We went to Brazil! And it was really fabulous in all aspects.
I can’t wait for the summer of 2020 when I return in order to share, as a guide for Backcountry Journeys, the wonderful Pantanal region with our guests.
Our inaugural Backcountry Journeys adventure to find and photograph the jaguars of Brazil’s Pantanal seems like a long way off. I’m too excited to wait, so I’ll share right here, in this blog space, what we experienced on this trip. Hopefully, this will help answer any questions that interested folks might have as to some of the things you’ll see and do if they were to purchase our trip, and also add some fuel to the stoke fire for those convinced already that jaguars and Brazil are definitely for you.
Danielle (my fiance) and I left Phoenix en route to Brazil with a brief stopover at Dallas Ft Worth where we would board our 777 overnight flight into Sao Paulo. From there we had a regional flight to Cuiabá, a city of over half a million people. Due to a long layover in Sao Paulo, we arrived in Cuiabá late on day two of our travels, and we were extraordinarily tired!
Sleep would be coming soon though as our guide, Flavio, and driver, Jon, were waiting for us at the airport to deliver us to a nearby hotel. Shower, WiFi, food, and bed.
The following morning we set out early down the dusty Transpantaneira Highway, in a southerly direction towards Porto Jofre. We wouldn’t arrive in Porto Jofre on that day as we had a planned stop along the way in order to take in the amazing amount of wildlife that exists in the region. Plus, it is a LONG way down that bumpy, dirty, rough road that also has over 140 wooden bridges (most are usable) along the way. Better to spread out the drive with a few nights along the way. Besides, the eco-lodges along the way are most certainly a part of the experience.
The Pantanal is the world’s largest tropical wetland, covering over 70,000 square miles. That is a huge number, but what exactly does it mean? Well, it means this area is about the size of Washington State. It sits in the center of South America, mostly in Brazil but does spread into Paraguay and Bolivia, as well. The Pantanal has the highest concentration of wildlife on the continent.
Each year rains fill the Pantanal’s giant basin, creating a vast flooded landscape in the process. Water slowly drains into the Paraguay River, the lagoons shrink leaving behind sparse small ponds filled with fish, snails and other food sources for a staggering number of waterbirds, caiman and other wildlife that flock to these areas. On a good day, one can see upwards of 100 different bird species along this highway, and we felt that we saw at least that many birds as we made our way deeper into the Pantanal region.
Our first night would be a stopover at the simple, yet pleasant Pouso Alegre eco-lodge. Like many of the other eco-Lodges in the Pantanal, Pouso Allegro was once a large cattle ranch. In recent years, as tourism continues to grow in this region, many of the old ranches are moving into the eco-lodge business. Pouso Alegra’s charm is in its simplicity. It is quiet and calm here, with the exception of the birds and howler monkeys off in the distance. We walked the grounds in the evening, on a hunt for wildlife which was plentiful. Caiman are everywhere at this time of year, and we saw plenty here. We also saw a Common Potoo, which is a difficult bird to spot due to its camouflage (it looks like the extension of whatever it is standing on, be it a post or tree) and ability to stay completely still.
In the evening while on a nighttime safari drive, Danielle and I realized that we were, in fact, seeing the Southern Cross (constellation), for the first time (The Crosby, Stills and Nash song is one of my all-time favorites, so this was a cool moment).
In the morning we were treated to a wonderful scene where several Toco Toucans and Chestnut-eared Aracari swooped in and out of the area near our lodge’s breakfast area.
While this area is certainly a birder’s paradise, the Pantanal’s wildlife spectacle is not limited to birds. Its relatively open landscape – the only things that really block views are the tall yellow Silky Oak and the pink Tabebuia trees – facilitates one seeing some of South America’s large land critters, as well. These include the Jacare Caiman, Capybara, Yellow Anaconda, and Marsh Deer. If you’re lucky, perhaps a Brazilian Tapir, peccaries, a Giant Otter and, of course… Jaguar!!
He who kills with one leap.
The word jaguar is rooted from the Tupi-Guarani word yaguar, which means, “he who kills with one leap.” The Pantanal holds the densest population of jaguars, estimating between 4,000 – 7,000 jaguars.
Jaguars are the so-called ‘Main Event,’ so, following our time with the Toucans and Aracaris, we took back to the highway and traveled toward Porto Jofre, the small settlement along the Cuiabá River, which is the best spot to post up for a few days of searching for jaguars.
