On October 10th, we left Jundiai and our friends, the Simoes family, via Sao Paolo’s longstanding regional airport, Congonhas, for Campo Grande. Campo Grande is the capital city of the Brazilian state of Matto Grosso do Sul and borders both Paraguay and Bolivia. We left bright and early and had a chatty driver who loved hearing about our adventures and kept us entertained pointing out sites along the route to the airport. Unfortunately, the last site he pointed out to us before we arrived at the airport was the site of a tragic passenger plane crash that killed 199 people in 2007. On the ‘bright side,’ he was telling us the whole story in Portuguese and the kids were still sleepy, so only Jim and I heard the story.
After an uneventful flight ;), we landed in Campo Grande and started our ‘few hours’ drive to the town of Bonito, an ecotourism hub and home to rivers and natural pools that are the clearest in all of Brazil. Every time we’ve asked drivers or guides for estimates of our drives or routes, we’ve noticed that the ranges are either very large, or very vague, and this time was no exception: when we asked how long the drive would be, we were told between 1 1/2 and 3 hours (but when we asked if it’d be about 2 hours, we were told no…)
En route to Bonito we stopped for lunch and realized that the climate was quickly changing with the geography! It was easily 95 degrees with no breeze mid-morning, and though we were hot and wilting, we welcomed the change from the rainy weather of Ilha Grande and Paraty.
Bonito is called an “aquatic playground” and all of the activities center around being in, around, or on water, to the delight of the kids. Sites to see include clear rivers, an abundance of waterfalls, beautiful cave formations with amazingly blue waters, and tons of wildlife.
While we were in Bonito, our first activity was a snorkel float down the Sucuri River. Putting on even midi wet suits in such hot weather was a drag, but as soon as we walked a short distance to the river to practice in the water (around 66 degrees) with our equipment, we were happy again. Since we’d also practiced with our snorkels in Fairfax, we had lots of fun and got to see dorado and black pacu among many other species of fish (with names that none of us can now remember…)
In stark contrast to many waterways in Rio, the rivers and lakes surrounding Bonito are gorgeously clear and noticeably free of any trash. Many in Brazil consider Bonito a ‘model’ for how ecotourism should work-the mutually reinforcing forces of tourist revenue and environmental preservation: protect the environment so people will come, and if people come, there will be revenue to build up the local economy and to preserve the environment.
(Sean making bird calls (ha,ha) and demonstrating his inner jaguar. More than ever on this trip, we have realized that if Sean’s blood sugar gets too low, he does actually have an inner jaguar and it does NOT appreciate being hungry.)
Another adventure we had in Bonito was river rafting. We inquired multiple times (and were reassured multiple times) that this trip was completely suitable for families, and we felt reassured when we showed up to see many other children suiting up for the trip. Nonetheless, a few minutes into our introduction and ‘safety training’ we were made aware that our ‘float’ actually had 4 waterfalls (not rapids, waterfalls!) After some additional Q&A, we decided to still go on the trip and were rewarded with a mostly tranquil float on the Rio Formoso, punctuated by 4 exciting (but small) waterfall drops. In addition to seeing toucans, macaws, and monkeys, we also had our first anaconda sighting.
(This pic is our picture of their picture- there is one guy in a kayak who follows all the rafters the entire trip to take pictures like these to sell at the end of the trip. Yes, it looks scary, but the bottom of the “waterfall” is just below the frame of the photo).
The next day we were off to the Rio de Peixe (river of fish) for an easy hike with waterfalls and natural pools formed by the river to swim in along the way. Highlights included two ziplines, a ‘cliff’ jump, suspension bridges and ‘trampolines’ (aka diving boards) into the pools along the trail.
This tour had a stop for a (huge) traditional Brazilian lunch, complete with time for a rest in a hammock afterward. While resting, members of the family that own the fazenda provided all the visitors with unpeeled banana pieces and the neighborhood Capuchin monkeys dropped in for snacks.
(Look closely and you’ll see in the last pic that the monkeys enjoy soda as well. Cute, but probably not great from the perspective of preserving wildlife in their natural environments…and no, it wasn’t ours)
While in Bonito we were doing at least two tours per day, and so we skipped homeschool in favor of learning from the sights and sounds of the natural world around us. We had a great time in Bonito and it is definitely a place one could spend more than our 2 1/2 days. Our only disappointment was probably with the town itself, specifically the restaurants; it’s a straight up tourist town with the local economy completely revolving around tourism. Despite consulting our trusty Lonely Planet Brazil, the two restaurants we chose for dinner were pretty disappointing, with the local staff less welcoming than what we’d experienced elsewhere (and surprising for a tourist town). Even though we were in town during a Brazilian holiday and we were surrounded by other (Brazilian) tourists too, people we met in town were not very friendly despite our best efforts to communicate in Portuguese and to go with the flow. Nonetheless, it was a super fun family experience, and everyone left happy and exhausted from all our adventures in/on the local rivers.
