In July I spent a few weeks at our condo in Uberlândia, Brazil. Unable to take the time for any side trips, I sought out nearby locations for nature photography. I was pleasantly surprised by Parque Municipal Victório Siquieroli (Victorio Siquieroli City Park).
The park is a little slice of cerrado (Brazilian tropical savanna) nestled in the northern part of the city. The park comprises an area of about 23 hectares (57 acres) and promotes environmental consciousness. There’s even a small museum that gives visitors a look at the biodiversity of the cerrado. The park is named after Victório Siquieroli whose wife convinced him in 1996 to donate the land to the city for the construction of the park.
In the satellite image above, you can see that the park has a mix of forested and open areas and is surrounded by mostly residential areas. The entrance is to the Northeast at that intersection. Here’s an interactive map if you want to get your bearings.
Uberlândia can be a dangerous place, so before visiting I stopped by to get a feel for the park and to try and determine whether or not I’d feel safe returning with all my camera equipment. I spoke with the gate attendant and asked his opinion. He explained that the park is entirely fenced in with guards patrolling both the entrance with its parking area as well as the trails.
I ended up making four weekday afternoon trips to the park and I never felt unsafe. The trails are apparently lightly trafficked during the week, but I suspect they get crowded on the weekends. At intervals I could hear the excited voices of schoolchildren visiting, but they apparently don’t venture far from the museum.
Here’s a few photos from within the park to give you a sense of the flora.
If you’d really like to get a better idea of what it’s like to visit the park then check out this short video (in Portuguese):
Now that I’ve introduced the park, look for lots of upcoming photos of the interesting things I found within its borders.
I keep tabs on airfares to several destinations so I can take advantage when prices fall. In December, I received an email alert that the price had fallen below $250 round-trip to San Jose, Costa Rica. The next day I purchased a ticket for the third week in January.
I started planning how I’d spend my week there and eventually decided to explore the southeastern Caribbean coast. I based myself in Puerto Viejo in the province of Limon. I planned to visit areas from the town of Cahuita east to the town of Manzanillo, where the coastal road ends.
I ended up renting a small house. It was reasonably priced relative to local hotels. It also turned out to be more secure and air conditioned. Malaria and dengue are present in the area and most lodging is open air, so you need to use bed nets. With air conditioning, I could close up the house and not worry about mosquitoes. I also started taking an anti-malarial before traveling.
I took most of the money I thought I would need and dollars were accepted everywhere I offered them. It’s a good thing too, because I couldn’t get my ATM card to work at any of the ATMs I tried. I did finally manage to get a small cash advance with my VISA card. Unfortunately that was after encountering a toll road, where I successfully pleaded for passage since I was at that point, penniless.
The weeks leading up to the trip I started checking the local weather. I was surprised to see it was raining every day. When I arrived, I was told it had rained for three straight weeks. At one point, it rained three days pretty much non-stop. My first day there was cloudy and misty at times. After that though, the only rain I saw was from scattered storms off in the distance. On the last day, my host told me that he hated to see me leave because I had seemingly brought the sun with me.
Generally, average temperatures don’t change a whole lot throughout the year. Highs are in the low 80’s (high 20’s C) and lows are in the low 70’s (low 20’s C). I was comfortable while I was there as long as I stayed in the shade. January is often rainy, receiving an average of ~13 inches (~320mm) of an average annual total of ~133 inches (~3380mm) (source: wikipedia).
The entire area is tropical rainforest. Hills rise fast away from the coast, but I probably never got above 300 feet (100m) in the areas where I photographed.
I looked at taking public transportation to get to Puerto Viejo, but the bus hours didn’t work well for me. I decided to rent a 4×4, which would also give me more flexibility. This was the largest expense of the trip, but I did make use of it so it was a good decision. I’ve rented cars in Costa Rica before, but never from Economy. I recommend them. Their prices were the best I found in advance. The pickup/drop-off location is very convenient to the airport. The agents were extremely helpful, even checking in advance the road conditions where I would be travelling to make sure there were no road closures because of the recent rains.
