Saturday, 22 September 2018

Hello Brazil. Into the Pantanal

We were in two minds whether to leave Bolivia and take a look at the Pantanal region of Brazil at this stage.

Well from the second we entered Brazil we knew that we had made the right choice. The immigration guy was warm, smiling and welcoming and we entered on high spirits.

Having arrived in the south in the town of Corumba we stayed a night in a local Pousada, that allows you to camp in their garden. The owner " Hugo " helped us arrange  putting our truck on a Boat / Barge the following week to make the journey up river to the Northern Pantanal . This gave us just over a week to explore the southern region which lies in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul.

The Pantanal is the worlds largest tropical wetland area and covers approximately 190,000 square kilometres , of which 80% is submerged in the wet season. It is mostly in Brazil but has smaller sections in Bolivia and Paraguay.

It is hardly inhabited  and is the home to thousands of different wetland Mammals, Birds, Reptiles and Insects .
Most of the Pantanal is not accessible in any way.

There are two main roads to the town of Bonito. One is fast paved all the way  and the other is a dirt road for half the way, that drives directly through the region called "Parque Estadual do Pantanal do Rio Negro " It requires you to take a small ferry at the mid point. We obviously chose this route but could not find out if the intermittent ferry service was operation so on a wing and a prayer we set of.

At this stage of this post I should warn our readers that its is going to be a long post with lots of pictures so get comfy.

The first "Ripio "section on ruta MS228 was our first real taste of Tropical South America. The temperatures climbed to 38 degrees in the day and around 30 in the night and the humidity was stifling.

One of the last big jobs we completed on the truck before leaving the UK was fitting Air Conditioning to the cab. Thank god we did.

The road had endless good bridges and every time you entered a bridge it was like having a window into an amazing world

The bird life was Ornithological heaven and we soon realised that our small bird book was totally inadequate and we should have bought a longer camera lense. This 1 day section took 3 days as we stopped every few hundred meters to admire the scenery and get some photos.

The animal and reptile life was also breathtaking, so many new things to see.


Male Bare faced Curassow
Yellow Billed Cardinal
Little Woodpecker
Capybaras. Outside our door

Capybara outside our door
Wattled Jacana hitching a ride
Toco Toucan
Bicoloured Hawk

Hyacinth Macaw
Hyacinth Macaws
Hyacinth Macaw
Ringed Kingfisher
Great Egret
Despite the heat being nearly unbearable Pat declined the suggestion that we should stop and have a swim .


Its always noisy in the Pantanal. One bird in particular that we think is called a Rusty Margined Guan, roosts in numbers of 50 plus in the trees above the truck. They make this noise constantly so imagine this times  50 for  24 hours a day. We called this bird a Tree Turkey amongst other thingsat 3 am.

The Boat at Porto Manga was working and within a few days we were at the town of Bonito

The town was surrounded by amazing places to visit and also to our delight great river fish restaurants .

The first place we visited was a snorkeling centre  on the river Prata, about 50 km out of town.

We loved it.  The water was as clear as drinking water and you got in upstream and simply floated face down for 3 km looking at the amazing underwater world below

Stole this
Stole this
Stole this

We then went to Bodequina to a waterfall experience which was a lovely day out .

We were adopted by a lovely Brazilian couple called Alex and Mayara .  We will always remember them.

This was the first time on the whole journey that it felt a bit like a normal holiday. We really relaxed and enjoyed the weather and surroundings.

During our return journey we again took the small river crossing at Porto manga. Only this time the water flow was so intense it too the Captain over 30 minutes to dock the boat. It looked like we would have to return to Bonito. eventually he found the shore. Two very small planks were deployed and we were ushered off the boat in a panic.

Having then travelled back to Corumba the same way we met our boat in the port . Pat always said she fancied a cruise but I don't think this is what she meant .

The boat was made for carrying cattle and hadn't been completely cleaned out since the last load.

The Barges were all tied together in a long line and we were added along side the front one.

Getting on was a bit of sweaty moment but once on we made it our home for the next 4 days

The boat slowly meandered up the Rio Paraguay and  the Cuiabá River with an average speed of about 5 kph.

