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  • Writer's pictureDave Jackson

North Pantanal, Brazil – Self Drive safari | Best budget way to see Jaguars

Updated: Jun 9, 2023

The two main options when it comes to visiting the Northern Pantanal are to book on to an all- inclusive Pantanal tour, where you are collected from your accommodation in Cuiabá or the airport by your guide. The tour is planned out and booked for you and you are chaperoned by the guide (English speaking if you choose) for the whole trip. The second option is self-drive the Pantanal; pick up a hire car in Cuiabá, book your own lodges and wildlife excursions and drive yourself into the Pantanal. There are pros and cons to both….

Amazing sunset over the river in Porto Jofre
Amazing sunset in Porto Jofre

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1 - Fully guided tour of the Northern Pantanal

I think the main pro to this option is the ease of it; having a guide with you at all times makes communication at the lodges easier and hopefully they will be able to impart their knowledge of the area and the wildlife and be on hand to answer any questions, or help fix any problems you may have.

The main con however is the cost. For a 4D3N tour we received quotes between £1,000 - £1,500 ($1120 - $1680) per person, which was sadly out of our price range. They also offer less flexibility. The self-drive option allows you to take your time on the journey into the Pantanal & even go on your own wildlife drives from the lodges.

Note – just a quick note on the fully guided tours – whilst most people who chose this option book their tour from their home country in advance, we, wrongly as it turned out, assumed that you would be able to visit the tour agency’s offices in Cuiabá, discuss the tours and haggle for a good price. This is not the case! We tried to visit, in person, two of the big tour companies’ offices. The first, whilst it did have an office it clearly wasn’t for people walking in off the street and despite ringing a buzzer on the gates, we received no response. The second office was a derelict building, currently undergoing renovation! Therefore, all communication needs to be done remotely online. We found when contacting tour operators either by email or WhatsApp you receive a very quick response, usually within a few hours.

2 - Self-drive the Pantanal

The main pro with self driving the northern Pantanal is the cost – we managed to replicate the guided tours we had been quoted for, plus a little extra for half the price. Additionally, as I mentioned, self-driving the Pantanal gives you a more flexibility both with your itinerary and during the days you spend in the Pantanal. Some of the lodges allow you to do your own wildlife drives on their land in your vehicle and whilst driving between lodges you can take your time & stop to watch the wildlife as you choose. We sat for a good half an hour watching a family of Capybara graze by the side of the road, I'm sure an organised tour would not have been able to stop that long.

The main con is that the self-drive option requires a lot more planning as you will have to book each element separately but it is totally do-able. Also, not having an English speaking guide means what we learnt about the Pantanal and it’s wildlife was gleaned from the internet, guide books and our fellow travellers. It would have been nice to have someone to pose questions to as unfortunately our Portuguese is severely lacking. The only other thing to point out is that you are on your own and some people may find that a little daunting, I know I did when we first considered this option. However, when you read about our experience you will see how easy it is and with the locals being so lovely, I don’t think you would ever come unstuck.

We chose the self-drive option with the main driver being the cost. Whilst it was a little harder to plan and arrange, we actually did it all within the 24 hours before we set off and it worked out amazing well. I really don’t think we lost out by doing it this way and we had the best time!

Hire car Renult Duster from Localiza
Our hired Renault Duster

3 - How to organise a self-drive of the Pantanal

3.1 - Car hire

3.1.1 - Which car hire company to use in Cuiaba

Localiza seems to be a popular car hire place in Brazil, so we used them. Initially we tried reserving the car online but ran into problems when it came to authorising our payment details. There were only a few options for translating the website and having chosen ‘American’ due to ‘English’ not being an option, when we tried to enter our address to verify our card details it would only accept a numbers only ZIP code (as they have in America), which obviously we do not have! In the end we had to go to the Localiza office near the airport, which in hindsight we should have done in the first place as we found the experience really good. They even had an English speaking member of staff who was really helpful and we were able to drive away with the car there and then. If you are flying into Cuiabá airport it might be worth getting your car straight away and save that extra Uber back to the car hire office.

