While the Amazon rainforest is the most famous eco holiday destination in Brazil, that’s not where you’ll see the most wildlife.
Your best chance of spotting Brazil wildlife is actually on one of the many Pantanal tours offered at the other end of the country.
What is the Pantanal and Where Can it be Found?
The Pantanal is the world’s largest wetlands area and is home to many species of animals native to South America, including capybaras, caimans and jaguars. It’s 10 times larger than the Florida Everglades!
While most of the Pantanal sits in the southwest corner of Brazil, it also spills over into two neighboring countries, Bolivia and Paraguay. Brazil is a big country, so it's pretty far from all other major attractions there. The closest popular destination is the Iguazu waterfalls, which are about a 12-hours' drive away.
There’s no real tourism infrastructure in the Pantanal in those countries, though. So, if you want to see a Pantanal jaguar or some of the many other animals who call the Pantanal home, you need to go to the Brazilian Pantanal.
Whereas in the Amazon the animals often stay hidden in the jungle, the Pantanal has more wide-open spaces. This makes it much better for wildlife spotting.
What Will You See on a Pantanal Tour?
The number and species of animals you see can vary a lot depending on when you go. We were there in the first week of November, which is not the ideal time to visit. There’s more on this in the section below titled “When is the Best Time to Visit the Pantanal Brazil?”.
Despite our flawed timing, we still managed to see quite a lot of animals. This was due partially to luck and partially to the spotting skills of our guide Pedro. As with any wildlife encounter, sightings are never guaranteed.
Also, there’s one animal that I CAN guarantee you will see lots of … the mosquito! As soon as we arrived at the Buraco das Piranhas, where we were met by a driver who would take us to our lodge, we were mercilessly attacked by bloodthirsty mosquitoes.
It wasn’t quite as bad at the lodge itself, but we still got bitten plenty of times throughout the four days we were there. Bring repellent!
Now, what other Pantanal animals can you expect to see?
The Pantanal is a birdwatcher’s paradise. We saw lots of macaws around the lodge, including the bright blue hyacinth macaw. And there was a toucan nesting in a tree just behind the lodge, who we were able to see up close a few times. It was by far the best toucan sighting we’ve ever had in the wild!
We saw dozens of other bird species on the Pantanal boat tours we took. These included terns, cardinals, herons, kingfishers, cormorants, egrets, hawks, and many others whose names I can’t remember.
We also saw a rhea (similar to an ostrich) on one of our hikes, and a jabiru stork on our jeep safari. The jabiru has become an iconic symbol of the Pantanal. You won’t see them on boat trips, though, because the water is too deep for them. They prefer to stand in shallow ponds to catch fish.
As for reptiles, we saw a few iguanas and lots and lots of caimans on the boat trips. A caiman is similar to an alligator, but smaller. It can be a bit unnerving to pass right next to them in the boat, but they rarely attack humans.
While we didn’t see any snakes, we did see the outline in the sand that one had left as he slithered by. Anacondas do live in the Pantanal, so you may see one if you’re lucky.
I was really hoping to see some mammals in the Pantanal, and in the end, we saw quite a few. These included giant otters, an agouti, a coati, a bush deer, an armadillo, howler monkeys, several families of capybaras and a family of peccaries (wild pigs).
The two that I had hoped to see but didn’t were the anteater and the jaguar. Overall, though, I was quite happy with our animal sightings. I found out afterwards that jaguars are more common in the Northern Pantanal, so maybe I’ll try my luck there one day.
For a quick peek at some of the animals we got to see in the Pantanal, watch the video below!
How Can You Visit the Pantanal in Brazil?
You should organize your Pantanal tour in advance, before you arrive in the area. We learned this the hard way.
We had read that the most reputable tour operators offering Pantanal holidays were located in the town of Miranda in Mato Grosso do Sul. We didn’t have many more details, so we decided to go to Miranda and arrange our Pantanal wetlands tour from there.
This was a waste of time and money, because the Pantanal tour company that we met with in Miranda sent us to an eco lodge that was back in the direction we had just come from. Had we known this, we would have booked with the eco lodge directly and gone straight there.
