Brazilian Pantanal photo tour–sights, photo tips, equipment, challenges.
I have been to the Brazilian Pantanal twice in the past, once on a scouting trip and most recently conducting a photo tour. In both cases, I worked with an excellent naturalist/guide/photographer who I have known for more that twenty years, Alejandro Ronchetti of KÚntur Expeditions based in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
On this past trip, we flew from Dulles Airport non-stop to São Paulo and then on to the city of Cuiabá where the tour started. After a good night’s rest, we left the city in a van and headed southward, stopping briefly in Poconé for supplies before entering the Transpantaneira Highway. During the tour, we stayed overnight on two eco-friendly ranches and at the hotel Pantanal Norte at Porto Jofre. Along the Transpantaneira Highway, it was relatively easy to spot birds and other wildlife. We stopped frequently to take photos. The number of birds seen on the trip was unbelievable with remarkable numbers of snail kites and hawks in addition to many colorful birds. At one of the larger bridges, we had the opportunity to photograph a large assortment of birds–limpkins, spoonbills, herons, kingfishers, anhinga, and other birds feeding in the marsh below.
Our first stay was at the Pouso Alegre Ranch. Although the rooms were modest, the food was good, and wildlife abundant. At dawn, just outside our room were agoutis (small rodents), Southern Lapwings, rheas, toucans, and several curassows. Close to the lodge was a marsh and lagoon that straddled the road and was populated with a large number of herons, kites, kingfishers, and hawks. During the day, caiman congregated at the end of the lagoon and sun themselves on the road. One of the most unusual birds was the capped heron with a striking blue bill that was feeding along the bank in the vicinity of a a number of caiman. As we explored the ranch roads, we had the opportunity to photograph coatimundi, brocket deer, ibis, and jabiru storks. The tapir we were hoping to see eluded us, leaving only it tracks behind in the mud.
After 3 days on the ranch, our next stop was the riverside hotel at Porto Jofre where we had the best chance to see jaguar. The accommodations were modern and very nice with an assortment of birds just outside our rooms– buff-necked ibis, hyacinth macaws, caracaras, chaco chachalacas, toucans, just to name a few. Behind the rooms was a boardwalk leading past giant lilies and other marsh species. Twice a day for 3 days we navigated the Cuiabá River and its tributaries at Parque Estadual Encontro das Aguas (Meeting of the Waters) State Park in search of jaguar and other wildlife species. Here jaguars are protected and openly hunt spectacled caimans, capybaras, tapirs, and other animals along the riverbanks. This magnificent cat is the largest in South America and is a proficient swimmer and with its strong jaws can easily crush the skulls of its prey. Although never witnessing a kill as we had hoped, we had several opportunities to photograph jaguar relaxing and walking along the riverbank. In each case, the light was low and the animal was often in heavy shade requiring ISO settings of 1250 and above. Our boat was stable and large enough for the four of us plus Alex and our photo gear. With care, I was even able to use my 600 mm, F4 lens mounted on a tripod to photograph jaguar and small birds. Our boat driver was proficient positioning us for the best photos and was in radio communication with other guides, so when a jaguar was spotted, we knew the location. In most cases, when a jaguar was located, 4 or 5 boats would eventually arrive at the location and anchor at a distance off shore to observe the cat that seemed to be oblivious to their presence. Later in the season, when there are more tourists, I suspect the number of boats would be greater. Besides jaguar, we photographed other wildlife including giant otters, capybaras, caiman, yellow-billed terns, a pied lapwing, kingfishers, and more.
Our last stop in the Pantanal was two days at Fazenda Santa Tereza ranch. Here we encountered a crab eating fox, hummingbirds, yellow-chevroned parakeets, a rufous-tailed jacamar, and other birds at feeder and near the lodge. From outside our rooms and from a scaffold near the nest, we could watch a pair of jabiru interacting and fortifying their nest. We were taken to see a great potoo at its daytime roost. It was so well camouflaged as part to the tree, that it would have been nearly impossible to see without a guide. Each day we explored the river adjacent to the inn by boat and photographed black-collared and black hawk, ringed kingfisher, and herons, snatching up fish tossed in the water.. During our exploration of the river, we photographed anhinga, a sun bittern, jabiru storks, river otters and a spectacular sunset. The Pantanal was well worth visiting and I would love to return.
