My trip to Brazil in the fall of 2004.
The following is a summary of my visit to Brazil natural areas between October 21, 2004 and November 7, 2004. Douglas Trent of Focus Tours made most of the arrangements for my trip, which included four destinations: The Pantanal, Serra de Arras, Rio Cristalino Lodge, and the area around Humaitá. There are several other tour operators offering itineraries that include the Pantanal and the Rio Cristalino Lodge, but the side trip to Serra de Arras to see the Harpy eagle nest and my visit to Humaitã are not on most popular tours.
Arrival in Brazil
On October 21, 2004, I departed for Brazil. My start was not auspicious; I awoke with a slight sore throat and cough the morning of my flight. Then my flight was delayed an hour. Fortunately, I had a long layover in Atlanta where I easily made my connection for São Paulo. It was an overnight flight of about nine hours, and I was in steerage class. One of the unfortunate difficulties of traveling to Brazil is that there are almost no daytime flights. I had a horrible night with my sore throat and uncomfortable sleeping arrangements. The flight arrived at Guarulhos International Airport a bit ahead of schedule at 7 AM where I found an exceptionally long line at immigration due to too few agents, not the threatened fingerprinting I anticipated in retaliation for how the United States treats Brazilian visitors. I was pleased, however, that Brazilian customs did not search my luggage. I exchanged some money into Reals at an ATM outside of customs, and caught a taxi to the nearby Melia Confort Hotel where the first thing I did was shower and lay horizontal—it was wonderful.
In anticipation of the agony of the night flight, I arranged it so that my first day in Brazil was one of relaxation, and I really needed it this time! My sore throat was still with me and I developed a weak cough. I was very concerned. I did not want to find myself in the middle of the Pantanal too disinterested to look at anything. I took a long nap followed by lunch at the hotel. The memorable thing from the meal was the cream of asparagus and palm heart soup and the papaya crème dessert. Despite my illness, I had enough energy to visit Guarulhos Centro, the market area of the town just up the hill from the hotel. Once up the hill I was invigorated with the bustle of the central market area. I was not interested in buying anything, but I am always fascinated by markets in other countries. I lucked on a pharmacy where I bought some Cepacol for treating my throat. I had dinner at the hotel that evening because I was still too tired to search out a better restaurant—had some over-cooked chicken. I was very glad that I had the foresight to arrange a recuperation period at the hotel before plunging into the wilderness of the Pantanal.
While walking around Guarulhos Centro, I came upon this small cemetery/shrine right in the middle of the shopping district. You can see a woman in the background cleaning one of the tomb stones.
Saturday, October 23. I caught my flight to Cuiabá without difficulty and my guide, Eduaro Falcao, met me outside the luggage retrieval area. After a brief introduction, we were off in his four-wheel drive truck for Poconé on the edge of the Pantanal. I was happy, my illness had abated and I only had an occasional cough. Greatly relieved, I looked forward to a great adventure. It was a quick drive to Poconé, but the sights out my window were strange and wonderful. The terrain had a very gentle roll and I quickly got accustomed to the cerrado landscape with its red earth termite mounds. We reached Poconé where devastation to the area from defunct gold mining operations is still evident in the mounds of tailings. There, we picked up a driver so that Eduardo and I could move to a seat up behind the truck’s cab to get a better view of the fauna. Before plunging into the Pantanal itself, however, we stopped for lunch at a local churrascaria, a kind of Brazilian barbeque restaurant. While there is a buffet offering plenty of fruit and vegetables, the main attraction of a churrascaria is the amount and variety of meats. Waiters circulate among the tables the meat on long skewers and cut off hunks of meat onto your plate, if you do not stop them with a firm “Não,” they overwhelm you.
After lunch, Eduardo and I climbed back into the seat back of his truck and began the trek into the Pantanal. Along the first stretch, the government was building a new paved highway and we had to make our way along a crude road beside of the construction. All the while, Eduardo was complaining that it would have been better if they had invested in new bridges and improvements further along on the road. I later understood what Eduardo meant. Meantime, we arrived at the entrance to the Pantanal where a guard raised a pole barrier at an inspection post and we passed onto the Transpantaneira. The Transpantaneira is a highway, or more correctly, a dirt road, that runs from Poconé to Porto Jofre on the Cuiabá River a distance of 145 kilometers (90 miles). Typical of many projects in South America, after the initial investment, it lapsed into decay.
This is the gateway to the Panatal. It is all dirt road from here to Porto Jofre. Note the oven bird nest on the sign to the left.
I knew I was in for an experience when I noted an ovenbird nest on the gateway arch over the Transpantaneira entrance. Soon the termite mounds became grey instead of the reddish color seen in the cerrado area. This was because the soil is different. In the cerrado and most of Amazonia, the soil is iron red, but in the Pantanal the soil is black to gray. Along the way, Eduardo kept pointing out all the different birds and other fauna—so many I quickly lost track and was glad we did a check list that evening or I would have forgotten most of them. Limpkins, ibises, herons and storks were everywhere and I soon got quite blasé about seeing one. At one point, we passed a pond so crowded with Pantanal caiman you could have walked across it on their backs. On the shore, mingling with the caimans were giant Jabiru storks and cocoi herons. There were also many rickety bridges that seemed impassable, but our intrepid driver always managed to make it across them safely.
Jabiru stork nest along the Transpantaneira.
Here I must make special mention about the parrots. Those I saw the first day included several flocks of canary-winged and Quaker parakeets. Eduardo called them yellow-chevroned and monk parakeets because he is more used to dealing with bird watchers. I also saw a number of peach-fronted conures and blue-fronted Amazons. One group of peach-fronted conures that particularly attracted my attention was exploring an arboreal termite nest. From all the holes in this nest, I suspected they might have had a nest in it. Unfortunately, I did not have as much time to watch their activity as I would have liked. It was getting toward evening and we needed to move on. It was not bad for the first day.
Evening brought us to a lodge on the Pixaim River less than half way from the end of the road at Porto Jofre. We put up there for the night. The lodge passes as a resort; and I did enjoy its small swimming pool after a long afternoon on the rutted and bumpy Transpantaneira. There were few other guests that night and I shared my meal with Eduardo and our driver. It was a buffet, a standard for the rest of my trip. After dinner, we went out to spot nocturnal birds and animals. We saw many caiman eyes reflecting our light back at us, but we also saw nightjars and nucunda nighthawks whose eyes glowed from where they sat on the road. Then it was to bed in order to rise early for the next morning’s adventure.