3.1.2 - Which car to choose to drive the Pantanal

You don't necessarily need a 4x4 in the dry season but something with good ground clearance as the Transpantaneira is unsealed. We were recommended the Renault Duster, VW Gol, Fiat Uno or Toyota Sienna. We settled on a Duster and it was perfect for the job and we didn’t encounter any issues.

3.1.3 - Ethanol vs Gasoline

If you hire a petrol car most allow you to fill up using either ethanol or gasoline & even mix the two in the tank, but double check this with the car hire company. Ethanol is cheaper than Gasoline (about half the price) but you don’t get as many km to the litre (70% efficiency compared to gasoline) and this is something you need to consider for your drive into the Pantanal. The man at the rental place said they prefer ethanol as it is cheaper and better for the environment. But, at only 7-8km to the litre using ethanol, we weren’t going to get there and back without running out of fuel, or at least it would be pretty tight! Poconé is the last place you can fill your tank, there are no petrol stations on the Transpantaneira. We were given the car with a ‘full’ tank (we soon realised it was only full in the sense that it showed as full on the petrol gauge, there was definitely more room in there!) of ethanol so we drove to Poconé using nearly quarter of a tank on the gauge (again it seemed a lot because it wasn’t totally full in the first place) and filled up with gasoline instead. This ensured we had enough fuel to get to Porto Jofre and back. If you want to do any self-drives around the Poconé area of the Transpantaneira (more on this further down) you will need to return to Poconé to fill up before continuing on to Porto Jofre to ensure you have enough to get you back again.

3.2 - The journey into the Northern Pantanal

The journey from Cuiabá to Poconé, which is the last town before you reach the Transpantaneira, (the only road in and out of the Pantanal), is 100km on tarmac roads. The Transpantaneira is tarmac for the first few kms and then becomes a dirt road for the rest of the 145km, all the way to Porto Jofre.

4 - Booking your lodges and wildlife tours in the Northern Pantanal

There aren’t a lot of travel blogs out there written by those who have chosen the self-drive option (so hopefully you will find this one useful if considering this route) but from our enquiries into the fully guided tours & reading the travel blogs of others who had been on these tours we had a few names of lodges that the tour companies use, that seemed to be well rated by the travellers. Most lodges offer daily activities or multi day tours that you can book onto when booking your stay, but there are a few that are only for use by the guided tour companies.

5 - Where to stay in the Northern Pantanal

5.1 - Pouso Alegre Lodge - 970R$ per night for 2 people, full board.

This lodge seems to be a popular choice to split up the drive from Cuiabá to Porte Jofre, sitting about halfway along the journey, about 33km further on from Poconé. It took us about 2.5 – 3 hours to drive here from Cuiabá city centre. We are so glad we chose to stay here & would highly recommend it.

The staff are warm and welcoming. Luiz the owner, had good English and whilst the other staff didn’t have any English, they were friendly and did what they could to communicate with us. The lodge is set in a rustic, back to nature area and you will see tonnes of wildlife without straying more than 5m from your room! Each morning at 6.30am they put out seed and fruit for the birds, which is a great opportunity to see loads of different species up close – we even saw Toco Toucans and Chestnut Eared Aracari.

The rooms are nice, comfortable and clean & we had aircon and a ceiling fan. There was WIFI in the common area, but it didn’t reach the bedroom we were in. Full board is included in the price of your stay and the food was fresh and delicious; all buffet style so you can choose what you have & go back for seconds! The mealtimes are set, Breakfast 7am, Lunch 12pm & dinner 7.30pm. Drinks are not included but filtered water is available at all times & hot drinks at mealtimes. They operate an honesty system for Fizzy drinks (7R$) and beer (8R$).

The lodge offers tours you can book onto at an extra, but extremely reasonable, price. We did a night safari (240R$ but this was for the vehicle. It only cost us 160R$ as another girl wanted to do it the same night so they split the cost three ways) and a guided walk (100R$, again this was for the walk, rather than per person, so if you were a group of 4 it would be the same price) with one of the staff members and both were excellent.

