the Pantanal handbook

August 9, 2010 | By More

The Pantanal is one of the most outstanding nature destinations in Brazil. It is also a complex destination for the independent traveller due to its large extension, the lack of reliable information and the presence in the region of a handful of unscrupulous agencies. This is our attempt at deciphering the Pantanal.

1. What exactly is the Pantanal?

Pantanal, Brazil

The Pantanal is one of the largest wetlands in the planet. A gigantic extension of land covering part of the states of Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul as well as parts of Paraguay and Bolivia (here we will only deal with the Brazilian side of the Pantanal).

Contrary to what its name suggests (“pântano” means swamp), the Pantanal is not a large swap. It is rather an extense floodplain that is covered by water during the rainy season. The variation on the height of the river flow between the wet and the dry season borders on the 3 meters.

Because a substantial part of the Pantanal is under water for half of the year, the extent of human activity in the region is greatly reduced. There are no large cities in the Pantanal.

2. What is the size of the Pantanal?

Pantanal, Mato Grosso, Brazil

The Pantanal has an extension of 250,000 mk2. To understand better what this figure means, the terrific Environmental Interpretation Centre at the SESC Pantanal reserve has a map of the Pantanal containing the silhouettes of Belgium, Ireland and Switzerland. And there is still plenty of space around.

Pantanal, Mato Grosso, Brazil

3. What is the landscape of the Pantanal like?

Pantanal, Mato Grosso, Brazil

There are no major mountain ranges in the Pantanal. It is mostly the plain dotted with hills here and there. Rivers, lakes, pasture and forests are the elements that best define the Pantanal.

4. The different Pantanals within the Pantanal

yacare caiman, Pantanal, Brazil

There is a major division of the Pantanal between Pantanal Norte –contained within the state of Mato Grosso, and the Pantanal Sur –within the state of Mato Grosso do Sul.

Pantanal, Mato Grosso, Brazil

As well as this split, the Pantanal is divided into several subregions, the most important of which are:

  • Pantanal do Cáceres. Between the river Paraguai and the Chapada dos Parecis, bordering to the west with Bolivia.
  • Pantanal do Poconé. Between the rivers Paraguai and Cuiabá. The Transpantaneira road cuts through the middle of this region.
  • Pantanal de Barão de Melgaço. Between the rivers Cuiabá and Piquiri, bordering with the Chapada dos Guimarães to the north.
  • Pantanal do Paraguai. Following the course of the river Paraguai.
  • Pantanal de Paiaguás. Between the rivers São Lourenço, Taquari and Itiquira. Flooding is particularly intense on this region.
  • Pantanal de Aquidauana. Cut by the rivers Aquidauana and Baixo Negro and bordering with the cerrado BIOMA.
  • Pantanal da Nhecolândia. Between the rivers Negro and Taquari.
  • Pantanal do Nabileque. Between the Serra da Bodoquena and the river Paraguai. Another subregion of the Pantanal where flooding makes an noticeable impression on the landscape.
  • Pantanal de Miranda. Between the Pantanal do Nabileque and the Pantanal de Aquidauana.

Distances between the subregions are considerable and communication infrastructure is precarious. For that reason, most tourists visiting the region will only get to travel around one subregion. No need to debate endlessly on which subregion to visit, they are all equally fascinating.

5. What are the access points to the Pantanal?

Ver Pantanal en un mapa mayor

There are three major cities that serve as an entry point to the Pantanal. One in the state of Mato Grosso, Cuiabá and two in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, Campo Grande and Corumbá.

