We stumbled upon the Pantanal when doing research for our trip to Brazil and immediately decided we wanted to visit. Aside from the abundance of birds and mammals such as the capybara, caiman & anteaters, by a very happy coincidence, the dry season (which is from May to October) is also the best time to spot the illusive Jaguar, and as we planned on visiting at the end of September it seemed like a must for us to go.
However, we struggled a little when it came to researching ways to visit, particularly those that are affordable. The Pantanal, being so remote, is not easy or cheap to explore but please don’t let that put you off. We found a way that didn’t break the bank and had the most amazing adventure and so we want to share with you what we did.
The Pantanal is the World’s largest tropical wetland area spanning as massive 42 million acres, which is 170,000km²(source WWF)!! To put that in perspective, that's slightly bigger than England! The majority of the Pantanal sits in Brazil between the states of Mato Grosso (North Pantanal) & Mato Grosso do Sul (South Pantanal) but also spanning into Paraguay & Bolivia.
The Pantanal is often overlooked sitting to the south of the mighty Amazon but really shouldn't be. The Pantanal has the highest concentration of Wildlife in South America. World Wildlife Fund (WWF) estimate there are 656 species of birds, 325 species of fish, 159 species of mammals & 98 species of reptiles!
North vs South
The city of Cuiabá is the gateway to the north through Poconé onto Porte Jofre. Campo Grande is the main transit point to the south with the main town being Bonito. Your first step is deciding if you want to visit the north or south or both. The Pantanal is massive, it’s 830km between Cuiabá & Campo Grande! It is possible to fly between the two if you are on a short trip/have a large budget, but we opted for an overnight bus which took around 11 hours.
Porto Jofre is known to have the highest density of Jaguars anywhere on the planet & during dry season, May to October, it offers almost guaranteed sightings. Porto Jofre is at the end of the Transpantaneira highway which is a 145km dirt track with over 100 bridges; many of which are still made of wood & a little on the rickety side. Although Jaguars are the main draw for most tourists, there are loads of other interesting animals in the north such as Giant Otters, Anaconda, Jabiru, Capybara, Caiman, Potoo, Toucans, Macaws & many birds of prey. On top of all the wildlife opportunity’s there are a few other activities many people choose to pack into their itinerary (which we chose not to as it's not really up our street) including horse riding & piranha fishing.
If you want to hear about how we self-drove the Northern Pantanal click here
The southern Pantanal has an overwhelming array of wildlife to spot (but it is unlikely you will see a Jaguar), it has large numbers of colourful birds including toucans, parrots & macaws. There is also chance to see many mammals is you stay on one of the fazendas (ranches) where you can spot Armadillos & Anteaters.
We opted to stay in Bonito which literally translates to 'beautiful' in English. Until a few decades ago it was unheard of & now it is an ecotourism mega hub. Bonito is surrounded by crystal clear waterways, teaming with fish & an abundance of birdlife to boot. Bonito is the ideal spot to stay if you don't have your own transport as it has lots of accommodation, plenty of eateries & nightlife too. There are dozens of travel agencies arranging day trips to access a wide range of excursions which include snorkelling along the fish filled Rio de Prata, observing a massive number of macaws at the Buraco das Araras (a large sink hole) or seeing the eerie sight of the Gruta do Lago Azul, to name a few.
If you want to hear about what we did in the Southern Pantanal click here