Gruta do Lago Azul (Blue Lake Cave)
Peering into the impossibly blue waters of the Gruta do Lago Azul is like looking into the world of J.R.R. Tolkien. The crystal clear water descends 270 feet, making it one of the deepest flooded caves in the world. "The cave is a World Heritage Site," explains our guide, Ulli Braun. "A new species of cave shrimp was discovered here, and it is the oldest yet known. Fossils of a saber-toothed tiger, giant sloth and other animals have been found here. Today the only things living in the water are the shrimp, algae and some flatworms" -- although a healthy colony of bats and other animals can be found in an adjacent cavern, inaccessible to visitors.
The water gets its remarkable color from its high magnesium content, as well as from the interplay of light through the long, sloping entrance. At certain times of the year, according to Ulli, the water looks reddish or other colors. The cave also has some of the world's most unusual formations, with stalactites that jut out from the overhanging rock at radically skewed angles, almost horizontal in some places. That's because the calcification process that normally occurs in limestone caves must compete with the light-seeking growth caused by microorganisms, explains Ulli.
Parrot on Cecropia
The blue cave, near the ecotourist mecca of Bonito in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, has been visited by sightseers since at least 1940, and has some signs of rough use as a result. There are bullet holes and scars of formations that were carried off as souvenirs. However today, the Brazilian government keeps vigilant watch over the natural treasure, and strictly limits the number of visitors (to 340 per day). The cave is perhaps a metaphor for the state of ecotourism across Brazil. Just like most of the world, the country saw centuries of unfettered exploitation of its natural resources, but is moving into an age of optimistic commitment to protecting its spectacular biodiversity and sharing it's unique places and culture with a global public that is increasingly receptive to green, adventure and new experience.
"Ecotourism is the business of the 21st century, bringing together environment and economics," the Brazilian minister of tourism recently said. "Ecotourism done the right way is an important part of the solution to protect the environment from those who would degrade it, and it provides good jobs to those who might otherwise have to destroy these places," he added.
"In Brazil our natural resources are a major part of our image abroad. We're very proud of that, with the Amazon, our spectacular beaches and much more. But we also have great diversity and authenticity to offer, and a new way of life that is healthy, and based on local communities," Jeanine Pires, the president of Embratur (part of Brazil's Ministry of Tourism) told me over a fancy breakfast at the swank Tivoli Hotel in Sao Paulo. "The stereotypes that we have, with Carnival, beaches and so on, are important, but there's much more." One of Pires' colleagues, Gisele, pointed to a community in the state of Minas Gerais, which had bootstrapped itself up from poverty after the local diamond mine closed by starting a new ecotourism business.
I came to Brazil, as the guest of Embratur, to see some of this diversity and authenticity, and to see how ecotourism could work. I asked Pires if Brazilians resented Americans and Europeans for telling them what to do with their rainforest, when we already cut all our primary forests down a hundred years ago. She just shrugged it off, saying Brazilians knew they had to protect their environment for future prosperity and for their happiness today. But I wanted to know what others thought...
The Pantanal, sometimes called the world's largest wetland, is one of the best places to see wildlife in South America. The massive region, mostly in southwestern Brazil but extending into Bolivia and Paraguay, hosts scale-tipping biodiversity, and the animals tend to be concentrated around watering holes in the open, especially during the dry season when I visited.
Brazil has more species of plants and amphibians than any other country. It has at least 200,000 known species, with estimates of up to 2.2 million more. Brazil has 530 known mammal species, 1,731 birds, 3,000 freshwater fish and tens of thousands of insect species.
Tree Canopy Adventure
Perhaps the quintessential ecotourist activity is a canopy tour, and the Pantanal is a great place to try one. Walkways and ropes course techniques were originally used by scientists to study the spectacular diversity of life that teems in the tops of trees, and is hard to observe from the forest floor. Today, visitors to the lovely Hotel Cabanas outside Bonito, Brazil are treated to an exciting adventure of crossing suspended bridges (each one is a bit different, and requires different footings), climbing over cargo nets and even walking along a tightrope. At all times guests are connected to safety lines via climbing-quality carabiners, and are supervised by the friendly staff, including the joke-cracking Marcio. The operation has earned the abeta seal from the Brazilian association of ecotourism and adventure operators.
The Jaguar's Mouth
At 512 feet, the spectacular Boca da Onça waterfall is the highest in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul. During the dry season, when we visited, the flow is reduced to more of a mist than the torrent it becomes when the rains fall. So we had a great look at the "jaguar's face" in the rock behind the falls, visible about a third of the way down in my photo. Adjacent to the falls is a platform that affords breathtaking views of the mountainous terrain. Guests can also take guided repelling tours down the canyon wall.
