Increasingly known worldwide as the best place for wildlife-spotting in South America, THE PANTANAL is fed by rivers and inhabited by rainforest bird and animal species from the Andes to the west and the Brazilian central plateau to the north. Essentially an open swampland larger than France that extends deep into the states of Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul, it is massive, running 950km north to south and averaging around 500km from east to west. This is one of those few destinations in Brazil where you’re more likely to find wildlife than nightlife. Capybaras, wild boar, monkeys, and yellow anacondas (sucuri amarela in Portuguese or Eunectes notaeus) are common sights in the Pantanal, and it’s probably the best place for wild mammals and exotic birds in the whole of the Americas. There are in fact 124 wild mammal species, 177 reptile species and a further 41 amphibian species in these swamps, plus over four hundred bird species. It’s almost unnerving spending the afternoon on the edge of a remote lagoon in the swamp, surrounded by seemingly endless streams of flying and wading birds – toucans, parrots, red and even the endangered hyacinth macaws, blue herons, and the tuiuiú (giant red-necked stork). Unlike in most other areas of wilderness, the birdsong and density of wildlife here frequently lives up to the exotic soundtrack of Hollywood jungle movies, and in the middle of the swamp it’s actually possible to forget that there are other people in the world – though it’s difficult to forget the mosquitoes. (Although locals say that malaria is no longer a big problem in the Pantanal, it is advisable to check with your doctor before departure; mosquitoes, however, are abundant.) In addition to all this wildlife, it’s only fair to mention that you’ll still see more cattle and jacarés (Caiman yacare, alligators) than any other creature. The swamp has been a fabulous fishing-spot for thousands of years and new species of fish and vascular plants are still regularly discovered here. One of the tastiest and most popular fish – pacu – has been endangered by illegal over-fishing, much serving the markets of southern Brazil.
The following is a selection of the more upmarket Pantanal operators who deal with both complete packages and bookings for boats and/or lodges; for other agents and guides for Cuiabá for Campo Grande and for Corumbá.
Av. Afonso Pena 367, Miranda t 67/3242-1242, w www.aguasdopantanal.com.br. This company owns and runs several pousadas around Miranda, Passo do Lontra and Porto Morrinho on the Rio Paraguai.
Av Isaac Póvoas 606, Centro, Cuiabá t 65/3028-5990. Short but well-organized and comfortable tours in the Pantanal and elsewhere in the Brazilian wilderness.
Rua Allan Kardek 87, Galeria Maria Auxiliadora (Sala 4), Campo Grande t 67/3321-8303. Agents and operators for tours and boats around Pantanal and the Amazon.
Rua Manoel Cavassa 255, Corumbá t 67/3231-1460, w www.peroladopantanal.com.br. Agents for upmarket cruises from Corumbá.
Corumbá is well placed for getting right into the Pantanal by bus or jeep, and has a welter of guides and agencies to choose from, as well as boats for hire. Though farther from the action, Campo Grande has better hotels and communications with the rest of Brazil, so it’s as likely an entry point as Corumbá. Some of the most popular fazenda-lodges are those in Nhecolândia, roughly speaking the area between the rios Negro and Taquari east of Corumbá. Many of these benefit from a well-established dirt access road, the MS-184/MS-228 (the old Campo Grande road), which loops off from the main BR-262 highway 300km from Campo Grande near Passo do Lontra (it’s well signposted), and crosses through a large section of the swamp before rejoining the same road some 10km before Corumbá. The track also passes through Porto Manga.
One of the simplest ways into the swamp is to take a bus (3hr) from Cuiabá south to BARÃO DO MELGAÇO, a small, quiet village on the banks of the Rio Cuiabá. Although not quite in the true swamp, and therefore with less in the way of wildlife, Barão is perfect if you’re short on time and just want a taste of the Pantanal. There’s the exclusive Pousada do Rio Mutum just an hour away by boat, in a stunning location on the Baía de Siá Mariana near the Rio Mutum (t 65/3052-7022, w www.pousadamutum.com.br; R$181-260). Although Barão is no longer served by regular boats from Corumbá, it might still be worth asking around should a shallow-draught vessel be covering the journey – an unforgettable experience, right through the centre of the swamp.
