The highlight of any visit to western Brazil is the Pantanal, a vast natural paradise that is one of Brazil’s major ecological attractions.
Pristine and biologically rich, the area comprises 230,000 sq km (89,000 sq miles), shared unequally between Brazil, Bolivia, and Paraguay, of seasonally flooded territory, offering a density of tropical wildlife unknown outside Africa. The word Pantanal comes from the Portuguese pântano, meaning swamp or marshland, but the region is in fact an immense alluvial plain, comprising rivers, lakes, grassland, forest, and savanna.
Scarcely populated, the majority of the Pantanal is privately owned (only 135,000 hectares/333,000 acres is national park), and the region’s economy is sustained by extensive cattle farming, agriculture (soy, rice, and corn are grown) and, increasingly, tourism.
It is the concentration, as well as the huge diversity, of wildlife that makes the Pantanal a naturalist’s dream. Similar species are found here as in the Amazon, but owing to the lack of dense vegetation and, in the dry season, the birds and mammals around feeding areas such as watering holes, they are far easier to spot.
The area is home to an estimated 650 bird species, the majority of which are wading. Especially delightful are the 15 wonderfully colorful species of parrot, including the majestic hyacinth macaw – the world’s largest parrot, at 1 meter/3ft long.
The capybara, dog-sized with the blunt snout of a guinea pig, is the world’s largest rodent. Capuchin and howler monkeys can often be seen and heard, and the extraordinary giant anteater, with its long, delicate nose and majestic gait, emerges to feed at dusk. Armadillos, marsh deer, and coatis are other common sights, but you would be extremely lucky to see the elusive jaguar and puma.
Cuiabá, in the center of Mato Grosso, was the west’s first settlement, founded in 1719 by a group of slave-hunters from São Paulo who struck shallow gold and diamond deposits. A century ago, the city found a new resource and acquired fame as a major supplier of exotic feathers to the milliners of Paris. Today, this prosperous city is a major starting point for trips into the Pantanal, and the capital of an immense logging, farming, and mining state. Little of colonial Cuiabá survives, but the cathedral church of Bom Jesus de Lapa has a small adjoining museum of religious artifacts; and the excellent Museu do Indio Marechal Rondon, at the university entrance 10 minutes’ bus ride from the center, shows the artifacts and lifestyle of the Xingu tribes.
The city is currently preparing to host matches during the 2014 FIFA World Cup. A 40,000-seater stadium is being built to replace the existing one. It will also include a shopping mall and convention center.
Entry points for the southern Pantanal in Mato Grosso do Sul, are Corumbá and Campo Grande, the state capital. It began life in 1889, and is still an overgrown cowboy town. The Museu Dom Bosco (Rua Barão do Rio Branco 1843) has interesting Amerindian exhibits and a huge natural-history collection.
Crystal-clear rivers, waterfalls, and caves dot the landscape of the Serra do Bodoquena, and Bonito has become the center of nature tourism in the area. The town is not particularly interesting, but it is a good base from which to explore the natural attractions nearby. Most natural sights are on private land and charge a fee; since many are out of town, it’s best to join an organized tour (note that Bonito is a protected area, and visitor numbers are limited).
Rio da Prata is a stretch of almost transparent water 45 minutes’ drive from Bonito. Most of it is only just over 1 meter (3ft) deep, and floating downstream, brushing against sub-aqua flora, face to face with curious fish, makes you feel as if you are in a giant aquarium. Lift your head up out of the water and you are likely to see capuchin monkeys and toucans in the trees above.
508 Rua General João Severiano da Foseca, Araés, Cuiabá
tel: 65-3322 3174
Fish is Cuiabá’s culinary forte. Piranha may be deadly in the water, but legend has it that in soup, such as the caldo de piranha (piranha broth), they possess aphrodisiac powers. The place to try many of the fascinating freshwater fish found throughout the Pantanal, with interesting side dishes, is Biba's Peixaria.
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