Chile, Bolivia and Brazil

March 2015

Make no mistake: this was the beginning of a new love story. The time in Patagonia, especially in Torres del Paine National Park has been a outstanding one. With often long hikes and many hours of hiding in the wild. Observed only by pumas, guanacos and condors, facing freezing cold rainstorms. This was a very intense wilderness experience. To me, the photographic results are equally fantastic.

After Torres del Paine, this excursion would take me further south, to Tierra del Fuego and then to Arica, in Chile’s extreme north, from where I would drive up to the Andes: to Putre, Lauca, Salar de Surire and the Vicunas National Park, spending some time alone in these very remote areas. Along the Panamericana Highway I would later reach the coastal town of Iquique and fly via Santa Cruz (Bolivia) to Campo Grande, from where I would travel to the Brazilian Pantanal to check up on the ocelots at Pousada Aguapé.

To the End of the World
Punta Arenas is the capital of Chile’s Magallanes y Antártica Region. At just over 53° S it is far away from anywhere and reaching this particular end of the world from Switzerland takes about 20 hours of air travel. Departing from Zurich in late winter can still mean snow and ice trouble. Not this time, though: 12 March was mild and clear and my flight LX92 took off in time and got me to São Paulo the next morning, where I would spend a buffer day, finishing some office work and getting ready for the onward flights to Santiago de Chile, and then via Puerto Montt to Punta Arenas.

Ready for the last segment form Puerto Montt to Punta Arenas

How far south exactly is Punta Arenas? To readers who are familiar with Cape Town (a bit over 33° S.): take an airliner and fly straight south for about 3½ hours and you will reach the howling fifties.

Punta Arenas on Google Maps.

The final approach to Punta Arenas was rather bumpy. It felt a bit like driving off-road on the back of a safari vehicle and I could make out some white knuckles among the passengers around me. A quick glance out of the window confirmed foaming crests and flying water on the Strait of Magellan below. 35 Knots south-westerly winds at 8° C. As could be expected, the LAN Airlines crew mastered the landing without a problem and about 40 minutes after leaving the plane I stood at the check-in counter of Hotel Diego de Almagro, where I would meet up with Octavio Campos Salles and two other photographers who I would travel with on the first part of this trip (Oliver Weidmann and Hermann Brehm).

Apparently have to take the stairs every so often :-)

We left for Torres del Paine very early the next morning. On this 5-hour drive, the landscape becomes more and more interesting, the closer one gets to the park. On the way we saw some of the southern ducks and geese, Lesser rhea, and ancient forests covered in Old Man’s Beard lichen (Usnea barbata). The cute little town of Puerto Natales was a perfect halfway stop for a coffee break and to get the cameras ready, as some water birds can be observed from quite close.

Yes, that is what we're after... coffee break in Puerto Natales

This is also the last place before the park where the car can be filled up and it is vital to do so. We continued towards the park and eventually made our way to Hotel Las Torres, which would be our base for the next 7 days. The hotel is situated on the eastern side of the park and it consists of a proper bungalow style hotel compound with bars and restaurants, as well as a camping area. The roughly 2’420 square kilometre large national park is hugely popular with hikers and outdoor enthusiasts. It is best known for its incredibly spectacular granite mountain range with the formations Torres del Paine, Cuernos del Paine and Cerro Paine Grande (3’050m), its lakes Lago Nordenskjöld, Lago Sarmiento de Gamboa, Lago Pehoé, Lago Grey, Lago del Toro, Laguna Azul and Laguna Amagra, and, of course the Grey Glacier.

The area of Torres del Paine on Google Maps.

The rolling hills between the lakes and the steep granite faces of Paine are home to large herds of guanacos (Lama guanicoe) and these animals are the main prey base for the national park’s puma population. Other key species include South Andean deer or huemul, red fox and grey fox, Geoffroy’s cat, Andean condor, Black-chested buzzard eagle, Black-necked swan, Chilean flamingo, Spectacled duck and Magellanic woodpecker.

