A visit to the Pantanal in Mato Grosso do Sul means coming face to face with blue macaws, caymans, anteaters, capybaras, and even the fearsome jaguar
In the Pantanal, nature itself is the alarm clock. The sun’s rays ushering in the day push their way in through your bedroom window without asking permission. At the same time, macaws, buff-necked ibises, seriemas, parakeets, and an endless array of other birds display their vocal power, interrupted now and then by moos from cattle. There’s so much life outside that, before you know it, you’re already up. And prepared, too: with a hat on your head, sunblock on your face, and boots on your feet. Because the largest floodplain in the world is calling.
Whether on land or on water, the fun here is in cozying up to the fauna and flora of this World Heritage Site. The best time of year to do so is the so-called dry season – between May and November –, when the rains stop and it gets easier to explore the Pantanal trails.
Farms in Mato Grosso do Sul, the state which contains the largest portion of the territory occupied by the biome, came out in front in the sustainable tourism department. Properties outside Miranda, 124 miles [200 km] from the capital Campo Grande, have invested in accommodations and excursions that take visitors just steps away from caymans, anteaters, jabirus, deer, and, with any luck,the queen of the Pantanal, the jaguar.
Fishermen by tradition, the people of the Pantanal spend much of their time on the river. Bathed by the Corixo São Domingos, an arm of the Miranda River, Fazenda San Francisco offers fishing trips by chalana (a typical local boat) on its piranha-filled waters. The abundance of easy prey attracts local “celebs”: a cayman and a black-collared hawk, whose determined swoop guarantees the catch of the day.
Another tributary of the Miranda, the Aquidauana River is the big draw to Pousada Aguapé, luring fishermen from all over Brazil, attracted by its pacus and spotted sorubim. If you want to see some creatures, go for a morning ride on a motorboat or kayaking.
Just before 7 a.m., families of capybaras are bathing and messing up the water hyacinths by the riverbanks. Between the trees, you can observe the comings and goings of herons, parakeets, toucans, and jabirus. Of the Pantanal’s 550 bird species, Aguapé is home to 330. Such is its variety of colors and sounds that it’s become a destination for birdwatchers from all over the world.
Knowing that it is in the cool morning air that the animals venture out of their dens in search of food, the farms organize photo safaris bright and early. At Pousada Aguapé, they cover 18 miles [30 km] at a leisurely pace, so you’ll have enough time to admire such species as the gray brocket and the giant anteater. You can also cover part of this trajectory on horseback, in order to come face to face with a herd of cattle or spot blue macaws feeding on palm trees.
The ABCs of Pantanal palm trees – acuri, bocaiuva, and carandá – are scattered across the Caiman Ecological Refuge, 22 miles [36 km] from Miranda. The place is so big that it takes a safari to reach the animals’ favorite locales. The excursion lasts up to five hours and can take place in an afternoon, including a classic Pantanal sunset, when tones of pink and orange take over the sky.
Into the night
When the day turns to night, everyone redoubles their alertness. There’s an increased chance of spotting animals with nocturnal habits, like pampas deer, wolves, boas, ocelots, and jaguars. The project Onçafari, which promotes the species’ preservation and provides support for observation tourism, has cataloged over 111 jaguars in Caiman. “Our objective is to increase the value of jaguars. To show the cattle breeders in the region that they’re worth more alive than dead. Because they attract tourists and bring revenue,” explains Lilian Rampim, biologist and coordinator of the NGO.
Still, actually seeing one is never a sure thing. It takes luck and persistence. Visitors should spend every night there on the lookout at the farms. The duration of the nightly excursions varies, but the objective is always the same: to see the birds, mammals, and reptiles that don’t come out during the day. At Fazenda San Francisco, the channels installed to irrigate rice plantations also attract animals. When the vehicle starts moving, in the pitch black and silence, the sounds of birds and frogs grow stronger, as does the glow of the fireflies.
In the hopeful search for animals, the light from the guide’s flashlight directs our gazes. On a good night, distinct owl species are glimpsed. A marsh deer appears, partially camouflaged by the vegetation, as does an ocelot. On our way back, an encounter with a jaguar guarantees the much-desired grand finale and provokes whispers. Slender, strong, beautiful, it barely responds to the vehicle’s presence. It continues on its way with the confidence of one who knows she’s the queen of the Pantanal. And what a queen she is.
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