Cat House

Nancy Vandermey, Author
Brazil Trip Report September/October 2011
jaguar otter macaw capybara

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Brazil 2011 Trip Report - Wild Cats of Brazil

Yes, we are cat fanatics. But then, we both volunteer at EFBC's Feline Conservation Center and have worked with over 20 species of cats. So it shouldn't be a surprise that we travel specifically to see wild cats, and support local conservation efforts whenever possible. We've been to Africa multiple times, but seeing jaguars and other South American wild cats was the goal for this trip. The northern Pantanal region of Brazil is the only place where you are almost guaranteed of seeing a wild jaguar, although time of year and number of nights spent there certainly play a role.

I did my normal internet research to find the best tour operator (this is not a place you can self drive easily). Two tour operators were the only ones I contacted based on the online reviews and trip reports. Focus Tours was the front runner all along due to a native English speaking guide and unique Paraguay River excursions. In a series of emails and phone conversations we came up with a 10 night itinerary called Wild Cats of Brazil, which included 4 nights on the Paraguay River, 3 nights along the Transpantaneira, and 3 nights in a park outside Sao Paulo. To add some flight recovery time and allow for the possibility of delayed luggage, we added on 2 more nights beforehand in Cuiaba with a day trip to Chapada dos Guimaraes. We live near the Brazilian embassy in Los Angeles so I made two trips down there to apply for, and pick up, our visas. The open-jaw flight was surprisingly easy to book on Orbitz.com, and by specifying flight times I could fine tune the itinerary easily. While Copa airlines had the most direct flight, for only a small amount more we earned miles on United or Delta for every flight and had better aircraft on the long haul legs. The Tam airways flight was interesting - an ancient 767 with welded shut ashtrays on the armrests.

We flew LAX-Miami-Brasilia-Cuiaba, getting Brazilian reals at the Brasilia airport ATM. We arrived in Cuiaba a little after midnight on September 26. Douglas Trent of Focus Tours met us at the airport and had arranged a two night stay at the nearby Diplomata Hotel. The room was nothing fancy, but the breakfast spread was good. Monday the 26th was spent driving around with Douglas, he showed us the sights in nearby Chapada dos Guimaraes, including a marker for the geodesic center of South America, the odd jaguar phone booth (there were many other animal phone boots around in every town, but this is the only jaguar one), lunch (usually served family style) at a waterfall with many butterflies, exploring random roads and finding a radar dish and hidden campsite with burrowing owls nearby, and a really fantastic waterfall in the national park. We watched red and green macaws flying around while he spoke with the local park rangers (IBAMA), and then we went up and met the park personnel as well. We heard about recent jaguar sightings and even a capture and relocation. While they spoke no English we communicated through pictures thanks to their computers, I showed them our pictures at wildcatzoo.org after they showed us their jaguar photos. There are many many colorful birds in Brazil, including a big flock of blue winged parakeets at the waterfall at sunset.

Tuesday the adventure began! We had a comfortable minibus for the 2 hour drive through the dry cerrado landscape to Caceres, seeing our first rhea and picking up ice and drinks on the way. We loaded up Douglas�s jaguar expedition boat, met driver Vagno, photographed kiskadees, and had lunch on the river in town before heading up the Paraguay River. Brazilians like their beer ICE cold, you have to be careful to pick it up at the top stem or it will freeze up - coozies are very popular here. Our first capybara and caiman sightings were a big deal to us, but it turns out they are everywhere on the river, no need to photograph all of them! More cool birds included skimmers, screamers, herons, vultures, cormorants, anhinga, kingfisher, storks, hawks, and our first toucans. But perhaps the oil warning siren on the boat should not have been ignored (every time the engine was started it would blare for several minutes and then go off)