As ever I would equally enjoy the landscape and all fauna and flora, though the focus of this trip was to find pumas. Today, Torres del Paine National Park probably is the best place to see pumas in the wild. It is not an experience that can be consumed from the comfort of a vehicle or boat, like a safari in the great national parks and wilderness areas of Brazil, Africa or India. Finding pumas requires long days in the field on foot and a lot of patience. We spent up to 7 hours per sighting and the weather was cold, stormy and often rainy. Of course this would make for fantastic light, but it required several layers of clothing, a waterproof cover, shoes that could cope with the conditions and good spirits. I still got cold from time to time sitting in the rain and wind, between rocks and thorny bushes. There are a few changes I will make to my equipment for the next cold weather excursion.

End of a day searching for pumas: Patrick, Roberto, Octavio, Oliver

When pumas are encountered, they may be seen hunting or moving through terrain, or simply resting. In total we found two females and two males on their own, one female with three cubs of about 8 months, one female with two cubs of about 4 months, and one female with four nearly fully grown sub adults. Count: 16 pumas on this trip alone. Some of the animals we saw more than once. Their tolerance to people on foot varied. Some individuals would approach without getting nervous to within less than 10 metres. Others, especially the moms with cubs would keep a distance of 100 metres or more. In terms of photographic equipment this meant carrying the 600mm lens, a sturdy tripod and a backpack with a second body and shorter lenses. As mentioned before, the terrain is hilly. There is hardly a metre of flat ground; instead it is up and down hills and cliffs all the time. In turn, the surroundings and backdrop for photographing these pumas varies greatly. Unfortunately we didn’t find any cats in the most spectacular areas, in pockets of forest along small ponds. But we found pumas along the white shores of Lago Sarmiento de Gamboa, in the bushes and along the cliffs overlooking Lago Nordenskjöld, on an adjoining farm near Sarmiento, as well as hunting along the Paine River.

Basic food stuffs readily available in Patagonia

This excursion was arranged through Octavio Campos Salles and he booked Roberto Donoso Berrios as a local guide. Besides being very friendly and interested in people, Roberto is an outstandingly knowledgeable and determined guide with a great understanding and respect of wildlife behaviour and the requirements of photographers when it comes to light and position. What more can one wish for?

Fire damage

Although paleoenvironmental studies indicate that fires have occurred from time to time in the park area over the past 10’000 years, the park has seen three large devastating fires that destroyed a lot of the ancient forests in 1985, 2005 and 2011/2012. Careless backpackers started these fires. The images of charred forests and dead wildlife went around the world. As can be expected in such a delicate, sub polar environment, the scars remain visible until today. New trees have been planted in many areas, but it will take decades, if not centuries, for forests to grow to a height and density to be once more the home of wildlife depending on this kind of cover.

It will take decades, if not centuries to restore the lost forests of Torres del Paine

Human-wildlife conflict

Sheep farms mainly surround Torres del Paine National Park. It is obvious that young pumas from inside the park will disperse to these farms, as the habitable part of the park is relatively small. Once a puma migrates to farmland, it will find far less guanacos. Farmers are known to shoot guanacos as they are considered food competitors for their livestock and when less natural prey is around, pumas may turn to sheep. With no scientific information about density and damage at hand, farmers will attribute every dead sheep to being a puma kill and they will, in turn, retaliate by shooting the pumas on their land. It is essential to find out how sheep die, as I have seen brand new photos of packs of stray dogs inside the park and on farmland near the park. One thing is for sure: these dogs are not vegetarian and they need substantial amounts of food to survive. I cannot see the dogs take down a healthy guanaco, so my guess will be that dogs on a regular basis kill sheep. The concept of wildlife photo tourism specialising on pumas and Geoffroy’s cat is relatively new to the area and farmers will be largely unaware of the potential this holds for their properties. Then there is the question of introducing a compensation program for livestock loss, but again the basis for such a decision must be provided by scientific information about predator density and livestock damage really caused by wild predators. Panthera are in the process of setting up a research project to establish the facts around these questions. 

