Monday, 7 January 2013

Great Things To Do In Brazil – The Anhumas Abyss

Visiting The Anhumas Abyss in the Serra da Bodoquena National Park on the outskirts of Bonito in Mato Grosso do Sul is not just one great thing to do in Brazil, it could possibly count as three great things in one. The limestone substrate of the park area makes for cave systems underground, with many still waiting to be discovered, and one in the process of being explored and opened for public visits right now. With small openings, they are difficult to locate and you would probably be happy not to have been the person that first discovered the Anhumas Abyss, as it is two holes in the floor of the forest, one a few metres across, the other a gap just narrow enough to slip down.

You have to descend into the holes to appreciate the beauty of Anhumas, as the two passages soon open out into a huge cavern, around 110m across at its widest point, with a 72m drop to the cave lake that covers the bottom half of the cavern, with a depth of up to 80m. As with the rivers of Bonito, the cave has crystal clear water, with visibility of up to 40m even in the underground darkness. The water contains calcium carbonate from the limestone, meaning that any impurities in the water are calcified and drop to the bed.

Another object that dropped to the bottom was a giant anteater who must have discovered the opening above while snuffling through the undergrowth of the forest, and fell to its death. The skeleton can still be seen in the depths of the lake, resting on the rock.

There are also underwater cones, some of the largest examples of this natural phenomenon yet found on earth. Water drips from fissures in the cave roof to the lake way below, and the calcium carbonate contained in the drips that forms stalactites when falling on rocks, instead forms huge subterranean, subaquatic cones up to 19m tall in parts of the lake. These can all be seen while inside the cave, especially around midday as the vertical sun shines straight through the larger aperture to illuminate the whole cave and like with a spectacular shaft of light.

The Anhumas Abyss takes some work on your part though to enjoy this subterranean natural wonder. First you have to get down there... then you have to get back up! The drop down from the narrow entrance to the lake surface is done by abseiling down, usually in conjoined pairs, and always with the right safety equipment (Bonito is probably the safest place in Brazil in terms of organisation, safety measures and first aid equipment). After such a narrow opening, the sight of the cave opening out below your dangling feet is Part I of this Great Thing to Do in Brazil. The descent takes around 10-15 minutes for most people, sliding down the rope slowly. Once at the wooden platform on the surface, you can take a boat around the lake to spot the shapes of rocks and stalactites around the edges.

The comes Part II. You can change into your wetsuit, don your snorkel and mask, and enter the cool water. Most people snorkel but PADI qualified divers can also dive in the darkness, swimming around the huge cones and visiting the anteater.

Part III is the pull back up, which may not be considered great by everyone. Proper climbing equipment is used for this, and only those who have completed the training session on the 9m practice tower in Bonito the night before are allowed to descend. The long haul takes around 20-25 minutes for people with a reasonable level of fitness. Help is on hand from the top if strictly necessary. 

There is a real sense of achievement and satisfaction on emerging once more into the daylight of the forest. A drop into the Anhumas Abyss is a completely unique experience in Brazil, although this may not always be the case if more caves are found. For now though, Brazil Adventure Tours can recommend the Anhumas Abyss as one of the finest activities in the whole country for those who would like a little adventure in their trip to Brazil.

Activity Information: A reasonable level of fitness is required to complete the descent and ascent of the Anhumas Abyss, although no prior caving, rapelling or climbing experience is strictly necessary. All necessary safety equipment and instruction is provided, including the training sessions on the tower an evening or two before. Wetsuit, snorkels, masks and diving equipment for those who require it are also included. Trained instructors are on hand at all times, both during the training, at the entrance and at the lake surface. 

Great Things To Do In Brazil – Jaguar Hunting

The largest and most beautiful big cat in The Americas is of course the jaguar. They used to roam all over the tropical areas of the two continents but are now mostly confined to the few remaining lowland wilderness areas, especially the Amazon and the Pantanal, both of which are mostly inside Brazil territory, and also the Brazilian Cerrado. There are rumours of jaguars surviving in remote areas of the Atlantic Rainforest of the Costa Verde, on the tropical paradise of Ilha Grande or the Laranjeiras Peninsula. The isolation of these areas makes it unlikely that a population could survive for very long in such a small habitat, but certainly not impossible. The Atlantic Rainforest watered by Iguazu Falls is certainly still home to at least one of them, who passes regularly at night through the grounds of the Hotel Das Cataratas in the Brazilian national park, according to the data from his radio collar. He has been seen in daylight too, crossing the park road between the patches of jungle. The Superagui National Park in ParanĂ¡ is a little-visited, surprisingly remote coastal area of mountains and mangroves, where our favourite cat still survives in reasonable numbers.