5.1.1 - Our experience at Pouso Alegre & highlights of the wildlife we saw

We set off early from the city, around 8.30am and although we stopped a few times on the journey, first to get petrol and then a couple of times to take photos of birds, (including Savanna Hawk, Rhea, Egrets & the icon of the Pantanal, the Jabiru Stork) lots of Caiman and a massive Yellow Anaconda crossing the road ahead of us!

A Yellow Anaconda crossing the Transpantaneira
A Yellow Anaconda crossing the Transpantaneira

We arrived at Pouso Alegre at about 11.30am and were shown to our room by the lovely Fabio. Lunch was served at 12pm and as we were going to be leaving before lunch time the next day we were invited to join today.

Luiz, the owner, had informed us the day before that he would be out during the day getting his car repaired but said if we needed anything or wanted to arrange any tours just to WhatsApp him and he would arrange. During lunch we dropped him a message to say we had arrived and ask if we could go on a guided walk that afternoon and join the night safari that evening. He replied within minutes to say he would ask Fabio to take us out at 3.30pm and yes, we could join the night safari.

The next few hours were spent lazing in hammocks outside our room and having a little explore of the grounds around the lodge. I won’t bore you with the names of all the birds we saw but if you are a “twitcher” you will absolutely love this place, I have never seen or heard such an abundance of birdlife! You may be interested to hear though that we did see the endangered Hyacinth Macaws. We also saw lots of cheeky South American Coatis & an Amazon Lava Lizard.

At 3.30pm we set out with Fabio further afield on the lodges’ grounds. Although he didn’t speak English, he had a great guidebook he used to show us the different wildlife he pointed out to us, along with Google for extra help and translation. He clearly knew exactly where to look for things and stopped frequently to listen for bird or monkey calls, even imitating some of them to encourage them to come a little closer so we could getter a better look.

During the walk with Fabio we got to see an abundance of birdlife & many mammals. The highlights of which were, a Southern Tamandua, Capuchin Monkey, Black & Gold Howler Monkeys, and a mother & daughter Tapir close to the lodge.

The afternoon walk was great value for money as Fabio guided us for around 2.5 hours. We did however pop back to the lodge mid walk as the heavens decided to open & we were all getting drenched!! Whilst back at the lodge Fabio showed us a small snake, he had found a few days before.

After a tasty dinner in the evening Luiz came over to introduce himself & let us know that we would set off on the night drive as soon as we were ready after dinner. We went out in Luiz’s truck which was a pick-up with 2 bench seats bolted to it. There was only the 2 of us, along with 1 American girl, but you could easily fit 5/6 comfortably.

Luiz drove & 1 of his guides stood in the back of the truck with us, constantly panning back & forth with a large, bright spot light, looking for wildlife. On the drive we got to see the eerie sight of many Caiman in the pools as their eyes glow like stars in the flash light, multiple crab eating foxes, a few species of owl, Common Pauraque & a Common Potoo. Luiz also stopped the truck at one point to catch a small frog & to explain how you can tell which specie it is & whether it was male or female.

At 6:30am the next morning we attended the bird feeding at the lodge. The array of birds coming for the feast was amazing!! The highlights included Chestnut-eared Aracari, Toco Toucan & of course some monkeys & Coatis came along as they didn’t want to miss the opportunity for free food!

A beautiful Toco Toucan
A beautiful Toco Toucan

5.2 - Drive from Pouso Alegre to Porto Jofre

After breakfast we packed up & got on our way to our next stop. The total journey was only 145Km, but as the whole journey was on unsealed roads, it took just over 3 hours. We were there in dry season and the roads were in fairly good condition, however some of the bridges aren’t for the faint hearted! At the start of the journey the bridges were concrete, which were great, but around half way they switched to wooden bridges in a varying states of repair. There were signs that work was being done to replace/upgrade some of the bridges so you may find by the time you get there many more of the rickety bridges have gone.

