The Pantanal is the largest wetland in the world, located primarily in the state of Matto Grosso in central Brazil. It is a haven for wildlife, including many endemic species of birds and mammals. This particular trip was called ‘Brazil – Mammals of the Pantanal’ organised by the specialist travel company “Naturetrek.co.uk”:http://Naturetrek.co.uk .
The biggest hurdle to overcome if you are generally a short-haul traveller, is the long journey…. but it is a means to an end, and quite frankly there is nowhere like it in the world. If you are a ‘big cat’ person, this is the place to see the fabulous Jaguar. Like the Bengal Tiger in India, to be able to share their home, if only for a brief moment, is an experience you will never forget.
Our trip started at LHR with an 11 hour flight to Sao Paulo, a stop over, then an internal flight to Cuiaba taking a further 2.5 hours. Here the intrepid dozen of us like minded people, met the wonderful Paulo Ribeira, our Brazilian guide for the next 10 days. A welcome lunch at a self service restaurant just across the road from the airport, saw us well topped up for the journey ahead…..plus the quick adjustment from 15 to 40 degrees Celsius!
After an hour in the minibus, we changed over, outside the small town of Pocone, to the open topped vehicle which would be our road transport for the remainder of the holiday. This type of vehicle is essential for avid wildlifers and photographers; poking camera lenses through sliding windows of a minibus or coach is no good at all, particularly if you are on the wrong side for a sighting.
We travelled on the famous Transpantaneira for approx. 80 miles, taking approx. 3.5 hours with many stops en route for photographic and general wildlife viewing opportunities. It is basically a two-lane gravel track, which carves its way through forest and open wetland for as far as the eye can see…. it appears straight, but there are some bends and many small bridges to be navigated. Along the way we saw Marsh Deer, Roadside and Savannah Hawks, Caiman, even a Giant Anteater which is a rare sight, plus a myriad of other birds.
Our first main stop was the South Wild Lodge, a veritable haven located next to the Cuiaba River. Here we stayed overnight and one full day. We were treated to a night time viewing from a specialist hide, of the very rare Ocelot…. it is not guaranteed but we were very lucky to see this beautiful small cat at fairly close range (see attached photos). The first morning we were supposed to be going out for our first boat trip after breakfast, but there was a call from another guide…. Jaguars had been seen. Quickly we all gathered and zoomed about 0.5mile up river and caught a glimpse of mother and cub on the far bank…. not a great viewing and difficult to photograph, but sometimes you just enjoy the wonder…. and that was before breakfast…Wow!!
We did spend a few hours cruising later in the day and experienced the Giant River Otter family ‘fishing’ and playing by the bankside… they are fairly well habituated and will tolerate us humans gawping at them for some time. Of course, there were Cocoi Herons (similar to our own Grey herons) in abundance, Black Necked Hawks, and again a huge variety of birdlife in the trees and along the river bank. At this particular lodge there is also a ‘tower’ approx. 30′ high accessed by a winding steel staircase, to view a tree top birds’ nest…. the Jabiru Storks. These huge birds, probably the largest storks in the world, standing over 5′ tall, tend to nest at the top of big old trees, and here you can be at the same elevation as them, so photography is relatively easy…. the youngsters were in the nest at the time… just a joy to watch them.
Now the main thrust of the trip…. another 3 hour journey to Porto Jofre….’back of beyond’ would be an appropriate description of this little township. Not a lot going on except a welcome toilet break and refreshments. Here we transfered from land to water for the next 4 days….. our small 12 seater flat bottomed boat takes us on the main river (approx. the width of the River Thames here.) for a 20 minute journey to the Flotel. This is somewhat eponymous, as it is a floating hotel…. rather a large river boat parked at the riverside, complete with guest cabins, restaurant/bar and viewing gallery on the top deck. It is certainly not luxurious, but much more than adequate, very comfortable and the food, similar to the South Wild Lodge, is really good… particularly when you realise you are in the middle of nowhere!
This Flotel, is in one of the best places for wildlife viewing in the whole of the Pantanal; it is located near the confluence of three rivers… the Cuiaba, Piquiri and Three Brothers, along with a number of smaller tributaries. The deal is quite simple… there are boats trips out in both morning and afternoon for approx. 3-4 hours with wildlife, wildlife and more wildlife….. this is not a cultural trip. So, 6-7 boat trips, at times a little ‘hairy’ when you pick up speed to 30-40 knots when there is a ‘jaguar call’…. basically all the guides and boatmen are linked with short waved radios and will tell each other when a jaguar has been spotted. Occasionally, there was in excess of 12 boats at a particular sighting, but generally a lot less, and once or twice we were the only ones there. The jaguars roam the wetlands and stalk their prey along the river banks…. most of them are quite habituated and are not in the least concerned that strange creatures (humans that is!) want to stop and stare at them, providing we are quiet and stay at a respectful distance. They are just big cats after all, and cats are very curious by nature….. it is an unforgettable joy to see these exquisite creatures being able to behave naturally with no fear of human predation. It is their home and they are at the top of the food chain….. caiman crocodiles, cabybaras and river otters are all prey to these powerhouses. Jaguars have the strongest bite, pound for pound, of all mammals.
During our stay, we had 17/18 sightings of jaguars, including some marvellous photographic opportunities. Of course we saw many birds, well over 120 different species, so avid ‘birders’ would be well sated on a trip like this. A visit to the Piquiri Lodge one morning, allowed us a little ‘terra firma’ for a few hours, roaming around the grounds and finding the Hyacinth Macaw in great numbers, plus Southern Screamers, Crested Caracaras, and a sighting of the endemic Agouti… remember the old song about ‘rats as big as pussy cats’… well that is the Agouti. The Macaws are lovely birds and I believe they are the largest of the parrots. This was one of our many highlights.
The return trip saw many many repeat animals… no complaints of course!
We spent another afternoon and evening at the South Wild Lodge, then everything in reverse back to Pocone and Cuiaba for our farewell to Paulo, our guide.
Mary and I had done a similar trip in 2015, and were a little hesitant to repeat it…. will it be as good we thought….. yes it was! Our guide was the equal of the wonderful Marcus, and the whole trip was as good if not better than before.
We were fortunate in that everybody was of a like mind, and we all gelled well over the period; we are now sharing memories and photos of what we all thought was one of our best holidays ever.
With wildlife holidays generally, there is never any guarantee, but this tour will tick most peoples’ boxes…. a myriad of birds, mammals, and a 99% chance of seeing the fabulous Jaguar. Not cheap, and the journey is arduous at times, but it is well worth it.
Please do it once and you will have a lifetime of wonderful memories.