At this point, I cannot help but to mention the curious approach Brazilians take toward air-conditioning. They configured my room so there was no possibility of cross-ventilation, so I had to use the air-conditioner. The first thing you must realize about air-conditioners in Brazilian lodges is that there is usually a switch to turn it on located somewhere on the wall nearby. This lodge, however, offered another challenge. Their air conditioners were on timers. Thus, your air conditioner would turn off in the middle of the night and if it had not cooled off enough, and you wanted it cool again, you had to reset the timer. Further, there is no way to close the windows while the air conditioner is operating. Sure, they offer shutters, but they have very little insulation value. Nonetheless, this was the last point on the Transpantaneira with regular electric service so it was my last chance to enjoy sleeping with air conditioning of any kind for a few days.
Pantanal caimen. You can see that they are not just basking on shore, but there are many snouts of many others are poking out of the water.
Sunday, October 24. I arose at 5 AM for a short boat trip down the Pixaim River to see the Giant River Otters. I was in high spirits—I only had a light cough and a bit of a wheeze. After a quick cup of coffee, we clambered on board the Lodge’s boat and were off. On the way, we saw many waterfowl and some capybaras. When we reached the spot where the otters were, we found them just as curious about us as we were about them. They would swim out and look at us before diving out of view. Overall, it was a pleasant outing.
We returned to the Lodge for breakfast. The most memorable thing about this breakfast was that it was in the middle of a flock of about one hundred red-crested cardinals and saffron finches. The manager placed a pan of farina on an open windowsill to attract them and our table was right next to the window. I scarcely noticed what I ate because I was too enthralled with watching the birds land, take food, and then take a turn flying into the dining room before flying back out the window. Farina is a kind of coarse manioc “flour” served as a side dish at every meal in Brazil. After breakfast, we took a walk in a fragment of forest bordering the river. The birds we saw there were very different from the water birds seen in profusion in the open areas along the road and river. Eduardo managed to draw in a few birds by recording their voices and replaying them so I could see them. We discovered a Brazilian Tapir resting a couple meters off the path, which after a moment of hesitation bolted. When we got back to the Lodge, we found it flooded with youngsters on a play-study excursion from Cuiabá. One of their teachers was happy to practice his English on me, and two of the young girls seemed especially interested in the “Americano” but had difficulty with their English and Eduardo helped coach them.
We had lunch at the Lodge. The children brought a bit of pandemonium but they enjoyed themselves immensely. After lunch, the owner of the lodge brought out more farina and spread it about the outside patio to attack the cardinals and saffron finches once again. Then, after the staff had cleared off the tables, he brought out all the meat scraps and banged on a metal plate. He tossed the scrapes on the patio and soon more than twenty Caracaras arrived and devoured the scraps. I have never seen anything like it before.
At about 2 PM we checked out of the Lodge and were on our way to the Jaguar Ecological Reserve, Eduardo’s own establishment in the Pantanal. Beyond the Pixaim River, the condition of the Transpantaneira deteriorated even more and the bridges were even more treacherous. At one point, we were passing a small lake covered with water plants when we spied a male Giant River Otter come half way out of the water to get a good look at us. We stopped the truck to watch as he repeatedly leaped half way out of the water. He seemed bigger than those we had seen that morning.
On the way, Eduardo explained how the cattle business works in the Pantanal. There are a number of advantages to raising cattle there. There is plenty of grass for them to eat and because of the annual flooding; there are fewer parasites than in other areas of Brazil. However, the annual flooding limits when cattle are able to graze. This has led to an annual cycle in which ranchers purchase feeder cattle at the beginning of the dry season, approximately the time of our spring in North Americ, and sell them at the beginning of the rainy season just before the Pantanal is almost completely flooded—just enough time for the cattle to fatten sufficiently to sell. My visit was at the very beginning of the rainy season and there were only a couple storms during my visit but even they turned parts of the dirt Transpantaneira into slippery mud wallows. I can only imagine what the road is like at the height of the rainy season when water rises so high that the Pantaneiros and their remaining cattle are isolated on islands of land barely elevated above the flood. Eduardo noted that the Pantaneiros know to settle and build their homes where palm trees grow because the palm trees can only survive on the higher ground that is not completely inundated by the annual flooding.
We arrived at Eduardo’s Jaguar Ecological Reserve. Not more than few hundred meters before the gate to the Reserve, Eduardo pointed out a tree in which Hyacinth Macaws usually nest and he suspected that the pair, which was sitting together on a large limb of the tree, had some recent hatchlings. Almost directly across the road was another tree in which Toco Toucans usually nest, but according to Eduardo, they are very wary and difficult to observe. In the same tree as the toucan nest, he pointed to a large nest of twigs built by a flock of Quaker parakeets.
After we arrived, Eduardo’s wife Juacineide brought us fresh cold passion fruit juice—Eduardo’s favorite. He then introduced me around to his Mother, Father and a cousin. He did not allow me much time to settle, but I quickly learned to keep the door to my room closed in order to keep out insects especially mosquitoes. The rush was to see a Great Anteater that tends to be active at dusk. Unfortunately, we did not see one, but we did see other nocturnal mammals including some Red Brocket Deer and a couple Crab Eating Foxes using the spotlight.
We returned to Eduardo’s Lodge for dinner. His wife prepared a special treat—a barbecued fish called piracu. I had had this same fish the night before at the Pixaim Lodge and found it mediocre. The fish his wife had prepared, however, was superb. According to Eduardo, the key to its better flavor was that it was wild caught from the Cuiabá River, whereas, the fish served at the Lodge had been farm reared.
I went to bed early since the plan was to leave at 5:30 AM to look for more birds. Therefore, after a quick shower shared with a small frog, I tucked in to the hum of an electrical generator that is only turned on in the morning and evening. There was no air conditioning, but there was good cross ventilation. I slept quite well, even drawing up a blanket in the middle of the night when it cooled off.
Sharing my shower with a frog.
