While it’s the mighty Amazon itself that attracts most wildlife lovers and would-be explorers, Brazil’s Pantanal, a World Heritage Site since 2000, is actually the best place to see animals in the wild in South America. Think of your images of the Amazon—dense, thick foliage, the deepest jungle you can imagine. Turns out, it’s fairly difficult to observe wildlife through it all. Yet in the open marshlands of the Pantanal, well, the whole neighborhood is on display.
The Pantanal is our planet’s largest seasonal wetland area, home to capybara, the world’s largest rodent, as well as ocelots, tapirs and the elusive jaguar—the star of the show. Large and colorful birdlife is abundant; you’ll likely add macaws, ibis, storks, and spoonbills to your life list. Take a boat trip and try piranha fishing, always keeping an eye out for the spirited giant otter.
Every year, from December through March, seven rivers run off into this wetland, which is approximately half the size of France. In June, the waters begin to recede—more than 600 fish species remain trapped in the various ponds and lakes, and increasing numbers of animals gather at the ever-shrinking watering holes to drink and feed said fish. If you’re visiting at this time of year, you’ll get quite the show, making for stunning photography opportunities and up-close encounters with the local beasts.
Speaking of the wildlife, they’re the only game in town—literally. The Pantanal has no roads, no towns, no people, save for those who are fortunate enough to travel there on leisure. Transportation is by small airplane and motorboat, with some 4x4 travel depending on the season and conditions. One road, the Transpantaneira Highway, is an unfinished dirt road that runs a bumpy course from Poconé in Brazil into the Pantanal. Most of the region is privately owned and conserved sustainably thanks to cooperating ecotourism outfits and local cattle ranchers.
Seeking shade? There are a couple of fantastic museums in the area that give an insightful look at the region and its inhabitants. The Museu do Pantanal is located in Corumbá, at the southern end of the Pantanal; you’ll find stuffed local wildlife, local artwork, and Indian artifacts.
If you’re entering the Pantanal at Campo Grande, as many do, stop into the Museu Dom Bosco for its collection of more than 10,000 insects, including 7,000 butterflies! Indian artifacts from the Bororo, Moro, Karajá, and Xavante tribes are also on display.