Piranha in the Pantanal

PiranhaAfter wallowing in the pleasure of my early morning check-out I walked toward the town center and port area. In the light of day I found Corumba to be a jungle paradise; the complete opposite of what I expected following my inauspicious arrival only hours earlier.

Narrow streets lined with royal palms, warm blue skies home for hundreds of varied species of birds, waterways full of fish including the dreaded piranha, and a small population of the friendliest people I have ever met.

One of the first that I greeted was Catu; a self praised local guide who is a born and bred swamp man and therefore the Brasilian equivalent of Crocodile Dundee. With six others we hired him; at $12 per day as our guide for a four day trip into the Pantanal by jeep. It would turn out to be one of the highlights of my five months in South America.

After a five hour drive through a swamp teeming with life we set up camp next to a small lake which at that point was a welcome sight. With hot, sticky skin, swimming became the priority of the moment. 

It wasn’t until evening when we returned from fishing with a haul of 34, most of which were piranha, and darkness closed in that we noticed our little swimming pool was infested with alligators.

None too huge but then how big does an alligator need to be?

It was also pointed out to us, with a cursory glance lake side, that piranha inhabited the lake. Great information to have post-swim!

Laying in a hammock at night when all is quiet and the aquardiente fueled singing has subsided, you can shine a flashlight along the shore of the lake. The bright ruby red eyes of the Cayman alligators appear everywhere, some within just a few feet of where you lay; an amazing feeling.

The days and nights to follow were equally as amazing with Catu catching Capybara (Giant Guinea Pigs) to wrestling alligators to teaching us some of the ways of the wild.

The animals in this area are too numerous to list but the most common include armadillos, parrots, macaw, capybara, quati (similar to a possum only orange and black), snakes, toads, alligators, monkeys, tortoises, wild dogs, river otters, and occasionally you may spot an anteater. In the dry season puma also roam the area.

Fishing was a daily pastime with the easiest to catch being piranha. A fresh piece of meat with a trickle of blood would sent these ferociously efficient diners into a feeding frenzy; successfully polishing your hook to a high sheen as they removed their meal. The fervor so intense that it is almost inevitable that one of them will bite down on the hook itself and become ensnared.

It was via this method that one came to live with me.

Once hooked, opportunities for embalming were numerous. Local children offered a unique service and when your catch is returned to you it is gutted, sealed in some type of tree sap, and placed atop a pedestal.

My piranha is now celebrating its 26th birthday and has lived in 4 countries. That is him at the top of this post.

The Pantanal is second to none in its variety and number of birds with one similar to that of the emu. Another is the Jabiru. A massive bird that can stand tall at 5 feet with a wingspan of up to 9 feet. These are not birds you see every day.

One of the most extraordinary features of the Pantanal is the speed at which vegetation grows and the size to which insects grow.

Cockroaches up to 9 or 10 inches are not uncommon and fly about like bats in the night. Toads as big as footballs crowd the main street of Corumba and walking through them is akin to a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s “Birds”.

Two assumptions you dare not make in the Pantanal are these. Just because a plot of earth is free of foliage today does mean you should expect a similar situation to be evident tomorrow; just because a flower displays vibrant colors and a magnificent perfume-like smell, do not assume it is not a carnivore or a deadly predator.

There is plenty to harm you in the Pantanal; flora should not be dismissed without due caution.

The Pantanal is one of the worlds largest wildlife reserves and at present lies off the beaten track for most travelers throughout South America. Tourism is on the increase, as it is everywhere throughout this largely unspoiled continent. At the moment it remains an area where nature along with its animals can be observed openly without the obstruction of dense jungle like that found in the Amazon region and more importantly, without the destructive interference of man.

To read how I got here read Brazilian Death Train

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70 thoughts on “Piranha in the Pantanal

  1. Gosh this sounds a bit like Australia (where even the tiniest of creatures is out to kill you). Pretty amazing that you were calm through it all!

