A Pantanal water lily
The Pantanal, spread across South American countries Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay is the world’s largest tropical wetland. The region is also an amazing place for viewing wildlife despite consisting largely of privately owned cattle stations. In four days of Pantanal exploring I saw and photographed so many birds and other animals, they required separate blog posts.
Aquatic and water-loving plants abound in the giant Pantanal swamp
In late June 2016 I flew from São Paulo west to Campo Grande, the capital and largest city of Brazil’s Mato Grosso do Sul State. I had booked a four day, three night tour direct with Pantanal Trekking, also known as Ecological Expeditions. The tour included meals, accommodation, activities and transfers. Pantanal tours can cost thousands of dollars, depending how tailored and luxurious they are and how deep they go into the environment. My tour, aimed at backpackers, represented great value at 650 Brazilian Reals (~USD$200).
I chose to visit the Pantanal in the winter dry season when lower water levels make more areas accessible.
Day 1: Transfer and Trek
After a four hour bus ride from Campo Grande, I arrived to a highway meeting point where an Ecological Expeditions ute met tour group members Marco, Jem and myself. Following a two hour journey past caiman-infested creeks and a quick visit to the local shop, we arrived to tour base Pousada Arara Azul. The caimans and birds observed on the utility ride were a taste of what was to come.
Pousada Arara Azul reflecting on one of two surrounding lakes
At Pousada Arara Azul we met our guide Ronaldo Da Silva Bruno, otherwise known as Anaconda. The standard itinerary involved an after-dark walk. However, Anaconda was generous and smart enough to give us a longer hike beginning before dusk. Animals appeared everywhere we went, particularly in the forest*. We saw a capybara, howler monkeys, an armadillo, storks, many other birds and a porcupine. Locally, porcupines are extremely rare, and this was only Anaconda’s second ever.
* Anaconda called the forest ‘jungle’ but it contained limited ground level vegetation and was frequented by cattle.
The first night we drank cheap wine purchased at the shop around an outdoor fire.
Day 2: Hiking and Piranha Fishing
The second day started with a longer hike. Trekking in the Pantanal involves walking on land interspersed with wading through swamps. The guide advised us to wear thongs (flip-flops) so we could remove them while traversing water and mud. I could never imagine walking through a similar Australian environment barefooted. This time we witnessed a lesser anteater, raccoons, a bat, more monkeys, macaws, roseate spoonbills and many other bird species.
Returning to the farm, we passed a caiman sunbathing at the lake edge. Walking behind the others and seeing them ignore the caiman, I thought the reptile was fake. Instead, it was real and one of the well known local caimans.
Following lunch we ventured to the other side of the lake for piranha fishing. Our kit consisted of bamboo rods, connect to nylon lines, wire traces and a hook. Using fish pieces for bait we soon started catching these infamous predators. Everybody was successful, myself catching two. The fun fishing also provided food for dinner. Although bony, the piranha tasted delicious.
After piranha fishing I wandered around, enjoying the sights and sounds of this heaving environment. I saw two different toucan species, a woodpecker, more caimans, lots of birds, thousands of mosquitoes and a beautiful sunset.
Mosquitoes are ravenous at dawn and dusk in the Pantanal and bringing insect repellent is highly recommended.
With guide Anaconda in the boat travelling along the river
Day 3: Boating and Horse Ride
Several rivers cross the Pantanal and on the third morning we drove to the one nearest. Anticipating a fun boat ride in the sunny weather, we also hoped to see more animals, even jaguars and anacondas!
The summer peak river flows metres above the winter level as evidenced by vegetation’s orange mud line
Along the river’s edge caimans, cormorants, kingfishers, oropendolas (with their basket nests) and multiple other bird species were abundant. However, we were in for something rarer.
Marco and Jem in the boat cruising along the mirror-like river
Momentarily in the distance, a big cat head moved swiftly through the river surface towards the bank. It was a jaguar. We had seen a jaguar! Guide Anaconda stopped the boat downstream and we stepped onto the river bank. Observing where the disturbed plant litter and moisture on the ground, Anaconda identified the jaguar’s path. We were very lucky as he last saw a jaguar months earlier.
Journeying back to Pousada Arara Azul we witnessed a deer, capybaras and the customary caimans. At the farm I farewelled Marco and Jem whose shorter 3 day, 2 night tours were ending.
This afternoon I was to do something for the first time in my adult life – go horse-riding. Anaconda and I travelled to another farm with a stable. While waiting for my horse, black-bellied whistling ducks, hyacinth macaws, green parakeets, South American ground lizards, domestic guinea fowl, a red-crested cardinal, picui ground-dove and other species entertained me.
In the middle of a swamp on my horse
Although I sat on a patient and sturdy horse, riding through the swamps was challenging, requiring composure to stay in the saddle.
While riding I saw another deer and an armadillo. Upon noticing the armadillo, Anaconda motioned for me to stop, carefully dismount and walk around to the other side of the scrub. The armadillo ignored my stationary presence and foraged as close as one metre away (see video).
On a horse walking through a reflective Pantanal swamp with guide Anaconda riding in the distance
Passing many hyacinth macaws, we returned to the stable. I had survived my first horse ride.
Driving back to Pousada Arara Azul I spotted a fox roadside. At the farm I saw a green iguana and met Natalie and the other newly arrived group members. Instead of another evening hike I walked to a lake opposite the property for the endangered giant river otter and watch the sunset. I succeeded on both counts, observing an otter swim around the water and seeing an amazing sunset* complemented by the distant sounds of howler monkeys.
*This post’s featured image
That night the tour group relaxed over drinks to music pumping from the stereo system.
Day 4: More Trekking and Departure
My final morning involved another trek, this time crossing swamps up to chest deep. We also shared the same water as caimans. Other animals included another lesser anteater, armadillos, woodpeckers, hawks and jabirus.
Surrounded by water lilies, Natalie wades through a swamp
Guide Anaconda leading the group on my final Pantanal trek
After a well deserved shower I farewelled Anaconda and the tour group. Pantanal Trekking transferred me from Pousada Arara Azul back to the highway. Even while waiting for the bus to Corumba there were animals: finch-like birds, two fish, a kingfisher, a cormorant, lizards and domestic chickens crossing the road.
Eventually, the bus to border town Corumba (30 reals) arrived and I entered with fellow backpackers Dana and Ela. On board I watched the Pantanal landscape go past until dark.
Coincidentally, Dana and Ela were also staying at Hostel Road Riders, whose representative transferred us free from the bus station. The next morning we shared a taxi to the Bolivian border.
The Pantanal at dawn as seen from Hostel Road Riders on my last day in Brazil
The Pantanal tour was stunning. I have never seen such a concentration of wild animals. I thank the animals for being there and guide Ronaldo Da Silva Bruno (Anaconda) for finding them. If you ever have an opportunity to visit the Pantanal, I highly recommend you take it.
Following is a video compilation I shot of Pantanal sounds and scenes.