The Pantanal - The highest density of wildlife in South America, or so the books say. After our experience there, I don´t doubt that the claim is true, we certainly saw quite a bit of wildlife: caimen (alligators), parrots, toucans, parakeets, hoards of other birds, deer, fox, trantulas (and many other creepies), and even R.O.U.S´s (Rodents of Unusual Size, for those who haven´t seen The Princess Bride). Unfortunately, it was all a bit overshadowed by a poorly-run tour agency - Gil´s Pantanal Discovery.
It all started when we stepped off of an overnight bus from Rio to Campo Grande (the first of several overnight busses we would be taking in South America, and we were surprisingly refreshed and happy that we had chosen the bus option, as opposed to the twice-as-expensive 3-segment flight option). We were met by a girl who worked for Gil and she helped us cram several things that we needed to get done into an hour - paying for our tour in the Pantanal, getting cash, reserving bus tickets from Campo Grande to Iguazu falls the day that our Pantanal tour ended, buying flights from Iguazu to Buenos Aires, and she even got us free breakfast at a nearby hostel. After this whirlwind hour, we jumpped on a bus as the doors were closing. I said to Lynette, ¨Wow, that was impressive, she really helped us out, and we´ll have to be sure that Gil knows that¨.
However, the next realization was the begining of what would turn out to be complete disorganization of the tour company. I asked Lynette if she knew where we were supposed to get off the bus. Turns out that in the rush, the girl didn´t tell us where to get off. We looked at our tickets, and we realized that the destination (and price, for that matter) of our tickets were not the same! We asked a boy sitting behind us, and he seemed to know where we should get off, and we double-checked with the bus driver.
We were still a bit apprehensive, but sure enough a few hours later, the bus pulled off the road (in the middle of nowhere) and the driver and boy sitting behind us told us to get off. Lynette got off the bus while I quickly gathered our things (we didn´t have any heads up about the stop, so our stuff wasn´t packed up). By the time Lynette had gotten off the bus, a man was carrying our bag over to a pickup truck nearby. By the time I got off the bus, both of our bags were on the truck, and we ended up helping load the truck with produce and groceries, which sat at our feet during the 1-hour drive down a random, crappy-ass dirt road in the back of a very crampped pickup with 8 other people. But, hey, it´s all part of the experience, as are the dozens of mosquitos that instantly started attacking us along the drive.
After arriving, it became clear that there is a huge disconnect between the agent (Gil) and the folks at the lodge. We were told to deliver an envelope to the owner and no other insturctions. We showed up and asked for her, but were told to wait and that our guide would come and find us. Well, we spent the afternoon sitting around on the deck and playing a pick up game of backyard volleyball, and didn´t see any hint of our guide until we were finishing dinner that night. And this is after rushing around Campo Grande for an hour (and not getting everything done that we wanted to do) in order get out to the Pantanal in order to do an activity in the afternoon, which never happened! It was very annoying, but we still thought, well everything will still work out, we still have three days and at least we got a relaxing afternoon… and at least dinner was decent.
The next morning we were up at 6:30 the next morning and after a pretty lame breakfast (crackers and jelly) we noticed that Sami and Mike (who had joined us in Rio) had caught a middle-of-the-night bus and were there earlier than expected (we didn´t expect them until lunch). We did parinah fishing from the dock (no luck for any of us)…
We then went tubing down the river, which was nice and tranquil.
After this we had a break, then lunch (better than breakfast, thankfully). In the afternoon we took a river-boat excursion, which involved going down the river in a motorized canoe for about 3 hours. We saw lots of birds, including some really cool toucans, some pretty good-sized Caimen up very close (the guide even told me to get out of the boat in order to get a better picture, I was about five feet away from it).
We also saw one of the huge rodents (about the size of a golden retreiver, called a Capybara) swimming in the river, and the highlight of a few Howler Monkeys - in addition to the cumpolsory mosquitos, which are just unavoidable in the Pantanal (but we´re told that they´re the begining of the food-chain, so without them, there wouldn´t be nearly as much wildlife, so what are you gonna do!).
All in all, day 2 was much better than day 1, and a good day all around. The only down side was the amount of down time. We ended up sitting around for several hours in the morning, afternoon, and evening between excursions (unlike in the Amazon, where we really only had an hour of down time the whole day).
Day three involved a jeep ¨safari¨, which was really just a drive up the same dirt road that we came in on (which is the main road to all of the lodges in the area), and a ¨jungle walk¨, which was a hike among the sparce trees and mucking through up to waist-deep swamp. It seems like a real adventure, and if I´d have read about it ahead of time, I would have probably thought it sounded cool, but really, it just wasn´t. We did see lots of cool birds, a fox, and some deer on the jeep safari, and got to see some howler monkeys up in the dree during our walk, which were definite highlights. But, the swamp-crossings got kind of old, especially for Mike, who lost one of his sandals (the guide didn´t really mention what we were in for) in the much and had to go barefoot.
Before dinner, we again had nothing to do, but our guide offered to boat us up the river for some more tubing, so we took him up on it. That night, we were faced with the realization that Mike and Sami would have to leave first thing in the morning in order to catch their flight (which they had been assured by Gil that they would be able to do a morning activity on the final day). So, they ended up paying for a 4-day tour, but really only got two days of activities. A real bummer for them. After dinner we went on a night walk, which involved walking from the dinning room, up the boardwalk to our room, shining a flashlight into the water to spot Caimen (which we saw hanging out there all day). It was about 10 minutes, and mucho, mucho lame-o.
After Sami and Mike left the next morning, we did a 2-hour horse (or mule) ride. I enjoyed it more than the walk because we didn´t have to deal with walking through the swamp. Lynette thought it was fairly lame.
We returned to the lodge, packed up, and waited (a long time) for transport to the minivan that would take us back to the city. In true fashion to the rest of the Pantanal experience, we arrived back in Campo Grande with just enough time to pay for the bus tickets and load up for Iguazu Falls. At least we didn´t miss the bus, I guess…
The moral of the story is, we were very unimpressed with the orginization of our tour operator (although we´ve since learned that this type of experience is common in the Pantanal). We´re just disappointed because it could have been so much better, being such a wildlife wonderland. But, we still got to experience it, and for that we´re lucky!