Brazil – June 2003

This is Liza’s journal from the trip. Click here for the trip photos.

Friday, 6 June – Tucson to Sao Paulo

Our first big trip together for a couple of years; although Robert has already been to Mexico and Germany this year, I (Liza) haven’t been much of anywhere since we moved to Arizona in November 2001. This day we’re off to Brazil, primarily for a birding trip with Victor Emanuel Nature Tours (VENT), and also to see Robert’s cousin Bettina.

We left Tucson yesterday, after a semiharried workday, and flew to Los Angeles that evening. Luci, Maureen, and Margaret met us (very excitedly!) at the Southwest terminal, and we had a nice, if short, visit with everyone. Overnight at my mom’s, breakfast at the Pacific Diner, and mom brought us back to LAX for the Varig flight to Sao Paulo. There was more security in evidence at the Bradley International Terminal (good!) but check-in was smooth. So…2:30 pm departure, we’ll be in Sao Paulo the next day at about 6:10 am, a four or five hour time difference, so…a 10.5 or 11 hour flight?

Ok, so more like 11+ hours…we left around 3:10 pm and we’re getting in about 6:15 am, four hour time difference. Long and cramped flight – basically once one person reclines his/her seat, everyone needs to! And a plane full of coughing Asians does not inspire confidence on the SARS front, but at least these passengers all appear to be from Japan (flight originated in Tokyo), so not likely that we’d have an outbreak here.

Saturday, 7 June – Sao Paulo to Cuiaba

Saturday, early morning at the Sao Paulo Guarulhos airport – a well-organized, functional airport – unlike Quito, Ecuador! Customs was uneventful and we made our way easily to the adjoining Terminal 1 for the connecting flight at 09:30 to Cuiaba. Robert was tempted by the Ilha da Massagen massage service at the terminal but didn’t bite, and I managed to break a 50 reais note for two bottles of water, despite not really understanding the Portuguese being directed at me (save for the numbers). The three-hour (one-stop at Campo Grande) flight was uneventful. Cuiaba turned out to be a sizable city of over 1 million people. We met up with Steve Hilty (who was on our flight) and Andrew Whittaker (already there), both of VENT, and the rest of our small group, and loaded into two white vans.

First stop: a Churrascaria, a barbecue restaurant where the grilled meat – all kinds! – is brought by your table on skewers and the waiters will give you whatever you want. Salads and other side dishes were buffet-style. Yum! The meat was excellent, if a little salty, and the variety and quantity were both great. Chicken wrapped in bacon, various cuts of beef, chicken hearts, fish…especially good was the cupim, the fatty hump of the Brahma bull. Afterwards we laboriously wound our way out of greater Cuiaba/Varza Grande – there seemed to be a lot of speedbumps – and were on the road to Santa Thereza, Pixaim, in the pantanal. The dry-looking chaparral (cerrado, but r’s are pronounced like h’s, and some d’s like g’s?) gave way to wetter, yet open habitat. The road into the pantanal – the Transpantaneira – began outside of the city of Pocone and was well-graded dirt. Pocone was also a pretty sizable town. “That’s the thing about Brazil,” said Steve Hilty, “you come into the middle of nowhere and find cities with over a million people!”.

We stopped frequently to see birds, of course. The best being hyacinth macaw! I was so sleepy, though. We got to Pixaim – roughly km 67 on the Transpantaneira – but if felt more like midnight. Dinner at 7:00 pm, and perhaps a bird review, and I would be out.

Sunday, 8 June – Pixaim

We had a much-needed good sleep in our very clean room, complete with ceiling fan running all night. And no bugs! The fan had two speeds: off and full-blast. But it was nice to have the airflow, even if it did drive me to use a blanket.

The day was overcast and thus cooler than normal. After a 6:00 am breakfast, we went on a long (about 5 hour) walk on the trail. The “lodge” is situated right next to the Rio Pixaim, which we couldn’t see last night when we came in. “Shaky”, the pet collared peccary (javelina to us Arizonans), followed us on the trail like a well-behaved dog. It was also rather comical to see her flop over on her side to get her tummy rubbed. The trail was relatively dry and we saw lots of interesting birds, plants, flowers…and cayman and capybara, too. At one point we were trying to look at turquoise-fronted parrots (amazonas) in a tree, but they blended so well with the green and gold leaves it was difficult.

