Hunting for jaguars: back to Brazil

We’re ready to leave Argentina, but we’re not quite sure whether that will actually be possible or not. We’ve picked a border crossing that involves crossing Rio Paraguay by ferry and we were informed this would cost us around 5 euros – cash only of course – so we have just a little more than that in pesos left. Stamped out of Argentina we wait for the ferry and find out it costs more than we anticipated. We simply don’t have the amount in pesos so Hannes tries to negotiate our way in, but alas they won’t let us on the boat. We start the car to turn around, back into Argentina, when we hear some very disturbing noises coming from under the hood. We immediately stall the engine and don’t dare to start it again to prevent further damage. On our way to Paraguay to fix an oil leak, we’re now not even sure how to reach the country. Good that we didn’t book our stay in the Brazilian Pantanal yet…


There we are, in no man’s land with a car that we can’t start and not enough cash to cross into Paraguay. Hannes manages to find someone who can tow us onto the ferry and into Paraguay and the customs officer is so kind to give us the 80 pesos we were missing to pay for the ferry. She didn’t even want to accept a bottle of wine in return. And so we roll into Paraguay, where we are dropped off at the first gas station. Luckily we bought enough Portillo Malbec because our helpers did gladly accept a bottle as thanks. We’ll be spending a day in the gas station now because South America is still in Carnaval ecstasy and so – of course – it is a public holiday today. Fortunately this place is open 24 hours, has great wifi, plenty of snacks for a day and, most importantly, AC, because the heat is excruciating. The next morning we head out to the official Volkswagen workshop in Asuncion but they refuse to help us as our car is not from there – great service ***holes. Next our iOverlander app brings us to Yiyo’s workshop where other VW-van-travellers reported great service on their car. The guys from the shop help us to tow the car in and think they already know what the issue is from a quick inspection at the gas station. When they dive under the hood in the workshop they soon realise it’s not just the AC compressor… A drive wheel mounted on the distribution is completely torn apart. Because this is directly linked to the distribution, and therefore the entire engine synchronisation, they have to take apart the entire thing to check if there is any other damage. While Yiyo and his team search for a spare part in the city, we visit Asuncion. This doesn’t take long though as there is not much to see. Beautiful is not how we would describe this capital. The food does surprise us pleasantly so we do what we do best: go out for a nice dinner. 2 days later they are ready and we leave Asuncion. Or that was the plan… After 10 km the car automatically stalls in the middle of a busy cross road and this time it doesn’t start anymore. Accompanied by a honking ceremony we push the car aside and phone Yiyo again. Even though the lads were already done for the day, they came to pick us up and tow the car back to the workshop. After 2 more days of searching, trying, calling other mechanics and turning some more bolts and belts they succeed in correctly adjusting the engine synchronisation. The van has lost some power since so it’s not entirely the old one. But hey, we also use one liter of diesel less every 100 km so we don’t care!


Our expectations of Paraguay are pretty accurate: there is not much to see, so we drive straight into Brazil. We go back to finally visit the Pantanal. This humongous wetlands area floods almost completely every year for several months. So apart from some ranching, humans have had little chance to establish agriculture here and tame the wilderness. This place is paradise for wildlife and bird spotting. Many of the same species that live in the Amazon forests are also found here but the Pantanal landscape is much more accessible than the dense jungle up North. It is therefore the place in South America if you want to see the elusive jaguar from up close. Before heading to our lodge we drive the Estrada Parque. This is one of the few elevated roads that head into the park and it’s currently in good shape so our van manages to drive it. We see a lot of caymans, a deer and a gorgeous toucan. At noon we drive back to the Pantanal Jungle Lodge where we will stay for the coming 4 days of wilderness activities. Everything in this nice lodge is jaguar-themed so they really get our hopes up of spotting one! The first evening we start with piranha fishing. A simple bamboo stick with fish hook and some diced beef suffices to catch these hungry creatures. Well, it’s not that easy as the fish are often faster in chewing the meat from the hook than we are in pulling it up. Only when you pull at exactly the right moment and the hook pierces a piranha jaw you can catch them. Hannes is successful after a while and catches several. Stefanie patiently tries until the very last moment and in the end also manages to catch one! For dinner that evening we get the catch of the day. Hannes enjoys the tasty, firm fish, but Stefanie is happy there is a salad bar as well.