Our stay at the Hotel Las Torres was a very pleasant one. The hotel offers comfy rooms, friendly service, a lively bar and a good restaurant with typical country cuisine. They mainly cater to hikers and horseback riders, so understandably it takes a bit of effort to get breakfast a bit earlier, before the good light starts.

Hotel Las Torres

For my next trip to this area I probably won’t be able to book this place, as I would like to see pumas in the snow and Hotel Las Torres is not open during the winter months. Yes, it is clear that if possible, I would love to return to Torres del Paine. This is a fantastically beautiful place.

On the last day in the park, we left Torres del Paine through the western section. A stop at Lago Grey offered hope for a sighting of Magellanic woodpecker and perhaps huemul. Unfortunately neither species presented itself. But still, the forests along the lake, and big icebergs shining on the horizon made for an excellent impression. It would be great to join the boat cruise on this lake. On the way back to Punta Arenas we stopped a couple of times for special sightings and landscapes, and we got ready for the next destination of this trip, as  the weather started to clear up and winds calmed down.

Tierra del Fuego

From the Chilean side there are two ways to reach Tierra del Fuego by boat: a small ferry leaving from Punta Delgada, 170km east of Punta Arenas, and the large ferry between Punta Arenas and the town of Porvenir. The smaller ferry sails every 20 to 30 minutes, but it takes a good 2 hours by car to reach Punta Delgada. The large ferry, also operated by Transbordadora Austral Broom S.A. leaves on set times once a day in each direction. Advance booking is required for the service between Punta Arenas and Porvenir. On the ferry transfers it is advisable to keep a camera and a long lens ready. The vessels are often accompanied by schools of various dolphin species and sea lions. If one knows where to expect them, the photographic results can be stunning.

Tierra del Fuego would have a lot to offer, but on this excursion we wanted to focus on the colony of King penguins on the shores of Bahía Inútil. The northern part of the island has been used for sheep farming for centuries. Guanacos were once introduced, but they are considered a nuisance and food competitor for sheep today. Judging from their behaviour, the animals (a beautiful, black-faced morph) are under hunting pressure, although hunters will not use the meat but just leave killed animals in the field. Of course I have no detailed information about numbers of individuals present and killed on the island, but I always find it very strange when I realise a beautiful, wild creature sends alarm calls and takes flight when it sees me leaving the car carrying a camera.

From the landing point of the Punta Delgada ferry crossing it takes about 3 hours to reach Bahía Inútil. King penguins make a permanent home on South Georgia Island, Crozet and Falkland (Malvinas Argentinas for the Argentines). Historic evidence places a colony on Tierra del Fuego, but the birds have disappeared for decades and seem to be re-establishing their third colony again now. The colony of currently about 150 birds is growing as more penguins join, but so far, no chicks born on Tierra del Fuego have survived.

Octavio using a short lens and flash to photograph this inquisitive King penguin

The colony is well protected and the lady who owns the land along this part of Bahía Inútil manages access. Visitors are allowed to move in two observation areas between 30m and 50m of the colony. Through Octavio Campos Salles we managed to obtain a special permit to access the beach in front of the colony. Waiting patiently for a few hours may result in some closer encounters, as the birds access the water or just take a stroll along the shoreline. However, the climate is usually extremely unfriendly. Freezing gales blowing salty spray and sand into ones face are a normal occurrence. Not on 23 March 2015, though. Our local guide later confirmed that he had never before experienced this. We spent 7 hours on this beach and enjoyed mild, calm weather with deep blue skies. The penguins obviously loved this, too and a group of about 12 birds stayed on the beach with us until after sunset. Some of them strolled up to within a metre of us, just to see what we were up to (hastily changing to wide angle lenses, of course). There was not a moment of stress for the birds. In fact I cannot help thinking the investigation and greeting was rather joyful.