Monday, October 25. First thing in the morning, I went off with Eduardo for a walk along the road. Got a good view of a Troupial, a bird that looks like a Baltimore Oriole on steroids. My favorite bird, however, was the Pigmy Kingfisher. This bird is a vibrant shimmering green. It is uncommon to see this bird, but I was lucky enough to see one on three different occasions. We returned to a breakfast, in addition to local cheese, bread and fruits, I got a special treat of hard cooked quail eggs.
After breakfast, we took a walk to Eduardo’s Uncle’s house. The path starts in a pasture, but mostly led through a forest. Along the way, we saw a Blue-Crowned Trogon, Blue-Crowned Motmot and capuchin monkeys. Our driver met us at the Uncle’s house, but we did not return immediately; Eduardo visited with his relatives. While they visited, I got a close up look of how Pantaneiros lived. The home sits in the middle of a large pasture surrounded with a few trees. His Uncle raises cattle, and, except for his nearby relatives, is quite isolated from the rest of the world. Like Eduardo, they have a generator used only part of the day, usually the evening, and a radio tower for communicating with the outside world. They had a few chickens that stayed close to the house. They kept the chickens more as pets than for their eggs or meat. There was a barbed wire fence surrounding the house to keep the cattle out and small birds often landed on its strands. In the pasture, there was a pair of Screamers. These turkey-sized birds are only seen in pairs and they are highly territorial. There was another pair living on the other side of the road. If one pair strayed into the other’s territory, they would almost invariably fight.
We returned to the lodge to rest, which was only broken for lunch at noon before we left on another excursion at 3 PM. All through my stay in the Brazilian tropics, as well as on other trips to the tropical areas of South America, the typical schedule is to go out early just at sunrise at 5 to 5:30 for the first excursion of the day. Then break for breakfast before heading out again in search of birds. You return to the lodge sometime around 10 to 11 AM and rest during the heat of the day. Lunch is usually at noon or shortly thereafter, and one rests again afterwards until between 3 to 3:30 PM before leaving for the last daylight excursion as it begins to cool off. Usually, you return to the lodge shortly after dusk for the evening meal. This afternoon’s itinerary was to Porto Jofre where the Transpantaneira ends.
This afternoon’s siesta, however, was broken by excitement when a four to five foot long caiman lizard made his way through the front yard of the lodge. Eduardo was very excited since one rarely sees them, and he made sure his two guests at the time, a Swedish fellow and I, got a good view of it. Then, at about 3:30 I climbed into the back of the truck next to Eduardo and we were off. This time Eduardo’s Father drove. We now embarked on a portion of the road that was even more decrepit than the portion we had traveled before. The bridges on this section seemed especially hazardous. One or two had settled into a ‘Z’ conformation if you sighted down their length, another had settled in a way that one side of the bridge canted higher than the other. Still we drove on, but with great care. There was also a change in the landscape as we moved south. It became even flatter and as we approached Porto Jofre we saw even larger herds of cattle. In the fields with the cattle were pairs of Screamers as well as small herds of capybaras. Eduardo noted that the capybaras prefer the short grass of the cattle pastures and this is the reason they flourish here. We also saw many Pantanal Caiman. Because the road is significantly elevated above the surrounding land, one can see vast expanses of pasture. Being so high, I got a good look at a flock of chevroned parakeets taking off from a tree. They flew low enough to the ground that I was able to see them from above and observe the chevron of yellow formed by the wings when the bird is in flight. These birds gather into flocks of twenty or so birds. We eventually got to Porto Jofre and found a large resort with its own airstrip. However, we visited the “other side of town” where the less wealthy come to fish in the dry season. Here fishermen throw up tents and small temporary quarters in a campground during the fishing season. A small tavern is apparently the center of activity and I would have had a beer, but I had left my money back at Eduardo’s lodge. During the season, one may rent a sturdy aluminum boat in which to go out on the Cuiabá River, but when I visited, they had all been pulled on shore in anticipation of the rainy season. While Eduardo spoke with some of the locals, I contented myself with watching another flock of chevroned Parakeets in the trees near the river. Later, Eduardo revealed to me that when he was a young boy he used to shot at these birds with a bow and arrow and succeeded in hitting one once in every three shots. He said he would never do that now. On the way back from Porto Jofre, we took the IBAMA side road to look for Potoos. They were not at their usual trees and we missed them. So we returned to the lodge for dinner.
Hitch hiker along the Transpantaneria. He had been building fences for a neighboring rancher. Rides are few and far apart here since very few people travel this route. Eventually, when he Eduardo’s nephew headed into Poconé, he gave him a lift.
Tuesday, October 26. Had another walk on the road, this time we headed north past the Hyacinth Macaw tree. Got a glimpse of the Toco Toucan before it flew. Saw many more birds before we headed back to the lodge for breakfast. Had a good view of a pair of Chestnut-Fronted Macaws (Severe Macaws to aviculturalists) high in a tree back of the lodge. Later in my trip, Eduardo noted that you seldom see any Scarlet or Blue and Yellow Macaws within the Hyacinth’s range. They sometimes pass though, but the Hyacinths drive them away. After breakfast, we visited another uncle’s home. This uncle was a veterinarian and was away on holiday. He had set up his practice in a small out building, but from the looks of things, he had not practiced for some time. We found some small animals preserved in formalin, but the liquid had escaped from many of the jars leaving some looking more like mummies. The most fascinating thing about this morning was the butterflies. It had rained the night before and the morning was bright with sunshine. Eduardo noted that these were prime conditions for the emergence of the butterflies. They were thousands of them and they congregated near the puddles in the road. Pale yellow butterflies and apple green butterflies mixed with butterflies that were colored deep orange with black trim. When the yellow butterflies flew, they flew in lines of one following the other. Sometimes one could see thousands of butterflies flying in single file. Saw a number of Blue-Headed Parrots (Blue-Headed Pionus to aviculturalists).
Before lunch, I walked up the road toward the Hyacinth tree. It was blazing hot and I sought some shade under a small tree. Unfortunately, my shade tree was not at a position that allowed a good view since the birds spent most of their time on a limb obscured by the trunk. I was unable to see the toucan, but the Monk parakeets would get noisy once in awhile and busied themselves at their nest. To escape the heat, I returned to the lodge where we had lunch at noon.
