jaguars in the Pantanal – Brazil
Jaguar in Porto Jofre

On the trail of the jaguars in the Pantanal – Brazil

Our trip to see the jaguars in the Pantanal gets off to a good start when my friend Ruth accidentally knocks down the former governor of Mato Grotto state with her backpack at Cuiaba airport. Flailing his arms and unable to catch himself, the man narrowly avoids a fall as his aid grabs hold of him and pulls him upright. The disgruntled governer gives Ruth a murderous stare, completely deaf to her profuse apologies.

“No wonder they don’t invest in tourism”, laughs Julinho – our guide in the Pantanal for the next week, and we love him immediately.

As we leave the city of about a million people, heading south-west, the scenery changes from the urban sprawl to the open farmland, that eventually gives way to the dry savannah, that dominates the northern Pantanal.

The Pantanal, Brazil

Often overshadowed by the popularity of the mighty Amazon in the north, the Pantanal is the true wild heart of Brazil. At 210,000 square kilometres, it is the biggest tropical wetland in the world.

Most of the Pantanal falls within the states of Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso du Sul in Brazil, but as nature knows no political borders, parts of the wetland spread into the neighbouring Bolivia and Paraguay.

In Brazil, the Pantanal is divided in two regions: the Northern and the Southern Pantanal. Parts of the north can be accessed from the city of Cuiaba, and the south is accessible via Campo Grande and Corumba.

Pantanal seasons

Geologically, the Pantanal is the remnant of an ancient inland sea. It is essentially a giant basin surrounded by highlands on all sides. Each year after the torrential rains of the wet season (December to March), the Pantanal floods and becomes largely inaccessible.

As the flood waters subside, slowly draining into the Paraguay River, they leave behind the landscape of interconnected lakes and streams teaming with fish, snails and other aquatic organisms.

Pantanal Wildlife

The rich aquatic prey base attracts an astonishing amount of wildlife. There are 159 species of mammals, 656 species of birds, 53 species of amphibians and 98 species of reptiles living in the Pantanal. This is the highest concentration of wildlife in South America.

The wetland is home to a number of threatened species, like the jaguar, the giant anteater, the giant armadillo, the giant otter, and the world’s largest flying parrot – the Hyacinth macaw. It is truly the land of giants.

Threatened wildlife in the Pantanal

Transpantaneira Highway

Transpantaneira Highway Pantanal
Transpantaneira Highway

We visit in September, in the dry season and spend the first two days exploring the mind-boggling abundance of wildlife along the Transpantaneira Highway. 

The road to nowhere – history of the Transpantaneira

The road was built in the 70’s by the then military government in an attempt to link Cuiaba in the north with Corumba in the south of the Pantanal. But by the time the first leg of the highway was completed, the state of Mato Grosso was divided in two, and the new state of Mato Grosso du Sul was created in the southern part of the region, on the other side of Cuiaba River.

The first government of the new state had its hands full and the construction of the second half of the highway never got off the ground. This is why the Transpantaneira ends abruptly on the riverbank, seemingly in the middle of nowhere.

Pantanal cowboy
Most of the people living in the Pantanal are cattle ranchers

Julinho believes that the government’s failure is a blessing in disguise. Had the Transpantaneira continued all the way to Corumba, it would’ve come too close to the Bolivian border and would have most likely become a drug trafficking highway. Which of course would’ve made jaguar watching on Cuiaba River a very high-risk activity.

Wildlife of Transpantaneira

Today, the Transpantaneira is more than just a road, it is a wildlife watching destination in itself. Driving along, we are stunned by the sheer number of caimans and waterbirds congregating in the roadside marshes.

Hundreds of storks, herons and egrets are feasting on the ‘all-you-can-eat’ aquatic buffet, kingfishers dart for fish like brightly-coloured arrows, and fierce-looking hawks and kites perch in the treetops. A keen birdwatcher will never make it to the end of this road. The amount and the diversity of birds here are almost overwhelming.

It’s not all about the birds, of course. As we drive along, we pass another car, and the driver shares some tips with Julinho in Portugese. We turn the car around and within a few minutes find one of the oddest creatures I have ever seen – a Giant Anteater ambling from one termite mound to the next. 

Further down the road, we stop to give way to a caiman leading her brood of about two dozen mini alligators across the road.

