THE PANTANAL is the world’s largest inland wetland (about half the size of France). It’s situated mostly in western Brazil, with fingers into eastern Bolivia and northern Paraguay. During the rainy season the rivers overflow, turning fields and forests into a vast sea dotted with islands. Some ranches here can only be reached by boats for months on end; others may have access to an airstrip (generally a flattened stretch of grass). As economic development progresses, more wetland is transformed into cattle ranches, one of the region’s most pressing environmental concerns.
Because the Pantanal consists largely of open stretches of flatland, it is one of the most rewarding areas in South America to see wildlife — much better than, for example, the Amazon, where dense foliage often prevents you from spotting the animals you hear all around you. The best time of year to visit the Pantanal is July and August, when the water level is at its lowest and animals gather at the few remaining reservoirs.
There are 4 ways in.
1. Cuiabá to the Transpantaneira
On the north side of the Pantanal, the 90-mile laterite Transpantaneira runs from Poconé to Porto Jofre and crosses about 120 wooden bridges. The road traverses open land, ponds, rivers, and streams, making it easy to see hundreds of caimans, large families of capybaras, and Jabiru storks that nest in the tall, leafless trees. The Jabiru is one of the world’s largest birds (a male can be as tall as five feet), is locally called the tuiuiu, and is the symbol of the Pantanal.
In Cuiabá (capital of Mato Grosso), you can rent a car and stock up on food, fuel, and drinking water. Drive about 57 miles southwest (MT 351) and you’ll hit the gate of the Transpantaneira near Poconé.
Cuiabá is also the place to find travel agencies and tour operators. Although you can book a one-day Pantanal tour, I suggest giving yourself at least two, with an overnight stay in a lodge. Sunrise and sunset are the best hours for wildlife spotting and bird watching, easily missed when you’re rushing around.
Wild camping is possible on small stretches of land along the Transpantaneira. There’s one campsite where the road ends, just behind Hotel Jofre at the Rio Cuiabá. For a small fee, you can pitch a tent or sleep in your car. It’s a basic campsite with cold showers; it’s not particularly clean, but a great place to relax and possibly spot a jaguar, 6-foot-long iguanas, and dozens of hyacinth macaws.
There are various lodges along the Transpantaneira. You can organize accommodation yourself (online or in Cuiabá) or book a tour that includes an overnight stay. Most lodges are upscale, with all-inclusive prices for accommodation, food, and excursions.
2. Campo Grande to the Estrada Parque
Campo Grande is the capital of Mato Grosso do Sul and your base for organizing a trip to the southern edge of the Pantanal. West of Campo Grande lies a town called Aquidauana, and from there the Estrada Parque runs west to Corumbá.
It was built as a telegraph road in the beginning of the 20th century by Marechal Rondon, who mapped large portions of western Brazil, came in contact with indigenous tribes, and opened up the region by connecting Corumbá with Rio de Janeiro — by means of this telegraph road.
The Estrada Parque is the Pantanal’s most traveled highway. All organized tours from Campo Grande (as well as Corumbá, see below) drive this stretch. Expect to sit on a wooden bench in an open-air, roofed truck. Along with zillions of birds — among them toucans, macaws, Jabiru storks, and waterfowl — chances are high you’ll spot giant otters, giant anteaters, deer, wild boars, and capybaras.
Campo Grande is the place to rent your car, stock up on supplies, fuel, and water, and buy a map.
These can be arranged in Campo Grande. I’ve heard stories from travelers who were harassed at the bus station by potential guides and tour operators. Don’t decide too quickly. There are several located downtown. Make sure you find the one that fits your needs — e.g., a guide who speaks English (which is not a matter of course).
Along the Estrada Parque, you’ll find places suited for backcountry camping. Make sure to put up your tent behind thick vegetation to avoid kilos of dust descending on you when a car passes.
There are numerous pousadas (guesthouses) and hotels on the Estrada Parque, varying from basic to comfortable. Some are all-inclusive, others have separate fees for accommodation, food, and activities. You can book them independently online and in Campo Grande, or via a tour operator.
