Stephen Burch's Birding & Dragonfly Website
BRAZIL CHAPADA DOS GUIRAMARAES, CRISTALINO JUNGLE LODGE (AMAZON RAINFOREST) AND THE PANTANAL
By Stephen Burch, England
I hope therefore this report will be of interest to others who might be tempted to "go it alone". Because of this, I will add a bit more than seems the norm on general logistics, contact details etc. Its also worth mentioning that this was our first trip to South America, let alone Brazil.
This trip was timed to coincide with a business invitation I had received to go to Natal in North East Brazil. Once this invitation had been confirmed, I set about trying to decide where best to go for some productive, life list enhancing birding afterwards! I was very keen to visit for the first time a tropical rain forest, i.e. the Amazon rainforest. Generally tourists go to Manaus, but I soon found this was difficult to get to from Natal, and without any obvious birding infrastructure. Cuiaba on the other hand quickly emerged as an ideal destination, with access to three prime birding habitats Amazon rain forest (needed a 2 hour flight north to Alta Floresta and then car/boat to the unique Cristalino Jungle Lodge with its own 50m canopy tower), the massive wetland area of the Pantanal (2-3 hr drive) and the hilly/cerrado area of Chapada dos dos Guimaraes (c. 1.5 hour drive).
To get to and then back from the birding part of the trip which started in Cuiaba involved me in several internal flights most with TAM. There were few if any problems with these flights generally they were on time (probably better than in the UK/Europe!), and announcements on the planes and at the airports were usually in English. Check in staff sometimes spoke English, other times not. But see later for a narrowly averted potentially highly disrupting situation which arose on the Trip Airline flight to Alta Floresta from Cuiaba.
My wife flew direct to Cuiaba on the overnight flight from Heathrow via Sao Paulo using Varig some delays on the return international flight, but otherwise fine.
Note though that we both encountered lengthy delays on arriving in Brazil, at least partly due to a long-running strike by immigration staff!
Car Hire/Driving in
The general standard of driving in this area was not nearly as bad as some reports of Brazilian drivers make out, but there was a bit of problem with very inadequate road signs finding the right road out of Cuiaba for Chapada was not easy, and took us several attempts to find it! It would appear that drivers are generally expected just to know the right road (by instinct?!).
Birding Field Guides
& Site Guides
For site guides, I purchased the relatively expensive "Birding Brazil" by Forrester. This had useful but brief accounts of the Pantanal and Chapada, but I'm not sure it was worth the purchase price for this trip alone - Internet reports probably had better details for Chapada.
Temperatures were generally quite hot at mid day good time for a rest, when the bird activity was low anyway. But early in the morning and at night both Cristalino and the Pantanal were reasonably cool just as well as there is no A/C at Cristalino!
Immediately prior to our arrival, the weather at Cristalino sounded to have been significantly wetter indeed the morning of before our arrival there had been continuous heavy rain for several hours, and earlier in April, the log book reported a number of days of almost constant rain. So be warned, if you attempt an earlier visit!
A few the trails at Cristalino were in part flooded, so these had to be avoided, and the birds generally seemed to be fairly quiet, and not that responsive to tape/play back. In the Pantanal, birds were easier to spot and responded better to tape/pre-recordings. Water levels were also high, and the river side trail in the forest close to the Fazenda Santa Teresa was flooded after a short distance, preventing full access. We didnt attempt to access the Pantanal further S than Pixiam, but were told that this was not advisable at this time of year, due to poor road conditions.
One benefit of going in the low season was the absence of others we had Cristalino and the resident guide to ourselves, meaning we could chose exactly the itinerary we wanted, and for example go to the tower whenever we wanted (apparently in the high season, tower access has to be rationed as only a certain number can be accommodated at once).
Even at this time of year, we managed to see a very large number and variety of birds, as the following account should demonstrate. So if you need to go earlier than the full dry season, my advice would be GO!
