Patanal—The Brazilian Serengeti

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Seasons are important in planning Pantanal travel, and they say that July to November is prime-time for jaguar spotting. More broadly speaking, during the wet season, running January to June, some twothirds of the land is flooded, and road embankments become a refuge for a menagerie of wildlife. This is the season known for its brilliant sunsets and enjoyed particularly by water birds, butterflies, capybaras, and grey-brocket deer. But the best wildlife viewing time is the July to December dry season when flooding recedes, trapping river fish in thousands of ponds, lagoons and oxbows that offer up the feedingfrenzy banquets for birds and beasts, making for guaranteed wildlife sightings. This is also the breeding season for birds—their plumage at its best—and the season when it’s easiest for visitors to travel about by 4×4 transport.

While the Pantanal has World Heritage Site status, nearly 99 percent of the region is privately owned. A few conservationists bought up cattle farms to protect the lands from increasing development and poaching. One of those was Araras-owner Andre Thuronyi (a.k.a. Crocodile Dundy), whose eco-lodge celebrates its 10th anniversary this year.

We never lose sight of the environmental protection our corner of the Pantanal requires,” Thuronyi explains. “Our special projects include monitoring nesting macaws, preserving the giant otters, inhibiting the capture of animal cubs for trade, and educating the local people as to why this is important and how they benefit.”

The excellent bilingual guides, horseback leaders, and kitchen team on the Araras staff seem to have gotten the message. Other new environmental programs now in place include treatments of wastes and effluents and bee-keeping.

Certainly a 3-night stay is the minimum at the Araras Eco Lodge. The all-inclusive price of a 3-night package starts at $1,329 pp dbl, covering airport pickup and return, lodging, all meals, and nature activities with English-speaking naturalist guides. This is a perfect place for a family vacation, and kids 10 and under stay free in their parent’s room. The lodge also offers special interest tours for photographers and birdwatchers; for horseback riders, who want to explore in the most traditional way, tours that include Pantaneira Cowboy Day: riding Pantaneira horses, driving cattle, and sleeping out one night at Bafo da Onca Camp.

add-on: chapada

Chapada dos Guimaraes National Park is the tableland sector of the greater Pantantal region, and while in the area, clients shouldn’t miss its breathtaking sandstone cliffs, canyons and plunging waterfalls. It’s got a lot in common with the desert buttes of Arizona or Utah, with the added beauty of the afternoon parrot show as brilliant red macaws ride the air currents up and down the cliffs. The best seat in the house is Morro dos Ventos restaurant, and the regional home cooking as impressive as the scenery. Right at the edge of the parkland in its own preservation area, where the Eco Park Lodge offers the perfect base for hiking park trails to the Bridal Veil Waterfall (the highest in the park) and to the lodge’s own breathtaking falls with cool pools to swim in below (December to July).

The lodge, nicely designed by the resident-owner, resembles a Mexican hacienda, and its eight rooms have private bath, air conditioning, and verandahs with hammocks. There are grand views from those verandahs and from the pool, as well as from the open-air Teta da Loba restaurant, where simply delicious meals are prepared in a firewood stove. Lodge excursions include the Mirante da Geodesia, the lookout marking the geodesic center of Brazil; the vista of the lowlands below is grand, with the city of Cuiaba in the distance (50 miles). An all-inclusive 4-night package, three nights at Araras Lodge and one night at Eco Park Lodge is priced from $2,019 pp dbl. An even better option: add another night at Eco Park and have time to explore the caves of Nobres and swim with the colorful river fish.

of note

Cuiaba is the air gateway to the Pantanal. Most travel to the Pantanal originates on flights from Sao Paulo or Rio to Cuiaba. However, with nonstop flights available now from the U.S. (Delta Air Lines from Atlanta, American Airlines and TAM from Miami), Brasilia makes an alternate and more direct gateway from/to the U.S., with frequent flight service operating between Brasilia and Cuiaba.