Various other cargoes were on board like bags of rice, washing machines and endless barrels of Diesel.  These had to dropped of at many riverside locations on the way.

There were also 20 Ranch hands and one tourist on a bicycle. 

Sometimes they used a small boat to make the deliveries and sometimes , without telling us, they would tie our barge to the bank and disappear for a few hours leaving us alone. The first time this happened was in the middle of the night. We woke up realising that we weren't moving anymore and when we looked out we were completely alone in the middle of nowhere.

Most of the food served on board came with beans and teeth. The cook caught 50 Piranhas in 30 minutes. Don't think we will go for a swim here either

Sadly once dusk arrived we had to baton down the hatches as millions of bugs, whose only aim in life was to eat us , came to life.

Our departure town called "Porto Jofre" was small and survived totally on the tourist industry who have come to see either Jaguars, Birds or go fishing.

Most of the Pantanal is actually privately owned and luckily a wild cat preservation society called "Panthera" own most of it . Over the last few decades they have successfully convinced the locals that a live Jaguar is worth far more to them than a dead one  and subsequently , other than fishing, nearly all hunting in the region has now stopped. Former hunters now apply their knowledge to guide tourists.

Our first trip out in search of Jaguars was totally unsuccessful . We didn't see a thing. That night in the camp we were surrounded by people who were telling their tales of how they saw 5 in one day. We felt quite despondent.

The next day however, our luck was in and over the following two days we had incredible views of 5 of these big cats.

We were even lucky enough to see a mother with her cub

The jaguars were quite ellusive so we spent hours scouring the rivers edge looking for them . This gave us a great opportunity to see many other animals and birds that live in the region .

Black Crowned Night Heron
Tiger Heron Adult
White Headed Marsh Tyrant Male
Wattled Jacana

Black Skimmers
Yellow Billed Tern


Asian Water Buffalo ( Wild )

White Necked Heron
Jabiru on nest
American Anhinga

Marsh Deer

Marsh Deer
Another great find in the Pantanal was the Giant River Otters. These social creatures need to eat 4 kg of fish per day and can grow up to nearly 2 meters in length.

They were very entertaining .

We were very lucky in that we met a truly wonderful Swiss couple called Andreas and Kasia. They along with their guide Miriam invited us to join them on their boat . Amazing couple who we owe many thanks.

Their boat pilot was one of the aforementioned Caimen hunters who now takes tourist on trips.

Miriam, on the left, works not only as a tour guide ( expert in all things Pantanal )  but is also is very involved in the development and protection of the indigenous people of the area.

She also has a Pousada in Miranda where  Overlanders can stay.

 This guy was also friendly

Blue and Yellow Macaw

We were truly sad to leave Porto Jofre, but with the exception of seeing a Tapir, we had ticked nearly all the boxes we needed to.

So with a view to getting at least a hundred plus kilometres  under our belt we set off on the notorious MT 60 "The Transpantaniera" famous for having over 100 dodgy bridges .

In true Cloud 9 style we only got 20 km and bumped into a fabulous couple "Laure and Christian" who were taking shade by the side of the road in their Pinzgauer. 

Within minutes the chairs were out, the beer and wine flowed and we stayed there for 2 night.

We truly hope that our journeys cross paths in the future

Amazingly we were camped directly beneath the most incredible Bee Colony. These were African Bees that apparently were a very regrettable import in the 1950's

Luckily they had no interest in us .

So once again we set off. The bridges got worse and worse . 

In true team spirit Pat chose to walk across some of them.

Its always prudent in these circumstance to get out and really have a good luck under the bridge to see what it looks like below surface.

Then sometimes you wished you hadn't

Faced with turning round , driving 100km back over all the bridges then returning to Corumba on a four day boat trip, you tend to just go for it.

But then there is always one that stops you in your tracks 

Hasta Luego

In my last post "Colombia, Coffee and Culture"  I wrote  about our lovely stay in Manizales.

It was during this time that Pat had a conversation with a fellow traveler Fran Calder .

"We are in Brazil and are hoping to go to the Carnival in Rio"
"We have always fancied that"
"Why don't you come"
"That's a good idea"

Within 2 days the trip was planned, it started as a long weekend in Rio de Janeiro and finished up as a   month long  trip to Salvador, Coastal Islands, Buzios, Rio de Janeiro and Foz do Iguacu.

