It Is Very Much About The Jaguar, But Not Only!
Yes, the Pantanal is unique! Who doesn’t dream of spotting such an elusive “Big Cat” (the third biggest in the world, after Tigers & Lions) as the Jaguar, an animal that played a central role in the old cultures of Central & South America, for instance the Incas. And the Pantanal is indeed a place where your chances of spotting Jaguars in the wild are really high if you go there in the right season… Actually, the only place in the world!
But the Pantanal offers much more than that: the largest tropical wetland area in the world is home to one of the greatest bioderversity on earth!
- Birdwatchers will be in heaven, with altogether 700 species in this area (I spotted, photographed and identified approx. 50 species in less than 5 days, and bird-watching was definitely not my priority);
- Besides Jaguars, there are many other mammals to be spotted, small and big: monkeys, rodents like the Capybara, Foxes, Deers, Coatis, and if you are lucky Armadillos, Sloths, Anteaters & even Tapirs;
- If you like snakes and have luck or a lot of time, you can find 80 species of those, amongst which the rare Anaconda & the Boa Constrictor;
- Even if you like caimans, you will get an overdose of them… With an estimated population of 20 million, you have there a mind-boggling concentration of 100 Black Caimans per square kilometers… Not exactly the right place to go for a swim…
- And last but not least, the Pantanal is still little traveled, even though its uniqueness is by far no longer a well-kept secret!
You can hardly visit the Pantanal on your own, so you will have to take a tour booked at one of the many travel agencies in Campo Grande or in Cuiaba or from one of the lodges in the area (prices seem to be similar between lodges & tours)…
You are first confronted with a huge dilemma, and your budget will actually decide for you where you can and will go:
- From Campo Grande
I did not visit the Pantanal through Campo Grande but discussed with several fellow travelers who did. You head to the Southern Pantanal because you want to do this tour on a budget. You will be amongst a younger crowd, mostly backpackers, join a larger group, and have a decent yet not full experience of this unique place. Jaguar spotting is a pure matter of luck and not to be seriously expected. Apparently, you have to calculate with approx. 100 USD per day for such a tour.
- From Cuiaba
This is what I did, and I had the chance to negotiate a good deal with Munir of NaturEco. You head to the Northern Pantanal to make the most of this area. Beware though that there are huge differences: the closer you stay from Poconé the cheaper it will be but the less you will see. The closer you come to Porto Jofre the best your experience will be, and the higher your budget.
Between mid-August and mid October, Jaguar spotting is very likely if you go to Porto Jofre. You will be amongst small groups of old, rich Westerners who flash top-notch cameras (think of 15 to 20k USD, yes, the really serious stuff), and take the bird & wildlife watching very seriously. Leading agencies (like NaturEco) will ask for 400 to 500 USD a day if they take you to Porto Jofre in the top season. Yes, that hurts!
When To Go There?
You can go to the Pantanal year round, but in the wet season, wildlife spotting is much more difficult, and you will voluntarily feed a few Million mosquitoes eager to enjoy fresh blood. Note that the wet season doesn’t mean the rainy season… It doesn’t rain much in the Pantanal, the water comes mainly from the 5 rivers feeding this wetland.
The top season is from mid-August to end of September / mid of October, as it is the best time for wildlife watching in general and the perfect time for Jaguar spotting. This is also peak-season and you must be ready to pay accordingly…
What Should You Focus On When Preparing The Trip?
If you go for the Jaguar, then only go there in the top season (mid-August to end of September) with a focus on Porto Jofre. There, you will be on boats all day and will focus on Jaguar spotting. Expect long searches, long waiting times in a scorching sun, and a few rewarding minutes near such a majestic animal!
One important point: request and insist on a “powerful boat”: guides talk to each other with radios, and when a Jaguar is spotted, you will want to be there before it disappears again. So with 40 HP, you will be the last one, but with 115 you will be the first one. I laught when Tom, our guide, proudly said we would have a “powerful boat” and then enjoyed these 115 HP tremendously!
But you should also visit at least one other place on the way there, to discover other aspects of the Pantanal, like going on foot or in a jeep through the Savannah and spot birds, some of the 20 millions caimans there, and if you are lucky other animals like Anteaters or Tapirs. Request that you are not in the “Lower Pantanal” but somewhere deeper. And do not waste time with other types of activities, like Piranhas fishing (I did not do) or horseback riding (there I talk from experience)…
I contacted 5 agencies in Cuiaba. EcoVerde Tours, Brazil Wildlife Expeditions & one which name I forgot did not even bother to answer my eMails, even though I wrote them twice. This I find a very disturbing attitude. Those guys must be too buzy catering for international tours… Pantanal Nature responded quickly but their offer that was too expensive for me.
