If you’re only vaguely familiar with the Pantanal region of Brazil, that’s understandable—it’s been a tourist destination for less than 15 years. Ricardo Casarin, the guide assigned to us for the Pantanal portion of the trip, told us that the region was originally known for its great sport-fishing, and then in about 2006, fishermen started reported seeing jaguars—jaguars!—along the river banks. There aren’t too many places where you can see those in the wild. Word spread, tourism grew, and today if you Google “Pantanal jaguar tours,” you’ll find plenty of tour operators eager to take you out on the rivers to find the big cats.
National Geographic has a good overview article on the Pantanal, which it calls “Brazil’s best-kept secret.” The Pantanal is an enormous wetland, 10 times the size of Florida’s Everglades. It floods in the rainy season, and most people visit in the dry season—roughly May through September—when it’s more marshy and more accessible. Plus, when the water recedes in the dry season, the wading birds and other wetlands species crowd into the water that remains, which makes the wildlife really concentrated and easy to find. The birds and other wildlife are astounding, including not only jaguars but capybara, anteaters, caiman, and so, so many birds—more than 1,000 species of birds, in fact. (By comparison, there are not quite 1,000 bird species in all of North America.)
Many people get to the Pantanal the way we did: fly into the city of Cuiabá and then drive south, eventually getting on the so-called Transpantaneira Highway, which as you can see from our group photo at left is anything but a highway. It’s about 90 miles of dusty, corrugated dirt road. For the first two nights, we stayed at a lodge at the northern end of the road, where we were surrounded by flat, open, farmland-like terrain that was just teeming with bird life. Glenn had told us what to expect: You’ll stand there with your camera, he said, and when you look around you won’t know where to begin. And he was right.
We spent some time just wandering around shooting on our own, and at other points Glenn, Andy, and Ricardo would round us up and take us to certain places they wanted us to see—most notably a tree in a clearing in the woods, where hyacinth macaws were working on a nest. Hyacinth macaws are stunning blue birds; they’re the world’s biggest parrots and, like most macaws, they’re threatened, partly because of loss of habitat and partly because people capture them illegally and smuggle them out of the country for the pet trade. For me, to be able to stand there in silence with the other photographers and watch these beautiful birds flying in and out of the nest cavity was an incredible privilege, and a high point of the trip.
Below is a slide show with a sampling of the birds we saw at our first lodge. In the next post, I’ll share with you some of the wildlife we saw as we worked our way farther down the Transpantaneira Highway.