Lodge provides base for exploring Brazil's Pantanal region

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CAMPO GRANDE, Brazil -- At 6:15 a.m., the wake-up bell clanged, signaling the start of the day's activities at Caiman Lodge in Brazil's Pantanal region, where life is a mix of African safari, summer camp and nature experience.

Covering some 363,000 square miles, the Pantanal is one of the world's largest wilderness areas and is the biggest freshwater wetlands region on earth.

In Portuguese, the name means "swamp," but technically, the Pantanal is a floodplain, where from November to April, rains deluge its vast river systems, which, in turn, inundate up to two-thirds of the land.

Yet another superlative calls the Pantanal "the world's greatest ecological sanctuary."

The facts tell the story: Its combination of swamps, seasonally flooded grass and woodlands and various types of forests, makes the region home to some 700 species of birds, including 26 varieties of parrot, and such mammals as the jaguar, puma, ocelot, giant otter, giant anteater, caiman (South American crocodile), giant armadillo, tapir, capybara (earth's largest rodent species), marsh deer and five species of monkeys. At Caiman Lodge, clients, explore the Pantanal wetlands in small boats.

Needless to say, it's the birds and mammals, not the 50 species of reptiles, that entice tourists; however, most visitors cast an eager, if wary, eye for the world's largest snake, the anaconda, and fishermen gladly skip all of the above for a chance at some of the 260 fish species, including catfish weighing up to 265 pounds.

Getting to the Pantanal is easy enough.

Varig offers nonstop service from Sao Paulo to Campo Grande in Mato Grosso state. The hourlong flight is followed by a four-hour drive, half on a good paved road, half on a rutted dirt track, that leads to Caiman Ecological Refuge.

Clients could opt to make the journey from Campo Grande by six- or eight-seater aircraft.

Typical of lodges in the Pantanal, Caiman has set up a well-developed program, ensuring that everyone takes in as much as possible, however long the stay. Guests are divided into small groups for activities that vary by day.

On Monday, there might be an early morning horseback ride, a late afternoon open-sided truck and hike combination, followed by an after-dinner nature video.

Tuesday could feature easy hiking in a different area, a boat excursion and a spotlighted evening jaunt in search of nocturnal creatures.

Advise clients that to make the best of these options essentials such as cameras, binoculars and insect repellent should be packed.

Any client in reasonable health, regardless of age, can enjoy everything.

Two staff members accompany rides, and the horses, like most guests, have no interest in moving faster than a slow walk; hikes are equally gently paced and do not involve climbs.

What can clients expect to see? Regrettably, when it comes to mammals, not as many closeups as most would like, for although a recent trip produced sightings of marsh deer, anteaters, capybaras, rheas, peccaries (a pig-like mammal) and coatis, none were close enough for decent pictures.

Appropriately, the lodge's namesake crocodiles were numerous and as near as any sane tourist could wish, for caiman stretched lazily near the road and gathered, mouths agape, at the base of miniwaterfalls, waiting for fish to literally swim right in.

Birds, also, were plentiful, including ibis, herons, kites, flycatchers, crested oropendolas, rednecked jabiru storks and several varieties of toucans.

Although Caiman Lodge makes no claim to running an African safari-type operation, comparisons are inevitable: The "Big 5" animal species may be lacking, but so are multiple vehicles crowding the scene.

Boat/horse/vehicle stops mean a bottle of water or perhaps, a soft drink, rather than the colonial era gin and tonic, and no one feels the need to sport the latest in safari wear.

Unlike their typical African counterpart, Caiman's guides are young and university-educated, usually in the biological sciences. On the downside, they also differ from their far-away colleagues by forgoing the spiels of animal trivia that can so enrich an excursion.

Caiman is a low-keyed, relaxed kind of place. Hammocks await clients at Caiman Lodge after the day's activities.

Its 131,000 acres, part of which remains a working ranch, house four lodges, set one-half mile to eight miles from one another, and with one exception, each functions as an independent unit. Guests at the six-room Pousada Piuva join those at Sede Lodge for lunch, dinner and activities.

All guest rooms have private baths, air conditioning plus a ceiling fan and are comfortably, if not lavishly, furnished.

Each lodge offers a pool, a patio or deck, a bar and a lounge area supplied with reading material and a television.

Ample time is allowed between lunch and the afternoon activity for stretching out in a hammock or taking a swim.

Meals are served buffet-style and won high praise from guests during my visit.

The property remains open year-round but December through March are described as hot and rainy with mosquitoes a nuisance; during these months, two of Caiman's lodges generally are not open.

Guests staying five or more days can request a combination of two lodges. As each has its distinct character, this could be an appealing option.

Caiman's owner, Roberto Klabin, believes only small, intimate properties are appropriate to the region. So, as demand grew, he built more lodgings, rather than expand the original lodge.

Although this was the more expensive way to go, it has paid off in terms of guest satisfaction, he said.

Future plans include the creation of a small museum and the development of what Klabin termed "more adventures" both within and outside Caiman's property.

Inclusive per person, per day seasonal rates range from $180 to $200, single, $144 to $160, double.

For information and reservations, call (011) 55-11 3083-6622.
Fax: (011) 55-11 3083-6037.
E-mail: [email protected].

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