The world's largest freshwater wetland offers some of the best wildlife viewing on earth...
Offering the best chances of seeing wildlife in the Americas, the Pantanal is one of the world’s largest freshwater wetlands. A flat basin in the middle of South America, which drains water from the surrounding area and takes up an area of 210 000 square kilometres, it stretches across the borders of Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay. The Brazilian Pantanal is a mosaic of flooded grasslands; savannahs and tropical forest, bordered by imposing mountain ranges, stretching between the states of Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul in Brazil’s little developed interior.
What makes the Pantanal so special?
Seasonal rains have greatly protected the Pantanal from large scale agricultural development, allowing indigenous and migratory species to continue to flourish from the natural food cycle that the rains produce. The cycle works as follows; heavy summer rains cause the rivers to burst their banks, creating shallow lakes, surrounded by patches of higher ground and tropical forest. In turn, plankton flourishes providing an ample food supply for fish and amphibians who are then preyed upon by reptiles and waterbirds. Herbivorous mammals which graze on the abundant sedge and savannah grass are hunted by the region’s main predators such as the jaguar and the ocelot.
When is the best time to go to the Pantanal?
You can visit the Pantanal at any time of year, and many will argue that the Pantanal is the most colourful and eye-catching during the floods. However, the best months for wildlife spotting are definitely between late May and August, when birds and mammals leave the forest and wander freely in front of you. The variety and number of species to be seen is immense and includes the loveable capybara, the placid caiman, noisy peccary, giant otter and slow ant eaters. It is home to hundreds of different species of birds, ranging from long-legged storks to woodpeckers, to rare owls and colourful hyacinth macaws. Of course, many will head to the Pantanal to get a glimpse of one of the Americas’ most elusive mammals, the “Onça Pintada”. The largest species of jaguar found in the whole of the Americas, its population was once in decline due to the hunting practices of cattle farmers but is now being monitored and protected by reserves in the area.
Where is the best place to stay in the Pantanal?
While the Parque Nacional do Pantanal Matogrossense takes up 1350 square kilometres in the south-western corner of the Pantanal, most of the land is privately owned by cattle farmers. Ecotourism has allowed ranchers to supplement their income and in turn conserve the environment around them, without turning to more intensive farming methods. Many have developed pousadas or guest lodges on their lands. The best of these offer homely, comfortable accommodation but pride themselves on offering excellent guiding, with extremely knowledgeable local and English-speaking guides who seem to be able to spot species hiding in the most invisible of places.
How do you get to the Pantanal?
The lodges in the Southern Pantanal are accessed by flying into Campo Grande and those in the north are accessed from Cuiabá; with both areas offering a similar experience. It's worth bearing in mind that reaching many of the lodges requires long road transfers or even private flights; depending on weather and accessibility. As a general rule, the more remote the lodge is, the greater the number of each species you might see.
Click here to view some video footage of the Pantanal area.