As this report is one of the most popular pages on my website, I have decided (January 2008) to re-process the old pics from this trip, using my latest software tools. Below are the slightly improved results, shown a bit larger than previously (but not too large - most don't stand too critical inspection). I also added a few general pics of the surroundings, which were pretty special.
15 April 2004
Slight hitch over collecting the Avis hire car (see above), but we were soon off and then struggling to find the right route out of Cuiaba for Chapada dos Guimaraes. But after a few false turns, we finally found the right road NE from Cuiaba. The drive was largely uneventful, and took about 1 hr from finding the correct road. No obvious birdlife en-route so we pressed on to the park entrance.
Our first stop was at the Porto del Inferno on the R at the top of a steady climb up hill, by a small police station and café. From here, a few paths led through bushes to a look out point. Good view, somewhat spoilt by noisy workers way below apparently trying to clear up rubbish which had been tipped over the side! No signs of Macaws or Parrots, but there was some compensation in the form of a nice pair of Bat Falcons perched conveniently on a tree top, and some blue Sayaca Tanagers in the bushes. Birding was slow around our arrival time (c. 14:30), but picked up later towards dusk a pattern often to be repeated on this trip.
The next stop was the spectacular Veu de Noiva lookout and waterfall. This is well signed on the R from the main road, a few km on from Porto del Inferno. A bumpy track led past an entrance barrier (closed at night) and then R to a car park by a café and other buildings. From here there is a short walk to the main viewpoint, and also other trails, one of which went to the R along the cliff tops for a way, before descending steeply to the valley floor. As time was short, we didnt go further than a few m downhill the path got quickly steep and surrounded by dense and very quiet forest. Along the cliff top trail, we picked up quite a few species including Curl Crested Jay, a pair of probable Cinammon Attila, Hepatic and Silver Beaked Tanagers, as well as the loud and omnipresent Rufous Hornero.
As the sun began to set, more birds emerged, as did some biting insects. We had a brief glimpse of a Swallow Tailed Hummingbird, and then just as we were about to depart a pair of noisy Macaws flew rapidly around and then into the cliff side to roost, where upon they disappeared from view (around 17:40). According to Braulio (see later), these were Blue-winged Macaws. With darkness now falling and little further sign of new birds (no swifts of any sort, for example maybe they are not present at this time of year?), we decided to depart and look for our Pousada for the night a few km further on in Chapada. Dos Guimaraes (see end of report for contact details). Fortunately, this was well signed as it was in a very out of the way location.
16 April 2004
Arriving at the airport in good time, we were dismayed to hear that the flight to Alta Floresta was delayed by 2 hours (probably due to bad weather further N it later transpired). Did some birding around the hot airport to kill time, but didnt pick up much new (Sayaca Tanager again, Banana Quit and House Sparrow!).
The flight from Cuiaba was a relatively small turbo prop plane, but was perfectly smooth (unlike other reports). However, based on other Internet reports, we were expecting the first stop to be Sinop and not Alta Floresta. So when the plane first touched down, and all the announcements were in Portuguese we tried to check with various non English speakers (including a stewardess) who appeared to indicate we should stay on the plane. This was not actually the case, and this was Alta Floresta! The flight was just about to take off when a stewardess asked us to hastily exit the plane! Our hosts from Cristalino had questioned departing passengers whether there were any foreigners on the plane. Upon being told there were, they had raised the alarm just in time! Thus a major problem was narrowly averted. If we had stayed on the plane to Sinop, it could well have taken several days to get back to Alta Floresta this being a Friday and there are no weekend flights from Cuiaba to Alta Floresta!
Anyhow we quickly collected our belongings and exited the plane to find a driver and very English speaking guide waiting for us. Our guide turned out to be an English birder the very widely travalled Frank who was also a South American bird expert and, it turned out, brilliant at locating and identifying birds deep in the forest. This was a major bonus, as we were travelling to Cristalino independently of any birding tour, and relying on the guides they provide. Apparently, they always endeavour to have a volunteer English speaking guide present, but these are unpaid, and of varying levels of experience. The resident staff at Cristalino speak virtually no English.