At 3:30 PM, I was packed and ready for the return to the lodge on the Pixaim River. Four of us made the trip. Eduardo and I were in the back of the truck bird sighting. His Father drove, and his wife rode in the cabin. His wife was returning to be with their children in Cuiabá. Educating one’s children is a major challenge in Brazil, particularly in rural areas such as the Pantanal. There are no local schools, so they send them away to schools in the closest city, in this case Cuiabá. Eduardo is especially concerned that his children learn English and they do not teach it in every school, so he is paying a premium to send them to a school that does. His Father was going to Cuiabá for a medical check up. Half way to the Pixaim River, his Father realized that he had forgotten the money he would need to pay the doctors. Despite this, he continued on, depositing Eduardo, Eduardo’s wife and I at the Cristavao Lodge. He then returned home to get his money promising to pick us up in the morning for the rest of the trip to Cuiabá.
We arrived right at dusk, a little too late to go out to do any birding, so I took the opportunity to relax in the Lodge’s pool again. There I encountered an Australian gent who was having a tiff with his wife. However, we had a nice conversation about their travels in Argentina and their visit to Iguaçu Falls. Like me, they had their own guide. When Australians travel though, they go for months at a time making Americans like me look like pikers. Then, it was dinner and early to bed with the air conditioner on a timer.
Wednesday, October 27. The three of us, Eduardo, his wife and I, were up early to walk the road looking for birds. Saw a few neat ones before returning to the Lodge for breakfast. We checked out at about 7:30 AM. Eduardo’s Father was there to pick us up and we continued on to Poconé. Our goal for the day, however, was the Serra da Araras which when translated means “the hill of the macaws.” Although we would see some macaws, what we hoped to see were Harpy Eagles and their nest. We did some more bird sighting from the back of Eduardo’s truck until we reached Poconé, where we dropped off his Father. Then while Eduardo chatted with his friends, I did some souvenir shopping. I bought a small stone carving of a capybara done by a student of Eduardo’s wife’s Father—small town; many connections! Then Eduardo, his wife and I left for Cuiabá. There, I met Eduardo’s children and even more relatives. Their children were ecstatic about seeing their parents and clung to them as much as they could. Then we were off, but before leaving town we got the truck serviced and had lunch at another churrascaria. Again, there was no shortage of barbecued meats. This one offered a barbecued pineapple that I very much enjoyed.
Serra da Araras.
The main road to Serra da Araras is well paved but has patches of potholes that challenge drivers. Very large trailer trucks travel this highway, and one often finds oneself caught in a long line of slow moving vehicles. Finally, we turned on to a dirt road leading past an agricultural lime production plant. Just past the plant, we turned into road that led under a wooden arch. Here we stayed at a spa catering to people, mostly women, trying to lose weight. This spa was set in a deep valley between two ridges that reminded me of the ridge and valleys of the Appalachians in North America. The spa looked out over a cattle ranch toward a ridge that ended just in front of it. The view was spectacular. Eduardo told me one of the attractions at the spa was the pure water flowing off the mountain back of the spa. The patrons were able to enjoy themselves in a pool where small fish would come by and nibble off dead skin. I did not get a chance to partake of the water, but it sounded interesting.
View from the spa at Serra da Araras. Up the valley to the right was the location of the harpy eagle nest.
No sooner had I checked in, than Eduardo and I were off to see the Harpy Eagle nest. We wanted to get there before dusk in hopes that one of the parents would drop by to feed the chick. To get there we drove a short distance through a pasture and when we got to the last gate we walked the rest of the way. Along the way, we saw some Brazilian Teals, wild Muscovy Ducks, and a Least Grebe. We heard the chick before we saw it. The nest was in the crotch of a very tall, almost solitary tree in a small clearing. I could see the chick quite easily with binoculars. Seeing the chick was reward enough, but what was truly spectacular was seeing one of its parents. To see it we had to stake out the nest and wait. We were lucky, and one of parents made an appearance after only a half hour’s wait. It flew in and landed on a nearby tree. It was huge, living up to its reputation as one of the largest raptors. Its coloring was contrasting blacks and whites, much better defined than the chick’s. It arrived carrying what Eduardo determined to be a Black-Tailed Marmoset. It did not go immediately to the nest despite the crying of the chick, but remained about 10 minutes in the adjacent tree before flying over and quickly depositing the dead marmoset in the nest. After it delivered the meal, the parent flew away leaving the chick to find and eat the catch on its own. Oddly, the chick did not start to eat immediately but continued to cry. Its neglect of the food had us worried that maybe something might be wrong; however, after about 20 minutes we saw it tearing the carcass apart and eating. We were relieved. We stayed near the nest in hopes that the other parent would return. We were disappointed and with the coming of darkness, we returned to the spa for dinner.
Harpy eagle chick sitting on limb next to its nest.
There we shared dinner with the staff, but had to eat surreptitiously in a small room behind the spa. Eduardo informed me that we could not join the other guests because they might be tempted to break their diet. It seemed a bit odd, but there we were eating our beans and rice in a small room hidden away in the back of the spa.
Thursday, October 28. Up early again and off to view the Harpy nest again. We wanted to see an adult Harpy Eagle once more. The chick was still there. I have to say that it is very big chick and it was moving back and forth from the nest to a nearby branch. It takes more than a year for a Harpy to rear just one chick. They expected this one to fledge soon. If it takes that long to fledge a chick, little wonder there are so few of them. We waited for nearly an hour and half, but there was not sign of the adults. We did hear one of the adults when we first approached the nest, but we must have arrived too late to see it.
After we gave up on seeing the adults, we took a drive up another dirt ranch road. There we saw some more birds and some Black-Tailed Marmosets—this time alive and not as Harpy Eagle chick food. We returned to the spa for breakfast and early check out. We needed to get to the Cuiabá airport to meet our flight to Alta Floresta and the Cristalino Jungle Lodge. Eduardo’s wife met us at the airport. She had come with a driver who was to take Eduardo’s truck back to their home in Cuiabá. They had a pleasant meeting while I perused the two souvenir shops. Our flight was on TRIP airlines and included a stop at Sinop. The flight itself went smoothly; however, I was greatly disturbed by what I saw out my window. Large-scale farmers have cleared vast tracks of land in Amazonia to grow soybeans and corn. Since it was the beginning of the rainy season, these fields formed broad light green expanses of new growth. Fires were the most distressing thing. From the air, I saw slash and burn of the Amazonian forest on a massive scale.
Rio Cristalino Jungle Lodge.
