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Brazil Off the Beaten Track: Pantanal, dunes and lagoons

15 days from £5049pp

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Brazil Off the Beaten Track: Pantanal, dunes and lagoons:
Trip Dossier

This holiday to the hard-to-reach highlights of Brazil combines two contrasting areas: the wildlife-rich wetlands and cattle ranches of the Pantanal in the centre of South America and the sparsely populated, surreal sandy landscapes of the far northeast.

Stay at a lodge deep inside the Pantanal where wildlife is prolific; safari-style excursions by land and river will take you close to a huge variety of creatures: alligators, giant storks, capybaras, anacondas, anteaters, macaws all thrive in harmony here.

In the remote far north of Brazil lies the huge Parnaíba delta. Its islets and lagoons are fabulous bird watching destinations. Beyond, are the surreal dunes and crystalline pools of Lençois Maranhenses National Park.  A traditional way of life survives in the region's sleepy, riverine fishing communities and small coastal towns. Even the popular beach hangout of Jericoacoara remains low-key. This is an adventurous trip taking you exploring by jeep, boat and 4WD.

Short itinerary

Holiday itinerary

Day 1

Arrive in Rio de Janeiro. Transfer to hotel in Copacabana.

Day 2

At leisure in Rio de Janeiro.

Day 3

Fly to Campo Grande. Overnight in the city.

Day 4

Transfer by 4WD to ranch in the Pantanal.

Days 5-6

Safari-style excursions from the lodge.

Day 7

Return to Campo Grande; overnight in the city.

Day 8

Fly north to São Luis, a port with Portuguese heritage.

Day 9

Guided tour of the atmospheric city.

Day 10

By road to Barreirinhas in Lençois Maranhenses.

Day 11

By road and river to hamlet Caburé on a spit of sand fronting the ocean; on to Atins for the night.

Day 12

By road to Parnaíba on a river delta.

Day 13

By road to Jericoacoara, a laid back village on the Atlantic coast.

Day 14

At leisure among the dunes.

Day 15

Transfer to Fortaleza airport for connection to international flight home.

Detailed itinerary

Day 1

Arrive in Rio de Janeiro. Transfer to hotel in Copacabana.
 
Arrive in Rio de Janeiro, the most romantic, intriguing and beautiful city on the continent. However, as you’ll see on the drive into town it’s not uniformly beguiling: Brazil’s economic indicators have shown massive growth recently but the gulf between the rich and the poor is the greatest of all Latin American countries. Sumptuous apartments overlook the sparkling bays against the backdrop of half-built slum dwellings, favelas, which cling precariously to the hillsides.

Rio has an awesome bay-side location among near-vertical granite mountains. Here, tropical foliage swoops down to white-to-toffee coloured sandy beaches in turn battered by the huge waves of Atlantic surf. It’s an outdoor city: the cariocas head to the beach on a sunny weekend, cycle along the promenades, play football on the sands and enjoy impromptu musical performances on the pavement, a cold beer or agua de côco always within reach.

Day 2

At leisure in Rio de Janeiro.
 

Day at leisure. You might visit the sights independently or there is a wealth of guided optional excursions such as a trip by an open-top jeep through tropical fruit-laden vegetation up the sheer-sided Corcovado mountain to drink in the views from beside the famous Christ the Redeemer statue on the peak. Or head off to the Sugar Loaf mountain and take the cable-car up the twin domed granite rocks which protrude from the ocean. This is especially magical at sunset when the twinkling lights of the city are coming on and you can enjoy the magnificent views back over Copacabana beach, Botafogo Bay and into the lush mountains beyond.

Sugar Loaf

Day 3

Fly to Campo Grande. Overnight in the city.
 

Fly to Campo Grande the capital of the state of Mato Grosso do Sul. The city lies on the edge of the Pantanal - the large seasonal wetland and wildlife area which is home to a diverse variety of flora and fauna and especially renowned for its prolific birdlife - and as such its airport is the major transit point for visitors to the region. Overnight in a city hotel.

Day 4

Transfer by 4WD to ranch in the Pantanal.
 
By road into the Pantanal. It’s a 5hr drive from Campo Grande.

