Photo Credit: Mark Edward Harris

Exploring thePantanal


By Mark Edward HarrisAugust 08, 2016

The soft pitter-patter cadence of the engines on Joice Pesca & Tur's 12-cabin Kayama VIP perfectly matched the rhythm of our surroundings as we sailed down the Paraguay River from Corumba, Brazil, through the Pantanal, the world's largest tropical wetland. This World Heritage site is formed by 175 rivers and is home to approximately 720 species of birds, 89 kinds of mammals, 230 varieties of fish, 52 types of reptiles and equally diverse flora.

After a mesmerizing Pantanal sunset, a world-class Brazilian dinner and perhaps one too many caipirinha cocktails, my shipmates and I boarded smaller boats for a caiman spotting tour. Getting up close to, but not too personal, with these relatives of crocodiles and alligators in their natural habitat under a star-filled sky was beyond breathtaking.

The Masters Series

This report is part of Travel Weekly's Masters Series, which features new perspectives on travel by noted writers, photographers and artists.

The next morning we woke up anchored in Port Manga and boarded a safari vehicle for a journey that crossed through the heart of the Pantanal. Binoculars and cameras brought into focus capybaras, giant otters, caimans, herons, macaws and dozens of other species along the way. In the Pantanal, the journey truly is the destination.

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We made our way to Sao Joao Lodge, where we met the Brazilian cowboys known as pantaneiros and learned about their way of life and how they navigate cattle drives through the wetlands. We spent a little time in their saddles, riding through flooded fields, experiencing a glimpse into their rugged lives, followed by a hearty pantaneiro-style lunch. As the day gave way to the evening, the Pantanal's wildlife became more active, offering us endless photo ops on our return to the ship.   

One more magical day was spent in the Pantanal, swimming, kayaking and digesting a riverside barbecue capped off by another dramatic sunset.

I was in South America exploring the Pantanal and Bonito as part of AdventureWeek Brazil, sponsored by the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) and Embratur (the Brazilian Tourist Board). Tour operator Compass Brazil handled the logistics in conjunction with local partners showing off these two biodiversity-rich regions in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul. These relatively off-the-beaten-track areas of Brazil include some of the country's most dramatic landscapes, clearest waters and most exotic animals, making it ideal for ecotourism.

The main gateway for the Pantanal is Corumba, the area's hub for arts and culture. Access to Bonito is by several weekly flights directly into Bonito Airport or a number of daily flights to Campo Grande International Airport. An ideal itinerary is to fly into Corumba, then out of Bonito or Campo Grande.

Bonito is a scenic 217-mile drive to the southeast from Corumba, transitioning from the flat Pantanal landscape to the low mountains and limestone outcroppings of the Bodoquena Range.

Bonito is the most popular destination for domestic ecotourism in Brazil and is supported by a strong tourism infrastructure. Its high season follows the school year and holidays. High-end lodgings such as The Zagaia Eco Resort are great bases to explore Bonito's rivers, lakes, waterfalls, caves and grottos while witnessing the diversity of fish and wildlife. Our guide in Bonito, Daniel De Granville, runs a number of special-interest tours ranging from birding to photography through his company, Photo in Natura. De Granville said that the intermediate seasons -- April-May and August-September -- typically have mild weather. Animal-spotting is at its best in August through October, when many species are breeding.

Animal-spotting in the Pantanal has a slightly different schedule and with the dry season, July and August, animals forage further from their secluded homes in the wetland and tropical savanna areas.

July and August are also popular months for jaguar-spotting safaris around Porto Jofre along the Transpantaneira road in the Pantanal, with a program being developed farther south by the Caiman Lodge in the city of Miranda.
We started our first day in Bonito with a hike to the spring of the Sucuri (Anaconda) River, then snorkeled its limestone-filtered, crystal-clear waters. In the afternoon I joined a thrilling scuba diving excursion with local supplier Ygarape Tour to and under a waterfall on the Formoso River.

Bonito's most spectacular attractions are its caverns.

The Anhumas Abyss is accessed by rappelling 236 feet down to an underground lake with limestone formations as high as 65 feet, while the nearby Gruta do Lago Azul (Blue Lake Cave) can be accessed by foot.

Back in our city clothes, our group explored downtown Bonito, including a tasting session at Fabrica de Encantos Taboa, where the town's famous cachaca is made with sugarcane rum infused with a variety of flavors.

A number of great dining opportunities are available in Bonito, with Casa do Joao being on top of the "must eat here" list.

Dawn comes early in Bonito for those who want to witness dozens of pairs of red and green macaws taking to the sky from a large sinkhole, the Buraco das Araras (Macaws' Hole). The hike to the viewing platforms reveals other beautifully colored birds including toco toucans, Amazonian motmots and parakeets.

Nearby, the Recanto Ecologico Rio da Prata offers another opportunity to snorkel in crystal-clear waters. After a 45-minute hike to the springs of the Rio Olho d'Agua we drifted downstream, sharing the water with 60 species of fish, including pacu and shovelnose catfish. In order to protect the environment, snorkelers are not allowed to wear suntan lotion or insect repellent. At other times, though, wearing lightweight earth- or light-colored, long-sleeved shirts and applying insect repellent after putting on sunscreen will reduce the odds of contracting Zika or other mosquito-transmitted viruses.

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A selection of sites for information on the companies and organizations included in the "Exploring the Pantanal" cover story. Read More

A final day exploring this opportunity-rich region of Brazil brought us to the Estancia Mimosa Private Reserve. A hiking trail through the forest led us to a series of waterfalls, where we spotted blue-crowned trogons and motmots, helmeted manakins, capuchin monkeys, agoutis (similar to guinea pigs) and even a tarantula along the way.

For many of us, lunch on the veranda of Estancia Mimosa's ranch house was followed by a much-needed siesta in the property's hammocks. During the past week, we had explored the incredible beauty and diversity of the Pantanal and Bonito from morning until night.

According to the World Economic Forum, Brazil ranks No. 1 in natural resources. The 1992 Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit, officially known as The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, was a major turning point in Brazil's use of this inherent gift.

Ecotourism is one of the five priority sectors that Embratur is promoting in international markets (the other four being sun and beach, sports, culture and business and events).

North America travelers should bring their own 3-pin Type N or 2-pin Type C electrical plug adapters to make sure their camera and smartphone batteries are charged in order to take advantage of the seemingly endless photo ops in this flora and fauna-filled, off-the-beaten-path region of Brazil.