Given the delayed flight, there was judged to be just time to get to Cristalino that night, before darkness. So we had a very quick tour of the Amazonica hotel which is run by the same people as the jungle lodge, and then a quick stop at a supermarket to buy a torch (was useful later!) and stock up on water (much cheaper than at the lodge). There was then a lengthy and bumpy drive along a dirt road to the mightly river Pires. All the birds were coming into to roost, and our journey was interrupted by a number of profitable stops, the most memorable being to see some magnificent Blue and Yellow Macaws flying and perched in some roadside trees in superb light. Other notables included Burrowing Owls and Chestnut Eared Aracari.
By the time we reached the river it was almost dark, and we had Pauraque Nightjars on the track in front of the car. Then we and the luggage loaded into the boat for a ½ hour or more trip to Cristalino. Using the recently purchased torch we found Ladder Tailed Nightjars by their eye shine! It was almost totally dark by the time we reached Cristalino quite a way to arrive good thing there were no obstructions on the river there would have been no way of seeing them!
The Cristalino Jungle Lodge is an amazing place by the river and surrounded by miles and miles of untouched forest. The sleeping quarters (chalets) were in one clearing, a short walk from the other buildings which included the eating area and a library/shop - this had all the relevant reference bird books. The food was also good, and the staff friendly. Its other major asset is the amazing 50m canopy tower, which is apparently almost unique in South America in allowing casual tourists views down on the tree tops.
17 April 2004
Superb views from the top over the forest many of the tree tops are actually some way below! Birding was pretty good too, with our first Scarlet Macaws, the spectacular (especially in flight) Pompadour and Spangled Cottingas, White Necked Puffbird, Tufted Woodpecker, and a small green bird which turned out to be a Dwarf Tyrant Manakin (identified afterwards by the digiscope pictures I took see below). Raptors appeared somewhat later and included Greater Yellow Headed Vulture, Black Caracara and Hook Billed Kite. Also a party of Spider Monkeys passed by.
After around 2 hours on the tower, we descended for our first go at rain forest birding from ground level. We fairly quickly found Screaming Piha near the tower bases, but other sightings were few and far between there are supposed to be masses of birds in the forest its seeing them thats the problem!
Arrived back at the lodge just in time for lunch and then had a relaxing time on the riverside decking, doing a bit of productive digiscoping. At around 3pm, we set out for a boat trip up river towards the Brazil Nut trail. Birds seen from the ease of the boat included Back-Bellied Cuckoo, Paradise Jacamar and then a large raptor which Frank decided must have been the very rarely sighted Crested Eagle a real bonus! Soon after, a torrential downpour started and got quite wet very quickly, before reaching the trail. We then stood on the bank and waited for the rain to stop, which it shortly did. But doing the trail so soon after the heavy rain was considered to be a waste of time, so we returned on the boat, seeing many more birds than on the way out, such as Red Throated Piping Guan, Capped Heron, Red-Capped Cardinal and Red Necked Woodpecker.
Back at the lodge, we spotted some huge Spinxs Guan in a tree from our chalet, a Short-tailed Nightjar over and some Blackish Nightjars on the paths. Around 43 lifers today!
18 April 2004
Just beyond the summit there was a viewpoint out over the forest, with the river below and a certain 50m tower beyond! From here we saw our first (and only) Red and Green Macaws flying in the distance. Downhill from here was quite steep but very birdy, with a Violacious Trogon, glimpse of Red-headed Manakin and good views of a White browed Antwren. On return to the boat, we found that this 1.2 km long trail had taken us almost 4hrs to cover, but we did pick up 15 lifers for our troubles.
Back at the lodge for lunch, the birds kept on coming with Lettered Aracari and Black-tailed Trogon, and distant views of a King Vulture. From the floating deck we saw tiny Dusky-billed Parrotlets and a Amazonian Streaked Antwen.
