If you ask most Brazilians if they have visited the Pantanal, the answer is no. Most Americans have never heard of it. Yet the north and south Pantanal, the size of England, is the world’s largest tropical wetlands (pantanal in Portuguese), covering about 54,000 square miles in the Brazilian states of Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul. Some maps include portions of Bolivia and the Upper Paraguay River Basin, which would balloon the Pantanal into almost 75,000 square miles.
Viewing this magical labyrinth by boat, foot, car or horseback often feels like watching a 3-D movie, with birds and animals coming toward you in unexpected moments. This is best accomplished in the dry season. In its wet season, November to March, the Pantanal is inundated with 50 inches of rain, and 80 percent of its land is covered by water. Around April, the swollen Rio Paraguay begins to recede, and different species, with their own migratory and breeding patterns, appear on the riverbanks and in the forests. Wet-season denizens may remain or travel elsewhere.
Planning a two-week journey to explore the northern Pantanal, and later, a part of the Amazon basin, is not easy. We wanted specifically to find and photograph the elusive jaguar, the largest cat in South America. We had been told that the waterways of the Pantanal were better than the densely forested Amazon for spotting wildlife, including our cat. The point of entry for most visitors is the Transpantaneira, a 90-mile, dusty dirt corridor with 120 wooden bridges that can take up to eight hours to negotiate. There are several budget eco-lodges converted from fazendas (large ranches) along the way.
The road begins in the small town of Pocone and ends at Porto Jofre, known for decent jaguar viewing but also its mass of tourist boats — the kind that radio to each other upon a sighting, and suddenly there is a convergence of humanity. Other visitors rent a car or find a guide, language permitting, in the city of Cuiaba (the state capital of Mato Grosso, founded by mining companies in the 1880s) to negotiate the Transpantaneira.
Speaking no Portuguese and not wanting to be with crowds, we felt lucky when we heard on the travel grapevine about Douglas Trent of Focus Tours. Trent is an American conservationist and ecologist who has made Brazil his laboratory for 35 years. From his boat on the Rio Paraguay, Trent told us we could join him as “research assistants,” and we agreed to a donation to his foundation and marked our calendar for a mid-September departure.
Once in-country, we took an hour-and-a-half flight from São Paulo to Cuiaba, where we were picked up for a three-hour drive to the small port city of Caceres, flanking the Rio Paraguay and not far from Bolivia. Up until the 1960s, the area encompassed huge swaths of forest and savannas. Then, the military-controlled government encouraged settlers and corporations to transform the land for agriculture and ranching, leaving behind mostly slivers of riparian forests and impacted waterways.
September is almost the end of the dry season, when temperatures regularly spike to 95 degrees or higher, and the humidity feels like a sauna. Trent greeted us cheerily at a Caceres boatyard and quickly apologized that his boat was stuck a few miles downriver. The rudder had hit a large rock, due to low waters and silt, and one of his crew had unfastened the rudder and brought it to Caceres for repair. He explained that silt levels in the river were rising due to deforestation and soil runoff, and water levels were dropping because of a significant drought. In the meantime, we’d take his motorized skiff to join the crew on his marooned boat.
On route, we saw other boats that had been imprisoned by the low waters. Nearby, heavy dredging machinery was being used to make a navigable channel in the Rio Paraguay, in the process creating an archipelago of sand bars from the silt. These instantly became ideal rookeries or just hanging-out spots for many birds — southern screamers, flightless rheas, black-collared hawks, great egrets and jabiru storks, among others. Hyacinth lilies, some in bloom, lined the river, along with occasional local fishermen who waved and were happy to pose for photos.
When we reached Trent’s 25-year-old boat, our first impression was that we had encountered a distant cousin of The African Queen. Our cramped room, on the bottom level, had 7-foot ceilings and a set of simple bunk beds (a third bed was useful for holding our luggage). The A/C unit proved a life-saver. A shower was several steps up the hall. Three steps farther was a work room/library that embraced a sturdy table, a cathode-ray TV and a fridge with cold drinks. An open-air upper deck was where we took bountiful and exceptional meals; beer and mixed drinks were included.
Trent has his own foundation, Instituto Sustentar, and a Pantanal wildlife program known as Bichos do Pantanal, both based in Caceres. Much of his research is funded by the state oil giant Petrobras, which for years has sponsored a number of pro-environment projects throughout Brazil, including protecting habitats of the giant sea turtle and Atlantic humpback whales. Trent’s work in the Pantanal centers on gathering a baseline census of birds and mammals.