  • Cuiabá. Capital of the state of Mato Grosso, it grants access to the Pantanal Norte, including the subregions of Pantanal do Poconé and Pantanal de Cáceres. Those wanting to travel along the Transpantaneira route will need to start from Cuiabá. Cuiabá is also the door to the Chapada dos Guimarães region. The are several travel agencies in Cuiabá specializing in trips to the Pantanal.
  • Campo Grande. Capital of the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, it grants access to the Pantanal Sur, including the subregions of Pantanal de Miranda and Pantanal do Aquidauana. Those wanting to travel along the Estrada Parque Pantanal can do so from Campo Grande. As well as the Pantanal, Campo Grande is the entrance point to the region of Bonito. Campo Grande is the base for some travel agencies specialized in the Pantanal; unfortunately for tourists worldwide, some of those agencies have built a shady reputation over time.
  • Corumbá. 20 km away from the border with Bolivia, Corumbá has the disadvantage of having the most remote location of the three cities (unless you enter Brazil from Bolivia) and the advantage of being closer to the Pantanal proper than the other two cities. It is the best access point if you want to travel along the Estrada Parque Pantanal. Agencies operating from Corumbá have experienced something of a decline with the growth of their competitors based in Campo Grande.

From a wildlife point of view, the three entry points are equally worthwhile. Corumbá is excellent if you’re coming from Bolivia; Campo Grande the choice if you want to visit Bonito too; and Cuiabá your destination if as well as the Pantanal you want to visit the Chapada dos Guimarães.

6. How do I reach those three cities?

Though you can reach Campo Grande, Corumbá or Cuiabá by bus (we explained you how to find the details at bus transportation in Brazil), we are talking about long bus journeys that will get you tired before you even reach the Pantanal.

The most convenient means of transportation is the plane. The main Brazilian airlines fly to the region:

Most of the flights mentioned above have its origins in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro or Brasilia. You need to be aware that if you want to reach the Pantanal from popular destinations like the Amazon or Iguassu you are very unlikely to find nonstop direct flights.

7. Do I go on my own or with a travel agency?

Unless you are a very experienced and well equipped adventure type of tourist, the Pantanal is not the place to go on your own. For a start, there is hardly any public transportation. The best choice is to purchase a trip that can last for several days or book your stay at a fazenda (ranch) inside the Pantanal.

8. How do I choose an agency for my trip?

Pantanal, Mato Grosso, Brazil

Unfortunately the Pantanal accumulates a long list of complaints from tourists against dishonest travel agencies (a situation similar to the one being registered in Manaus). It is a shame we know of no agency we can vouch for (this doesn’t mean they don’t exist). For that reason we’d like to give you the following advice when purchasing your trip to the Pantanal:

  • always request in writing a full list of items included on your trip. It should include the number of days, accommodation, meals and trips.
  • if possible, do not pay the full amount of your trip up front. That way, if anything went wrong during the trip you would have some room to bargain.

9. What is the best time of the year to visit the Pantanal?

Pantanal, Brazil

Different sources give different opinions. What comes next is the result of several lenghty conversations with people from the tourist trade and Pantanal guides, as well as consultation of online sources.

There are three distinct periods of the year in the Pantanal.

  • The first period goes from January to May and coincides with the flood. Heavy rainfall begins in October and continues up until March. Rivers reach their year-long maximum level and transportation is hindered by the flooded lands everywhere. The landscape of the Pantanal is dominated by water. Vegetation is at its most exhuberant this time of the year. The presence of mosquitoes is intense. Fish abandon the rivers and are found everywhere there is water. Mammals concentrate on the higher spots. For many hotels and fazendas the period between January to March is considered to be low season.
  • The second period goes from June till August and corresponds to the beginning of the dry season, when the rivers begin to recede. It hardly rains during the period. It’s hot during the day but temperatures can drop at night (below 10 degrees Celsius). It is easy to get around in the region and it is probably the best time of the year to spot wildlife in general and birds in particular. It is the breeding season and birds concentrate in large numbers in rookeries along the rivers. Between July and September it is the time when the beautiful ipê trees blossom. It is the high season in the Pantanal.
  • The third period goes from September to December and coincides with the driest period in the Pantanal. The river levels are at its lowest. Rainfall begins, which in turn will make the rivers slowly gain height once again. Lakes and tributaries dry up and most trips are done on foot. Land animals tend to concentrate where there’s water, making them easier to spot. Rainfall is back in November and intensifies in December. The landscape of the Pantanal is at its driest and there is intense presence of mosquitoes during the final months of the year.

