Considering the Pantanal is the largest contiguous tropical wetland area in the world, it’s surprising how few people actually know about the region. If I tell someone I’ve been to Brazil to photograph wildlife they’ll almost instinctively assume I mean the Amazon. And, even after I correct them, they’re unlikely to be much the wiser. They may recall seeing something about the Pantanal either on television or in a magazine but, unless they have a specific interest, they almost certainly wouldn’t be able to tell you much about the nature of the place or the animals that live there.
I think the reason lies in the fact that, despite it’s obvious appeal as a wildlife destination, the Pantanal has been somewhat overshadowed by more familiar locations, particularly the Amazon Rainforest and the Galapagos Islands. If someone is considering South America for a nature trip they are very likely to look at one of those two places first, simply because they are more well-known destinations. Admittedly the situation has changed a fair bit in recent years due to the promotion of ‘Jaguar observation tourism’ around the Porto Jofre area in the Northern Pantanal. Here naturalists and photographers know they will have a pretty good chance of seeing one of these magnificent animals on a boat trip along the river. But the Pantanal as a whole offers much more than that due to its unique habitat and incredible diversity of wildlife.
Surrounded by lush forests a river gently twists and turns across the Pantanal landscape
Forming a significant part of the Upper Paraguay River Basin, the Pantanal is often referred to as the aquatic heart of South America. Geographically it’s situated within western-central Brazil, but with a small portion extending into Bolivia and Paraguay. It covers a vast area, estimated to be close on 200,000km2, which is around 80,000 square miles. To put that in perspective, it’s larger than many US states, and quite a few European countries including England. Or, looking at it another way, it’s at least twenty times the size of the total expanse of the Everglades in Florida, and for anyone who’s been to the Everglades National Park you will know that it’s massive.
A truly spectacular sight greets you when you fly into the Southern Pantanal from Campo Grande
The Pantanal is a low-altitude floodplain; a huge gently-sloping basin that acts like a giant sponge soaking up water through the wet season (normally November through to April) from the neighbouring Cerrado region, before gradually releasing it back into the rivers and eventually to the sea. It’s a slow process. After the rains, water pours off the planalto
highlands, Brazil’s central plateau, down the Paraguay, Cuiabá, Piquirí and Taquarí rivers. As the level rises, these rivers break their banks and inundate the Pantanal’s savanna grasslands with nutrient-rich waters, thereby creating vast seasonal flooded areas. Although the wet season may start in November it can take many weeks before excess rainwater reaches the northern regions of the Pantanal, and up to four months or so later before the effect has reached the Southern Pantanal. In fact the flood levels in the south can be at their highest during the middle of the dry season. This cycle creates a constantly changing habitat and, because water levels and flooded areas are always shifting, any standing water remains fresh and is never stagnant.
The Brazilian Pantanal is broadly divided into the Northern Pantanal, which is slightly higher, and the lower-lying Southern Pantanal where the wetland areas are at their most intense. The larger southern area is located in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul. Here the landscape encompasses a variety of ecological sub-regions or biomes, including dry open savanna, wooded savanna (cerrado
) and gallery forests, as well as perennial wetlands and marshes, lakes and brackish lagoons (salinas
) and, of course, the seasonally inundated grasslands. Spreading down through this area are large interconnecting floodplains called ‘vazantes'
which attract large seasonal concentrations of wading birds.
View across the 'Vazante do Castelo' floodplain
Not surprisingly, the Southern Pantanal is sparsely populated because, despite its size, there are relatively few areas of higher ground that remain constantly above water level where homesteads can be built. Most of the land is privately owned by families who have lived in the region for the past 250 years or so. These local inhabitants (pantaneiros
) operate large cattle ranches, or farms as they tend to refer to them locally. Most are classed as 'fazendas'
- the original Portuguese name for a sugar plantation which was later adopted for coffee plantations, and is now used to denote any kind of farm.
Pantaneiro cowboys driving a large herd of cattle across the dry savanna grasslands
A few of these fazendas
take in guests who can assist the cowboys in rounding up the cattle, go out horse riding, or take a drive in a 4x4 for a safari-type sightseeing trip. And, if you’re staying on the river there’s bound to be an option of going out on a boat.
We’ve now been to the Southern Pantanal on three ocassions. In early July 2013 we stayed at two contrasting locations; the first was Embiara Lodge on the Rio Negro, and the second away from the river at Fazenda Baia das Pedras, a large sprawling cattle ranch on the edge of the 'vazente do castelo' seasonal floodplain. Both of these locations are in the Aquidauana District, some 300km or so from Campo Grande. Unfortunately Embiara stopped operating as a lodge in December 2013, which is sad as it was a special place to stay. It was small and it was English-owned, which was good and, although Baia das Pedras is certainly not large, the family do not speak any English and, consequently, it’s important that you’re arrangements include a private guide. At the time, we thought that that trip would be a one-off, but we returned a couple of years later in June 2015, again visiting Baia das Pedras for a few days before going back to the Rio Negro to stay at Barranco Alto, which is an eco-lodge and small ranch bordering the old Embiara land.
