Pantanal Stories and Tips

The Practicalities of the Pantanal - or how not to let the tourist attractions eat you...

moi and a giant anteater Photo, Pantanal, Brazil

"It is possible, but by no means certain, that the party was massacred by Indians in the Matto Grosso. In the last few chapters, I have described in great detail an attempt by three white men, carrying their own equipment and provisions, to make a journey through the country which lay ahead of Colonel Fawcett when he crossed the Kuelene. Moreover, they were not, as we were, following the course of a river and there is evidence that one of the young men could only move slowly, and was forced to lag some way behind his companions. He would have made easy kill for the local aboriginals.."

"Brazilian Adventure", 1935, Peter Fleming

The above is taken from the book from Peter Fleming (brother of 007 creator Ian), who was sent into the Matto Grosso by his newspaper to find out what happened to Colonel Fawcett and his expedition twelve years earlier. Fleming never found him and encountered his own adventures, and whatever befell Colonel Fawcett remains a mystery. But there is something still of the spirit of adventure in the Pantanal. A feeling of danger and excitement never quite goes away -- the very air is laced with mystery. The Indians have gone and been replaced by giant fazendas (cattle ranches), now used to house tourists, sending them out on treks and boat trips to view the same wild denizens of the swamps that menaced Fleming and Colonel Fawcett.

Its very remoteness is its most attractive feature. The swamp is colossal -- the size of France. Stretching over 230,000 square kilometres and flowing into the nearby countries of Bolivia and Paraguay. The water in the Pantanal is not stagnant; it flows from north to south, depending on the season. It is fed by about 200 rivers, whose waters it absorbs like a sponge. Except, of course, during the dry season, due to the monsoon-like rains, everything overflows -- ponds become lakes, meadows become water courses, and roads are washed away. The animals of the Pantanal find themselves stranded on islands, unable to move around the swamp unless they cross waters inhabited by piranha, jacare, and constrictor reptiles. This is the best time to see the animals of the Pantanal. It is almost possible to see very rare creatures such as jaguars, ocelots, and tapirs when they are stranded on these islands.

Getting to the Matto Grosso

If you look at your map of South America, the Pantanal is almost in the dead centre -- a long way from Rio and the tourists resorts of the Northeast. The best way is, of course, to fly. Numerous carriers fly to Campo Grande (pronounced Grahnjee), which is the gateway to the southern Pantanal and Cuiaba, which is the same for the northern Pantanal. Scattered around the edges are numerous towns which are now on the tourist bandwagon and do tours or trips into the massive swamp. Campo Grande is the only one which you could call a city (and a small one at that) the others -- Corumba and Aquiduana -- could only be described as fazendeiro (cowboy) towns. There are others which have set themselves up as ecology destinations, such as Coxim and Bonito, whose nearby attractions aren't just about the Pantanal.

There are two ways of getting there. The obvious one is flying. VASP, VARIG, and TAM -- the internal Brazilian carriers -- all fly to Campo Grande and Cuiaba. The fares, by Brazilian standards, are high, but with the exchange rate, they only work out about £70/$100 for a return from Rio. The major air hub for Brazil is Sao Paolo. There are two terminals in this gigantic city (whenever I see it from the air, it always reminds me of that STAR WARS planet where the capital city has devoured the entire globe). Sao Paolo Garulhas deals with international flights, while the memorable Sao Paolo Cogonhas serves internal flights within Brazil. I feel it is fair to warn you that changing planes internally at Cogonhas is an ordeal. They are working in improving the transit lounge, but even so, you've never seen such chaos in an airport while they do it. Make sure you get directions on where your boarding gate is. There is a percentage chance that the gate shown on the board will not be in the transit lounge. My gate to my flight to Campo Grande was at the other end of the airport, and I had to get an airline employee to show me the way.

At the other end, Campo Grande is a nice little airport. It's open all night, so if you have got an early flight, you can have a doze before boarding, and the facilities there including currency exchange, information, car hire, and bus services. One of the things you will notice about Campo Grande is that it is infested with fazendeiros. It's a rough "man's" town that has grown into an efficient little city, and you can see the cowboys ambling along the streets. They really look the part, dressed in denim and straw hats, and most look as if they were film stand-ins for Charles Bronson. But the main reason you come to Campo Grande is to book a trip into the Pantanal. Most hotels will do excursions, but there are also a number of tour companies in town. Some will try and catch travellers at the bus station and airport.

The bus is the only other alternative to the Matto Grosso. From Rio, it is 30 hours. From Sao Paolo, 25. A true bum-numbing experience. Some people break it up in the weird space-age capital of Brasilia or come up from Iguacu. Anyhow, this is much cheaper than the plane, working out to £25/$50. This would be the true Brazilian travelling experience, if only your backside and bladder could stand it.

Getting into the Pantanal

Once you have reached the Matto Grosso, you now want to get into the swamp and get wildlife spotting. I cheated; I used a travel agent in Rio who arranged everything before I left London. So I just had to turn up, catch a plane, and then have someone waiting for me at the other end. But I did meet many people who had done it themselves or found a tour in Campo Grande or Cuiaba.

It is not recommended that you do it by yourself. The dangers of the Pantanal are very real. The transpantaneira highway borders the swamp for hundreds of miles, and you can see some animals from its tarmac. But to reallyget a good look, you must venture into the swamp that the rare animals inhabit. The roads west and north from Campo Grande will show you bird life and maybe rheas (ostriches), but to catch a glimpse of capybara and piranha, you must venture far deeper.

Buses run to all the towns in the Pantanal. Two towns have escpecially come into the ascendant in the last few years, particularly with eco-tourists. The first is Coxim, which is mainly a fishing centre, though it does do trips into the swamp. Coxim is situated north on Campo Grande on the road to Cuiaba. The second is going to be massive. It has the potential to become the adventure capital of Brazil and is called Bonito. This is a real hippy town on the road west to Corumba. Numerous pousadas have already grown up, and the main attraction is the rolling swampland surrounding the tiny town. There are plenty of natural attractions around the town which can be seen on tours such as Gruta do Lagoa Azul (Grotto of the Blue Lake), which is hidden inside a nearby hill, and most famously Aquario Naturale, which is a river so clear and fresh you can go snorkeling with the many river fish around Bonito and get up close to them. Luckily, piranha do not swim up that particular river.

Of course the best way of getting into the Pantanal, if you are not staying on a fazenda, is a camping tour. These are what the budget travellers generally opt for, and they can be booked in Campo Grande or Bonito. They can work out a price as cheap as $50 a day, which includes guide, food, and tents. You many be bunched with many other nationalities doing "the budget thing", and John Malathronas does an excellent piece of writing on this in his wonderful book "Brazil -- life, blood, soul.." A friend of mine did it, and she didn't have to worry about mosquitoes, as none inhabit the Pantanal.

She just had to worry about the world's most poisonous spider dangling above her sleeping bag.

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