The Pantanal (North)

Hi all,

Almost certainly you’ve heard of the Florida Everglades. Maybe you’ve even gone on an airboat ride and tossed marshmallows to the alligators. Actually a very slow-flowing river 60 miles wide and 100 or so miles long (6,000+ square miles), the Everglades encompasses much of the southern end of Florida.

But have you heard of Brazil’s Pantanal? Likely not, although at between 54,000 and 75,000 square miles, depending on the season, it is roughly ten times the size of the Everglades. You could fit Wisconsin, Georgia, Oklahoma, South Dakota, North Dakota, Missouri, or Michigan within it, and even at its smallest seasonal range, the Pantanal is a bit larger than the entire state of Florida.

Many dream of visiting Brazil’s Amazon Basin to spot and photograph the indigenous birds and fauna. But actually, if birding or nature photography is your goal, the Pantanal is  better choice. In the jungle most wildlife is hidden to view. In the Pantanal, you can see much more, especially if you go out with  trained guide – which is recommended, because there are some snakes and caimans – relatives of crocodiles – about.

Transpantaneira "Highway" Pantanal, Brazil

Transpantaneira “Highway”

To explore the Pantanal you can enter either from the northern end, or the southern end. Don’t plan on passing all the way through. There is a north-south “highway” called the TransPantanal, but it’s really just a dirt road, much of which is submerged in the wet season.

I’ve visited the northern and the southern ends of the Pantanal one time each, and found them to be significantly different. In this post I’ll tell you a bit about the northern Pantanal. In a later post we will explore the southern end, usually accessed via a small town named Bonito (“pretty”).

The jumping-off point for a northern approach is the city of Cuiaba. You can arrange lodging and a guide for the Pantanal there. Some guides do speak English.

As noted in a previous post, if you plan to enter the Pantanal from the north, you may also want to visit the nearby Chapada de Guimaraes, a sprawling park of tablelands, great for hiking and birding. A network of caves, some of them accessible, lies beneath.

Eco-lodge Pousada Araras in the northern Pantanal, Mato Grosso, Brazil

Pousada Araras in the northern Pantanal, Mato Grosso, Brazil

When I visited the north end of the Pantanal about 10 years ago, I stayed in a ranch-style pousada called Pousadas Araras. (A pousada is a small hotel, often family owned, and arara means “macaw”.) Despite being out in the sticks, the pousada was quite comfortable – although I had to share my room with the occasional inquisitive frog. I found one in the toilet (that could have been a surprise at night!) and another hanging nonchalantly from the ceiling.

The staff likewise was super nice and very knowledgeable about the local wildlife. When we were not out on tours, they would prepare our meals, often on an open grill, play guitar and sing traditional songs. The place had very much a cowboy on the cattle drive kind of feel, except that I got to fall into a real bed and not a bedroll at night. Oh, and I had a real toilet, albeit one shared with the odd voyeuristic frog.

As I mentioned above, the Pantanal is a great place to counter wildlife. There are tours both in the daytime and at night, as you’ll encounter different creatures stirring at different hours. You might see small deer, caimans, and snakes, and you are guaranteed to see several species of birds. The rivers here contain piranhas, which the locals like to prepare as a soup. (They are too lean and bony to be eaten as fillets.) You really don’t even have to leave the pousada to see some of the local fauna. Besides those ubiquitous frogs, capybaras – terrier-sized rodents – wander about freely.

Capybaras are common in the Pantanal of northern Brazil

A capybara enjoying a snack

This northern end of the Pantanal is fairly remote, and nighttime activities beyond sing-alongs is limited to one cantina a bit down the road. (Within walking distance for an inebriated tourist, as I recall.) But it’s a great place to relax, destress, and reflect with a smile that there still are places not totally overrun by man. You can hike, fish, swim in some spots (the guides can direct you), go on tours in the back of an open truck, and ride horses. Or drink cachaça ( a stiff liquor distilled from sugar cane) and take a nap in a hammock (being careful not to roll out the far side).

If you enjoy nature photography, you’ll love this area.

I don’t recall the name of the tour company I used, but you could contact the Pousada Araras directly and they could certainly help you make arrangements.

Brazil is a lot more than Copacabana Beach. Explore!


Somewhere in Brazil


3 responses to “The Pantanal (North)”

  1. Flavia says:

    Great article!!
    Just a correction. It’s not “capybara” it’s “capivara”.

  2. JohnInBrazil says:

    “Capybara” is the referred spelling in English. “Capibara” is also accepted. But thanks!

  3. Sue Beele says:

    I loved your article. My husband and I travelled there on our own in 1994 and stayed at the same pousada. We did the north to south in a VW Jetta hired from the airport. Also had an interesting encounter with a Jaguar down near Porte Joffre where we camped under a reed hut. My husband left some raw meat in a tree after fishing for piranha & late into the night we hear a Jaguar prowling around. Luckily he took the meat and left us!

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