The Pantanal do Mato Grosso wetlands span an area half the size of France. They are seasonally flooded, drained by the Paraguay river, and comprise swampy grasslands, lagoons and channels, only meagrely covered with sparse woodland, leaving some of the greatest concentrations of fauna on the continent exposed to view. The wildlife coexists harmoniously with the cattle which breed on the ranches. According to season, you may observe flocks of parakeets, roseate spoonbills, ibis, macaws and giant storks taking flight. In the dry season, scores of caiman laze on the river beaches, giant capybaras stroll across the road and you may come across armadillos, anteaters and howler monkeys.

You’ll be spending 3 nights on a ranch (fazenda) deep in the heart of the region. Barra Mansa is a small traditional farm and lodge in the southern Pantanal, near the bank of the Rio Negro. It is quite isolated with no real road access, so mammals, reptiles and birds roam freely and confidently in their habitat. The only way to reach it in the wet season is by plane. The lodge was created in the 1940s as a cattle-breeding ranch but its main focus now is eco-tourism and the lodge is now involved in many environmental projects.

Pantanal

Days 5-6

Safari-style excursions from the lodge.
 
Activities on offer at Barra Mansa include safaris or walking excursions to observe the surrounding flora and fauna, horse riding, bird watching, boat trips and fishing. All excursions are done on a private basis, just you and your experienced guide, so chances of spotting birds and wildlife are enhanced. You'll head out from the lodge early in the morning, as the wildlife awakes and again in the late afternoon, when you can expect to see apricot sunsets.

But this is a working farm: you can also learn from the cowboys how to manage horses and cattle, harvest vegetables in the garden or help assist with the care of the chickens and sheep. You can learn how to lasso and catch cattle, milk cows and help the cook make cheese and caramel. You may even be lucky enough to witness a cattle drive of up to 1,000 head: drovers stay here on their journey through the Pantanal.

Following these exertions, the hammock area in the garden is the perfect place to relax in the shade between adventures.

Pantanal cattle

Day 7

Return to Campo Grande; overnight in the city.
 

Day 8

Fly north to São Luis, a port with Portuguese heritage.
 
Transfer to the airport and fly (usually via Brasilia) to São Luis in the far north of the country.

Founded in 1612, São Luis is a laid-back city known as the 'city of tiles' and with a strong African heritage, São Luis' historic centre is being gradually restored and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, preserving its colonial charm. Its remoteness and relative obscurity, however, means few tourists reach here. São Luis is an ideal base from which to visit the dunes and lagoons of Lençois Maranhenses.

Sao Luis

Day 9

Guided tour of the atmospheric city.
 
The city is unique: the only state capital to have been founded by the French sits on an island and has two ports. The eponymous island is known as the "Island of Love" and as "the Brazilian Athens", due to the many poets and writers who were born or live there. São Luís has the largest and best preserved heritage of colonial Portuguese architecture of all Latin America. Your guided city tour will focus on Sao Luis' historic centre, a prominent feature of which is the widespread use of Portuguese tiles on the elegant façades: more representation of this delicate artwork, with its intricate blue and yellow designs, can be found here than in any other Brazilian city.

Key landmarks on your tour include the Governor's Palace, the French-built Fortaleza de San Antonio and the 17th century cathedral.

Day 10

By road to Barreirinhas in Lençois Maranhenses.
 

Drive to Barreirinhas (3 hrs) and explore the Lençois Maranhenses National Park by jeep – you’ll discover an endless expanse of intact sand dunes and clear water lagoons which support a rich variety of wildlife. At first sight you could be forgiven for thinking this was a desert, until the sight of the pools and ribbons of aquamarine water reminds you that the rains accumulate in the folds of the rippling dunes creating a mirage-like effect. The softness of the uniformly pale, cream-to-white sands, devoid of vegetation bar a few tufts of grass, is almost surreal.  Water is usually present in the pools between May and September and the views are most spectacular at low sun, when a range of shadows come into play. Just after sunrise is the best time to view this magical phenomenon.

Lencois Maranhenses

Day 11

By road and river to hamlet Caburé on a spit of sand fronting the ocean; on to Atins for the night.
 
