Wild Pantanal!

One of the best places for wild life viewing on our entire trip was the Pantanal wetlands area. In Portuguese, the word “pantanal” means swamp. Pantanal spans across south west Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay but the majority of the park is in the Brazilian states of Mato Grosso and Mato Groso do Sul. My ‘small country complex’ requires me to say that Pantanal is about 50% larger than Bulgaria which makes it HUGE!

Wait a minute! You don’t know how large is Bulgaria??

Pantanal wetlands wikipedia map.

I got this image from the Wikipedia post on Pantanal. It shows well the Pantanal area.

… anyhow!  Back to the story.

When we originally planned our trip back in Seattle in 2012 we decided to skip Brazil.  Our primary goal was to hug the west coast of South America and follow the Andes. Brazil is so large and diverse that it would require a Brazil-only trip in the future to do the country justice.

Fortunately, things do not always go as planned.  On the road, we  started meeting long term-travelers who were telling the same story. There was a magical and remote place deep in the Brazilian jungle where you can only go with a sturdy off-road vehicle.  The travelers assured us of intimate animal encounters.

At first, we did not make much of these stories.  A chance encounter with Sergius and Gaby (Germans with an amazing Unimog traveling the world 4 months at a time) changed our minds. Sergius told us about the Transpantaneira road in norther Pantanal that connects the town of Pocone and the Porto Jofre settlement.  The road is a 147km long dirt road that is barely a meter over the marshlands and has 122 wooden bridges.  To drive it, you have to sometimes go around the bridges and through the mud since some of those bridges have collapsed or are broken.  Furthermore, the road is partially or fully submerged during the rainy season. A few countries later, we met Nathaniel and Anita from Belgium.  They showed us amazing photos of three jaguars they saw on a boat ride through the Pantanal marshes.  They also showed us some ridiculous camping spots by a river overflowing with caymans.

Oh boy!  Really remote, rarely visited park accessible only by 4×4 over bad, broken or missing bridges and unbelievable wild life – we were soooo hooked!

We started prep for Pantanal long before we were anywhere near Brazil.  We went to the Brazillian embassy in Bogota, Colombia to get Teresa a visa. Turns out Bulgarians do not need a visa for Brazil but Canadians do.  Unfortunately I needed a visa for Bolivia so we combined the wait in Bogota. The process for getting these visas was another adventure in itself, but I will leave this to your imagination. Just think catch 22 Bolivian style sprinkled with Colombian bureaucracy and a fascination for colorful stamps and signatures  …  Magic!

To put it mildly, we had an ambitions plan.  Drive from Cusco, Peru to Pocone, Brazil.  This was a 3,500 miles stretch of road one-way that included absolutely every driving condition you can possibly imagine.  The path included Puno, Peru, Copacabana, lake Titicaca, La Paz, Cochabamba and Santa Cruz in Bolivia and Corumba, Campo Grande and Cuiaba in Brazil.

Fourteen grueling days later we made it.  We had gone through snow and hail storms in Peru, crazy duck-tape ferry in Bolivia.  We survived the insane traffic in La Paz and being lost at 1am in Cochabamba – the cocaleiro capital of Bolivia.  The car braved 4000 meters mountain passes at well below zero and drove long days in the jungle at 35C and 100% humidity.   We pulled through illness – both the car and I had “melted disk rotors”… mine were just the food type. Note to self: the 3 seconds food rule in the Bolivian jungle does not work.  We even had the usual immigration and customs set of problems.  According to the omnipotent Bolivian customs’ computer system our car had left Bolivia less than 24 hours after entering at a border crossing with Argentina which was 5 days away.

The Transpantaneira north was totally worth it. We drove to Pocone, stocked up with two weeks of food and water supplies and headed to drive the famous 147 kilometers.

All in all we did 8 nights in the area.  The first night was a bush camp on the shores of Rio Cuiaba a little north of Pocone.  This was a popular locals’ river beach that was recommended by the www.landcruisingadventure.com folks.   We spent  the next two nights bush camping on the side of the Transpatanaira road.  We picked flat areas off the road and away from any water.  The caymans come out of the water at night and stroll around. Next, we did three nights on the property of Hotel Porto Jofre on the bank of Rio Cuiaba (Cuiaba River).  We finished with two more nights bush camping on the road followed by a night at a gas station in another small town on the way to Cuiaba.