We were met at the airport and taken to the Floresta Amazônica Hotel. Here we checked into the Cristalino Lodge, which is under the same management as the Hotel. Two charming ladies met us. One of them was Karen, an American guest guide. Her husband, Mark, was also serving as a guest guide, but I would meet him later at the Lodge. He is a “naturalist” who runs tours in Arizona. After checking in, we clambered into the hotel’s Land Rover for the trip to the Rio Teles Pires. From there we took a small boat up stream a short distance before turning up the Cristalino River. On the way, we passed Ariosto Island owned by the father of the owner of the Cristalino Reserve. As we approached the turn up the Cristalino River, Karen pointed out to me that there was a distinct line where the black water of the Cristalino River meets the “white water” of Teles Pires River. It is not as spectacular as the merging of the Rio Negro with the Amazon River that I had seen before, but, nonetheless, it was quite evident. Once we arrived at the Lodge, they showed me my quarters. It was clearly a cut above my last quarters at the spa—a real twin bed, not a cot, and even monogrammed towels! Karen also instructed me on the Lodge rules: Meals were at 5 AM, 12:30 PM and 7:30 PM. They ring a bell when the meal is ready. Do not put any toilet paper down the toilet (same as everywhere else in Brazil when you see a wastebasket next to the toilet). Trash was to be disposed into separate “Organic” and “Non-organic” waste containers. The generator would be turned on at about noon for a couple hours and then in the evening until 10 PM.
We saw this rainbow just as we turned the boat up the Cristalino River.
We arrived too late to go out on any tramps through the forest, so I settled into my room and scouted about the Lodge area. Since the management allows only one group on the tower or any of the trails at a time, Eduardo had to negotiate with other guides to use them. He arranged for us to go on the Haffer Trail the next morning and to the tower in the afternoon. I was happy since I knew the best place to see the caiques was from the tower. Then we had dinner. I went to bed early in anticipation.
Friday, October 29. This day marked the half waypoint of my trip. Except for few insect bites on my lower legs, I was now in good health—happy that my cough and sore throat had resolved themselves. I was up at 4:30 AM and had a buffet breakfast at 5 AM. Then we were off to the Haffer Trail. A local guide took us to the trailhead by boat. Unlike the Pantanal, in the jungle one sees fewer large flocks of birds. However, the birds one sees are extraordinary. One of the odd things is that while it had rained the previous night, when we embarked on the trail there was a clear sky. Once in the rainforest, though, it was still raining as the water drained off the trees. After hiking the trail and spotting a number of birds, our local guide met us with the boat and took us up to the foot of a small rapid. Here we disembarked and roamed around a clearing looking for birds. There was a crude dwelling there where two old men lived—João and José. The older of the men, who was 71 years of age, sat with a tightly swathed scarf over his head and his trousers cinched at his ankles with rubber bands to fend off gnats and other insects. Eduardo told me that although they could live in the town of Alta Floresta, they preferred here although João had recently sold his holding of about 100 hectares to Vitoria the owner of the Cristalino Lodge. I assume that there was some arrangement that allowed them to remain on the land. After looking about for nearly half an hour, we boarded the boat back to the Lodge. As we left, I noticed that the local guide pulled a large chunk of ice out of his cooler and left it on the riverbank for the old men.
We got back to the Lodge at about 10:30 AM. I rested a bit in my room and then rummaged through the books and showcases in a large screened meeting room near where the staff served our meals. We had lunch at the appointed hour and then I returned to my room to rest until 3:30 PM. Then we left for the tower. We did a little birding on the way, but I was very anxious to get up the tower to see the caiques. The canopy tower at Cristalino is 50 meters high and projects well above the forest. The view from the top was spectacular. Not long after we arrived at the top, Eduardo spotted some caiques or white-bellied parrots as Eduardo called them. Fumbling with my binoculars, I thought one might have a green tail, but suspect it was my viewing angle. All of the other caiques I saw definitely had yellow tails. I had realized my hope of seeing the yellow-tailed caiques, Pionites leucogaster xanthrus! In addition to the caiques, I saw Scarlet Macaws, Blue-Headed Pionus, and a special favorite, Brazilian Hawk-Headed Parrots that birders call Red-Fan Parrots. Of course, I was most interested in the caiques but they were too distant to see or photograph. As it grew close to dusk, the Hawk-Headed Parrots flew nearer and nearer, eventually landing on top of one of the nearby trees. There were three of them, presumably the parents and a chick. Then as if on cue, they disappeared beneath the crown of the tree. Later, during dinner, I learned that they roost in that same tree every night.
Just before darkness set in, we had to descend the tower and return to the lodge. It had been threatening rain while we were on the tower, and shortly before dinner, it began. Therefore, after dinner I read a bit and then tucked into bed at about 8:30 PM.
Saturday, October 30. Woke up to rain, but went to breakfast at 5 AM anyway because there was little else to do. We had planned to return to the tower, but the rain delayed us leaving until about 6:30 AM and even after we arrived, a light rain continued to fall until about 8:30. The view though was delightful. Mist filled all the valleys and it slowly lifted as the rain abated. We saw the Hawk-Headed Parrots several times. They seemed to hang around the tower. Then Eduardo spotted the caiques in a tree southeast of the tower. They were moving about in the crotch of a tall tree. There were at least three of them. One was nipping off twigs bearing two or three leaves and letting them drop to the ground. Another was chewing on a bromeliad growing in the crotch of the tree. Later, I noticed one enter a cavity just above the tree’s crotch and saw its head poking out a bit later. After ten minutes or so, they flew out of sight. We did not see them again during this stay on the tower and rest of the bird activity slowly abated and we returned to the Lodge.
The variety and number of mushrooms and fungi I saw at Cristalino was amazing. This is just one of many different ones I saw.
On the way back to the lodge, I asked Eduardo if I could taste one of the fruits of the wild cocoa. Shortly after we returned, he brought me a ripe cocoa fruit. It has a tough husk, so at lunch, I had one of the staff cut it open and I had a taste. Fresh wild cocoa does not taste anything like chocolate. First, I learned that you do not eat the bean itself. (You have to roast the bean before you can prepare what we call cocoa.) Instead, you eat the gelatinous pulp surrounding the bean. I had a sweet taste with hints of pineapple and apple flavors; however, it had a trailing taste that made it pleasant only in small quantities.
