Patanal—The Brazilian Serengeti

brazilian serengeti

Borrowing from the words of William Shakespeare, “All the world’s a stage,” travelers looking for an outdoor theater carrying showings of the greatest concentration of wildlife in the Western hemisphere should book a ticket to the Pantanal region in southwestern Brazil. Specifically, animal-viewing performances take place across 50,000 sq. miles of vast grassy lowlands of the Brazilian states of Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul, and every seat in the house is front row center.

You’re going to love the cast of characters: some 100 species of mammals, 177 reptiles and more than 600 bird species (compared to 500 in all of Europe), including such lead actors as capybaras—think a 140-pound guinea pig; Brazil’s largest birds, the greater rhea—standing four ft. tall and costumed like a gray ostrich—and the jabiru stork, feathered up in white, red and black; the endangered Hyacinth macaw, glamour bird of the show and the world’s biggest parrot; crusty looking caimans, cousins of the alligator that measure seven ft. from snout to tail; and the Pantanal jaguar, everyone’s favorite dramatic lead. Supporting actors making more than guest appearances are giant anteaters, peccaries, marsh deer (the largest in South America), five monkey species, ring-tailed coatis, tapirs, pumas and ocelots. Yes, it all adds up to one of the greatest natural shows on earth.

The Pantanal lives in the shadow of Amazonia, its mammoth neighbor to the north whose dense rainforest canopy can make wildlife spotting difficult. Not so in Brazil’s Pantanal, roughly the size of Oregon and at least 20 times larger than the Florida Everglades. This is the largest freshwater wetland in the world (also embracing parts of Bolivia and Paraguay), and its wide-open spaces offer an easy-to-view fauna panorama comparable to a safari in East Africa—minus the super-luxury lodges. However, on a recent visit, we were guests at the Araras Eco Lodge, which to our mind is just the right kind of place to hang one’s broad-brimmed sombrero and essential binoculars.

Sitting on a 6,670-acre private-reserve ranchland and built in the traditional Pantaneira farm style, the lodge has 19 large, comfortable rooms that come with air conditioning, a ceiling fan, screened windows, twin beds, lots of storage space and big bathrooms with hot and cold showers. Rooms open onto a covered verandah with easy chair and hammock. Depending on the weather, guests dine buffetstyle outdoors or indoors in the dining room-bar on simple, tasty, imaginative and plentiful food, prepared with organic produce direct from the farm’s orchards and gardens or purchased (outstanding local fish included) from nearby suppliers. Guest facilities also include a pool and three observation towers within walking distance of the lodge for viewing birds and beasts at dawn and dusk.

where the wild things are

Consider day #1. It’s a 3-hour drive from Cuiaba, airport gateway to Mato Grosso, to one of the most amazing stretches of road anywhere: the Transpantaneira highway, a dirt-road running 90 miles from Pocone to Porto Jofre.

The Transpantaneira starts in the picturesque colonial town of Pocone, where you roll onto a rather high dirt levee that becomes a linear wildlife refuge, almost a national park itself. It’s paralleled by watery channels that attract countless birds and beasts, and linked by 126 rickety bridges that span piranha-infested streams. You drive slowly, for clusters of capybara rest mid-road, caiman share watering holes with myriads of herons and kingfishers, rheas graze next to herds of zebu cows, and clouds of bright pink spoonbills drift by overhead. And on any one of the road’s 126 wooden bridges, families and friends gather to fish, chat, and picnic.

And we haven’t even reached the Araras Eco Lodge, which lies not far off the roadway.

Following check-in and sitting on our verandah sipping a cool caipirinha cocktail, we spot two endangered, hard-to-find blue hyacinth macaw pairs arguing right up in the tree, while a capybara family forages around the lawn. Come sunset, the howler monkeys are out in full force, and it’s time for the evening briefing on plans for the next dayand- a-half. Those include a boardwalk hike to the observation tower to catch the sunrise avian frenzy, playing cowgirl on a horseback ride through the marshes, and a late-afternoon canoe trip on the river. This editor’s paddle partner is a shy 11- year-old girl, here with her parents. We exchange lists of critters we had seen and hers included a jaguar passing right across the Transpantaneira. Oh well, she’d been there four days.