So you’ve decided to visit the northern Pantanal, perhaps inspired by posts like these. And you want to make sure you have the best experience – after all, you’re coming from far and travelling a long distance.
But where do you start? When to go? Staying in a lodge or booking a tour? And do you even want to go to the northern Pantanal, or might the south be a better option? There are many ways to shape your Pantanal trip and the options can be a bit overwhelming.
When planning your trip to the Pantanal, tips from someone who has been there are essential. No worries, I’ve got you covered! In this ultimate travel guide to the northern Pantanal you’ll find tips on finding tours and lodges, the best season to travel, your packing list and many other things.
The Pantanal – a reminder why you really need to visit it
The Pantanal is the world’s largest tropical wetland area, covering over 150.000km². It’s huge! The area stretches out to Bolivia and Paraguay, and within Brazil, it is located in the two states of Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul. It is one of the richest ecosystems in the world, with over 650 bird species and 400 fish species. As 80% of the Pantanal is flooded every year, the soil becomes very fertile and the region is home to a large collection of aquatic plants. The Pantanal can be divided geographically in two subareas: the lowlands in Mato Grosso do Sul, in the south; and the slightly higher area in Mato Grosso in the north.
Besides its landscape beauty and the incredible amount of birds (including the endangered hyacinth macaw!) you’ll see there, the Pantanal is also home to some amazing mammals. The animal that everyone wants to see is, of course, the jaguar. Unlike in the Amazon, jaguars in the Pantanal are quite easily spotted if you go in the right season. The tapir and giant anteater are also animals you have a fair chance of seeing. It is truly a magnificent place to visit.
Northern or southern Pantanal?
Although you can see the same animals in both sides of the Pantanal, tourism takes up slightly different forms. From what I’ve heard, the Pantanal in the south is more developed, as in more tourists and with more tour agencies available. Tours are a more crowded with larger groups, but also cheaper – the south is a good idea if you’re on a budget. Your starting point will be Campo Grande, in Mato Grosso do Sul. Travel can become a bit more complicated in rainy season, as the area (which is lower than the north) is more prone to flooding.
In the north, accommodation tends to be of higher quality, with better-trained guides, and the tour groups are smaller. When I was there, there were just a few other very small groups around and it felt like we had to place to ourselves. And most importantly: your chances of spotting the elusive jaguar are much higher in the northern Pantanal. If you can make it to Porto Jofre at the end of the Transpantaneira, the dirt road that runs in the Pantanal, you’re very likely to see a couple of jaguars in the dry season. The northern Pantanal is accessed through Cuiabá, in Mato Grosso.
When to go
If you have the opportunity to choose your travel dates, I just have one advice: go in the dry season. The dry season runs from May to October, and as there is less water around, animals need to walk further to their drinking spots. Which means there is a better chance of seeing them! We went in late June and saw 7 jaguars.
This does not mean that you cannot go in rainy season. There’s still plenty to see in the wet period, but if you have the luxury of choosing, go for the dry season.
Bonus: there are also fewer mosquitos 😉
Tours and lodges in the northern Pantanal
There are basically two options for your stay in the Pantanal: you stay at a lodge and participate in their activities; or you book a tour. I’ve listed some of the pros and cons of both options.
Everything will be arranged for you, from transport from your hotel to the lodges, food, activities.
There are many agencies offering tours that stay in several lodges, meaning that you’ll visit different places. For me this is really the most valuable advantage. Transport in the Pantanal can be really expensive (see costs), so if you want to stay in different areas, I think it’s better to go with a tour. I personally did a tour that visited two areas and this was a requirement for me: I wanted to see jaguars in Porto Jofre (at the end of the Transpantaneira) but also wanted to do typically Pantanal activities, like horse-riding, sunrise walks, night safaris etc., which the lodge in Porto Jofre didn’t offer.
You’ll have your own guide with you with all the activities, which I prefer over new guides every time. And as he’s also your guide while driving through the Pantanal (to get to the lodges), you’ll get to stop as often as you like to learn about the animals that you see along the way.
You’ll do more activities in a day than with a lodge.
Downside: it is definitely more costly…
There are some amazing lodges in the northern Pantanal, and also some relatively cheaper ones if you’re on a budget.
Lodges usually offer one activity per day, which is included in the price. The rest of the day can be spent lounging at the pool; or you can book an extra activity (with additional costs). Activities include the ones mentioned above: horse-riding, jeep safari, hikes, visiting an observation tower, etc. While I haven’t done this through the lodge directly, I can imagine that groups here are bigger.