After lunch, we did the Castanheiras (Brazil Nut) Trail. We saw few birds. Eduardo said this was probably beause most of the forest birds had already gone to nest and were either laying eggs or incubating them. Nonetheless, on this trail we had our closest encounter with caiques. After spotting them, Eduardo was able to call them in closer by recording and replaying their sounds. This time I saw them from below instead of from the side as on the tower. Not only could I see that they had yellow tails, but I could see that their bellies had a “dirty’ yellow-brown color; not the pure white we are accustomed to seeing on our captive birds. I have seen museum specimens with this coloration, and I was not surprised. Their bellies were a chestnut color, or ‘Isabel’ color according to the early descriptions. At the end of the trail, we met our local guide with the boat, and made another quick visit with the two old men at the rapid. Here I tasted freshly harvested Brazil Nuts. They are “milkier” in taste than those we can buy in North America. On the way back to the lodge, we saw a yellow caiman. Then it was dinner and bedtime.
Sunday, October 31. I had a restless night. My legs were aching from making the two trips up the tower. I was glad we would be going to walk the level Butterfly Trail on the other side of the Teles Pires River and visit the Ariosto Island. I was glad mostly because I needed to give my legs a rest and a boat ride, easy walking on level land, and a couple Advils was what I needed. We saw almost no birds on the Butterfly trail, but saw quite a few on the island. There I saw the first Blue and Gold Macaw of my trip, some Severe (Chestnut-Fronted) Macaws, and Red-Bellied Parakeets (conures). We also saw Blue-headed Pionus flying overhead. A family with a toddler lived on the island, and we visited with them a short while. Also on the island was a defunct fish camp that father of the owner of the Cristalino Lodge used to operate. You could see bats hanging from the ceilings in some of the old buildings. At the end of the short trail on the island was a pond that flooded during the rainy season but its water level was low when we visited. There I saw my first black caiman.
After returning to the Lodge, I told Eduardo that I did not think I was up to hiking the Serra Trail that leads up a small, but steep hill. Eduardo had wanted to do this, and I suspect he was a bit disappointed since he had never done that trail. It worked out for the best. Instead, we had lunch at the usual time and at 3 PM left for a shorter than usual walk along one of the trails near the lodge. We only did a short walk because we had to be back by 5 PM to meet with our local guide Alberto who was taking us to seek the elusive Zig-Zag Heron—one of the holy grails for bird watchers. We went a short distance up the Cristalino River by boat. Then the local guide, Alberto, pulled to shore and we waited. Soon we heard its call and Eduardo was able to call it in. We moved a bit to get closer, and soon we realized that the heron was not more than a couple meters away. Eduardo and Alberto spotted it first, and Alberto was finally able to point it out to me. It was smaller than I expected, but it was the beautiful shade of blue as in its pictures. Unfortunately, it was starting to get dark and I was not able to see it in it full splendor. Eduardo was very excited since it was the first time he had seen one as well.
It was Sunday evening, and the chef always cooks a special meal and serves it under a palm thatched lanai-like shelter. First on the menu was piranha stew served in a half-shell shell of a local palm. My local guide spent his time fishing for them while Eduardo and I walked the tails. The feature of the evening, however, was a river fish barbecued over hot coals. Both the stew and fish were quite tasty.
Monday, November 1. This was my last full day at Cristalino Lodge, and I was beginning to dream of air conditioning. As usual, I was up in time to leave at 5 AM. We went up river to visit a swampy portion of the Reserve. Alberto dropped us off just below the rapid to lighten the load and we met him once he piloted the boat past it. A ways further, we came to a portion of the river where it broadened and the lagoons off to the side of the river were full of rafts of water hyacinth. There were some River Otters in one of the side lagoons. They were shyer and smaller than the Giant River Otters I saw in the Pantanal. In another lagoon, we saw Hoatzins. I had seen Hoatzins before in Ecuador and Peru, but these seemed shyer than those. On the way back, we stopped to see a large anaconda. I must have just emerged from the river because it was still wet. It had situated itself in a way that made it difficult to see it very well. We waited a bit hoping it would change position so I could get a good photo, but it did not. So we continued back to the lodge.
For our afternoon session, we went back to the tower. I hoped to see the caiques again. Saw some Scarlet Macaws fly by, and a number of Blue-Headed Pionus in flight. The Hawk-headed parrots showed up on schedule and went to their roost tree and one-by-one disappeared from view. I looked for the caiques in the tree where I had seen them before, but to no avail. Instead, there was a Chestnut-eared Araçari sitting in the crotch of the tree where I had seen the caiques. The caiques would not show themselves, but we saw a beautiful sunset before we had to leave the tower. On the trail back from the tower, a pair of Tayras, a type of weasel, came scampering out of trees to the ground. I got a good look at them before they disappeared from view.
Once back at the lodge, Eduardo and I shared our last meal at Cristalino with guests from England and Scotland. That evening I packed to leave the next morning.
November 2. Election Day in
the United States. I had breakfast at the usual time—5 AM, then returned to my
quarters to finish packing. We left the Lodge a little after 9 AM. On the way
Porto Velho and Humaitá.
The TRIP airline flight to Cuiabá left right on time. After the stop at Sinop, I saw a monstrous fire from the plane. It is hard to describe a fire that rises so high that it forms its own “cumulus cloud.” There were other clouds in the sky. This one, however, was gray. I finally realized what Eduardo had been complaining about—that he did not like to go to the Cristalino Reserve in the dry season. I now understood. He said that stifling clouds of smoke often enveloped the Cristalino Reserve and occasionally it is so bad the birds do not fly. Eduardo noted that even local schools sometimes had to close for the sake of the health of the children. It was a very sobering flight.
We arrived in Cuiabá with only a half hour to spare before meeting our connecting flight to Brasilia. Once we had retrieved our luggage, Eduardo’s wife and children met us in the airport lobby. She had brought him some clean clothes for the next leg of our trip. Of course, there was a long check in line for our TAM flight to Brasilia, and we were among the last to clear security. However, we made it with time to spare. Our connecting flight out of Brasilia, however, was delayed so we arrived about an hour late in Porto Velho at 12:30 AM. We checked into the Hotel Aquarius, I took a quick shower so I would be ready in the morning, and immediately went to bed.