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  2. I went to Pantanal too, in 2009 and saw all the above mentioned. Fished and ate piranhas as well but was literally destroyed by the mosquitoes, they are so huge and nothing helps to stop them from eating me alive! I remember those cockroaches – massiveeee!

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  3. Not sure how comfortable I’d be sleeping within feet of a crocodile. As always, your writing transports. I was happy to read this next chapter of an amazing experience.

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  4. Sounds AWESOME! Love your photos – we recently did a trip to the Amazon in Bolivia and this sounds like a very similar experience. We did Pirhana fishing, though were’nt brave enough to actually swim with them, so major kudos for that 😀

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    1. Thanks but believe me, it was not intentional. had I known beforehand that piranha inhabited the lake I doubt very much if I would have been so quick to jump in 🙂

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  5. Beautiful wildlife photos! I’d love to visit the Pantanal one day… I think the wildlife is much easier to see there than in the rainforest. I’ll be in the Amazon jungle next month and I’m pretty sure there’s piranha fishing involved. Now I want to see if I can take one home like you!!

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  6. This is some adventure. Those cockroaches sound like the ones in Texas. I am very scared of birds but I love seeing parrots. Their colors are beautiful. I am really loving reading about your travels, I feel like I am there with you.

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  7. Part one of this story was a tough act to follow, but part two was just as enjoyable to read! I didn’t realise that Piranha’s were that big. It is so great that you have such a brilliant souvenir, and that you managed to keep it for so long! 🙂

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  8. Hi Tim, What an amazing experience! I’m not sure I care to see the cockroaches, lol… I love wildlife and I have never heard of the Pantanal species of bird. I would like to learn more. Thanks so much for sharing the pics and your experiences along your journey.

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  9. Sometimes ignorance is bliss! Especially when it comes to swimming around with creatures that potentially can bite you. What lovely photos and amazing you were able to see so much wildlife. I remember my first time seeing a Capybara in the jungle at Iguazu Falls on the Argentine side. They were just so big!

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  10. I absolutely love reading your updates Tim! I can experience so much through your mesmerizing tales .., Wow! I’m not sure how’d I’d feel about discovering I’d been swimming in a lake infested with alligators!!! I guess pretty grateful I did not become dinner.. and I agree with Meredith 9 to 10″ cockroaches give me the creeps … But as I read your play by play, I sense beauty and a reverence for the environment you are discovering, exploring, etching into your mind.. and I feel a more than a little envious as I am sure it is nothing short of magical! Thank you for transporting me to this remote place and invitng me to enjoy it with you.

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  11. I cringed at the thought that you guys swam with piranhas and alligators only to realize in hindsight. At the risk of exposing apparent prejudice, let me say I am not surprised with your ventures as some of us down here would just read the stories and not dare.

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  12. hi tim; always a pleasure reading about your travels. not sure this one would be on my list. I try to avoid places where lack of vision might get me eaten poisoned mangled etc. 🙂 I think its cool that so many places are starting to realize the tourist value of unspoiled land. I hear there are even places now where locals are no longer burning rain forest but instead are protecting it because it brings tourists with cameras and money. thanks for sharing. take care out there, Max

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  13. Wow Tim, this was so interesting and descriptive. I loved all your pictures. I must say I shuddered slightly when reading about flying cockroaches and toads as big as a football. I also might panic a bit if I was just a few feet from a bunch of alligators (though I saw many an alligator while living in Florida), Needless to say, I love being able to experience this vicariously through you since I may faint if I was actually there myself.

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  14. I was so excited to get to your post and learn more about your adventures! I think I actually said outloud, “Oh Sweet!” when I clicked on your post link!

    I so appreciate your descriptive writing – it gives me a few minutes of escape! And maybe a few ghost itches too! I do not know how I would feel learning after I had been swimming that I was sharing the piranha’s space as well as the cayman’s. But what an experience nonetheless. I would love to see all the different birds mostly, but wouldn’t love giant cockroaches flying around! You obviously have a real gift and appreciation for adventure in the truest sense of the word. Thank you for sharing it with us in words and pictures!