Added to the Pantanal trip, we had an excursion to Chapada dos Guimarães, a national park with picturesque tablelands located 65 km northwards from Cuiabá. The highlight of the visit was the Veu da Noiva Waterfall from where we could admire the tablelands and one of the highest waterfalls of the park. Of particular interest was the opportunity to photograph red-and-green macaws flying in front of the falls and canyon walls. The Pousada do Parque Lodge where we stayed was lovely with many birds visiting the grounds early and late in the day. It was the perfect place to relax at the end of the tour. However for serious landscape photography, the park was disappointing since visitors only have access between 9 AM and 5 PM, not the best time for extraordinary light and dramatic images.
On a previous trip, we flew from Cuiabá to Campo Grande and drove to the town of Bonita with access to the Southern Pantanal. The highlight of our visit was the huge sink-hole, Buraco das Araras, where red and green macaws nest. Loved it.
The variety of birds seen was mind-boggling but lighting was not always optimal. Although on the road early in the morning and late in the afternoon when the light was warm and soft, we were also in the field when the sun was higher in the sky and the light was harsh, washing out colors, obscuring details with dark shadows, and contributing to distracting backgrounds. Since I wanted to capture the range of animals for a program on the Pantanal, I took chances on shots that required more editing than I prefer to minimize problems. The best photo opportunities during non—prime hours were when a light layer of clouds softened the light or when the subject was in open shade. However in the later case, images tend to appear flat and colors slightly muted. To compound the periodic lighting issues when shooting in jungle or forests, there were vines, branches, light colored grasses and other vegetation either in front of subjects or contributing to an undesirable background that could not be avoided. But remember, this is the real world and not a photo studio.
It is always a challenge to transport camera equipment on the plane. I use a Gura Gear light-weight photo backpack but it appears large on my small frame. I am always concerned bout having the bag taken away from me and placed with checked luggage. Airline personnel have challenged me on several occasions, but they reluctantly allowed me to keep the bag once I explained the delicate nature and cost of the contents.
On this trip, I took my Nikon 600 mm, VR, F4 lens. It is quite heavy and large. When shooting from a car window on a large beanbag or on a tripod, the lens is wonderful for photographing small subjects and I will continue to use it for these applications. But from the confines of the van with other photographers, the lens was difficult to maneuver and nearly impossible to hand-hold. When exiting the van and mounting the lens on a tripod, I lost precious time positioning the lens and missed a shots I may have gotten with a smaller, lighter rig . Today, its large front element and high light gathering capacity is less critical than in the past now that high end cameras such as Nikon’s D5 perform fairly well at high ISOs, producing less noise (similar in appearance to film grain) as in the past. Note: Problems with noise is magnified when underexposing an image. After observing the ease of handling and quality of several lighter and less expensive zoom telephoto lenses carried by fellow travelers, I just purchased Nikon’s 200-500 mm zoom lens for increased flexibility. Although lighter that the 600 mm, this lens is still not a feather-weight. We will see how well it performs on my next photo excursion.
Besides the afore mentioned lens, I took with me a Gitzo carbon fiber tripod with Arca Swiss head, 35 to 70 mm zoom lens, an 80 to 400 mm zoom lens, 62 and 77 mm polarizers, Nikon D5 and D4s cameras, spare batteries, charger, empty beanbag, 32 and 64 G fast compact flash cards, Apple MacBook Air computer and two Seagate Backup Plus 2 T portable drives for image storage. For the Pantantal, insect repellant and sunscreen are a must. Dehydration is always a consideration when spending hours in the sun on an open boat so carry an adequate supply of water. I have a water bottle with a mister attachment. Not only can I drink water from the bottle but I can also spray myself with water to cool down quickly.
Timing of my trip:
On both trips to the Pantanal, I arrived in late June and stayed until mid-July. The water level is still dropping after the wet months. Less bank is exposed compared to later in the season, making animals a little more difficult to see and photograph. Accommodations in the Pantanal are limited, so it is imperative to make reservations early. Later in the tourist season, available rooms in the best locations are more difficult to find.
I booked my flights to São Paulo and Cuiabá on-line directly with United Airline (the flight to Cuiabá on GOL, a partner airline). I was issued both boarding passes at the United Airline desk and our bags were checked in all the way to Cuiabá. Therefore when I retrieved my checked bags after my US flight and passed through customs, I could immediately re-check them for the remaining flight.
Coming home there was 10 hour lay-over in São Paulo Airport, so checking the bags right after the arrival of the domestic flight was not possible. Therefore we rented small rooms on a hourly basis at hotel in the airport called FastSleep. This allowed us to survive the layover comfortably, being able to nap, catch-up on e-mail, exercise by walking throughout the terminals, and pick up last minute gifts. After observing the experience of one of my fellow travelers, next time I will reserve a room using Booking.com as opposed to dealing with the hotel directly.