Jaguars and Wildlife of Brazil's Pantanal 2019 Trip Report

By John Shaw on Sep 11, 2019

42°F!  That’s what the thermometer read early one morning.  42°F is definitely chilly.  But it’s even colder when you’re in an open boat going 40 mph through river mist at sunrise.  Then 42°F is downright cold.

Such was one morning on the second of two Pantanal trips I led this year, and it is the lowest temperature I’ve ever encountered in all the time I’ve been leading this tour.  Fortunately the cool weather did not last long; a day and a half later we were back into the upper 80s.  But I must admit that particular morning was a real challenge.

Pair of jaguars at river's edge in PantanalThe Pantanal is the world's largest contiguous wetlands. Measuring about 80,000 square miles in size, it is well over three times the size of the Everglades ecosystem.  Most of it is in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso, with the remainder spilling into Bolivia and Paraguay.

To get to the Pantanal you have to fly into Cuiaba, Brazil. To get to Cuiba the easiest connection is through Sao Paulo, although going via Brasilia is an option.  Contrary to many people’s expectations, Cuiaba is not a little village in the jungle, but rather a city of roughly 500,000 people.  After overnighting in Cuiaba, we took our chartered bus out of town and headed to the Transpantania Highway, the one and only road into this section of the Pantanal.  It’s 150 km of unpaved road from the little town of Pocone—which is 60 paved road miles from Cuiaba—to the road’s end at Porto Jofre on the Cuiaba River (despite the name, there is no “port” or town at Porto Jofre—the road just stops dead at the river). 

Monkey in treeAll the Van Os tours have the same schedule in terms of lodging and duration of stay at each location.  The first lodge we stayed at is part way down the Transpantania. An early departure from Cuiaba means arriving in time for lunch.  The lodge is situated between extensive grasslands and a very large oxbow lake.  From small boats we worked the lake for hawks, jabiru storks, white-necked herons, kingfishers, anhingas, and neotropical cormorants.  Back at the lodge, bird feeders offered opportunities to photograph yellow-billed and red-crested cardinals, saffon finches, and black-hooded parakeets.  Wandering around the grounds are bare-faced currasows and dozens of chachalacas—who seem to think that 4:00 AM is the perfect time to start mass vocalizing just outside your hotel room.

HeronOn our third day we boarded our bus again for the drive to our lodge at Porto Jofre, once again arriving in time for lunch.  In the afternoon photographed around the lodge, working hyacinth macaws, toco toucans, guira cookoos, and many small birds.  The next five full days were spent working from three fast speedboats along the Cuiaba River and its tributaries, searching for jaguars and giant river otters.  Jaguars hunt the riverbanks in search of jacare caiman and capybaras—their main diet in this habitat—while noisy family groups of otter catch fish in the quiet lagoons.  We spent both mornings and afternoons on the river.  We were out at 5:45 AM each morning, to catch first light on the river, and returned to the lodge at around 11:00.  In the afternoon we departed at 2:30 PM and got back at sunset.  Two boat excursions per day for five days meant a total of 10 trips.  Since I led two back-to-back tours, I completed 20 river trips—and we had good jaguar photography on every one of those trips! 

River otter with fish in Cuiaba RiverSince the road ends at Porto Jofre, we backtracked north on the Transpantania to the third lodge, a family-owned ranch in the dry grasslands.  With our stay at this lodge, we had worked all the main eco-habitats in the Pantanal region.  Here we concentrated on toco toucans and chestnut-eared aricaris which came to feeders, along with many kiskadee flycatchers and crested oropendulas.  It's certainly no guarantee, but we’ve had giant anteaters show up about half of the times I've stayed at this location.

I'm leading two Pantanal tours in 2021, which will be the seventh year in a row for me. Join me on one of my favorite tours that are sure to please any nature photographer. It’s easy, fun and highly productive, photographically.

Related Tags:  brazil, jaguars, pantanal