Wondrous wetland

Wondrous wetland

Brazil's vast Pantanal marshland is growing in popularity as a destination for nature lovers

TRAVEL

For the early European travellers to South America, a huge sea far inland which appears on the map of Hondius, the famous map publisher at the time, must have been puzzling. The water world was so immense it was named by early Spanish settlers as the Xaraes Sea, after the Xaraes tribe which lived there.

Today, the name of the area in what is now Brazil's southern state of Mato Grosso do Sul, close to the borders with Bolivia and Paraguay, has changed to Pantanal.

The present name, a Portuguese word for swamp or wetland, seems to be more appropriate since we now know that the area is not a sea but an immense floodplain.

To make it easier for Thais to picture the size of this huge floodplain, Pantanal is about as big as our northeastern region!

Pantanal receives water from the surrounding tropical savanna, the Cerrado, during the rainy season which lasts from November to March.

To the south, the water exits the Pantanal mainly via the Paraguay River.

The swamps are teaming with various species of fish and other animals, including caiman. On higher ground, forest-covered islands of different sizes provide homes for all kinds of wildlife, from small rodents to jaguars, the largest wildcat of the Americas. Birders will be happy to know that in Pantanal, at least 600 species of their beloved feathered friends have been recorded, from the insect-size hummingbird to the rhea, a bird as tall as a human.

The Pantanal soil is fertile due to seasonal floods that bring fortified nutrients where grass grows once the water subsided. The majority of human inhabitants in Pantanal are ranchers who make a living by raising cattle. As the reputation of Pantanal as a destination for nature lovers grows, the ranchers have taken the opportunity to turn their farms into safari parks where visitors can watch the wildlife at the comfort of some simple facilities.

Apart from Pantanal, a place nearby that you should not miss if you're in that part of Brazil is the town of Bonito and its natural reserve, which is well-known for crystal clear rivers which allows snorkellers close encounters with exotic fish and other native aquatic creatures.

SOME INTERESTING FACTS ABOUT THE HYACINTH MACAW

[ 1 ]With the length from beak to the tip of the tail about a metre, they are the largest parrots in the world, although not the heaviest. In case you are curious, the heaviest is the kakapo, flightless nocturnal parrot of New Zealand.

[ 2 ]The main food of the hyacinth macaw are two species of palms, the macaw palm (Acrocomia aculeate) and the acuri palm (Scheelea phalerata). While the former is eaten fresh from the tree, the latter are picked from the ground, from cow dung to be more exact. The bird just need the kernel inside the palm seed so they don't mind having the cow's digestive system help with removing the pulp.

[ 3 ]About 90% of their nest holes in Pantanal were found in manduvi trees (Sterculia sp). The tree has to be at least 60 years old for it to have a trunk large enough for the macaw to use for the purpose.

[ 4 ]The hyacinth macaw mates for life. The female lays one or two eggs each year. Normally only one of the chicks in the nest survives to maturity. They can live as long as a human.

GETTING THERE

- From Sao Paulo, take a domestic flight to Campo Grande, capital of the state of Mato Grosso do Sul.

From there, it is about a 5-hour drive to Bonito or Corumba, the gateway town to Pantanal.

It is extremely difficult to travel on land in Pantanal during the rainy season as most of the area will be flooded so it's best to visit during the dry season, from April to October.

In Pantanal and Bonito it’s not so difficult to spot the wildlife, even mammals. Among the mammalian species we ran into were the giant anteater; a troop of blackcapped capuchin monkeys; the coati, which is a relative of raccoon; the aguti, a species of rodent; the howler monkey; the armadillo, deer and the pig-like peccary, among others. Birds, of course, are numerous!

One of the farmlands-turned-into-hotels, the Xaraes Lodge where my friends and I stayed in located in the southern part of Pantanal. Apart from the cattle ranch where 2,500 head of cattle are kept, the vast farm covers three types of landscape: grassland, swamp, and, on higher ground, forest. The lodge also offers various choices of safari tours in Pantanal: by a 4x4 vehicle, walking, canoeing or on horse back. We did the first three and got to see a lot of nice birds and wildlife. Caiman alligators were every where along the water course running through the area; and the world’s largest rodent, the capybara, were grazing bravely next to the huge jaws. Waterbirds were also abundant. Even the small pond right in front of the hotel was visited on a daily basis by jabiru stalk, ibis and the pink spoonbills. The area is also home to many species of parrots, my favourite group of bird. If you are lucky, you might get a glimpse of mammals like jaguars and tapirs.

There are a lot of fish species in Pantanal. The most famous one is undoubtedly the piranha. We fished them in a small river right next to the lodge with a small piece of beef from the kitchen. Other fish were also very beautiful. Many of them are popular aquarium fish that have been exported for many years. As an aquarist myself, it was very nice to see many fish that I have kept and bred at home since I was a little boy swimming free in their natural habitat.

Near Bonito, there is one place bird lovers must not miss: the Buraco das Araras, also known as the Hole of the Macaws. This is a place where the ground suddenly drops down hundred metres to form a large sandstone sink hole. The tall walls of the sink hole are the nesting site of the greenwinged macaw. Here you can see them flying around from above and the view is just amazing.

Fresh water snorkelling is one of the main activity in Bonito. Here, the water seeps through a series of limestone karsts until it finally reaches under ground system, once it reaches the ground level, it seeps back up through fine sand and forms a river. The calcium carbonate from the limestone makes all the particles settle at the bottom quickly and as the water has been filtered through sand, it is crystal clear. There are several rivers you can dive, and each has its own unique traits. For example, if you would like to take a long trip and see a lot of large fish you can go to Rio de la Prata, however, if you would like a shorter dive and view beautiful aquatic plants with a lot of pretty small fish then try Rio Sucuri. Watch out for the king of the river, the predatory dorado!

Food is abundant in Brazil, one of the world’s largest producers and exporters of foods. In Bonito the oldest and best-known restaurant is the Casa do Joao. Here you can taste a lot of fish species, including the piranha and the scary looking wolf fish. Caiman, or South American alligator, were also on the menu. Beef steak was good, although I found the meat was not so tender. Petit gateau, the little cake that burst out in lava of chocolate at the touch of the spoon is the best here. At Xaraes Lodge in Pantanal, the kitchen was mastered singlehandedly by grandma Pantaneiros. She cooked everything that is served at the hotel, three meals a day. Everything was lovely, even the vegetable dishes! We wrapped up our every meal with cantaloupe. The pale green-yellowish dry looking fruit was not very convincing by its look but proved to be very sweet and full of flavour.

Cerrado, the savanna from where water drains into the wetlands of Pantanal.

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