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
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.
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
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
Advise clients that to make the best of these options essentials
such as cameras, binoculars and insect repellent should be
Any client in reasonable health, regardless of age, can enjoy
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
Caiman is a low-keyed, relaxed kind of place.
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
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
Fax: (011) 55-11 3083-6037.
E-mail: [email protected].