The surface of the water is as smooth as a mirror. The reflection of the surrounding landscape making it difficult to discern what is up and what is down.
No sign of life. Though we know that a few meters behind the impenetrable wall of tropical forest and dark waters lives a phenomenal amount of wildlife which calls this place home.
The smallest touch of our oars creates the most gigantic water circles I have ever seen, echoing over the water's surface as far as the eye can behold. It’s time to paddle… The three of us - Kristof, our guide and myself – are kayaking in one of the most remote places we’ve ever been: the endless wetlands of the Brazilian Pantanal.
Paddling through the Pantanal in Brazil
Slowly we’re gliding deeper into the wetlands. Sometimes a slight rush of panic sneaks up on me…how on earth are we going to find our way back out of this labyrinth of waterways? The numerous turns and the reflections in the water guarantee my complete disorientation…not that I was ever any good at it.
Every now and then we hear leaves rustling on the banks next to us and we halt in hopes of catching a glimpse of one of the animals. In complete silence we stop paddling and cross our fingers hoping that the Pantanal will lay out its animal kingdom like the opening of the theatre curtains of a Broadway show.
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Alas, it is going to be a bit more challenging than that. Instead we are playing quite an ambitious game of hide-and-seek trying to spot the giant otter, one of the most endangered animals in the neotropics.
Tired from paddling and the relentless heat, we take a short break in the shadow of the riverbank. My bottle of water offering a welcome refreshment, though I must shamefully admit that all the paddle work is done by my lovely husband and our guide.
For quite some time our surroundings look inanimate, like a still life. With my scouting-mode off, I can feel myself slip into the trance of perfect relaxation. Oddly enough, I truly start to enjoy the almost unnatural silence of this place; soaking up my surroundings and feeling one with nature.
The Pantanal comes alive
And then it’s happening…
The Pantanal slowly starts to reveal itself. The more I relax and frantically stop searching the banks for any sign of wildlife, the more the Pantanal comes to life. At that moment it occurs to me that roaming the Pantanal in search for Brazil’s Big Five is nothing like an African game drive. You can’t simply track down the animals in these vast wetlands…instead the Pantanal comes to you!
Ripples in the water tear me out of my daze and reveal the funny snout of what looks a lot like a giant hamster, casually swimming by. I learned that the hairy fella is a capybara and the world’s largest rodent.
Sure we’ve already seen plenty of wildlife while motoring along in a boat, hiking the Pantanal forests, horseback riding through the flooded fields and cruising along the dirt road that is the Transpantaneira (the only road through the Pantanal). But there is something entrancing about being so close to nature and its inhabitants. You are able to experience a level of detail that can never be appreciated from a vehicle. I will never forget the primal chill that ran down the back of my neck the first time I looked into the eyes of a caiman lazily approaching our - suddenly very tiny looking - kayak.
While trying to turn our kayak around in order to paddle back to our lodge, a furry creature pops its head out of a marsh in the distance. “A giant otter,” notes Kristof. “Look, there are two of them!”
Full speed we paddle ahead in order keep up with our sighting. The two giant otters turn out to be a whole group of these giant predators, reaching up to 1.7 m (5.6 ft) each! Unbelievable how playful and graceful they are, dancing across the water like prima ballerinas. Trying to photograph them is quite a challenge though, they’re super-fast and keep popping up and down alongside our kayak like they want to play a game of Whack-A-Mole.
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After about 20 minutes they start retreating to their den below a tree trunk and it’s time for us to start paddling back. It is quite a long way back but the beautiful scenery and singsong melody of chirping birds turn it into an experience I would never even be able to come up with in my dreams.
The sunsets in the Pantanal are among the most magical I have ever seen!
Should you visit the Amazon or the Pantanal?
The Amazon may get all the fame and press coverage, but it’s the Pantanal that is the wildlife wonderland of Brazil. True, it has to compete against the Amazon for being the lungs of the earth and housing one of the longest rivers in the entire world, but when it comes to biodiversity, The Pantanal is Brazil’s number one star. These vast tropical wetlands easily rank in the top five of the best places in the world to see wild animals in their natural habitat.
In the Amazon, animals can easily hide due to the dense tropical foliage, but on the open plains of the Pantanal they’re more easily spotted, even by the most untrained eyes...yes, that’s us!