Lunch at the lodge, a two-hour nap, and then a boat trip from roughly 3:00 – 6:30 pm. Water-level views of kingfishers (ringed, amazon, and green), an egret roost, scythe-bill, currasows – it was cool. It was dark most of the way back and we navigated mostly by moonlight on the river. Steve and Andy had spotlights for night birding and we did see gray (common) potoo (with his “poor me, I’m alone” haunting, descending call) and ladder-tailed nightjar, their eyeshine a give-away in the darkness. The southern cross constellation was up and visible, and the big dipper hung low in the northern sky on the horizon.

The pantanal is reminiscent of the Venezuelan llanos with the amount of water, water hyacinths and other floating plants, and capybara, but with more trees and taller vegetation. The area is basically the drainage of the Paraguay River, and the water was just beginning to recede. Several days before our arrival, people had to boat in, and in fact the last bit of raised road leading to the fazenda was constructed just days ago. Apparently the recent rains had been greater than normal; Andy said it was a very wet wet season, but now coming into the dry, the water level in the river will likely drop 3-4 meters.

Monday, 9 June – Pixaim / Transpantaneira

We were up early this day, 4:00 am, in order to hit the road in the dark to look for jaguar. Missed a tapir (Andy saw it, but it was in the high grass…). We spent the whole day going over about 45 km of the 85 km towards Porto Jofre, the [current] end of the road. The graded dirt road was punctuated by bridges of dubious quality. Reportedly there were 126 between Pixaim and Porto Jofre. They held, although one didn’t really want to look too closely at them. It would have been a short drop into shallow water in most cases anyway.

Good birding day. Beautiful looks at scarlet-headed blackbirds, white-tailed hawks, and hyacinth macaws having an orgy. No jaguars were seen, but plenty of tracks were found in the mud. Reportedly one was seen about 3 km from our lunch stop; we raced over, and Steve/Andy played a horny jaguar tape, to no avail.

Tuesday, 10 June – Pixaim

This day we enjoyed a 6-hour walk through the forest, as opposed to skirting around it. We got a good look at a bedraggled blue-crowned trogon, not to mention lots of neat spiders and their webs, mushrooms, and muddy leaf-litter. And an undulated tinamou nest with four shiny palepink eggs! The forest is relatively open and the canopy not too high, so our visibility was pretty good.

After lunch and our midday siesta, we took another boat trip, this time downriver. We coasted most of the way down, and our boat spent a lot of time sideways and backwards; our “captain” was really just a kid who had a little trouble manuevering the boat with an oar. Floating quietly was very peaceful; lots of cayman on the banks, kingfishers everywhere swooping back and forth, and the smaller kingfishers simply zipping downriver. On the way back, motorized, hundreds of snail kites flew past us back upriver, heading into roost. They just kept coming out of the sunset and streaking past us. Egrets and anhingas as well…

After dinner we did a bit more night birding looking for nightjars. Not bad southern cross viewing, too.

Wednesday, 11 June – Pixaim

Our last full day in Pixaim followed the now-familiar pattern – early breakfast, 5-hour or so morning birding, lunch, 2-hour siesta, mid-late afternoon birding. The morning and afternoon sessions were both sort of by vehicle, as we’d drive a bit, get out and bird along the road, then move along. Before the afternoon session, Steve and Andy headed out to photograph the undulated tinamou nest. We were already out walking the river bank so we followed them, and found the female on the nest! She spooked after they took a few photos, so they then photographed the four pink eggs, and we returned to the house, pretty damp and steamy from the humidity.

Tomorrow we move on. The Hotel Fazenda Santa Thereza has been wonderful. Family-owned, it is clean and comfortable, and the food has been excellent. Every meal (well, lunch and dinner) has rice, pinto beans, other vegetables (squash, carrots, potatoes…) and several meats. And a very sweet dessert with lots of cane sugar, molasses, or honey, or cake/pudding. The beer (Antarctica) is pale and cold, and both Robert and I enjoy the Brazilian soft drink guarana, something of a cross between cream soda and ginger ale (and reportedly also fairly high in caffeine or an equivalent).