Being independent travelers the trip was planned with military precision. Flights, Hotels, Excursions, Hire Cars and Transfers were all booked . It became so complicated that I even had to make a spreadsheet that reminded us what was going to happen on each day. 

The final plan for the 30 day trip was 8 Flights, 6 hotels, 1 stay with a great friend, 3 boat trips, 1 hire car, and many day trips.

At this time the term Corona Virus hadn't hit the news. By the time we set off it was a mere rumor of a problem in the far east.  

Medellin to our first destination at Salvador took three flights. After a quick overnighter in a hotel we set off  towards the island of Boipeba. A ferry, 4 hour taxi and small boat trip and 8 hours later we landed at the small dock on the island.

In order to keep the island in good ecological health there are no cars allowed. There is however, a handful of quad bikes. We hired two local guys with wheel barrows to carry our luggage to the quad bike station. 

Twenty minutes later the Quad bikes delivered us to our island paradise , a small hut on the beach in the village of Morere.

What a slice of heaven. Turquoise seas, golden sand humming birds  and no vehicles. Chilling out, swimming and snorkeling  were the order of the day. 

The boat the to neighboring island of Tinhare only took a few minutes and on this island a small number of vehicles were allowed. Transfer to the hotel was in a Landrover, and the route along the beach took an hour. Pat was grinning like a Cheshire Cat and felt that we were back overlanding

In order to cut down the physical length of some of my blog posts I have now adopted the slide show approach. I hope it makes viewing it a bit easier.

We survived the boat journey back to Salvador without incident, despite some websites referring to it as the Vomit Comet . Two hours of total unpleasantness. Most of the crew were armed with mops and buckets and were very busy.

The historic Colonial town of Salvador Bahia ( aka Salvador or The Land of the Drum ) was the original capital of Brazil and was founded by the Portuguese in the mid 1500's.

Its location and growth was sadly born on the back of the slaving industry that thrived in the Americas.

Still to this day the Afro / Brazilian culture is what makes this place amazing and unique.

The old center of Pelourinho was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985.  This would be our home for the next few days . Pat had booked a beautiful hotel that overlooked the main street. The view from our window would make you think  you were in Lisbon or Porto.

When the term Carnival and Brazil are used in the same sentence you automatically think of Rio de Janeiro. However, carnival season in Brazil is national and nearly any town of note will have its own Carnival. Salvador Bahia is no exception and by design we hit town right in the middle of it.

As you will see later in this post, the Rio Carnival is enormous. It's all about floats, costumes and parades. The Salvador Carnival is totally different. Here it is all about communities, culture and most importantly Music. The weapon of choice in any Salvador band is the Drum. Literally for 24 hours a day during our stay there was never a minute that you couldn't hear the sound of drums. 

I cannot describe the feeling of watching a drum band with over 100 members. It actually stirs up emotions.  

The Drum phenomena known as Olodum was created to combat barriers within the community and unite people who shared a common interest, Music and drums.

It was fantastic to see large bands made up of every aspect of the community. Old, young, male, female  indigenous and immigrant, rich or poor all shoulder to shoulder.

Olodum works.


A fantastic example of these drums in action can be seen in this, slightly dated, video by Paul Simon which was filmed in the streets of Salvador. It's quite a long video, feel free to move on if its not your type of music

The silhouetted Martial Art / Acrobatic  / Dance routine shown at each end of this video is known as  "Capoeira." It is a practice that dates back to times of slavery with its origins in Angola. Although the martial art element has been declared illegal, mock combats are common place in the street theatre that can be seen during carnival.

Salvador was alive, The music never stopped and the people never slept. Unlike many  European festivals , alcohol appeared to play little or no part in the festivities. 

Rio de Janiero was our next destination. 

This huge sprawling city on the South east  Atlantic Coast is home to about 12 million people. Unbelievably, during Carnival season an additional 5 million tourist arrive. 

The world famous city views were streamed into nearly every home on the planet when the Olympic Games was hosted there in 2016.