Hotel Porto Jofre was fantastic.  The property manager let us camp there for free.  The place looks very fancy on the outside with its private runway and big locked gate but the guys are super friendly.  Just ask!  They had an amazing outdoor swimming pool and outdoor cold shower.  Both were perfect for the hot humid days.  At night, the property was packed with blue macaws playing and feasting on tons of fruit trees.

We were given a word of caution by the folks at Hotel Porto Jofre.  Be careful what you do at night and never walk alone in the dark even on the road.  There are tons of animals and their habits change at night.  There are millions of caymans, all kinds of snakes, including anacondas (unfortunately we did not see one), insects, spiders big and small bigger, jaguars and all kinds of other seemingly harmless animals that are freaky at night.

We hired a boat from the Porto Jofre hotel one morning to go photo hunting for a jaguar. The boat was really expensive but it was worth it. We saw the endangered giant river otter, tons of birds, capybaras (these guys are everywhere) and most importantly, thanks to Teresa’s hawk eyes, the mighty jaguar.


It makes you really think what can a 120kg animal do to you if he only choses ...

It makes you really think what can a 120kg animal do to you if he only choses …

Did you know jaguars are fantastic swimmers and can also dive?  It was eery seeing the guy a few meters away from us chilling on the river banks.  As a friend commented after seeing the pictures later “seems you are not that interesting to a jaguar” … and thank God! See the picture to the left from Wikipedia.


Not all bridges on the Transpantanaira were made equal.  After the 50th bridge the early excitement wore off and Teresa started snoozing even at the worst spots.

As we were leaving the Transpantanaira north, we came across two wild ostriches walking on the road.  After we waited for a bit for them to leave the road, I decided to start driving.  You would think they would simply get off the main road right …

After the Tranpantanaira north road we headed to the south part of the park.  Technically we first went to Iguasu and to Bonito, but eventually we drove the so called transpantainaira south. The south road has fewer bridges but you have to hop on a little ferry to cross the Rio Paraguai which compensates for the excitement.  There are also some hills and some desert like areas which were there thanks to failed farming attempts.  We saw a lot of caymans again but generally less animals than we saw out north.  I suspect the animals were the same both places but they were somehow much more accessible out north.  The south road stars 20 miles outside of Corumba and heads straight east before it cuts straight south.  The second part of the road is the more interesting one with more watering holes full of caymans and fish.  It was also late in the dry season (just a few weeks before the beginning of the rain) and there was very little water left forcing all animals to fight for food and space in the water.  It was a bit hard to watch.

It was Teresa’s job to walk ahead, clear bridges, check them and guid the driver (me) safely along the bridge.  So here we got to the following situation …


So what is the verdict?  Were the extra driving days worth it? Absolutely!  Getting to Pantanal by itself was an adventure. On the way there and back we visited Bonito and the Iguazu waterfalls so we ended up spending about a month in Brazil.  Brazil is easy to travel with good roads, nice drivers and a really good network of gas station most of which have free hot showers, free internet and buffets.  There are lots of big trucks in the Pantanal area but they will actually make way for you and not bother you.  Just watch for those speeding cameras everywhere. We spent cumulative about 12 days in Pantanal and every single day we were surrounded by wild life.  Overall it is a fantastic adventure travel destination.  If you have a car and you get a chance to visit do it!  Seeing wild life in the dry season is incredibly easy.  We were there middle of October, 2013.  If it has not rained you do not need a 4×4 but if it rains hard you probably stand no chance without one.

Another piece of advice is if you want to see Jaguars hire a boat.  The guides at the Porto Jofre hotel were talking to each other on the radios and when one sees a jaguar he calls all other boats.  This increases you chances a lot.

Enjoy your travels there and send us some pictures.  Pantanal is magical and wild!

