“Bon appetite.” quips James Bond, as his screaming foe is reduced to a bloody foam by a seething pool of flesh-eating piranha. As I stand barelegged and armed with a pitiful bamboo fishing rod, on the edge of an inky black swamp teeming with piranha, I realize that this is no time for quips. Fresh underpants, perhaps, but not jocularity. I am about to wade into the swamp, up to my waist, and attempt to catch a few of the ferocious little beggars. How the hell did I get into this?
Piranha fish, face-on, the Pantanal, Brazil
A few days earlier my partner and I had crossed the border from Argentina to Brazil, we traveled from San Antonio, Texas with travellens.com. Our senses and time had been filled to the brim by Argentina’s irresistible vibrancy and diversity. Now, on a deathly quiet, Sunday in Foz do Iguaçu, we had no idea what to do next. Expertly bribing our hostel owner to part with his trusty Rough Guide to Brazil we landed upon a destination that appealed to our mutual love of wildlife. We were heading northwest to the Pantanal.
Extending from Brazil into Bolivia and Paraguay the Pantanal, a UNESCO world heritage site, is the largest wetland area on Earth. It provides unrivaled access to South America’s most exotic wildlife, including the exquisite but endangered Hyacinth Macaw, the Giant Armadillo and the Capybara (an aquatic guinea pig the size of your average labrador).
Getting to the Pantanal is straightforward
You can fly from Brazil’s major cities or opt -as we did- for an all-in overland package tour where the choice of accommodation ranges from a basic tent to a luxury hotel. We chose a budget tour offered by what is now called the Hostel Campo Grande, in the bustling town of, er, Campo Grande. Payment of a modest sum secured us return transport by bus ( a five-hour journey each way), four nights basic dormitory accommodation, three meals each day, a range of activities and a free night’s stay at the hostel upon our return.
The darkening sky was threaded with red and gold by the time we reached the town of Corumbá on the southern border of the Pantanal, after an eventful journey during which our bus was unintentionally separated from its trailer, which careered drunkenly into a ditch before spewing its contents of luggage and provisions all over the hard shoulder. At Corumbá we transferred into rugged flatbed trucks better suited to the dirt roads that lead deep into the wetlands. As we bounced and jolted onward through the sunset and into the darkness, the eerie sensation grew of being watched by countless inhuman eyes in the shadowy roadside verges and trees.
The road from Corumba to the Pantanal at sunset
Eventually, a dim, distant light resolved itself into the welcoming glow of a campfire; a beacon to protect our camp from the encroaching blackness of night. Our accommodation was the first of three wooden dormitories, each furnished with nothing more than a dozen hammocks. Communal showers and washrooms were close by, followed by a large kitchen and ‘dining room’ where a small army of cooks busied themselves preparing dinner. At the far end of the campground, long benches encircled the campfire and -happily- a small wooden shack turned out to be a bar serving ice-cold soft drinks, beers and the fabulous cocktail synonymous with Brazil: the Caipirinha.
On that first evening, the cocktails flowed effortlessly as we chatted and swapped stories with our fellow travelers. Before we knew it the camp’s generator stopped for the night leaving darkness speckled by the mesmerizing silver glow of fireflies.
Attempting to negotiate a hammock for the first time ever, in darkness and whilst slightly befuddled by strong Brazilian spirit is something that everyone should try. But only once. The secret, by the way, is to lie across your hammock diagonally.