Safari in South America: Big cats in Brazil’s Pantanal
Here’s a quick cheat sheet on the wildlife magnet that is the Pantanal. With a higher concentration of animals than the Amazon – and far fewer trees – it’s the best place to spot large land animals in South America.
What is the Pantanal?
Derived from pantano, the Portuguese word for bog or marsh, it’s a vast seasonal wetland created by the floodwaters of the Paraguay River. About the same size as the state of Washington, and ten times larger than Florida’s Everglades it is the world’s largest wetland. The harsh conditions (in the rainy season 80% of the Pantanal is underwater) have made human habitation tricky and allowed animals to flourish in epic proportions. The Pantanal is home to an incredible array of large mammals (jaguars, anteaters, capybaras) and reptiles (caimans, anacondas) not to mention breathtaking birds including toucans and hyacinth macaws. In total the Pantanal is home to about 3,500 plant species, 656 bird species, 325 fish species, 159 mammals, 53 amphibians and 98 reptiles.
What makes it unique
“It’s the closest you’ll get to a safari in South America,” says Nick Stanziano, our Chief Explorer. “The landscape has a Savannah feel so you really don’t have to look hard for the animals.” The Pantanal is hands-down the best place on the continent to see jaguars, but you ignore the other species at your peril. On a combination of boat and land-based game-viewing excursions, Nick saw two kinds of anteaters, rheas (flightless birds similar to ostriches), toucans, macaws and loads of capybaras and caimans, among many other things. He also enjoyed a magnificently intimate encounter with an elegant ocelot.
A trip to the Pantanal also offers a window into the lifestyle of the Pantaneiros – Brazil’s tough-as-nails answer to the cowboys of the Wild West and the Gauchos of the Argentine Pampas. Pantaneiros have big hats, bigger knives and an extremely hospitable nature. You can expect to eat a lot of excellent beef and dairy and to drink plenty of homemade cachaça.
There are two main gateways to the Pantanal: Cuiaba in the North and Campo Grande in the South. Both cities are located about 900 miles from Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro – a two-hour flight from Sao Paulo (or four hours, including connection, from Rio). The lodges are located between 1.5 hours and 5 hours from Cuiaba / Campo Grande. Many have airstrips/helipads so it is possible to charter a small plane or helicopter for the final leg of the journey. Due to the distances involved many guests go this route.
Three of our preferred lodges
Caiman Ecological Refuge is accessed by a 4-hour drive (or a one-hour flight) from Campo Grande. It’s a massive (53,000 hectare) cattle ranch and wildlife preserve with an active jaguar research project. There are two entirely separate lodges with five and six rooms respectively. The game viewing and bird watching are exceptional.
Araras Eco Lodge has 19 tastefully decorated rooms and excellent eco credentials. It’s accessed via a two-hour drive from Cuiaba and much of the lodge’s (excellent) food comes from the on-site organic farm. Horseback riding and canoeing are offered, as are day trips to Puerto Jofre – the Pantanal’s jaguar hotspot.
The 15-room Pousada Aguape is 120 miles from Campo Grande but it can also be accessed via Aquidauana (7 daily flights to Sao Paulo) only 30 miles away. On a working cattle ranch that’s been in the same family for 150 years, it’s a wonderful place to combine wildlife encounters with a slice of the Pantaneiro lifestyle.
When to visit
The Pantanal has three distinct seasons, each with its own charm:
Rainy/flood season: Heavy summer rainfall between November and March floods Pantanal, causing animals to search for higher. It’s a good period for boat cruises and horseback riding through flooded pastures.
Vazante (intermediate season): Between April and June the fields begin to drying leaving the water to collect in bays and lakes which act as magnets for fish, animals and birds.
Dry season: July through October is an excellent time to visit the Pantanal. The land dries out so it’s easier to get around – for humans and animals alike. Animals congregate around the few remaining water pools and game spotting is relatively easy.
Most visitors to the Pantanal include a couple of nights in nearby Bonito on their itineraries. Bonito is renowned for its lush forests, flocks of macaws and crystal-clear rivers (the high limestone content is to thank for this), where you can snorkel with thousands of fish, marvel at magnificent waterfalls and swim in caves bedecked with stalactites. To make things even better, the local municipality takes ecotourism seriously. All activities are booked using a central voucher system, and there are plenty of checks and balances to ensure that impact is minimal and the experiences are always top notch. We’ll blog more about the Bonito success story soon…
Itching to eyeball a jaguar? Contact one of our Destination Experts to craft the tailor-made Pantanal adventure of your dreams.