As yesterday, it then poured down briefly, but this time we were nice and dry in the lodge library/shop. It soon cleared up, and we were then off out again for an afternoon visit to the tower. Near to the lodge we had superb views of an impressive Dark-winged Trumpeter one of the specialities of the area. Initially a bit quiet on the tower, with only distant views of a King Vulture drying off after the rain. However, all this changed when a small bird canopy flock passed close by. Numerous brightly coloured gems, all instantly identified and pointed out by Frank things like Black-collared Barbet, Flame-crowned Tanager, a brilliant blue Black-faced Dacnis etc etc. I saw 14 lifers in a very short space of time (maybe ½ hour?). We left the tower at 17:30 for a dark walk back, seeing some Night Monkeys (a good sighting) close by the trail.
19 April 2004
After lunch it rained again as usual, but we then set out along the Bamboo trail in the gathering gloom. Managed a few new species, including Band-tailed Antbird (by the river at the start), Plain throated Antwren and Fasciated Antshrike.
20 April 2004
As the mist finally cleared, bird activity picked up and we added White-bellied Parrot and Bare-necked Fruit Crow. At around 09:30, we turned round from watching a bird to see a band of heavy rain rapidly approaching us across the forest. Frank estimated we had about 4 mins before it hit us, which turned out to be pretty accurate, so we raced to pack up all the gear and hot foot it down the tower! Just made it down before the rain got too heavy. We then returned to the lodge, where it carried on raining until just before lunch.
Had some photographic success around the lodge, with a nice pair of Rufescent Tiger Herons from the floating deck, and a Capuchin Monkey in trees right outside the lodge buildings.
At around 15:00 we set out up river again to the Brazil Nut trail seeing a Green Kingfisher en-route. The trail had several Brazil Nut trees, including the main massive one very impressive. Few birds in rather damp conditions, with only a very obscure White-eyed Tody Tyrant new.
21 April 2004
We then had a short but productive stroll on the "Island". This was more open habitat than the primary forest, which made for easier birding, with good views even of Antshrikes the very local Glossy Antshrike and also Barred Antshrike.
On the road back to Alta Floresta, we insisted that we stop at the well know Point-tailed Palm Creeper spot, where Franks tape lure worked a treat after some time. Had good close views of this impressive species. There was also a Pearl Kite on roadside wires.
Before lunch in the relaxing Floresta Amazonica Hotel, we had a brief excursion into the forest fragment at the back. This was generally very quiet (maybe due to it being mid day), but we did find some Spider Monkeys (apparently a different species from those at Cristalino) and some obliging Crimson-bellied (Pearly) Parakeets.
This time there was no problem with the flight, which stopped at Sinop en-route to Cuiaba. Here we were met by a cheerful and very efficient Braulio, from the Pantanal Bird Club (with whom we had arranged a private 3 day tour of the Pantanal not cheap but well worth it!). Braulio drove us the very short distance to the Hotel Diplomata, which was perfectly adequate, and arranged to collect us at 07:00 the next morning.
For dinner, we went over the road to the all you can eat place, which was amazing value at only around GBP6 for both of us including drinks. This place was a meat-eaters delight, and featured a succession of waiters, each with a hunk of a different type of meat, walking around the place, stopping to carve bits off for you. A novel experience highly recommended!
22 April 2004
Once through Pocone, the road turned into a broad dirt track, with many puddles due to recent rains, and we descended gently into the Pantanal. With marshy areas on both sides of the road, birds began to appear in large numbers. Easiest to get to grip with were the herons, egrets and ibises, including Bare-faced and Buff-necked Ibis, Limpkins and the huge Jabiru (building a nest in a tree right by the road). There were plenty of raptors as well, with masses of Snail Kites, Black-collared Hawk, Yellow-headed Caracara, Savannah Hawk and Great Black Hawk. But pride of place went to a magnificent pair of Hyacinth Macaws flying over wow! Also notable were some Rheas close to the road.