3. Bolivia to Corumbá
Corumbá lies along the 1,200-mile Río Paraguay, on the west side of Brazil’s Pantanal, and is the border town with Bolivia. In Tupia-Guaraní, Corumbá means “place that is far away.” Unless you’re arriving from Bolivia, Corumbá is, in fact, far away from everywhere, and you may as well explore the Pantanal from Cuiabá or Campo Grande.
The region is rich in limestone, which is reflected in Corumbá’s white architecture. The town is laid out in a grid, is easy to navigate, and despite its remote location fills all travelers’ needs, such as guesthouses and hotels in different price ranges, restaurants, ATMs, and tour operators. The town is built on a clifftop, with vast views of the wetland.
Rent a car, pack your gear, and drive the Estrada Parque east to Aquidauana. Or find a fisherman or guide who’ll take you on a multiple-day boat trip, camping along the way.
- Tip: Check whether the local mail-cum-taxi-cum-grocery-delivery boat runs between Corumbá and Poconé via Hotel Jofre (southernmost point of the Transpantaneira, see #1). We tried to catch it twice, but for various reasons it wasn’t operating. As far as my information goes, the current boat is called the Sentinel (under Captain Lopez) and runs three times/month. Its route flanks the Pantanal Conservation Area, which received UNESCO World Heritage Status in 2000.
Another challenge may be to retrace John Grisham’s trip from his novel The Testament, in which the main character takes a boat from Corumbá to find the illegitimate daughter — believed to be living as a missionary with a tribe in the Pantanal — of a businessman who has left her a fortune.
Like in Campo Grande, you can book (multiple-)day trips to the Estrada Parque from here. Unique to Corumbá are a variety of boat trips, thanks to its access to the Río Paraguay. These range from one-day open-boat trips for anglers to multiple-day cruises on comfortable ships (with accommodation and a restaurant) that include side trips up tributaries in smaller boats.
4. Interior Pantanal by air or 4WD
An increasing number of fazendas have cut down on their cattle activities and now focus on (eco)tourism. Some of them are located along the Transpantaneira and the Estrada Parque, but several are deep in the Pantanal’s interior — hard or impossible to reach by road.
There are two ways to get there:
- Take a plane (from any of the above-mentioned gateways) to one of the luxury accommodations with all comforts, guides, and excursions included in the rates.
- Drive a rough, all-day track through the wilderness. Just make sure you have at least two or three days at your destination to make it worth the trip (and the money, because although driving is cheaper than flying, time spent in the interior isn’t cheap).
Coen and I stayed at Hotel Fazenda Quatro Cantos, a 9-hour drive from the Estrada Parque. We had a great time with the staff, who enjoyed teaching me Portuguese and took us on safaris and a piranha fishing trip.
- Among the common excursions you can book through any of the above-mentioned gateways / lodges are photography safaris (day or night), fishing trips, and boat trips to spot caimans and giant otters. Some accommodations have trails for hiking or horseback riding. Fun trip: piranha fishing and preparing your own piranha meal over a wood fire. There are also tour operators that organize jaguar tracking tours and birding tours.
- Car rental: Minimum age to drive a rental car is 21. Some agencies require driving experience of two years. You’ll need a regular plus an international driver’s license. For the Transpantaneira and Estrada Parque, 4WD is only a necessity during the wet season (Nov-Mar). Check if the rental price includes insurance and emergency service (called seguro and assistencia).
- No doubt you’ll be able to find guides or lodges with staff speaking English, but don’t expect it to be a common language in this region. A phrasebook or dictionary is handy.
- Bring a hat, sun lotion, and comfortable clothes, shoes, and mosquito repellent (it’s not a malarial region, but dengue occurs every once in a while).
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Karin-Marijke Vis is a bilingual (Dutch-English) writer who has been overlanding in Asia and South America since 2003. She and her partner Coen, a photographer, publish in 4WD magazines worldwide, as well as online. Follow their adventures on landcruising.nl.