The Jabiru Stork is tall, stately, and majestic;
until, that is, you notice its upward curved beak.
Then it looks quite comical.
If you’d like to experience this sidesplitting feathered friend up close, you’ll need to travel to the largest wetland on the planet, the Pantanal, which stretches across the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso. The Amazon usually gets the lion’s share of praise (before you get too excited, keep in mind that there are no lions in South America), but if you wish to view animals in their natural habitat with a 100% chance of success, this is the region you should be traveling to.
During the dry winter season of June through October, the waterholes shrink in number and size, making the animals to come out of hiding from the more remote sections of the wetlands. On the other hand, the rainy season of November through March makes for a lush landscape, but this is also when the region could sometimes only be accessible by boats and airplanes. This is the time when we visited the region and although the low-lying flooded areas made for some interesting driving experience, we thankfully never once got stranded.
Exploring the Pantanal
First off, let’s be quite clear that public transportation is non-existent in the Pantanal. This narrows down the modes of travel to basically three: rental car, boat, and airplane. We are a great proponent of the first, but that has as much to do with our love for driving and independent family travel in all regions challenging. If you decide on renting a car, it goes without saying that you should be sure to fill up your gas tanks as often as you can.
What's to See
Many endemic animals exist in the Pantanal, and since the place is always teeming with life, you generally don’t need to make an extra effort or even be lucky to spot most of them on a regular basis. We were there for just a couple of days, yet the family was able to spot anaconda, armadillo, capybara, monkey, wild boar, rhea, marsh deer, tapir, caiman, and of course, many species of birds. With some luck, you should also be able to see giant anteater, jaguar, giant otter, and many other interesting ones. Piranha fishing is another activity you could do here, but a word of warning: you’ll meet stiff competition from the ubiquitous caimans, who’ll make every effort to snatch those sharp-toothed fishes right out of your fishing rod before you’ve harvested your catchendemic animals exist in the Pantanal, and since the place is always teeming with life, you generally don’t need to make an extra effort or even be lucky to spot most of them on a regular basis. We were there for just a couple of days, yet the family was able to spot anaconda, armadillo, capybara, monkey, wild boar, rhea, marsh deer, tapir, caiman, and of course, many species of birds. With some luck, you should also be able to see giant anteater, jaguar, giant otter, and many other interesting ones. Piranha fishing is another activity you could do here, but a word of warning: you’ll meet stiff competition from the ubiquitous caimans, who’ll make every effort to snatch those sharp-toothed fishes right out of your fishing rod before you’ve harvested your catch.
Record books say they’re the tallest flying birds of South and Central America. The stork, which IUCN categorized as near threatened until 1988, is now a common sight in Pantanal in the Mato Grosso region. In fact, their appearance is a welcome break from the intense eye-catching greenery of the region. And if you can see the jabiru storks in flight, you’ll surely be awed when you see the effortless flying of those giant wings.
The rhea is a species of flightless bird native to South America most closely related to the ostrich (in Africa) and the emu (in Australia). Ornithologists have confirmed that all three species are genetically related, with a common ancestor existing sometime before the onset of continental drift. The rhea is the largest bird species in the western hemisphere, and although listed as near threatened, they appear to be quite prolific in the wetlands of Pantanal, in the Mato Grosso region of Brazil.
While always wary of camouflaged caimans that lurk in the marshland, for now, the members of this capybara family continue to roam freely. The capybara is the largest rodent in the world and is about as big as a large dog. They're quite docile though, and when annoyed, which was pretty much every time we approached to take a good look at one, emanate a shrill but short sound, the tone of which almost makes you feel sorry for these animals. They are strong swimmers, and they have excellent adaptations for life in the marshland.
Besides Brazil, the marsh deer (Blastocerus dichotomus) is found in some of the other South American countries, although the risk of poaching has been one of the highest in this Pantanal region. Beyond hunting, there are the other usual threats like loss of habitats and pollution of their water sources. This deer startled us as he emerged from the bushes, and then ran off to a distance, but wary, he turned around to ogle his intruders. Spotting a marsh deer depends on a number of factors, including the time of the year, the water level in the wetland, and of course, luck.
If there’s one animal you can be sure to encounter here, it is the caiman, camouflaging in the marshland to trick its prey, often unsuccessfully, like this one caught in dead branches and leaves. In fact, you’ll have to work hard not to run over these animals especially in the early morning and late evening, when they seem to find an excuse to just hang out smack in the middle of the road, to lurk under every bridge and bush, basking in the sun with wide open mouths. When we visited the region, the rain had just abetted and with lots of places to soak and lesser areas to bask, they were often crossing the roads or lying motionless, usually with mouths wide open. Pro tip: concentrated and not scattered or impassable like the Amazon, we suspect that most would enjoy this place more, especially independent families traveling with kids..
They’re literally everywhere, but they’re generally shy, so approaching one by foot would make it quickly get inside the water. It’s a good idea, however, not to take your chances by approaching them too closely, since their primary job seems to be to ambush the unwary capybara. Although it’s not very common, if you aren’t careful enough there’s a remote chance you just might get your feet caught in one of their snares. If you look towards the marshes but can’t spot them right away, look again. We can guarantee you that a significant number of those tree branches or misshapen rocks that you passed on the way were in fact submerged caimans lying in wait for their next meal. Although not currently endangered, they didn’t quite get the royal treatment from us, millions of them being hunted at one point for their skin to be used for crocodile leather, causing their population to decrease significantly. Unless you visit the Amazon, your best hope to see the caiman from such close proximity is in the Pantanal. Here, they are a protected species, thanks to efforts led by conservationists. If you decide to stick around until dusk, try to train your eyes across the horizon towards the wetland, and you’ll be treated to a mesmerizing sight. What at first might seem to you tiny glowing stars gently bobbing against the dark water would in fact be the lights reflecting off myriads of croc eyes.