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Getting Real: Brazil's Pantanal Wetlands and Iguassu Falls

We had spent over a month trekking in the oxygen-deprived highlands of Peru and motoring across Bolivia's parched mountain terrain, speaking in pidgin Spanish and feasting on llama and alpaca, but now it was time to descend back to sea level. We were heading to the nation of luscious greenery, revealing beachwear and Brahma, swapping sensual salsa for lively samba and our bad Spanish for terrible Portuguese. It was time for Brazil!

Well, it was time for Brazil...after a 17-hour overnight train journey.

Public transport in South America is a whole different fare to back home. While in the UK we have to make do with a lacklustre buffet cart and dodgy 3G signal, on this continent you will never travel unentertained. Public buses and trains alike play movies and music, which is great when you're bored, but trying to sleep to Donna Summer's (they love Donna Summer) greatest hits blasting out can be something of a challenge to say the least.

We might have been speeding towards Brazil - the most developed nation on our South American itinerary - but make no mistake, this did not mean our 'roughing it' days were over. The first stop on our schedule was The Pantanal Wetlands, which is situated deep in the jungle and crawling with wildlife: from impressive critters like Caiman and Toucans to the ever-present bug population that would blight our time there.

The Pantanal Wetlands: Bugs, birds and more bugs

We arrived in the Wetlands unshowered and weary after our overnight train journey, which had been followed by a long bus ride and an hour on the back of a truck bumping along a dirt road.

The scenery was such a contrast to what we had been used to thus far on the trip, with sun-drenched greenery punctured by glistening pools and swamps stretching out into the distance. The trees and plants were thick with life, evidenced by the deafening hum of bugs and bird calls that did not let up for our whole time there. We stopped along the way to take pictures of the colourful birds that populated the trees, as well as the caimans and giant otters lolling around in the cool water. And finally we arrived at our farm accommodation.

However, there was sadly no time for showers as we had a trek in the jungle to attend to, so after dropping our backpacks at our accommodation - a hammock-filled hut - we set off once again into the wilderness.

This 'Welcome to the Pantanal' trek was slightly more than any of us had bargained for, with our guide taking us - all sleepy and still dressed from the day before - thigh-deep into numerous warm, murky swamps filled with caiman and many unidentified creatures. We then headed into the thick jungle for a fast-paced trek, as our guide was getting antsy as we'd arrived late and darkness was approaching - and you don't want to be out in the jungle at night.

After half-an-hour or so of walking we hear a shout of "WILD BOARS!" from our guide up ahead. Indeed, a quick glance confirmed that a number of wild boars had assembled to our right. At this point we were so tired and dirty the whole situation seemed very surreal. He instructed us to walk, at a good pace, in a single line, because if we were to form a circle they would attack us individually. In the event of a wild boar attack, we were told, simply climb one of the (very un-climbable) trees. Luckily they left us alone and we were able to return to the farm - via more swamps - unscathed.

And it was finally time to shower! However, this joy was cut short when we dashed to the shower hut to find it absolutely crawling with bugs. I am not exaggerating when I say I have never seen more bugs in my entire life. Dead flies, moths and cockroaches littered the floor and completely clogged the sinks. Undeterred I stepped into the shower and flicked on the light only to find myself in a cloud of buzzing, flapping bugs who were sadly unperturbed by the water.

Flapping my arms around, I resolved to get in and out as quickly as possible, but halfway through my shower I was joined by a toad who hopped in to join in the fun. It is probably the first time I've ever come out of a shower feeling more unclean than when I went in. The next night I opted to shower outside under the stars instead, and I'm so glad I did because thanks to the views and the toucans in the tree overhead it was an incredible experience.

After my bug-filled shower, dinner was unsurprisingly an insect-acular experience too. The table was coated in bugs, meaning that you had to hold your plate with one hand, and alternately eat and bat bugs away with the other. At one point a toad hopped into the communal pasta. We really were at one with nature.

On Day 2 we went piranha fishing in the jungle: an experience that I - with my phobia of fish - really could have done without. After they were caught with our bamboo fishing rods, we took them back to the camp where they were cooked and prepared for dinner. While I abstained from feasting on the fearsome fish, which came to the table with teeth and jaw still very much intact, the review from others in the group was that there wasn't really enough meat on the bone to make for a satisfying dining experience.

In the afternoon we took a horse ride through the wetlands, which was an incredible way to view the scenery, with our horses taking us across the jungle and wading through the swamps so we didn't have to!

