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.
Poconé and Porto Jofre
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).