Saturday, 27 October 2012

Hello...Buenos Aires!

It was another early morning today -- we were checked out before the sun even rose, another long car ride...but this time, it would end at an airport taking off for Buenos Aires.  Ian made ample use of the flight to catch up on his sleep...and he would need it, because we were told that the night doesn't really START in Buenos Aires until 10PM or so...and certainly did not end until well into the wee hours of the morning.



We were coming into this portion of the trip with some VERY high expectations.  Multiple friends and family members had claimed B.A. as their favorite city in South America, talking up the food, the atmosphere, the neighborhoods...we weren't even sure where we'd start.  Well, I take that back -- we knew that we'd start with some steak.  Where though...that was the question.  Ian was in charge of planning for this portion of the trip and after some consultations with Google, he selected a place in Recoleta that supposedly had some of the best steak in town.  Apparently this place had beef that was so tender that you could cut it with a spoon -- it sounded a little cheesy...but hey, when in Buenos Aires, eh?  Sadly, we do not have any pictures from this first meal.  But let me assure you that it involved a LOT of beef (though we did not end up picking the spoon-tender cut), a bottle of really good Malbec from Pulenta Estates, and two very full people at the end.

Sadly, the naps we took in the afternoon were only enough to sustain us until midnight and we couldn't find the energy in us to stay out past our meal.  You win this round, Buenos Aires -- but we're coming back for more tomorrow!

Friday, 26 October 2012

Bonito - Fish

Our day in Bonito was just beginning and we had already experienced one of my favorite animal excursions of the trip.  Given the great things that we had heard about snorkeling the Rio de Plata this was bound to be an awesome day.  Our driver took us over to the visitor's center where they were serving lunch to recently returned snorkelers.  They also offered hammocks for the weary.  Ming was weary so she took a nap for an hour or so before our trip was set to start.  I am not allowed to post the video.

We splurged and rented an underwater camera for the trip.  Since learning to scuba I've come to realize that you can double the amount of animal life you see by sticking your head underwater.  Ming and I were still recovering from a bout of pneumonia a few weeks earlier so we decided stick to snorkeling to give our lungs a break.

When it was our group's turn, we gathered near a map and our guide for the day began to explain the details of the trip... in Portuguese.  Somehow we had gotten lumped into a group that, apart from us, consisted entirely of local tourists.  The woman speaking rapid-fire Portuguese was pointing wildly at the map.  It looked as though the river was quite a distance from the lodge.  From her hand motions, I gleaned that we would get in the river at a pond of sorts, and then continue downstream.  Her finger traced the river down, but suddenly stopped at a bend in the river, looped on land for a moment, and then hopped back in the river.  This seemed important.  She kept talking.

Eventually, she asked everybody to don wetsuits and put their shoes and shirts in a bag.  We figured this out when everybody else donned their wetsuits and put their shoes and shirts in a bag.  It was about then that Ming decided to use her broken Spanish to ask for an English translation of, well, everything.  Fortunately, since we were still at the visitor's center, they had some staff around with pretty good English.  We learned that we would indeed be driving and then walking quite a ways to the river.  It was two kilometers from the drop off point to the river, which wouldn't be so bad if we weren't already wearing our wetsuits.  More importantly, perhaps, we learned the meaning behind the little finger motion of our guide.  It turns out that there is a series of rapids in the middle of the trip that are not snorkeler friendly.  Hence the walk-around.  Good to know.  There were a couple of rules we needed to know before departing:

Rule #1: no sunscreen allowed.  They seemed pretty environmentally conscious and didn't want us polluting the water.  I thought there might be some dissent on this point.  The wetsuits covered quite a bit of skin, but left the back of the legs and neck totally exposed.   In hindsight, if I'd looked a little closer at the seven or eight other tourists in our group, I would have realized that I was the only one with a chance of getting fried.

Rule #2: Don't bring extra stuff on the walk.  Apparently the river is one-way.  I guess that's why we put our shoes and shorts in the bag.

After a quick rinse in a cold shower, we were herded onto the back of a truck and carted to the edge of a forest.  We got out and started walking.  We stayed pretty close to our guide who was up front as she led the group along the windy forest path.  Pro tip: if you are up front on an animal trek you are far more likely to see animals, since they are long gone by the time the 8th person arrives on the scene.  Turns out that it didn't really matter in this case because the trail was pretty heavily used, so animals probably steered clear anyway.  We did hear some peccaries clacking their teeth deep in the woods.