When we left Bahía Inútil at around 20:00h, we had a bit over 2 hours of bumpy gravel road driving ahead of us before we reached Yendegaia, our cute little guest house in Porvenir. The restaurant next door was informed of our pending arrival and kept the kitchen open. A juicy steak and a cold beer provided a perfect ending to a perfect day. The next morning we spent checking for birds and marine wildlife along the shores outside Porvenir and eventually made our way to the ferry terminal for our transfer back to Punta Arenas. The weather was still calm and clear and what I recall most now is to see the partly snow covered peaks of the Darwin Range in the far south of Tierra del Fuego.

Heading North

When I started planning this trip sometime in summer 2014, I soon thought, given the long flight from Zurich to Santiago, that I should try to include a couple of days in the Andes. Of course finding the small Andean mountain cat would be extremely difficult, but as always, I could try anyway and enjoy whatever else would come my way. So I contacted Jim Sanderson, an expert on small wild cat species whom I had met a few years ago in Berne. Jim recommended the area around Salar de Surire, near Putre, in northern Chile. Following some research regarding flights, car rental, accommodation and seasonal access to the Lauca National Park I decided to include this in my travel plans. One major topic to keep an eye on would be the elevation. The highest points in Switzerland I had been to so far are at around 3’900m above sea level. Access was by train and cable cars, with just a couple of minutes spent outside at a time to enjoy the view and being down in the valley on less than 1’000m a few hours later. Exploring Lauca National Park and the areas between Putre and Parinacota, on the other hand, would require driving my rented 4x4 vehicle up to about 4’800m. I had no way of knowing if I would cope with this without experiencing AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness), except for trying it out.

Flying from Punta Arenas via Santiago to Chile’s northernmost coastal town of Arica took a full day, with about 8 hours of actual flight time. I reached Arica at 22:30h, collected my Toyota Hilux Double Cab form Hertz and drove the 16km to my hotel in town. The Andean excursion had to wait for the next morning as I didn’t want to drive this stretch of road at night. Putre is about 130km from Arica. Leaving the coast behind, one first travels east in green mountain valleys shouldered by what looks like the sandy, rocky fingertips of the Atacama Desert. The road soon starts winding upward and as the scars of civilisation begin to disappear, the Atacama offers a wonderful spectrum of pastel colours against a hazy, light blue sky. Numerous wrecks of large trucks and even more shrines marking spots where people had lost their lives on this desert route are a constant reminder to take it very easy and concentrate on the driving. This road has long been vital to connect landlocked Bolivia to the port of Arica. Although it is not to be compared with the spine-chilling paths cutting through some of the Peruvian Andes, it still won’t allow for a drivers mistake at any point.

A local grocery store in Putre

After a good hour of driving, the landscape changes from seemingly lifeless desert to shrubby, high alpine-like vegetation. The mountain village of Putre comes into sight after about 2½ hours of driving. It is situated in a seasonally green valley on 3’600m and towered by the Nevados de Putre, with Volcan Taapaca on 5’860m.

The main road at Putre on a cold, misty evening

The guest area at Terrace Lodge, Putre

In Putre I stayed at the Terrace Lodge. A very cute little B&B only place, owned and managed by an Italian couple (Flavio & Patrizia). Flavio is one of the most knowledgeable guides in the area and he has published a tourist map, which I consider a “must have” for all visitors to Lauca National Park. Besides providing navigation information, it displays the most important points of interest and route distances, thus reducing chances of getting lost in the highlands for people who know how to read a map. In Putre there are several small restaurants offering typical cuisine at very fair rates, especially considering the remoteness of the place. A few shops offer food and beverages one needs when heading up to explore the highlands. However: there is no ATM as a reliable source to obtain cash. None of the places I visited accepted credit cards (why should they, when a full 3-course lunch with beverage and coffee sets you back less than USD 5.00). In general, there is no fuel available in Putre. Visitors are urged to fill up their cars and draw cash in Arica or they will run dry and starve. For guests staying at Terrace lodge, Flavio offers petrol and diesel from his store of jerry cans (I paid 1’000 CLP per litre). 

