One of South America’s great features is its wildlife. Not only can you see animals often and at many different locations, at some places you can touch them, caress them, connect with them. Here are some of my favorite places to connect with wildlife in South America:
1. Swimming with Dolphins in Brazil’s Amazon
One time, a restaurant owner along the Rio Preto threw his waste in the water every day and one day he noticed a dolphin eating it. Over time more dolphins came to feed on food the restaurant’s guests did no longer want and pretty soon it became a tourist attraction. Then the owner closed his restaurant and for a couple of years visitors bought food from him which they fed to the dolphins. This drew a lot of negative attention and because the dolphins were overfed this practice is no longer allowed. IBAMA, Brazil’s organization that keeps tabs on all regulations with regard to (protected) flora and fauna, checks up on this business to make sure it works within a set of rules.
Years ago I swam with dolphins in Eilat (Israel). It is one of my most profound experiences in my life, so when I heard about swimming with dolphins in Brazil, you can bet that activity was immediately jotted down on my list! The town where this can be done is called Novo Airão and lies some 200 kilometers northwest of Manaus. We were lucky, we were the only visitors.
An employee told me where to step into the water but one dolphin (boto cor-de-rosa, in Portuguese) was already around me before my toes hit the water, eagerly pushing up its nose against my legs. “I want food, I want food!” The dolphin swam around, gliding around me, allowing me to caress it. The employee fed it a number of chunks of fish and, I think because we were alone she allowed me to hand the dolphin some pieces too. The dolphin, whose teeth are rough but not sharp, pulled gently but persistently to get her fish.
Take a bus from Manaus, or rent a car to drive to Novo Airão. The town has accommodation and other tourist facilities such as restaurants, souvenir shops (well worth a visit, lots of stuff locally made with natural fibers), and a helpful tourist information. There are several interesting boat trips from here (day trip to Anavilhanas: recommended; ask for Valmir Borges). Note that on the weekends it can be busy, book accommodation in advance.
2. Watching Sea Turtles in French Guiana
For weeks we camped along the beach of Awala Yalimapo in the far northwest corner of French Guiana. Between February/March and July/August Olive Ridley sea turtles, Green sea turtles and Leatherbacks come ashore to lay their eggs. Whereas the Olive Ridley and Green sea turtles mostly approach the beach at night, the Leatherbacks also arrive during the day and are the easiest to approach.
Around each high tide we strolled the 5-km-long beach. We saw dozens of Leatherbacks and each time we were fascinated. It takes the turtle some 45 minutes to dig the nest and lay their eggs. With Leatherbacks we could easily sit as close as 2-5 meters. We listened to their huffs and puffs and admired the dome of their bodies that shone brilliantly under a full moon. It was such a joy sitting there, watching these prehistoric creatures going about their business as if nothing else matters. And nothing else does.
Take a bus from Cayenne, or rent a car (better option as public transport is time-consuming and expensive in French Guiana), to get to Awala Yalimapo. There are a couple of basic guesthouses and a limited number of places to eat (but it’s a short drive to Mana to have dinner). You can explore on your own or under the supervision of a guide (ask for Christina, or check at the Maison de la Reserve).
3. Cuddling Birds of Prey in Northeast Brazil
Percíllio is known as a bird whisperer, who has dedicated his life to saving and nurturing birds of prey. Parque dos Falcões (Falcon Park) falls under the supervision of IBAMA, which not only checks whether Percíllio operates according to the law, but also brings him birds that have been confiscated from traffickers. Percíllio prides himself on never having lost a bird due to illness. He cures a sick or wounded bird and trains it to return to nature. Only when the latter is impossible, will he keep the bird for breeding and subsequently will train the hatchlings to live in their natural surroundings.
Percíllio takes an adult spectacled owl out of the cage, whispers to it and sets it on my arm. The claws are not as sharp as I had thought they would be, and the bird is totally undisturbed by the move. Throughout our walk I’m handed different owls and instructed to stroke and cuddle them. “They love that, they want attention,” Percíllio emphasizes. I had no idea that birds and man could bond so strongly. Birds lean towards Percíllio, simply asking for a kiss. I hold caracaras, murucututus (see photo) and a barn owl. We are lucky to be the only visitors today so we get to touch and caress many birds; other visitors may be lucky as Percíllio may be training birds.
Reservations are mandatory. The tourist office of Emsetur in Sergipe’s capital of Aracaju can help you with that. Consider taking a guide, or translator, as Percíllio doesn’t speak English. The park is open daily. Check Parque dos Falcões’ website for more information.
4. Feeding Manatees in Georgetown, Guyana
How does a dozen sea cows end up in a pond in a park? Intriguing question. One of the theories of passersby is that Georgetown’s zoo had too many and some of them ended up here. I can’t vouch for that statement though, nor could anybody else I asked.
“Just throw in some grass and they’ll show up,” a friend had instructed us a couple of days earlier. Not so. We mowed part of the lawn (by hand, that is), threw the grass into the water but the surface remained smooth as glass. We were circling the perimeter of the pond when some other people arrived. Clearly being a more experienced manatee observer, one guy moved his hand in the water, rippling the surface and creating a bit of noise. One nose came up. Then another. And another. Then they all emerged all at once.
We ran back as fast as the muddy field permitted. By the size of them, we gathered there were three generations or so: a baby manatee, a grandmother or grandfather of at least three meters and a couple somewhere in between. For more than an hour we sat there, cutting more grass and feeding it to those broad, wrinkled, whiskered snouts.
The park is Georgetown’s National Park, near the American Embassy. It’s open daily and it’s a popular place for joggers and walkers. Just go to the pond, ripple the water with your hand and feed them grass.
5. Hugging Sloths at Chou Aï’s Sloth Rescue and Rehabilitation Center in Cayenne, French Guiana
When huge hectares of tropical forest are destroyed with monstrous machines, most animals have time to get away. The sloth, on the other hand, is too slow and too often gets caught among falling trees and branches. Paul and Michel created ‘Association Chou Aï,” a sloth rescue and rehabilitation center, where they cure the wounded animals they themselves saved from those destroyed forests.
Whenever possible they return the sloths to nature, which often is on the grounds of the rocket space center. It owns a large number of hectares but only uses ten percent for its construction and leaves the rest to nature. It’s a well-protected area, so good for wildlife.
There are two kinds of sloths: the two-toed sloth, which can be aggressive so they are kept behind a fence, but the three-toed sloth happily allows itself to be picked up and to be held. Each employee, during our visit there were three, is responsible for one sloth. She makes sure you hold the sloth correctly and takes it away if the long, sharp claws threaten to hurt you. Watching this creature is like watching a slow motion movie. They walk 400 meters in an hour and it would be interesting to set the stop watch just to see how long it takes them to turn their head.
It’s easiest to rent a car in Cayenne and drive there yourself. Chou Aï Rescue Center is open on Wednesday and Thursday afternoons and they levy a minimal entrance fee (“Tree leaves are free, but I need to pay somebody to pick them,” the owner Paul pragmatically said). For more info, check out Chou Aï’s website