Two Border Crossings in One Day

I should start this post my mentioning that I am actually writing it approximately five months after it happened. I am not sure what caused my endless procrastination. I think it is a combination of feeling overwhelmed by the amount of stuff that I needed to write to paint a full picture, and my brain’s refusal to remember that day. Teresa has been really passionate about me writing the post so here it is …

We had a challenge: save time and do a 220 mile drive and two border crossings in one day. Cross from El Salvador to Nicaragua transit through Honduras. Other travelers before us had done it so we decided to give it a shot. Simple right?

Preparation is the key to success. We spent time carefully studying other travelers’ (see LifeRemotely’s posts) accounts in the days before. We made thousands photocopies (anything more than 10 photocopies of IMG_2183 the same sheet of paper might as well be called thousands) of all possible documents we could think of. We packed all electronics deep in the car. We made our car trunk inspection ready. Personal items like socks, underwear, tooth brushes, soap, condoms and simply anything that might cause a policeman to avoid sticking his hand in there bubbled to the surface of our cloths drawers. We also pulled safety triangles, medic kit and a fire extinguisher out on the back seats ready for any safety concerned police officers. We expected countless checkpoints and the strategy was to spend as little time in each as possible.

The big day eventually came. We got up at 5am, quickly packed away everything, grabbed some quick breakfast and hit the road a little before 6am.  Five minutes on the road and we hit the first snag … Horrible metal clunking from the front right tire. After a ten minutes spot inspection and Teresa driving the car back and forth in front of me I decided 220 miles of flat road is not that much of a distance so we would push forward. Besides, we had rehearsed all the things that needed to happen that day so much that ‘three working breaks’ could not stop us … All puns intended ☺.


We made it to the El Salvador border around 7am. On the way there two touts chased us on a motorcycle for more than 5km. Only Teresa’s wrist-in-your-face Jedi trick accompanied with a scolding ‘NO!’ had them backing off. The El Salvador border was relatively speaking a breeze. It took us only about an hour to get stamped out of the country. Most of the time was spent waiting in line to submit our passport for a stamp.

Next was Honduras. We slowly drove over an old two-lane bridge between El Salvador and Honduras. This is how things looked on the other side of the bridge. There were three large groups of people. The first seemed to be about a hundred folks congregating in a circle around two small windows. It later turned out this was ‘a line’ where we had to wait. Teresa’s North American sense of order and the aforementioned swarm of people were, how to say, a bit incompatible. If her eyes were lazers there would have been a hundred motionless burned bodies laying there …The second group of people was money exchange folks. To be part of this group you have to be a shady looking guy in your forties, have a belly, wear jeans and dark sunglasses (t-shirt’s not required) and be able to hold five thousand bills in your hand. The final group of people was there just to sit, usually on top of old gutted vehicles, and people gaze. This last group of folks made us both nervous so after Teresa got her passport stamped she sat in the car with windows up, doors locked and a club on the steering wheel while I was running around to get the car documents in order. The car was parked in front of the customs office and a police station and it still felt we needed one of us to be looking at the car the whole time.


The only puzzling experience at the Honduras border was paying the import tax. I had to go to a local bank to pay a fee for the car, which had to be in local money. You would think that since it is a bank they will accept card payments or at least they will be able to exchange USD to pay the bill. Think again… Why would a bank do that?! The teller politely told me to go out of the bank and find me a chubby shirtless man wearing jeans and dark shades to exchange my Benjamins …

Driving in Honduras can be summarized as ‘14 police checkpoints in one hundred miles’. Miraculously we did not get pulled over anywhere. The LifeRemotely folks compared the Honduras-Nicaragua border to a war zone but I think the actual bombardment had been on the Honduras road leading to the border. At one point we hit a well-paved stretch of road and I let my guard down. Before we knew it the good road ended and we hit at 60mph a GOP (Game Over Pothole). The pothole was so big our entire wheel fell in and after the hit the car skidded a little. I could swear our tire had exploded. I pulled on the side of the road cursing in all languages I know.  For my absolute astonishment our tire was still intact. To this day I don’t understand how. In case you wonder this was the same wheel with the broken breaks … (later in Leon we changed breaks and wheel bearings on that same wheel).


