The Pantanal

Deriving its name from the Portuguese for swamp, the immense 230,000 square kilometre Pantanal is subject to seasonal flooding on a grand scale. The rains, which fall from December to March, transform the dry, dusty savannah into a vast lake, dotted with wooded “islands”, which slowly drains into the wide Rio Paraguay via its many tributaries. Providing South America’s best wildlife viewing by far, the Pantanal is a must for all natural history enthusiasts who wish to understand why the continent is such a special destination. Species regularly seen include capybara, giant anaconda, crab-eating fox, burrowing owl, giant otter, horned screamer, marsh deer, jabiru stork, giant anteater, black and gold howler monkey, puma, tapir, armadillo, caiman, pink river dolphin, hoatzin, hyacinth macaw, toco toucan, ocelot and margay: it is also the best location in South America to view the elusive jaguar, third largest of the world’s cats. The cattle ranchers of the interior co-exist happily with the wildlife and guard their lands’ integrity jealously: a rare and heartening example of man’s beneficial influence on the planet’s fauna and flora.

Northern Pantanal

From Cuiaba, the Trans-Pantaneira highway penetrates the top third of the Pantanal down to the river border with Mato Grosso do Sul. Apart from containing all the species for which the wetlands are famed, this is the area with the highest chance of seeing jaguar in the whole of South America. It also contains the only official nature reserve in the region, the Mato Grosso Pantanal National Park, accessed from the Rio Paraguay and requiring special permission to visit.

Southern Pantanal

Accessed from Corumba and Campo Grande in Mato Grosso do Sul state, the southern Pantanal has an extensive river system including the Miranda, Aquidauana and Negro Rivers (tributaries of the Rio Paraguay) and a vast interior of cattle ranches extending over hundreds of thousands of acres each. Compared to the north, the south remains wetter for longer, and the animals migrate out of the area during the wet season. Visiting this area should reveal the full panoply of Pantanal wildlife, including the chance of seeing giant otter and jaguar.