How to get to the Pantanal
The Pantanal is a massive area that surpasses the national borders of Brazil, Argentina and Bolivia. There are two main access points to discover the Brazilian Pantanal: Campo Grande in the south and Cuiabá in the north, both equipped with an airport.
Most travellers explore the Pantanal by booking a tour in Campo Grande as it has more of a backpacker’s scene and more affordable prices due to the greater accessibility. Another bonus is the proximity of Bonito, a crystal clear river which offers snorkelling opportunities amongst the most colourful tropical fish.
We, however, chose to access the Pantanal through Cuiabá. Whilst preparing our travels, we read the northern Pantanal was ideal for people looking for some serious wildlife spotting due to the more remote location though slightly more expensive (in rainy season some fazendas can only be reached by a small plane which increases the cost of staying here). From Cuiabá you can either organize a tour, rent your own car and drive the Transpantaneira or arrange a transfer to/from your fazenda - a cattle farm that is (partly) converted by gauchos to accommodate the growing tourist population.
Besides the wildlife spotting possibilities, Cuiabá is pretty close to Chapada dos Guimarães National Park, a waterfall magic wonderland! If you’d like to see red macaw parrots flying against a backdrop of the most amazing hidden tropical canyon and waterfall…this is the place to be! The Pantanal could easily be integrated into your Brazil itinerary if you’re a wildlife lover and keen on spending some time in nature. Because the Pantanal is located in the southern part of the country, you can easily combine the Pantanal with a trip to Iguaçu Falls and Rio de Janeiro.
What is there to do in the Pantanal?
Yes, the Pantanal is known as a gigantic wetland and therefore main activities include boat trips to explore the labyrinth of waterways. More adventurous souls could explore the Pantanal by kayak like we did. For this activity however, you will need to be in a good physical condition as kayaking the Pantanal waterways can be quite physically challenging. Nonetheless, this experience will remain the highlight of our trip to Brazil! Main focus is of course on wildlife spotting but a piraña fishing trip could also be part of your fazenda’s offered activities if you’re interested in that sort of thing.
Like a real cowboy you can explore the pampa (fertile South American lowlands) on horseback. Only possible during dry season, the marches also attract a massive amount of mosquitoes so make sure to bring plenty of mosquito repellent if you wish to partake in this activity. The focus on this trip is more on experiencing the cowboy way of life than actual wildlife spotting, which is exactly why we wanted to stay in a fazenda – to see the real Brazilian gauchos.
Besides exploring the waterways and riding horses, one can also hike and go for a game drive along the Transpantaneira either during the day or during a night safari.
When to go to the Pantanal
Lucky for us travellers, there isn’t really a ‘wrong’ season to explore the Pantanal. The Pantanal teems with life in every season.
From December until March, the Pantanal transforms from the outflow of seven rivers into a great fertile wetland. This is an excellent time of year for landscape photographers and those who like to explore the endless waterways. The annual flooding protects the area of urban development. Even the only road, the Transpantaneira, could not be completed given the road got washed away by the rising water. To this day, this area is sparsely populated and a paradise for maned wolves, giant anteaters, ocelots and leopards. Travel during the flooded season often requires boats and small airplanes which could be more expensive.
The dry season, June to October, is the best time to see wildlife clustered around water holes. The receding waters ensure that a gazillion amount of fish are trapped in these shrinking waters, displaying a wonderful buffet for nearby predators.
Timing varies slightly from north to south as floodwaters flow downstream. We took our chances during shoulder season and went at the end of May. The waters receded enough for us to do land activities, however it was still too soon for Jaguar spotting and didn’t get to see any.
Nature lovers can indulge in Brazil. When going on a trip, the lesser known -but oh so gorgeous- interior of the country should not be missed! From capybaras, toucans and jaguars, to brilliant blue wetlands and jungle, we encourage you to escape from the chaos of the busy coastal cities and discover this Brazilian wonder!
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About the authors: Marlo and Kristof are the founders of Along Came An Elephant and call Belgium their home. They have been discovering the world together for the last 5 years in search for earth’s hidden natural wonders. You can follow their adventures at their blog, Along Came An Elephant, Instagram, Pinterest, and Facebook.