Wildlife wonderland: planning your trip to the Pantanal

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You never forget the first time you set eyes on a hyacinth macaw. A remarkable parrot cloaked in deep indigo plumage with clownish yellow eye patches, it seems both too fantastic and too beautiful to be real. But as home to some of the world´s most incredible – and cooperative – wildlife, the Pantanal offers many of these breathtaking close encounters with exotic, gaudy and occasionally intimidating creatures. It’s a must for anyone traversing South America.

Covering more than 210,000 sq km of central Brazil, eastern Bolivia and northeastern Paraguay, the Pantanal is the largest inland wetland on the planet. It boasts a biodiversity that’s the envy of everywhere, except perhaps the Amazon, and it’s the only place on earth where encounters with the majestic jaguar are more probable than possible. Wend your way around the weed-choked streams with your guide, imbibe the sights, sounds and smells of this tropical paradise, and wait to see what remarkable beastie awaits you at the next river bend.

Why go?

If you’re not an animal lover before you go to the Pantanal, you will be by the time you leave – there is no better place to see wildlife in South America. Being an open habitat the animals are easy to observe, with herds of square-nosed capybaras, masses of sunbathing caiman and clouds of complaining water birds accompanying every outing. Try your hand at piranha fishing, or take a boat trip in pursuit of some of the more elusive species, like the stately marsh deer or playful giant otter. These days the Pantanal is the jaguar-watching capital, with four-day boat trips into the Puerto Jofre area offering virtually guaranteed encounters with the biggest cat in the Americas. Birdwatchers will have their hands full identifying the 550-plus species recorded in the area.

How to see the Pantanal

The huge influx of visitors to the area means that it’s easy and convenient to organise a guided tour to the Pantanal. Taking a tour works out cheaper than doing it alone, but standards of tour operators vary considerably. ‘Cheapest’ and ‘best value’ are not synonymous. Guided tours usually include forest walks, lots of boat trips, all-inclusive bed-and-board at one of the government-approved private fazendas (working ranches) and transport to and from the main gateway cities.

Where to go

There are two main access points into the Pantanal: Cuiabá in the north for locations along the Trans-Pantaneira Highway, and Campo Grande in the south for visits to the Estrada Parque access road. As a general rule companies operating out of Campo Grande aim for a mass market, backpacker-style experience where creature comforts play second fiddle to budget constraints. Cuiabá agencies, though slightly pricier, offer more personalised and higher quality trips that probe deeper into the Pantanal and offer your best chances at seeing the star animals.

Trans Pantaneira Highway

The Trans Pantaneira bisects the heart of the Pantanal, south from the flowery pink town of Poconé. It’s a dirt road, often partially impassable in the wet season, and traversed only by eco-tourists and fazenda owners. The drive down to your lodge is an experience in itself, where you may have to give way to herds of jaywalking capybara and can marvel at flocks of herons stabbing at unwary fish emerging from under the lily pads. The Pantanal's most charismatic inhabitants hang out here – the giant otter, marsh deer, tapir and everybody´s favourite feline, the jaguar. The best place to see the latter is near Porto Jofre, but the area is accessible only during the short dry season.

How to: A series of fazendas along the Trans Pantaneira cater to DIY visitors, but the standout stopover is the pioneering Pousada Araras Eco Lodge (www.araraslodge.com.br; double room US$345; activities extra) where hyacinth macaws nest in the garden. Based in Cuiabá, Pantanal Nature (www.pantanalnature.com.br) runs über-professional trips that go as deep as you can go into the Pantanal, as well as managing a jaguar camp near Porto Jofre. Guided trips to see jaguars cost from US$380 per person per day (June to November) and are worth every penny. Low season prices start at around US$230 per day.

Estrada Parque

Red soil and improvised car ferries are features of the Estrada Parque, a dogleg section of loop road that skirts the southern edge of the Pantanal off the main Corumbá-Campo Grande highway. The scenery is impressive, with the prehistoric-looking Jabiru stork stalking the marshes, Toco Toucans plucking palm fruits and beady caiman eyes staring at you from reed beds. The area sees more traffic than the Trans Pantaneira, but not enough for you to feel anything other than in the wild.

How to: Packages offered by top end lodges such as Passo do Lontra Parque Hotel (www.passodolontra.com.br; double room US$130; activities extra) offer your best shot at an authentic Pantanal experience in the south. Though the Estrada Parque is closer to Corumbá, these days guided trips run mainly out of the backpacker mecca of Campo Grande. Countless ‘budget’ tour companies operate out of Campo Grande, but none of them are without complaints and if you opt for a low-end package you should be prepared for big groups, some discomfort (like transport on the back of a cattle truck) and perhaps an element of disorganisation. Prices run from around US$200 for a four-day trip with camping, to $400 for a trip with basic accommodation.

When to go

The cooler winter months (May to August) offer the best combination of animal sightings and agreeable temperatures. Insects are at their bitiest during the wet season (November to April) when some areas may be temporarily inaccessible. Low season is December to March when prices are lowest but the hot, rainy and humid conditions are unpleasant. Though Campo Grande tour operators continue to herd backpacker groups throughout this season, conditions on the Trans Pantaneira mean that many companies in Cuiabá essentially close down at this time.

Top tips

Jaguars: If jaguars are your target, visit during the dry season (June to November) when water levels are low and the animals bask on exposed riverbanks.

Don´t scrimp: If you're serious about seeing animals then pay more for a reputable tour or lodge. You won´t regret it!

Run background checks: Plenty of opinions about Pantanal tour operators are posted online, so before handing over your money make sure to research your company and see if customer opinions match the promises the sales person makes!