Tour Companies and Accommodation in the Southern Pantanal
If you are coming from Bolivia, as we did, then the Southern Pantanal in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul is the most convenient part of the Pantanal for you to visit.
The main towns in this underpopulated area are Corumbá, on the border with Bolivia, and Miranda and Campo Grande, both further east on the BR 262 highway.
We had been warned to avoid irresponsible tour operators in Corumbá and Campo Grande. These budget tour companies are able to offer low prices because they cut corners and don’t pay their staff a living wage.
The Pantanal faces many threats, including hunting, the illegal pet trade, land clearance and pollution from agrochemicals. It’s therefore important to choose a tour operator that acts responsibly and sustainably.
Pantanal Tour Companies
We had read good things about this Pantanal tour operator in Miranda, so we headed there first. It’s owned by a British/Brazilian couple, Ekta and Marcelo, so they speak English fluently. They offer private tours to off-the-beaten track indigenous areas in the Pantanal, which sounded wonderful.
Marcelo is actually from a local indigenous tribe, so I’m sure it would have been a very special experience to see the Pantanal through his eyes. Unfortunately, these tours were well beyond our budget.
So instead, Ekta arranged for us to stay at a Pantanal lodge in the area, called Santa Clara, and she also arranged onward transport from Santa Clara to Campo Grande at the end of our stay.
It was a lodge that had already been recommended to us and was listed in our guidebook. In hindsight, it would have been cheaper for us to arrange this ourselves directly with Santa Clara.
If you’re looking for a budget-friendly lodge stay with activities included, then I suggest booking with Santa Clara (see below).
For those with larger budgets, Pantanal Wilderness offers several types of bespoke Pantanal tours, such as tours focusing on photography or birdwatching. These are best booked in advance.
One thing to be aware of is that almost all of the accommodation in the Pantanal is on working cattle farms. There aren’t really any hotels as such in the Pantanal. Some of them may use the words “hotel” or “pousada” (guesthouse) in their name, but what they really are is a fazenda (farm).
There are no towns and very few people in the Pantanal, but there are lots of cows. It’s a difficult place to live year-round, with all the flooding and the mosquitoes. The flooding also makes it impossible to grow crops there.
The few people who do live in the Pantanal make their living from cattle ranching, and some of them supplement their income by opening up their farms to tourists.
If the thought of staying on a cattle farm is upsetting to you, then you might want to consider the jungle camping Pantanal trip or the houseboat adventure trip organized by Pantanal Wilderness (see above).
I had hoped that since Santa Clara was called a pousada and not a fazenda it would not be a farm, but when we arrived, I saw that they do raise cows, sheep and pigs there.
The animals were free to roam and appeared to be happy, but it was upsetting to know that they were going to be killed. This interaction between animal agriculture and tourism is just one of the ethical issues that came up during our Pantanal stay.
There are also other aspects of the operations at Santa Clara that I’m not fully comfortable with from an ethical standpoint. I will discuss these in the Responsible Tourism section below.
Nevertheless, Santa Clara does seem to be more responsible than many other tour operators in the Pantanal, and I appreciated the fact that they let us adapt the itinerary so that we could avoid the activities we were uncomfortable with.
There are three different types of accommodation at Santa Clara: private room, dormitory and camping.
Unsurprisingly, the most expensive option is the private room. A four-day, three-night stay cost us about 1300 reais per person in a double room, or 325 reais per person per day. This includes all meals and activities, but doesn’t include drinks other than water.
The cheapest option is the campsite, and a stay there is about half the price of a stay in a private room. It’s not really camping, though. It’s actually a dormitory, with beds and pillows and everything.
The only difference between the camping facilities and the rooms that are called dormitories is that the camping facilities don’t have air-conditioning. Also, when staying there you don’t have access to amenities such as the swimming pool or games room.
I think they try to make the camping option sound worse than it really is, in the hopes that people will shell out for one of the more expensive rooms.
The campsite is near the river, so there are probably more mosquitoes there than at the pousada. But, on the plus side, you get to hear the sounds of the animals at night. And unless there’s a group staying there, you’ll likely have the place all to yourself.
Keep in mind that the campsite closes in the height of the wet season, roughly December to March, due to flooding.
