The Pantanal is a vast floodplain into which three large rivers pour their contents. Hemmed in by sierras, the waters' only escape is the painfully sluggish Rio Paraguay, which crawls along descending just 1cm per kilometre until it reaches the single break in the mountains where it can escape and become the magnificent river that later pours over Iguassu Falls.
The Pantanal is the Earth's largest wetland. Most of the Pantanal lies in Brazil, where it covers the southern part of the Mato Grosso, but it also stretches into neighbouring Bolivia and Paraguay.
The Pantanal's floodplains are a nutrient-rich environment that supports a profusion of wildlife, including tapirs, peccaries, anacondas, capybaras, cayman, iguanas, ant-eaters, deer, tortoises, coatis, armadillo, otters, opossums, wolves, ocelots, puma and monkeys, as well as the rare and magnificent jaguar. Add to this an impressive 670 species of bird that can be seen in the Pantanal, and you have the greatest concentration of wildlife in the Americas.
The Pantanal's wildlife can be experienced by visiting a good choice of dedicated wildlife lodges and eco-aware ranches.
Life in the Pantanal
The name 'Pantanal' originally derives from the Portuguese word pantano, which means swamp. During the rainy season from November to March the swollen rivers bring in more water than can possibly leave, and the Pantanal's water-levels slowly rise by 3 - 4 metres over an area of 230,000 square kilometres.
In the drier months, the water drains slowly from north to south leaving behind scattered pools that are a vital life-source for the native animals and birds, with fish concentrations creating a feeding frenzy for millions of waterbirds their numbers swollen by mass migrations to join in the gluttony.
This constantly shifting habitat means the water in the Pantanal is never stagnant, resulting in a fertile environment that boasts nearly 100 different mammals, 50 reptile species and 1,500 types of plant.
Among the many creatures that frequent the Pantanal, the capybara's numbers are the most impressive, with an estimated population approaching half a million.
The richness of the Pantanal supports the giants of South America's wildlife. The Pantanal is one of the best places to see giant river otters, giant anteaters, giant armadillos, the endangered manned wolf and the marsh deer - each of which is the largest of its kind in South America.
Visiting the Pantanal
The Pantanal is divided into the Northern Pantanal, which is slightly higher, and the Southern Pantanal where the wetland environment is at its most intense. There are excellent wildlife lodges in both areas.
To reach the Pantanal from anywhere else in Brazil you need to fly to Cuiabá, for the Northern Pantanal, and Campo Grande for the south.
A visit to the Northern Pantanal can combine well with a visit to the cerrado habitat of Chapada Guimerais and the intensely productive Amazonian habitat of Cristalino.
The Southern Pantanal can combine very well with trips to Iguassu Falls and the fascinating area around Bonito.
The Northern Pantanal is more suitable than the south for travel during the wet season, owing to the relatively easy access provided by the Transpantaneira Highway.
At a slightly higher elevation, the Northern Pantanal is marginally drier than the south and arguably more accessible, via the main city of Cuiabá.
South-west of the city lies the town of Poconé and the start of the Transpantaneira Highway, the only road running through the region, that winds south some 145km (90 miles) to Porto Joffre. Little more than a raised dirt road, the "highway" is made up of nearly 100 wooden bridges, earning it a place in the Guinness Book of Records as the highway with the most bridges in the world. On each side of the road are huge man-made ditches that remain filled with water throughout the year. These troughs provide a refuge for wildlife during the dry season and therefore great opportunities for wildlife viewing all year round.
In the wet season (generally from late October to April), the forests are in bloom and dense islands of vegetation known as 'cordilheiras' punctuate the floodwater. The animals in this region such as paca, Brazilian rabbit and the 'Pantanal' marmoset remain resident all year round.
At the very end of the highway in the remotest part of the North Pantanal those who are willing to sacrifice creature comforts could be rewarded with a glimpse of the elusive jaguar, which is most likely to be seen between October and January.
Where to stay in the Northern Pantanal
There are a number of excellent lodges in the area that provide great bases for bird watchers, nature enthusiasts or those who simply want to explore the vast open space of the Pantanal. Three examples:
- Piuval Lodge stands in lush grassland dotted by pockets of trees. The plains stretching for miles in either direction make the skies seem all-encompassing, making for particularly spectacular sunsets. The lodge has 14 air-conditioned guest rooms with private bathrooms. The restaurant serves typical Pantanal dishes - including Piranha - and there is a swimming pool with great views across the plains.
- Araras Eco Lodge comprises of a cluster of cabins all linked by a veranda where guests can relax in hammocks. The level grassland rolls away on either side of the lodge, which houses 15 air-conditioned bedrooms all with private bathroom and hot water. There is a swimming pool, bar and restaurant that serves good regional food. The lodge prides itself on its ecological approach and is involved in a number of schemes that aim to diminish the impact of visitors on the local ecosystem. All three lodges provide excellent bases from which to see Hyacinth macaws.
