“If we can teach people about wildlife, they will be touched. Share my wildlife with me. Because humans want to save things that they love.”
The sun is setting and Coen and I are in desperate need of a place to camp. The laterite road cutting through the Pantanal is hemmed in by thick vegetation on both sides, as if we’re passing through an open-air tunnel, without any place to set up the tent. In the dusky shadows I see something moving ahead of the car but it takes a second to register.
“Stop! Animals crossing the road.”
Coen jams on the brakes. As the Land Cruiser comes to a standstill the tires crush two tiny caimans – tragedy, but there’s fascination at the same time. I jump down to watch a group of baby caimans scuttling across the road, each stone and pothole a serious obstacle. With my torch I follow them until I ask myself whether a hungry mama caiman may be lurking somewhere in the bushes.
Wildlife in the Pantanal
We return to the Land Cruiser and drive until we come across a pond surrounded by flatlands. Even though we’re far from civilization there is no silence. Owls, cicadas, frogs and all kinds of nightlife we can’t identify entertain us all night long, and an hour before dawn nature’s majesty awakens with a glorious concert of thousands of birds.
The Pantanal is the world’s largest inland wetland (about half the size of France). It is situated in west Brazil and continues into east Bolivia and south to Paraguay. The rainy season causes the rivers to overflow, turning the fields and forests into a vast sea dotted with islands.
Some ranches can only be reached by boats for months on end, others may still be able to use their airstrip (generally a flattened stretch of grass). As economic development progresses, more wetland is transformed into cattle ranches, which is one of the environmental concerns of the region.
Because the Pantanal consists largely of open stretches of flat land, it is one of the best areas in South America to see wildlife, much better than for example in the Amazon where foliage often prevents you from spotting the animals you hear all around you.
The best time of the year to watch the Pantanal’s wildlife is July and August when the water level is at its lowest and animals gather at the few water reservoirs left.
There are 4 ways in.
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Gateway 1: The Transpantaneira
On the north side of the Pantanal, the 90 mile-long, laterite and dead-end Transpantaneira with about 120 wooden bridges runs from Poconé to Porto Jofre. The road cuts through open land crossing ponds, rivers and streams, which makes it easy to see hundreds of caimans, large families of capybaras, and Jabiru storks that nest in the tall, leafless trees.
The Jabiru is one of the world’s largest birds (a male can be as tall as 5 feet), is locally called the tuiuiu and is the symbol of the Pantanal.
Read More: Accommodation & Camping in Brazil
Cuiabá is also the place to find travel agencies and tour operators. Although you can book a 1-day Pantanal tour, I would suggest giving yourself at least 2 days with an overnight stay in a lodge. Sunrise and sunset are the best hours for wildlife spotting and bird watching and they are easily missed when you are rushing back and forth on a 1-day tour.
Wild camping is possible on small stretches of land along the Transpantaneira. Or camp at the far end of the Transpantaneira, along the Rio Cuiabá. It was our lucky camp as we a jaguar on the other side of the river.
There are various lodges along the Transpantaneira. You can organize accommodation yourself (online or in Cuiabá) or book a tour that includes an overnight stay.
Note that the Transpantaneira is not for low-budget travelers. Most are upscale accommodations with all-inclusive prices for an overnight stay, food, and excursions (More on types of excursions below).
Gateway 2: Estrada Parque 1 (from Campo Grande)
Campo Grande is the capital of Mato Grosso do Sul. The city is nice enough but doesn’t really warrant a visit other than to organize your trip to the southern edge of the Pantanal.
West of Campo Grande lies a town called Aquiduana and from here a road runs west to Corumbá: the Estrada Parque. It was built as a telegraph road at the beginning of the 20th century by Marechal Rondon, who mapped large parts of western Brazil, came into contact with indigenous tribes and opened up the region by connecting Corumbá with Rio de Janeiro by means of this telegraph road.
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The Estrada Parque is the Pantanal’s highway for travelers. All organized tours from Campo Grande (as well as Corumbá, see below) to the Pantanal drive this stretch. Expect to sit on a wooden bench in an open truck with a roof to provide shade.
Besides zillions of birds among which toucans, macaws, Jabiru storks and waterfowl, chances are high you’ll spot giant otters, giant anteaters, deer, wild boars and capybaras.
