“My pre-conceived notion of Brazil? Poor, dirty, expensive, dangerous and uninteresting food” said a buyer the morning we were to embark on a 9-day tour of the Pantanal region and the cities of Corumbá and Bonito. Needless to say, a few action-filled days later the same person wrote an extensive, glowing review of a destination that radically changed his mind and won his heart. Amazing food, warm people, exotic landscapes and wildlife and experiences so wide ranging and world class, he couldn’t recognize his fictitious Brazil.
This is one of the main benefits of AdventureWeek — the world is huge and even seasoned travel pros cannot experience it all so their image of a place is built by stories and experiences their minds have gathered over time. And while affecting buyers’ and journalists’ understanding of a place is of utmost importance, there is another, somewhat unsung benefit to the program: to wake the destination and the businesses within it to the startling realization that what they imagine outsiders will enjoy and want to experience might be very different from what they are currently offering.
This AdventureWeek was no exception. The area of Brazil we covered was in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul in the giant wetlands famed worldwide for wildlife and an ever changing landscape due to the very unusual annual “flush” of the entire region as the rains inexorably work their way through the wetland on a slow but vital push of nutrients. Brazilians have enjoyed this “secret” region for years but outsiders are less familiar. So, AdventureWeek served to both professionalize and improve the tourism offerings, strengthen the value chain and then showcase it to buyers who will sell it and writers who will promote it, all while preserving the uniqueness of the experience and environment.
I want to share a few highlights from the trip that I think really encapsulate what made AdventureWeek Brazil surprising and contrary to nearly every expectation our group had.
- In Corumbá, we listened to Bolivian and Paraguayan influenced music played by local groups and watched a spectacular sunset on our first night in the region, framed and reflected off the fat, slow-flowing Paraguay river with it’s floating islands of hyacinths drifting by, some so large you could imagine maybe laying down on one like Huckleberry Finn off to some great adventure.
- We spent two days and nights on an intimate expedition ship with only 12 cabins, plying the river and stopping at various points for mini-adventures. An early morning bike ride yielded sights of capybaras, caiman, marsh deer and tuiuiú birds (Jabiru Stork) and a walk through part of the Pantanal included waist deep crossings and sightings of rare hyacinth macaws and armadillos.
- Cowboys at a ranch told us stories of cattle drives, run-ins with wildlife, daily challenges of moving thousands of cattle through piranha infested swampland and how they could navigate without GPS or even electricity. We played a rousing game of pick-up futebol with the cowboys and guides and shared a meal of manioc, beef, pork, feijoada, farofa and avocado ice cream.
- We watched the locals in Corumbá perform a ceremony called “The washing of Saint John,” which involved costumed men and women playing brass musical instruments playing a somewhat solemn tune that would slowly crescendo to a frenzied dance that ended in wild dancing, fireworks, yelling, general hilarity, throwing of water on St. John and wild contagious smiles. We saw what happens when thousands of people engage in the event that only happens in this one town in all the world.
- On the road between the Pantanal and Bonito we were told we would be pulling over for “lunch,” which turned out to be the understatement of the trip. As we rolled into what made me think of a Brazilian-themed dude ranch, people came out to greet us and there was a table with a lemonade barrel with tin cups beside to help us beat the heat. One sip and I gasped as it was a barrel not of lemonade but of caiprinha, the famed Brazilian elixir made of sugarcane liquor, limes and sugar that often induces dancing and seeing of the future. A live band kicked into gear and before we knew it, people were dancing and laughing and men appeared carrying sticks between them of what must have been 20-pound chunks of meat, fire-roasted for our lunch. An hour later, our sun-burned, well-fed group boarded the bus for the 4 hours left to Bonito. It was a total surprise, a party oasis in the midst of what we believed would be a dull ride.
- Bonito is blessed with water filtering limestone so the rivers are impossibly clear and the region is an adventurer’s paradise, full of enormous caves with blue waters inside and teeming with wildlife. The Anhumas Abysm cave is essentially a hole in the earth that is 500 feet deep and half filled with freshwater. Visitors can repel down 225 feet to a floating platform to experience the cave’s otherworldly structures without damaging anything by walking on or touching. With snorkel gear and a flashlight in hand we lowered off the platform into the water and proceeded to follow a guide through the dripping, dark eeriness of the caves stalactites and stalagmites to the deep recesses. As you snorkel along, you can look down aided by flashlight into the depths to see an array of giant cones which have built up over thousands of years, which made me suddenly imagine I was in the jaw of a great beast whose teeth rose from the dark and welcomed me in for my final swim. After 4 hours in the cave, I felt myself relaxed and in tune with my surroundings as most of our senses get muted in that environment. It was magical and memorable.
- We snorkeled in the clear and cool (not cold) Sucuri and Prata rivers, full of fish that would seem to belong better in the ocean — from tiny bright jewels flitting around to huge piraputanga and seemingly prehistoric dourado. The sounds of the jungle — the parakeets, macaws, insects, capuchin and howler monkeys — jarringly remind you that your face is in a river, not the ocean. Bubbling cauldrons at the bottom of the river boil out white sand that has such a size and consistency that it doesn’t cloud the crystal clear water but just continues to drop back down on the river floor. This was an experience that no one had done before and everyone was disappointed when the excursion came to it’s unavoidable end.
- Bonito boasts not only caves, rivers and wildlife but also a thriving culture, both very traditionally Brazilian and progressive. We visited a cachaça distillery (the magic sugarcane liquor that goes into the caipirinha), built from scratch which offers more than 25 infused flavors, many from obscure fruits and herbs not commercially available.
Our group had 23 participants and most (80%) had never set foot in Brazil before AdvntureWeek. Those who had, had never been to the Bonito nor Pantanal regions, which are not built for mass tourism. This makes them perfect places for AdventureWeek, ideally suited for the adventure, active and eco travelers of the world to come and experience an amazing place while helping give the locals a financial reason to continue to resist exploitative industries. While the Pantanal is most inviting to lone travelers or small group pulled into the unknown, Bonito beckons the visitor to a tightly managed program to both show off and protect the beauty within. Together the regions create an adventure experience altogether unexpected in Brazil, even to the most seasoned traveler. It’s nice to know that there are still places like this to be discovered, isn’t it?