We arrived at Hotel Baiazinha (Jaguar River Lodge) about 4 pm and showered. Before we could finish dressing there was a knock on the door - a tapir was out back! These large herbivores are very interesting, with snoutlike noses. This was a large but still young male, calmly walking around in the open. We also saw Savannah hawk, chacalaca, great horned owl, caracara, lots of small birds, more parakeets, and we heard howler monkeys. Dinner was the typical buffet setup, with salad and yummy steak. A cricket in the room kept us awake, but we were ready at 6 am for breakfast and an early departure. We found 3 giant rover otters playing, marking territory, and challenging us � they are very territorial, and fun to watch and listen to. We then passed by a giant wood stork rookery that also had a few roseate spoonbills. The young were almost adult sized but still had juvenile plumage. After a few private ranches and a strange hotel, we reached the Taiama Reserve. A dead cow washed up on the beach was covered in vultures, and we speculated how it got there. Boating through the reserve we saw many more waterbirds, caiman, and capybara. Just below the reserve we stopped for lunch by pulling to the side of the river and going up on the bank. Vagno soon had a grill of charcoal lit up and he and Douglas started to prepare enormous amounts of steak for the 4 of us! It was tasty, but I just couldn't eat my share. A pygmy ferruginous owl kept us company, responding to Douglas� calls. We threw the fat from the steak in the river and watched the piranhas and minnow devour it. Then I went for a swim, they nibbled at me too but I had long sleeves and long pants on so it wasn't too bad. (The long sleeves and pants were very lightweight and light colored, I prefer to wear them rather than slather on suntan lotion constantly). The weather was quite warm and sunny through today.

After lunch we headed back towards the reserve and had only gone a short distance when we spotted our first jaguar! It was a big stocky male, laying on the riverbank several feet above the water. We drove closer and then drifted past him. He wasn't too happy to be watched so he slowly rose, turned, and disappeared into the jungle. Wow! Vagno had trouble restarting the boat and we drifted downstream for several minutes. When it restarted and we went back upriver - there he was again! The jaguar had returned to the same spot. We got lots of pictures of the big male, who had an injury around his left eye but looked in great shape. The jaguars of the Pantanal are the largest in the world.

We returned upriver through the reserve, seeing more capybara, caiman, and birds. Near the wood stork rookery Eric spotted another jaguar, but we got only brief glimpses of it before it also disappeared. We also stopped briefly to chat with �the old man on the river� who lives in a handbuilt shack on a small island in the river. He's been there over 30 years, and sometimes jaguars hassle him, jumping on his dinner table. BBC is supposed to interview him next year and Douglas is setting it up. He was going out fishing in the late evening, when he returns he throws a firecracker in case a jaguar is waiting for him. The sunset was beautiful.

When we get back to the lodge we hear that on of the fishing boats not only saw a jaguar, they were feeding it fish! This is illegal, and while the lodge officially does not allow it the boat drivers and fishing guides earn bigger tips so they do it on purpose. Unfortunately teaching jaguars that humans=food is a very bad thing for both parties - in the past year one man was killed and a fisherman attacked in a boat (although, that cat may have been after fish, not the man).

We headed out again Thursday but the wind had picked up, which means no jaguars were to be seen. Lots of capybara and caiman were! We also stopped by the Fazenda Descalvados, which has fully equipped guest rooms that seem to have never been occupied � there is speculation that this could be a money laundering operation. The boat was still having problems, and it required someone to hand pump the gas quite often. Dinner was Pacu fish ribs, quite tasty. Friday morning it was still windy. We went for a walk out back then checked some nearby side rivers in the morning. After lunch at the hotel we headed back down to Taiama but again, no jaguars. We thought we'd be caught in the rain as a storm front approached but it just missed us. We picked up the old man on the river, he was catching a ride to Caceres with us in the morning.

Saturday we had a long day so we got up at 5:30, had breakfast, and hit the river with 3 passengers. The lodge had no visitors after us for a few days so some workers were going to town (many had left the previous day). Once again the oil alarm went off. But this time, the engine totally died a short ways down the river. We got towed back by one of the 40hp fishing boats, then set off in that (without the passengers). We were met partway by the bigger Hotel Baiazinha boat, transferred our bags, and were off to Caceres - we arrived only 1 hour later than planned. Eric and I had been disappointed with the number of jaguar sightings so far, so a plan was hatched to redo our itinerary - instead of only 3 nights on the Transpantaneira and then 3 near Sao Paulo, we would spend all 6 nights on the Transpantaneira. We headed to Cuiaba, quickly changed our flights for a small fee, and headed to Pocone.

In Pocone we transferred vehicles again, to a pickup truck outfitted with cushioned seats in the bed - great for wildlife viewing! We saw many other tourists trying to view from small cars or vans with windows that wouldn�t even open. The bushes along the side of the road could get quite high so the elevated seat was necessary. It was also a great setup for spotlighting at night, the only way to see many of the nocturnal animals.

