Brazil’s Pantanal has been described as Jurassic Park without the dinosaurs. Simply put, it is the best place in South American to see wildlife — even better than the main Amazon rainforest. Last year, Tim Jaffray of Blackfalds spent a week exploring the area on foot, by boat, on horseback and by vehicle.
Pantanal means swamp in Portuguese and South America’s Pantanal is the largest freshwater wetland in the world covering between 140,000 and 185,000 square km — an area roughly twice the size of England.
It is located on the far western edge of Brazil — an area that is bursting with animals. Many species that live in the Amazon are next to impossible to see due to the dense jungle; whereas they can often be viewed in abundance in the Pantanal. There are more than 700 species of birds, 100 mammal species, more than 250 fish species, and 80 reptile species in the area including capybaras, caimans, jaguars, anacondas, giant otters, colourful hyacinth macaws, kites, hawks, and flocks of storks and herons hundreds strong.
Like many visitors to this part of South America, Jaffray stayed on a large cattle farm and from the moment he arrived he was impressed with the amount of wildlife in the area.
“Shortly after I arrived on the farm, the owner (an elderly gentleman) told me to go and check out a small group of trees about a kilometre from the main yard,” Jaffray described. “I entered the trees not really knowing what to expect but hoping to see something. To my pleasant surprise, I realized those trees were host to about a dozen monkeys of four varieties. Over the week, I found that this type of experience is commonplace in the Pantanal.”
There is a staggering amount of fish in the Pantanal and sport fishing is very popular in the area. Since Jaffray was not on a specific type of fishing trip, his hosts took him fishing for piranha on the river near the farm. Fishing for piranha was a bit more challenging than he had imagined.
“As soon as we started fishing our boat was soon surrounded by caiman, a type of alligator that is endemic in the region,” he said. “While not as large as their crocodile kin in the interior, they can still be quite a pest. The first piranha I caught was snatched by a caiman and we had a tug of war over who was the proper owner! Ultimately, the fish lost that battle and I learned my lesson — you gotta be fast! We eventually landed some fish and enjoyed a very tasty piranha for supper.”
On his second day in the Pantanal, Jaffray had the chance to see an anaconda up close.
“I was having a beer in the shade when our hostess (a farm lady of about 85 years) walked over and calmly dumped an anaconda at my feet,” he said. “It had been stealing eggs and had bitten the lady, but even though she was bleeding she thought nothing of it and did not blame the snake.
“The anaconda was not that large for its kind, only about three metres, and after being very nervous it relaxed and slowly made its way back out into the vast swamp of the Pantanal. Having heard many tales of the anaconda, it was amazing to see a wild one up close.”
The real highlight of the Pantanal is the abundant wildlife and Jaffray enjoyed walking around and observing many kinds of birds, reptiles, and mammals.
Unlike the thicker jungle in the Amazon, the terrain of the Pantanal is more open and allows for better viewing.
There were hundreds of blue macaws living in the trees near the farm and Jaffray was fascinated by them. He also had the chance to see an armadillo and a stork up close, as the farm was nursing these animals back to health.
“The wildlife, the people and the food were all amazing,” he said. “Each day was a new experience, and the guides and our hosts made the stay very easy for me. It’s a part of the world that everyone who loves wildlife and nature should see.”
If you go:
• To get to the Pantanal, you must take a flight or bus from Sao Paulo or Rio de Janeiro to a town near the South Pantanal (Rio Grande) or the North Pantanal (Cuiaba). Jaffray travelled by bus from Sao Paulo to Campo Grande (about an eight-hour journey). Once in Campo Grande, he arranged accommodations at a farm in the Pantanal.
• There aren’t any big hotel chains in the Pantanal. The most common form of accommodations is the “fazenda” or tourist lodge, which is located on large cattle farms. This type of accommodation costs about $30 a day, including all transport and food. Jaffray arranged his accommodations from the Campo Grande bus station.
• One of the biggest challenges of visiting this region is the large number of mosquitoes (due to the swampy nature of the terrain). Insect repellent is a must. However, due to the ranching industry, the Brazilian government has spent a lot of money to eliminate malaria from the area, which allows more peace of mind for tourists.
• In addition to insect repellent, you’ll also need a good hat, sun block, sun glasses, a swimsuit, flashlight, binoculars, more than one pair of shoes or boots (it can be very muddy), a lightweight waterproof jacket, and a good camera.
• December through March is the rainy season and July to September is the dry season in the Pantanal. During the rainy season, the Pantanal becomes flooded and rains can be very intense. Temperatures and humidity levels are also high during the rainy season. You should avoid travelling to Pantanal during the rainy season. Jaffray travelled in November, just before the start of the rainy season.
Threats to the Pantanal
Like many of the Earth’s important ecological systems, the Pantanal is under threat from human development.
While the cattle ranches that co-exist on the landscape are having an effect, one of the bigger emerging concerns is soybean farming.
“There are a growing number of soya farms being developed in this fertile region, and seeing the damage this is causing with my own eyes was disturbing,” said Jaffray.
“The growth of the soya trade in the Pantanal is one of the causes of habitat destruction in Brazil, and this damage is done almost exclusively to fuel overseas demand. The terraforming necessary to grow crops in the Pantanal devastates the land for animal habitat and directly affects the existence of many species. We live in a global marketplace and everyone should be aware of where their food comes from and the impact on the environment.”
Debbie Olsen is a Lacombe-based freelance writer. If you have a travel story you would like to share or know someone with an interesting travel story that we might interview, please email: DOGO@telusplanet.net or write to: Debbie Olsen, c/o Red Deer Advocate, 2950 Bremner Ave., Red Deer, T4R 1M9.