I exchanged quite a few eMails with Munir, the owner from NaturEco, and we found a good agreement for both of us for a 5 days / 4 nights tour. Our guide, Tom, a young chap from the area of Porto Jofre, was simply outstanding, both for his motivation & dedication and his knowledge of the area and the wildlife (he is especially such a bird specialist!). So yes, this is definitely a very good and trustworthy agency. Be clear on what to expect, communicate it clearly, and Munir will surely find something to meet your expectations. It is not cheap, but worth the money…
My Highlights In The Pantanal
Spotting 4 times such an elusive animal as a Jaguar, and being able to take good pictures of 2 of them, was a truly unique experience, both as a Traveler and as a Photographer! And when the last one made a “Walk On The Beach” at sunset for us, it was simply magical! These will rank between my favorite photos of all times…
- Giant River Otters having Breakfast…
Not only did we spot several Giant River Otters early morning, but they just had caught each a large fish and went to a quiet place to enjoy some serious breakfast, starting with the head and ending… when nothing was left!
I even witnessed a quite large Caiman trying to join the feast, but the 3 Otters were not in a mood to share their breakfast, and got the intruder to leave quite quickly!
- 50 species of Birds
No, I am not especially into bird watching, but spotting “en passant” so many unknown birds, and being able to take pictures & identify 50 species in less than 5 days is something really unique. I had not experienced such a thing elsewhere in the world…
- Other kinds of animals
There are many other sorts of animals you can spot in the Pantanal…
Of course we saw hundreds, maybe thousands of Black Caimans, some of them very, very close, so close I once could grab one’s tail (you should never touch a wild animal, that I know… But I couldn’t resist! And with more than 20 millions Black Caimans in the Pantanal, I am not sure this will indeed endanger the specie!)
I also spotted Monkeys, Caipybaras, Deers, Foxes, Iguanas, and lucky fellow travelers saw Gient Anteaters and Sloths, but I did not… Tapirs seem to be even harder to spot than Jaguars.
- Various ways to approach animals
Sometimes we were on boats, sometimes we went for a walk, sometimes we were on a truck, and sometimes in the jeep… Each mode of transport offered a different experience of the surroundings and of wildlife watching.
Photography In The Pantanal
As a photographer, you will be confronted with numerous challenges in the Pantanal, so there are a few things to consider if you want to have the right equipment:
- A strong Tele-Lens
Yes, wildlife is mostly far away, and especially for birds, but also for Jaguars, you will need a strong tele-lens. I seldom reach the limits of my EF 100-400 f4.5-5.6, but in the Pantanal, especially with no crop-factor on my full-frame camera (Canon EOS 6D), I did! Take the strongest tele-lens you can find!
- Importance of the Speed of Focus
I use a Canon EOS 6D, and I truly appreciate this device for Travel Photography. The Full-Frame proved to be a real enhancement and opened new possibilities with difficult lights (higher ISO settings, under-exposures…). Also the integrated GPS is a great plus, even though it empties batteries within one day…
Nevertheless, for the first time I really reached the limits of my camera: the auto-focus is simply too slow for wildlife, which can be moving quite fast at times. I deeply regretted I hadn’t a Canon EOS 7D (Mark II) or of course a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with me…
- The lack of Light
Yes, we went wildlife watching during the day and I had troubles with not enough light, even under a scorching sun. How comes? Especially Jaguars tend to rest in the shade, as “Big Cats” do. So the lack of light will be a major challenge…
This is especially challenging with a tele-lens, as you need high shutter-speeds to avoid blurred images. Of course you can increase the ISO, but you have quickly a loss of quality. A full-frame camera will help partly, but only partly.
One trick is to move to “M” (“Manual”) and fix both Aperture (completely open as you want short depth of field range and as much light as possible) and shutter speed (at least 1 divided by your focal length, so in a case of a 400 mm lens at least 1 / 400 seconds). If you are strongly under exposed, then increase the exposure in the Post-Processing in Lightroom – Do not forget to shoot in RAW.
The Pantanal (Portuguese Pântano, meaning wetland, swamp), located in the Brazilean states of Mato Grosso & Mato Grosso do Sul, and partly in Bolivia & Paraguay, is the world’s largest tropical wetland area, spreading over an area estimated between 140,000 and 195,000 square kilometres. Roughly 80% of the Pantanal floodplains are submerged during the wet seasons, not because of the little rain that this area receives, but because it is the encounter of 5 different rivers.
The Pantanal ecosystem is also home to 700 bird species, 260 fish species, 100 mammalian species, 80 reptile species and over 9000 different subspecies of invertebrates.
Among the endangered species that inhabit the wetland of the Pantanal are the Marsh Deer (Blastocerus Dichotomus), the Giant River Otter (Pteroneura Brasiliensis), the Maned Wolf (Chrysocyon Brachyurus), the Bush Dog (Speothos Venaticus), the South American Tapir (Tapirus Terrestris) or the Giant Anteater (Myrmecophaga Tridactyla).
The Pantanal is also home to the largest population of Jaguars (Panthera Onca), with an estimated 60% of total world population that fell down to an estimated 17.000 (down from 400.000 half a Century ago!)
Fantastic report, stirred great memories of my trip to Pantanal in October last year. I was lucky to see 8 different jaguars in 4 days. The first one, a young male, we were observing for 2 hours, that was magical. I was also very lucky to see a mother and a baby crossing the river!
Thank you Natasha ! Yes, seeing Jaguars is magical !