As you approach the wooden bridges, you will see around half of them have an option during dry season to skip the bridge & drive round the side. In wet season or after heavy rain this would not be possible. Where there was this option, despite what the bridge looked like we took it to be safe. However, the last 7 or 8 bridges before getting to Porto Jofre didn’t have this option. One bridge crossing in particular was very hairy with multiple holes & dips in a couple of places where clearly the leg below had given way. It reminded us both of a number of the old Top Gear adventures! The main thing to remember with these is NOT to drive fast! A lot of the wooden slats are loose & driving fast over them could very easily damage the underside of your car, or pop a tyre.

Along the way keep your eyes peeled for wildlife, we stopped to admire different birds of prey and a family of capybara munching away on juicy pond plants!

A family of Capybara
A family of Capybara

5.3 - Pousada Porto Jofre Puma Lodge – 6000R$ for 2 people full board for 3 nights – advertised as 3157R$ PP.

We contacted several different options in Porto Jofre looking for the best deal. A few places responded to say they did not accept self-drives, but Pousada Porto Jofre came back with a price we were happy with. We had seen their name mentioned a few times by some of the top-rated tour operators, so hoped the standards would be good.

We booked their 4D3N tour which gives you full board, 1 night safari & 2 full days on the river (I wouldn’t totally class it as 4 days myself as you literally only get breakfast on the day you check out but that is how it is advertised.)

The lodge had very manicured grounds & a nice swimming pool to cool down in. Porto Jofre can easily hit 40°C, so a dip in the pool between your morning & afternoon boat safari can be a nice reprieve!

The rooms were modern & clean with aircon but no fan. They weren’t totally airtight, so expect a few friends coming in to visit!

There is WIFI at the lodge but contrary to what the website states it isn’t accessible in all the rooms but strong enough in the common areas.

Filtered water is not included as there are no filter taps (which is a bit off in my opinion). You have to buy water, which only comes in 200ml plastic cups (no large bottles) at 3R$. So, either buy a big bottle of water from the supermarket in Poconé/Cuiabá or take a Lifestraw filter bottle like we did. There are other drinks for sale; fizzy drinks are 6R$ (229/285ml), beer 17R$ (600ml) or 8R$ (200ml). Hot drinks and juice were provided with breakfast but at no other meal.

They sometimes put out fruit for the birds but not at an official time. On our last day they put food out at around 10:30am, there wasn’t as many birds attending as at Pouso Alegre but still nice to see. We didn’t see them, but several other guests saw Hyacinth Macaw in the lodge gardens.

We arrived earlier in the day than I think the lodge expected and because there isn't a reception desk we struggled to find anyone at first. In the end we we're able to speak to one of the maids in order to check-in. None of the staff here spoke English and so unfortunately, as our Portuguese was so poor, it made communication a little difficult. However we were able to use Google translate to find out information about meal times and where we needed to be for the boat safaris.

5.3.1 - Pousada Porto Jofre itinerary in a nutshell

· Night safari is after dinner the night you arrive

· Breakfast starts at 6am

· After breakfast you walk down a path behind the pool to meet your boat driver. There didn’t seem to be a set time, just whenever you are ready, so we were usually down there about 6.40am

· You get back to the lodge at around 11:40am (unless you ask the night before for a packed lunch so you can eat on the boat)

· 12pm lunch

· A bit of chill time where we opted to take advantage of the pool

· 2pm walk back down the path to catch the boat

· Back to the lodge about 6pm

· Dinner 7:30pm

The meals at this lodge were nice and plentiful. Again, it was buffet style so you could choose what you wanted and go back for more.

Buffet at Pousada Porto Jofre
Buffet at Pousada Porto Jofre

5.3.2 - Power supply

As you would expect in the middle of the world’s largest wetland, the power supply in Porto Jofre is not amazing. So just be aware that the aircon is not super cold, especially during the day, & one night we had no power from about 9:30pm.