I arrived in the wee hours of the morning, so I got some rest at a hostel near the airport. Later that morning I picked up my rental car and began the 4 to 5 hour drive to my destination. Traffic was light since it was Sunday. I did manage to get slightly lost both times I had to pass through downtown San Jose.
The roads are generally good most of the way, allowing for a speed limit ride. They get worse along the coast and after Cahuita it gets increasingly challenging, with unpaved stretches, especially approaching Puerto Viejo. The road beyond Puerto Viejo to Manzanillo is a mixed bag. There are some recently paved stretches, but mostly the road is heavily potholed. You really have to concentrate on the road. At the same time, you have to be mindful of tourists and locals walking and biking. I often missed what I was looking for just because it’s difficult to keep an eye out for signs and landmarks when you’re concentrating so hard on not hitting anything or anybody (including for example, a sloth, which I patiently waited on).
I arrived near dusk and was hoping to do some nighttime photography. I stopped at Cahuita National Park as they were closing and asked about using the trails at night. I had seen they allowed camping, so I figured worst case I would pay for camping to gain access at night. It turns out they haven’t allowed camping for years. I asked about walking along the beach at night, but was cautioned against it. I asked several other locals and they all told me I would most likely get mugged if I ventured out at night in any public areas. That was disappointing to hear, but I resolved to try and find a private reserve where I could work out some sort of access at night.
I didn’t have any issues, but some other tourists I spoke with in the area were victims of theft.
On my first day I was waiting at the gates to Cahuita National Park before they opened and they closed the gates behind me at the end of the day. I spent the morning walking along the coastal trail leading to Cahuita Point. I did find some interesting things, but it was mostly the same types of coastal vegetation. For more variety, I explored the trail that leads from the ranger station to the coast and was rewarded with better diversity. All the trails I explored were flat and easily traversed (the first few kilometers are actually drivable).
On the second day I headed to Manzanillo at the end of the coastal road. There you can hire guides to take you into the Gandoca-Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge. I went unguided along the well traveled coastal trail. I first had to cross a small creek which at close to high tide came up almost to my waist. Thankfully it was nearer to low tide when I left. In retrospect, I could have easily stumbled here and ruined my equipment. If I go again, I’ll take a large sealable bag to protect my equipment. The trails here are hillier and quite slippery in places because of the recent rains. It was a rewarding day with lots of interesting finds. On the walk back, I enjoyed exploring the tidal pools that formed as the tide receded.
The next day, I resolved to find a private reserve with the hope of being able to photograph at night. I had already sent emails to some places but had received no responses. I started driving along an interior unpaved road from Punta Uva heading South towards Panama where I knew a few reserves were located. A few kilometers in, I found one and stopped. I spoke with the owner, but he said his reserve would be closed for a few months for repairs (presumably from those recent heavy rains). I tried to convince him to allow me self-guided access, but he was unmoved.
After driving another few kilometers I saw a few men parked down a private road. I turned in and decided to try my luck. It turns out the men are a couple of expatriates in the initial stages of developing Armonia Nature Preserve. They were reluctant at first to allow me access. We talked some more though and they eventually relented. I even convinced them to allow me to explore at night, which I did, twice. The property is a mix of primary and secondary forest with some small creeks.
On my last full day I returned to Armonia Nature Preserve, but on the way I stopped at the Jaguar Rescue Center. They have lots of native snakes on display, so it’s a good opportunity to safely get a close look at some of the dangerous ones. What they otherwise have at the center depends on what’s recently been rescued and hasn’t yet been released. I was given an opportunity to handle both a young howler monkey and a sloth. They also had a pond with some caimans, some birds of prey, and a margay.
While at the rescue center, I had a rare rainforest moment. If you’ve been to the rainforest, then like most you’ve probably been disappointed that it’s not quite as full of life as you’d imagined. I know I was somewhat disappointed the first time. But here, looking up into the canopy, I managed to see a sloth, several large iguanas, a hawk, and a toucan, all wild, and all at once! My guide commented that the animals seem to know they are in a safe place there.