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  15. Great post and pics. Your exploits invariably set the bar on the adventure scale and provide a comfortably vicarious ride for the rest of us to get a taste of the beauty, wonders, and perils of a different world. Thanks for the enlightening peek of the Pantanal.

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  16. Your adventures never cease to amaze me. I can’t imagine being anywhere within a two mile radius of alligator and being able to breathe normally. And 9″ cockroaches…no thank you. But I love reading your stories, and being able to “live” your adventures just a little bit through you. Michele

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  17. Glad the piranha didn’t get you while you swam. 🙂

    Your photos are gorgeous. The capybara remind me of out Brasil trip back in 2008.

    We seldom think of how wealthy we are until we are reminded of people like Catu with meager wages by our standards. Conversely, imagine him being taken out of his element, and ending up in front of the Waldorf Astoria in NYC with just $12, for example. I try to imagine his look of bewilderment at how others live.

    Another great post! Thank you!
    All the best, Bill

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  18. I was waiting for this sequel and it sure didn’t disappoint! Mostly I love that you have hauled your piranha with you as you move. For some reason, I find that delightful, even if the fish itself is not. LOL Tim you take ‘off the beaten path’ to a whole new level and a delightful one at that. For sure, I’d find 9″ cockroaches difficult to deal with, but the photos are amazing and it’s so fabulous to see this wildlife in their habitat. Where are we off to next???? LOL

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    1. The piranha has been cause for concern at some border crossings but I think most officials don’t think he is real and just let him pass with nothing more than a smile. At his age I am pretty sure if he had any unwanted bugs they would have shown themselves. As for the roaches, they were so big they were more like wild animals. Therefore my perspective changed and they became intriguing. Next we are off to…

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  19. You saw quite the collection of wildlife. I love macaws, but wouldn’t be too thrilled about the alligators, snakes and 9-10 inch cockroaches. Fishing piranhas sounds dangerous. What an adventure!

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  20. Tim, this is just so amazing – I don’t know how you do it but you bring it all to life. I was completely creeped out by the piranhas, alligators and especially the flying cockroaches – yuk. But thanks for sharing – love to read your adventures even if I’m not brave enough to participate.

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  21. My question would be, why didn’t the alligators or the piranha get aggressive with you so close? Did your guide tell you special things to do in order to avoid being seen as a threat? How is it that you were not afraid?

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    1. I wasn’t bleeding so the piranha had no interest in me. As for the alligators I am still amazed at my luck at not being nipped. As far as creatures go it was the toad in the toilet that had me most on edge. As for not being afraid; I don’t know. It never crossed my mind. Thanks for reading and please check out the lead to that story called the “Brazilian Death Train”.

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  22. Every time I visit I say to myself OH WOW. What an incredible story! It does pay to go off the beaten path. It does afford you the opportunity to see some pretty awesome wildlife. I may never have the chance to visit the Amazon but I have your adventures to read and enjoy. Thank you for that. 🙂

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  23. Tim, you are definitely brave for swimming in the water. That is where I would draw the line. lol That is neat that you got to experience that place for five months! I would love to go to a random country for five months! Piranhas are the ugliest animals I have ever seen! They look like they would take your arm right off. Great post and glad you got to go to South America! =)

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  24. This story is incredible! You have been to some really ‘off the beaten track’ kind of places. The wildlife is just incredible! I’ve always wanted to experience the Amazon, but I’m not sure I could cope with 9″ cockroaches. For now, I’m so glad I discovered your blog so I can experience it vicariously!

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    1. My two favorite countries in South America are Peru and Brazil. For completely different reasons but each as enjoyable as the other. Ecuador and Chile I did love and have some posts about them coming up.

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