Thursday, 12 June – Pixaim

We left Pixaim after breakfast and drove back out the Transpantaneira, arriving at our next lodge, Pousada Piuval, at midday. We sat in a lovely, large, thatched-roof gazebo – complete with bats overhead (and net to protect the unaware from bat guano), where we were treated to fresh lime juice and then lunch. Robert and I swam in the pool a bit during siesta time, and I checked out the hammocks – lovely! It was interesting to float in the pool, hear the nearby brahmas in the field splashing through the still-flooded areas, and watching some vultures circle overhead.

In the afternoon we had another boat ride. The dock was about a 20-minute drive away on a winding road through the forest, past lots of stocky plams and terrestrial bromeliads. It must have been quite a job cutting that road. Our boat apparently had a bad motor and our “captain” had to swap it out with that from another, but we were soon underway. Unlike the Rio Pixaim, this time we were on a much larger body of water, perhaps an oxbow lake. Fewer birds to see, but we did stop at one “island” to see the black-faced howler monkeys and a ferruginous pygmy owl. The ride back was lovely – we’d have a full moon tomorrow or the next night, and the temperature and breeze were pleasant, almost like a gentle Hawaiian evening.

Nice place, the Pousada Piuval. Clean rooms, another strong ceiling fan, comfy bed. A few ants patrolled the floor but they mostly seemed to be minding their own business. A pair of hyacinth macaws, wings possibly clipped, were near the breakfast room – something Andy wasn’t too pleased about later when he found out. “That’s it for them,” he said, “we won’t go back there.” Macaws notwithstanding, the small fazendas (farms) of the pantanal have obviously figured out that ecotourism pays. Reportedly there is one fellow who owns a sizable percentage of the pantanal and may be buying up more, but perhaps these smaller operations can hang on.

Friday, 13 June – Piuval to the Chapada

We’d planned to do just a short morning birding session – until about 9:30 am – but wound up out until closer to 11:00. Good, if sparser birding at Piuval, including a bit of time in a palm and terrestrial bromeliad forest. A troop of coatimundi streamed through as well, at least 40!

We left Piuval about 11:15 (no time for a shower) and hit the road to the Brazilian planalto, or tablelands, returning through Pocone and Cuiaba. Lunch was (again) at the Churrascaria Gaucho in Cuiaba, near the airport – oh my! We knew what to expect this time and pretty much stuffed ourselves silly. Especially good again was the cupim – melt in your mouth tender meat. And dessert too. All for R$13.90 – not even $5!

It turned out that our Mercedes Benz van busted its hydraulic system en route to Cuiaba, losing it completely as we pulled into the restaurant parking lot. We killed a few minutes walking to a nearby pharmacy so I could buy some shampoo (faux pas! don’t touch the merchandise!). Then while Araratur (the company which provided the drivers and vehicles) worked on repairing the van, a small car was procured to carry several of our party, while the rest of us packed into the remaining van, and we chugged up to the planalto.

Beautiful red sandstone formations greeted us as we climbed out of Cuiaba. Our hotel, the Pousada Penhasco, is a beautiful resort perched up on the planalto, with great views of the lowlands below from our balcony and from the (superb) restaurant. We went almost immediately to the nearby Chapada dos Guimaraes national park to see a beautiful waterfall complete with bluewinged macaws, a gorgeous sunset, and a rising almost-full moon.

We were so stuffed from lunch that few of us really wanted any dinner, but Andy ordered a light meal – soup and fish – from the restaurant, so we went. The restaurant was a short walk from the rooms but we drove over, down a steep driveway that the van then had to back up to get out. Ugh!

Saturday, 14 June – Chapada dos Guimaraes

Early start – 5:00 am breakfast – and we were out for another long morning. First half was in the scrubby cerrado, second half in the cooler gallery forest. We had great looks at the chapada flycatcher, recently “described to science” by Andy Whittaker and Kevin Zimmer. ( Zimmer, Kevin J., Whittaker, Andrew, Oren, David C. 2001: A CRYPTIC NEW SPECIES OF FLYCATCHER (TYRANNIDAE: SUIRIRI) FROM THE CERRADO REGION OF CENTRAL SOUTH AMERICA. The Auk: Vol. 118, No. 1, pp. 56–78.) Tail-pumping, wings lifted rapidly overhead – it was cute! Here and there we would see a group of British birders with a Brazilian guide whom Andy dislikes – apparently the guy has told people that he discovered the chapada flycatcher. Ha!

