Fishing is best during the first part of the dry season (April to May), when the flooded rivers settle back into their channels, but locals have been known to lasso 80kg fish throughout the dry season. This is some of the best fishing in the world. There are three species of piranha, as well as the tasty dourado (known locally as the river tiger) that reaches upwards of 9kg. Other excellent catches include pacu, suribim, bagre, piraputanga, piapara, cachara, pirancajuva and pintado, to name but a few.
Fishing – with the required permits – is encouraged between March and October. It is, however, prohibited during the piracema (breeding season) running roughly from November to February.
The Brazilian government issues recreational fishing licenses (licença de pesca amadora), but you'll need to negotiate the website in Portuguese: http://pndpa.mdic.gov.br/pndpa/web/pesca_amadora.php.
To fish from a boat, you will need the embarcada license (R$60; the shorebound desembarcada license is R$20). It lasts for a year and is free for seniors. You'll need to use a Brazilian address. Print off the temporary form, take it to any bank or lottery seller to make the payment, then print off the permanent license once it is issued.
Pantanal accommodations are divided into roughly three types: pousadas, which include all meals and range from simple to top-end; fazendas, which are ranch-style hotels that usually have horses and often boats for use; and pesqueiros, which cater for anglers and usually have boats and fishing gear for rent.
If you have doubts about roughing it on the budget tours, it is better to spend a bit more money for basic comforts – a bed, running water and some hope of avoiding a million mosquito bites. It rarely costs much more and the investment is worth it for a good night's sleep.
If you travel independently, you can rent a car and book a stay at various Pantanal lodges. Transportation is almost never included in the room rates and can take a sizable chunk out of your budget if you don't have your own wheels. From Cuiabá, transfers in and out may require any combination of 4WD, boat, horseback and plane, depending on the season.
For this reason, many travelers go in under the services of a tour operator. Transportation in and out is then included and they often have access to more remote lodges.
All accommodations in the Pantanal offer meals; rates are mostly full-board.
Pantaneiros – the local Pantanal folks – make good use of regional ingredients in preparing their delicacies. You’ll find lots of restaurants with regional specialties on your travels in the area – stop in and try some. Fish is a speciality, while on farms cattle and grains come to the fore. Popular Pantanal desserts include furrundu – a mixture of papaya trunk (not the fruit), sugarcane juice and coconut – and ice cream made from bocaiúva, a local palm fruit.
The principal access towns where you can arrange tours are Cuiabá in the north (for the Transpantaneira) and Campo Grande in the south (for the Estrada Parque), with Corumbá on the Bolivian border more of a sideshow these days.
Tours from Cuiabá tend to be slightly more expensive, but more professional with smaller groups and better-trained guides than those from either Campo Grande or Corumbá. They also go deeper into the Pantanal.
Choosing a Guide in the Pantanal
Pantanal tourism is big business and in the past some companies have been guilty of employing underhand tactics in the race to hook clients. Though measures have finally been taken to clamp down on the worst offenders, it is still worth bearing a few suggestions in mind to have a safe and enjoyable trip.
- Resist making a snap decision, especially if you’ve just climbed off an overnight bus.
- Do not make your decision based on cost. Cheaper very rarely means better, but even expensive tours can be a letdown.
- Go on forums. Read online reviews. Speak to other travelers. What was their experience like? In Campo Grande some of the tour companies are quick to badmouth others. Get your advice straight from the horse’s mouth. Be aware that operators often run each other down in online reviews too.
- Compare your options, but remember that the owner or salesperson is not always your guide, and it’s the guide you’re going to be with in the wilderness for several days. Ask to meet your guide if possible. Ascertain your guide's linguistic abilities.
- Don’t hand over your cash to any go-betweens or buy bus tickets that somebody other than the person you give your money to is going to give you.
- If you are even remotely concerned about sustainable tourism, do not use operators and lodges that harm this fragile environment. That means no picking up the animals for photographs or touching them whatsoever.
- Group budget tours focus squarely on the spectacular and easy-to-see species. Serious wildlife-watchers should be prepared to pay more for a private guide.