The Pantanal Wetlands: Becoming one with nature, or; “Guys, there’s a toad in the pasta”






These were just some of the words my fellow travellers came up with to describe our adventure into the Pantanal Wetlands. “But”, you may ask, “what sort of adventure could throw up such a variety of impassioned adjectives?” Surely not this beautiful place below!

Let me explain.

Imagine this: You have just disembarked from a hellish 17-hour overnight train journey through Brazil, which just happened to include the enforced listening to 80s pop, including much Donna Summer, who is randomly something of a South American sweetheart. Sleep-deprived and overheated, you long for a shower, but sadly it is not to be. After observing the confusing spectacle of a train guard hypnotising a labrador, you are whisked away on a bus deep into the luscious Brazilian jungle. After the bus, it is onto a bumpy open top truck. “There are a lot of bugs biting me,” you think “but at least I’ll get to shower soon!”. But ALAS! Your naive hopes could not be more misplaced.

After arriving at a farm in the wetlands, it is approaching dusk, and still sleepy and unshowered, you are instructed to set off for a walk in the wetlands, which takes you thigh deep into warm, murky swamps, crawling with dangerous swamp creatures – including a caiman (which is basically a crocodile). I don’t know about you but I think “wading through a swamp” is actually the direct opposite of “having a shower”. You don’t even LIKE animals but you comfort yourself with the thought that soon, SOON there must be a showering opportunity. You’ve just waded through a (probably) disease-ridden swamp for Pete’s sake. And yet, deeper into the jungle you trail.

Suddenly, you hear a cry of “WILD BOARS” from your guide up ahead, because of course the possibility of a wild boar attack had to feature at some point in this day. You should have known. “Walk in a single line,” he instructs, “and if they attack, climb a tree. Do NOT form a circle because then they will attack you all individually”. You realise that hardly any of you would be capable of shimmying up these tall trees in flip-flops anyway, and resort to hoping the wild boars just leave you in peace. Thankfully, they do.

And then it is back to camp – before dark because, comfortingly, “that’s when the jaguars come out” – for that long-long awaited shower. You care not that the shower is cold and situated in a dirty log cabin. Or that the sinks are literally clogged with cockroaches. Or that a toad just jumped out of one of the toilet bowls. You just want that glorious shower. You step into the shower, turn on the tap, and then – your biggest mistake yet – flip the lightswitch. What can only be described as a bug-pocolypse decends on you; a flapping, biting mania of insects with no fear of water. And then the toad hops in to join in the fun. “I’m a celebrity get me out of here!” you shout, uselessly waving your arms around, but no-one cares or thinks you are funny. They’re all too busy dealing with their own showers from hell, and “I’m a celeb” is apparently not an international pop culture reference.

You may be starting to understand why the Pantanal was described as “scary”, “mortifying”, “horrific” and “gruesome”, so I’ll take this moment to explain why it was also very, very “cool”. Frankly, after weeks of mountain terrain and dry, thirsty earth, the verdant jungle with it myriad of pools, rivers and lakes was absolutely gorgeous, and perfect for those who love wildlife watching. In fact had the air not been so insanely thick with bugs I would actually have described it as paradisiacal.

That night we sat down to a well deserved dinner. However, the table was LITERALLY crawling with bugs, meaning you had to hold your plate in one of your hands and alternate eating with batting the bugs off your plate and off yourself. And admittedly the unwelcome phrase “guys, maybe don’t have any more of the pasta…there’s a toad in it” was something of an appetite-dampener.

That night we had a campfire planned with beer and s’mores. Aside from the overwhelming bug presence, and a sorry incident where someone put their foot in an ants nest, this was lovely. Some of the farm residents joined us, and I noticed they kept looking nervously at the huge tree overhanging the whole area where we were sitting. After pressing them on this for a while, one of them reluctantly explained that “that is where the tarantulas live”. Yep.

After that minor revelation we headed off to our hammocks pretty swiftly, and while there was some disagreement about this – especially among the taller members of camp – I found them to be an extremely agreeable place to sleep. When I get back to the UK I’m going to install one of them in my house, and when people ask about it I’ll be able to tell them about the time I went travelling to find myself. I’m gonna have so many friends.

The next day started off with an activity that put me way out of my comfort zone. Two pieces of important information for you here:

  1. After a very unfortunate nautical incident involving a pedalo and the Costa del Sol in my early teens, I developed a phobia of fish. It is a real thing, it is called Ichthyophobia, and you can look it up if you don’t believe me.
  2. That morning’s activity was fishing. For Piranhas. And then eating the Piranhas.

You know when you think you’re not going to enjoy something and then you actually end up loving it and you’re so glad you went? Yeah, this was not one of those times.

After watching the Piranhas writhe around on the end of the bamboo fishing rods for a few minutes, I went and sat in the van and tried to think of anything that wasn’t dying fish.

That afternoon’s activity was way more fun luckily – we went on a horse ride (or horseback riding as the Americans call it) through the swamps and the jungle and this time we didn’t see any wild boar which was fine by me. Later I feasted on yet more rice and beans and tried to ignore all the creepy dead Piranhas being consumed around me.

The second night was miraculously a lot less INSECT-ACULAR (credit: James), but having learnt my lesson the night before, I decided to put on my swim stuff and shower outside a la Myleene Klass (yeah right). That shower under the stars, with toucans perched on the tree above us, was actually one of my favourite moments in the jungle. Mainly because I for once I could see the jungle, but I was neither sweltering nor covered in bugs.

That night, after another campfire listening to some Queen (another South American favourite), and a quick game of Monopoly Deal, we climbed into our hammocks, safe in the knowledge that tomorrow we would leave the jungle behind. It was widely agreed that two nights was more than enough. However, the wetlands had one more thing to throw at us before we left.

In the middle of the night I heard my hammock neighbour Tanya whisper the words that NO-ONE ever wants to hear when they’re waking up from a nice dream. “You guys, there are BATS in here”. And sure enough, when I glanced up, a bat was swooping down from the rafters and gliding around the room. When the only guy who was awake selfishly REFUSED to get up and catch the bat and throw it out, with an indignant “What am I meant to do????”, we resolved to just completely cover ourselves with the blankets and pretend they weren’t there.

The next day it was back on the truck and into the land of wi-fi and lukewarm showers as we headed to Bonito – famed largely for its fish and snorkelling. You can imagine how much I was looking forward to that!

Bugs aside, the Pantanal was an experience I will never forget – it’s just one of those ones, like the Inca Trail, where you’re so glad you did it, but you’re also glad you’re not currently living it. With a LOT of hindsight, however, I can see that it was actually one of the highlights of my time in South America.

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