Tour Companies and Accommodation in the Northern Pantanal
If you’re arriving from northern or central Brazil, you might prefer to arrange your visit from Cuiabá, the largest city in the state of Mato Grosso. The prices tend to be a bit higher here than in the Southern Pantanal, but the standard of accommodation is also more comfortable.
Araras Eco Lodge, for example, has a reputation as a low-impact, responsible lodge and is run by a company called Pantanal Explorer.
Pantanal Jaguar Camp has eco-friendly credentials, as they use solar-powered electricity and four-stroke outboard boat motors. Their specialty is jaguar safaris.
Porto Jofre, the area where Pantanal Jaguar Camp is located, is a hot spot for Pantanal jaguar safaris. It has the highest concentration of jaguars in the world, so you’re chances of spotting one here are better than anywhere else.
And while you’re in the area, you could also visit the Chapada dos Guimarães National Park, just 62 kilometers from Cuiabá. The park is full of forested table mountains and is known for its dramatic cliffs and waterfalls.
Keep in mind that some guesthouses, such as the Pousada Rio Mutum, specialize in sport fishing, so vegans will want to avoid those.
Want to hear me and Nick talk about the animals we saw in the Pantanal?
Click the image below to listen to the Pantanal episode of our podcast!
Responsible Tourism: Exploitation of Pantanal Animals
During my visit to the Pantanal, I witnessed several activities that are harmful to the Pantanal ecosystem and the animals who live there, but that seem to be routine practice. If you care about protecting this fragile environment and the animals who call it home, please avoid these activities.
As I mentioned before, the whole Pantanal is covered with cattle farms, and more and more forest is being chopped down to create pasture for cows. This lush, green region is being altered, and fast-growing patches of yellow, arid land have started to appear.
Some cattle farms also have facilities for tourists and make money from a combination of animal agriculture and tourism. Most visitors to the Pantanal end up staying on one of these farms, as I did.
Cattle farming is bad for the wetlands and for Pantanal wildlife, and of course, it’s also bad for the cows. If you are vegan or vegetarian, you may have ethical objections to giving money to an organization that is actively involved in killing animals.
On the other hand, maybe it’s not that different from buying vegetables from a grocery store that also sells meat. And maybe if the farmers see that they can make money from tourism they will focus on that and move away from raising and killing animals.
These kinds of ethical questions are never clear-cut, but it’s something to consider when planning when your trip and deciding where you want to stay in the Pantanal.
Feeding Wild Animals
The staff at our pousada left bird seed and native fruits for the macaws and other birds, who come there regularly to feed.
I also saw a staff member feeding a family of peccaries (wild pigs), who also appeared to be regular visitors. The staff had even named the matriarch, and they shouted greetings to her and her family as they arrived.
The peccaries seemed very used to humans, and they even allowed tourists to pet them. As tempting as it may be, there are a number of reasons why feeding wild animals is a bad idea.
It’s pretty widely understood nowadays that riding elephants is NOT OK. And yet, many people still think that riding a horse is a harmless activity. It’s also a very common activity that’s included in most Pantanal trips.
Horses who are ridden by humans frequently suffer from spinal damage caused by the extra body weight alone. This physical damage is exacerbated by the use of saddles, bits and whips.
Check out the video below for more information about how riding horses is harmful.
In addition to the specialized fishing trips to the Pantanal that some tour operators organize, even the standard trip usually includes a half-day of piranha fishing.
I probably don’t have to explain why having a hook forced through his mouth and then suffocating to death is bad for the fish. But in case you weren’t sure, yes, fish do feel pain. Scientists agree on this.
If you're heading to the Amazon, note that piranha fishing is also a common inclusion on tours there. Horseback riding and piranha fishing were both included in our Pantanal package, so we thought we would just skip those activities and stay at the pousada.
However, our guide Pedro was very flexible, and he arranged for us to do other activities instead.
We met other tourists who had also declined to participate in one or both of these, so it seems it’s a common request. In the end, we replaced these activities with extra hikes and boat trips, and we were able to see lots more wildlife this way.
Plant-Based Food in the Pantanal
If you care about protecting animals, then you probably don’t want to eat them. Luckily, plant-based food is quite easy to find in Brazil, and the Santa Clara Pousada was no exception.
