Monday, June 08, 2009


Never heard of the Pantanal? Don’t feel bad, I think most people haven’t, including me for all that matters. Everybody seems to be too occupied with the much flashier Amazon. The Pantanal is the world's largest fresh-water wetland system, a giant swamp the size of France basically. Well, at least half the year, when it floods because of rains in the surrounding mountain ranges. Then vast lagoons appear and fill with squillions of fish, shellfish and mollusks. During dry season, the water begins to recede very slowly but not all the fish make it to the permanent rivers. Some get stranded in the disappearing pools and present an open buffet for other animals. This time normally starts around June and last until October and is naturally the best time for a visit.

Visiting the Pantanal is like being in your very own documentary about wild life in Brazil. There are no tracking skills required. The wildlife is practically parading in front of you and doing its best to completely ignore you. Only exception being the mosquitoes that far from ignoring you seem to think you are actually the main dish!
Mostly you go to the Pantanal to do animal watching. Hard to miss are the birds. They are everywhere. I am not a birdwatcher, but it was hard not to be fascinated. The beautiful Macaws could always be heard long before you actually saw them. Kingfishers and hawks were a dime a dozen and even a greenhorn like me recognized the stunning Toucans with their big beaks. The Jabiru, the symbol of the Pantanal, is a stork easily recognized by the red band around his neck.

Apart from the birds, the animals you come across most often in the Pantanal are the Jacarés (Caimans or Pantanal alligators) and the Capybaras. The latter is the world’s biggest rodent, basically a gigantic guinea pig!
Other animals are a bit more elusive, but in my short visit to the Pantanal I also saw an anteater, a tapir, an ocelot, marsh deer, a fox, river otters, monkeys and last but not least a Jaguar!
I was very lucky to see a Jaguar. I saw it while on a night safari on Fazenda San Francisco in the Southern Pantanal. It was an amazing sight. This beautiful cat lay on the bank of a canal a stone throw away and did not mind us in the least. It was fantastic! There used to be a healthy population of Jaguars in the Pantanal but their numbers were dwindling because of farmers killing them to protect their cattle or by poachers who were after their skins. Now hunting is illegal. A sure way to see a Jaguar is the Jaguar Research Center in the Northern Pantanal. I would have loved to go there, but being a long term traveler my budget did not allow it.

Since the wildlife is so abundant and seemingly completely unafraid of humans, driving through the Pantanal is a good option for a visit. But to really explore the Pantanal, I would recommend a stay on a Fazendas or a boat trip.
There are two tracks through the Pantanal: In the South the Estrada Parque do Pantanal is 117 km of track with 87 wooden bridges to cross. It begins in Buraco das Piranhas and ends in Corumba on the border to Bolivia. It is possible to catch a ferry from Corumba up the Rio Cuiaba to Puerto Joffre in the Northern Pantanal. As I have heard, it is supposed to be a three day trip on the river, which you will share with a lot of mosquitoes. It should be arranged in advance, as there is no fixed schedule. Mirjam in Miranda can help with that. It will save the long, boring and very stressful drive around the Pantanal between Campo Grande and Cuiaba. There might be less mosquitoes on this road, but instead a lot of trucks! Puerto Joffre on Rio Cuiaba marks the end of the Transpantaneira. This is a 149 km track with 118 wooden bridges which has been cut into the very heart of the Pantanal. It was supposed to go all the way down to Corumba. Fortunately this project was stopped. There is nothing in Puerto Joffre, except a very expensive hotel, a very basic campground and a lot of fishermen. But along the Transpantaneira there are a lot of Fazendas and Pousadas which offer a bed, food and trips into the Pantanal. I stayed at the Araras Eco Lodge. It is a lovely place and the viewing towers are a great way to watch the sunset and sunrise and of course visit with the monkeys.

There are actually huge cattle ranches in and around the Pantanal. They are called Fazendas and some of them have recently discovered eco tourism as a source of additional income. They offer rooms, food and tours into the Pantanal. Some of these Fazendas are very big operations who mainly raise cattle and grow rice. They are typically on the edges of the Pantanal. Staying there has very little to do with ‘Eco’ tourism, but they can easily be reached and are a quick, easy and fun way to explore the Pantanal. Other, smaller Fazendas in the heart of the Pantanal are harder to reach but offer more intimate visits. Strangely enough, I kept running into Swiss people who helped me with my visits to the Pantanal. Miriam and her husband Marcello run the travel agency Explore Pantanal in Miranda. Marcello is of the Kadiwèu Indians and grew up in the Pantanal. He and Miriam can recommend Fazendas or organize tours into the Pantanal.
Near Aquidauana lives Anne Lys, another Swiss lady who runs a little farm. She also has a few lovely rooms where she welcomes guests and she will personally guide you on any excursions you would like to make.

Summary Travel Information:
Best time to visit: June - October
Where to go: Miranda-Buraco das Piranahs-Corumba-Puerto Joffre-Pocone-Cuiaba
More info: Mirjam and Marcello in Miranda:
Explore Pantanal

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