10. How many days should I dedicate to the Pantanal?

Pantanal, Mato Grosso, Brazil

For less than three nights the trip to the Pantanal is not worth it. Anything between three and seven nights will allow for a intense contact with the region.

11. How is accommodation at the Pantanal?

Pantanal, Mato Grosso, Brazil

With a exception of a few hotels (the most outstanding of them being the SESC Porto Cerrado inside the Reserva Ecológica do SESC), most of the accommodation in the Pantanal is fazenda-based. Cattle ranches that cater for the ecotourism crowd too.

You will find more details at our full listing of hotels and pousadas in the Pantanal.

12. What kind of tourist is the Pantanal for?

Pantanal, Mato Grosso, Brazil

The Pantanal is for you if…

  • you love nature at its purest form
  • mosquitoes don’t bother you
  • contemplating wildlife is your thing
  • the more snakes you come across, the better
  • basic accommodation is all you need
  • shopping is not an essential part of your trips
  • a week with no nightlife whatsoever is fine
  • being internet-less doesn’t scare you

The Pantanal is not for you if…

  • you can’t stand mosquitoes
  • you’re terrified of snakes
  • you’re not keen on physical exercise
  • shopping is an essential part of your holidays
  • you can’t contemplate a holiday with no nightlife
  • you demand luxury and comfort
  • your trips need to have museums and culture
  • can’t stay offline for more than 1 hour
  • you are a professed townie

13. Will I see many animals at the Pantanal?

yacare caiman, Pantanal, Brazil

You will. The Pantanal is the closest thing to an open-air zoo. And beats the Amazon hands down when it comes to wildlife sightseeing. The amount of animals and the species you will come across will greatly depend upon both luck and the skills of your guide.

14. What are the typical activities in the Pantanal?

Pantanal, Mato Grosso, Brazil

Most agencies offer similar trips and activities to its customers:

  • boat trips along the rivers and lakes
  • fishing trips
  • focagem de jacarés. Nightime outing to spot caymans
  • foot treks
  • horse riding
  • sunset outings to contemplate the awesome colours of the Pantanal at dawn

15. What should I take with me to the Pantanal?

Pantanal, Mato Grosso, Brazil

  • Insect repelent. Plenty of it. Long sleeves shirts and long trousers are quite helpful too.
  • Some sort of warm clothing, particularly if you are visiting the Pantanal between June and September, when the temperatures drop at night. A fleece should be enough.

16. And the Transpantaneira road?

iguana, Pantanal, Brazil

The famous Transpantaneira road is a dirty road running from Poconé to Porto Jofre, in the Northern Pantanal. It has an extension of 147 km. You can reach it departing from Cuiabá. The Transpantaneira gives access to many ranches located along its extension. Opinions diverge; some visitors have seen plenty of wildlife along the road; others haven’t. You can’t drive along the Transpantaneira during the rainy season, when it is absolutely impassable.

18. And Bonito?

The town of Bonito is not in the Pantanal proper but it is the perfect extension to a trip to the region. We have a destination card devoted to this popular ecotourism destination: destination: Bonito.

19. Do you have any photos of the Pantanal?

Indeed! Plenty of them at our Pantanal album in Flickr.

20. Is the Pantanal under threat?

Pantanal, Mato Grosso, Brazil

It is, without a doubt. Deforestation at the Pantanal is advancing at a faster speed than in the Amazon. The list of threats is endless: extensive farming, mining, wildlife trafficking, hydroelectric plants projected for the area.

I’d like to think responsible tourism has a positive contribution to make to the preservation of the Pantanal.

“images of the Pantanal”, our video premiere

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