Areas such as these would require chance encounters, too close encounters perhaps – certainly too close in the case of someone known very well to Brazil Adventure Tours, who came across a jaguar while hunting alone in the forests around Jardim, heading towards the Bolivian border with Mato Grosso do Sul. Thankfully he was too scared to shoot it but sadly it had too good taste to eat him.

There are precious few jaguars remaining in Brazil and South America, so we need to help preserve the ones that survive in the wild, only 25,000 or so at recent estimates. The best way to do this is to encourage people living in the remaining jaguar hotspots, such as the Pantanal and Amazon, that they can benefit more from a live jaguar than a dead one, and that ecotourism can last a jaguar lifetime while hunting tourism can last a quick shot. So in this case, jaguar hunting means jaguar spotting, or at least it had better do... Besides, jaguar spotting sounds more like you want to paint the poor creature.

As humans and their farming and logging have encroached into and destroyed much of the habitat of the big cats in Brazil, the best chance to see a jaguar comes in the two great remaining wilderness areas – The Amazon Jungle and The Pantanal Wetlands. The Amazon being a largely impenetrable jungle makes it difficult to spot wildlife further than two trees away. Jaguars are also intelligent elusive, solitary predators, so remaining hidden is in their nature. It is very difficult to spot a wild jaguar in the Amazon, although it can happen.

The wetlands and savannah of the Pantanal give far more open vistas. In the wet season of December to April, the higher waters mean that all fauna (and a billion mosquitoes) concentrate on the islands of land high enough to remain above the water level, meaning that locating the wildlife is far easier, and if you know where prey such as the capybara hang out then you have far more chance of seeing a jaguar, and also the other big cats such as the puma and ocelot. Both these creatures and many more are helped by any jaguar conservation projects, as they don’t infringe on the jaguars habitat and alimentation. The jaguar is known as an ‘umbrella species’ in that its survival ensures the survival of many more below the apex of the jaguar in the food chain.

Around 30 years ago Pantanal ranchers began to realise, with a little encouragement from wildlife groups of course, that visitors wanted to see such creatures in the wild and not shoot them, and their farming methods adapted to protect the habitat in conjunction with the farming (leaving termite mounds standing in the fields for giant anteaters is one example). Not shooting them was obviously the biggest help. Naturalists and wildlife specialists also began to open lodges to run alongside their research programmes and preservation projects. The behaviour of the pantaneiro jaguar in his natural habitat is now more understood, and this can help raise the chances of seeing them, even in such huge territory.

The odds of the jaguar thriving in the Pantanal are now far higher with so many people now depending on them for a living, and also having been educated into protecting them and all the other beautiful creatures that make their home in the wetlands, which certainly wasn’t the case even 15-20 years ago. Your Jaguar Hunt in Brazil can also help to encourage the protection of the species, and all the others that may not even realise that they are sheltering under a jaguar umbrella.

You may still have to journey for your sighting though. Jaguars can be seen on the peripheries of the wetlands, in the channels, on the muddy banks, or even swimming if you are very lucky. To improve your chances though you need to stay at one of the specialised lodges further inside the Pantanal. The Southern Pantanal close to Campo Grande does have plenty of options, but the Northern Pantanal around Cuiaba has better access to more remote areas. Porto Jofre in particular has been a region for jaguar to hang out in reasonable numbers, upstream from the town on the Rio Piquiri. All journeys are done by boat, so trips are seasonal, and specialist jaguar-watching expeditions mean staying in boats or simple accommodation right in the heart of Jaguar Country, with possibilities for close encounters day and night.

The chances of seeing a jaguar in Brazil may be slim these days but if you are willing to invest time and effort to make it possible, then you can take it from us that any sighting of this rare and beautiful creature will be one of your most special moments in Brazil.
Activity Information: A trip to the Pantanal can be as short or as long as you like. The best chance to see a jaguar comes with expert guides on a properly organised trip, visiting the areas where jaguars are known to frequent.

