains of an ancient inland sea called the
Xaraés, which began to dry out, along with the Amazon Sea, 65 million years ago.

First sea, then immense lake and now a periodically flooded plain, the
Pantanal—2000 km from the Atlantic Ocean yet just 100 to 200 meters above sea
level—is bounded by higher lands: the mountains of the Serra de Maracaju to the east,
the Serra da Bodoquena to the south, the Paraguayan and Bolivian Chaco to the west and the
Serra dos Parecis and Serra do Roncador to the north. From these highlands, the rains flow
into the Pantanal, forming the Rio Paraguai and its tributaries (which flow south and then
east, draining into the Atlantic Ocean between Argentina and Uruguay).

During the rainy season (October to March), the rivers flood their banks, inundating
much of the low-lying Pantanal and creating cordilheiras (patches of dry land where
the animals cluster together). The waters reach their high mark—up to three
meters—in January or February, then start to recede in March. This seasonal flooding
has made systematic farming impossible and has severely limited human incursions into the
area. However, it does provide an enormously rich feeding ground for wildlife.

The floodwaters replenish the soil’s nutrients, which would otherwise be very poor, due
to the excessive drainage. The waters teem with fish, and the ponds provide excellent
ecological niches for many animals and plants. Enormous flocks of wading birds gather in
rookeries several sq km in area.

Later in the dry season, the water recedes, the lagoons and marshes dry out, and fresh
grasses emerge on the Savannah (the Pantanal’s vegetation includes Savannah, forest and
meadows, which blend together, often with no clear divisions). The hawks and jacarés
compete for fish in the remaining ponds. As the ponds shrink and dry up, the jacarés
crawl around for water, sweating it out until the rains return.

When to Go

If possible, go during the dry season (from April to September/October). The best time
to go birding is during the latter part of the dry season (July to September), when the
birds are at their rookeries in great numbers, the waters have receded and the
bright-green grasses pop up from the muck. Temperatures are comfortable in the dry
season—hot by day and cool by night—with plenty of rain.

Flooding, incessant rains and heat make travel difficult during the rainy season
(November to March), though not without some special rewards: this is when the cattle and
exotic wildlife of the Pantanal clump together on the small islands. The heat peaks in
November and December, when temperatures over 40°C are common, roads turn to breakfast
cereal, and the mosquitoes are fierce and out in force. Many hotels close at this time.

The heaviest rains fall in February and March. Every decade or so, the flooding is
disastrous, destroying both humans and animals. In 1988, the southern Pantanal was
devastated: fazendas were destroyed, cattle and wild animals drowned and starved,
and the city of Corumbá was submerged for weeks.

Fishing is best during the first part of the dry season (April-May), when the flooded
rivers settle back into their channels, but locals have been known to lasso 80kg fish
throughout the dry season and well into December. This is some of the best fishing in the
world. There are about 20 species of piranha, many vegetarian and all good eating, as well
as the tasty dourado, a feisty 10 to 20pounder. Other excellent catches include pacu,
surubim, bagre, giripoca, piraputanga, piapara, cachara,
pirancajuva and pintado, to name but a few.

Although hunting is not allowed, fishing—with the required permits—is
encouraged. Fishing permits are available from the IBAMA offices in Cuiabá (644-1511) and
Campo Grande (382-1802). Enthusiasts can study their quarry at Cuiabá’s fish market,
located in the market near the bridge.

What to Bring

You can’t buy anything in the Pantanal, so come prepared. The dry season is also the
cooler season. Bring attire suitable for hot (but not brutal) days, cool nights, rain and
mosquitoes. You’ll need sunscreen, sunglasses a hat and cool clothes, sneakers or boots,
light raingear, and something for the cool evenings. Mosquito relief means long pants and
long-sleeved shirts, vitamin B12 and insect repellent. Autan is the Brazilian brand
recommended by eight out of 10 Pantaneiros, but some travelers claim that the
mosquitoes have become so used to it that they’ve even started to like it!

Binoculars are your best friend in the Pantanal. Bring an alarm clock (to get up before
sunrise) and a strong flashlight (to go hunting for owls and anacondas after dark). Don’t
forget plenty of film, a camera, a tripod and a long lens (300 mm is about right for
wildlife).

Guides

If you want to enhance your Pantanal experience and money isn’t a problem, a good guide
can identify animal and bird species, explain the diverse Pantanal ecology, and take care
of any hassles along the way. But you don’t need a guide—there’s only one road to
follow and the wildlife is hard to miss.

If language or time is a problem and money isn’t, write to Douglas Trent of Focus Tours
(612-892-7830), 14821 Hillside Lane, Burnsville, MN 55306, USA; in Brazil, contact Focus
(031-373-3734), Belo Horizonte, MG. Focus specializes in nature tours and Doug is active
in trying to preserve the Pantanal. He has all the birdcalls on tape, and plays them over
a loudspeaker to attract the real thing.

Places to Stay

Pantanal accommodation is divided into four general categories: fazendas, pousadas,
pesqueiros and botels. Fazendas are ranch-style hotels which usually
have horses and often boats for hire. Pousadas range from simple accommodation to
top-end standard. Pesqueiros are hangouts for fisherfolk, and boats and fishing
gear can usually be rented from them. A botel (a contraction of boat and hotel) is
a floating lodge.

Reservations are needed for all accommodation, especially in July, when lots of
Brazilian tourists holiday here.

Unfortunately, nearly all accommodation is expensive. Rates usually include transport
by plane, boat or 4WD from Corumbá or Cuiabá, good food and modest lodging. More often
than not, reservations are handled by a travel agent and must be paid for in advance. It’s
also a good idea to call ahead for weather conditions—the rainy and dry seasons are
never exact, and proper conditions can make or break a trip.