Even the road side café we stopped at for a drink was full of birds, with White Woodpecker down to a few m, and impressive Chaco Chachalachas. Other wildlife on this stretch of the Transpantaneira comprised Capybara, a Caymen Lizard, a Tayra (cat like mammal) and a small Yellow Anaconda crossing the road.
We arrived at the splendidly situated Fazenda St Teresa just before lunch in a very peaceful location by the Pixiam river, well away from the small settlement of Pixiam. The was reached along a bumpy dirt track surrounded by fields containing masses of ibises, egrets etc. The Fazenda itself was fine, with mains electricity and hence constant A/C and quite reasonable food.
After lunch and the usual early afternoon downpour, I did a spot of digiscoping around the Fazenda:
At 16:00 we went for an excellent boat trip downstream. Highlights were a Sun Grebe (difficult at this of year, apparently) and Bare-faced Curassow. At dusk, on the return we passed an amazing roost of hundreds of Snail Kites in the riverside trees! After dinner, we had good but brief views of a Great Horned Owl on a pole just outside the Fazenda which brought the lifer total for the day to around 49. Again there was a remarkable absence of mosquitoes and other biting insects, even on the boat trip after dark.
23 April 2004
This productive walk had to be cut somewhat short as the path was flooded beyond a certain point, and we returned to the Fazenda after a mere 4 hrs. This left a longish wait until another boat trip at 16:00, but we enjoyed the swimming pool (surrounded by a fence to keep the Caymen out!). I also did some more digiscoping around the grounds, including a short walk to a nearby mini-tower that looked out over a marsh. Here, I had good views of a Black-tailed Tityra actually digiscoped and identified it as well!
The boat trip was again a good relaxing way to end the day, and by going upstream this time we covered new ground, with new birds such as the brilliant Orange Backed Troupical and the almost as bright Yellow rumped Cacique. The lifer total for today exceeded even that of yesterday some 52.
24 April 2004
After breakfast, and a quick excursion to digiscope the Stork, we headed back up the Transpantaneira stopping of course if anything interesting appeared, which it did in the form of a Crane Hawk, Peach-fronted Parakeet, and a group of White-faced Whistling Ducks.
We arrived just in time for lunch at the almost crowded (by recent standards) Pousada Piuval, which was E of the road, just S of Pocone, in a somewhat drier area. Later in the afternoon we went out for another drive/walk into drier wooded areas. We found some Orange-winged Parrots, and then two good ant birds Planalto Slaty Antshrike and Plain Antvireo. Soon after came some impressive Chestnut bellied Guans in the tree tops, closely followed by a nice mixed bird flock with at least 5 more species including the brilliant coloured Red-crested Finch and the tiny woodpecker-like White-edged Piccolet.
As dusk began to fall we visited a large lake which had very little bird life on it. Spotlamping on the drive back produced an excellent Tropical Screech Owl, right by the car. Mammals this evening comprised two Crab Eating Foxes and some Brazilian Rabbits.
Dinner was less good than previously, but our room, again with A/C (but not really needed as the temperature was almost cool now, with a cold front having moved across), was fine.
25 April 2004
Back for breakfast when it really decided to rain "properly", delaying any final attempt to reach the 300 mark for my life list. Eventually the rain eased, and we were able to persuade Braulio to go out for a last walk/drive. We were hoping for Red-legged Seriama, which was heard in the distance but it didnt respond to the MP3/tape and so we never saw it. There was some compensation in the form of a Crimson-crested Woodpecker and a Spot-backed Puffbird.
But after careful counting, it now looks like I ended just one short of the 300 lifer mark!
After lunch, we departed for Cuiaba and the end of our birding in Brazil. My wife returned direct to the UK via Sao Paulo, whereas I needed to get back to Recife for my international return flight which required an overnight stop in Brasilia.
For the systematic click here
© All pictures copyright Stephen Burch