Regarded as the largest swamp in the world, the Pantanal is great for watching wildlife — if you can get there, writes Alex Bellos.

There's an awful lot of wildlife in Brazil. Most of it lives in the Amazon rainforest, home to one in 10 of all the plant and animal species in the world. Yet trips to the Amazon can be frustrating, as the animals are hard to encounter, disappearing into the jungle as soon as they hear you.

By far the best place to see wildlife in Brazil is the Pantanal, a flat wetland near the Bolivian border where the animals will often parade in front of you as if auditioning for a nature documentary.

The Pantanal is the size of Portugal, and is often described as
The Pantanal is the size of Portugal, and is often described as "the biggest swamp in the world". Photo / 123RF

At dusk on the Rio Negro, for example, the daily commute of birds is a chirping carnival of colour. As the sky turned lilac, I saw hundreds flutter past - red and blue macaws in pairs, companies of green parrots, flotillas of ibis gliding in elegant V-formation, as well as toucans, nightjars, lapwings and pauraques. There are 652 bird species here.

The Pantanal is the size of Portugal, and is often described as the biggest swamp in the world. In the centre of the South American continent, it is a flat basin that drains water (and attracts fauna) from the surrounding plateaus.


For more than 100 years the only human activity has been low-level cattle ranching. Raising cattle in the Pantanal, however, is so uncompetitive because of the constantly shifting landscapes that in recent years many ranches have reopened as tourist lodges.

But logistical problems remain, even for tourists. A week before I arrived I learned that floods had made land access to my hotel impossible and the only option was to charter a single-engine plane for the half-hour hop. It was certainly the most exciting way to arrive, but at about 500 (NZ$1051) each way not cheap, even when split between two people. The expense of visiting the Pantanal has meant it has remained underpopulated compared with other destinations in Brazil.

The government, however, is determined to attract international tourists, which is one reason why the city of Cuiaba, the northern gateway to the Pantanal, was chosen as a host city for the 2014 World Cup. It was seen as an opportunity to promote the local wildlife to a TV audience of billions.

After a flight with stunning views over an endless expanse of greens and blues, our four-seater Cessna landed at Barra Mansa.

The landing-strip was fenced off to stop the horses, wild pigs and rheas eating the grass. Guilherme Rondon, the owner, welcomed us and drove us to the lodge. The Rondons are a well-known family of Brazilian pioneers, and have been in the Pantanal since the late 19th century. Their most illustrious family member was the explorer and indigenous campaigner Candido Rondon, who in 1913 led a scientific expedition to the Amazon with Theodore Roosevelt. "Our family has always been radically in favour of conservation," Rondon said.

Barra Mansa is situated on a bend in the Rio Negro (not to be confused with the much larger Rio Negro that flows into the Amazon). The flood was so big that it came within a few metres of the lodge. The eyes of two submerged caimans - South American alligators - could be seen protruding above the surface at the edge of the water. On the bank was a family of capybaras, the world's largest rodent, dog-sized and shaggy-haired, with a funny rectangular-shaped head.

I had been lured to the Pantanal on the premise of seeing a lot of wildlife, yet Rondon quickly put me right. In the dry season, he said, when the rivers shrink to a trickle, it was possible to see huge groups of animals congregating by the isolated sources of water. But since the water was unexpectedly high, many animals - tapirs, anteaters, deer, jaguars - had been pushed deeper into the bush.

But I should not be disappointed, he added, because what I had lost in fauna I had gained in flora. The floods are the most spectacular time of year to visit. Indeed, the view from Barra Mansa was as beautiful as any I have seen in Brazil, the shiny black water of the Rio Negro pristinely reflecting the lush vegetation surrounding it. "Visitors who see the animals always say they want to return to see the floods," Rondon told me.

Still, there were animals to be seen - and the best way to explore was on horse. Early cattle ranchers introduced Andalusian horses to the Pantanal. Over generations they have become a new breed, the pantanal horse, with strong feet to wade through water. They are small, docile and easy for beginners to ride. We rode through small areas of forest to reach clearings containing huge circular ponds. On the way we spotted an armadillo, peccaries, a tarantula, more capybaras and tall, flightless rheas.

The best vantage point to observe the fauna and flora of the Pantanal is by boat. Photo / 123RF
The best vantage point to observe the fauna and flora of the Pantanal is by boat. Photo / 123RF

Our guide was Luis Silva, a 51-year-old pantanal cowboy, or pantaneiro. He stopped on the sandy path to show us evidence of the animals that were around. There were tracks of deer, tapirs, anteaters and even the paw-print of a jaguar. The jaguar - the largest cat of the Americas - is something of a symbol of the Pantanal, although only the luckiest tourists ever spot one. The best spotting, however, was in looking up - especially at the end of the day. The best vantage point to observe the birds' passage was in a small boat in the middle of the Rio Negro. It was an unforgettable spectacle, in a beautiful setting. On our last day, we were even joined by a pair of giant otters, frolicking on the banks.

I was unlucky that there had been unexpected floods shortly before I arrived at Barra Mansa. Yet even so, I saw more wildlife in a few days in the Pantanal than I have ever seen anywhere else in Brazil.