Every once in a while our guide would point at a tree and explain something to our group in Portuguese.  We feigned both understanding and interest, hoping to see or hear the river at each turn.


Finally we arrived.  There was a group in the water before us so we had to wait for a few minutes on a little wooden dock of sorts.  Once in the water, we tested out our gear only to realize that Ming's snorkel was broken.  Fortunately, extras were at hand.  Unfortunately, this meant that I was tasked with stuffing the broken snorkel in my wetsuit and carrying it all the way downstream.  We also got the driver to test out the underwater camera for us:




Since there were already fish around us in this wading area, I grabbed the camera back and began to take photos.



Around then, the guide gathered us into a group and began talking again.  There weren't as many hand motions this time, so it was harder to figure out what she meant.  Eventually we realized that everybody was supposed to snorkel one lap around the pond, one after another, staying relatively separate.  There were probably a few more rules here and there, but we'd figure those out as we went.  As we were leaving, the next group came down to the dock.  They were all English speakers.

Halfway around the pond I was feeling pretty comfortable.  The water was clear and about 10 feet deep.  Fish were everywhere.  One relatively big fish was hanging out towards the bottom, so I decided to dive down a few feet to get a closer shot:


Rule #3: No diving.  I discovered this when I resurfaced to a the string of Portuguese shouted at me by the guide.  OK, good to know.  As we started off downstream the water got shallower, so it would not have been possible anyway.


Ming and I passed the camera back and forth to take pictures of each other.


The fish mostly eyeballed us with idle curiosity.


Against our own advice, Ming and I were towards the back of the line this time.  We learned another rule this way though.  Someone in front of us stood up midstream.  He got yelled at.  Rule #4: Never touch the bottom.  This is a hard rule to follow when your mask or snorkel is filling up with water, as was apparently the case with this guy.  It is a good rule though, because touching the bottom kicks debris up in the faces of those who come after.  I know this from experience.



Fortunately, a standing person is easier to pass so we quickly found ourselves in clear water again.


There were a number of different kinds of tropical looking fish in the river.  Many hung out alone.  These guys were more often in schools.



It is hard to tell, but many were actually quite large.  Some at least 2.5 feet.



I was drifting by them relatively quickly so I couldn't wait for them to turn sideways for a profile shot.



Every once in a while I would lift my head out of the water and hear the junglish sounds around me.  The dichotomy between the worlds on either side of the surface was arguably the most amazing part of the experience for me.  So much so, that I probably spent one third of the shots on my camera attempting to capture it.  This is the best I could do, but it still doesn't do it justice.



These spotted fish found something in the sand I guess:


Our driver was floating behind us.  He offered to take a picture of us both.  It was a good idea, but the water was suddenly moving faster by now, so it was hard to turn around and stay still.  I had to break rule #4 and hold on to the bottom.  The rock I grabbed was pretty sharp and I'm actually pulling Ming upstream here so she doesn't get swept off by the current.


A little ways along I was trying to get another forest/water shot when I saw people standing up downstream.  


They were taking up most of the river, and I almost tried to snorkel my way through them in an effort to avoid breaking rule #4.  At the last second, I gave up and put my feet down.  Turns out this is where we were supposed to get out to avoid the rapids.  I guess that explains why the water was moving faster.  A short walk later and we found ourselves below the rapids.  We had the opportunity to reorder ourselves here, but if it weren't for the group in front of me I probably would have been the first and last whitewater snorkeler.  I decided that being in the back was just fine.



Besides, being in back gave us the opportunity to take a few photos before plunging back in.



Much of the time we were shaded by trees.  The occasional sunny section of the river made for some neat photography.





No expensive underwater flash gear necessary.




OK, maybe it's still necessary for the tree-lined portions.



Some fish tucked themselves up by the river banks:



This yellow guy is pretty big.  Scroll down a ways to see a demonstration.


Two fish skipping school.


This one looks well fed to me.


The river meandered another hundred yards before opening up into a sandy-bottomed basin.  At first, this didn't strike me as anything special.


That is, until I saw the sand bubbling up underneath me.  It was probably mentioned at some point, but I did not know that an geothermal spring was on our itinerary.  


Here's a video:


The group stopped here to splash around for a bit.  After watching a few people dive down towards the vent without getting scolded (or scalded), I surmised that diving was allowed here.  This was good because I dropped my snorkel.




Eventually, it was time to move on.


I wish I knew the names of some of the fish species we saw.  Oh well.  Here's a school of bluish fish.


