How to explore the Brazilian Pantanal
What you need to know about the Brazilian Pantanal
This is Brazil’s best kept secret. The Brazilian Pantanal is the world’s largest wetland area, home to the highest concentration of wildlife in South America.
The majority of the Pantanal is found in the central-western part of Brazil but also spills into bordering countries, Paraguay and Bolivia.
The World Wildlife Fund estimates that 325 species of fish, 159 species of mammals, 656 species of birds, 53 species of amphibians, and 98 species of reptiles call the Brazilian Pantanal home.
The rainy season falls between April and July, flooding the Paraguay River and saturating the landscape, creating massive swamplands. In July to October the dry season forces wildlife to come out and seek watering holes, making it perfect for viewing.
You can visit either the Northern Brazilian Pantanal or the Southern Pantanal. Each offer fantastic experiences in both wet and dry season. I was told that in the North by Porto Jofre in the dry season there is the best chance to see jaguars as they venture out to the banks for water.
I visited the Southern Pantanal in March 2017 and it was fantastic for activities such as piranha fishing and horse riding in the swamps.
How to visit the Brazilian Pantanal from Campo Grande
When you arrive to Campo Grande you will see a tour agency in the bus station called Ecological Expeditions. We were approached by a man named Israel, who was very persistent in his sales. As it was the first place we had been quoted by we were keen to try and talk to other agencies.
Excellently located, Ecological Expeditions is very hard to say no to. Other agencies around the bus terminal looked very average and the centre of Campo Grande was a taxi ride away.
After a 28 hour bus journey from Brasilia, walking around in the heat made Israel’s proposal sound more and more tempting and we asked for more information. We did look at some TripAdvisor reviews and saw some horrific ones, but from almost 10 years ago. We focused on more recent reviews, which sounded more promising. As we were on a budget, we couldn’t expect too much and were just happy to have the opportunity to even visit the Brazilian Pantanal.
The final decision
For a price of 600 R$ each (March 2017) we booked with Ecological Expeditions. As a result, we had included a pre-tour night in Campo Grande, transport to Eco-Lodge Pousada Arara Azul the next day, all excursions including a night walk, a day walk, a boat trip, piranha fishing and horse riding. Also 3 nights in a dorm and all of our meals were included.
It took some bartering to get the original price of 800 R$ down to 600 R$, but as 3 girls this wasn’t so much of a challenge. I would definitely recommend doing the same and not settling for the first price you are given.
Day one: Campo Grande to Pousada Arara Azul in the Brazilian Pantanal
At 10 am we were picked up from our hostel and driven to Miranda, a halfway point for lunch. The journey was 6 hours in total and from Miranda we drove a little further to meet our jeeps. These were to take us the rest of the way through the jungle and to our lodge. The open jeeps were ideal for animal viewing and within minutes we had spotted toucans and caimans.
We arrived at the Pousada Arara Azul early evening and they gave Hana, Hannah and I our own room. The rooms for us were great, they were like log cabins and were just what we needed. The rest of the lodge was also fantastic. There was a bar area with a pool table and the dining area was huge, allowing the whole group to dine together.
Outside there was a swimming pool, however it didn’t look too clean so we didn’t bother with this. The lodge is 40km deeper into the Brazilian Pantanal from the road entrance to the Southern Pantanal and sits on the banks of a lake teaming with wildlife. It is within walking distance to the Nhecolandia savannah, which is amazing for the day walks.
If you are on a budget I really think this lodge could be perfect for you.
Late night bush walk
On our first evening we all went on a night walk around the lake and into the bush. The first thing our guide found was a humongous tarantula creeping up a tree. A little further into the bush and we came across a giant wild boar. Our guide looked terrified and warned us to run! In fact, if I remember correctly, he ran away first leaving us completely bewildered and panicked. It turned out a lone wild boar is extremely dangerous, and can be as bad as crossing a jaguar. Hence why we ran out into the open grass as quickly as we could and picked up our night walk around the lake. Here we saw 2 curious foxes and an adorable family of capivaras, which I had been desperate to see.
Day two: Piranha fishing in the Pantanal
The morning started with a walk into the grasslands. Beware especially of the mosquitos here, they were relentless and as we found out, black tight leggings are their favourite. We silently watched a family of coatis playing in the trees above us and saw a lot of birds.
At lunch we got talking to another group who had done the piranha fishing the day before. They told us that they were fishing off a bridge, so this is what we expected from this afternoon’s excursion.
We walked back through the savannah until we hit a river, which we then continued to wade through. No bridge here. We were fishing for piranhas while they swam around our waists. Fixing our bait of raw red meat to our makeshift bamboo rods, we flung them out to see what we could catch. I managed to catch 2 impressively large piranhas. They were surprisingly very beautiful with purple and glittery scales. Each time someone would accidentally drop their bait in the murky water, deadly fish would swarm around and diminish every last bit.
The chefs prepared the piranhas that we had caught and made a very tasty fish soup for dinner. For such a vicious fish there really isn’t much meat on them.
Day three: Horse riding in the Pantanal
This would usually be the last day for those who only book 2 nights, so we said our goodbyes to most of the group and the guides took the rest of us horse riding at a nearby ranch.
The men that took us were real life Brazilian guachos, equipped with a cowboy hat, leather crotch-less pants over ripped denim jeans and a sturdy wheel of rope.