Supper in a local restaurant, Putre

Salar de Surire

March is the end of the Bolivian rainfall season. While weather conditions on the northern Chilean side of the Andes are generally dry and cold this time of the year, there is cloud cover moving over from the Bolivian side every day after about 12:00h. Afternoons are often overcast with drizzle or light snowfall in the Altiplano. The stunningly beautiful Salar de Surire is 130km away from Putre and leaving in the dark, early morning hours, it will take 3½ to 4 hours to get to the Salar. Sunrise at this time of the year is at around 08:00h and the light stays soft for about 90 minutes before turning extremely harsh. Soft light at the Salar thus requires departure from Putre no later than 05:00h. To get there, one first follows the main pass road up the mountain for about 30km. This part is mostly tarred and the only obstacles are the huge trucks heading for the Bolivian border. The turn-off to Salar de Surire is well signposted and from there it is about 98km on sand, mud and gravel. Frozen sand, mud and gravel, I might add when the road is travelled on in the early morning hours. There are some rivers that need to be crossed, but water flow and levels presented no problem for the Hilux. A first time visitor to the high Andes my mind was blown when the day’s initial shades of dawn revealed snow and ice covered volcanoes to my left. It is simply incredible to face this kind of natural reality. Of course I recall some of the travel notes of Darwin and Humboldt in the Andes, but there is just no way of describing the experience of a wide, frozen plain on 4’200m above sea level, full of wildlife and the odd village, and then looking up into steaming and smoking, ice-covered peaks yet even much higher. I stopped several times along the road just to capture some landscape photographs. Then, eventually one of my dream encounters stood right in front of me. At first I noticed a tawny shape on a hilltop. It was a male vicuna, sentinel of several families nearby, and I discovered as I slowed the vehicle and stopped in a position from where I would have the smoking Vulcan as a backdrop. Since childhood I had wished to see one of these wonderfully elegant animals in the wild. Back in the 1970-ies the vicuña was endangered as a species, with no more than 6’000 individuals believed to survive in the wild. Extensive protection measures were introduced across much of its range and today the IUCN Red List states the vicuna as least concern in most of South America.

The Vicuña

Within the Camelid family, vicuñas are the smallest members of the taxonomic tribes that are the Lamini (not to be confused with my dear Malini) :-), the other tribe being the Camelini. The slender, gorgeous vicuñas are highly specialised regarding habitat requirements. They are confined to the high Andes. Family groups remain on the same grounds all year round, occupying separate feeding and sleeping territories, which may be some distance apart. The dominant male of a family will defend both territories, but intervening neutral areas are shared with other groups. Family group sizes correlate with the size and productivity of the feeding territory. Females are attracted by the secure foraging and may be accepted or rejected by the male. He will also drive out the young of both sexes before they are a year old. Males without territories form bachelor groups.

Vicuñas prefer grasing on grass and forbs, but will browse on shrubs at times. As as speciality, the elegant animals create their own high-quality grasing areas, known as Excrement Influenced Vegetation (EIV). These are the result of soil enrichment after generations of defecation and urination by vicuñas on traditional dung piles.

Despite being otherwise well adapted to living in arid conditions, the vicuña needs to drink frequently, which in places such as Salar de Surire strongly influences its daily activity patterns.

(Source: Handbook of Mammals of the World)

Vicuñas on Salar de Surire

I reached Salar de Surire around 8:30h and the light was fantastic. A crystal clear atmosphere and absolutely dead still air turned the salt lakes into huge mirrors for the overwhelming Andean landscapes. I was scanning the rocky hillsides for wildlife when I noticed another family of vicnunas right on the shoreline. It turned into a perfect moment for a rather special photograph. Having the Salar and its wildlife completely to myself was phenomenal and I enjoyed every second I could spend there before making my way back to Putre. The day had turned out so spectacular that I didn’t feel like anything distracting me from this intense experience, so I spent the afternoon at Terrace Lodge.