There is a single power line that runs along the highway strung upon old concrete power line posts that brings power to Porto Jofre, the small settlement at the end of the road, set along the river. The roadside is lined in most places with shrubs and short trees that have been plastered with dirt from the dust kicked up by passing vehicles – a testament to the increase of people using this old road. The tall, yellow, silky oaks on the horizon are a lush contrast to these baked dirt-caked shrubs.
Our lodge for the next four nights would be the Pousada Porto Jofre, a lovely spot with updated rooms, located directly on the Cuiabá River. Our small boats, which we would utilize each day while in Porto Jofre, would be moored only feet from our accommodations, making our daily river trips exceptionally easy.
Here at our lodge in Porto Jofre, jaguars are nearby. Close enough that it wouldn’t be too unusual to come across one if you were to wander away from the grounds. The higher concentration of cats, however, is located quite a bit upriver from here so each day we’d travel upriver to where the cats are more likely to be seen. We’d spend each day traveling these river channels hunting for a sighting.
Jaguars are prominent in ancient myths and religion. The Maya believed the jaguar was the God of the Underworld and helped the sun travel under the earth at night, ensuring it would rise in the morning. The Aztecs worshiped the jaguars and were positioned as guardians of their sacred temples.
We would be showing our respect for the jaguar by staying a safe distance from them, in our boat, trying our best to not disturb their lives as we viewed and photographed from the river.
The River, the boat, and the Jaguar
Our first day was cool, dark and pretty blustery. All of these conditions typically lead to jaguars sleeping in the wooded areas as opposed to being out and about. This proved to be true for most of the day. The river system here is a web of narrow channels lined with sandbars, water hyacinth, thick vegetation, and large trees.
Around every corner, there is a chance for a jaguar sighting as numbers have increased inside the State Park here where local ranchers and poachers are not allowed to hunt them. Through most of the morning, we were unlucky with finding cats. But, then there was a clue. Along the bank was a short tree full of vultures, presumably watching a kill being eaten, waiting for their turn at the carcass. So, we stalked this carefully and quietly. No dice.
But then there was! We caught wind of a sighting!
Our boat driver, Jon, maintained radio communications with the other guides on the river so as to pass along sightings. Upon hearing that a jaguar had been spotted we sped across the rivers in an attempt to get there before the big cat walked away. This, our first sighting, was around 11:30 a.m. and was a female, roughly 4-5 years old, walking along the riverbank under one of those beautiful yellow Silky Oak trees. She seemed maybe a bit confused as to what the ruckus was all about, as a handful of boats approached the scene. Moments later, just a few yards downriver we spotted a male, perhaps her mate, taking in an afternoon nap. This big cat’s yawns were our first chance to see jaguar teeth and their massive tongues.
A common source of confusion is between the jaguar and the leopard. Leopards are found in Africa (think the Backcountry Journeys Botswana tour) and Asia, whereas jaguars are only found in the Americas. A clear difference in morphology is the jaguar spots, which are larger more exploded and usually have small dots in the center of the larger spots. Another difference in the two-similar species is the size; jaguars are much stockier, their limbs are shorter, the head is broad and muscular, and they are an overall more powerful cat.
The next few days were spent much the same way. We’d spend all day on the boat with Flavio and Jon, hunting for jaguars and whatever else we could spot. Looking for clues. We were extremely successful, spotting many jaguars. But spotting jaguars here is not like going to a zoo, or even like finding wildlife on a safari in, say, Botswana. There is still a thrill in the hunt with regard to finding these big cats, which to us was really cool!
Our second morning on the river produced when Jon caught word over his radio that a momma jaguar and her cub had just swum across the main channel of the Cuiabá River. Jon hit the throttle and rushed us back to the spot we had only recently passed by just in time to watch the mother and her cub climb up the river bank and disappear into the brush. A momma with only a single cub is a momma who has probably lost a cub, as it is typical with jaguars to have liters of at least two. Adult male jaguars are known to attack and kill male cubs, perhaps this was the fate of this momma jaguar’s second baby.
Later on, near the end of a cold, dark day on the river, just after I declared that we should head in early due to poor weather, we spotted a jaguar on the bank of the river. Very close to us! We followed this male for quite some time as he carefully moved down the river.
A dead caiman that we had encountered earlier in the day was floating nearby, the stench was in the air and this big guy could definitely smell it.
A group of vultures had the carcass surrounded as it brushed up against the shore. After appearing to have caught the scent of the dead caiman, the cat sped up, making his way much more quickly towards the carcass. The vultures retreated but stood on nearby tree branches as an audience for what came next.
