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This Brazil trip into the Pantanal is at the top of my list for most amazing trips I’ve been on. I did get attacked by mosquitoes and was almost seriously injured in a boat accident, but I also got to see absolutely beautiful and diverse wildlife up-close and ate some of the best meals ever… ever.
For those of you who don’t know what or where the Pantanal is, here’s a map.
The Pantanal encompasses the world’s largest tropical wetland area; most of it located in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul. It also extends into the state of Mato Grosso, Bolivia, and Paraguay. You basically see the same wildlife as the Amazon Rainforest but in a much more open area.
The name Pantanal comes from the Portuguese word pântano, which means wetland, swamp, or marsh. And this place does get wet! We were told that during the rainy season the water in the Pantanal basin rises between two and five meters!
We went in August, during dry season. This was a great time to go because less water means animals become more concentrated and easier to spot. Another perk of the dry season is that there were less mosquitoes and we didn’t have to worry about flooding and having to be transported by boat.
Now, I had no idea what to expect from the Pantanal. It was the first time I was going on an actual trip in Brazil outside of my home state (Minas Gerais), and the cities of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. I was hopping the fence to the wild side and all I knew was that I was beyond excited for what I would discover. Kyle was even more ecstatic, being a wildlife enthusiast and nature lover, he packed his giant cameras, lenses, and wide-brimmed hat with nothing but a smile on his face.
We hopped on a 2hr flight from São Paulo to Campo Grande. We rented a car in Campo Grande and hit the road. It was about a 2.5hrs drive to Miranda on a really nice, new highway where we then went off-road on to our temporary home.
The interesting thing about this ecosystem is that it was composed of several different biomes. One area would look like a rainforest, another like a savanna, and in the higher altitudes it becomes more of a woodland. This is referred to as the "Pantanal complex," a mixture of plant communities from the surrounding biome regions.
The Pantanal is bounded by the Chiquitano dry forests to the west and northwest, by the Arid Chaco dry forests to the southwest, and the Humid Chaco to the south. The Cerrado savannas lie to the north, east and southeast.
While still very green, especially on the river banks, much of the area was a savanna. I've never been to an African country, but at times it felt like we were on a safari tour.
The Pantanal is home to over 1,000 bird species, 400 fish species, 300 mammalian, 480 reptile species, and over 9,000 species of invertebrates. Several of these being threatened species due to illegal smuggling, deforestation, and over-fishing.
What was also heart-breaking was the number of dead animals, especially tapirs and anteaters, we saw on the side of the highway.
Accommodation in the Pantanal can be found at the multiple pousadas (inns) spread throughout the land. Surprising fact: 99% of the land in the Pantanal is privately owned. Farmers and cattle ranchers are the typical landowners in the area. They further their business by building these inns for tourists and offering eco tourism and transportation through the rivers (really the only way to get around).
Our inn was the Refugio da Ilha, or Island Refuge, and what a refuge it was! I’ll do my best to not write too much, because I can certainly talk forever about how amazing this place and the staff were.
We were so warmly welcomed by the staff at Refugio da Ilha. It's a family-owned business and the son of the owners was our guide throughout our stay. They own a huge chunk of land, part of it with lots of cattle, horses, and the area where the inn is located. The inn has 8 guest bedrooms which is great because it's a small enough number to have a more personal interaction with the staff and with other guests over our meals. It also makes a manageable number for the excursion groups. Some of them were even just me and Kyle with our guide.
Every day started with breakfast at 6:30am with the other guests. We basically didn't need alarms because the birds kindly took on that job every morning. We went on two excursions each day, one after breakfast and one at 4pm. All the meals were absolutely fantastic. I would constantly tell Kyle how I had never had food so good, along with all the tropical fruits, and freshly squeezed fruit juices... oh man, I need to go back.
So you get it, the food is amazing. Now to get on about the real reason we went to the Pantanal.
Our first taste of it was on our first excursion, where we went on a 4hr boat ride upstream on the Salobra River with our guide Leo, who spoke English fluently which was great for Kyle. There was no shortage of beautiful birds.
Click on the pictures to enlarge them.
We had an amazing time during the 5 days we were there. The excursions were all planned and led by the owners and staff. Groups were separated by languages. These were our excursions, in no particular order:
Throughout our stay the staff was nothing short of amazing. Extremely attentive and friendly, genuinely wanting to get to know you and give you an educational and unforgettable experience.
All the staff were so knowledgeable about every plant and animal in the area. You could see the joy in their faces telling stories of close encounters they've had or what plants bloom at certain times of the year. These are people who were raised in this environment and care deeply about it. Their love for the land is contagious.
What I also enjoyed seeing was how they made sure every guest would feel at home and made sure they found a guide who spoke their language. They were clearly well-connected with guides in the area because I noticed they hired guides who spoke Italian, Dutch, and German as well as our guide (and son of the owners) who was fluent in English.
No matter the time of year, I would recommend to always wear pants and lightweight long-sleeve shirts, and a hat or sunglasses. You need protection from both the sun and millions of mosquitoes. You will sweat, but your skin will thank you!
I tried wearing shorts and made sure to apply plenty of mosquito repellent and sunscreen. Didn't work. I got both bitten and burnt. The sun seemed to be very strong there. Also take comfortable hiking shoes and a camera with a lot of extra SD cards!
I recommend the dry season because of the ease of transportation, less rain, and less mosquitoes. We went in August and were told it was when the temperature started rising. But definitely read all the reviews and pick a time you'd like to explore!
I really did not want to leave. I was on the verge of tears because this place was that beautiful of an experience, and there was still so much to see.
Sometimes when I'm having a stressful day in my New York City life I think back to those quiet and serene moments sitting on the boat hearing nothing but the slow flow of water and birds overhead.
I definitely felt like it was a home away from home; a wild one, but home nonetheless.
If you're wondering where to go next, please do consider a trip to the Pantanal. But before you go, also read about conservation efforts and find the best eco-friendly way to visit.
The Pantanal is huge. We only saw a very small portion of the southern part. But no matter where you go there... I promise, it's the kind of beauty that stays with you.
Hi there! I'm Skeeter. I grew up moving a lot and that makes me a bit restless for travel and exploration. I started this blog with my husband Pat when we decided to backpack New Zealand for a year. We are always looking for the next adventure and are loving life. We're just your average couple with two sassy dogs and a love for travel. We're sharing our travels and the tips we pick up along the way.
Hello! I'm Liz. Blogging is very new to me, but I'm so excited to finally write as much as I talk!
"Don't forget to travel happy"-Skeeter & Liz