The Pantanal, covering much of central-western Brazil and a small portion of neighbouring Bolivia and Paraguay, is the largest contiguous tropical wetland area in the world. Surrounded by mountain ridges, the huge gently-sloping Pantanal basin acts like a giant sponge soaking up water through the wet season (normally November through to April) as it runs off the Planalto highlands. The result of which, is that a very large proportion of the low-lying area floods, creating numerous marshes and lakes. Over the following weeks and months the excess water is slowly released via the Paraguay River and tributaries. This constantly shifting habitat means that the standing water in the Pantanal is never stagnant, resulting in a fertile nutrient-rich environment
The Brazilian Pantanal is broadly divided into the north, which is slightly higher, and the south where the wetland environment is at its most intense. The larger southern area is located within the state of Mato Grosso do Sul. Its landscape encompasses a variety of ecological sub-regions or biomes, including both riverine and gallery forest, perennial wetlands and lakes, and the seasonally inundated grasslands.
The Southern Pantanal is a wildlife hotspot and sanctuary for many different species of bird. It is one of the most important breeding grounds for typical wetland birds such as the jabiru stork, plus several species of heron, ibis and duck. The lakes and permanent wet areas are home to waterfowl, rails, jacanas and other interesting species like the limpkin and sunbittern. There are also five different species of kingfisher, the largest being the ringed and the smallest the American pygmy. In addition, and interspersed with the freshwater lakes, certain areas have large brackish ponds, or 'salinas
' as they're called locally, which attract specific species such as stilts and skimmers. The wooded areas support a number of species of woodpecker, countless passerines and some rather special birds including toucans, trogons and jacamars to name a few. Parrots are also very common and diverse with many different types including the world's largest and possibly noisiest parrot, the hyacinth macaw. And, of course, there are many different types of raptor including various species of hawk, eagle and vulture, two species of caracara and a few different types of owl ranging from the ferruginous pygmy owl to the great-horned. Oh, and then there’s the greater rhea, southern screamer, red-legged seriema, bare-faced curassow etc. The list of birds goes on, with well over 400 different species being recorded in the Southern Pantanal alone.
There are also some very interesting and unusual animals such as the south american tapir, capybara, giant anteater, southern tamandua and different types of armadillos, to name a few. Additionally, although much harder to spot, there is always a chance that you'll see one of the various carnivores like the maned wolf (very rare) or crab-eating fox, jaguar, puma or one of the other cats like the ocelot, margay or jaguarundi. And, in the rivers and lakes, giant otters and yacare caiman.
Our first trip to this area was in early July 2013 when we stayed at two contrasting destinations; the first was Embiara Lodge on the Rio Negro, and the second Fazenda Baia das Pedras
, a vast working cattle ranch on the edge of the ‘vazante do castelo
’ seasonal flood plain. Both locations are in the Aquidauana District some 300km from Campo Grande, the nearest large town.
Unfortunately, Embiara stopped operating as a lodge in December 2013, which is very sad as it was a pretty unique place. When we booked that trip we thought that it would be a one-off, but we were so taken with the general area that we returned in late June 2015, again staying at Baia das Pedras for a few days before going back to the Rio Negro to stay at Fazenda Barranco Alto
, which is an ecolodge and small ranch that borders the old Embiara land.