Brazil Beyond The Amazon

Exploring the biodiversity of Mato Grosso do Sul
The Gruta do Lago Azul (Blue Lake Cave) in Bonito.
The Gruta do Lago Azul (Blue Lake Cave) in Bonito.

What equipment to bring and what to leave at home is a balancing act I perform every time I pack for a location assignment. If I don’t have it, I can’t use it, but carrying too much equipment can slow my response time to a photo op. Just missing a Cartier-Bresson “decisive moment” is a frustration that we all share. Anything I can do to reduce the frequency of those occurrences works in my photographic favor. I’ve found that having an up-to-date equipment checklist makes packing more efficient and lessens the chances of leaving important items behind. It’s one thing to find a replacement camera battery charger on Amazon.com; it’s quite another to locate one when you’re in the actual Amazon.

While not going to the Amazon on my third trip to Brazil, I’m venturing into the relatively off-the-beaten-track, biodiversity-rich regions of the Pantanal and Bonito in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul.

To get a clearer picture of what to put into my camera backpack for this particular trip, I solicit the advice of Bonito-based photographer Daniel De Granville, who runs a number of special-interest tours ranging from birding to photography through his company, Photo in Natura. His response to my query: “For birds you will encounter here, the longer the better. At least a 300mm with a tele-extender. A 400mm or 500mm, even better. For caves, the wider the better. For the rivers, an underwater housing.” I add to this list a 3-pin Type N and a 2-pin Type C electrical plug adapter to secure recharging power for my computer and camera batteries.

In terms of when to go, Granville says that in and around-Bonito, animal spotting is at its best August through October, when many species are breeding. The Pantanal has a slightly different schedule with the dry season—July and August—forcing animals to forage further from their secluded homes in the wetlands. Those same months are also popular for jaguar-spotting safaris around Porto Jofre along the Transpantaneira Road in the Pantanal, with a new program being developed further south by the Caiman Lodge in the city of Miranda.

A waterfall on the Mimoso River in the Estancia Mimosa Private Reserve in Bonito.
A waterfall on the Mimoso River in the Estancia Mimosa Private Reserve in Bonito.

The most practical way to explore the Pantanal, the world’s largest tropical wetland, is by boat. This World Heritage Site is formed by 175 rivers and home to approximately 720 species of birds, 89 kinds of mammals, 230 varieties of fish, 52 types of reptiles and an equally diverse flora system. I board Joice Pesca e Tur’s 12-cabin Kayama VIP to sail down the Paraguai (Paraguay) River from Corumbá to Porto da Manga.

After my first Pantanal sunset, I board a smaller boat for a caiman spotlighting tour. Using two flashlights as my only sources of illumination, I’m able to get up close but not too personal to these Alligatoridae in their natural habitat with my 24-70mm. I have the captain of my little dingy turn off the engine, then use a paddle to maneuver to the optimal shooting angle to reduce the possibility of camera shake—as well as avoid scaring off my subject.

I use two "old school" flashlights with incandescent lamp bulbs, which balance well with the residual ambient after-sunset light with its warmer tones. A variable Kelvin temperature LED lighting unit, or a daylight balanced one with a warming gel, would also work well in this environment.

A caiman in the Pantanal.
A caiman in the Pantanal.

The next morning, we awake anchored in Port Manga and board a safari vehicle for a journey that crosses through the heart of the Pantanal. Between the dinghy landing and the San Jao Lodge, there are a number of photo ops with capybaras, giant otters, caimans, herons, macaws and dozens of other species. Two more days are spent in the Pantanal, each capped with spectacular sunsets.

The main gateway for the Pantanal is the airport at Corumbá, while Bonito is serviced by several weekly flights directly into Bonito Airport or a number of daily flights into Campo Grande International Airport.

A sunset over the Paraguai (Paraguay) River in Brazil’s Pantanal.
A sunset over the Paraguai (Paraguay) River in Brazil’s Pantanal.

From Corumbá, Bonito is a 217-mile drive to the southeast, transitioning from the flat Pantanal landscape to the low mountains and limestone outcroppings of the Bodoquena Range.

With the Zagaia Eco Resort as a base, I venture forth to explore Bonito’s rivers, caves and diverse wildlife. The Bonito Field Guide (Maritaca Expeditions) is extremely helpful in plotting out a photo-focused itinerary.

Bonito has two particularly photogenic caving opportunities. The Ahumas Abyss is accessed by rappelling 236 feet down to an underground lake with limestone formations, while the nearby Gruta do Lago Azul (Blue Lake Cave) can be accessed by foot. My go-to lens for cave shots is a 14-24mm. To avoid camera shake, I lock up the mirror, then trigger my shutter with a cable release. To capture my fellow spelunkers emerging from the Ahumas Abyss, I switch to my 24-70mm, get my ambient reading for the cave, then used fill flash to pull them out of the shadows. A 1/2 Color Temperature Orange gel over the flash head seemed to be a good Kelvin color temperature balance with the cave’s ambient light.

The next morning’s two photo opportunities require a completely different set of tools. Soon after dawn at Bonito’s Buraco das Araras (Macaws’ Hole), dozens of pairs of red and green macaws take to the sky from a large sinkhole. The hike to the viewing platform reveals toco toucans, Amazonian motmots and parakeets in the surrounding trees. As Granville had suggested in terms of lenses, the longer the better. While my 300mm with a 1.4 tele-extender was my setup, a 500mm, if I had one in my arsenal, would not be overkill.

Macaws fly across Bonito’s Buraco das Araras (Macaws’ Hole).
Macaws fly across Bonito’s Buraco das Araras (Macaws’ Hole).

At nearby Recanto Ecologico Rio da Prata, I use an underwater camera housing while snorkeling in the limestone-filtered crystal clear waters of the Rio Olho d’Água. Drifting downstream with the current, I share the water with 60 species of fish, including the pacu and shovelnose catfish. Another opportunity for this type of exploration is available on the Sucuri (Anaconda) River.

To protect the environment, snorkelers at both locations are not allowed to wear suntan lotion or insect repellent. At other times, wearing earth- or light-colored long-sleeved shirts and applying insect repellent after putting on sunscreen will reduce the odds of contracting the Zika or other mosquito-transmitted viruses. Before departing the U.S., I treated my clothes with Permethrin, which will last for three wash cycles.

Mark Edward Harris’s Brazil Gear

Nikon D800
Nikon D810
AF-S NIKKOR 14-24mm ƒ/2.8G ED
AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm ƒ/2.8G ED
AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm ƒ/2.8G ED VR II
AF-S NIKKOR 300mm f/2.8G ED VR II
Nikon SB-910 AF Speedlight
Gary Fong Lightsphere
GoPro HERO4 Black
Tamrac Anvil 27 backpack
Really Right Stuff TVC-24 Versa Series 2 tripod
Really Right Stuff BH-40 LR mid-sized ballhead

On my last day in Bonito, I follow a hiking trail on the Estancia Mimosa Private Reserve, leading to a series of waterfalls. With the camera locked down on a tripod, I experiment with a polarizer, then a neutral density filter, to find just the right amount of blur for the descending water. The polarizer wins out in this particular case, with exposures between one and two seconds being enough for the desired effect. The journey to the waterfalls is definitely part of the destination, with blue-crowned trogons and motmots, helmeted manakins, capuchin monkeys, and an agouti and tarantula spotted along the way.

While the Amazon and Iguazu Falls are meccas for overseas nature-loving photographers, the hidden gems of the Pantanal and Bonito are worthy of extended exploration.

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