That evening we enjoyed a campfire under the stars, roasting s'mores (a contribution from the American and Canadian travellers in the group) and listening to Queen and Donna Summer (because of course Donna Summer). It was all going well until I noticed the farm workers glancing nervously at the sprawling tree overhead, and upon further questioning they explained:

"…that is the tree where the tarantulas live…"

And then proceeded to poke the tree with a stick to prove this to us. Then one of the group got bitten quite badly by some sort of insect, although no-one could identify what, and we collectively decided it was time to head to bed - or hammock - before our journey the next day.

The Pantanal Wetlands proved to be something of a baptism of fire on our entry to Brazil, with most of the group admitting that two days in the Brazilian jungle left them feeling more in need of a good shower and a rest than the four-day Inca Trail did. However, it was also an unquestionably amazing experience thanks to its scenery and wildlife, and it was fantastic to get out into the wilderness after visiting so many towns and cities in Bolivia.

Overall, it was definitely one of my more unforgettable trips on the continent. I would absolutely recommend it to anyone considering taking trip there, but just remember to take a large supply of bug spray.

Iguassu Falls

We took a freezing overnight bus to Iguassu Falls, where we were staying in the unremarkable town that lies on the Brazilian side of this stunning natural feature, and then it was off to explore the waterfalls!

I'm just going to admit here and now that seeing Iguassu Falls was one of my favourite experiences in South America. The sheer beauty and power of the falls was awe-inspiring and it left me wondering how such breathtaking scenery could be constructed by nature alone. I never thought Iguassu Falls would be one of the highlights of my itinerary when I was putting it together; it was more something I was going to see because I was passing through. However, I now think that these incredible falls, which are delightfully peppered with rainbows, are something every travel lover should put on their bucket list.

We spent the first day at the Brazilian side of the falls, which is a great place for panoramic views and photos. You can get up close to the thundering water thanks to a number of walkways and viewpoints that have been constructed for your viewing pleasure. There are many different waterfalls to see; from the picturesque and quaint to the powerful, with their tonnes upon tonnes of cascading water.

However, there is one danger in the area to be wary of: Coatis. These are racoon-like animals that populate the falls and are not shy of attacking visitors - particularly if you have a sweet treat on you. This happened to one of our group - Tom, who had developed a bit of an addiction to Dulce de Leche - a caramel like dessert - while in Bolivia and was carrying two pots of it in his bag.

At first we were just attracting quite a lot of attention from the Coatis, which have noticeably sharp teeth and claws, but it wasn't long before they were targeting Tom. When he went into his bag to get his camera out, a number of them descended on him, jumping at him and tearing into his bag. Despite his valiant efforts to chase them away, they managed to make off - not with the Dulce - but with his iPhone charger, which they took up a tree and seemed to wave at him, gloating.

He was understandably shaken, but it wasn't enough to deter him from opening his bag again later in the trail when we seemed to be safe from these vicious creatures. Instantly, around 20 of them emerged from the surrounding scenery, and managed to make off with a pot of the sweet dessert: clearly they had been watching!

That afternoon a few of us decided to take a trip to Paraguay, as it was only half an hour away and it would have seemed like a wasted opportunity not to go. For this border crossing we didn't even need our passports. However, it was not quite the international adventure we had envisaged. Our guide took us to a shopping centre, saying that that was the only safe place for us, and instructed us not to leave until she picked us up two hours later. This meant that my only souvenirs from the country were some face wipes, a dysfunctional hair dryer and a bottle of Chilean wine.

On our second day at Iguassu Falls we went to the Argentinian side, for which we had to cross the border and present our passports. In contrast to the previous day's panoramic scenery shots, today we got very close to the falls - close enough to take a power shower!

After wandering along the walkways to the tops of the waterfalls - a breathtaking experience in itself, we decided to get a bit daring and take a boat out under the falls. There are two ways to approach this: you can zip up in a raincoat and hood and try stay dry, or you can don your swimwear and embrace the fact that you are definitely, 100 per cent, going to get wet. I chose the second option.

You rarely expect a boat ride to be 'scary', but this one certainly had its moments as the speed boat dipped us under the thundering waterfalls time and time again. At some points the water became so thick that you could not see or even breathe. However, embracing the refreshing water showering us with both hands in the air was extremely exhilarating, and one of my favourite moments of my trip so far.

And in fact, as we ventured further into Brazil, it proved to be a completely exhilarating country, with plenty of opportunities to see amazing sights and soak up the culture, and it also offered up so many experiences just waiting to awaken the adrenaline junkie in you. After seeing The Pantanal Wetlands and Iguassu Falls, I already knew I was in a very special country, but with beachy Paratay and Ilha Grande, and finally iconic Rio de Janeiro waiting for us, things were about to get even better.

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Caroline Howley

Travel Enthusiast and Writer

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