For the next day I had planned to aim for a second great landscape photograph that can be captured when the conditions are right. The main road towards Bolivia goes up to 4’600m and then, within line of sight of the border, it cuts along Lago Chungara and Volcan Parinacota. The ideal setting would be at the crack of dawn on a clear, windless day for the volcano to draw a reflection on the cobalt blue lake and unveil a mystical mood nothing short of a major “Lord of the Rings” like scene. I got up at 03:00h, just to check the weather and it was partly cloudy and quite windy in Putre. Still I decided to leave Terrace Lodge at 05:45h and drove all the way up to Lago Chungara, arriving there about an hour later. In hindsight I should have left earlier to perhaps get some stars into the frame, but I was very lucky to find a partly frozen Lago Chungara with a fantastic reflection of the volcano. Just beyond the highest point on the main road I drove the Hilux down a little private road towards the lake and set up tripod and camera on the frozen lake. As the sun appeared over the peaks of the Bolivian Andes, I packed my camera and drove down to the village of Parinacota. Dozens of visachas had now appeared on the rocks next to the road to warm up in the sun. Ducks and coots were frozen fast on small lagoons and domestic llamas grazed on frozen stubbles of grass. Although habitat and prey base would be perfect here, I saw no sign or track of the Andean mountain cat.

The rest of the day was spent exploring areas north of Parinacota and to the 4’850m mountain pass of Neves de Putre. Another very intense day had finally come to an end and I celebrated the experience with supper and a few glasses of red wine at the Kuchu Marka restaurant in Putre.

Kuchu Marka restaurant, Putre

Both the rocky hillsides at Salar de Surire and around the village of Parinacota make up very good habitat with a solid prey base for the Andean mountain cat. It didn’t reveal itself this time, though, and one day back in Putre I received a message from German/American wildlife photographer Sebastian Kennerknecht. He had seen my Facebook post about Salar de Surire and informed me of an upcoming 6-week trip to the Bolivian and Argentinean Andes in search of this species. Sebastian is an expert on the use of photo traps and I wish him the best of success to find the cats and capture great images.

There are some more very fascinating places in the area and, as is always, there are secret jewels that can be found with a local guide only. For me this was just a first impression and I possible I would like to visit the Andes again, including Bolivia’s Salar Uyuni and perhaps some other sites for Andean mountain cat.

Putre to Iquique

My last full day in Chile was reserved for travelling to the coastal town of Iquique, about 300km south of Arica. The reason for choosing this route was a simple one: the Bolivian Amaszonas Airlines operate a service from Iquique to Santa Cruz de la Sierra (Bolivia) and from there to Campo Grande in Brazil’s Pantanal, where I would spend the last few days of this journey. I preferred this more direct line of travel, as the alternative would have been to fly to Sao Paulo via Santiago and head for Campo Grande from there. In addition to being a much shorter route, it also offered an opportunity to spend a night in Santa Cruz, Bolivia’s second largest city, just to get a feel of the place for a possible future journey to this part of the world.

The road trip was easy: 130km down to windy pass road across some Atacama land, then quick stop at Arica to fill up the car and then onto northern Chile’s section of the Panamericana Highway, or Highway 5 as it is called from Alaska to Patagonia. The road was in excellent condition and from Arica it took just about 2½ hours of driving through some extremely impressive landscape to reach the turn-off for Iquique. The legendary, old road down to the coast is no longer in use. Instead there is a new toll-road and so the last 36km to Iquique are quick and comfy.

Highway 5: all the way down across the Atacama

Today this is a dusty desert city on a deep blue, cool Pacific ocean. The many Tsunami escape routes make it clear for everyone to see that Chile’s coastline is part of an eternal seismic hotspot. The city didn’t reveal whatever charm it might have to me, so I dined on my own at “Kai”, a sushi bar on the beach road and then headed for a good nights rest in the modest, but tidy Diego de Almagro hotel. Iquique’s airport can be reached about 25km south along the old coastal road. There is a Petrobras petrol station at the very end of the city where rental cars can be filled up before returning them at the airport. The last stretch to the airport is a toll-road and in March 2015 it cost CLP 950 to use the road. Travellers to these parts just make sure you have that little bit of extra cash at hand.

