Exploring the Pantanal, Brazil - Alan Key

Alan Key

29 Sep 2016

Starting in Rio

My wife Deryn and I began our trip to Brazil with a three day stopover in Rio. Our hotel was located in a great position in Copacabana very near to the Olympic beach volleyball arena, the atmosphere in the city was buzzing as we were only two weeks away from the Olympic Games. The first day was spent on a sightseeing trip taking in the old city, Christ the Redeemer and of course Sugar Loaf Mountain in our private car with our driver David and guide Vincent who both ensured we saw all the important things including some not usually visited. The next day we caught the underground back into the city and spent the day exploring and walking even watching some of the locals dancing in the street in anticipation of the impending games. 

This stopover was an excellent way to start the holiday.

On to the Pantanal

Next it was off to the Northern Pantanal flying to Campinas and onto Cuiaba where we met up with Brian and Jean our travelling companions (they had already been to Rio on a previous visit). Arriving at the airport we were greeted by Carlos who was to be our local guide for the next week whilst as guests of SouthWild - we were his first private group working for the lodge. Lunch followed in a restaurant across the road from the airport to set us up for the journey. The drive to the SouthWild Wildlife Centre Lodge usually took about 3 to 4 hours passing through the main city of Pocono firstly on the made up Transpanatal Highway before joining the Transpantaneira track after about an hour. This was not the case for us, we took over five hours as we were forever stopping to take photographs of the various wildlife along the track. We saw lots of birds - herons, ibis, kingfishers, rhea, and birds of prey not to mention caiman, brown capuchin, capybaras, agouti and the rare black tailed marmoset. The lodge was roughly half way along the track.

We finally arrived about 5pm and our guide was anxious to get us out on a night safari. We were given a cold drink as we arrived and shown our rooms which were very nice and spacious. Our guide asked us to be ready in ten minutes, then came knocking our doors after five as he was really wanting us to get a move on then we found out why; there was an ocelot at a nearby hide that he was sure would be there if we went quickly…so we did, and were not disappointed. We spent the next hour in a hide and watched two different cats, firstly a young female followed by a male - what a way to start. Returning back to our room in the lodge to unpack before we went for a very enjoyable dinner - as they all were throughout the trip.

Our first full day began with breakfast at 6.30 and out on the Paxiam River for our morning safari observing lots of birds and caiman and a brief glimpse of a southern river otter; we had a kingfisher settle on our driver’s oar that he held up over the boat and the star of the trip was a family of giant river otter that came to investigate us by coming right alongside the boat and put their paws on the side, so close I could not take a picture of it even with a wide angle camera! The afternoon safari began late in the afternoon once the heat had receded I did however get a short swim in the pool beforehand. We decided that a walk through the forest was the activity to do. Not a lot was seen except when we walked out and scared one of the ocelots away.

Following the pattern set the previous day, we began with a three hour river cruise after breakfast along different areas of the river; again saw many birds including a Common Potoo asleep in a tree where it looked just like a piece of tree trunk, and two families of giant otter; we also saw some jaguar tracks but alas not the cat. The afternoon safari was a drive down the Transpantaneira track on the hope of catching sight of giant anteaters and tapirs. We were unlucky on this trip, not seeing either. However, they were about as the other visitors saw both. We did, however, get close to a Red Brocket deer by the side of the track.

Next day it was off down the Transpantaneira track to Porto Jofre to go to the flotel, our base for the next three days. The drive took us three hours in an open truck looking out for wildlife, the southern screamer and toco toucan were by far the best thing we saw. There were lots of birds and caiman down the road similar to our first journey down this highway which we stopped to take more photos of!  

jaguar spotting

After offloading at the riverside we boarded our boat for the hour long journey to the SouthWild flotel arriving in time for lunch. The routine at the flotel is to go out for four hours in the morning then four more after lunch cruising the Cuiaba River and its tributaries looking for wildlife, and jaguars in particular.

Our first trip was absolutely brilliant, within ten minutes of departing down river we came upon our first jaguar, the main reason for going to the flotel.

During our three days at the flotel we had six excursions on the rivers looking for wildlife where we saw at least one jaguar each trip, Twelve sightings of 7 different jaguars in total; probably the best viewing was the first time we saw the mother and two cubs as they crossed the river right in front of us. The boat crews were superb in ensuring no time was wasted if a jaguar was spotted and we only missed one sighting that we set off for. Throughout the safaris, birds in abundance as well as giant river otters were spotted as was an anaconda- oh! and of course capybara - the jaguar’s favourite dinner! 

Our final night was to be spent at Piquiri Lodge about 10 miles from the flotel along the Piquiri River. This lodge is primarily a sport fishing lodge with a runway, the reason we moved was so as to be in position for the next day’s private charter flight across the Pantanal to the southern region. Although this lodge only caters for fishing trips it was a good lodge with some great wildlife in the grounds - agouti, armadillo, deer, monkeys, birds galore including the Hyacinth macaw, the national bird that had not been showing well prior to here and our first tapir that we got very close to. 

Note: here the caipirinhas (the local drink) is by far the most potent in Brazil!

flying over the pantanal

Our Cessna Stationair arrived next morning and we duly said goodbye to Carlos and set off south to Barranco Alto, a ranch with six lodges. Flying over the Pantanal was an excellent way of seeing this vast expanse of wetland area and ranches, our flight lasted 90 minutes before we flew into the airstrip at the ranch. We were met at the aircraft by Stefan our guide for the remainder of this wonderful trip, who walked us over to the main building where we were greeted with a homemade fruit juice and explained the layout of the ranch and what we could expect to do and see before we were taken to our lodge overlooking the lake.