The natural pool below the jaguar's mouth is surprisingly warm, thanks to the strong tropical sun. It is one of a number of swimming holes that guests can enjoy along a hike through several forest ecosystems, from wet to drier. One of the other gorgeous falls has a natural grotto that's accessible by swimming under a rock overhang.
Our guide, the German-born Ulli Braun, told us that groups at Boca da Onça are limited to 15 people, and that they are spaced out at least 20 minutes, in order to minimize impact on wildlife and to provide for the best ecotourism experience.
Here Ulli is explaining how strangler figs fight their way above the forest canopy by choking out host plants. He also pointed out aroeira "ironwood" trees, which were harvested nearly to extinction; posts made from the extremely hard, rot-resistant wood are still standing on farms 130 years later. The tree is now protected, and is making a comeback.
Ulli also pointed out the white papaya tree, which is sustainably harvested by cutting small sections out of the trunk. These holes heal quickly, yet the spongy material makes a delicious, fibrous food when cooked with sugar. He also pointed out a large-leafed epiphyte (plant that lives on other plants) that native peoples use to induce abortions.
Guests at Caiman Ecological Refuge have a chance to learn about parrot conservation first hand. Research scientists give regular talks to visitors, included guided observations. Those who want to go deeper have the option to "ride along" with biologists and help observe nests.
Parrot populations have plummeted across much of Latin America, as a result of deforestation, hunting, poisoning by farmers, pesticides and the pet trade. For example, since 1981, 413,000 blue-fronted Amazon parrots have been collected, according to Dr. Glaucia Helena Fernandes Seixes, who took some time to talk about her conservation work.
Observing a Parrot Nest
Dr. Glaucia Helena Fernandes Seixes gives visitors a quick look inside the nest of a blue-fronted Amazon parrot. Although the mother is regularly observed by researchers, she cowered over her two eggs.
According to Seixes a major part of her work is environmental education, both to tourists and local people, so they won't support the black market pet trade. Asked if the legitimate market for bred parrots inadvertently supports wild harvesting, Seixes said no. "People like to have animals, but it's important to buy from breeders, who don't take them from nature," she said through a translator.
She said blue-fronted parrots are prized in part because they are good at mimicking human speech. In the wild the monogamous birds live to be around 20, though they can live to 50 in captivity. They eat a wide range of flowers, leaves and seeds, mostly from the tops of trees. Seixes and her team use radio telemetry, cameras and direct observation to monitor the birds.
Trail riding is a popular activity in the Pantanal. Horses have been central to the culture there for a hundred years, and do well on the rugged terrain, alternating between dry and wet. From the back of a horse I saw country that isn't otherwise easily accessible (we had to cross some deep, shoe-stealing mud). This was our best opportunity to get a sense of the vast changes in the Pantanal from dry season (June-September) to wet. I was there in September, when the waters had receded down to a few standing pools (although everyone kept telling me it had been a particularly wet dry season). But when the rains come much of the Pantanal is flooded, including the horse trail pictured.
Caiman Ecological Refuge
Caiman Ecological Refuge
Fazenda San Francisco
The Classic Caipirinha
Enjoying a Natural Pool
Near Boca da Onça is a beautiful guest facility, with a restaurant, bar, meeting space and manicured grounds. I took a dip in the natural swimming pool, though only one other member of our group would join me. Everyone else was intimidated by the big fish swimming below the surface. The pool contains no chlorine or other toxic chemicals, and is kept pristine through natural filtration.
What was it like to swim with the fishes? They kept swimming just out of reach, so I never ran into any. Still, it was a cool feeling to do laps surrounded by other living things.
Pink Trumpet Tree
Culture of Preservation
Through my entire 11-day trip I never met anyone in Brazil who openly advocated wholesale exploitation of the region's rich natural resources. This was refreshing coming from the states, where "Drill Baby Drill" is still part of our national debate. Admittedly my sample size is skewed toward those who work in ecotourism, but it's also true that I spent a fair amount of time talking to Brazilians of many stripes, from cowboys to bartenders, shopkeepers and punks on the streets of Sao Paulo.
(This monkey skull was on display at an eco-lodge with other natural artifacts to educate guests.)
Looking to the Future
Brazil has many challenges, including crime, poverty, unequal distribution of wealth, deforestation and agricultural and industrial pollution. But my brief trip left me with considerable optimism about the resilience of the land and the people, and about the seeds of sustainability that are being widely sown. As Shannon Stowell, president of the Seattle-based Adventure Travel Trade Association, put it at the abeta summit in Sao Paulo, "[Ecotourism] is at the front line of many of the challenges of the world, including poverty and protecting the environment. What's becoming more important to travelers are sustainability, authenticity, uniqueness, connection to nature and lifetime memories." The Pantanal offers all that and more.
My trip was sponsored by Embratur, part of Brazil's Ministry of Tourism, and much of the logistics were provided by PantanalWay.