The Pantanal is home to more than 3,000 species of plants, 500 species of birds, 300 species of fish and 150 species of mammals, including the endangered jaguar, and 160 species of reptiles. The myriad universe of insects, entomologists say, cannot begin to be counted. With the help of his engaging, 28-year-old assistant, Marcos, Trent conducts his monthly census year-round, in 10-day increments, trying to record which species are slowly vanishing and which might be growing in number. Strict accuracy is elusive because wildlife doesn’t always gather in the same places every year, but trends are easier to identify.
Our five days on the Rio Paraguay did not turn out to be an ordinary trip, and it probably shouldn’t be undertaken by squeamish travelers. Every morning and afternoon, we hunkered in the back of his skiff while an experienced captain drove us through endless Pantanal waterways — a serpentine maze where Trent admitted even he might get lost in if not for his captain.
The Rio Paraguay is a major river that ultimately leaves Brazil and divides Paraguay. Wherever we ventured, we saw plumes of smoke rising in the distance, evidence of continued deforestation and the release of carbon into the atmosphere. But we also saw the ubiquitous capybara — the world’s largest rodent, at 150 pounds, looks like a huge guinea pig — frolic in the water or wallow in mud baths. Caiman, an alligator cousin, are almost as common, and not especially dangerous (the so-called “black caiman” in the Amazon is a different story). Several times our captain maneuvered the skiff within feet of a shore-hugging caiman, its mouth wide open (“the air helps kill mouth bacteria,” Trent said) as it stared back at us. Inevitably, when we came too close, the beast let out a hissing noise and slid into the murky river.
Jaguars are Trent’s’ true love, as he has identified about 45 big cats on film. Strong swimmers and climbers, jaguars are solitary hunters and only socialize in the breeding season. Each can be identified by a unique pattern of rosettes on its forehead or chest. “The leopard only has spots, not rosettes” he tells us, “so two leopards are harder to tell apart than two jaguars.”
Trent has many tales about jaguars feasting on capybaras and monkeys, even snakes, and lately, depending on the fluidity of predator-prey dynamics, they have been known to attack humans. Their incredibly wide jaws are almost as powerful as a crocodile’s. One evening, the sky thick with fish-eating bats darting into the river, we were amazed to spot two jaguars with the aid of a strong spotlight from the skiff. The cats stayed in plain sight for two minutes, as they drank from the river and occasionally flitted their eyes to us. Everyone took photos without seeming to disturb them.
On our last full day, our skiff took us to the Taiama Ecological Station, a government reserve with narrow waterways defined by blooming hyacinths, congregations of jabiru storks, black skimmers and lazing caimans. During a stop for a barbecue lunch, we suddenly heard male jaguars in a loud altercation on the opposite bank. We all jumped in the skiff, hurrying to the opposite bank, hoping to get lucky with our cameras. The growling intensified — Doug guessed that these were two males fighting over a female — but the cats remained out of sight. Our imaginations made the most of the near-encounter.
After a farewell dinner, the next morning our boat, with a new rudder, chugged back to Caceras. Trent shared his concern that his project with Petrobras was ending this year, unless it got refunded. Such uncertainty, he added, was part of his professional life, and he shrugged off with the indifference of a man accustomed to solving unexpected challenges every day on the river. He mentioned his desire to have a bigger, more comfortable boat where he could take researchers and sponsors on 20-day expeditions to the Parque National do Pantanal. He also coveted the idea of making an “alternate” Transpantaneira, where luxury eco-lodges would attract high-end tour companies and bring badly needed jobs to locals.
Marcos, as he practiced reading books in English with us, said he had spent two years in a government program to groom tourist guides, but only two students out of 40 graduated; most dropped out for financial reasons. With about 1 million people unemployed in Brazil, he felt lucky to have work at all. As we said our goodbyes, we listened to a recording of some of the bird songs that Marcos and Trent had helped us identify, the cackles and chatter that break the Pantanal solitude at dusk and dawn. If we had stayed longer, we might have believed that we actually understood what the birds were saying.
With the strong dollar (over four Brazilian reals to the dollar, as of this writing), travel to and in Brazil can be a bargain. American Airlines has direct flights to São Paulo from a number of U.S. cities. In Brazil, we found that Azul airlines (started by one of the founders of JetBlue) to be especially reliable, and Tam and Gol have improved their service the last few years.
If you are lucky enough to have tickets to the summer 2016 Olympics in Rio, it’s the right season to consider a side excursion to the Pantanal or Amazon.
Go before these natural wonders are further threatened by more dams, roads, mining and agriculture. A trip into the Brazilian wild not only will raise your environmental IQ; you will be putting eco-dollars into good hands.