Travel by speed boat along the swampy Preguiças river, calling at Vassouras where there is an opportunity to go walking in the dunes. Continue via remote, traditional fishing villages to Caburé: arrive in time for lunch and a lazy afternoon spent relaxing by the beach or river. Caburé consists of just a handful of pousadas and a few fishermen’s huts squatting on a bar of sand between the Atlantic Ocean and the river. Once there, you can forget any notion of luxury; this is bohemia at its simplest. The atmosphere of the place is unique. Have lunch here, then continue to Atins,a rustic fisherman's village overlooked by na lighthouse. 

There is no shop, no electricity overnight, and the silence is punctuated by the hissing of the sand whipped up by the breeze. Overnight here.

Day 12

By road to Parnaíba on a river delta.
 

It’s an adventurous 4WD drive across dunes, beaches, swamps and rivers to the Parnaíba delta which you’ll explore by boat. A traditional way of life survives in the communities established among the delta’s islets, mangroves and lagoons, a haven for thousands of birds. In the afternoon you will be taken on a scenic tour by boat within the delta, ending at Canarias Island where you spend the night at a simple lodge in idyllic surroundings.

Day 13

By road to Jericoacoara, a laid back village on the Atlantic coast.
 
Take a morning guided tour of Parnaíba, and then continue by 4WD along the coast, passing virgin-pure wild beaches, cliffs, sand dunes and isolated backwater communities. Arrival in Camocim for lunch before continuing along the beach, passing the village of Tatajuba with its gorgeous lagoon-side setting.

Arrive at the remote settlement of Jericoacoara - dominated by a huge sand dune - which has been voted one of the best beaches in the world. The main streets of 'Jeri' are merely broad channels of deep sand flanked by numerous guesthouses, small shops, funky cafés and restaurants. Its origins lie in a laid-back fishing village, nowadays though it is also a hip and popular venue for windsurfing, kitesurfing and exploring by dune buggy. At night there’s a youthful ambience, with lively bars and folksy night clubs.

Jericoacoara

Day 14

At leisure among the dunes.
 

At leisure in Jericoacoara. If you don’t want to experience one of the sea or dune-borne activities, you can just laze on the beach in front of the Atlantic Ocean, and sip an ice-cool caipirinha at sunset.

Day 15

Transfer to Fortaleza airport for connection to international flight home.
 

Essential information

Transport

2 domestic flights; 8 scenic road journeys (longest 7hrs).

Accommodation

This holiday uses a mix of modern, efficient business-style hotels in cities and pousadas (homely, good quality guest houses) in the more remote locations.

Meals

Breakfast daily, lunch days 12, 13, dinner days 4, 10, 11, full board days 5, 6.

Guides

We carefully select our local partners, some of whom we have worked with for over 25 years. Their English-speaking guides understand the expectations of our clients very well, and are consistently singled out for praise.

Included excursions

  • Pantanal: Wildlife spotting safaris from the lodge.
  • São Luis: Guided city tour.
  • Lençois Maranhenses: 4WD excursions in the far north.

Summary of nights

15 days, 14 nights: Rio 2; Campo Grande 1; Pantanal 3; Campo Grande 1;  São Luis 2;  Barreirinhas 1; Cabure 1; Parnaiba 1;  Jericoacoara 2.

Included in the journey price

  • Services of our team of experts in our London office.
  • Services of Journey Latin America local representatives and guides.
  • All land, river and air transport within Latin America.
  • Accommodation as specified.
  • Meals as specified.
  • Excursions as specified, including entrance fees.

Not included in the journey price

• International flights to Latin America.
• Tips and gratuities
• Meals other than specified.
• Airport taxes, when not included in the ticket
• Fernando de Noronha daily island tax and Marine Park fees (see below).
• Optional excursions.