5.3.3 - The night safari

When on safari you can never guarantee what animals you are going to see, or whether you will see any at all, that's the excitement of it! Unfortunately we, and the other guests staying at the same time as us, didn't see anything of real interest, only a few fleeting owls! However another guests' friend, who has stayed the week before, had come across an Ocelot, so it's all luck of the draw.

The lodge itself could improve it's safari experience; the set-up (two restaurant chairs in the back of a pick up!) is a little rustic to say the least, but no doubt you would soon forget the uncomfortableness if you came across wildlife.

Top tip we would give though is to bring your own torch, ideally a decent one. The guide in our safari vehicle didn't have a powerful enough torch, which no doubt hindered our chances of spotting wildlife.

The main attraction at this lodge is the boat safaris for the chance of seeing jaguars, so just think of the night drive safari as an added extra that you might just fall lucky on.

5.3.4 - On the river in Porto Jofre

Our boat driver clearly knew the river very well, he was very friendly but sadly had no English. We did try to use Google Translate on a couple of occasions, but we decided he either couldn’t read Portuguese, or his eyesight wasn’t great, as he never responded appropriately to the questions or offered to type a reply.

On both days of our safari, we amazingly saw 7 Jaguars, multiple Giant Otter families and lots of capybara & caiman. Birdlife of note was the Savanah Hawks & Kingfishers.

We managed to get by very well with our guide using broken Portuguese & pointing. He seemed to have a nose for where the Jaguars were & we were often first there. At one point we had 2 Jaguars to ourselves for around an hour!!

Highlight of the time in Porto Jofre was seeing a large female take down a huge caiman. During the kill we didn’t see much other than splashing & flashes of colour as it happened in the reeds, but you could hear a lot of crunching! We did, however get to see her hauling the huge caiman up the bank to hang in a tree after having her fill to save for later for her & her family.

5.3.5 - Recommendations for a picnic on the boat Vs coming back for lunch

There are 2 options when it comes to your whole day boat safari,

1. You come back at lunch and then go back out for another 4 hours later

2. You take a packed lunch with you & you can stay out for as long as you can bear it!

We took some advice off the couple that had been at the lodge for a couple of days & they advised us to come back for lunch. It gives you chance to cool down as it can easily hit 40°C in Porto Jofre & shade on the river is pretty much non-existent.

Another couple we met at the lodge opted for a pack lunch & ended up returning at 2pm anyway as they were too hot. So, although you have a chance of being out on the river longer by taking a packed lunch, it’s a long day sat in a small boat, and you may overheat!

6 - What to pack for a trip into the Northern Pantanal

  • Sun cream (SPF 50+)

  • Sun hat

  • Insect repellent

  • Binoculars

  • A decent camera if you have one (we only had phones as our camera died the day before we set off & managed, but we could have got some much better shots with a decent one!)

  • Torch for night safari & if there is a power cut

  • Bottled water/filter bottle

  • Cash - Bear in mind some lodges require cash on arrival. There are no cash machines in Porto Jofre but there are some in Poconé. We opted to withdraw cash in Cuiabá to be safe.

7 - Costs of self-driving Pantanal

Car hire –Approx. R$300 (£50/$60) per day

**For comparison the cost of a transfer from Cuiaba airport straight into Porto Jofre is roughly R$2500 (£400/$500)

Fuel - $50

Accommodation in Poconé – Approx. R$940 (£150/$190) per night for 2 people sharing, full board.

Safaris in Poconé

· FREE - walks and use of trails, roads and ways and use of 24-meter observation tower.

· Horseback ride, R$140,00 per person / 2 hours.

· Night safari is R$240,00 for all.

· Walking safari with a local worker, is R$100,00 for all.

Accommodation in Porto Jofre – R$1920 (£308/$390) per night for 2 people sharing, full day river safari

8 - Summary

If you have unlimited money for the Pantanal the private guided tour will be a little more stress-free if like us, you have no Portuguese. The local boat drivers know the river & animals better than the guides so when you are out on the river the guide acts more of a translator. I would not go on a group tour as there always seemed to be people having to take turns to take photos & others missing them all together! In addition, you don’t have control of how long you spend at each viewing opportunity! Imagine paying twice the price to spend 9 hours a day next to an annoying person who either doesn’t want to leave somewhere or wants to leave when you don’t!