Giant anteater in the northern Pantanal
Giant anteater ambling along the Transpantaneira highway

Pouso Alegre Lodge

I am surprised to learn that most of the Pantanal is privately owned. But the good news is – some of the farms along the Transpantaneira have been converted to eco-lodges. There are 14 lodges in total spread out along the 147-kilometre long highway.

We arrive at the lovely Pouso Alegre lodge (check availability here) in the late afternoon and after a quick rest head out to explore the property and its wild inhabitants. Driving through the woods we spot the Black and Gold howler monkeys, the cheeky Tufted capuchins and the dainty little Azara’s agouties.

The following morning, we get up with the sun and go on a birdwatching walk with Julinho. The birdlife in the Pantanal is spectacular. There are the odd-looking Toco toucans and Chestnut-eared aracaris with their bright, giant beaks; the long-legged Rheas, and the tiny hummingbirds.

Pantanal wildlife - Chestnut-eared aracari
Chestnut-eared aracari in the northern Pantanal

I personally have a soft spot for the parrots, and the Pantanal has plenty of them from the magnificent Hyacinth macaws to Blue-fronted parrots to Monk parakeets.

In the late afternoon, we find a film crew from Terra la Gente – South America’s biggest news channel, set up by a small watering hole. Together we watch the animals emerge from the surrounding forest for an evening drink. First, a Red brocket deer cautiously steps out into the open, then a couple of Aracaris hover down to the pond.

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A loud racket in the trees announces the arrival of the Brown capuchins and soon, one of them wanders over to the waters edge, walking upright on its back legs like a mini human. On the other side of the pond, a very shy Azara’s agouti browses in the reeds, while a giant Jabiru stalk collects material for its nest and carries it in its oversized beak.

Pantanal Wildlife - Crab-eating fox
Crab-eating fox trotting in for an afternoon drink

A pair of Crab-eating foxes comes trotting in across the open savannah and causes a sudden commotion at the pond. Birds squawk and screech, suddenly taking off and the deer darts for cover. But the foxes barely stay long enough to get a quick drink and continue on thier way.

When the sun sets, we watch a tapir wade into the pond and take a long drink as the Milky Way above us twinkles with billions of stars. The night sky in the Pantanal is huge and absolutely magnificent.

Porto Jofre

From Pouso Alegre, we head to our main destination – the jaguar watching capital of the world – Porto Jofre. Lying on the bank of Cuiaba River, The Pantanal Norte Hotel (check availability here) is the primary departure point for the jaguar watching boat safaris.

Tip: Most Pantanal tour operators use the boat safaris offered by the Pantanal Norte Hotel. For more flexibility with your itinerary, book with Julinho at the Pantanal Trackers, who is by far the most ethical tour operator on Cuiaba River and has his own boat.  

Boat safari from Porto Jofre
Boat safari from Porto Jofre

Jaguar facts

  • Jaguar (Panthera onca) is the only big cat in the Americas
  • The range of the jaguar extends from Mexico to Argentina
  • It is the most water-loving big cat. In the Pantanal, the jaguar’s main prey is the caiman – a crocodile-like reptile.
  • Jaguars have incredibly powerful jaws, strong enough to pierce a skull and crack a sea turtle’s shell
  • Like most cats, jaguars are solitary animals that only come together to mate.
  • While mostly nocturnal hunters, in the Pantanal, jaguars are active during the day, which makes the Pantanal the best place in the world to observe them in the wild.
  • Over the last decades, the jaguar lost more than 40 percent of its range across South and Central America. It is now listed as Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List
  • The Amazon and the Pantanal are the last strongholds of the species
  • Jaguars live for 12-15 years in the wild

As soon as we arrive, Julinho gets his boat ready and after a delicious lunch, we leave in search of jaguars. Powering along the river, we pass dozens of caimans lining the riverbank – they are the reason there are so many jaguars here – the river jaguars have developed a taste for the prehistoric reptiles. 

The first jaguars we meet on the river are the two adolescent brothers. Their mother has left them a couple of months ago in the prime piece of real estate along one of the river’s small tributaries.

jaguars in the Pantanal – Brazil - two young brothers
Jaguar brothers in the Pantanal

They look almost fully grown, but when they yawn, I can see their small milk teeth. Julinho, who knows the cats quite well, estimates them to be about 9 months old.