For much more on Places to Stay read the book

For Getting There & Away, Getting Around, and Car Rental also see the book

Driving down the Transpantaneira

It is, of course, impossible to know everything about travel in the Pantanal, but based
on several trips and conversations with literally dozens of Pantanal experts, we think the
best way to visit the Pantanal if you’re in it for the wildlife and your budget is
limited, is driving down the Transpantaneira, preferably all the way to Porto Jofre.

Why the Transpantaneira? First, it’s the best place to see wildlife—especially in
the meadows near the end of the road, at Porto Jofre. Second, renting a car in Cuiabá and
driving down the Transpantaneira is less expensive than most Pantanal excursions, which
require flying, boating, or hiring a guide with a 4WD. And third, if you’re on a very
tight budget, you can take a bus to Poconé and hitch from there (it’s pretty easy), if
necessary returning to Poconé for cheap accommodation.

The Transpantaneira is the best place we’ve seen in South America for observing
wildlife, which is drawn to the roadway at all times of the year. During the wet season,
this roadway is an island and during the dry season the ditches on either side of the road
serve as artificial ponds, drawing birds and game towards the tourist.

Thousands of birds appear to rush out from all sides, ocelots and capybara seem frozen
by the headlights, and roadside pools are filled with hundreds of dark silhouettes and
gleaming, red, jacaré eyes. It’s very easy to approach the wildlife: you can walk
within spitting range of the jacaré, and if you’re crazy enough to go cheek to
cheek with one, you can spot the fleas which live off the lachrymal fluid of their
eyeballs.

If you are driving from Cuiabá, get going early. Leave at 4 am to reach the
Transpantaneira by sunrise, when the animals come to life, and have a full day’s light in
which to drive to Porto Jofre.

The approach road to the Transpantaneira begins in Poconé (two hours from Cuiabá), by
the Texaco station. Follow the road in the direction of the Hotel Aurora. The official
Transpantaneira Highway Park starts 17 km south of Poconé. There’s a sign and a guard
station (where you pay a small entry fee) at the entrance, but we’ve seen herds of ema,
many birds end jacaré well before the park entrance. Thirty km down the road, stop
off at Bar Figueira and meet Zico, the ‘pet’ jacaré.

Stopping to see wildlife and slowing down for 118 rickety little wooden bridges, it’s
easy to pass the whole day driving the Transpantaneira—arriving at the expensive
Hotel Santa Rosa in time for dinner, soon after sunset. Weekdays are best if you’re
driving, as there’s less traffic kicking up dust.

Hitching down the Transpantaneira is easy enough—it’s hitching back that’s
difficult. There aren’t a lot of cars or trucks, but many stop to give rides. The best
time to hitch is on weekends, when the locals drive down the Transpantaneira for a day’s
fishing. Make sure you get on the road early. We’ve done the entire route from Porto Jofre
to Poconé several times with all sorts of folk: a rancher and his family, two American
birders, an IBAMA park ranger, a photo-safari guide, some Italian tourists, an ex-poacher
and a photojournalist doing an article on jacaré poaching.

Wildlife is abundant along the length of the Transpantaneira, but reaches a climax in
the meadows about 10 to 20 km before Porto Jofre. The flora here is less arid, less
scrubby. The birds, jacaré and families of capybara scurry into the ponds along
the road. On our last trip, we saw several toucans, flocks of luminescent-green parrots
and six blue hyacinth macaws in the big trees that divide the great meadows. There are
enormous flocks of birds and individual representatives of seemingly every species.

 

The Indians of Mato Grosso

To reach Cuiabá, the Portuguese had to cross the lands of several groups of Indians,
many of whom were formidable warriors. They included the Caiapó (who even attacked the
settlement at Goiás), the Bororo of the Pantanal, the Parecis (who were enslaved to mine
the gold), the Paiaguá (who defeated several large Portuguese flotillas and caused
periodic panic in Cuiabá itself) and the Guaicuru (skilled riders and warriors with many
years’ experience in fighting the Europeans).

As a result of being nomadic people in a region without abundant food, the Guaicuru
women performed self-abortions, refusing to have children until they were near menopause.
On longer journeys, when the women stayed behind, the Guaicuru men took male transvestites
with them as sexual partners. Both women and men could divorce easily, and often did,
several times a year.

Despite important victories, many Indians had been killed or enslaved by the time the
gold boom began to fade, in the mid1700s. Today, however, several tribes remain in
northern Mato Grosso, living as they have for centuries. The Erikbatsa, noted for their
fine featherwork, live near Fontanilles and Juima, the Nhambikuraa are near Padroal and
the Cayabi live near Juara. There are also the Indians of Aripuana park and, of course,
the tribes under the care of FUNAI at Xingu park The only tribe left in the Pantanal to
still subsist by hunting and fishing is the Bororo.

You probably won’t be able to overcome FUNAI’s obstacles to visiting the Indians, but
if you want to visit FUNAI, the office (321-2325) is at Rua São Joaquim 1047. The
condition of the building speaks volumes about the government’s lack of concern about
Indian affairs.

Excerpts from Brazil – A Travel Survival Kit, 3rd edition, by
Andrew Draffen, Chris McAsey, Leonardo Pinheiro,  and Robyn Jones. For more
information call Lonely Planet: (800) 275-8555. Copyright 1996 Lonely Planet Publications.
Used by permission.

Buy it at
Amazon.com

Lonely Planet
Brazil – A Travel Survival Kit

by Andrew Draffen, Chris McAsey,
Leonardo Pinheiro, Robyn Jones,
704 pp.

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