It felt like waking up on Christmas morning, yelling "Surprise!" at a birthday party, earning an "A" on a tough exam and coming in first in the 100-yard dash. How I managed to keep my mouth shut as a flock of 40 hyacinth macaws landed just 50 feet in front of me is a mystery.
Even better, it was just one of many amazing moments I had while touring the Hyacinth cliffs in São Gonçalo, Brazil. It was a week I will never forget.
Day 1: Night Flight
Our group of seven travelers - two journalists, a vet, an oceanographer, two educators and a nurse - gathered at Miami International Airport around 6 p.m. We were all anxious to get to Hyacinth Cliffs in in São Gonçalo, Brazil. The site is based on 2,500 acres (1,000 hectars) of land belonging to a former parrot trapper and 5,200 acres (2,100 hectars) purchased with funds raised by the Kaytee Avian Foundation. Dr. Charles Munn, a senior conservation zoologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society and an expert on wild macaws, would be our guide.
Our mission was to see hyacinth macaws. However, the greater mission of the Kaytee Avian Foundation and the Brazilian conservation organization BioBrasil is to preserve the land and its inhabitants through ecotourism: The threatened land is known as the cerrado - tens of millions of acres of dry forest and grasslands located south of the Amazon Basin.
The group had plenty of time to grab dinner and get to know one another at the airport. Our 10 p.m flight to Salvador, Brazil had been changed to an 11 PM flight to São Paulo, Brazil which didn't leave until sometime after midnight. This was an excellent introduction to an idea common in both South America and science fiction: time is not an absolute.
Day 2: A city by the bay
We regrouped after landing in São Paulo around 8 a.m. With the talkative, party-like atmosphere of the plane ride, I wasn't the only one who wished I could have traded in one of my five years of Spanish lessons for just a few weeks of Portuguese.
Our flight from São Paulo left around 10 a.m and we arrived in Salvador around noon. Throughout our journey, Munn shared information on the populations, top crops and native parrots of South America. With 24 years of researching the birds of Peru, Bolivia and Brazil, and 19 of those years spent establishing ecotourism in those countries, Munn kept us entertained and truly fascinated.
Because of the flight changes, we missed the one daily flight from Salvador to Barreiras (where we were to meet the drivers who would take us to the Hyacinth Cliffs site), but our easy-going group wasn't worried a bit. Munn arranged for us to stay overnight in Salvador, South America's "city by the bay," at a hotel overlooking the Atlantic. We visited the CETREL corporation's impressive bird rehabilitation center that afternoon and went downtown in the evening for some local cuisine and culture. The port city of Salvador had a Old World feel with its elaborately designed churches and its bumpy cobblestone streets. It was in Salvador that we met up with our field director - an unforgettable Brazilian with a cockney accent - Gil Serique. Between Munn and Serique, we were spoiled with their unending knowledge, senses of humor and translating skills.
Day 3: Camp Bound
The excitement built as we traveled closer to Hyacinth Cliffs. Leaving Salvador by plane at 11 a.m, we arrived in Barreiras around 1 p.m and were greeted by our three drivers, as well as two canary-winged parakeets chirping in a tree in the airport parking lot. We'd spotted our first native parrots!
The five-hour drive passed quickly with scenery full of birds, cattle and castle-like cliff formations. On the way, the group stopped to eat vine-ripened bananas and drink "coconut water," which is the juice of an unripened coconut.
After spending the afternoon on dirt roads that can't even be found on local road maps, we arrived at camp just after dark. Each of us chose which palm-frond hut (or "jungalo") we would be sleeping in. The huts were about 9 by 14 feet (2.75 x 4.25 m) and contained two beds equipped with mosquito netting. The site is in a dry area, so bugs aren't a problem, but many felt more comfortable with the netting suspended from above and then tucked under the mattresses when sleeping.
We settled in quickly and met at the dining area - a large, packed-sand floor with tables and hammocks covered by a thatched roof. The wife of the former trapper cooked the first of many delicious meals for us. Rice and beans were a staple at most meals, and then various local meats, hot pepper sauces, fruits and vegetables were added. Manioc, a potato-like root, was served at almost every meal - roasted, frenched or prepared like potato salad.
During dinner we met the four local men employed as field assistants. At least three of them had worked in the animal trade, but I would soon see them all as much more than former trappers.
The site had no electricity and our bodies had no energy, so we went to bed shortly after dinner. But first, we counted four shooting stars in a sky that glittered like a silver-sequined, black velvet evening gown.