You can organize your trip in Campo Grande. There are several tour operators located downtown. Make sure you find the one that fits your needs, e.g. a guide who speaks English (which is not a matter of course).
Along the Estrada Real you’ll find places suited for backcountry camping. Make sure to put up your tent behind thick bushes to avoid kilos of dust descending on you when a car passes by.
Along the Estrada Parque are pousadas (guesthouses) and hotels, varying from basic to comfortable. Some are all-inclusive, others have separate fees for accommodation, food and activities such as piranha fishing. You can book them independently online and in Campo Grande, or via a tour operator.
Gateway 3: Estrada Parque 2 (from Corumbá)
Corumbá lies along the 1,200-mile-long Río Paraguay, on the west side of Brazil’s Pantanal, and is the border town with Bolivia. In Tupia-Guaraní, Corumbá means ‘Place that is far away’. Unless you arrive from Bolivia, Corumbá is, in fact, far away from everywhere and you may as well explore the Pantanal from Cuiabá or Campo Grande.
The region is rich in calcium, which is reflected in the Corumbá’s white architecture. Not surprisingly the town is nicknamed ‘White Town’. Corumbá is laid out in a grid, easy to navigate and despite its remote location offers all practical traveler’s needs such as guesthouses and hotels in different price ranges, restaurants, ATMs, and tour operators. The town is built on a clifftop, from which you can admire vast views of the wetland.
Check out if the local mail-cum-taxi-cum-grocery delivery boat plies between Corumbá and Poconé (the southernmost point of Transpantaneira, see Gateway 1). We tried to catch it twice but for various reasons it didn’t run. The boat plies right along the Pantanal Conservation Area, which received UNESCO World Heritage Status in 2000.
Another challenge may be to retrace John Grisham’s trip from his novel The Testament, in which the main character takes a boat from Corumbá to find the illegitimate daughter, believed to be living as a missionary with a tribe in the Pantanal, of a businessman who has left her a fortune.
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Like in Campo Grande you can book (multiple)-day trips to the Estrada Parque from here. Unique to Corumbá is the variety of boat trips thanks to its access to the Río Paraguay.
You’ll find a range of options varying from a 1-day open boat trip for anglers to multiple-day cruises on comfortable ships (with accommodation and a restaurant) that include side trips into tributaries in smaller boats.
Gateway 4: Into the Heart of the Pantanal
An increasing number of fazendas have cut down on their cattle activities and now focus on (eco) travel. Some of them are located along the Transpantaneira and the Estrada Parque, but several are deep in the Pantanal’s interior; hard or impossible to reach by road.
There are 2 ways to get there:
1- Take a plane (from any of the above-mentioned gateways) to one of the luxury accommodations with all comforts, guides, and excursions.
2- Drive, or be driven. You can also opt for the up to a 10-hour rough, uncomfortable ride through the wilderness. Since it will be a long, exhausting day to get there and back, make sure you have at least another 2 or 3 days to stay there to make it worth your trip (and money, because although it’s cheaper than flying, these trips don’t come cheap).
Coen and I stayed at Hotel Fazenda Quatro Cantos, a 9-hour drive from the Estrada Parque. We had a great time with the staff who enjoyed teaching me Portuguese and took us on safaris and a piranha fishing trip.
Among the common excursions you can book through any of the above-mentioned gateways or at lodges, are photography safaris (day or night), fishing trips, and boat trips to spot caimans and giant otters. Some accommodations have trails for hiking or horseback riding.
Language & Reading
No doubt you’ll be able to find guides or lodges with staff speaking English but don’t expect English to be a common language in this region. A phrasebook or dictionary might be handy.
- Pantanal Wildlife: A Visitor’s Guide To Brazil’s Great Wetland (Bradt Wildlife Guides), by James Lowen
- Wildlife Conservation Society Birds of Brazil: The Pantanal and Cerrado of Central Brazil (A Field Guide), by John A. Gwynne
- Brazil: Pantanal and Bonito by Philips Guides
- Lonely Planet’s Brazilian Portuguese Phrasebook & Dictionary
Check it Out: The Road Trip t-shirt collection
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