Afternoon was a return to the national park, with a lovely, if steep, forest trail. There was a sad little kitten at the bottom where we met the vans.

Sunday, 15 June – Chapada dos Guimaraes

More or less a repeat of the previous day. Interesting how sandy the roads are – almost like talcum powder in some places. And the same kitten on the forest trail – it’s so small, I don’t see how it can survive. It is apparently from a nearby residence but is so tiny…I petted it a little, it could hardly make any noise, poor thing. 🙁

Tomorrow we are off back to Cuiaba, the end of the birding portion of the trip. I could use some rest!

Monday, 16 June – Chapada to Cuiaba

Last full birding day. We started out again in the cerrado, looking for the elusive blue finch and checkered woodpecker, to no avail. It’s become something of a joke. Andy may not think so, of course, but we’re all pretty good-natured about it. We also went back to the gallery forest, and among other birds, saw “Fred”, the cinnamon-throated hermit, in good light. Luckily we did not go to the end of the road where the poor kitten lived; I don’t think I could have taken seeing it again, poor little thing.

We lunched at the restaurant at the lodge, and pakced up and left for Cuiaba at 2:00 pm. The other driver was sick (caught the group cold) and since we were short two people (one went home early; one went hiking), we all piled into one van for the return trip. We went to the Casa de Pedras at the national park – think of a few Easter Island-like rock formations along with a spectacular, if hazy, view of the sandstone cliffs. No guard rails here – you could take quite a dive if you weren’t careful!

We were back on the silty dirt road out of the park when Andy spotted yellow-faced parrots, two in a scrubby tree, moving in slow motion. One comment was that they looked like Snoopy imitating a vulture. Andy says they are extremely rare, and that he in fact hasn’t seen one since 1990! One of our fellow birders asked about a blackbird in a tree near the parrots. “Forget the blackbird, it isn’t important!” he said.

We finally arrived in Cuiaba around 6:00 pm. Our hotel, the Venezia Palace (everything seems to be “Palace” here) was quite comfortable and modern. Bird list at 7:00 pm and then dinner. Tomorrow everyone departs; some are going on to Rondonia for a follow-on trip, a few are going home, and we’re off to Valinhos to see Bettina. Good group – we all got along well, I think.

Tuesday, 17 June – Cuiaba to Sao Paulo

Down day, and just as well! We needed the rest. It was our first day of “sleeping in” (until 7:30) since we arrived in Brazil. Steve/Andy and the folks continuing to Rondonia left this morning at about 4:30. Needless to say we said our goodbyes last night. We enjoyed a buffet breakfast at the hotel, then went for a short walk. Greater Cuiaba is actually two cities: Cuiaba and Varza Grande, with our hotel in Varza Grande. It was already warm at 9:30 am and we figured we’d just go to the main boulevard and see what we could see. And the answer: not much! Cuiaba, to me, is in the middle of a struggle to improve. Manicured greenbelts and uniformed streetcleaners contrast with scruffy street vendors and broken sidewalks; crumbing buildings contrast with spiffy new medical centers advertising MRI services.

I’d seen in the phone book a description of a church said to be a “miniature Notre Dame” and to my surprise it was only a few blocks away – we saw it once we were out walking. On closer inspection, it was in sad shape. Broken windows, facade disrepair, etc. The main doors were closed and locked, and there did not appear to be another entrance.

By this time we’d warmed up enough so we just went back to the hotel. Noonish I thought I might try to find McDonald’s, which I thought was nearby. Not because I particularly like McDonald’s, but Robert wasn’t feeling 100% and I wanted to see if I could bring something back for him. Bob, a fellow birder in our group, and I tried to find it, but were unable to locate … the two signs we found gave no indication of distance and it could have been miles for all we knew. So we went back to the “Mafia Pizzeria”, a life-threatening street crossing from the hotel. Robert joined us – he’d been sleeping – and we had a good lunch all three of us for about $12. Lots of food – certainly cannot complain about what you get for your real here (about 3 reais to the dollar, roughly).