Great Things To Do In Brazil – Snorkelling the Rivers of Bonito

One of the most surprising and enjoyable activities in Brazil, and one open to people of all ages and abilities, is to spend a morning or three floating and snorkelling down the rivers of Bonito, whose crystal clear waters are amongst the three clearest river systems on the planet. The limestone substrate of the Serra da Bodoquena National Park area means that the freshwater springs that bubble up in Bonito, forming the Rio Sucuri, the Rio Formosa and the Rio da Prata, are full of calcium deposits. Any impurities in the water are thus calcified and drop to the sandy riverbeds, leaving stunning visibility. 

Bonito is also a town that cares for its environment so no fishing is allowed in these tributaries of the Rio Miranda that passes along the southern part of the Patnanal in the interior state of Mato Grosso do Sul, heading towards the huge Rio Parana that separates Brazil from Bolivia. This has allowed the aquatic life to flourish under the surface, although much of it can also be seen from above. The rivers teem with huge pacu, piraputanga and the shining golden dourado. Snorkelling so close to such huge fish in a river is special enough, but Bonito also offers the chance to snorkel with many other creatures that you wouldn’t encounter elsewhere. Giant otters and caiman alligators can occasionally be spotted, and the abundance of fish means that neither they nor the seasonally resident anaconda (‘sucuri’ means anaconda in the local indigenous tupi-guarani language) ever need to worry about attacking humans, nor do humans need to worry about being attacked by them.

There are also monkeys in the overhanging trees (with groups of piraputanga waiting below for them to drop fruit), while toucans and kingfishers flit from branch to branch. While snorkelling in Bonito it is just as valuable to look out of the water as often as inside. Anteaters, giant and lesser, and tapirs might also be found bathing in the shallow pools that form at the sides of the river, hidden by vegetation, while on very rare occasions a jaguar has been spotted relaxing on the riverbanks. 

Bonito then can boast some of the most varied snorkelling on earth! It does need a little luck to see the larger creatures, although not everyone would appreciate such serendipitous meetings, but even without such close encounters with the local wildlife, the experience of snorkelling in the rivers of Bonito is a special one. There are three main options, all of them being easy to manage even for beginners. In order not to disturb the riverbed and ruin the clarity of the waters, everybody must wear life jackets and also must enter the water without sunscreen or other pollutants. The snorkelling is a gentle float with the current around the waters and vegetation accompanied by hundreds of fish. A little practice breathing with your snorkel outside the water is all that it takes for beginners to get the hang of the relaxed rhythms necessary to enjoy the experience to its fullest. 

The Natural Aquarium is the most charming of the three principal excursions, a freshwater spring that fills a shallow lagoon separated from the river. The morning sun illuminates the white sand on the riverbed and leaves everything – fish, vegetation and humans – with a spectacular lining of blue and yellow light. 

The Rio Sucuri is the most relaxing river, a 2km float downstream which can be accomplished with absolutely no effort at all for long periods, just allowing the current to take you gently downstream, like a natural flotation tank with added wildlife. This could well be the most peaceful experience that you can have in Brazil.

The Rio da Prata is the most adventurous river in Bonito, with a faster flow and some rapids to negotiate on foot as well as in the water. One quick bend in the river is particularly good fun to float around at a decent speed, with a wonderful bubbling spring halfway down too. As you enter the main river, the waters slow and so does the aquatic life, giving you plenty of time to enjoy the company of your favourite fish in the turquoise waters, with tropical rainforest lining the banks for the final half of the 2km extension. 

You can float down as many of Bonito’s rivers as you please, and experience isn’t necessary. Our recommendation is that you try all three on different days, as the slight differences make them a fascinating combination. Snorkelling the rivers of Bonito is an ecotourism activity known to few people outside of Brazil at the moment, but being such a special experience, Brazil Adventure Tours are sure it will grow in popularity.

Activity Information: The excursions in Bonito need to be booked in advance, and transport may also have to be arranged on certain days when the regular shuttles do not run, as each starting point is outside the town centre. People of any age and any ability can manage the floating and snorkelling, and a boat is always on hand for those who decide that they can’t manage any more. Physically, the activities are not tiring in themselves although a certain level of fitness is necessary.