The most exploited option from Cuiabá is to follow the route south to Poconé and Porto Jofre. There are daily buses from Cuiabá’s rodoviária as far as POCONÉ along a paved and fairly smooth 100km stretch of road. Like Barão do Melgaço, Poconé is not real Pantanal country, but it’s a start and there are plenty of hotels in town. On the main square, Praça Rondon, the Hotel Skala at no. 64 (t 65/3721-1407; R$71-120), and a couple of restaurants take most of the trade. At the southern end of town at the start of the road to Porto Jofre, the cheaper Hotel Santa Cruz (t 65/3721-1439; R$71-120) is recommended for relatively clean and comfortable lodging. Cheaper still, but slightly grubby, is Dormitório Poconé (upto R$40), near the rodoviária.
The swamp proper begins south of the town, along the aborted Transpantaneira road. In fact, it’s just a bumpy track, often impassable during the rains, but you’ll see plenty of wildlife from it, as well as signs marking the entrances to a number of fazenda-lodges and pousadas set back from the road around various tributaries of the Rio Cuiabá, notably the Pixaim and Rio Claro. Although pricey, they’re cheaper than their counterparts in the southern Pantanal, and all have restaurants and facilities for taking wildlife day-trips into the swamp by boat, on horseback or on foot. Another track from Poconé, in an even worse state, trails off southeast to Porto Cercado on the banks of the Rio Cuiabá itself, and also has a few pousadas.
After 145km, having crossed around a hundred wooden bridges in varying stages of dilapidation, the track eventually arrives at PORTO JOFRE. Porto Jofre is a small fishing hamlet, literally the end of the road. This is as far as the Transpantaneira route has got, or ever looks like getting, thanks to technical problems and the sound advice of ecological pressure groups. As far as accommodation in town goes, the upmarket Hotel Porto Jofre (closed Nov–Feb; office at Av. São Sebastião no. 357, Cidade Alta, Cuiabá t 65/3637-1593, w www.portojofre.com.br;R$261-350), has a monopoly and its own grassy airstrip for wealthy fishermen tourists from São Paulo. If you have a hammock or a tent, it’s usually all right to sleep outside somewhere, but check with someone in authority first (ask at the port) and don’t leave your valuables unattended. There are no other options unless you can get someone to invite you to their house.
From Porto Jofre, there are irregular cargo boats to Corumbá (sometimes on Wed; R$70–90), normally carrying soya or cattle from Cáceres; the journey takes between two and five days, depending on whether the boats sail through the night. It’s also possible to arrange a day or two’s excursion up the Piquiri and Cuiabá rivers from Porto Jofre. These are increasingly good places for spotting wild jaguars beside the river.
Although less frequented than the Porto Jofre route, CÁCERES is another good target from Cuiabá, 233km west of the city. It’s a very pleasant, laid-back place, and given the prices of accommodation along the Transpantaneira, definitely deserves consideration as a base for visiting the Pantanal. It’s a three- to four-hour journey by bus, several of which leave daily from the rodoviária in Cuiabá. On the upper reaches of the Rio Paraguai, which is still quite broad even this far upstream, Cáceres is a relatively new town, made up largely of wooden shacks, bars and pool rooms. There are lots of cheap hotels, the best of which is the Santa Terezinha, Rua Tiradentes 485 (t 65/3223-4621; R$41-70), which is clean and hospitable. More upmarket, the Hotel Ipanema at Rua Gen. Osorio 540 (t 65/3223-1177; R$121-180) has a pool and also has air conditioning and TV in all rooms. The travel agency Natureza, at Rua Coronel José Dulce 304 (t 65/3223-1997), can arrange pousada accommodation and a number of good-value tours. Several boats operate from here, including the Babilonia (t 67/3223-1379, w www.barcobabilonia.com.br), which has six cabins and usually goes out for seven days.
The only road to go further into the Pantanal is the track that leads on to the Bolivian border settlement of San Matias; from here you can fly to Santa Cruz (best to sort out exit stamp and entry visas, respectively, with the Brazilian Federal Police in Cáceres or Cuiabá and the Bolivian Consul in Cuiabá).