Our tour drivers collected us at 2:30 pm and deposited us at the airport. Easy check-in … and we’re back to Sao Paulo via Campo Grande. Funny now how I can basically understand the airline video and very simple questions. But golly, Portuguese is strange to my ear. It really sounds more French than Spanish. Boa viagem = Bon voyage.

Anyway, we arrived in Sao Paulo shortly before 9:00 pm, having lost an hour – now we were four hours time difference from home. The Marriott shuttle picked us up at about 9:30 pm, and took us in a seemingly not straightforward manner to the hotel. Pretty upscale considering our most recent accomodations – too bad we only had one night there.

Wednesday, 18 June – Sao Paulo to Valinhos

After breakfast Robert went off to the airport to get the rental car, and I indulged in a little internet access (30 minutes for 6 reais). Oops! My braindead autoresponder was, it turns out, responding to every blasted message I received, which annoyed some folks on the ex-psa mailing list. I tried turning the thing off to no avail – technical error, call support – right, from Brazil. Oh well.

We had a phone call from Bettina while we were both out of the room. I returned it, and then Robert came in a few moments later. We embarked on the drive to Valinhos. Argggh, Sao Paulo traffic! Few street signs! Big trucks driving too fast and not enough distance between vehicles! Quite the difference from the pantanal and chapada. The only similarity was that signs seem merely to be suggestions (including stop signs and red lights) and not taken too seriously. We had some trouble finding the Ried’s home but eventually homed in on it. Their home is in what is called a condominium in Brazil, but to us would be a gated community, complete with guards and very high walls. Gorgeous home – L-shaped so all rooms open onto the courtyard, and guest quarters up behind the pool (with attached office, large patio area, and barbecue).

We went off with Bettina and Katja after lunch to a mall in Campinas, to find a bookstore, where we (finally) picked up a Portuguese phrase book, and a small photo book on the pantanal. I killed some more time cleaning up email (sigh) on Bettina’s linux system – darn that autoresponder. Torsten and Martin came in, and we enjoyed some beer, conversation, and a late (light) supper. Lights out for us by 10:00 pm – we’re wiped!

Thursday – Saturday, 19 – 21 June – Valinhos

We enjoyed three full days with Bettina and family in Valinhos. Bettina and Torsten were involved with a dance course that kept them busy in the afternoons over in Jundiai – our schedules were both rather inflexible on that score, couldn’t be helped. But Bettina had a number of good suggestions on things we could do, including a visit to the Butantan Institute (tropical medicine/snakes/poisons/vaccines…), and to the Zoologic Parque over in . Katja joined us for the zoo visit, and both Martin and Katja came with us to the Butantan – a necessary visit for Martin since we were taking him to the Guarulhos airport for his own trip to Germany. Robert and I also struck out on a few short solo expeditions, including a search for an ATM, which we eventually found in Valinhos centro. 🙂 Friday night we took Bettina, Torsten, and Katja out to dinner at the Montana Grill in Campinas, basically a fancier churrascaria. (No American connection – the founders of the restaurant chain are a couple of Brazilian country-music guys.) It was good, although (again) we ate too much…!

Driving is still somewhat intimidating, but Robert of course got better as the few days passed. We actually started to feel that we knew where we were in the Valinhos/Campinas area, or at least, if not where we were exactly, which way to go. The car was a little Fiat Palio that was somewhat underpowered, which was a bit worrisome on the steeper hills in the Valinhos area, but everyone seemed to be in the same boat as far as that went.

Too many things to do, not enough time…it was clear that we would simply need to plan a return visit. Too soon it was Saturday evening and we needed to head out to the airport by 8:00 pm in order to get our 11:50 pm flight back to Los Angeles. Bettina gave us a quick lesson on making caiparinhas – fresh limes, cane sugar, and cane sugar alcohol (although rum will do) – and also gave us the requisite wooden tool for smashing your limes and sugar. Yum! It reminded me of the “daiquiris” that mom used to make years ago – really good.