Jaguars and Wildlife of Brazil's Pantanal 2016 Trip Report

By John Shaw on Nov 03, 2016

In 2016, for the second year in a row, I led two of the Van Os "Jaguars & Wildlife of Brazil's Pantanal" tours.  And I'll say right here, right up front, that I can hardly wait until I can return in 2017!  This tour has become one of my favorite wildlife photography trips, primarily due to the great variety of possible subjects.  No two ways about it, seeing and photographing jaguars in the wild is extremely exciting, but there are numerous other bird and animal photo opportunities at all of the tour locations.

All the tours start in Cuiabá in the state of Mato Grosso.  Many tour participants, expecting a tiny village in the Brazilian jungle, are surprised upon arrival to discover that Cuiabá is a sprawling city with a population of over 500,000.  But consider: Cuiabá has the major airport for this entire region of Brazil, and it was one of the cities chosen to host games of the 2014 FIFA World Cup.  With its towering high-rise buildings, massive hypermarkets and shopping centers, and highways radiating in all directions—Cuiabá is anything but tiny!

Early the first morning, we load our vehicle and drive south, quickly leaving the metro area and traveling through a succession of smaller and smaller towns.  Our ultimate destination is Porto Jofre, literally the end of the road, about 250 kilometers away.  Roughly 150 of those kilometers are on the unpaved Transpantaneira highway, the one and only road into this section of the Pantanal.  The Pantanal is the world's largest contiguous wetlands, being roughly 80,000 square miles (200,000 square kilometers) in size.  Three-quarters of it is in Brazil; the remainder is in Bolivia and Paraguay.

While all the Jaguars tours follow the same basic schedule in terms of lodging, every trip presents different photo subjects and opportunities—and different weather.  Last year I experienced a record heat wave, while one morning this year I was bundled up with layers of fleece, a wool hat, and gloves.

Our first lodge is part way down the Transpantaneira, situated between a large oxbow lake on one side and extensive grasslands on the opposite side.  We worked the lake from small boats for hawks, jabiru storks, cocoi herons, kingfishers, and, on my second tour, a very cooperative jaguar.  The lodge birdfeeders gave us red-crested and yellow-billed cardinals, saffron finches and parakeets.  Nearby were a crimson-crested woodpecker at its cavity nest, wattled jacanas with chicks, campo flickers, blue-and-yellow macaws and southern lapwings.  It’s a great location to photograph Brazilian endemic chestnut-bellied guans.

On our third day out we arrive at Porto Jofre for the start of five full days of working from fast speedboats along the Rio Cuiabá and its tributaries, the Rio Negro and Rio Tres Irmãos, looking for jaguars and giant river otters.  Family groups of otters search for fish, while the jaguars hunt the riverbanks in search of yacare caiman and capybaras— their main diet in this habitat.  We're on the river by 6:00 AM, back at the lodge around 11:00 AM, and out again at 3:00 PM until dusk.  Around the lodge are photogenic hyacinth macaws, toco toucans, buff-necked ibis and extremely tame blue-fronted parrots.

From Porto Jofre we have to backtrack north on the Transpantaneira to our final stop, a rustic lodge on a family-owned ranch in the dry grasslands.  Toco toucans, chestnut-eared aracaris and crested oropendolas came to feeders, while a great horned owl called from nearby trees.  A small wetland gave us a capped heron.

All in all, I totally agree with Joe Van Os’ assessment that "wildlife wise, it is difficult to find any place more diverse—or any place more fun to shoot—than the Pantanal."  And I am really looking forward to my return in 2017!

Click HERE for information on our 2017 Jaguars & Wildlife of Brazil's Pantanal tours