Saturday, June 5, 2010

Polefishing for Pantanal Piranhas

We met Al Macedo, senior guide for Ecological Expeditions Pantanal Trekking company at the bus station at Campo Grande in south western Brazil. He looked kind of windswept, he moved very quickly and talked even quicker. He was here to drive us to the hostel where we would kill some time in a one-night holding pattern until our tour began the next day.

At the hostel, a clean and pleasant place with wildlife murals on the walls, we met a couple of the comrades we were to spend 4 nights in a wetlands campsite with; a tall, lean Irish bloke named Ross and a fresh-faced French girl, Axelle.

Al gave us a brief tour introduction in his office; 4 days in the Pantanal with everything included - all meals, accommodation, 2 hikes, a 4WD safari and inner tubing down the river. The horse riding was off the itinerary; he made some excuse about the wetland water levels that didn’t make much sense, but he sounded like he knew what he was talking about, generally speaking. We were in for an action packed few days regardless.

The next morning we met the rest of our group- a couple of blondes from Wisconsin, Theresa and Emily, who had gotten off a plane that morning and were heading straight into the wetlands. The journey began when the six of us boarded a minibus, headed by road to the transfer point where we would continue by 4WD on dirt roads into the wetlands. Several hours passed. We had been told we would stop for lunch but we never did. We did stop for the driver to pick up some cases of beer at one point, but never for any lunch, which seemed immensely unfair.

On the way into camp we already began to spot wildlife- one of the girls spotted a capybara, someone else glimpsed a caiman lurking in a river as we crossed it.

As the sun was setting we arrived at the campsite where we were greeted by a wiry, dark skinned bloke with dodgy tattoos and a few scrappy looking scars. An original Pantanal man, Max had been guiding for over 12 years. In the next few days Max’ keen eyes were to spot for us an abundance of wildlife and he would share with us his encyclopaedic knowledge of the birds and animals there. In addition, he would drive a truck, pilot a boat, speak several languages and keep us safe in case of danger. He also organised for us to go on the morning of horse riding that Al had said was off the activity list. Not bad for scruffy-looking bush bloke.

However Max proved himself over the next few days, at this point in time we had just met each other and the relationship had an awkward beginning. The six of us, Alix, Ross, Axelle, Theresa, Emily and myself had just been in transit for 7 hours without being offered any food or water. Everyone was hungry, thirsty, tired and pretty edgy.

I decided to take up the issue on behalf of everyone, so Max and I went to see the manager, who turned out to be the bloke who had driven the 4WD into camp and stopped to buy the beer. By now it was very close to dinner time in camp, so obtaining food and water was not really the issue. The issue was that Al had sold us the tour on the understanding that all meals were included. When we boarded the minibus we were told we would be stopping for lunch, but we never did. I wondered what else Al had told us that might not come true.

Once we were in the manager’s office I decided to take an Aussie approach to the situation. “I can’t really speak for the others, but I reckon a couple of free drinks each should fix it, and we’ll forget it ever happened.” I said.

The manager was a fat, broad-shouldered bloke with a black moustache. His office desk was littered importantly with papers and radio cables and he sat at it with the air of a chieftain. Max translated my suggestion into Portugeuse with some gestures of supplication but the manager was not impressed. First I was told that there were no drinks. That wasn’t going to work, because I had seen him load his beer onto the truck. Next he flatly refused, he had paid for the beer with his own money and intended to sell it. I stared at his eyeballs and asked him if he had a better idea. He reckoned some fruit and crackers should be adequate compensation for 7 hours with no lunch but I didn’t agree and told him so.

Because we had reached an impasse it was time for a threatening physical display, so the manager stood up, puffed his chest out and pointed at the door. The office was very small and the space was taken up almost entirely by the desk, the manager’s beer fridge, and the manager himself. “Vamos,” he said. Literally, “We go” in Spanish but he made it sound a lot like, “Get out.”

I stared at the manager’s eyeballs again, smiled and told him I was going to walk out with 12 cans of beer and if he had an issue with it his boss could pay him back for them. Max laughed in amazement and the manager looked confused and astonished, but agreed to let me talk to his boss on the phone. His boss tried a few different excuses and emotions over the phone, but five minutes or so later everyone was fed up with the clearly insane Australian and I walked out with the cans of beer, hoping Max would get over it and the rest of the tour would go smoothly.