As we watch the brothers snooze on the shady riverbank, Julinho tells us the story of how jaguar tourism began in Porto Jofre.

History of jaguar tourism at Porto Jofre

Twenty years ago, Porto Jofre was a small fishing community. Made accessible by the Transpantaneira highway, the community quickly become popular with recreational fisherman, who would hire small boats at the Hotel Pantanal Norte and spend their days on the river.

Julinho was one of these fishermen, but he was also a certified nature guide in the Pantanal. He noticed that the jaguar sightings on Cuiaba river were more frequent than anywhere else in the Pantanal, and he had an idea to bring tourists here to show them the cats. The trouble was that the cats were hard to track, they would flee at the first sound of the boat’s motor.

jaguars in the pantanal - young jaguar grooming

 

Slowly Julinho started to learn the best strategies for finding and approaching the jaguars while the cats were getting more and more used to the boats. Eventually, in 1999, Julinho brought the first ever tourists to Porto Jofre and successfully showed them the jaguar.

More success followed, and the others clued in on the idea. By 2005 Hotel Pantanal Norte expanded its boat fleet and hired nature guides and boat drivers to cater for the growing interest in jaguar tourism. 

Overcrowding on the river

Sadly, most tour operators who followed in Julinho’s footsteps do not share his respect and affection for the cats. Instead, most are driven by what they perceive their clients’ needs to be.

Today there can be more than a dozen boats congregating around a hunting jaguar. Instead of hanging back and giving the jaguar a chance to catch its prey, many operators race ahead of the cat to give their customers a head-on view of a potential hunt. Ironically, such commotion drastically reduces the jaguar’s chances of sneaking up on its prey and having a successful hunt.

Tourist boats in the Pantanal
Tour boats congregating around the two brothers. In the foreground is Brazil’s legendary wildlife photographer – Mike Bueno

Others, keen to give their customers an up close and personal encounter with a jaguar, get themselves into dangerous situations. Julinho’s frustration is obvious.

“Something bad will happen”, he worries “and the officials will have to come. They will bring a scientist… from Alaska, to teach us how to watch jaguars in the Pantanal”.

But Julinho’s concerns fall on deaf ears. Most tour guides are not local, they don’t have a connection with the land. They simply want to make the tourists happy, so they get to keep their jobs.

Watching Jaguars in the Pantanal

However, despite the challenges, the jaguars are doing well. All of the cats we meet on the river are in good condition, including the sub-adult brothers and an old male that lost an eye in a fight.

We meet the Pirate, as we come to call him, snoozing on a sandy beach. After about 20 minutes of inactivity, most of a dozen or so boats leave to try their luck elsewhere. Only two boats are left – ours and the one carrying the Discovery Channel film crew, who are filming a documentary about the Pantanal jaguars.

As if on cue, the male wakes up and comes down to the water’s edge for a looong, unhurried drink. He drinks for so long, that I get a sunburn while photographing him from the exposed bow of Julinho’s boat.

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While most tourist boats return to the lodge for lunch, we stay on the river and eat our lunch watching sleeping jaguars or forget the lunch completely as we follow a determined female on her search for an unwary prey.

Late one afternoon, we spot the large male that injured the Pirate in the fight. He won that fight for dominance at the cost of a big gash across his mouth, which earned him the name of Boca Cortada – ripped mouth.

There are so many jaguars living within the network of narrow channels and oxbow lakes upriver from Porto Jofre, that I wonder how the local people, known as pantaneiros, make a living here at all.

Living with jaguars

I get my answer when we visit Julinho’s friend Carmindo at his small cattle ranch in the heart of jaguar country. Carmindo’s daughters are visiting from Cuiaba and we get invited to a family BBQ.

House on the Pantanal
Carmindo’s riverside home

I am not sure what we were expecting from a Pantanal BBQ, maybe some stakes and a few sausages, but certainly not an entire cow being carved on a dining table. The rib cage is sizzling merrily on a stone barbecue, while Carmindo, his clothes smeared with blood, is salting a giant pile of meat to preserve it for later.

Surprisingly, jaguars don’t take Carmindo’s cattle even though they frequently visit his farm. His daughter Lizette tells me stories about growing up on the farm when a task as simple as running outside to turn off the generator at night was a high-risk activity because a jaguar could be lurking nearby.