If you’re in the area, I highly recommend visiting the rescue center.
My last day had to be a short one because I had to make the long drive back to the airport to catch a red-eye flight back home. I pushed it though, exploring a bit too long within a nearby botanical garden, Finca La Isla. I ended up driving the last few hours in darkness through some well-maintained roads within Braulio Carillo National Park that were nonetheless challenging because of dense fog.
I was surprised at just how common sloths are in the area. There were occasional “sloth-jams” where tourists were stopped along the two-lane road to photograph those that were visible from the road. I was told the sloths also attract harpy eagles, being the bird’s primary prey.
The howler monkeys were quite vocal as they called to each other. I also spotted several groups of white-faced capuchins, but I never saw the local spider monkey.
It’s probably a birder’s paradise, but I’m not a very good birdwatcher. I did see a spectacled owl up close while I hiked along a streambed.
In that same streambed, an agouti practically hit me it was running towards me so fast. I had to wonder what was chasing it, and a few minutes later a dog appeared close by. It barked at me a few times before running off. The rescue center reported that dogs and cats are responsible for many of their rescues, attacking wildlife that falls from the canopy or scaring parents into abandoning their offspring.
I’ve never seen such a high concentration of lizards. They literally were everywhere I looked. I encountered a few snakes as well. I found quite a few frogs on the first day, but after that I think the dry weather sent them into hiding. I did continue to encounter some of the local poison dart frogs though.
This was my fifth and best trip yet to Costa Rica. I was lucky with the weather, which has been problematic in the past. It was a long drive to get to the area, but it was well worth it given the time I spent there. There’s no shortage of interesting places to visit. I was focused on photography, but there were plenty of opportunities for other activities. It seems to be a popular surf destination and the beaches looked inviting. There are some reefs, but some other tourists reported that you really have to time it right because rains silt up the water. I stopped at random places to eat and was impressed with every meal I had. Prices for everything seem lower than elsewhere in Costa Rica. The whole area has an international feel, with many places being owned and operated by foreigners.
I came away with around 2000 photographs of which I expect maybe 100 are keepers. I had some specific subjects in mind before arriving and was happy to find at least one of those. I was also surprised to find some things I really didn’t expect to. Stay tuned to this blog in the coming weeks to see the photos.
Tupaciguara (too-pah-see-GWAH-luh), in the state of Minas Gerais, is my wife’s hometown and her family still lives in the area. We frequently visit and often stay in our condo in a nearby city, Uberlândia.
The city itself is roughly at latitude -18.6, logitude -48.7, at an elevation of around 900m (~3000ft). It’s located in what’s known as the Mineiran Triangle, which is basically that Western part of the state of Minas Gerais jutting out in the map above (the part below the inset).
There are two seasons: a wet rainy summer and a slightly cooler dry winter. The hot humid summer seems unbearably hot to me at times, but mostly it’s because air conditioning is not widely used in homes. Temperature averages throughout the year don’t vary by a whole lot, with winter lows in the mid 50’s and summer lows in the mid 60’s (F, low to mid teens C). Winter highs are in the high 70’s and summer highs in the mid 80’s (mid to high 20’s C). High temperatures have reached triple digits, but it never freezes. (Source: Weatherbase)
Tupaciguara is a small city, with around 23,000 inhabitants. Uberlandia is the third largest city in the state, with over 600,000 people (source: wikipedia).
The principal biome type is savanna. Some maps I’ve seen show small scattered areas of Atlantic Forest close to some of the waterways. I’ve yet to find any, and I suspect most disappeared when the rivers were dammed.
The Minerian Triangle is a rich agricultural area. Much of the land has been cleared either for crops or grazing. In theory, all rural properties are required to set aside at least 20% of the land as a reserve. I get the impression that’s not strongly enforced. Driving along the major roads, you’ll notice small uncleared areas, but they are so small and disconnected as to be of questionable benefit. Crops I’ve seen include sugarcane, soybeans and corn. Cattle are plentiful.
