The major argument at the dinner table that night was what on earth was our jungle guide talking about? He described an animal found in the NP that came down to the river to poach trout. It was very furry and had a long tail and was the size of a small dog. Was it a jaguar? An ocelot? An agouti? It was only when we had finished our meal that someone spotted a huge poster on the walls with pictures of the creatures found in Serra dos Orgaos NP. It became clear that it was an otter.
It was an otter of immense size though. It was also obvious that we had little chance of seeing it. Most animals in the parks of South America are nocturnal and seeing them is very rare. The continent has the world's biggest profusion of wildlife, with more species being discovered all the time. The park is 11,000 hectares of jungle and mountains. It makes a worthy excursion from the 'Cuidade Marvelosa' and was our overnight stop between colonial Paraty and the buzzing chic resort of Buzios.
The Serra dos Orgaos NP is the closest national park to Rio de Janeiro. It lies in the north of the state and borders the beautiful Imperial city of Petropolis. It gets its name from the strange vertical peaks in the park that resemble the towering pipes of a church organ. The most famous is 'Dedo de Deus' (God's finger) which rises to 2,000m. The highest peak in the park is Pedro di Sino (Bells Rock) which has a 14km path to its peak. Its sheer west face is one of the hardest climbing pitches in Brazil.
It is exceptionally remote and the journey is not for the faint-hearted. We arrived in the dark and my heart was in my mouth as we traveled dirt switchback roads and crossed rivers on rickety bridges. To reach it without a tour takes some doing. Frequent buses from Rio stop at Petropolis, from where you can hire a car. Direct buses head there from the closer Teresopolis but these are infrequent--generally one every two days. There are good accommodations inside the park and the whole facility is very well done. At the lower end is hostel (20 reals a night); there are also beds in cabanas with en-suite bathrooms (about 40 reals). The main building is beautiful, with superb food and a well-decorated lounge area. The staff is helpful and will arrange 4-hour rafting expeditions (about 80 reals).
But it is the jungle that you come to the Serra dos Orgaos to see. Our trip included an early morning walk in the forest led by a guide who spoke no English. Another guide, Marcelo, translated for us but even she had difficulty understanding his thick accent and was often completely baffled. They took us into the park at 6am. Our first obstacle was a boulder-strewn river. A rope was thrown across the river and, one of our group, a 70-year-old Melbournian, did us proud by swinging across the river. Then through an enormous grove of bamboo and parallel to a stream where otters poached trout. All around us were birdcalls and the whoops of howler monkeys. Our guide pointed out the plant-life including natural pineapples and flowers that my mother buys at the nearby garden center back in Essex. Wait till I tell her that I have seen the originals in the Brazilian jungle.
Our 2-hour walk finished at a photogenic boulder-strewn river where huge spiders hung cobwebs across the trees. The guide overturned a log to produce a huge red-kneed tarantula that wasn't pleased at being disturbed so early in the morning. The park also includes armadillo, agouti, and peccary, which are preyed on by ocelot. There are no jaguars in the park.
I asked whether there were any piranha. No, but a member of staff had seen a 10-foot anaconda in the vicinity the previous week. With that in mind we backed up, scuttled down the trail, and headed back to the minivan.