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  • Writer's pictureMarion Marquardt

The route to the Pantanal - the world's largest flood plain and its exuberant wildlife

Updated: Nov 29, 2022

The route is the goal - we discover beautiful places along the way in southern Brazil
Brazil's hospitality is outstanding - we feel welcome everywhere
Bumpy tracks and dilapidated bridges - the Transpantaneira is an endurance test for driver and car
Colorful macaws, cute capybaras, anacondas and countless caimans - wilflife couldn't be more diverse
Mangoes, papayas, bananas and other tropical fruits to pick - we feel like we're in the land of milk and honey

We are heading off to Brazil. Actually, we had planned to drive south directly from Uruguay. However, it was still quite cold there in September, and the winter climate in Tierra del Fuego is said to be a lot harder. So let's go north first. Our destination: the Pantanal, the largest inland wetland on earth. With its many freshwater lakes, numerous rivers and the Rio Paraguai as the main river, a species-rich wetland has developed. An area that is not very easily accessible. There are only a few roads and they are... well, you'll read it. But now from the beginning.

We start from Punto del Diablo, our last stop on the Uruguayan coast. From there it is 2,658 km to Cuiabá, around 38 hours driving time according to Google Maps. That's going to be hard. We don't know the road conditions and plan generously with 10 days of driving. And Cuiabá isn't even the final destination. From there it is another 105 km to Poconé, to the start of the Transpantaneira. The Transpantaneira is the only road that leads into the Pantanal, from Poconé 145 kilometers to Porto Jofre. There it ends at the Rio Sao Lourenço, an impressively large river. We want to get to that point in order to immerse ourselves as deeply as possible in this special world.

On our first day of driving, we first have to master the border crossing to Brazil. And that is also our first border in South America with Hugo. First we just drive through. To be honest, that's not a problem at all, nobody cares. There are buildings to the left and right, the road however is open. But wait a minute – we need exit and entry papers. Not only for us, but also for the car. So back to the Uruguayan side. We ask our way through. First of all, our passports are stamped at the migration. Then our TIP is processed. (Editor's note: a customs document, the so-called Titulo de Importación de Vehiculos, with which we undertake to re-export the vehicle within a fixed period of time). Our car could have stayed in Uruguay for 1 year. In Brazil it is only 3 months. Fits loose. We are not allowed to stay longer without a visa. On the Brazilian side we repeat the procedure for entry. Sounds pretty easy. It is, too, if you find the appropriate counters and the officials have time. The Brazilians had to finish watching their telenovela before it was our turn. But of course, we were treated very friendly and courteously, not many tourists cross the border here.

Now it's time to go to a supermarket. Before the border crossing we attempted to have our fridge fairly empty. Again and again one hears that the vehicles are searched by customs and fruit, vegetables and meat are confiscated. We're lucky and nobody cares about our cargo. Well, groceries are much cheaper in Brazil than in Uruguay anyway. Finally we can stock up on chocolate, body lotion etc. again! And the selection of fruit is also huge, so we pack all kinds of tropical fruits such as mamão, dragon fruit, etc.

Then we drive the rest of the day until sunset. After our first mishap with the rear box in Uruguay, we decided not to drive in the dark anymore. Many locals also advise us to do this - even if they don't stick to it themselves. But it definitely makes sense. At least in every village there are these nasty speed bumps. Sometimes announced with signs, sometimes not. And then animals on the road, dead or alive. So we try to find a campsite in time before sunset. This is not that easy, because the infrastructure of "campsites" in Brazil is not always designed for vehicles. With the last twilight we roll onto Camping Chácara do Forte in Caçapava do Sul. What a stroke of luck! The terrain is huge, horses and cows are all around us and we have a magical view. The hosts are super friendly and since we only stay one night without needing electricity, water etc. they don't charge anything from us. Fabulous!

Campingplatz Chácara do Forte in Caçapava do Sul Brasilien Marion Michael Marquardt Übernachten Park for Night
Camping Chácara do Forte in Caçapava do Sul

The next day we continue early in the morning. We hope to cover a little more distance than the day before. At least we don't have a border crossing ahead of us today. But the roads keep getting worse. You can hardly drive faster than 60 km/h and often not even that. There are a lot of trucks on the road and uphill we follow them at a snail's pace. Overtaking is often difficult or dangerous, which of course doesn't mean that the Brazilians don't do it. Also on this day we don't manage much more than 500 km and again our accommodation is a jewel. We stay at the Ecoturismo ArLivre in Anchieta. The area is a bit higher and we have a view of a lush green hilly landscape as far as the eye can see, absolutely phenomenal at sunset. At the Ecoturismo we can also have dinner and taste the local homemade specialties at very reasonable prices. There is a sausage and cheese platter, for Micha a meat dish, plus an organic wine. Everything very tasty. However, you will look in vain for fresh vegetables and fruit on the menu. That will still accompany us in Brazil, the main meal is and will always be meat. And of course lots of sweets.