Getting around can be difficult. The paved roads are often heavily potholed, although that appears to be improving. The unpaved roads are generally passable, but only at a snail’s pace.
At the top of the satellite image above you’ll notice a large reservoir, created by a dam on the Paranaíba river. This lake is a popular recreational destination, especially for fishing.
On the other side of the reservoir, in the neighboring state of Goiás, there’s another popular recreational destination. In and around the city of Caldas Novas there are many natural hot springs. This is an area I’ve only visited once but would like to explore more.
I limit my photography excursions to isolated rural areas. Locals have advised me not to go out with any valuables in or near the urban centers. It’s a shame really, because there are some parks near our condo that would probably be interesting to explore with my camera. The rural areas I have been to, I never felt unsafe.
Here in the US, I often tell people that ask me about the risks of going into the woods alone that I’m far more concerned about people than I am about snakes or bears or anything like that. Well, OK, people and stepping onto yellowjacket and fire ant nests. In Brazil, I have that same worry about people that are up to no good. I have to admit though that I’m equally concerned about the dangerous wildlife, particularly since I’m not all that familiar with what actually is dangerous. I’ve already had a couple of close calls that have given me a whole new level of respect for the possible dangers. More on those experiences when I post photos.
This past January I visited Caraça (pronounced kah-RAH-suh) Natural Park in Brazil. This was a side-trip for me, part of a larger trip to visit my wife’s family in Brazil.
From our hometown Uberlândia I flew to Belo Horizonte (BH), capital of our state, Minas Gerais. I drove four hours or so from the BH airport to the park. The crappy rental car combined with the Monday morning traffic didn’t add up to a pleasurable drive. But once I was out of the city, I was able to relax a bit more and take in the scenery.
There’s a single entrance that leads into the park. Once there, it’s just a short winding drive up into the heart of the reserve and to the only lodgings within it.
My hope was to stay at Caraça’s Sanctuary. I was winging it, because I had been unable to reach anyone to make a reservation. My fallback plan was to find lodging in one of the nearby towns. Luckily, I had no trouble getting a room for the week once I got there. Turns out the phones had been down.
I purposely arrived on a Monday and left on a Friday so as to avoid any weekend crowds from BH. During my stay, I saw tour buses arriving for day visits. It never really felt crowded and there generally weren’t many overnight guests.
Meals are included with the lodging and are delicious regional fare.
The resort offers three main attractions.
First, it’s a religious destination for Catholics. There’s a neo-gothic church, the first in Brazil, that holds Mass nightly. I attended one Mass just for the experience.
Second, having been founded in 1774, the area has historical significance. Dom Pedro II, emperor from the time when Brazil was an empire, spent time here. The buildings were once used to run a boy’s school. Famous alumni include a couple of Brazilian presidents. There’s a library of historical documents and the museum showcases historical artifacts.
Third, and what attracted me, is ecotourism. The visitor’s center and local museum both demonstrate the environmental significance of the area. The sanctuary also hosts researchers studying various species within the reserve.
The area is surrounded by Caraça’s mountain range (Serra do Caraça). The sanctuary itself is located at the center of the satellite image below. The road comes in from the North and is the only way in or out other than hiking over the mountains.
The sanctuary is located at latitude -20.097508, longitude -43.488286. Altitude varies widely throughout the park. The entrance is around 800m (2625ft) and the highest peak is 2072m (6798ft). I mostly kept close to the elevation of the sanctuary, around 1300m (4265ft). The park covers 11,233 hectares (43 square miles).
Ecologically, the park comprises a transition zone between Atlantic forest and savanna with grasslands at the peaks. We have plenty of savanna in our hometown region, so I was more interested in the Atlantic forest.
There are trails from the sanctuary that lead to various rivers, lakes, waterfalls, caves and peaks. The longer more difficult trails, which I avoided, require a guide.