Some lodges offer a one-day jaguar spotting tour, which is perfect if you’re looking for a relaxed holiday (one activity per day) and also want to see jaguars.
While the lodges are cheaper, you’ll have to pay for your transport to get there.
As you can see, whether you need to go with a tour or stay at a lodge really depends on the kind of traveller you are and what you want to do. If you’re more the relaxing kind of type, you should definitely book directly with a lodge.
If you want to see as much as possible (which I think is the right thing to do, as you’ve come all the way just to see this area..), a tour might really be a good option, especially if you’re into photography. There are tours dedicated to photographers, but overall I would say that the tours visiting Porto Jofre know that their clients are usually photography geeks, so they make sure that they tour with the best light conditions, etc.
However, I highly recommend North Pantanal. Its owner Fernando is an amazing guide, who speaks English fluently, is passionate about the area, knows it very well and is committed to giving his clients the best tour. Whether it’s for a 5-day tour like we did, or even a 12-day photography tour. He’s very well flexible and can include many of your wishes into the programme. He knew how much I wanted to see the giant anteater, so he went out of his way to spot them for us (and we found three!). Plus, he doesn’t charge as much as his competitors like Pantanal Norte.
Even though I didn’t want to go with a private tour, I’m glad we did. Both my travel partner and I are very into photography, so it was great to have the boat to ourselves (so we could sit anywhere for the best shot) and we could adapt the programme as much as we wanted.
For the lodges, Araras Eco Lodge is supposed to be a great lodge – it was actually one of our choices before we booked the tour, but we were too late. Make sure to book it well in advance – it’s such a popular lodge that it’s always fully booked!
During our tour we stayed in North Pantanal Lodge in Porto Jofre, which is great for jaguar spotting. The lodge is wonderful: amazing healthy food, and very good service. You can also book this lodge for a night or two (not within a tour), but they don’t offer bilingual guides.
The last two nights of our tour we spent in Piuval Lodge, which is more of a basic lodge but also nice to stay at. Food is more basic (but plentiful) and the area is really beautiful. It’s a great lodge to spot mammals and birds. We actually even spotted a jaguar with her cub her during our night jeep safari, even though they are rarely seen in this area!
Costs of the northern Pantanal
The Pantanal, particularly the northern Pantanal, is pricey. In fact, it was much more expensive than I had imagined! I thought that it was not going to be so “exclusive” given the infrastructure and the many tourists that go there. But it was expensive. To give you an idea, we paid R$5000 for our 5-day private tour (including transport, accommodation, activities and food). Other quotes we received went up to R$7000.
Lodges aren’t cheap either. At Araras Eco Lodge, for example, you pay around €250 per night. This includes accommodation, food and one activity a day. You’ll also need to pay for transport.
If you want to combine two lodges, for example North Pantanal in Porto Jofre and Piuval, for transport alone you’ll have to spend R$2200 (R$1000 from Cuiabá to Porto Jofre, R$400 from Porto Jofre to Piuval, R$800 from Piuval to Cuiabá). So as you can see, it might be worth to spend a little bit more and have a private tour.
Tip: Tour agencies often give you discount when you pay in cash or bank transfer, as they need to pay a charge for creditcard payments. You can easily take off 10% of the amount by paying in cash. If this is an option for you, make sure to ask about any discount.
What to bring to the northern Pantanal
You’ll be outside a lot, so you’ll have to deal with the elements. Make sure to bring the following:
Protection for the sun, especially on the boat for jaguar spotting: hat, sunglasses, sunscreen.
Mosquito repellent and a shirt with long sleeves: there are sooo many mosquitos.
A fleece jacket if you go in the dry season – it can get quite chilly at night and even during the day when there’s a cold front coming over.
Binoculars; even though you can often get quite close to the animals, they are sometimes further away.
If you’re a photography geek like me: a telelens with a good diafragma (f/2.8 if you can, especially useful for the time before sunset).
Sneakers / trail shoes for hiking and horse-riding (no need for proper hiking boots).
Long-sleeved, light-weighted trousers for hiking (preferably light colours to avoid the mosquitos); jeans or other long trousers for horse-riding (jeans were quite nice – the light hiking trousers are not great for horse-riding as it will irritate your skin).
To give you an idea, I wore shorts, a tshirt, my teva’s and a hat on the boat (for jaguar spotting), and used my windjack during sunrise and sunset (the wind was quite chilly). For the walks, jeep safari and night safari, I wore my light hike trousers, trail shoes, a tshirt or thin long-sleeved shirt, and my fleece during the evenings.