Day 4: The Hyacinths!
With being so close to the equator, the sun rises and sets at about 6 a.m and 6 p.m each day. We woke at 4 a.m to have enough time to dress, eat a small breakfast of coffee, tea, breads and papaya, and then hike to the hyacinth blind before the sun came up. (The blind is a camouflaged structure built of natural materials in which we could sit and watch the birds without being seen.) After a quick ride in the back of a pickup truck and a 15-minute walk in the dark through tropical forest, we found the covered walkway leading to the blind. The field assistants built the 200-yard walkway to allow people to come and go without the birds seeing them.
We settled ourselves in the blind before the sun came up - loaded our cameras, took bathroom breaks and asked Munn any last-minute questions. From then on, we moved slowly and silently.
As day broke, we heard the calls of hyacinths in the distance. "Arahh! Arahh!" they cried. Although we felt like jumping up and down, we patiently sat staring at the trees in front of the blind, knowing that the field assistants had scattered enticing palm nuts on the ground below.
The calls grew louder, and soon a pair landed in the highest branches of the large tree in front of us. The loud "floop, floop, floop" sound of their wings flapping was the only sound that could impress us more than their call. Soon another pair arrived, and then came groups of about six and 10. I lost count after 28, but we estimate that as many as 40 hyacinths surrounded the blind.
A bold, blue beauty flapped down to a low and stumpy tree with branches just inches off the ground. A few others followed, and soon there were several on the ground in front of us picking at the palm nuts. Some would eat them right where they found them. Some took them back up into the tallest tree. According to Munn, it typically takes a hyacinth about eight minutes to consume a palm nut. It would probably take a human half an hour just to figure out how to get into one. We stayed at the blind until just past 9 a.m, simply in awe.
After the hike back to camp, most of us were hot, tired and in need of a nap. Some socialized, some relaxed in the hammocks and some read. We ate lunch, did some bird watching at the campsite and continued to stay out of the heat until 3 p.m when we hiked back to the blind. The field assistants told us it is common for the hyacinths to return to that area for a final chance to eat for the day, and indeed they did.
That evening, a few of us confessed we were afraid we weren't going to like anything we ate, but we all had been pleased and had stuffed ourselves at every meal so far. For dessert, we ate the most amazing pineapple any of us had ever tasted. Ripened on the vine, it was sweet and tender. Our hosts seemed both pleased and surprised by our reaction, and each night after they would ask Munn, "One pineapple or two?"
Day 5: Red cliffs notes
We "slept in" until 5:15 a.m, ate a quick breakfast and made it to the blind just before sunrise. The hyacinths seemed much more relaxed than the day before, and the sunrise appeared more golden. This was probably our best opportunity for great pictures of the hyacinths. I brought a camera with a 140-millimeter zoom lens, but I would encourage others taking this tour to bring a 200- to 400-millimeter zoom. Also, be sure to pack the most powerful binoculars you can get your hands on.
We spent three solid hours at the blind before most of the hyacinths were scared off by a pair of toco toucans. Although I was there specifically to see hyacinths, I'll never forget the sight of the tocos flying almost gracefully with their unusually large beaks. As we walked back toward camp, a pair of curious hyacinths flew over our heads and then circled back to check us out once again. That was the moment I felt most connected to nature, and I understood exactly why we were there.
After lunch the group piled into the back of the pickup for a nonstop adventure. We were on our way to the red cliffs where the hyacinths nest, which is about a two-hour drive when you don't have seven tourists in back, that is. We stopped frequently to take pictures, ask questions and look at several bird species. Most memorable were a burrowing owl, two blue-fronted Amazons and a red-legged seriema (which looked and ran like the velociraptors from Jurassic Park). The area we drove across was a savannah dotted with palm trees, cattle and termite nests the size of Volkswagen Beetles.
At the base of the red cliffs, we climbed out to hike the rest of the way. Shortly into the walk, we spotted a peach-fronted conure perched high in a tree. We climbed up various loose rocked inclines so that we could get a view of the 300-foot cliff where two of the field assistants would show us how they had gotten to the hyacinth nests. The nests are built in cavities half-way down the cliffs and 14 to 20 feet into the rock. (Less than 50 percent of the nests are accessible to even the most skilled climbers.) Field assistants Paulo and Raimundinho scurried up the foliaged side of the cliff with no effort and prepared to lower themselves with a $60 natural-fiber rope. While we waited, another field assistant told us how he once fell 50 feet while cliff climbing, sliding across loose rock all the way.
