At 20 times the size of the Florida Everglades, the Pantanal is the world’s largest tropical wetland. Seasonal rains run off the Pantanal’s surrounding highlands and collect in its large, gently-sloped basin before draining into the Rio Paraguay. The Pantanal boasts the highest concentration of wildlife on the continent, and unlike the Amazon, the animals aren’t hiding behind a dense jungle canopy.
The Pantanal is predominantly an agricultural area, dotted with privately owned cattle ranches, or “fazendas.” Many of the fazendas offer safaris and tours of the Pantanal, which provides ranchers another source of income and encourages sustainable conservation of the environment. I stayed in the Southern Pantanal for two nights at Fazenda San Francisco.
We arrived at Fazenda San Francisco just in time for a lunch buffet. I chose “carne seca com abobora” for my lunch dish, or sun-dried beef with pumpkin. For dessert, I ate “furrundu,” a mixture of papaya trunk, sugarcane juice, and coconut. Over the next two days, the Pantaneiros prepared their regional cuisine for us. The meals at Fazenda San Francisco were among my favorite meals of the trip.
After lunch, we boarded a boat for a piranha fishing trip. Upon setting anchor, I baited the hook of my bamboo pole with raw steak and dipped the bait next to the shoreline, excited to catch my first piranha. As was the case with my fishing trip in the Ecuadorian Amazon three years earlier, I didn’t hook a single fish. My boat mates caught piranhas though, so I got to see the ferocious predators. We also saw a caiman swimming lazily past the boat, and watched a diving hawk pull a fish from the water.
After the sunset, we boarded a truck and set off to find nocturnal animals. We saw numerous marsh deer and capybaras before spotting the animal that I most wanted to see: a jaguar! The jaguar is fuzzy in my photo because I don’t own a fast telephoto lens, but we had a clear view of the jaguar for 30 seconds before the elusive cat disappeared into the marsh. On average, jaguar spottings occur only once or twice a month during the nighttime safari–we were fortunate.
The next day was full of activities, including a canoe trip, horseback riding, and a daytime safari. We saw parakeets, macaws, owls, kingfishers, ibis, storks, hawks, caiman, giant anteaters, tapirs, armadillos, and herds of capybaras. The capybara is the largest rodent in the world, weighing up to 145 pounds. While most rodents give me the creeps, the capybaras are cute, looking like a cross between a beaver and a guinea pig. I smiled every time I watched one of these sturdy, semi-aquatic creatures jump into the swamp.
The Pantanal was a highlight of my trip. If you’re visiting Brazil and love wildlife, then you should consider adding the Pantanal to your itinerary. The only downside to consider is the risk of mosquito-borne illness. Despite repeatedly spraying myself with insect repellant containing 98.25% DEET, I was covered head-to-toe with mosquito bites. The bites were uncomfortable, but I escaped contracting malaria, dengue fever, yellow fever, or Zika. The mosquitoes wouldn’t deter me from returning to the Pantanal.