This ranch offers the opportunity for all sorts of things, including helping the Pantanalies to round up the cattle on horseback, horseback safaris, kayak and boat trips along the Negro River and open truck safaris. We opted to do the river cruises each morning and the truck safaris in the afternoon; and our first one began that afternoon with a sunset safari around the salt lakes. As you can imagine this area of the Pantanal is completely different to the northern region, mostly the area comprises large cattle ranches with an abundance of birds, capybara, caiman and mammals such as peccary and feral pig, there are also both species of otter, the river otter and the nootropic or southern otter. The wildlife was regularly seen walking near to the lodge across the land - peccaries, feral pigs, deer and capybara in particular.

We spent four hours each morning cruising the Negro River watching a wonderful family of neotropic otters, capybaras and caiman and many birds including the black skimmers that had made nests on one of the major sand banks in the middle of the river. On the first morning we watched a crab eating fox hunting, and went ashore to watch some white-lipped peccaries. Then, the second we walked along a dried up river bed to a lagoon and saw an agama heron, Stephan was very excited about this as they are not very often seen in the south. After a scrumptious lunch we stayed cool in our lodge before going out on a three to four hour safari around this vast ranch observing grey brocket and pampas deer, more capybara, herds of cattle and some fantastic night hawks, common and large potoo and a great horned owl the largest owl in Brazil; we also and got close to a colony of vampire bats. Each of these safaris, morning and afternoon, included a refreshment break with Stephan providing the drinks and nibbles. 

A brilliant three days were soon over and it was time to move to our final location Baia das Pedras another ranch located about 90 miles from Barranco Alto.

Discovering Baia Das Pedras

Carlos, the owner, arrived in his safari Landrover having driven up from his ranch to collect us. The drive was expected to take about three hours following the roundup corridor, a sandy road used by the Pantaneroes to move their cattle across the Pantanal to market. Carlos had not banked on us wanting to take pictures, not that it was a problem, so the drive took us over five hours as there was lots to see including wildlife we had not encountered before - collared peccary and a fleeting glimpse of a family of tayra a weasel like mammal that is very elusive. A family of southern screamers were in a wetland area very close to the road so we observed them for quite a while as the parents shepherded the two young around the wetland. Eventually arriving at about 1pm to be greeted by Rita his wife and a fantastic lunch.

We decided that we would spend the afternoon of the first day exploring the ranch on foot with Stephan and one of the ranch hands, getting close to scarlet macaws and night hawks who were plentiful. The remainder of the safaris were by jeep driven by Rita we would go out early in the morning for four hours, then again in the afternoon for another three. Each trip was to a different part of this huge ranch and the wildlife was superb; we got very close to a pack of coati and saw a male tayra on two occasions and got a good view of a male howler monkey. One of our trips began with us following a crab eating fox along a track and then spending half an hour with a yellow banded armadillo as it dug into the earth for food. We saw lots of birds new to us - white browed blackbirds, ferruginous pygmy owl, creamed backed, white and green striped woodpeckers and a pair of breeding crown solitary eagles.

On arriving we met up with some researchers and BBC camera crew who were filming giant armadillos that are on the farm. These animals are very scarce and little is known about them. Rita had been advised by the researchers of an area where we may get to see the giant anteaters, so one afternoon we set off to this part of the ranch taking us nearly an hour to get there (still on the ranch!). We waited looked around the area but could not see any until all of a sudden as we were driving along one ran out and into the bushes, Rita suggested we set off on foot to try to see the animal however they move so fast it soon disappeared. Setting off back to the ranch, we came across another that we were able to watch and photograph so we departed very happy bunnies. On the way back we came across a couple of tapirs along the tracks which was also great.

Our last afternoon safari we went for a cruise on the ranch lake to watch the wonderful sunset. Whilst on the lake, thousands of egrets were flying over the top all heading for their night time roost. Little we were to know, Rita had a table set up near to the roost, complete with wine and nibbles for us to go to and have sundowners which was a very pleasant surprise!

The last day dawned and we began with our final safari of the trip after 18 brilliant days. We had another great safari following a crab eating fox on the hunt, a six banded armadillo digging itself a den and a final view of a tayra before it jumped from a tree and ran off.

The plan was to have another flight from the ranch to Aquiduana a town located about 50kms from Campo Grande and our final night stop at the Grand Park Hotel. As we were returning to the ranch the aircraft, another stationer flew over us to the airstrip. We had a final lunch with our brilliant hosts and the pilot and set off on this flight giving us another chance to see the Pantanal from the air.

When I was organising this trip with Tom Brown my idea had been to start in the south and go north however, Tom advised doing the trip the other way round and finishing the trip at Biai as it was a fantastic place to visit. He was not wrong, we were accommodated in a very spacious room in the ranch house and treated like family by Rita and Carlos, The food was some of the best food I have had on any of my travels with the meat on the table coming from their own cattle and pigs, and the selection of accompanying dishes just absolutely wonderful. The ranch is over 25 square miles and we never left the ranch on any of the six safaris we went on.

What a fantastic trip we had. We took 16,000 images between us and saw some absolutely fantastic wildlife, met some great people and had a great experience especially with the jaguars our main reason for going.

Tom and Jan (the local agent) did a great job with all the arrangements, guides and accommodation throughout. If you want to explore the Pantanal speak to Tom he knows all about it!

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