Wednesday, November 3. I was up at 5:40 to meet Eduardo for breakfast. We checked out of the hotel and met the taxi that was to drive us all the way to Humaitá. After picking up bottled water and other supplies, we started the drive north to Humaitá on the Transamazonia Highway. The highway heads north from Porto Velho and our ride began with a ferry ride across the Rio Madeira, the longest tributary of the Amazon River. Even here at Porto Velho in Rondonia State, it was an exceptionally wide river. Close by to the ferry landing was a Cargill loading station where soybeans and corn were loaded onto large barges that descended the river to Manaus for transfer to ocean freighters. The ferry crossing went smoothly and at first the road was well paved and in good condition. As we traveled north through very flat country, the condition of the road got worse and there were huge potholes along the remainder of the route. There were rice farms and ranches along the whole length of the road to Humaitá, and you seldom got close to the forest, but you could see its edge in the distance. There were very few side roads suggesting the area is not well developed. We arrived in Humaitá at about 11 AM and checked into the Hotel Macedônia and went to lunch at a real Brazilian eatery. Had the beans and rice, fish, stringy beef and chicken.
As soon as we arrived in town, Eduardo began to ask everyone we met about where we might find caiques. I had made many copies of a picture of my White-Bellied caiques for him to show when he asked. No one seemed to have ever seen them. The people we spoke with suggested that we ask the local fishermen. We went to the riverfront and asked around, but none of the fishermen had seen them either. One even told us that he had lived his whole life on the Rio Madeira and had never seen one. We returned to our hotel a bit dejected. After our siesta, we went out to again at 3 PM, this time we got a taxi driver more interested in helping us. We went back to the place where the fishermen sold their fish and Eduardo talked to nearly everyone there. Then we ran into a fellow who suggested we visit the local Indian settlement further along the Transamazonia Highway. After much discussion, we had our plan for the next day. Meantime, they suggested that we visit a local ranch less than 15 kilometers away where there were supposed to be many parrots. We never made it to the ranch because it rained so hard we had to abandon the effort.
We had dinner at a local Pizzeria called the “Master Dog.” Not many people in Humaitá are fluent in English, so I do not know how the place got such a punk name. Surprisingly, the pizza was quite good; the ones we ordered did not have your usual toppings. The house special, the “master dog” had a good tomato sauce along with a local sausage, local mozzarella, peas and corn. The other one came with palm hearts.
After dinner, we returned to the hotel. One of the interesting features of the Hotel Macedônia was its bathroom facilities. At this hotel, the shower occupied the same small space as the toilet and sink. I doubt this is unique to this hotel, since I have friends who experienced the same arrangement in Italy. Therefore, the water from the shower sprayed over everything. This hotel offered another convenience—an air conditioner with the standard turn off switch located high on the wall, but no way for controlling it. I would not have used it, but my window opened on a sewer that smelled terrible. Further, the hotel only provided me with a very light sheet for warmth. In the middle of the night, I got so cold I had to turn off the air conditioner. The desk person told Eduardo that they do not offer any blankets. The reason was that they never have winter, but they did offer me a second sheet the following night.
Thursday, November 4. We were off early for the drive to the Indian settlement. Since we had to cross the Rio Madeira, we had to be at the ferry by 6 AM for the first crossing of the day. The ferry from the Humaitá departs only on the even hours, so we would have had to wait until 8 AM if we missed it. Once across, the Transamazonia Highway became a dirt road and we had to drive 180 kilometers to reach our destination. It was a long drive on a road that had frequent muddy patches and many large potholes. Along the side of the road, the only tall trees one saw were Castanheiras trees. The only reason they leave these trees standing is that the Brazil nuts they produce are worth more than they are as timber. Along much of the rest of the road, there were cattle ranches. After an arduous journey, we reached the reserve. When we first pulled into the settlement, all seemed quiet. Shortly, however, people, mostly children, were swarming about us. We took care to direct most of our conversation to a fellow we believed to be the head of group. The Indians were eager to sell us souvenirs, but they would not show them to me unless I assured them I would buy. I acquiesced and over paid for a bracelet made from the husk of a local palm tree because I was not in the mood to bargain. They offered me necklaces made of bird feathers and monkey teeth, but I did not think they would be very acceptable when I went through customs back in the United States. In retrospect, I should have looked at the feather ornaments to see if they contained any caique feathers. The bracelet cost 10 Reals, about $3. I was far more interested in learning about caiques. Eduardo spoke with them and handed the picture about, but none had ever seen a bird like it. They did have several pets. First, I saw a poor Golden wing parakeet locked in a cage far too small for it. Then we saw a tethered monkey species that Eduardo could not identify. They also pointed out a pet Mealy Amazon sitting above us in a tree, but the bird that got my most attention was a pet Golden Winged Parakeet that was enjoying itself on a nearby table picking at what looked like farina. The bird readily hoped on a stick presented to it by a young girl who brought it to me to see close up. After asking, I put out my finger and it climbed right on. It seemed to be perfectly content sitting there. Since no one seemed to know anything about caiques, we thanked the headman and gave him ten of the packages of cigarettes that I had brought to give the natives on the advice of people we spoke with in Humaitá.
We moved on to a village of another group of Indians just across the Rio Preto. As at the first village, people, mostly young children swarmed about us. While there, a torrential rain set and we retreated under a palm thatch cabana with picnic table beneath it. Again, to see the souvenirs I had to say I would buy. I bought a necklace this time. Eduardo again asked around about caiques and got the same answer—they never saw them. They did have a Blue and Yellow Macaw, but they said it had flown off shortly before we arrived, and a Scarlet Macaw, but it had died the day before. As at the other village, we offered them some cigarettes; however, the people there refused them since no one in the village smoked. So much for what the people in Humaitá know about the local Indian population! If I ever visit an Indian reserve in Brazil again I will bring cookies for the children not cigarettes. We made one more attempt at a third village, but again met with disappointment. Defeated, we made the trek back to Humaitá. Along the way, we stopped at a roadside restaurant next to the Rio Maici for lunch. We had fish caught in the river flowing beside the restaurant. It was fried, but it was certainly fresh and it was good. I learned that even a restaurant with a dirt floor can serve a mighty good meal.