The next Honduras border looked equally rundown as the first except there were all-in-all 5 people including the border officials. Apparently nobody wanted to go to Nicaragua … We quickly started our mandatory Central American running in circles dance even with step-by-step instructions. One hour later we were back in the car and driving over another bridge to enter Nicaragua.

Nicaragua felt like a step change relative to El Salvador and two steps to Honduras. Border officials had white uniforms and there were luxury items like signs, doors, ACs and proper lines. Thank God so Teresa could relax a little. The only other interesting thing worth mentioning here was that the immigration office was plastered with Hugo Chavez pictures. It had been one week since Hugo Chavez had passed away. I snapped a quick photo and I almost got thrown out of the immigration building.


Ok, it was 3pm and we were feeling good. We had just finished all paperwork at the Nicaragua border without any problems and we were slowly driving towards the border exit to get on the highway. We got literally to the last barrier on the border when three different border officials got to the car at the same time, almost like an ambush, and request three different documents. The first two folks just skimmed at the car import document and our passports and returned them. The third asshole, I’ll just call him what he was, took our original title (did not accept a copy) and all hell broke loose. As Mr. AssHole explained titles in ‘all Central American countries have two dates – registration and expiration’. Since our title had only registration date it was illegal. In broken Spanish I tried to use US laws as an excuse, I tried with reason (you buy a vehicle and it is yours for ever, hence no expiration date), I tried with more reason that we got approved by the immigration office 5 minutes ago. No avail! The more I argued the more the guy would dig his heels in the sand and the more trouble he would cause. He made us park on the side of the road and kill the engine. Twenty minutes arguing he made us open the trunk and show him everything in the drawers. Twenty minutes later he called a buddy who made us pop the tent for an inspection. For perspective this is the only time in one year of traveling and hundreds of checkpoints and nobody asked us to look inside the tent. After the inspections did not find anything out of order with the car, Mr. AssHole moved behind the car and just stood there with our title in hand trying to call somebody on the phone.  At this point of time he had refused to talk to us anymore and was just sitting there. After another fifteen minutes of no communication between us I’ve had it. I got out of the car and went straight to him demanding to get our title back. I won’t get into too many details here but lets just say that he let me put my hand on the title and mumbled something. I used the moment took the document and walked back to the car without saying a word. Ten seconds later we were driving quickly down the road.

About an hour and a half later we entered Leon. It was now around 6pm and it had started to get dark. We stopped at an out of order traffic light. We had to go straight another block so a quick look left and right and I crossed the intersection. Ten meters in the next street and an oncoming taxi made it clear that we were in a one-way street and pulled over to make us room for a U-turn. We turned around and there he was, Mr. Asshole #2.  This time an old traffic police officer sitting in the middle of the street with a small book in hand and a smirk on his face, waving us to the side… The cop walked to our window, pulled a small ruler out of his shirt pocket, opened on some unknown page in his stupid little book and put the ruler under a line, which read ‘entering a one-way street fine $300’. Next he said that since it was Semana Santa weekend we had to pay cache in the building next door. At this point I was so tired I simply started laughing. I told him flat out “Yo pago nada” – I pay nothing.  I explained there were no one-way street signs anywhere.  He insisted that I was at fault since the traffic light made it abundantly clear… Mind you, that we were sitting right under the non-functioning light … At this point I had already decided that I am not paying and I am not coming out of the car no matter what. He could make us sleep there on the side of the street if he wanted but I was not paying him a penny. After another five minutes of him trying to talk us into paying he eventually gave up and told us something on the order to drive more carefully next time to which I …mmm …  I closed my window and like with the other Nicaragua police charlatan I sped away …

We eventually made it to our hostel. It was the party hostel in town … We had just had a 13 hour Central America extravaganza and we were looking to rest. Little did we know it I had picked up a good case of traveler’s diarrhea from a street food vendor in Honduras and we were going to spend the night taking shifts killing bed bugs …