The tranquil smooth-flowing waters of the Rió Negro
We repeated the format for our last trip in July 2018. These places are quite remote so to avoid long overland transfers to and from Campo Grande we opted to charter a private plane, which was possible as both lodges have their own grass airstrip. Fortunately you can transfer between one and the other by 4x4 as long as the route is passable. It takes a few hours, but it’s enjoyable, and definitely the better option than another expensive flight, or indeed having to route back via Campo Grande.
Access to the Northern Pantanal is a lot easier as you can get a domestic flight directly to Cuiabá. We fly into São Paulo and then have to get an internal flight down to Campo Grande from where we take a small four or six-seater light aircraft. Despite the logistical considerations and higher price of visiting this part of the Southern Pantanal, and the fact that you are very unlikely to see a Jaguar here, it’s an area we know and like. Of course I’m keen to see and photograph Jaguars and for that reason alone the Northern Pantanal is somewhere I’d definitely like to visit one day - maybe next time.
The Southern Pantanal is a wildlife hotspot and sanctuary for many different species of birds. It is one of the most important breeding grounds for typical wetland birds such as the Jabiru Stork, plus several species of herons and ibises. The lakes, marshes and permanent wet areas are home to waterfowl, rails, jacanas and other interesting species like the Limpkin and Sunbittern.
The seasonal floodplains provide the perfect habitat for many waterbird species
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 Black Skimmer is also found on sandbars along the river often in the company of Large-billed Terns. Along the river you’ll see different types of waterbirds, including Roseate Spoonbills, Great White Egrets, Snowy Egrets, Cocoi Herons, Striated Herons, Black-crowned Night Herons and possibly even Boat-billed Herons. There are also five different species of kingfisher, the largest being the Ringed Kingfisher and the smallest the American Pygmy Kingfisher if you’re lucky enough to spot one.
The more wooded areas support a number of species of woodpecker, countless passerines and some rather special birds including toucans, trogons and jacamars to name but 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, not surprisingly, there are many 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 Owl.
Oh, and then there’s the Greater Rhea, Red-legged Seriema, Bare-faced Curassow, Chaco Chachalaca, Southern Screamer etc. The list of birds goes on, with well over 400 species being recorded in the area.
There are also some very interesting and unusual animals including the South American Tapir, Capybara, Giant Anteater, Southern Tamandua and three species of Armadillos. Additionally, you’ll see two or three species of deer and almost certainly the curious and approachable Crab-eating Fox. And, although unlikely, there’s always the possibility of seeing a Jaguar or Puma, or one of the other cats, such as an Ocelot, Margay or Jaguarundi.
A Giant Anteater slowly emerges from the undergrowth
And last, but certainly not least, if you’re on the river there will be Yacare Caiman, plus a good chance of encountering otters of which there are two species - the Neotropical Otter and the endangered Giant River Otter.
Apart from one brief sighting of a Puma I haven’t seen any cats, but I have seen and photographed every bird and animal that I’ve mentioned, and quite a few I haven’t, such as the Black Howler Monkey. It’s taken three trips to get decent photos of a few species, notably the Snail Kite and a couple of the Ibises, and it will take a few more visits I’m sure before some of the ‘record shots’ can be replaced with publishable images. But that’s good, because you wouldn’t want to see and photograph everything during your first trip as that would be too easy, and then why would you want to go back. In saying that, I do understand that many people would like to visit the Pantanal, but can’t for one reason or another, or will only make one visit.
When I look through the two photo sets that accompany this write-up I appreciate how lucky I’ve been, as the Southern Pantanal is a truly wonderful wildlife destination
A typical Southern Pantanal panoramic view
: Considering that we’ve already visited the Southern Pantanal on three occasions and will be making at least one more return trip, it’s obvious that we have a great liking for the area. However, for anyone who’s looking to visit the Pantanal for the first time, I really feel that they should consider the North first, simply because it’s more accessible and has more places to stay. Obviously this makes the area more popular, so it’s a question of balance and personal choice, and of course cost. If you’re not concerned about seeing a Jaguar and feel that the South is a better option, then please ensure you have carefully chosen where you’ll stay and that the transport arrangements to and from, including connection times with your international flight, have been properly thought out. On our last visit we met a couple who had suffered an exceptionally long overland transfer from Campo Grande with a non-English-speaking driver simply because they hadn’t been properly advised - that’s not the way to travel and certainly not what you want at the start of your trip!