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Brazil: Plain old animal attraction
Travel Weekly – 27 April 2006

It was my first time on horseback, and the doubts crowded in, despite the presence of two lifelong cowboys to lead our party, by Mark Smulian

Don't horses throw you off? How will I make it start, or stop it running into a bush?

Why are those huge buffaloes in the next field staring at us with a menacing look, and what on earth is that huge white thing with a scarlet neck flying overhead?

I need not have worried. Slow, docile horses carry visitors up close to the wildlife of the Pantanal and mine moves so predictably when I adjust the reins that it is more like handling a machine than an animal.

The Pantanal is a 100,000sq mile plain that has one of the world's great concentrations of exotic wildlife, and is increasingly being included in tours of Brazil. The region is just a two-hour flight from the air hub of São Paulo, and the wildlife lodges will collect guests from the local airports for transfers of up to six hours into the Pantanal's depths.

Lodges are comfortable, but smaller and less luxurious than those usually found on African wildlife trips.

Water from the surrounding rivers collects between October and March, during which most of it is flooded.

In the dry season - the European summer - the waters recede leaving grasslands on which, rather strangely, cattle ranching takes place amid the habitats of several hundred bird species and some 70 mammals.

Unlike in the Amazon, there is no dense vegetation to obscure birds and animals here - visitors can easily see jabirus, the world's largest storks with distinctive scarlet necks, hyacinth macaws, caracaras - a kind of raptor - and a dozen or more parrot species.

Also there for the spotting is the capybara - a sort of overgrown amphibious guinea pig - small alligators called caimans, marsh deer, monkeys, wild pigs called peccaries, and tapirs. Less common inhabitants include jaguars, anteaters, cougars and anacondas.

Pantanal trips typically involve small groups led by expert guides on foot, or by jeep, horse or canoe. Independent travel is virtually impossible because there is only one public road and rising visitor numbers mean lodges get booked up quickly.

This means most visitors will want to use a travel agent, not least because it is also difficult for individuals to book internal flight connections.

These complications are "where the trade comes into play", according to Sunvil Latin America product director Lloyd Boutcher.

"It is really one of the best wildlife opportunities in the whole of Latin America.

"Dense vegetation affects wildlife viewing in some areas of the world, but in the Pantanal it is easy to see."

Journey Latin America marketing executive Jenny Geal said: "The Pantanal is increasing in popularity because it is the most fantastic place for spotting wildlife, with great little lodges.

"People who go to Brazil see the cities and coast and then want different experiences."

However, Steamond Travel director Marcio da Silva said the area needs more good quality lodges to satisfy client demand.

Chris Breen runs specialist trips to Brazil for his company Wildlife Worldwide that include the Pantanal, and predicts it will become more popular due to exposure in BBC 1's recent Planet Earth series.

The Pantanal has very distinct dry and wet seasons, and the latter is very hot and humid.

But Breen sees it as a year-round destination since birds breed in the wet season, which is the best time to see them. Conversely, the more comfortable dry season is best for seeing mammals.

One problem for agents is that flights from Europe have not kept pace with demand and can fill long ahead.

Da Silva said: "South America as a whole needs more flights, the market is demanding it."

Sunvil uses the internal airline TAM, "one of the best in Latin America", according to Boutcher, who hopes it will start a London to São Paulo service, joined possibly by Virgin Atlantic or Lufthansa.

"That would transform the whole market," he said. "The main problem with Latin America is air access, flights get booked up very fast."

So for the time-being, the birds of the trees and the beasts of the field are the sole witnesses to my terrible riding. And thank goodness for that.

Twin-centre choice

Most visitors find three or four days in the Pantanal sufficient, and lodges tend to structure stays around this timetable. Lodges will deliver visitors back to Campo Grande or Cuiaba airports, which have easy connections to the rest of Brazil through São Paulo. Brazilian airlines Varig, TAM and VASP all offer air passes, some tied to transatlantic carriers.

Rio de Janeiro:

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil's most visited city, is only a three-hour flight from the Pantanal.

Most visitors will want to stay in the coastal suburbs of Copacabana or Ipanema, where hotels are near huge sandy beaches and away from the city's crime hotspots.

Rio is a city cut through by mountain chains, one of which is topped by a giant statue of Christ, reached by train.

Sugar Loaf mountain, above, can be visited by cable car, and the picturesque suburb of Santa Teresa, by an old-style tram. The city centre contains Rio's historic heart.

The sights are quite spread out, so offer to book your client an organised tour.

Iguaçú Falls:

An hour's flight from São Paulo is Iguaçú Falls, where more than 250 separate falls crash down tree-covered cliffs.

The falls are spread across the Brazil/Argentina border and at least two days is needed to do them justice.

On the Brazilian side are panoramic views of the falls from a cliffside path, while Argentina gives a close-up experience from a series of national park trails, the chance to take a boat trip right under some falls and a walkway that takes visitors right above the largest one, the Devils Throat.

Olinda:

Brazil's northeast is sub-tropical with an African-influenced culture and quite unlike the drier and more European south.

Olinda, is an artists' town a few miles from Recife, and a four-hour flight from São Paulo. The old centre of Olinda has been carefully restored with brightly painted 17th century houses and ornate churches.

Many houses are artists' studios offering local paintings and crafts. There are also many museums, but if clients have had enough culture, there are good beaches a short distance north.

Amazon:

Manaus is the usual jumping-off point for the Amazon jungle. The city grew rich on rubber 100 years ago and so has, bizarrely, a grand opera house. Jungle treks, river trips and combinations of these are available and many visitors book through an agent in the UK to ensure that any trip arranged into the Amazonian wilds is with a reputable company and guide.

Sample product

Travel 2 offers a four-day package to the Pantanal from £328 per person twin-share. The price is valid between June 1 and December 27. Accommodation is at Pousada Caiman, and includes airport transfers. The package is designed to be built into a wider itinerary.

Bales Worldwide has a 15-day Brazil, Naturally… tour, leading in at £2,525 per person twin-share for a May departure. The tour spends four nights in the Pantanal. The price includes all flights and transfers, accommodation and some meals, and a guide.

Trips Worldwide has a 13-night Wetlands, Waterfalls and Wildlife tour costing £2,345 per person, including flights, valid until June 30. The price includes four days' exploring the Pantanal by river, road and foot, accommodation and all transfers, some meals and a guide.



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