Stretching across the Brazilian states of Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul (also spilling into Bolivia and Paraguay) the Pantanal is the world's largest inland wetland area. While the Amazon gets more credit, the Pantanal's open spaces offer the best opportunities for spotting animals in their natural habitats in Brazil. Madelaine Triebe has the lowdown on everything you need to know about the country's top wildlife destination.
Which side should I visit: Mato Grosso or Mato Grosso do Sul?
Both, if possible. Mato Grosso wins hands down on jaguar spotting. Along the Cuiabá River from July to September – when the water levels are low, and the big cats come out to hunt and relax on the river banks – it is not unusual to spot at least three jaguars a day.
Mato Grosso do Sul has good budget options, as well as cattle farms where you can see more of the traditional Pantaneiro culture. Watch the local cowboys (peãos) with their big straw hats sip on tereré (a drink prepared with yerba mate and ice-cold water), herd cattle on horseback or muleback or clear trails cutting off palm leaves and branches with the Pantaneiro knife, made from a short wooden handle and a roughly 50 centimetre-long blade.
When should I go?
For wildlife-spotting, the best time is the dry winter season, roughly from June or July to the end of September. The water has receded and the animals come out from the deeper and more inaccessible parts of the wetlands and cluster around the waterholes.
The peak of the rainy summer season (November to March) is still a great time to visit as it's quintessentially Pantaneiro in its lush landscape. This is when the rivers overflow and flood the lowlands, making most of Pantanal only accessible by aeroplane or boat.
Top image: Aerial view of the Pantanal © Lucas Leuzinger / Shutterstock
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How do I get there?
There are three main modes of transport depending on the water levels: aeroplane, boat or car. There is no public transport whatsoever within the area so make sure to get your travel sorted before heading off.
There are two main roads running through the Pantanal, the Transpantaneira in the north (Mato Grosso) and Estrada do Parque in the south (Mato Grosso do Sul). Both are dirt roads with numerous wooden bridges in various conditions, as well as pousadas, lodges and fazendas catering to tourists.
What animals can I expect to see?
Colourful birds are in abundance here, including the iconic white jabiru stork with its black and red neck, as well as red, blue and hyacinth macaws. There are also plenty of square nosed capybaras and caimans around. For the rest of the wildlife, it's all about being at the right place at the right time.
Most visitors come hoping to see the jaguar and your best chance at glimpsing this elusive animal is either early in the morning or from dusk when they hunt, eat and drink. The same goes for the Brazilian tapir, the marsh deer and the giant anteater. Another popular animal on wildlife wish lists is the giant otter, which can reach 1.7m in length.
Jaguar © Madelaine Triebe
What can I do in the Pantanal?
There are plenty of things to do and it all depends on where you stay. Most pousadas and fazendas (ranches) offer kayaking, boat trips, piranha fishing (using beef bait), horse riding and night safaris.
A jaguar safari on the Cuiába River and its tributaries can entail watching a female jaguar hunting for lizards along the riverbank, a 130kg jaguar male catching a caiman or photographing a young feline resting in a tree as the sun sets over the Pantanal. Pantanal Jaguar Safaris and Biodiverse Brazil Tours, both run by biologists devoted to sustainable tourism, offer jaguar expeditions in the north of the Pantanal.
Try your hand at piranha fishing: at Pousada Xaraés, the guide doesn't have to bring you far up the river to find the sharp-toothed fish and moors in front of the pousada with caimans sunbathing on the riverbank a few metres away. Casting your rod, you might spot a cheeky one loitering, waiting for you to pull a piranha out of the river and claim it for himself. After an hour or so you should have enough (unless the caiman got the better of you) to have fried piranha, teeth and head intact, for lunch.
If not fried, the piranha is the main star in the caldo do piranha, a soup popular with locals for its aphrodisiac effect. Together with carreteiro (rice prepared with dried beef) and fried pacu (fish) ribs, it's part of traditional Pantaneiro food.
Caiman © Madelaine Triebe
If you're travelling solo or with just a few other people, your best bet to go sportfishing in the Pantanal is to book yourself into a pousada that offers specialised fishing packages. Populating these waters are catfish species like pintado and cachara that can measure up to one metre in length (the record is a whopping 100kg and 1.6 metres), as well as pacu (with its human looking teeth) and piranha.
At Hotel Barra Mansa you'll be taken out on 16-foot speed boats on Rio Negro fishing for (catching and releasing) dourado, pintado and pacu. There's also the option to go fly fishing if you have the knack for casting the almost weightless artificial fly used as a bait.
Additionally, a major highlight is the seven-day horse expedition with Brazil Nature Tours riding through lagoons getting your legs soaked, sport fishing or watching the white Nelore cows with their long legs graze in the water.
Corúmba, in the south of Pantanal, makes an excellent base for booking a yacht if you want to stay on the river. Along Rua Manoel Cavassa down at the port you find a range of travel agents, like Joice Pesca & Tur Pantanal, offering sportfishing packages on the luxurious houseboats with neat cabins, dining rooms, as well as communal spaces with sofas and TVs. Some even have a pool. To optimise your chances, do like the Brazilians and gather a group – most yachts require a minimum number of people, mostly ranging from 10-20 people. Then spend up to a week cruising the Pantanal sleeping in wooden cabins with crisp sheets and going out on smaller motorboats to fish during the day.
Bridge in the Pantanal © Hakat / Shutterstock
What do I bring?
Light-coloured clothes, sunscreen, hat, a rain jacket, binoculars and lots of insect repellent. Locals and guides alike might tell you during the dry season that there are no mosquitos around – and by Pantanal standards there might not be – but the ones that are love visitors.
Where should I stay?
There are plenty of good options and it boils down to how much you want to spend.
Refúgio Ecológico Caiman – a 53,000 hectare working cattle ranch a 36km drive from Miranda in Mato Grosso Do Sul – offers eco-tourism at its finest. You stay in beautifully decorated rooms, (opt for Baiazinha Lodge where each room has a lake view and a private balcony with hammock) and you can spend a whole day tracking down jaguars together with Projecto Onçafari, a conservation project developed to protect the big cats in Pantanal.
Hotel Pantanal Norte in Mato Grosso is your best option if you want to spend your days on Cuiabá River looking for jaguars. The hotel is at the end of the Transpantaneira, just by the natural harbour in Porto Jofre. It offers – in true Brazilian style – air-conditioned rooms with a minibar, as well as a restaurant, swimming pool and games room.
Jacaré Barco Hotel is adventurous without making any concessions on comfort. Situated around 20 minutes by boat from Porto Jofre, the houseboat has air-conditioned cabins with private bathrooms that are available to book from July to November. Staying on the river, you have an advantage on other visitors; with less travel time you can leave before the other speed boats depart from Porto Jofre, increasing your chances to have a jaguar sighting all to yourself.
Sunset over the water © FCG / Shutterstock
What else can I do?
If you have the money make sure to fly over the wetland; the view from a private plane over the floodplains is striking. Staying at remote ranches like Hotel Barra Mansa entail a chartered flight most of the year and landing on grass on a private air strip squeezed in between cattle fences is a part of the Pantanal experience.
Something a bit cheaper?
The sunsets in Pantanal are priceless (literally). Expect big bright red and orange skies.
Top image: © FCG / Shutterstock