If we were to go again or we were advising friends or family I would advise to do the same itinerary as ours, but if you are able to add on an additional day at Pouso Alegre.

If money is too tight maybe drop a day in Porto Jofre (don’t if you can afford it!) as that is the main expense. It's 2057R$ PP for 3D2N (one day on the river) & 3157R$ PP for 4D3N. At the time of our visit, it worked out £350/400$ more for the extra night’s stay and day on the river.

Take a large bottle of water (or Lifestraw Go /another water purification option) to Porto Jofre. If you end up buying water at the lodge and were to drink 3L of water a day, it would cost 45R$(£7.50/$9) PPPD, not to mention the plastic waste!

If you do end up just doing 1 night at Pouso Alegre (we wished, we had spent more time there!) do another walk in the morning after breakfast. We ended up with a lot of pool time on the first day in Pousada Porto Jofre, which was lovely & relaxing, but we maybe should have squeezed in another walk.

If you do stay for longer at Pouso Alegre do some of your own walks & self-drives. Luiz is perfectly happy for you to walk the walking trails yourself or drive the paths on his land & will even give you directions if you ask. Just bear in mind you may need to go back to Poconé for a top up on fuel.

Pousada Porto Jofre’s full board is from check in at 2pm to check out at 12pm, which means you are only entitled to dinner on the first day and breakfast on the last. There is the option to pay more for lunch on either of those days if you want to add it on.

Most importantly, enjoy it! The northern Pantanal is an amazing wildlife experience & seeing Jaguars in the wild is something else!


Apr 23

Hi Dave and Becca,

Thank you so much for this extensive article and all the great tips! We are visiting Pantanal in 2 weeks and thanks to you, we will not have to break the bank for that :). We noticed that the link for your stay in Porto Jofre does not work anymore and were wondering if you have any other way to contact the Pousada Porto Jofre Puma Lodge?


Feb 22

It appears that many of the lodges are already booked for August (I'm writing this in February). So- we're planning a self-guided trip. I like all your tips for this. Maybe it's a language thing, but it's rather difficult to get a response from our inquiries. I have made plans to just pitch a tent - if we can find a camping area. But, I can't seem to find any information on how to arrange a boat tour from Porto Jofre. I like the idea of a private boat guide, but have no idea on how to contact one. Help would be most appreciated.


Feb 17

Hi Dave and Rebecca. Thanks for this fantastic blog. Very useful as we are planning to take the same route in July. A few questions: it wasn’t clear to me if you can get petrol in Porto Jofre. And what about stops in between your two lodges? Is there sufficient variation in flora and fauna to justify a few extra overnight stops? Could you have taken your own packets of seed for early morning bird feeding at the pousada? If you manage to see and answer this, I may come back with a few more questions!


Jan 01

Dear Dave, what a fantastic and informativ site. This was just what we needed to take the chance and do the selfdrive. :) Just one question regarding the car hires. Did you chose to pay extra for the car coverage and this party coverage? Own some countries they you need to take this endless you want them to reserve a huge amount on your debit card. Thanks in advance. Jali


Aug 28, 2023

We met Dave and Rebecca in Honduras (we swam with dolphins together) and stumbled across this article by chance as we wanted to go to the Pantanal but weren't sure how to do it on a budget. We pretty much followed this guide to the letter and had an amazing time! We couldn't believe the abundance of wdlife and never would have expected to see 9 jaguars in a single day!! Thank you Dave and Rebecca :)

from Catherine and Greg

Dave and Becca
Dave and Becca
Oct 12, 2023
Replying to

Hi Catherine & Greg, Thanks for reaching out, we're so happy that the blog was so useful to you. 9 jaguars in a day, that's impressive, our best was 7. So sorry for the delay in responding, we're back home now and have been on the job hunt so taken our eye off the blog for a little while. So lovely to hear from you, hope you are still enjoying your travels!!

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