And while Carmindo’s cattle are safe, his chickens and dogs often fall prey to the big cats. I’m gutted to learn that the shy pup who I feed the scraps of my very chewy lunch, is called Perulito – lollipop in Portuguese, hinting at his ‘jaguar food’ destiny.

Giant otters and giant parrots

The river is not all about the jaguars of course. The coolest other creatures we come across are the Giant otters (Pteronura brasiliensis). Growing to 1.7 meters in length, these highly social aquatic mammals are the most entertaining denizens of the Pantanal. They are the most vocal of all otters and seem to exist in the state of constant motion of chasing each other, catching fish and eating fish.

 

Sadly, the Giant otters are one of the most endangered animals in South America. Hunted for their velvety pelts in the 50s and 60s, they are now threaded by habitat destruction and degradation.

The Pantanal is one of the last remaining strongholds of the species. We watch them until the sun begins to set and they retire for the night to their family burrows on the sandy riverbank.

Another endangered giant of the Pantanal is the magnificent Hyacinth macaw – the largest flying parrot in the world. Stunning blue in colour with yellow cheeks and eye rings, these birds are quite a sight. They forage noisily in pairs or small flocks on the fruit of palm trees that grow on the hotel grounds.

Pair of Hyacinth macaws at Hotel Pantanal Norte
Pair of Hyacinth macaws at Hotel Pantanal Norte

Pousada Piuval Lodge

Before we leave the northern Pantanal, we spend a night at the rather luxurious Pousada Piuval (check availability here) – another cattle ranch that has been converted to an eco-lodge. Almost as soon as we arrive, we spot a pair of Blue and yellow macaws – they are nesting in the hollow trunk of a dead palm towering over the swimming pool.

Blue and yellow macaws in the pantanal
Blue and yellow macaws

 

In the late afternoon, we take a canoe ride along a small river on the property. Gliding along the tranquil river we watch dozens of birds settling in for the night in the riverside trees as the glowing orb of the setting sun inches it’s way over the horizon. 

After a week in the Pantanal, we have seen most of the animals we wanted to see, but one creature from our bucket list kept evading us – the Black-tailed marmoset. These tiny monkeys with their Yoda-like faces are more often heard than seen. Growing to all of 18-28 centimetres, they are just too small and too fast.

On our last morning in the northern Pantanal, we get up before the sun and watch a beautiful sunrise reflected in the still water of the river. And on the way back to the lodge we strike gold – a small group of marmosets in the high branches of a tree.

Wildlife of the Pantanal - Black-tailed marmoset
Black-tailed marmoset

 

By the end of the trip, we have seen so many different faces of the northern Pantanal. We drove along the only road that transects it, sped through it in a boat, and explored it in canoes, we swam in the river and fished piranhas for dinner; we watched the Milky way rise at night and the sun in the morning. The very last thing we do here is take a scenic flight with Julinho (yes, the man is also a pilot!) in a small 4-seater plane from Pocone.

From 1800 meters we get a different perspective of the epic wetland. Cropped by the orange patches of the encroaching farmland near Pocone, the green sea of the Pantanal seems to stretch on forever below us. And I feel a mix of worry and hope for this incredible world where wildlife and people are still able to co-exist.

Cuiaba River near Porto Jofre
Pantanal from above
Farewell Pantanal

Pantanal itinerary at a glance

Closest Airport

Cuiaba

When to visit

July to September are the best months for spotting jaguars

Itinerary

  • Pouso Alegre – two nights
  • Porto Jofre – 4 nights
  • Pousada Piuval – 1 night

Tour provider

Pantanal Trackers

Cost

USD $1500 per person (triple occupancy). Plus the scenic flight with Julinho for USD $105 person

Packing tips

  • The average day temperature on the river is about 40 degrees Centigrade, so you will be wise to pack a few things to help you deal with the heat.
  • Reusable water bottle – to save using disposable plastic cups on the river. Most tourist attractions in Brazil are set up with free filtered water tanks, where you can refill your bottle.
  • Sunglasses
  • Hat
  • Sunscreen
  • Strong insect repellent – while mosquitoes are annoying, it is the horse flies that are the real issue
  • Long sleeve shirt for early mornings and late afternoons – it gets quite cool speeding along the river on the way home when the sun has almost set

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On the trail of the jaguars in the Pantanal Brazil #pantanalwildlife #wildbrazil #animals
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28 Comments

  • Omg your photos are incredible! I’ve never heard of this area but all the animals look so cool. I could watch that video of the otters all day! I’m surprised this tour only cost $1500 – from reading your post I though I could never afford to go to this place, but that price isn’t too bad.

