At 200,000 square kilometers the mere scale is daunting. Not to mention the fact that the majority of this area is completely inaccessible and home to some of the most concentrated wildlife the continent has to offer. Add the unbearable heat, humidity, mosquitos, and mud, and you’re in for the adventure of a lifetime, sounds intriguing doesn’t it? The trick is finding a way in. Welcome to the world’s largest wetland, the concave of South American tectonic plate, the basin of Andean runoff waters, the Brazilian Pantanal.
This area has no specifically defined borders and crosses into current day Bolivia and Paraguay, however I wish to focus on the Brazilian portion, which makes up more than 60% of the area. The Pantanal is slowly becoming a popular tourist attraction for people doing semi long term travel (say a couple of months) through South America, however this being said, it is still very much an off-the-beaten-path destination. I had the opportunity of first visiting the Pantanal in May of 2011. Since then I have been back four times, each time producing new wildlife encounters and incredible experiences. Off the top of my head, I would say finding an Anaconda ‘alive’ underneath a moving truck, marks the most memorable Pantanal experience to date.
My time spent in the Pantanal was almost entirely on the stretches found near the Bolivian border in an area about 300km south west of Corumbá. This is truly the heart of the Brazilian Pantanal and is incredibly difficult place to access (best way in is from Bonito or Bolvia, explained later). This has everything to do with the remoteness of the location, and with a remote location, what do find…? Usually, no people, the possibility of big businesses looking to exploit the area for its resources, an incredible amount of densely populated flora and fauna species, outstanding local wildlife population, and some of the best opportunities to view, encounter, and photograph said wildlife. The Pantanal is exactly this, remote, intense, and chalk full of wildlife, add the humidity and mosquitos, the countless rivers and the overwhelming natural beauty, and it’s time to grab a map, make a reservation, and make your way into the swamp. Here are some photos of the different wildlife I have encountered during my trips into the area.
- A birds eye view of the Pantanal Matogrossense National Park from a helicopter
– Image by © Frans Lanting/Corbis
- An anaconda under the house (just like in the movies)
- A pair of hyacinth Macaws, posing for the camera
- Some howler monkeys with lungs like a dinosaur
- A burrowing owl keeping an eye out from a field
- Seeing double – a pair of caimans waiting on the hill
- The worm didn’t stand a chance against this Piranhas choppers!
The Pantanal is easiest accessible by flight. The best place to fly into is Campo Grande or Bonito, both found in Mato Grosso do Sul state in south west Brazil. Bonito is the smaller of the two but overall the more attractive and more tourism focused. These cities are also both accessible by road but you’re looking at up to 20+ hours spent on a bus from almost any major city in Brazil. Fun!! Flying is the best option. From Bonito or Campo Grande there are a number of small tour operators offering multi day guided excursions into the heartland of the world’s largest wetland!! Access from the Bolivian border at Corumbá is also quite good, if you’re coming from the west. There is an overnight train from Santa Cruz, Bolivia to Puerto Suarez and the border, it is amazing and leaves daily all year round… and it’s cheap!!
View Where Sidewalks End in a larger map
This is incredibly important when visiting the region. The Pantanal is 80% flood plain and fills up quickly! There are two primary seasons, wet and dry, bet you didn’t guess that. 🙂 The wet season spans from November – March with the dry season, April – October. The best time to visit the Pantanal is during the in-betweens (i.e. October November / April May) this change over timing is your perfect chance to see the best of both worlds. The best places to go are natural watering holes, which draw wildlife all year round. During the wet season, all of the land animals get forced onto the small high patches that just avoid flooding, assuming the bush cover isn’t too thick, it makes viewing wildlife relatively easy, and also the bird life during the wet season is outstanding, the Pantanal is a bird watchers dream.
The region is so remote and has such low human populations that the most dangerous thing is not having adequate access to a hospital in emergency situations, and or, having a ‘bad’ encounter with some of the local wildlife. I would hope that none of the visitors would provoke any wildlife and that the Pantanal guides would provide all the cautionary information necessary.
Please Note: Travel inherently comes with an element of risk (just like crossing the road does). You are putting yourself in elements that are unfamiliar and foreign to your usual lifestyle and with that, become more susceptible to fall victim those who try to play off those unfamiliar to their local scams. There are also potential dangers in the environments to which you may not be accustomed to.
Please take extra care in travelling, ensure that you have adequate medical insurance (accidents seem to happen when you least expect them), and have let a trusted colleague, family member or friend know your whereabouts and activities.
Where Sidewalks End travel advises you to travel at your own risk, and to be extra aware of your surroundings (without letting it spoiling your time).
Due to the remoteness and the current strength of the Brazilian Reais, the Pantanal is a relatively expensive off-the-beaten-track destination. You would be looking at spending most of your budget on transport and accommodation. Almost everything is run similarly to an African safari, except for park fees, there are none in Pantanal. The accommodation booked almost always provides a guided excursion service with your stay, the majority being dawn and dusk safaris when there is the best chance of viewing wildlife. Be prepared to take a chunk out of your wallet on this one.
This massive mostly unexplored area of South America is truly a hidden gem. There is so much tourism possibility in the Pantanal with guaranteed wildlife sightings for every visitor. No matter what time of year you visit it is bound to be a memorable experience. This traveller recommends February, March, and Aril as the best time of year to visit. The world’s largest wetland is an incredible ecosystem that has its threats and has its strengths, like anywhere else. I think the best part of the Pantanal is the diversity of nature co existing in one area. Like the Amazon, Andes, Sahara, Artic, etc., the Pantanal is still a coveted wilderness area with its remoteness and inaccessibility being its greatest asset.
This sounds like quite the adventure, right? We thought so too! Though we realize it can be pretty intimidating to get out there into the world on your own, especially when travelling to some of these off the beaten path locations. We love it when our readers give it a shot and try it for themselves! In fact, please leave us feedback if you do!! If trying something ‘this’ adventurous on your own is just a bit outside of your comfort zone, WSE Travel is here to help!
Click on this link for our ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ Tours – packages that are highly personalized and tailored at your request.