As opposed to this one, which is also bluish... but which looks fatter to me.


Here's a camouflaged greenish fish.



Here is our driver demonstrating the size of Mr. Yellow Fish.


My camera's battery light began to flash around here.  It was bound to be a race between me filling up the memory card or draining the battery.  There was no time to think about these blogger obstacles, however, since sometimes the river would throw physical obstacles in our way.


No problem.



The water began to get deeper and deeper.


Rays of sunshine pierced the water and made it all the way to the bottom.


The last leg turned out to be a bit of a swim.  We realized we were nearing the end of our journey when we saw a boat pick up a few straggling snorkelers and carry them the rest of the way.  Finally, we arrived at the exit point platform.  I got out and turned around to grab a few photos before my battery died.  Here's the driver on the left and Ming on the right.


You can even see the fish from the surface.


Butterflies were fluttering around the platform.  


Pretty idyllic spot.


My camera ran out of battery after that last shot.  There was nothing of note on the way back to the visitor's center anyway.  It was already around 1pm by the time we got back so we were pretty hungry.  They fed us a tasty buffet style lunch.  They kindly copied the pictures we had taken over to our own memory card before we departed for Campo Grande.  We were both exhausted so we told the driver to take us straight back to the lodge even though we would make it back by late afternoon.  The evening consisted of an early dinner and a few Skype calls before heading to bed.



Bonito - Birds

We have two items on our itinerary today: birds and fish.  Our appointment with the fishes was at 11:00am, so we had to get up early to drive out to the bird location, a sink hole on a farm which has been converted to a well-kept ecotourism spot.  We hired our Embiara driver to accompany us throughout our Bonito excursion so now we have an easy ride to each of our destinations and back to the airport tomorrow.  His English, however, is nonexistent, so we were pleased to find that the Macaw location had an English speaking guide ready to lead us around. 

The particular bird we were going to see is the Red-and-green Macaw.  I say "going" instead of "aiming" because there's really no question that you would see the Macaws.  We had already seen a few on Embiara.  The cool thing about the sink hole, other than the fact that it's huge, is that it's a nesting grounds for the birds. 


We walked around the rim of the sink hole and stopped at the first lookout location.  At first, we just heard them as we marveled at the immensity of the sink hole.


After a few minutes, we began to see flashes of color swooping below us.



Pretty soon, pairs of Macaws were whizzing back and forth across the sink hole.  As it turns out, these birds mate for life and then seem to hang out constantly.  


They were so clingy that if we saw three birds flying together, we looked around for the fourth...


... but I suppose somebody's gotta guard the nest.
  



The Ibis frequents this sink hole as well. 



They are not so obviously in pairs though.


Sometimes the Macaws will just sit up in a branch squawking.


Toucan play at that game.



More than other birds, the Macaws strike me as intelligent, curious and even playful.  Here's a couple falling off a branch together.





It was so nice in the shady overlook that we stuck around a while and practiced our photography skills...


... starting with some action shots ...



... and concluding with a close-up...


... or two.


Next, we made our way to the second overlook on the opposite side of the sink hole.  Along the way we found a plant that with leaves that retract when touched.  There's probably a fancy biology term for it, but we didn't learn it.


We spotted an owl on our walk as well.


And a Motmot... again, it's a bit hard to see the cool tail here.


I've seen these birds before...


Then we were there.  It was somewhat sunnier on this side, without the trees giving us shade.


It occurs to me now that we should have asked more about the geology that goes into making a sink hole.



More and more Macaws began to appear.  This is not a fruit tree:




Here's a shot of some Macaws flying close to our previous photo-spot.



There's another nest in the rocks here, I'm assuming.



It gets hot out here pretty early, but I'm always impressed with birds' ability to grin and bear it.



Where's the fourth?



Another happy couple.


Oh there's one by itself.


Just kidding!


Are these bird photos getting a little monogamous for you?


Must be rough to be a single Macaw.


We wrapped up our tour of the sink hole with plenty of time to spare.  Our next adventure wasn't until 11:00am and it wasn't even 10.  I was kicking myself for not getting an extra hour of sleep, but I suppose that it was good because people were beginning to arrive and tour the grounds.  We got lucky having our own private guide.

This post is getting a little long, and we took just as many fish pictures during the next excursion.  Thus, I think I'll make a separate post for the fishies.  Here's a little preview of our next destination since it is in keeping with our bird theme anyway:


A group of parakeets hung around the headquarters of the snorkeling operation.



... probably because they were baited with these seeds.