There were a few clouds in the sky, and the storm we missed on the Paraguay River had hit here - there were many puddles on the road. This was a very early rain, which again affected jaguar viewing in this part of the Pantanal. We normally have great weather luck on our trips, guess it caught up to us this time! The first part of the road was dryer, we saw a southern river otter in a nearly-dry pond, many caiman and capybara, more birds, and a good marsh deer sighting. It was interesting to pass by all the other pousadas I had read about online, then arrive at the Jaguar Ecological Reserve hotel. Like many of the hotels, they had a resident population of hyacinth macaws. We were placed on a brand-new room. Their construction standards are a bit lax, there were several issues with the room, the worst being when a huge rainstorm came through that night tons of water blew in under the front door. In the morning it was still misty so we had a leisurely breakfast before heading out at 9:30 am. On a nearby side road we had a decent jaguarundi sighting as it crossed the road. The small cats are hard to see but jaguarundis are active during the daytime. We then visited the Puma Lodge to discuss possibly staying there the 3 extra nights (it was cheaper than the Jaguar Reserve).

That afternoon we drove all the way to Porto Jofre, the end of the Transpantaneira. The Campo Grande area on the way there is beautiful, very open and full of wildlife. We saw two anacondas, a young barn owl, and the usual bazillion birds, capybara, and caiman. The hotel at Porto Jofre was much more expensive than the Puma Lodge so that was out. We left Porto Jofre at sunset and spotlighted the whole way back, seeing one more jaguar a ways off the road!

Monday morning we took a quick walk down the road to a bridge and watched caiman jumping after fish. Out at 6 am for a drive, we had a good crab-eating fox sighting. On the jaguarundi side road, we had two new birds - lineated woodpecker and blue crested trogon. We returned to have lunch, pack, and move to Puma Lodge. We then drove to Porto Jofre again, seeing another jaguarundi right after leaving the lodge, marmoset, and a large male marsh deer further down the road. We checked out the campsites at Porto Jofre and admired the resident (wild but habituated to people) hyacinth macaws. On the night drive we saw red brocket deer by spotlight. The generator woke us up at 5 am so Eric went for a bike ride while I went for a walk. I found a few howler monkeys out back. We also discovered that the truck had a flat tire � AND the spare was flat! Pasqual ran to town to get a new tire, we walked around the local field and some trails. Finally we hit the road at 11:40 am and were on the river in Porto Jofre by 1 pm. Puma Lodge has their own small boats with a tiny engine. The Cuiaba river and all the small side tributaries have many boats on them looking for jaguars, most are in radio contact, so it can be a bit of a traffic jam if a jaguar is spotted. We had not planned to go on the river here but due to the lack of sightings on the Paraguay river we wanted to give this a try. But, the recent rain was still affecting things, no jaguars were seen. We did watch more giant river otters playing, some howler monkeys, and the usual capybara and caiman. Some small fish jumped in our boat on the way back. On the night drive home, Douglas spotlighted a small cat - as we got our binoculars on it, we all saw the long tail - it was a margay! This was very unexpected, they are seldom seen, while their shorter-tailed cousin the ocelot is seen regularly at night. After dinner we went out again and saw fox, turtle, rabbit, red brocket deer, and rats.

We got up again at 5 to go for another bike ride - seems everyone else in camp had the same idea! I found a laughing falcon posing nicely. Back at the lodge, a pair of chestnut-eared aracari jumped around in the large tree out front. We drove down to Porto Jofre again (saw a Maquari stork eating a snake) and once again went out on the river, this time in a larger boat from the Hotel Porto Jofre. Despite another 7 hours on the water, still no jaguar for us, although one was seen that day. We did see the river otters again, a large caiman eating a very large fish, and had a tapir swim across the river for us, which was neat to see. The night drive back did not produce anything too exciting. In the morning we took a short walk before packing up after breakfast and heading up the road. It was much drier the further north we got, ending up at the Fazenda Arancua. Our room had air conditioning so we took a nap before lunch. They had a young javelin that they say had been orphaned, they are going to try to release it when it's older. We headed out about 5 pm but didn't see much until after dark. By spotlight we did find an ocelot! Also a little brocket deer, 2 lesser anteaters, a small tapir, and crab eating raccoons. When we returned to the lodge the electricity was out so it was hard to sleep. We headed out at 6 am, seeing what was most likely another jaguarundi, more deer, and a coati on the drive north. We switched vehicles again in Pocone and went to the Cuiaba airport to begin the long journey home.