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Pantanal Wetlands

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The Pantanal, which covers an area estimated at 75,000 square miles, is the largest wetland on earth. Around 80% of the wetland falls within Brazil’s borders, contained in the large states of Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul in the country’s central interior. The Pantanal has an incredibly rich biodiversity and a bewildering abundance of wildlife. Here are you are almost certain to see species such as macaws, toucans, jabiru storks, caimans, capybaras, rheas and hundreds of species of water birds. It is home to the giant and lesser anteater, the piranha, the marsh deer, giant river otter, puma, jaguar, South American tapir and the anaconda.

There are an estimated ten million caimans in the Pantanal, but the first animals you are likely to spot when entering the area are the humped white cattle which roam the fields in their millions. Nowadays, cattle-raising for beef is the main economic activity, and around 95% of the region is privately owned. In the second half of the twentieth century, intensive farming was a serious threat to the region’s survival. Farming is now closely restricted and conservation is coming to the fore. This is a delicately balanced ecosystem: dry and dusty from July to October, the onset of the rainy season in November causes the tributaries of the Paraguay River north of the Pantanal to burst their banks. The runoff from this upland region is received in the low-lying Pantanal plains. A new world emerges as trees become leafy islands, surrounded by a shimmering sheet of water. When the water starts to recede again in May, birds flock in their thousands to feed on fish trapped in the shrinking pools.

Visiting the Pantanal is a very different experience in the dry and wet seasons. Although each season has its advantages in terms of wildlife, Llama Travel prefers to offer stays in the Pantanal during the drier season, as when the weather is wet, the lodges are often not able to operate excursions.

Tourism is relatively new to the area, meaning there are only a handful of tourist lodges and you are able to feel at one with nature. For visitors to the Pantanal, there are two principal points of access when arriving from other regions of Brazil: the city of Cuiabá in Mato Grosso, and Campo Grande farther south, in Mato Grosso do Sul. Although each region has its attractions, similar scenery and species of wildlife can be seen in both locations. Llama Travel holidays visit the northern Pantanal, using Cuiabá as a base, as travel times to attractions tend to be shorter.

Until 1977, Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul were joined as one giant state. In the early eighteenth century, gold and diamond prospecting boosted the region’s economy and the city of Cuiabá was founded. Cuiabá is now the capital of Mato Grosso, which remains one of the richest states in Brazil. The neighbouring city of Várzea Grande is separated from Cuiabá only by the Cuiabá River, and the two have a combined population of around one million inhabitants. The main industry in the area is agriculture: in particular cattle-raising and the farming of soya, cotton and sugar cane.

A savannah landscape borders Cuiabá. To the north, around 50km from the city, lies the Chapada dos Guimarães National Park, with dramatic scenery featuring canyons, caves, waterfalls and giant rock formations. The Pantanal occupies a vast area to the south, reached by travelling firstly on the state highways and then on unpaved roads, with an average journey time to lodges of around three hours. The journey is an attraction in itself: it is common to stumble across a timid family of capybaras, the world’s largest rodent, cooling off from the tropical heat in the marsh waters. A pair of red and blue macaws will often launch out of their treetop home, soaring from one tree to the next over pastures peppered with termite nests. For nature lovers, there can be few places in the world more thrilling than the Pantanal.