The meals are all served buffet style, and at most meals there were plenty of vegan options. Dinner the first night was fantastic, with rice, beans, fried mandioca, eggplant and peppers in tomato sauce, and salad.
The only meal where we had an issue was Saturday lunch, when they served feijoada (a meat and bean stew), as is the tradition on Saturdays in Brazil. Apart from the salad and some plain pasta, all the other dishes served that day contained meat.
But when I asked, the kitchen staff found some beans and heated them up for me. You’re never far away from a plate of rice and beans in Brazil!
It’s a good idea to let the staff know when you book if you are vegan or vegetarian, and remind them again when you arrive. You shouldn’t have any problems, though. For breakfast there is fruit, toast, and granola, which I mixed with hot water. If you want milk instead, bring your own plant-based milk.
When is the Best Time to Visit the Pantanal Brazil?
The dry season is undoubtedly the best time to visit the Pantanal. For birds, this is the nesting and breeding season, and you will see hundreds of them squawking loudly in the trees.
Mammals congregate at the rivers, since these are the only sources of water for them to drink. Once the rivers burst their banks and the Pantanal fills up with small ponds and lakes, your chances of seeing animals will be much lower.
The trouble is, it’s hard to know exactly when the dry season will begin and end. In the past, it started in July and ended in October, and this is what the guidebooks still say. However, the Pantanal has been affected by climate change, and for the past couple of years the rains have started much earlier.
In 2018, the rains started in September and persisted throughout all of October. We arrived at the very start of November hoping to catch the tail end of the dry season, only to find that the wet season had already started weeks earlier. I was told that the same had happened the previous year.
Had I known that, I might have rearranged my trip so that I could visit the Pantanal earlier.
While July is the start of the dry season, it’s also when Brazilians come en masse to visit the Pantanal. They tend to be loud, so being in a boatload of Brazilian tourists will also decrease your chance of spotting animals.
When I asked our guide Pedro, he said that September was the best month to visit the Pantanal. September is spring in Brazil, so there are lots of wild flowers in bloom, and the birds are nesting at this time.
But what if you can’t make it during the dry season? Is it worth it to visit the Pantanal during the wet season?
I’d say it depends on what you are coming for. The birdlife is excellent year-round, so if birdwatching is your main interest then yes, a trip during the wet season is definitely worth it. Or if you just want to see this unique landscape and experience life in the Pantanal, you can also do that at any time of year.
And if you visit during the low season (which is the wet season), from December to March, you will avoid the crowds. You should also be able to get a discount on your hotel or adventure tour bookings at this time of year.
If you’re hoping to see mammals, though, you should probably lower your expectations when coming in the wet season. While you may get lucky, as we did, animal sightings are definitely less likely than in the dry season.
One guide did tell me that, at the height of the wet season, in February or March, animals can actually be spotted more easily on walking safaris. This is because they all head to the high ground, while everywhere else is flooded, so they end up stranded on small islands.
While this may be true, keep in mind that you will likely be doing your wildlife spotting in the rain if you come at this time of year. And you will also have to contend with the huge swarms of mosquitoes that breed in the wet season. Transport also gets tricky, as roads can get washed out and become impassable.
Personally, I would avoid December to March in the Pantanal if at all possible, and try to come in September, or close to it, if you can.
What to Bring and What to Wear in the Pantanal
Sandals for Walking through Water (in the rainy season)
Poncho (in the rainy season)
Sunscreen - Here’s an eco-friendly vegan one
Camera - Nick, who is an avid travel photographer, swears by this one
A Good Book or other Form of Entertainment
Insect repellant - This should ideally be purchased abroad, as the mosquitoes in the Pantanal have started to become immune to local brands. Here’s a vegan and eco-friendly one.
Where to Go Next
While the Pantanal was definitely the place where we saw the most wildlife in Brazil, we also spotted quite a few animals at Iguazu falls! The falls are the most spectacular waterfalls in the world and should not be missed.
If you’re heading south, this would be an obvious next destination after visiting the Pantanal. Check out my complete guide to the Iguazu waterfalls here.
Jabiru Stork by Charles J Sharp - Own work, from Sharp Photography, sharpphotography, CC BY-SA 4.0
Other photos by Nick Leonard. All rights reserved.