After Bonito, we met up with a guide, Lajania, who would accompany us to the Pantanal. The Pantanal is a natural region that encompasses the world’s largest tropical wetland area. Roughly 80% of the Pantanal flood plains are submerged during the rainy seasons, which creates an environment that supports an amazingly diverse collection of plant and animal species. In the rainy season, the water levels in the Pantanal rise between 7-15ft (2-5 meters). An estimated 99% of the Pantanal is privately owned for ranching and agriculture, and there are arrangements between the private ranches and the tourism industry that balance the economic cycles of farming and raising cattle in a seasonal flood plain.
Lajania traveled with us as our guide for 5 days and she was great! We all loved her, and it was so nice to have a third adult (we didn’t realize we’d been missing one, but wow, what a difference!) along for our various adventures and outings. Colin in particular really connected with her and on a few occasions, he would sit and talk to her for up to an hour while the rest of us were nearby doing other things. At the end of our 5 days with her, the kids asked if she could come with us on the rest of our trip, and Colin requested to give her a few extra hugs goodbye…she was amazing to work with and had such a great rapport with all us. We hope she’ll come visit us in CA someday (she’s lived in Alexandria, VA before) and also that we meet others as kind and fun as her again in our travels.
Our first stop in the Pantanal, was, of all places, the Fazenda San Francisco (San Francisco Farm). A few hours after arriving, we joined our first nighttime safari, and were fortunate enough to see barn owls, capybara, caiman, and ocelots!
(Clear glasses for all the bugs…and Colin being a joker!)
We continued to join the nighttime safaris and by the end of our stay, we were fortunate to see many of the rarer of the Pantanal animal species, including the hyacinth macaw, the maned wolf, the marsh deer, and the giant anteater. We also saw more common capybaras, jacare caiman (a crocodile relative), the yellow anaconda (our second viewing), howler monkeys, bunnies, and toucans.
Ever since we first told the kids of our plans to take this trip, Cecelia has been looking forward to going horseback-riding in the Pantanal (some might even say this activity was used as a bribery/bargaining chip while trying to convince her the trip would be fun). Well, true to our word, and much to her delight, we did get to go- and it only took her 5 minutes on the horse to turn and ask us “when we get home to Berkeley, can I please get a pony?”
Our other activities at Fazenda San Francisco included a fishing excursion on which all the kids caught piranha (I caught a tuna somehow!) on bamboo poles using raw meat for bait, and then we got to watch the guides feed piranha to a caiman alongside our boat. During this trip, we witnessed the hardest rainstorm we’ve ever seen, including thunder, lightning, and torrents of rain (the boat had a cover!) which was promptly followed by clear skies and a double rainbow.
Our fishing and horseback riding excursions happened to fall on my birthday and led up to our second to last night at Fazenda San Francisco. Despite agreements otherwise, my dear family surprised me with a wood-carved back scratcher and a birthday cake (made by the fazenda cooks on my behalf!) at the end of dinner in a crowded communal dining hall. After our family sang to me in English, the rest of the guests chimed in with the Portuguese version to help me ring in my 42nd year. It was a great day and already felt pretty perfect. The small, sweet celebration (albeit rule-breaking) was literally icing on the cake.
One of our final excursions for this part of the trip was a kayak ride in the same river with the hungry jacare caiman. I was less than thrilled to be getting even closer to them, but we enjoyed our paddle up and down the river, and saw many species of birds, and more caiman as well.
Departing from Fazenda San Francisco, we headed to another ranch called Pousada Aguape closer to the town of Aquidauana which was a 2.5 hour drive, including 50km(!) on a very bumpy dirt road. In Aguape, we joined one nighttime safari and did one boat tour down the Aquidauana River during which we saw no fewer than 16 toucans (they always travel in pairs!), howler monkeys, and multiple types of macaws.
Jim, Lajania, and Cecelia also had the opportunity for a short tour of the surrounding region by air. While flights in small planes are never high on my list of things I want my loved ones to do (nor that I want to do personally), the pilot has done the flight 1,000s of times and everyone enjoyed the flight and returned safe and sound. To help put me at ease, there was even a guy on the ground who drove his dirt-bike the length of the runway prior to takeoff to make sure all of the cattle were out of the way-standard operating procedure, of course.
After our swimming, hiking, wildlife viewing adventures of Bonito and the Pantanal, it was time to say goodbye to Brazil. We departed Campo Grande and connected through Sao Paolo International Airport where a longstanding family wager was finally settled- would Sean lose his first tooth (loose for months now) in Brazil or Argentina? He lost it on a bagel and cream cheese at the airport in Sao Paolo, and the tooth fairy recognized the significance of the international loss with the bulk of his payment in Argentine pesos + 1 symbolic Brazilian Real.
We arrived to Buenos Aires late Monday night, October 17th ready for a month in the city of Messi, Boca Juniors, and lots of sweet treats. (We have not been disappointed thus far on the last point especially- as far as we can tell, the minimum number of bakeries per block is 2.)
More to come soon from Buenos Aires!