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!

Bolivia Bound – Puno, Peru to La Paz, Bolivia

Four years ago, George returned from his sabbatical in South America and Dominican Republic wide-eyed with a crazy idea to drive from Alaska to Argentina. After visiting Bolivia, he could not wait to solo drive through Bolivia’s salt flats and altiplano (high planes). Needless to say, as we left Cuzco and headed for the Bolivian border, we were pumped for the new country and new adventure.

We made the obligatory stop in Puno, Peru on Lake Titicaca to visit the floating reed islands. Someone described the tours to the  islands like visiting disney land. The inhabitants do seem ready to sing some cheery songs in any language necessary. Setting aside our obvious dislike of the tourist trap, we were able to appreciate the ingenuity of the people. You’ve got to respect anyone who can carve out a life from layers and layers of reeds floating on a lake.

After the amusement park visit, we made our way to Copacabana Bolivia and yet another tenuous ferry ride.

La Paz was next on our list. The city sits at 3,200 to 4,100 m and was built in a narrow valley which means a heart pounding climb anywhere you go. Hiking through the city, we took in the baby llamas hanging from stalls in the market, wood carvers and one of many city view points.

One of the major pulls of La Paz is the proximity to the death road, a 60 to 70 km stretch where historically hundreds of people lost their lives each year. Because of a new highway, the traffic is mostly bikers and adventurous drivers these days. We opted to bike down the road instead of driving up to save Vida from some abuse. As we prepared for the ride, I was a tad nervous until I turned around and saw one of the riders in our group holding the seat of another rider and helping him practice being on a bicycle again (a very comical dose of perspective). I quickly loosened up and was smiling ear to ear for most of the ride down.

The Overlander’s way to Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu was the finale of our trip through Peru with our friend George M. Being overlanders, George I. and I found the most inexpensive way in. Our team of three drove through the Sacred Valley to Santa Teresa. Santa Teresa is the jumping off point for a 3-6 hour hike into Aguas Calientes (town next to Machu Picchu). The drive through the Sacred Valley was…windy, up and down and back and forth. We were rewarded with vibrant villages and beautiful vistas for our efforts.

The stop at Moray was a highlight. From what we understand, Moray was a crop testing area for the Incas and included 3 pits that plunged up to 100 feet. We read that the temperatures differs by as much as 15 degrees celsius from top to bottom.

Arriving at Cola de Mono Canopy to park the truck before the hike, I discovered the best toilets on the entire trip. Okay, maybe a little dramatic, but part of overlanding in a pickup is giving up the luxury of your own toilet. So, bathroom facilities become a very distinct part of our day. Back to the toilets though, three clean and spacious ones facing the river. All of the toilets had three walls so you were greeted with a picture framed scene of a lush river and the soft whisper of the water flowing by as you went about your business. Perfect.

Getting our act together, we opted to shorten the hike by three hours with a taxi ride and spare ourselves a dusty road full of traffic. The next three hour we spent sometimes in the rain hiking along the railroad track to Aguas Calientes with a short stop over for lunch. The scene in Aguas Calientes was a little chaotic having the serendipity to arrive on the town anniversary, but we soon got settled.

The next morning we were in line and on the second bus from town up to the ruins. After a little hustle and bustle at the gate, we were in. We did a quick look around and then headed the the Waynapichu line (the peak over Machu Picchu). The hike up Waynapichu was less than an hour but meant jibing for placement between the tour groups and occasional pulling yourself up over steep slipper rocks. The views from the top were definitely worth the dance we did in Cuzco to get tickets.

Conclusion after a day in Machu Picchu? I’m glad I saw it, but it’s probably the biggest tourist trap we visited on the entire trip. I won’t be back, but would love to hike in to some of the lesser known ruins close by.

The road to Cuzco Peru

Mile-by-mile as we move toward another considerable milestone, I feel a heavy foreboding. The task of planning out the details inevitably overshadows the early excitement for me. Such was the case as we moved toward Cuzco Peru and the journey to Machu Pichu.

The drive from the coast east into Cuzco was memorable in itself, passing through small villages and a Vicuña reserve. It took us two long days of driving to reach Cuzco, but the days were not without some hijinks.

Because we couldn’t be sure on when we would arrive in Cuzco, nothing was booked. It took us an afternoon to do a little dance of securing tickets to Machu Pichu and Huanapichu (a peak overlooking Machu Pichu) and decide on the route (drive to Santa Teresa through the Sacred Valley and hike to Aguas Calientes). Details settled, I could finally enjoy the city.

Looking past Cuzco’s overabundance of aggressive touts and high-priced alpaca products sold from trendy shops, you find yourself in a city with a fascinating history. Cuzco rises from the historic center. During the day, the streets are punctuated with colorful traditional prints while at night the hills surrounding the city are peppered in light.

The ruins of Sacsayhuaman sit atop the city and offer panoramic views of the city albeit for a very steep entrance fee. To be honest, i’d probably skip this in the future.

In a Cuzco campground, we exposed the innards of Vida and took the opportunity to finish some projects at long last. It was an organized sort of chaos.