Vibrant sunsets, pastel sunrises, crystal clear waters, scuba diving, caving, country cycling, wildlife spotting and a real taste of the Pantaneiro (Brazilian cowboy) way of life: welcome to Brazil’s Wild West. Several months ago, I had the extraordinary opportunity to explore Mato Grosso do Sul on a ten-day journey in Brazil. In ten days we covered two spectacular areas brimming with adventure, unique landscapes, quaint colonial towns, rustic ranches, charismatic people and the most tantalizing food!
Our journey began in Corumba, a charming frontier town in the South Pantanal, seated on the mighty Paraguay River. The Pantanal, the largest continuous wetland on the planet, declared an UNESCO World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve, is South America’s primary wildlife sanctuary. With a total area of approximately 58,000 square miles, the Pantanal marks the heart of the South American continent and brings together several diverse regions: the Amazon rainforest, the Catinga, the Brazilian Savannah, the Atlantic Rainforest and the Paraguayan Chaco. This amazing conjunction of ecosystems boats an equally fantastic biodiversity including: 698 bird species, 80 mammals, 260 fish species and 50 reptiles.
Our first night in Corumba, we strolled down to the boardwalk past sleepy, colorful storefronts and got our first taste of the rich, fiery sunsets that are so characteristic of Brazil’s wetlands. Local fishermen let the steady current carry their lines while massive islands of grass and reeds drifted by. We continued down the cobblestone streets to the heart of the historic center where we were greeted by our local hosts at vintage Hotel Galileo for an entrancing welcome dinner. A band of local guitar players serenaded while we feasted on local delicacies of piranha soup, grilled caiman and sopa paraguaia (a spongy, savory cake, similar to corn bread made with corn, cheese and onion).
In the morning, we explored several local artisan co-ops and art centers focused around empowering the local community and producing distinctive ceramics and fish (yes, fish) leather. Lunch was served family style in one of Corumba’s premier mom and pop hidden gem restaurants: the Avalom Bistro. We feasted on several local favorites and continued on to the Boticario Nature Station to learn more about the fascinating intricacies of the complex ecosystem in which we were about to embark for the next three days. Grabbing one last fresh coco from a toothless and charming street vendor, we boarded Joice Tur’s river boat: soon to become our second home, research station and floating gastronomic haven. With another spectacular sunset as our backdrop, the twinkling lights of Corumba’s street lamps slipped away as we took off down the Paraguay River into the vast expanses of the Pantanal towards Porto da Manga.
The following days were filled with cycling on red dirt roads, horseback riding through the marshes, swimming in tributary streams, river canoeing and endless wildlife spotting! One of my favorite mornings was rising early to set off on a bike ride down the rust-colored South Pantanal Road to Sao Joao Lodge. As the night’s mist lifted, in the already blazing morning sun, we were greeted by numerous families of capybara. At almost every turn, we saw various birds or mammals darting in and out of the reeds and low hanging trees, which our enthusiastic, naturalist guides were eager to discuss and describe. The heat was stifling by mid-day but cool, outdoor showers awaited us along with lazy hammocks swinging in the sweet, refreshing shade. Our hosts at Sao Joao Lodge were the weathered and charismatic Pantaneiros, who proudly described their deep-rooted traditions and the challenging ways of life that cattle drivers have to endure. Facing the late afternoon heat, we set off on horseback into the flooded plains where we saw crowds of hyacinth macaws and countless lethargic, potbellied caiman resting on muddy banks.
The final night aboard our floating sanctuary, we were serenaded at sunset by our own private string duo. The dreamy notes from the cello and violin flirted with the calm of dusk and a far off storm lit up the horizon and flashed lightning on the Bolivian border. After an epic feast of suckling pig and exotic fish, we all clinked glasses while sipping refreshing caipirinhas and watched on the top deck as the southern hemisphere’s star constellations illuminated the sky.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of my adventures in Bonito: an adventurer’s paradise!
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Your friendly Brazil expert,