BRAZIL: UNPARALLELED BIODIVERSITY
by Jack Christopher
As a single-destination vacation, I have found that Brazil offers a variety and scope that is hard to beat with two natural areas of unparalleled biodiversity — the immense rainforests of the Amazon River basin and the vast wetlands of the Pantanal ecosystem.
Known by such descriptive names as the “Freshwater Sea” and the “River Sea,” the Amazon River by any name is awesome. Its most distant sources are within 120 miles of the Pacific Ocean. By the time it spills into the Atlantic its waters have traveled a distance of up to 4,200 miles. At its mouth, the Amazon is by some measurements more than 200 miles wide. By water volume it is not only the world’s largest river — it exceeds the flow of the next ten largest rivers combined. Its river basin is also the world’s largest, covering some 40 percent of South America, and its rainforest is the most varied and biologically diverse area in the world, with an unparalleled number and variety of plants, animals, and microorganisms.
The Pantanal, one of the world’s largest freshwater wetlands, covers parts of southwestern Brazil and adjacent eastern portions of Paraguay and Bolivia (an area about half the size of France). Campo Grande and Cuiaba are Brazil’s main gateway cities to this natural wonderland. The Pantanal is home to thousands of lakes and rivers, and with its extraordinarily rich and diverse wildlife, it is a paradise for nature and animal lovers. During the summer rainy season (November–March) it becomes a giant floodplain, forming temporary lakes and marshes (and greatly increasing the size of others) and utterly transforming the landscape.
The World’s Most Abundant Life
My wife and I chose to take a combined vacation package to these two great Brazilian ecosystems. The city of Manaus, located in the heart of the Amazon rainforest near the confluence of the Negro and Amazon Rivers, was our first Brazilian destination. Manaus is loved for its many beautiful buildings, including the opulent Amazon Theatre, an opera house built in 1896. In the days of the glorious “rubber boom,” the 25-year period from 1890 to 1915, when the Amazon was the world’s only provider of rubber, Manaus was the economic powerhouse of the entire region. In terms of total area of exploration and number of people involved, the rubber boom exceeded even the gold rushes of California, Alaska and the Yukon Territory.
We took a scheduled guided excursion of Manaus, including the awe-inspiring Amazon Theatre, where such opera greats as Enrico Caruso performed. The next stop was the Amazon Eco Park Lodge, located in the heart of the lush Amazon Jungle, not far from Manaus. The lodge offered a sandy private river beach, natural swimming pools, over six miles of jungle trails, and a variety of exotic flora and fauna. It is the only Amazon-based lodge authorized by the Brazilian Environmental Agency to maintain wild animals in the many miles of surrounding private forests. This afforded us many chances for wildlife sightings and interaction.
In the afternoon, we went on a guided exploration of the area called “monkey jungle,” where we saw a variety of species of primates congregate. Although far from tame, these curious monkeys have been habituated to the presence of humans. When the leader of the group looked directly into my eyes, it was as if the big guy (who looked like an English Lord after a few too many drinks) really wanted to interact with me. I lowered myself down, sat next to him, and we engaged in a kind of dialogue for some ten minutes. He then started calling the members of his group to join him.
The following morning’s activities began with a rich guided nature walk through the rainforest. Early in the afternoon, we were off to visit the homes of local Amazonian natives who live on the edge of the river. I had the opportunity to do some fishing from one of these homes and managed to catch a ferocious piranha.
Dawn in the Amazon is not to be missed, especially for bird lovers. I made sure my wife and I were up very early for the spectacle of thousands of birds, including a sky full of brightly colored macaws and toucans leaving their nests in search of nourishment for themselves and their young.
Later in the morning, we departed on a hydroplane for a thrilling flight over the Amazon Rainforest, which included a heart-stopping aerial view of what is sometimes called the “wedding of the waters,” where the huge Negro and Amazon rivers merge. Although the two rivers become one, their different-colored waters — black and brown, respectively — stay separated for as much as 12 miles downstream. Nothing captures this amazing phenomenon like a full view from the air. (Most visitors can only experience this by riverboat.) We returned to Manaus for a water landing, before the jet flight to Campo Grande — the main gateway to the Pantanal — where we arrived near midnight.
What Biodiversity Looks Like
A visit to the vast Pantanal floodplain combines in-depth environmental exploration with an experience of what biodiversity looks like that is perhaps unique on the planet. The Pantanal is a natural wonderland with thousands of lakes, lagoons and meandering rivers — but because the flooding is very much tied into the rainy season, the size and extent of these features varies tremendously depending on when you are there.
On the morning following our arrival in Campo Grande, we were given a guided tour of this traditional Brazilian frontier town, which to me still has a touch of the American “wild west.” From there we boarded a chartered flight directly into the Pantanal’s Refugio Ecologico Caiman (Caiman Ecological Refuge). While there we stayed at the upscale Pasada Caiman (Caiman Lodge). This enormous savanna that surrounded us is in a constant state of natural flux; each visit rewards the traveler with a unique and unparalleled ecological adventure.
During our stay at the Posada Caiman, we had a multitude of activities and excursions to choose from, including nocturnal animal spotting, biking, canoe trips, photographic safaris, horseback riding, and guided explorations both on foot and by 4x4 vehicles.
Our terrific 4-day, 3-night Posada Caiman adventure ended as our guide escorted us on a 100-mile road trip (via 4x4 vehicles) to Bonito (“beautiful” in Portuguese). With its forests, numerous waterfalls, many caves and extraordinary clear water (due to the enormous quantity of limestone in the ground), Bonito is one of the most desired destinations for eco-tourism in Brazil.
After breakfast, we visited and explored the famous, 400-million-year-old Blue Lake Cave (the largest submerged gallery in the world) and the pristine Sucuri River. I visited the headwaters and saw the water come out of the sand in a phosphorescent blue-green color. Afterwards, my wife and I had a thrilling time floating and snorkeling for one mile down the river.
As our stay came to an end, I felt as if I had been submerged in nature’s mystery in the Amazon, and then seen the natural world unveiled in all its splendor in the Pantanal. The Amazon is amazing in its density of unspoiled life — and yet much of this teeming variety of fauna and flora is unseen, for the rainforest is good at hiding them. In the Pantanal, this biodiversity is exposed for all to see. Together, these two mega-habitats comprise what is perhaps the most extraordinary revelation of abundant nature on the planet. I’ll never view the natural world in quite the same way again.
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Amazon Travel Tips
• The Amazon is very warm and humid throughout the year (upper 80s by day, 70s by night), and dress is informal. Pack casual, comfortable, lightweight clothing. Be sure to bring long pants, long-sleeve shirts, and insect repellent for protection against insects, as well as sun block and headgear for off-boat excursions.
• The Amazon is an all-year destination. However, the months of November through May are quite rainy, whereas the months of June through October are only about one-third as wet.
• Portuguese is the primary language spoken in the Brazilian Amazon. A few words of Portuguese can go a long way in your interaction with the locals.