The seemingly unremarkable thoroughfare of diesel and dust bolts out of Poconé, Brazil, a town so small the locals joke, "Even the restaurants close for lunch!," like an unpaved road to nowhere. Our VW van spits gravel left and right as we breech the beginning of the Transpantaneira Highway, marked by a rickety and rustic Old Corral-style archway announcing the start of this 145km-long raised dirt road that penetrates deep into the Pantanal to Porto Jofre, an end-of-the-road hamlet where nature and man collide in rustic jungle camps and a wildlife lodge or two. My eyes are on the lookout for the prize: Jaguars.
But it would not be this most elusive and beautiful of jungle cats that would end up leaving the longest-lasting impression; in fact, in a half-dozen visits to the Pantanal over a decade of travel, I have never seen one. Fellow travelers visit once for a day and see three. Nature: An untamable beast! But I don't mind. Anyone who has had the opportunity to visit the Pantanal, the world's largest contiguous wetland, should count themselves among the privileged regardless. Anyone who has not should consider an immediate detour.
The Pantanal is in simplest terms a massive swamp. It's more than half the size of France and 20 times that of the Florida Everglades; an enormous floodplain that inundates portions of three countries - Brazil, Paraguay, and Bolivia - like clockwork six months of every year; a beautiful quagmire that is home to one-third of Brazil's abundant bird population and enough fascinating animals - jaguars, caiman, anacondas, giant river otters, capybaras - to dizzy even the most fervent naturalist; a captivating alluvial plain that, sadly, is one of the most fragile and endangered ecosystems on the planet.
Though the Amazon is more the subject of bucket lists and Hollywood allure, but it is actually the Pantanal where you can much more easily get up close and personal with wildlife. The numbers are startling: over 300 species of mammals, upwards of 1000 species of birds, 480 species of reptiles, 400 species of fish (including scores of vicious piranhas). Due to its topography -- wide-open fields free of large trees and foliage -- it easily trumps the Amazon for spotting mammals and birds.
"The Pantanal is the last stronghold for some of the continent's most endangered and important flagship species such as jaguar, marsh deer, Hyacinth macaws, giant river otters, giant anteaters, tapirs, Jabiru storks and more," says Russ Mittermeier, Executive Vice-Chair of Conservation International and author of the Bible on the region, Pantanal: South America's Wetland Jewel. "The Pantanal, quite simply, is the best place in South America to view wildlife."
So here we are barreling down this dirt road through one of Earth's richest wildlife refuges, crossing one rickety bridge after another (there are 125 small wooden bridges traversing the swampy ground along the Transpantaneira), when I yell to my guide and driver, Ailton Lara, "Pare!" ("Stop" in Portuguese). Not but a few kilometers in, everywhere I look, there are caiman (South American crocodiles) alongside the road. Hundreds. And then the families of capybara's, the largest (and undoubtedly the cutest) rodents on earth, which cheekily turn their backsides to us as we pass by. Then, off in the distance, a head-bobbing tuiuiú (Jabiru stork), the symbol of the Pantanal, hems and haws across the horizon. Overheard, flybys of gaggles of birds I'd only seen previously on cereal boxes or in cartoons – toucans over there, macaws over here. And all of this within the first 30 minutes or so of a ride in which our vehicle did nothing remarkable other than drive the road.
Little did I know, by the time we would reach Porto Jofre around sunset, I would actually be tired of both caiman and capybara, having stopped counting how many we gawked at around the 10th bridge. "Look," Lara would yell. "A family of seven capybara!" "Been there, done that," I would laugh, shocked at my own realization that something so exotic could be such old news to me due to nothing other than short order overexposure. Though I have long forgotten about not spotting a jaguar, this surprising sentiment has stayed with me forever.
But that is the Pantanal: Impossibly green, thoroughly wild, endlessly gorgeous and brimming with so much wildlife, you might actually get tired of it!
Kevin Raub is a Portugal-based travel and entertainment journalist and well-known Brazilianist. He has co-written over 40 Lonely Planet travel guides around the Americas and the Indian subcontinent; and has contribted to Travel+Leisure, Condé Nast Traveller, Robb Report, New York Times T Magazine, Departures, Town & Country, American Way (American Airlines), and Rhapsody (United Airlines), among others, while pounding the world’s pavements in 81 countries. Follow Kevin's adventures @RaubOnTheRoad on Instagram and Twitter.
Interested in exploring the Pantanal yourself? Why not let our expert guides lead you on an Adventure in Brazil's Pantanal & Amazon, which includes incredible wildlife encounters!