We made it back to the hotel with time to spare. After a nice long rest, we went out in search of a place to have dinner. This was complicated since the city’s electricity had gone off. I told Eduardo that I would like to have a drink made with cupuaçu. He noted that local bars often serve them. We asked around and soon found a place that did. He said it was best when made with milk. It was quite good, but other than saying it was sweet, I cannot describe the flavor. For dinner we moved on to another stand where we purchased a traditional Brazilian meal—beef with beans and rice.
Friday, November 5. Last full day in Brazil . Eduardo actually allowed me to sleep in and breakfast was not until 6:30 AM. We had decided to spend only half a day in the Humaitá area for the morning and make the long drive back to Porto Velho in the afternoon. The morning’s plan was to visit the ox-bow lake named Lagoa Paraiso on the other side of the Rio Madeira. Our faithful taxi driver knew a person with land bordering the lake and offered to make the arrangements.
We caught the 8 AM ferry across the Rio Madeira, and as usual, Eduardo kept asking everyone about white-bellied parrots. We ran into an older native who claimed to know where they might be seen. His name was Augustino and was from the last native village we had visited. He said they like hilly areas and had a penchant for the pulp of the wild cocoa as well as a sweet fruit called Pama (sic). Because caiques liked the wild cocoa so much, the native name for them is “cocoa parrot.” The sad thing he told us was that the natives are bereft of protein rich foods, and the normal pattern is for them to fish six days a week and hunt one. They hunted parrots and other birds for both food and their feathers that they use to make body ornamentation. He offered to guide us, but we were too short of time. He was traveling back to his village on a bus on the same ferry as us and had not eaten for a day or so. I went with him to the stand next to the ferry and I bought him 4 Reals worth of biscuits. I wish I could have stayed another day and taken him up on his offer to guide!
The ferry across the Rio Madiera on the Transamazonia Highway at Humaitá.
Once across, we drove a short way along the road until we came to the home of the taxi driver’s friend. He was not home, but we learned that we could hire a boat from another fellow named Jorge who lived a few kilometers further on the road. While Eduardo negotiated with Jorge, I spotted a pet Mealy Amazon. The poor bird did not look in good condition. Eduardo was successful and we were soon following a short trail down to the lake. I was a little surprised to see the boat submerged to the gunwales. Jorge quickly remedied that. He used a large metal can to bail and with the first few scoops, the boat began to rise. Then Jorge adroitly fashioned a seat from a plank with a machete so that Eduardo and I could sail in comfort. For this, he started with a plank much longer than the width of the boat and with a few carefully placed whacks it was trimmed to size. That was certainly a form of carpentry I had never seen before.
We hauled aboard and were off for a short trip around a seasonal island in the middle of the lake. Jorge kept his pigs on the island during the dry season while it remained above water so that they would not wreak havoc on his neighbors’ gardens. At first, our tour of the lake yielded little of interest, but then we saw the Boutu or freshwater porpoise. Both the grey and pink freshwater porpoises lived in the lake. We saw both. The grey ones were much easier to see since they breached the water in the same way as marine porpoises. The pink ones were more challenging to see. I only got a few quick glimpses of them. I was told that the pink ones are infamous for raiding the nets of fishermen who, in frustration, sometimes kill and feed them to their dogs. Eduardo was very happy since this was the first time he had every seen boutus.
After our boat trip, we returned to the ferry to await crossing at the scheduled time on the odd hours from this side of the river. Since we had a wait, we went to the stand and waited under a thatched roof to escape the sun. While there, I was the subject of much interest. One older gentleman was not too keen on Americanos, but kept asking me what sort of products of the Amazon we would buy in addition to Brazil nuts. I told him that I had enjoyed a number of Amazonian fruits that I would very much like to be able to buy in the United States. I told I thought some clever person should be able to capitalize on this, but that the biggest hurdle would likely be dealing with government agencies such as the US Department of Agriculture that is particularly wary of importing crops that might bring in diseases that harm American animals and crops. I told him I really liked Cupaçu and Bacuri and someone should try to export them to the United States. There was also a gentle, but mentally incompetent fellow who wanted to visit his brother in Paris, France. He was especially interested in me. I think he thought I was going to give him money for the trip.
We got back to the hotel, got packed and on our way to Porto Velho. Eduardo had hired a taxi in Humaitá the night before, and it was to pick us up at 2 PM. We encountered heavy rain on the way, but made it back to Porto Velho at about 5 PM. We tried to check in at the Aquarius hotel again, but it was full and we eventually found rooms at the Hotel Central. That night Eduardo and I splurged on what may be the finest restaurant in Porto Velho—the “Caravelo do Madeira.” It specialized in river fish. We ordered two entrees and shared them. The first was the grilled fish specialty of the house and the second was the same fish cooked in Brazil nut cream. Both were excellent, but if I were to dine there again, I would order the grilled fish.
Saturday, November 6. I dreaded this day. There were four long airline flights ahead, one a nine-hour flight from Sao Paulo to Atlanta. Before we left, we had breakfast at the hotel and took a walk through the center of town near the hotel. We did not see much and returned to the hotel. There we fetched my luggage and hailed a taxi.
Like most taxi drivers, the one that took us to the airport was very talkative. He was retired from the Brazilian Army and was driving taxi to pick up extra cash. He had had two bouts with malaria and the government was supplying him with medicine to combat the illness. He showed me his pills and I showed him the Malarone that I was taking to prevent malaria. Then we got onto the topic of birds and white-bellied caiques. The taxi driver instantly recognized them from the picture. He had served in the Army in Rondônia State and he recalled seeing them during his service. He especially remembered a flock living near a waterfall. Alas, our trip to the airport was too short and I was not able to question him further. As chance would have it, we did not locate our two best contacts until we were on the verge of leaving.
We departed Porto Velho on schedule for Brasilia. There I bid good-bye to Eduardo. He was returning home to his family in Cuiabá, and I went on to São Paulo to catch my flight to the United States. My flights home were easier because I knew I was heading home, but, nonetheless, I was very tired when I finally arrived in home. I was not much interested in food, but a horizontal bed was very inviting!
The following is a list of the birds I saw during my trip. Eduardo Falcao deserves all the credit for the identifications. I was primarily interested in seeing caiques and other parrots, so I place them first and use English and scientific nomenclatures for the parrots as per Juniper and Parr (1998). We also saw many birds in Humaitá, but I did not attempt to keep a list of them. Most all were duplicates of what we had seen previously. The exception was the Mealy Amazon (A. farinosa), but we saw these as pets.