The Portuguese word “caraça” means “big face”. That name was given to the region because of mountain formations that look like the profile of a face in repose.
I have to admit I was surprised by its size. I imagined it would be more fox-like. It actually reminds me more of a hyena.
One night on the church patio, while there was a maned wolf feeding, a large tarantula crept across the patio. I could see the distressed look on people’s faces as it approached, not knowing whether to get up and potentially scare off the wolf or brave the spider. I was impressed that they remained seated. My own dilemma was whether or not to stop photographing the wolf and go photograph the spider.
I ventured out onto the trails every night I was there. At one point I was surprised to see my headlamp reflecting off the eyes of a maned wolf in the distance. As I mentioned, they are bigger than I imagined, and I was slightly concerned. I asked around the next day though, and it’s unheard of for the wolves to attack people.
The maned wolf might be the star attraction, but there’s no shortage of other interesting creatures. A brochure I picked up at the visitor’s center says there are around 320 species of birds and 70 species of mammals in the preserve. The brochure lists the following mammals: Atlantic forest squirrel, Brazilian tapir, collared peccary, Moojen’s Atlantic Spiny-rat, paca, red brocket deer, ocelot, puma, jaguarundi, black-fronted titi monkey, Geoffroy’s marmoset and the giant anteater.
Of the above, I only saw the squirrel and several troops of monkeys. Some of the other things I saw while there include a few large monitor lizards and a variety of frogs. I saw and heard countless birds. A large approachable bird, the dusky-legged guan, was often in the sanctuary garden. As for the invertebrates, I’ll be posting photos of those in the near future.
For my first post I want to talk about the where I live, since many of the photographs will be from here. My intention going forward is to link a photograph back to one of these “Location Profile” posts about where the photo was taken.
I currently live in Twelvestones subdivision in Roswell, a northern suburb of Atlanta, Georgia. Twelvestones, therefore, will be my shorthand for this home and places close by.
We’re on the Piedmont Plateau at an elevation of around 1000ft (300m), latitude 33.99911, longitude -84.29031. The house faces northwest, giving us a nice southern exposure on the back.
Natural areas are generally a mix of pine and deciduous forest, but we are definitely in a semi-urban area. There are lots of developed and ecologically disturbed areas surrounding us. We do have plenty of good parks close by though.
A small lake sits just a stone’s throw away in a neighboring subdivision. Close by there’s a wetland formed by a local creek. A nice multi-use trail system, the Big Creek Greenway, runs along miles of its course. A major river, the Chattahoochee, flows just a few miles away. The national park service manages many parks along its banks, collectively known as the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area.
We have custom landscaping that I had designed specifically with nature photography in mind. Most everything is native, and species were chosen that have something to offer the local fauna (e.g. pollen, fruit, cover, etc.). I tried to minimize the size of my lawn, because a monoculture like that isn’t conducive to attracting nature. I inherited some ivy from the previous owners that I’d rip out if it were feasible.
Trees include pine, oak, cherry, maple, dogwood, serviceberry, crabapple, magnolia and others.
I’ve planted azalea, jasmine, honeysuckle, columbine, fern, daylily, gardenia, black-eyed susan, mint, several ornamental grasses, yarrow, lantana, and many others. I also have some butterfly bush that I only recently found out is considered an invasive.
In the natural wooded areas I find trillium, wintergreen, solomon’s seal, and other wildflowers.
We have a bird feeder that attracts the usual suspects: wild birds, squirrels, and chipmunks. I had a deer give birth right outside our garage last year. Countless bats begin flying around at dusk, and I swear I’ve seen some flying squirrels.
I’ve placed some rock piles around the yard to provide a place for reptiles to hide in and sun themselves upon. I’m not above releasing in my yard harmless snakes that I find elsewhere in the hopes they’ll stick around.
Dragonflies come from the nearby lake to help cut down the mosquito population. Most of the year there’s something blooming to attract pollinators such as butterflies, bees and wasps. I’m always scanning the foliage for caterpillars.