To Campo Grande via Santa Cruz

Amaszonas Airlines is a small, privately owned carrier from Bolivia. The company runs a fleet of Embraer jets and some turbo props to cover a very useful route network, conneting off the beaten track destinations in Chile, Peru, Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil to Bolivia’s cities of La Paz and Santa Cruz. The company charged an ok amount for my excess check-in luggage and I wasn’t bothered about taking three bags into the cabin. The flight from Iquique to Santa Cruz was about 90 minutes late, but I therefore had some good light to snap a picture of the Lauca National Park area as we crossed into Bolivian airspace. Immigration it Santa Cruz required some more patience, about 60 minutes to make it past the counter.

Amaszonas airlines, service from Iquique (Chile) to Santa Cruz (Bolivia)

To my surprise I found out that airport security run a tight control of who collects which bags at the carousel. This is very important: travellers must keep their luggage tags, as the tags are checked against luggage collected. After immigration there was another security and drug trafficking check and I was good to go. – But where to? I had no Bolivianos in my pockets and the ATMs at the airport were not at all playing along. I asked at the information counter and was told that US Dollars virtually are Bolivia’s second currency. Consequently I paid taxis, restaurants and bars in USD. A friendly, young lady on the flight from Iquique gave me a tip about a restaurant: Casa del Camba. I should go there and enjoy some Bolivian BBQ. After checking into my – again modest but cute and friendly – hotel LP Hotel Santa Cruz, I took a taxi and made the most of this evening, first at the BBQ place and then in a pub on the Plaza Principal, the central square. Of course I didn’t get to see much of Santa Cruz, but what I experienced was enough to include this place in future travel plans. It has a vibrant old town and some seemingly cute art galleries and bars, and as opposed to many other South American cities it appeared to be relatively safe for Gringos.

Table grill at Casa del Camba, Santa Cruz

Buildings and nightlife on the central square, Santa Cruz

The next morning I was taken from the hotel to the airport by pre-arranged transfer and the lady accompanying a driver gave me a 40 minutes break down of Bolivia’s history, its current economic state and a political outlook. In German, not least. For reasons unknown to me I could not book the Santa Cruz – Campo Grande flight online from Switzerland. So this flight, the hotel and the departure transfer were arranged with kind assistance of André Lüthi’s Globetrotter Travel Ltd. in Switzerland.

One thing that fascinated me was the drug trafficking control upon departure from Santa Cruz. Again my hand luggage was taken apart, lenses and accessories were checked and double-checked again. It is no joke: although your flight may be late on departure, account 3 hours for check-in and security at Santa Cruz airport for international flights.

Landing in Campo Grande about 1½ hours later felt very good. I passed immigration and had to explain to several customs officials why I would arrive with all this camera gear from Bolivia and what my intentions were. 20 minutes later I sat in a Cessna 182 bound for Pousada Aguapé. The beginning of April marks the end of the Pantanal’s summer rainfall season. It is hot here now and occasional thunderstorms still bring intense rain showers. But in between, skies are clear. A tropically humid and hot breeze engulfs lush green vegetation from horizon to horizon.

Flying form Campo Grande to Pousada Aguapé, avoiding heavy rainstorms

Air transfer from Campo Grande to Pousada AguapéAir transfer from Campo Grande to Pousada Aguapé

I have grown rather fond of this little piece of paradise and stepping out of the aircraft I was greeted by very noisy Rufous horneros, Choclo chacalacas, Great kiskadees, Toco toucans and four pairs of Hyacinth macaws. Tiny hummingbirds were shooting around the flowers along the swimming pool. I was ready to enjoy the last few days of this trip and hopefully find some of the ocelots of Aguapé.