My horse, who was named Menina (girl in Portuguese) had a mind of its own. I had been warned she was lazy but not to this extent. As soon as everyone set off in a line, Menina was straight to the back and despite many kicks, she still decided to turn around and head back to the ranch. This was when the rope came in handy. The guacho noosed Menina and we were lead together through the grasslands and into the jungle. He finally let us loose and Menina and I chilled together at the back, letting out some flatulence as soon as the pace picked up – Menina that is.
I had no problem with my horse going slow as some of the boys’ horses up in front were a little erratic and made us both nervous. The scenery was absolutely stunning. We waded through swamplands and high grasslands for 2 hours. It was a very tranquil start to the day and an activity I would recommend adding onto your tour.
Our close encounter
In the afternoon, our guide Santos took us 3 on a private bush walk in search of more wildlife. We entered the jungle exploring deeper, passing a family of curious coatis and stalking some flighty toucans. One of the best things we came across was a dead pig. Not just any dead pig however, a dead pig freshly killed by a jaguar. The teeth marks had penetrated the back of its neck, demonstrating how the jaguar chokes its’ kill first. Santos believed the jaguar left the pig, maybe because of people walking through, perhaps on the earlier morning bush walk, and they had scared the jaguar away. It was terrifyingly exciting to think we could have been that close to the elusive jaguar.
During this excitement, we hadn’t noticed that a much smaller creature was attacking us – the mosquito. Thousands of them had swarmed to our black leggings and penetrated through, leaving us with hundreds of stinging bites. Take an overcautious amount of insect repellant and tiger balm for all the bites.
Day four: Pantanal to Bonito
It was our last morning and we enjoyed a tranquil boat ride down the Paraguay River. We were looking out for exotic birds, possible capivaras and praying for a jaguar. It was just birds and beautiful scenery we got today. Our guide advised us that in the drier seasons there is a lot more activity down on the riverside as water is a lot more scarce.
The jeeps took us back to Miranda, where we met some others who had travelled up to the Northern Brazilian Pantanal. Our first question was: did you see a jaguar?! It appeared we had been the closest with seeing a jaguar kill.
One downside to this tour is that they do not include the price of a transfer back to Campo Grande from Miranda. They do provide a group of taxis who wait for you at Miranda. They can also take you to Bonito if you want to go somewhere new. We paid 90R$ each to take a taxi for one and a half hours onwards to Bonito. To return to Campo Grande, it was 50R$ each.
Option to add on nearby town, Bonito:
After our amazing Brazilian Southern Pantanal tour we continued onwards to the ecotourism town of Bonito. I had organised to couchsurf in Bonito with Felippe. He hosted us at his fantastic hostel, Sao Jorge Pub Hostel for 2 nights. His place turned out to be one of our favourites in Brazil. The rooms were huge and you had so much space to lay out all of your belongings. The bathrooms were equipped with hairdryers and huge lit up mirrors – perfect for scrubbing up after the Pantanal. There was a lovely garden area and an open planned kitchen. If you can’t couchsurf with Felippe, don’t worry – Sao Jorge is also one of the cheapest hostels we’ve seen.
Things to do in Bonito
In Bonito there are a lot of day tours that you can book. They are quite expensive so I would pick one or two must sees. The prices for the tours are usually the same in each agency so you don’t need to do a lot of shopping around. The most popular places to visit are the Rio da Prata, Gruta do Lago Azul, Serra da Bodoquena National Park, Parque das Cachoeiras and Balneario Municipal.
On our first day we hired bikes with people we had met in the hostel. We left the centre of town and rode for over 30 minutes towards el balneario municipal. To reach here you need to head south out of Bonito along the main road all the way up to a main roundabout. You then turn left towards the entrance of the river. There is an entrance fee of 20-30R$ each but it works out to be a lot cheaper than part of a tour. There is a restaurant and bar here but we brought our own snacks.
Here you will find a crystal clear river which is full of huge carp fish. If you follow the river up along the path and slip in to the water, it is like a lazy river and you can float back down with the strong current. At the main steps the carp fish like to show off their tricks. For this you need to buy some bread and have a tree branch at hand. If you pierce the piece of bread with the branch and hover it over the water, just see what happens and you will be amazed.
Day tour to Gruta do Lago Azul
We decided to do the Gruta do Lago Azul day tour as this is what we thought Bonito was most famous for. We arranged the tour with the hostel and it cost 170R$ per person. The tour picked us up from the hostel and took us to the entrance of the cave. Once we arrived, they kitted us out with hard hats and then escorted us down into the cave. The tour was in Portuguese, so there was a lot of guessing the translation as only some recognisable Spanish words came through. But when we were down in the cave, it didn’t really matter. We were left to appreciate the intense blue colours of the pools that sparkled in the sunlight.
One thing to bear in mind when looking at day tours in Bonito is that the agencies split the price into 2 segments. First the transfer cost, and second the entrance fee. If you have your own transport or know someone with a car, then this makes the day tour a lot more cost effective.
Bonito during the day
Something to consider with Bonito is that it is an ecotourism hub. Therefore, during the day the town is extremely quiet and a lot of places are closed until at least 3pm. This is because the town’s main focus is on day tours. If you are looking to go out for coffee or breakfast, good luck. You are better off making it yourself. The town does come alive at night and you can find a lot of live music and lovely restaurants.
Feel free to leave a comment below to let me know if you have seen the elusive jaguar at the Brazilian Pantanal and what was your secret?!