Getting to and around the Pantanal, Brazil

Getting there and around

The Pantanal can be reached from both Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul states. In Mato Grosso access is from the capital city, Cuiabá, which has an airport. In Mato Grosso do Sul, access is from the state capital, Campo Grande, or from Corumbá on the border with Bolivia (both cities have airports); or from the little cattle ranching town of Miranda (connected to the rest of Brazil by bus and train), which lies between them.

There are three ways to visit the Pantanal. The cheapest (and most popular with backpackers) is to take an
organized tour
. These involve camping, perhaps with a night in a
fazenda
(ranch house), and a range of activities, including hiking, canoeing and
wildlife and birdwatching. Guides tend to emphasize light adventure and have reasonable
general knowledge of the Pantanal but poor knowledge of specific plants or animals.

Another option is to organize a tour through a
fazenda
. Although some are very modest,
fazendas
are generally comfortable with air-conditioned rooms and good home cooking. Many (if requested in advance) can organize decent wildlife guides who know English and scientific names for birds and animals.
Fazendas
can also be booked through tour operators, such as
Impacto
in Campo Grande ,
Aguas do Pantanal Turismo
in Miranda or
Natureco
in Cuiabá .

It is also possible to visit the Pantanal on a
self-drive tour
, by hiring a 4WD in Cuiabá or Campo Grande. Those considering this option should speak good Portuguese and stick to the two principal dirt roads that enter the Pantanal: the Transpantaneira in Mato Grosso and the Estrada Parque in Mato Grosso do Sul.

For further information on the Pantanal, consult www.braziltour.com, www.brazil tourism.org, www.turismo.ms.gov.br and www.sedtur.mt.gov.br.

Visiting the Southern Pantanal

Access to the southern Pantanal is from Campo Grande , Miranda and Corumbá , all in Mato Grosso do Sul.

Campo Grande
offers most of the tours, both upmarket (through agencies such as
Impacto
) and the myriad budget operators like
Ecological Expeditions
, whose touts are ready and waiting for buses arriving from destinations in eastern Brazil like Foz do Iguaçu.

Corumbá
, near the Bolivian border, was once the capital of backpacker tourism in the Pantanal but, although many of the budget operators maintain offices here and cheap tours can be readily organized, the town is now used more as a departure point for boat trips.

Miranda
lies half way between Campo Grande and Corumbá at the turn off to Bonito. It is still a Pantanal ranching town free of touts, and the best of the
fazendas
(ranch house safari hotels) are situated close by. There are two excellent operators and the town is
friendly and relaxed. Although there are excellent
fazendas
off the Estrada Parque road, there are also an increasing number opening up to tourism around Miranda. These include the stylish, upmarket
Refúgio Ecológico Caiman
, the closest thing central Brazil has to a Mexican hacienda (and similarly beloved of the chic) and
Fazenda San Francisco
, which is probably the best spot in the entire Pantanal for big cats, especially ocelot, which you can almost be guaranteed to see.

Many of the tours and some of the
fazendas
lie off a dirt road running off the BR-262 Campo Grande to Corumbá highway. This road, which is known as the
Estrada Parque
, begins halfway between Miranda and Corumbá at a turn-off called Buraco da Piranha (the Piranha hole), heads north into the Pantanal and then, after 51 km, turns west to Corumbá at a point called the Curva do Leque. This is the overland access point to
Nhecolândia
- a region particularly rich in wildlife. Four-wheel drives run by the tour operators or the
fazendeiros
wait at the Buraco da Piranha to meet tour buses arriving from Campo Grande. They then take visitors either to
fazendas
or to campsites in Nhecolândia.
Fazendas
in this area include
Fazenda Rio Negro
, a project run in conjunction with Conservation International and now closed to tourism,
Fazenda Barra Mansa
,
Fazenda Barranco Alto
and
Fazenda Santa Sophia
,
Fazenda Bela Vista
, which has a wealth of primates; and
Fazenda Rio Vermelho
, which is famous for sightings of the larger carnivores.

Visiting the Northern Pantanal

There are two main access points to the northern Pantanal: the
Transpantaneira road
, which cuts through the wetland and is lined with
fazendas
; and the town of
Barão de Melgaço
, which is surrounded by large lakes and rivers and is not as good for wildlife. Both are reached from Cuiabá in Mato Grosso.

The Transpantaneira was built in 1976 and was originally planned to connect Cuiabá with Corumbá, but it currently goes only as far as the border at Porto Jofre on the Rio Cuiabá. Work has been suspended indefinitely - ostensibly because of the division of the two Mato Grosso states - and is a superb spot for wildlife watching. Hundreds of thousands of birds congregate here, particularly between June and September, to wade through the shallow wetlands to either side of the road. And at any time of year there seems to be a raptor on every other fence post. Mammals and reptiles can often be spotted crossing the road or even sitting on it, particularly at dawn and dusk. Most of the northern Pantanal's tourist-orientated
fazendas
are here. The road is unpaved, potholed and punctuated by numerous rickety wooden bridges and, although it can be driven in a standard hire car, progress is slow. It is probably better to see the Transpantaneira as part of a tour as most of the guides have access to the
fazendas
along the way. If you choose to go alone, be sure to book in advance; private individuals who turn up unannounced may or may not be welcome at some
fazendas
.

The easiest access is in the dry season (July to September). In the wet, especially January and February, there is no guarantee that you will get all the way to Porto Jofre. Bring plenty of water and some extra fuel as petrol stations often run out. If you choose not to take a tour or hire a car you can hitch a ride along the Transpantaneira from Poconé. Do not travel alone and be prepared for a bumpy ride in the back of a truck.

When to go

The Pantanal is worth visiting at any time of year. However, the dry season from June to October is the ideal time to see wildlife as animals and birds congregate at the few remaining areas of water. This is also the breeding season, when birds form vast nesting areas, with thousands crowding the trees, creating an almost deafening cacophony of sounds. The white-sand river beaches are exposed,
jacarés
bask in the sun, and capybara frolic in the grass. It is during these months you are most likely to see jaguars, however, July sees lots of Brazilian visitors and the increased activity decreases the chances of sightings. From the end of November to the end of March (wettest in February), most of the area, which is crossed by many rivers, is subject to flooding. At this time mosquitoes abound and cattle crowd onto the few islands remaining above water. In the southern part of the Pantanal, many wild animals leave the area, but in the northern Pantanal, which is slightly higher, the animals remain.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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