A highlight of the trip was our acquaintance with Paulo and Rita. We were just checking the oil level at a rest stop when he started talking to us. Speaking of which, it is not easy to start a conversation in Brazil, because almost no one speaks English or any language other than Portuguese. Originally from Portugal, Paulo has lived in Brazil for over 20 years and speaks excellent English. And he worked as a guide in the Pantanal for 3 years. How cool is that? The two take the time for a coffee together at the service area and we pick up countless insider tips. Including an invitation to their home. Paulo lives on the southern edge of the Pantanal, in Aquidauana, which is also where we want to go. First of all, we are heading to the north. Of course, we gladly accept the invitation on the way back. We exchange phone numbers and get numerous recommendations and contacts for the northern Pantanal as we continue our journey.

This evening, too, we find of a beautiful campsite on a river. It's Sunday and the square is besieged by Brazilians who are loudly partying with their boomboxes on the bank. Oh my god! We actually wanted quiet. However, we have often heard that South Americans have quite little understanding of rest and relaxation of others, especially on the weekends. They party non-stop. In that case, thank God, the pack disappears at sunset and quiet actually returns. However, with the night come the mosquitoes. The climate is now quite tropical, we are near Rio Verde, in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul. The next day we cover ourselves directly with mosquito repellent. With the hard stuff, of course - the local mosquitoes probably laugh at Autan. This not only protects against unpleasant bites, but also against extremely nasty diseases such as dengue fever.

Rio Verde Brasilien Campingplatz baden Marion und Michael Marquardt Camping
A first touch of jungle at Rio Verde

We decide to take a slightly shorter driving day to see a particularly beautiful waterfall, the Cachoeira da Fumaça, on Paulo's recommendation. There are supposed to be one or two campsites nearby. We try to reach the waterfall but in vain. Everything beyond the street is fenced off and marked with prohibition signs. Not a trace of hiking trails or beaten paths. After almost two hours we give up. Let's drive to the campsite. It should also have access to the river. But that also was a fallacy... One campsite is only designed for tents (Editor's note: Although our car is really not big at almost 6m in length and very suitable for off-road use, the campsite was simply inaccessible to us), the other no longer existed. When we ask on the street, the nice woman advises us against wild camping, since it is very dangerous to stand in public places. We look at her helplessly and ask for an alternative for NOW. The sun is already going down. After a short phone call, she packs her two babies into the car telling us to follow her. We are brought to her friends, Sonia and João, who have their own camper and a large garden near Jaciara. We can stay overnight there. We are so warmly welcomed. The two even have private river access and we can have a swim in the evening light! So unexpected and so touching. In the evening the whole family is there, with kith and kin, and greets us. The next morning we are only allowed to leave after we have taken a selfie and exchanged contact details. And grandma gives us the blessing of God along the way. Can't hurt :-)

In the meantime it is only about 5 hours drive to the Transpantaneira. We can hardly wait. In Cuiabá, the last big city, we fill up all our supplies before we head into the jungle. With a full fridge, 200 liters of diesel and 110 liters of water on board, we set off on the road to Porto Jofre. However, "road" is a matter of view - it is a bumpy sand track with 127 wooden bridges, some of which are quite adventurous and have to be repaired regularly. This usually only happens when it is already too late. For some bridges there is a bypass, which logically only works in the dry season. And that's still in September, thank God. At this point we are happy to have a vehicle (fully loaded) with a total weight of less than 4 tons. Some bridges are said to be passable up to a maximum of 5 tons. To see what can happen, all you have to do is "google".

Eine der 127 Brücken der Transpantaneira Pocone Porto Jofre Jaguar Safari Bootstour Angeln Pantanal
One of the 127 brigdes of the Transpantaneira

Did you know, the Pantanal is not a swamp, as the literal translation might suggest, but a land of flooding? The reason for this is the very low gradient of the Rio Paraguai, which supplies the Pantanal with water and also drains it. The water that flows from the northern highlands into the Pantanal Basin during the rainy season can only very slowly leave it in a southerly direction. As a result, from around December to March around two-thirds of the area is sometimes several meters deep under water. The rest of the time, however, it is very dry here, so that there are even frequent forest fires. The Pantanal in the dry and rainy seasons are two different worlds. In the dry season you can watch the animals very well at the few remaining water holes or on the river bank.

And already on the first kilometers of the Transpantaneira we discover the exuberant diversity of species. We have never seen so many different birds in one place. There are said to be around 650 different bird species and it is believed that not all of them have even been discovered. And at every bridge you can see the caimans lying around. In between there are often capybaras, South American water pigs. Don't they look cute?

Capybaras und Kaiman Porto Jofre Pocone Transpantaneira Brasilien Pantanal Jaguar Tour Tier Safari
Capybara and Kaiman - whos hunting whom?

However, the largest rodents in the world need not be afraid of caimans, they usually eat fish or amphibians. And they also don't seem to attack humans. We'd rather not try it. The teeth look scary.

