Imagine coming face to face with a giant anaconda, watching charismatic capybara play or even catching a glimpse of the elusive and magnificent jaguar. These are the kinds of experiences and some of the best places that await you in Brazil’s Pantanal region.
Originating from the word ‘pantano’ which literally translated means ‘swamp’ in both Portuguese and Spanish. As the world’s largest freshwater wetland, the Pantanal is one of the most diverse and spectacular ecosystems in the world. It’s also one of the best places to spot wildlife in all of South America. More accessible and less challenging than the mighty Amazon, the animal life is so prolific here even relaxing in a hammock offers a great platform for spotting an incredible array of birdlife.
During the dry season (May to September), the Pantanal is an immense flat grassland that covers an area approximately half the size of France, with lakes and woodland dotted here and there, and the tracks of both animals and farmers weaving in between them. The rainy season (November-March) sees the water level swell significantly, becoming a series of lakes and lagoons broken up by islands of vegetation (cordilheiras).
The Pantanal is divided into Northern and Southern regions, known as the Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul respectively. Each has its own distinctive characteristics and offers a different experience, so deciding when and which to visit is the only difficult part.
Entered through Campo Grande, the Southern Pantanal offers an intense nature experience with an overwhelming array of wildlife to spot. Incredible birdlife abounds, with colourful parrots, toucans and macaws filling the skies. You’ll see caiman, howler monkeys, giant otters and plenty more besides, and there’s lots of accommodation to choose from in the form of fazendas (ranches). Often, their primary function is cattle farming and as a result it can be more basic than some visitors might be used to. Nevertheless, there are still some fantastic places to stay.
The Southern Pantanal floods more than the north, resulting in an explosion of aquatic vegetation at certain times of year. Naturally, this is most common during the wet season making it a little less accessible, but it also means animals tend to cluster on higher lying areas and in some cases makes viewing a little easier.
Reached through the city of Cuiaba, the Northern Pantanal offers a more easily accessed experience, with travellers rewarded with better quality and more varied accommodation. The region lies higher and is less prone to flooding and during wet season the ‘cordilheiras’ burst through the water offering sanctuary to animals like the Brazilian rabbit and Pantanal marmoset.
The region is traversed by the Transpantaneira Highway, originally built as a boiadera, a road to transport cattle to the meat-processing plants in the South. It is little more than a raised dirt track with over 100 wooden bridges. Those willing to make the effort to travel to the end of the road are often rewarded with a sighting of the elusive jaguar. A truly exceptional wildlife experience, spotting a jaguar in its native habitat is one of life’s greatest pleasures and well worth the extra effort.
Regular flights make it possible to combine both north and south in the same visit which maximises your opportunity to experience the widest range of wildlife possible. The inclusion of the Amazon rainforest on your itinerary is also highly recommended.