- Posada Rio Claro is situated at Kilometre 42 near the Transpantaneira Highway. All its rooms are air-conditioned and the restaurant serves buffet-style meals based on local cuisine. There is a small swimming pool and optional activities such as horse riding, boat safaris (during the rainy season) and cycling are available upon request.
When the complex series of river systems burst their banks at the beginning of the rainy season, the large open plains of the southern Pantanal in Mato Grosso du Sol are engulfed by vast open stretches of water. In places the water becomes strewn with Victoria-Regia water lilies - expanses of flat, floating greenery so large they could double-up as natural lilos. The enriched floodwater causes an explosion in aquatic vegetation that in turn swells the fish population that proliferate with the abundant food and cover.
During these months it is easy to understand why the first Portuguese explorers mistook the region for an inland ocean on first sight, naming it the Xaraés Sea. If travelling in the wettest months a generous supply of mosquito repellent is advised.
From April onwards the heavy rainfall gives way to clearer skies and drier, warmer weather, making it an excellent time of year for photographers. As the temperatures rise so the water levels start to diminish until, by July, the vast expanses of floodwater have shrunk to mere lakes and pools - named 'vazante do castelo' - enclosed by large stretches of lush grassland.
Animals that had been forced to seek higher ground in the rainy season are now free to roam and graze in the verdant plains. The profusion of species becomes evident as the creatures congregate at the precious remaining waterholes. The 260 species of fish that have luxuriated in the deluge of the previous season are now left fighting for space. Flocks of birds capitalise on this newly-revealed banquet, arriving in their thousands to feast on their exposed prey.
Such a concentration of different species makes this time of year an absolute treat for birders - or indeed anyone with a passion for nature. Between August - September the dry season reaches its peak and the parched landscape takes on an appearance akin to that of the African Savannah, before the clouds roll in and the rains come once more in October.
Where to stay in the Southern Pantanal
Lodges in the Southern Pantanal are mainly reached by private plane from the main town of Campo Grande. Most are small and family-run, providing a real contact with the long traditions of the country life of cattle ranchers who work with nature every day of their lives. Examples include:
- Baia das Pedras A very genuine and welcoming family-run lodge in a good wildlife location, among a variety of Pantanal habitats. The experience of a small cattle ranch farmed on horseback is an extra bonus.
- Barranco Alto A tiny lodge with a handful of guest rooms which is among the best in the region for wildlife.
- Barra Mansa Lodge A ranch whose lodge has welcomed visitors for a very long time, even acting as the location for a long-running Brazilian soap.
- Rio Negro Lodge A research-focussed lodge run by Conservation International. Once a cattle ranch, the land is being allowed to regenerate naturally with minimal management, which creates some difficulties in seeing the wildlife.
While more characterful than some of their northern counterparts, the necessity of transport by light plane is reflected in these lodges' prices.
Those accessible by car from Campo Grande include:
- Caiman Lodge A large, well-organised, upscale lodge. 4hr from Campo Grande by dirt roads.
- Refugio de Ilha A simple lodge with nice rooms. Very warm Brazilian style service. English-speaking guide (the owner's son) available at extra cost. 3-4hr drive from Campo Grande by dirt roads.
Birdwatching in the Pantanal
The Pantanal plays host to one of the world's most diverse avian communities. Even for the non-birder, perhaps one of the most spectacular sights is that of the 'minhais' - communal gatherings of hundreds of birds in the trees, with different species occupying different levels of the tree. Northern Pantanal is particularly special in that it is home to some species of Amazon birds such as the Sunbittern, which cannot be found further south.
The Pantanal is one of the best places in the world to see parrots in the wild. 15 species from the parrot family are present, including the endangered Hyacinth macaw - nearly 1 metre in length and bright cobalt blue. The Pantanal's fairly open landscape means that these exotic birds are more conspicuous here than in other habitats, where perhaps only a squawk or a flash of colour in the foliage would betray their presence. Perhaps only Australia could be considered as good or better for parrot watchers.
The Pantanal's waterbirds are also stupendous. Herons, ibis, storks and pink spoonbills can be found in enormous flocks during the dry season. The magnificent Jabiru stork, with its distinguished red and black cap, is the biggest of its kind in the Americas and is often referred to as the symbol of the Pantanal. The Pantanal is also home to 45 raptor species.
Migratory birds use this area as a stopover point and wintering ground, bringing ospreys from the north, woodstorks from the Argentine Pampas and flycatchers from the Andes.