I had never heard about the Pantanal when Cindy asked us if we wanted to go on a safari there. I have since learnt that this is the world's largest wetland with huge biodiversity and covering 170,000 sq km. Most is in Brazil's Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul states but it extends into Bolivia and Paraguay. Many people (including I suspect most local tourists) come here for a chance of seeing jaguars prowling the river bank but thanks to annual flooding that creates hugely rich rivers and lakes it hosts a great variety of birds and other animals. Our visit will take in four lodges, located in a variety of habitats, giving us a chance to see much of what the area has to offer over nine days.
Although known for the wetlands, the Pantanal has a variety of habitats from rivers, lakes and marshes to grassland and forest. Cattle ranches with white Nelore cattle as well as some buffalo are located around and also inside the national park and you see long artificial hills of slag from alluvial gold mining as you drive south from Cuiaba to Poconé, the nearest town to the park's northern entrance. The only way into the park from Poconé is via the Transpantaneiro road, built in 1974 and running 148km to Porto Jofré. From here you can only continue south by boat on the Cuiaba river. From the road, and its 120 wooden bridges, you get great sightings of wildlife in the roadside ditches, grassland and trees. We spotted thousands of waterbirds, including many storks and egrets, as well as rhea, kingfishers, hawks, two anacondas crossing the road, lots of caiman (Brazilian alligators) and a lesser anteater as we drove south on the dusty road.
Our first two nights are spend in the South Wild lodge on the Pixiam river, about a third of the way along the Pantaneira highway. The spacious rooms are laid out in a single storied L-shaped block like a traditional fazenda or ranch. There is a small pool and capybara are running around the grass and among the trees. Bird feeders attract the birdlife including some very pretty hummingbirds. After lunch in the lodge we go on the river to see more wildlife. On our first afternoon it is mostly birds and caiman with one of the cheeky camp jabiru storks welcoming us like a butler when we get back.
The next day we are back on the river enjoying the early morning light on the bushy banks. There are kingfishers everywhere, snake birds perch on branches drying their wings, black-collared hawks swoop for fish and striated and tiger herons line the banks. Great excitement when our guide, Tom, spots a tapir in the water and we get a good sighting of it swimming before it escapes up the bank. In the afternoon we walk in the woods, spotting a howler monkey and more birds, and after dark we watch from a hide as an ocelot comes and nibbles a few titbits that have been left out to attract it. Very beautiful. Not finished for the day we go on a night drive after dinner and find another tapir as well as marsh deer and nightjars.
On Tuesday morning we head south again, this time in an open game drive vehicle. The long straight road runs through marshland, areas of scrub and bushes with some taller trees as well as lakes and streams. More birds including the gorgeous capped heron, as well as the pretty, red flowering fire ant trees. There is not much to see at Porto Jofré - a smart hotel, a few shops and various landing stages. The highlight is a wonderful hyacinth macaw nest in a tree trunk as we wait for our boat to take us up the wide Cuiaba river on a 90 minute ride to our next lodge. In fact the Cuiaba splits into a number of tributaries which we will explore over the next few days. the Jaguar Retreat lodge is up one of these side rivers. On the way we watch some otters swimming around their den in the bank. Eventually we arrive at a covered landing stage and check into our rather basic rooms. It definately feels a long way from civilisation!
While the giant river otters are much loved, the reason people are now coming here in greater numbers is to spot jaguar. After lunch we are off again in our powerful speedboat to see what we can find. The Pantanal is an ideal habitat for the jaguar - they like the woods, water and plains and are strong swimmers. Along the river banks they hunt the caiman. A kilometer or so south of our base we spot our first jaguar disappearing into some bushes. We tie up to the bank and wait patiently in the hot sun. After 30 minutes it stands and looks at us before disappearing into the forest. We head down river again watching capybara swimming and caiman basking on the banks with their mouths gaping. Our radio crackles into life with news of another jaguar sighting and we run down the river at top speed for 20 minutes until we reach about 10 other boats looking for a jaguar on the bank. Finally we get a good sighting as he makes his way along the bank with us and the other boats snapping away. We celebrate on the way home with beers and are surprised by a lunar eclipse as we reach Jaguar Retreat in the dark.
The next three days follow a similar pattern, cruising the rivers and creeks looking for more jaguars and other wildlife. Over the course of three and a half days we spot 13 different jaguars include some couples or brothers several times. It is much more satisfying when you come across a sighting without other boats jockeying for position and can enjoy these magnificent beasts in peace. Of course it is inevitable that we are not the only people wanting to enjoy this great experience. We watch mating jaguars, jaguars pouncing on their prey - and in once case rescuing a caiman carcass from the middle of the river. We also get good otter sightings as well as fantastic birds.
In the mornings the river is cold and we wrap up in windproofs until the sun has burnt off the mist. Herons cross the river in front of us and swallows skit around catching insects. After lunch every day the in house naturalist, Susie, gives us talks about the jaguars, caiman, ocelot and otters. We are usually back just after dark in the evening marvelling how our boatman can race around the bends dodging dead trees and sandbanks in almost zero light. Then beers or caiperinhias before decent dinners of meat stews, veg and salad.
We spend our last three days further north towards the entrance to the park, staying in two "pousada" - Porto Paraiso and Pouso Alegre. The first is rather small and charming with basic accomodation but great home cooking. The second is set well back from the road with fantastic woods, marshes and grassland but it is much busier with many other guests and rather unexciting "school dinnerish" mealtimes. Still we are here to enjoy the nature rather than boutique accomodation and both provide great bases for that.
At Porto Paraiso we hunt for and find (albeit only a quick glimse) a giant anteater. It is great to get out walking after four days on boats. The beautiful pink Piuva trees are in flower. Toucan fly overhead and we weave our way through the buffalo and cows as we get back to the pousada.
Driving the estate at Pousada Alegre we spot marsh and brocket deer, raccoon, coati, agouti, crab eating foxes and amazingly a mother and child tapir out in the open. Also more fabulous birds including many toucans and a great display of skimmers skimming in the early morning.
Altogether a magical 9 days. See the linked pages above for more about the animal and bird life that we were lucky enough to see plus some more general facts about the Pantanal.