This city has opposite ends of the social spectrum living on top of each other.  Apartments costing millions of dollars overlooking the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema are literally just a few minutes walk from the densely populated Favelas built near vertically on the hills behind them.

Probably the most diverse city in the whole of South America 

One of Pat's wonderful friends and fellow traveller  "Roberta," who we had met in Chile two years earlier, lives on the outskirts of the city by the beach in the area of Tijuca. Foolishly, Roberta once said "If you are ever in Rio come and stay."  Not sure she meant 6 nights, but she was the perfect host, and we loved getting to know her better. Staying in her beautiful apartment was a highlight.   Thanks Roberta we cannot wait for our paths to cross in the future xx

Whilst there we also managed to catch up with the previously mentioned Fran Calder and her husband Doug.

The list of things to see in Rio is overwhelming. But the usual beaches, Statues and Mountains were lined up.

Sugar Loaf Mountain

Christ the Redeemer

Copacabana Beach

Copacabana Beach

Copacabana Beach

Ipanema Beach

The big attraction for all the visitors is Carnival.  Daily around the city, usually at beach locations, are mini Fiesta or Street Parties  known as Blocos. Sadly these have a bit of reputation for being unsafe for tourist, so we chose not to take part in these, bearing in mind that the rate of crimes and murders in this city is unbelievable. In an effort to cut the numbers of crimes down, the city now only permits some Blocos to occur between 7am and 10am.

Instead, we set our sights on the main event. The Samba Parade in the cities arena " The Sambadrome"

This event that runs over 4 nights, starting at 10pm and running through to daylight. 

The entire event is a huge competition between Samba Schools from the local communities. Each school spends the entire year creating their Floats, Costumes and Choreography, employing hundreds of participants and maybe thousands more behind the scenes.

The floats are enormous. We were sitting in the higher seats and still found ourselves almost looking up at some of them.

Each school gets one hour to walk the 600 meter route. Six Schools per night take part, with various themes ranging from Indigenous issues to the Circus and Movies. 

Winning this competition is akin to winning the world cup. 

The stadium has 90,000 spectator capacity and is packed every night. This is the same as Wembley Stadium in the UK or the Rose Bowl in Pasadena USA.

I must point out at this time that Corona Virus was still a low level, almost unheard of,  threat in South America.

Despite its reputation for high crime and violence, which I am sure exists in some areas, we never had any issues in Rio de Janeiro and never once felt at Risk. We loved it.

We love seeing locals playing unusual games. You may remember back in Filandia  the game involved throwing lumps of metal at explosives.

Here on the beach we saw a two person team sport that was a mix of   Football and Volley ball ( Soccer) . 
This imaginatively named "Footvolley" was a great spectator sport . We couldn't quite grasp the rules but using any part of the body to get the ball over the net seemed acceptable

Buzios lies in the Atlantic Coast about 175 km directly east of Rio de Janiero. Its a very popular sea side resort and many people from Rio have second homes here .

We went there for 5 nights..... It rained .

Our final port of call was a location that had been on our Bucket List since before this trip was planned, but we had never been able to get there.  The nearest occasion we had was when we first arrived in Uruguay. At this time we were about 1500 km away but decided to head south in the opposite direction.

Foz do Iguazu lies on the Brazilian side of a three way border between Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay. 

The borders between these countries is clearly defined by the T shaped confluence of the rivers Parana and Iguazu.

The attraction that brings in many thousands of tourist is the magnificent water falls that lie between Brazil and Argentina. These can be viewed from both sides.

Probably one of the most spectacular natural occurrences I have seen.
From the Brazilian side you can take a boat ride up river near the base of the falls and view them afar on a walkway. However, from the Argentinian side you can get really close and stare right down the phenomena known as the "Devils Throat" 

Due to the water levels being a little lower than usual , we were unable to take the boat ride to the foot of the falls on the Argentinian side.

Another great, but completely unnatural, feet of engineering in Foz do Iguazu is the Itaipu Dam.

This 8 km long structure holds back the Parana river between Brazil and Paraguay. 

Built over 13 years starting in 1971,  this  joint venture between both countries  is physically the second largest Hydro Electric Dam in the world being only slightly smaller than the famous Three Gorges Dam in China. However, the Itaipu Dam actually produces more electricity.  