Fernando de Noronha fees: 

Visitor numbers to the island are controlled in order to protect its fragile ecosystem. As a visitor, you need to pay the environmental fee (known as the Daily Island Tax) in Brazilian Reais (R$) cash at the airport upon arrival. It costs roughly US$18 / £12 per person per day and you must keep your receipt for when you leave the island. An additional National Marine Park entrance fee is also payable. This additional fee can be settled online in advance at www.paranoronha.com.br (the website is in Portuguese but the process is straightforward). The fee is approx US$50 / GBP35 per person and valid for 10 days. You should print your voucher and take it with you. You may also pay the National Marine Park fee locally in cash at several marine park kiosks on the island using Brazilian currency.  These are located in Alameda Boldro and at some beaches (Baia do Sancho, Baia do Sueste and Baia dos Golfinhos).

Currency

The unit of currency in Brazil is the ‘real’ (plural reais).

Daily spend

A budget of around US$40-70 per day should cover the cost of meals, drinks, local transport, tips and the odd souvenir. Prices of meals and drinks in standard restaurants are more or less the same as in Britain, perhaps a bit cheaper.

How to take it

Cash machines are available in all major cities and even small towns, and so taking a debit or credit card with a PIN number is the most convenient way of withdrawing money while on your trip, and in most shops and restaurants you can also pay by card. However, since cards can get lost, damaged, withheld or blocked, you should not rely exclusively on a card to access funds. 

We recommend that additionally you take a reasonable quantity of US dollars cash (no more than is covered by your insurance), which you can exchange into local currency, and possibly some travellers’ cheques, though these are gradually falling out of use (American Express are the most widely accepted). Dollar bills should be in good condition, soiled or torn bills may be refused. You can take sterling, but the exchange rate is not always competitive or even available, restricting the number of places where you can change money.

Tipping

Tips are expected and local guides often rely on their tip as a significant proportion of their income. 

Most service industry workers will expect a tip of some kind and so it is useful to have spare change for hotel porters, taxi drivers and the like. It is common to leave 10 - 12% in restaurants.

Tipping guidelines can be found in our Briefing Dossier.

Insurance

Travel insurance is essential. 

Details of our recommended policy can be found on our Travel Insurance page.

Airport taxes

If you have purchased your flights through Journey Latin America, the international departure tax is usually included in the ticket.

Journey grade

There are some long days spent travelling (including a number of internal flights) and the heat can be tiring. The holiday is suitable for all reasonably fit people, including families. If you have a disability requiring special attention please enquire.

Climate

In tropical Rio and  the Pantanal, December to March are the hottest and most humid months, with temperatures sometimes reaching 40°C, and rain which falls in heavy tropical showers. From June to September, temperatures are more moderate (18-23°C) and there is plenty of sunshine, but cold fronts can usher in chilly nights and, in Rio, periods of up to several days of cloud and drizzle. 

São Luís can be visited all year round. The best time to visit Lençóis Maranhenses is July - September, after the rains which fall from January to June but before the lakes dry up. There’s an almost constant breeze but the sun is very strong.

Clothing and special equipment

For day-to-day wear you should take loose-fitting, breathable clothes. Comfortable shoes are important and sandals are useful. A sun hat, sunblock and sunglasses are necessary, and you should take a light fleece for cool nights and a Gore-Tex layer, as well as swimwear, insect repellent and an umbrella or rainproof jacket. You might like to bring binoculars for wildlife spotting in the Pantanal.

Please get in touch with the office before departure if you have any doubts. Good equipment is very important and hard to come by in South America.

Vaccinations

Preventative vaccinations are recommended against the following: typhoid; yellow fever; polio; tetanus; hepatitis A. You should consult your GP for specific requirements, including advice on malaria tablets.

You can also find helpful information on the Masta Travel Health website.

Visas

Holders of a full British passport do not require a visa, although passports must be valid for at least 6 months after the trip begins. Anyone with a different nationality should enquire with us or check with the relevant consulate.

APIS and ESTA - important flight information:

ESTA - If flying to the US, or via the US you will need to fill in your application to ESTA online

This costs $14 per person. This must be done by you personally.

Passports must also be machine-readable (MRP). Avoid locking suitcases if transiting the USA, as their customs authorities retain the right to break into them.

APIS - Many countries now oblige airlines to provide additional information about passengers prior to the flight departure. This Advance Passenger Information (APIS) must be supplied to us promptly in order to issue tickets and avoid fare increases. We will provide the airlines with the relevant details if we are booking your international flights. If the information is not provided you may be denied boarding.

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