    • Thank you Taryn! I was in love with the otters the moment I saw them. You just can’t tear yourself away from them. They are so active and curious and incredibly endearing. And yes, the cost was very reasonable for a group of 3 people. The lion’s share went to cover accommodation costs at the lodges (even though we stayed in triple rooms everywhere).

  • I’m in complete awe. What an amazing opportunity. I’ve been in love with Jaguars since studying them in grade 6. They are such majestic creatures. I feel like I would have cried (from joy) if I ever saw one in the wild. It’s surprising how relatively inexpensive the cost of the trip was!

    • I definitely shed a tear or two watching the jaguars. They are absolutely amazing cats and being so close to them, watching them go about their day is such a privilege. I couldn’t recommend visiting the Pantanal highly enough. It is such a magical place! And exploring it with Julinho from Pantanal Trackers is the best way of doing it. He is so passionate about the place, it shines through.

  • What a fantastic experience! Your photos are absolutely stunning. This is a place that is on my bucket list and I hope to make it there someday, thanks for sharing your tips on how to visit the Pantanal. I thought it would be a lot more expensive to get to the area but it actually seems fairly reasonably priced.

  • Amazing! What wonderful experiences, and amazing animals everywhere! (I love the video of the caimans!) Great to know there is a least one ethical boat operator taking tourists to see the jaguars, and I hope some regulation occurs to prevent it getting any worse.

    • Yes, I hope so too. It is getting a little too crowded. Thankfully, there is so much prey on the river that even despite the crowds, the jaguars are doing well. If that changes, the cat will hunt more and more at night and nobody will see them.

  • Holy the Pantanal looks INCREDIBLE! I’m a little animal obsessed and have been to Africa a few times but always forget that South America has big cats too. I’ve seen cheetahs (baby cheetahs are the best thing ever!), leopards, lions, servals, genets and other cats but never jaguars … Pantanal is duly added to the bucket list! Plus I adore otters. We have them in the city here in Singapore and they are so cute and cheeky.

    • Wow! Otters in the city? Where is a good place to see them? In all my wildlife watching travels, I don’t get to see many otters. Yet they are probably the most fun animals to watch.

  • First of all, your pictures are Amazing! It must have been such an incredible experience to witness nature like that. I hope to be able to visit when I go to South America next year!! This post was incredibly informative, thank you :)

  • Oh my, those Jaguars are just magnificent! I love Otters and had never even heard of Giant Otters! Your photos are wonderful and make me want to go there!

  • Wow! I actually felt like I was on this adventure, your photos were great! So many animals, that Jaguar was stunning! I just can’t get over all the different species you can see!

  • This post is simply stunning! You have so many gorgeous photos of the wildlife!

    Eep at the video walking with the caimans! Was that not pretty scary!? And I love all the bird and stunning birdy photos!

    It’s sad to hear about the jaguar tourism. How did you find your amazing guide? If we ever head there I’d far prefer to pay a local person that really cares about the cats…

  • Loved, absolutely loved every single picture and the detailed itinerary! Even though Jaguars seem to be main attraction of the place, I lost my heart to the cute otter! I am from Bengal BTW, the home of Royal Bengal Tigers :P I am sure to visit this place someday!

    • Awww the otters continue conquering the hearts :). They are the most adorable creatures on the river. They always appear as a group, craning their necks out of the water to have a look at you. And once they see that you pose no danger, they carry on as if you are not there.

  • What an amazing experience! Your photos are gorgeous, I loved each of them. I’d love to go and do this, but I do hope that they limit the tourism… and leave it to the locals who love and respect the animals. Great post!

  • Oh my god, I had no idea this place existed! It’s so upsetting to see the tour guides that don’t respect the wildlife, I hope the animals still continue to thrive regardless.
    Oh and I can’t believe how the caimans ran away, who knew! I’ll feel bad anytime I meet someone back home in Texas wearing cowboy boots made out of them :(
    Well, Thanks again for the great travel inspiration…I just got a two year visa for Brazil that I’ll need to put to use…

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