We watched as Paulo and Raimundinho each took a turn scaling the rock side of the cliff and applauded thankfully when they were done. Maybe it was the altitude, but I breathed a very deep sigh of relief when they were safe again.
I knew these former trappers would rather perform this dangerous task just a few times a year for tourists than to frequently risk their lives, their families and their freedom if they were to continue trapping parrots as a profession. Ironically, it was our field guides' experience as trappers that made our trip so rewarding. They know where each nest is, when the birds eat, what the birds eat, what time certain birds will come to the camp and what sound just about any native bird makes. It was exciting to see how their way of life was changing to preserve the land instead of exploit it for the pet trade or sell it for large-scale farming.
Preserving nature is a common desire of many industrialized (and overdeveloped) countries, but to people who have always lived off the land, conservation is a new concept. It would be like someone telling us we can buy food from only one aisle at the grocery store.
Ecotourism offers an alternative way of life when the local people see that the land has more value as tourist sites. Munn's ecotourism efforts in Peru have directly created 150 jobs and have been indirectly responsible for hundreds more. The Hyacinth Cliffs project is in its third year, and more jobs will be created as its popularity among tourists increases. For just the seven of us, there was a field director, four field assistants, a cook and two drivers.
Day 6: Monkey business
On this morning, our last at the camp, we split into two groups: one group went to see the hyacinths at the blind, and the other group went on a hike to see the sun rise from behind the red cliffs. Back at camp, we spotted a pair of blue-and-gold macaws on top of a palm tree in the distance, and then another pair on a closer palm tree we could walk to. They flew off when we were about 350 feet away, but we got an excellent look through Munn's high -powered binoculars (7x42, Swarovski brand).
After lunch we began the drive back to the town of Barreiras where we would stay for the night. On the way there, we stopped to look for monkeys. The field assistants spotted a tufted-eared marmoset and two black howler monkeys for us, and one of them even climbed a tree and shook it so that the monkeys would run right above us in the trees.
There were a few detours on our way back to Barreiras, but they only added to the adventure. First we were detained by IBAMA, the equivalent of U.S. Fish and Wildlife, for nearly an hour. They checked our passports and searched our three cars to be sure we weren't transporting anything illegal. It was a tad frightening at first, but we glad to know that if any birds were being smuggled by anyone, they would find them.
Our second detour was caused by one of the vehicles breaking down, but we used the time to continue working on our Portuguese. We could say: good day, good evening, cool, parrot, it's good, white car and numbers up to seven.
We arrived at a great hotel in Barreiras around 10 p.m and then headed downtown to a pizza place overlooking the Rio Grande river. Brazil is well known for its music, so we were surprised to hear American country music as the preference of such a young and hip-looking crowd.
Day 7: Politics and pop
Before going to the airport, we visited a 140-foot waterfall. Some of the group swam, and others fed a school of small, iridescent fish that gathered upstream. Pictures can't capture the magnitude of the fall or the way it pushed people away when they got too close.
Our flight out of Barreiras was delayed by about an hour because the flight from Salvador (which continued on to Brasilia, our destination) was carrying a local politician and a Brazilian pop star. We wondered when that airport had ever seen so much action in one day.
We had about four hours to spare in Brasilia, and that's when a travel expert like Munn really came in handy. We did it all: saw the parrots at the zoo, took in a view of the city from the TV Tower and drove around to see how this retro-looking city was laid out. Brasilia was built in 1959 as the country's new capital, and it has a very distinct and deliberate design.
We got back to the airport in time for our 7:30 p.m flight to São Paulo, and then flew from São Paulo to Miami, arriving around 7:45 a.m on Day 8.
Nothing can compare to my experiences in Brazil. I felt close to nature, close to my fellow travelers and grateful to our guides. I can't think of another time in my life when I learned so much and felt so fulfilled.
(Website editor: information on tours can be found at the Inkanatura website.
Friday 13th March 2020
ICMBio statement 11th March 2020
The Chico Mendes Institute (ICMBio) issued a statement on 11th March 2020, a translation of which is below:
All 52 macaws arrived safely at the Breeding and Release Centre in Cu ... Read More »
" Naturam expellas furca, tamen usque recurret "
( If you drive out nature with a pitchfork, she will soon find a way back)
Horace (65-8 BC)