Next on is a car safari in the morning. We travel the exact same road as we did yesterday and the heavy rains from last night have turned the road into a muddy track which would be impassible without 4WD. We have barely left the lodge and we see a tree full of green-winged macaws. They show off their wonderful colors flying from tree to tree. The next birds we see are of a different size: the jabiru is the second biggest stork in the world and the symbol of the Pantanal. You can hardly miss them: at about 1m50 they are almost as tall as Stefanie! We also see capybaras and the tracks of a jaguar on the muddy road, not far from the lodge. These are fresh as they can be so we must have missed it by just an instant. That day we also do a hike through the pastures and palm forests. One of the guests doesn’t really understand the concept of silence while looking for wildlife and keeps on chatting… Still we are followed from a distance by a coati family and we see some monkeys and a tonne of hyacinth macaws in the trees. For a moment we’re all excited when we hear the jungle birds go crazy above our heads and also our guide takes out his phone to start filming. But in the end we see nothing. Tony, our guide, shows us pictures and a sound clip of a jaguar he saw last week and we can only hope we’re as lucky this week. He does add that he’s never seen one during the hike and that all river activities have the most chance of spotting one. Still, judging from all the cattle bones we’ve seen so far, they must pass by once in a while. The Pantanal is a place where they have really understood the importance of tourism in battling poaching. Tax revenues from tourism are used to reimburse farmers for cattle they loose in the rare event of attacks by pumas or jaguars. That way the ranchers don’t have to hunt them anymore and both wildlife and cattle share the same terrain, where healthy populations of these large felines can thrive and tourists can try to spot them. We end a busy day with a canoe trip before sunset and a spotlighting boat trip after dark. We constantly keep our eyes and ears open in our wobbly canoe as we enjoy the setting sun, but except for birds we get to see little else. Also during the boat trip we try hard to see something. Each time the spotlight lights up a pair of shiny eyes in the distances we get jaguar-excited but each time it turns out to be a cayman.


In the morning we go horse riding. They dress us up as the Village People before getting on the horses and apart from making us look ridiculous it doesn’t feel as if the helmets are going to protect us much if we fall off. As expected we get very tame horses so there is little challenge in the ride. It makes it rather boring and except for cows and buffalo we don’t see much either. So we have some fun with trying to get the horses to speed up and laughing when the horses of people who have never ridden before suddenly start trotting faster. The boat safari in the afternoon was much nicer. We spot many howler monkeys, caymans, birds and a capybara once in a while. The weather is amazing – exceptional as it often rains in the afternoon – and when we get too hot we stop for a swim. Tony ensures us there are no piranhas here and the caymans won’t bite us… Hannes does scare for a second when he feels little stings in his back and feet, but apparently these are just little, innocent fishes who like to nibble human skin.


We make the same boat trip again the next, and last, day before noon with another guide. We only leave this afternoon so we can just join another group. This guide is extremely interested in birds and he takes the boat from one tree to the other to talk about the feathered inhabitants we can see. It’s a bit grey this morning so we’re not really in the mood for swimming. When we get to a river passage full of plants where we didn’t go yesterday, they get constricted in the rotor blades and the guide has to clean them out. While everyone is watching him, the two of us, in front-row seats in the boat, hear a loud and deep roar coming from the bushes in front of us. We stare at each other and realise the other heard it as well. This is what we heard when Tony played us the fragment on his phone! When we tell the rest, the guide is rather uninterested as he didn’t hear anything. He keeps us floating there for a couple of seconds but soon he moves on to watch another bird because he thinks it was just a cayman. Well, if that sound would have been from a cayman we would have wanted to see that monster! We can convince him to go back several minutes later but we don’t see or hear anything anymore. Hannes is ready to burst out in rage…


Even though our last activity was a massive disappointment, knowing that that might have been a jaguar in the bushes, we’re really happy we made the detour to the Pantanal. We had to endure a million mosquitos and we’ll be itching for days to come, but we’ve seen amazingly beautiful wildlife from up close. And we also know we will definitely return to the jungle one day because the jaguar is still on our list…

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