The 1350 square Kilometres of reservoir feeds 20 Generators that can annually produce in excess of 90 Billion KW of energy.

The power is split 50/50 between Brazil and Paraguay, however Paraguay then sells most of their share back to Brazil giving the Brazilians 90% of the production .

After 3 long flights we eventually returned back  to Cloud 9 in Medellin Colombia.

By now the Corona Virus had really taken a grip in Europe.

The Colombian Authorities were quick to respond imposing regional and national lockdown measures.

However, we soon realized that if the virus got a similar hold as it had in Europe , that it was unlikely that the Colombian Health Services would cope.

In view of this, and our imposed travel restrictions,  we decided to try and get back to the UK. 

The problem, was that we weren't the only expats trying to return home, so all the flights were over subscribed ten fold.  With near 70% of international flights out of Bogota being cancelled we were reluctant to move from the comfort of our truck without an absolute assurance that we could make it all the way back to the UK. The thought of spending days sleeping on the Airport floor wasn't appealing.

The camp site we were on had other campers from Germany, America, France and Austria.  We kept hearing of rescue flights from all these countries picking up stranded Nationals, except British ones.

The British Embassy in Bogota rang us several times a day but just couldn't assure us of a viable escape plan. They had no rescue planes organised.

The internal flights were due to cease on the Wednesday , meaning that it would then be impossible to escape as there would be no way to get to Bogota. 

Despite Pat having spent every waking minute of  an entire week scouring the flights, we had  just about resigned ourselves to the fact that returning to the UK was just out of reach. Then, at the last minute, Pat managed to spot a French flight to Paris leaving at 5 minutes past midnight on the Wednesday morning.

Thinking if we can get to Europe then we are home and dry, the decision was made " Go for it "

Luckily for us we had already booked a flight from Medellin to Bogota . This flight was originally booked  for 3 days earlier but had been cancelled and re scheduled twice. By chance  its latest time slot fitted in exactly with these new plans. However, we knew that if this flight was cancelled for a third time our entire escape plan would collapse at the first hurdle.  

The whole journey was a very fragile chain of events that could have left us stranded at any stage. Pat was keen to take the chance as she was eager to get home. I , on the other hand,  was very reluctant to even set off with the odds of success against us.

This and disputes over how much luggage we should take made the whole experience very stressful to say the least

Making the choice to leave our comfortable home hoping that our journey will be successful was a big leap of faith. Especially knowing that by the time we arrived in Bogota our return option to the truck would be closed as internal flights would have ceased . 

This move had the potential of leaving us stranded in a cheap hotel in Bogota for several months if the international flights failed. We know fellow travelers  that even now ( 6 weeks later ) are still trapped midway on their journey, confined to their hotel rooms. 

It was a big gamble to say the least

Even as we set off we hadn't yet finalised the last stages of the Journey between Paris and the UK.

Whilst sitting on the marble steps ( All the benches and trolleys had been removed ) in Medellin airport waiting for our flight to Bogota , Pat managed to book the last two seats on the last British Airways flight to the UK from Paris. 

We got to Paris to discover that there had been 5 flights from Charles de Gaulle to Heathrow scheduled that day and the first 4 had been cancelled, leaving our flight as the last chance. We watched the departures board constantly and sighed with relief when our boarding was announced. 

The airports were deserted and Charles de Gaulle looked like a scene from a Science Fiction disaster movie.  The usually busy halls full of rushing travelers were deserted.   Very Spooky.

Unbelievable it appeared that most of the previous cancelled passengers had made alternative arrangements and we flew back to the UK with only 20 people on the whole plane.  

Upon Arrival in the UK we fully expected to be delayed by the Immigration Services  and questioned about our journey. Surely in a crisis of this nature monitoring or even controlling entrants into the country would a high priority, especially as the UK had already implemented lockdown measures at this stage.

You guessed it.  Nothing. Between landing and walking out into the street we didn't speak to one other person. Our passports were swiped in a machine and Customs were completely deserted. 

Although a very long journey it all went remarkably well and we are currently , like everyone else , in a lockdown situation, staying with family.

Who knows when we will see Cloud 9 again.

Hasta Luego