Kaimane Transpantaneira, Porto Jofre Pocone Cuiaba, Pantanal Safari Jaguare Tiere beobachten Sumpf
A delight for every dentist

Rosalöffler Pantanal Porto Jofre Pocone Safari Jaguar Tour Brasilien Highlights
The roseate spoonbill - a real phenomenon in the Pantanal

On the first day we only drive about 30 km along the Transpantaneira. We're not making a lot of way. We keep stopping for photos and wildlife viewing. And the road itself also prevents rapid progress. We sneak along at about 20 km/h. The track is so bumpy and dusty that we don't want to do more to ourselves and our car. The locals are different. They speed along at what feels like 80 km/h and often have an adventurous load. Well, later we learn that the tour operators usually renew their fleet every 2 years. Of course we don't want that :-)

We check into the Pousada UeSo Pantanal - a 28 km² ranch owned by Swiss. Here we even meet German and English speaking guides. There are also a number of hiking trails, lakes and two 17m high observation towers on site which offer great views. When we arrive it is – as usual – just before sunset. Time for a quick observation tour in the last evening light. And we actually discover hyacinth macaws. It is the largest macaw capable of flying and the symbol of the Pantanal with its bright blue plumage. A real beauty. Unfortunately, with around 4000 specimens worldwide, it is an endangered species. Here in the Pantanal, however, they often flutter around us. And also a toucan and many other colorful birds are on the ranch in the evenings. A magical place. So we decide to stay another night here. We use the "day off" for animal observations at sunrise and sunset and relax a bit in the hammock from the stressful days of driving.

Pousada UeSo Pantanal Victoria Porto Jofre Pocone Jaguar Safari Transpantaneira, Tiere beobachten Highlights Brasilien Must See
A real highlight - Pousada UeSo Pantanal

Pousada UeSo Pantanal Victoria Porto Jofre Pocone Jaguar Safari Transpantaneira, Tiere beobachten Highlights Brasilien Must See
Well-deserved power nap after the stressful days of driving

Pousada UeSo Pantanal Victoria Porto Jofre Pocone Jaguar Safari Transpantaneira, Tiere beobachten Highlights Brasilien Must See Gelbbrustaras Ara Papagei
Yellow-breasted Macaw - a real highlight

Hyazinth Aras Pantanal Brasilien Transpantaneira Highlights Safari Jaguartour Porto Jofre Pocone Papageien
The rare Hyacinth Macaw is an endangered species

Tukan, Transpantaneira Porto Jofre Pocone Pantanal Safari Vögel beobachten Highlights Brasilien Jaguar Tour
Toucans migrate to Argentina at this time of year, but we found one

And then we continue to Porto Jofre where we want to take a boat tour to see jaguars. We are excited! On our way to Porto Jofre we even saw an anaconda. To be more precise, a yellow anaconda, which with a maximum of 5 meters and a body weight of almost 60 kg is somewhat inferior to the "big anaconda" from the Amazon. But still an impressive discovery, which is not seen too often. Ours was a junior specimen at around 2 meters.

Die gelbe Anakonda Pantanal Brasilien Transpantaneira Porto Jofre Pocone Jaguar Safari Tiere beobachten Schlange Wildnis
The yellow anaconda is usually scarce

Die gelbe Anakonda Pantanal Brasilien Transpantaneira Porto Jofre Pocone Jaguar SafarinTiere beobachten Schlange Wildnis Highlights Brasilien

You might be interested in how...

... we find our places to stay: We usually use the iOverlander app. This is a database where many overland travelers enter their accommodations, be it on official or unofficial campsite or even wild, away from designated pitches. However, the latter is in Brazil usually too unsafe for us, and even the locals advise against it. If we don't find anything, we'll ask our way through. And that's usually how the best experiences come about, such as with Sonia and João. Here you can see how essential communication is in South America.

... we communicate. Unfortunately, almost no one in Brazil speaks English or any language other than Portuguese. Our Italian, French and Spanish don't really help either, because the language is just too different. You can still guess some things in what is written, but at the latest when you speak, you do understand nothing. The Portuguese usually don't care, they just chatter away happily. Sometimes it works with hands and feet, often only the Google Translator helps. Luckily, that there is an offline function. Mobile phone signal is rare far away from cities. In fact, I think it's a shame that we can only communicate so poorly and hesitantly, because that's what the experience of a country is all about. But there is always a lot of laughter.

... we navigate. If we have mobile phone signal, with Google Maps. But... as I said, the mobile network has more holes than Emmental cheese. Otherwise we try offline maps from openstreetmaps and corresponding apps. However, we are not really happy about the functionality. And no matter which app, the maps have their limits, the reality often looks different. Here we are again with the communication :-)

... we can cope with the Brazilian climate. In the beginning it took some time to acclimate from the dry 15 degrees in Uruguay to the subtropical 35-45 degrees. But of course it helps to slowly change climate zones by car. In the meantime we have settled in quite well. We usually get up with the sunrise and are in bed early (around 9 p.m.) - all windows in the camper open, only mosquito screens on, the fan working continuously. A family pack of mosquito repellent is our constant companion. And lots of drinking - we love coconut water.

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