Shortly after my arrival, the sky turned black and a thunderstorm caused temperatures to drop to a more bearable level. I got my gear ready and around sunset made my way with local guide, Fabiano Vargas over to the fishing camp. The camp will only open in May or June, so for now it was just the two of us out here. It was plain to see: The area around the camp had until very recently been under water, flooded by Rio Aquidauana. But I found an attractive spot to set up my flash set and Fabiano started his routine of cleaning a fish at a nearby sink. It was a pitch black, tropical night with a slight drizzle after the rainstorm and as often, just before I started to wonder whether a cat would show up, we noticed a shadow silently rushing past no more than three metres in front of us. It was the dark, female ocelot and she carried a big frog in her mouth. By now the drizzle had turned into stronger rain again, but still the cat moved stealthily and in absolute silence past us and encouraged by some small pieces of fish it reached the flash setup the same time I did. I can’t help it, but whenever I observe such spectacular beauty, I like to put down the camera for a moment and just watch. No matter how captivating some of the photographic results may be: when I sit on the floor of a tropical forest and see a wild ocelot moving two metres in front of me, I feel intense appreciation and gratefulness. Tonight was too wet and the cat soon had enough attention and disappeared after about 4 minutes. On one of the photos I managed to take, I later saw that this cat, too has now contracted a little skin parasite that will become a big irritation and eventually cause rashes and sores caused by the cat’s scratching on her head and around her neck. Something the small felids of the neotropics unfortunately often have to live with.

Fabio arrived with other guests on the safari vehicle and he was very excited to inform us of a puma mother with cub they had seen not too far away, out on the farm. We investigated the following morning and found fresh tracks and the carcass of a young feral pig. Perhaps killed by the pumas? We couldn’t tell as the vultures had been on site for some time already…

The remaining days were relatively quiet. Temperatures rose even higher and the nights were lit up by a full moon on a very clear sky. But the usual suspects were all present: Crab-eating fox, Capibara, Giant ant-eater, Collared peccary, Yellow and Nine-banded armadillo, Brazilian rabbit, Marsh deer, Jabiru stork, Burrowing owl, Black caiman and numerous bird species that give this place so much character. On my last day Fabiano and I visited the neighbouring farm down river: Fazenda Casa Branca. This property belongs to family of the owners of Aguapé and it holds some exquisite bush and forest along the river. Casa Branca would be an ideal extension of Aguapé’s safari area, but the owners are not interested and the lands stay closed. Walking through a stretch of forest along a lagoon we soon found tracks of at least one sub adult jaguar. One can just hope this cat will find a safe spot on a predator-friendly farm to become part of the complex, fascinating mosaic of Brazil’s riverine forests.

Bartolo preparing a caipirinha for me :-)

Soon it would be time to say good-bye, but I had one more night to spend in the forest along Rio Aquidauana, to find ocelots. Unfortunately it was a night where no cats would show up. My bags were packed at 02:00h the next morning and I was supposed to be collected at 07:00h for my flight to Campo Grande. But things, as things do, changed. I heard a plane coming in at 05:45h and soon after it was Joana and Marcelo knocking on my door. A heavy thunderstorm had caused the airport at Campo Grande to close and the only way to try and reach in time for my flight to Sao Paulo was to fly to Aquidauana Aero Clube, some 35 minutes out, and drive the 130km from there to Campo Grande. – It was hectic, as we had to fly avoiding the thunderstorms and then drive through a deluge as fast as Marcelo’s Toyota Hilux could go. But we made it in time and nothing was standing in my way now to fly back to Zurich.

The Cessna 157 safe at Aero Clube Aquidauana

Check-in at Swiss counter in São Paulo Guarulhos, Easter Sunday :-)

Especially during the time alone, in the Andes and later in the Pantanal, I dealt with some very big questions affecting my personal and work life, waiting for me to be answered at home. As I am in the process of going through all of this, no further trips are planned for this year. Let’s see what happens.

Patrick – April 2015