Jace with a hard-earned beer

While the first day was probably best forgotten, the next few days were an adventure worth remembering. While almost everyone has heard of the Amazon, not so many have heard of the Pantanal. The wildlife is somewhat similar in both locations, but where the Amazon is a dense jungle, with visibility limited to a few metres in places, the Pantanal is an open wetland and animals can be spotted from considerable distances away. I’m tempted to post a laundry list of animals that we saw, or upload a hundred photographs, but I doubt it would approximate the experience. Instead I’ll just use the word ‘lots’ to describe how many there were. This was especially true for the caimans. There are more than 10 million of them here.


Everyone had a different favourite animal. For Ross it was the yellow and black Anaconda. For Axelle, it was the critically endangered Hyacinth Macaw. Theresa’s favourite was one of the apex predators of the wetlands, the Giant River Otter, a surprisingly large and territorial carnivore with teeth the size of a puma’s. Emily favoured the Coati for its raccoon-like cuteness, and Alix’ favourites were the Howler Monkeys that jumped and hooted in the trees above us.


Hyacinth Macaw

Giant River Otter


Howler Monkey

We first spotted my favourite animal on the second day in the wetlands as we motored down river. Remarkably agile flyers, Ringed Kingfishers weaved effortlessly through the roots and branches of trees on the riverbanks, sometimes appearing to move horizontally in midflight to avoid collisions.

Ringed Kingfisher

While the Ringed Kingfisher was my favourite animal to look at, I had another favourite as well but for a different reason. Wading into the freshwater lakes with bamboo pole fishing rods, Max and another guide, Alex, showed us how to fish for Piranhas. Alix was a natural, she hooked 6 of them within about an hour before the mosquitoes and the fading light convinced us to head for home. Later we fried them and ate them with dinner. Washed down with cachaça and juice, I ate about a dozen of them, adding some more tasty fried fatness to my generously increasing waistline.

Alix catches her first of six piranhas

Jace shows the piranha's sharp little teeth

Jace finishes a plate of piranhas

Leaving the Pantanal behind, my impression is that the visit was well worthwhile. The wildlife spotting was superb. Our guide was dedicated and professional. I finally got around to riding a horse, which I had never done before. I couldn’t have hoped for better company either, our group had great fun together and I am thankful to have met some great new friends.

However, I cannot reflect upon the experience without a necessary word of warning to anyone who might consider touring with Ecological Expeditions. After the final morning of the tour when all the campsite guests were out horse riding we packed up our belongings to prepare for the return journey out of the Pantanal. While packing our gear away, we discovered that some items had gone missing from Alix’ backpack. Nothing of too much consequence; a few little toy koala’s we had brought as gifts for children, a baseball cap and a bottle of perfume Alix had received as a gift from her aunt. Later we learnt that some of Emily’s possessions had gone missing too, undergarments this time, building the unmistakeable picture of a female thief in the campsite.

As we were leaving we mentioned the theft to Max but he didn’t seem too interested, and the manager had already demonstrated his approach to dealing with customer issues and complaints. Besides, we were leaving in a few minutes, so the theft had been cunningly timed.

As long as Ecological Expeditions continue to over-promise and then under-deliver they will continue to receive bad reviews. As long as, through poor management or bad attitude, they permit problems to occur without anyone taking responsibility for their resolution, they will fail to properly deliver what should be an unforgettable highlight of any person’s trip to Brazil.


  1. What a good travel article! Thank you again, Jace

  2. Jace, I'm so impressed you remembered all of our favorite animals! This is an excellent overview of our trip. You really captured the essence of Max as well. Your warnings against ecological expeditions are fair, but there is one word of caution you failed to mention... that would be our guides repeated attempts to take single, young girls at the camp "down by the river" for a little private wildlife viewing...or something... Theresa and Axelle know what I'm talking about...
    Hope all is well! I hope you plan on posting your instructional video as well (How-to eat an entire school of piranha fish). I would love to see it!

  3. Well!

    Emily, not being targeted for such lewd attentions I had no idea about the crack-on attempts but I'm not particularly surprised (would you like to see my Anaconda?). We are going to post the Piranha videos on the blog but we haven't found an internet connection fast enough to upload them yet- as they say 'watch this space'.