The jaguar dropped down off the bank to the river and grabbed the caiman carcass in its mouth, ripping it through the brush in an attempt to pull it up off the river and into the forest. This task proved more difficult than he’d probably have liked it to be and a lot more time consuming than he had budgeted for. Good for us as we had several minutes and lots of facial expressions and movements to photograph as attempt after attempt failed to get that caiman carcass moved through the thickets. He disappeared for a bit where the carcass was sitting but the brush was being shaken vigorously. We assumed the jaguar no longer wanted to wait for dinner and so he just started eating a bit. Sorta the same way your dad might have ripped off a bit of the Christmas turkey before it was served.
After this encounter, we were pretty satisfied with our day. But, it wasn’t yet over. Two additional sightings kept our cameras popping and memory cards filling fast. It’s pretty impossible to sit and simply watch as these majestic beasts walk by only yards from you. If you have a camera, you are overcome with the feeling that if you can just get this one image perfect, you’ll have the shot of your life! Next time, I thought to myself at this moment, I’m going to just watch for a bit. No camera. I’ll give it to Danielle and not even think about exposures or ISO.
Back on the Highway
We left Porto Jofre a few days later with a sense of accomplishment. We’d seen a large number of cats and couldn’t have asked for better opportunities to photograph the jaguars. The weather was really wonderful, much cooler and less humid than we would have thought it’d have been. The only time we were remotely “uncomfortable” was when we were cold. If you are coming with us next year, it is difficult to believe that you’ll want to bring to South America a stocking cap and gloves, but you will.
We had two stops along the way back to Cuiabá, as well, so much more to see! Along the way back to Cuiabá we’d likely not see more jaguars. Could there be? Yes, maybe. They are out there. They just aren’t there in the same numbers as along the river systems near Porto Jofre.
We’d stop for a night at the beautiful Rio Claro eco-lodge. There are a ton of birds at Rio Claro, including the Hyacinth Macaw, an unmistakably beautiful dark blue parrot that has become the Pantanal’s iconic bird. On a sunset boat cruise down the Rio Claro River, we encountered howler monkey hanging high up in the trees, swooping heron and caiman all over the place.
Our final night along the Transpantaneira Highway would be at Pocone, a really nice eco-lodge complete with a pool, game room, decent WiFi and expansive views. Here we encountered an assortment of critters, highlighted by Capuchin Monkey, and Jabiru Stork.
The Pantanal is the “world center” for Jabiru Stork, which has become the ‘mascot’ for the region.
Hyacinth Macaw was prevalent here at Pocone, and we even had a rare sighting of the Blue-and-Yellow Macaw, a bird that is considered “absent” in the Pantanal. A couple had nested on the grounds, right near the pool, and posed for some really nice images to send us on our way home.
Wonderful landscapes. Great food. Humble, yet nice accommodations. Great wildlife encounters and like a bazillion birds along the way. The jaguars were everything we’d imagined they’d be, and more.
Brazil is truly Brazilliant! And you all should join us in 2020. Summer of 2020 sounds far off, but so is Brazil!
Limited spots are available, as we simply cannot bring everyone, so grab your spot(s) before there aren’t any left! A handful of adventure seekers already have done so. If you do come with us, know that you’ll be in store for a trip of a lifetime!
Kenton Krueger grew up and spent the majority of his life in the corn country of Omaha, Nebraska. After studying aviation at the University of Nebraska Omaha’s Aviation Institute, he “conned” his way into the newsroom at the award-winning Omaha World-Herald where for 3+ years he wrote and photographed news articles on a variety of topics such as community events, travel, and even mixed martial arts. Yet, something was missing. While on backpacking trips to Grand Teton and Grand Canyon National Parks in the mid-2000’s he was quick to realize that the wild lands of the western United States stoked a fire in his heart as nothing else could. This realization led to a relocation to Flagstaff, Arizona, and he hasn’t looked back. He has spent the past several years guiding backpackers, hikers, and photographers into the wild places of the American West at locations such as Havasu Falls, Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Glacier, Yosemite, Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks, as well as in Grand Staircase Escalante in southern Utah, and internationally in Costa Rica. In addition to backpacking and camping, his adventures include rock climbing, exploring the slot canyons of southern Utah, mountain biking, and bagging 14ers in Colorado’s San Juan Mountain Mountain Range. Kenton is a trail runner, a former pilot, newspaper photographer, and writer. Kenton looks forward to utilizing his years of guiding experience, combined with his passion and experience behind the lens to provide memorable and unforgettable experiences at the wild places we will visit together.
Don’t Miss the Next Session of BCJ “Live”
Image Review: Landscape Edition
with Matt Meisenheimer & Kenton Krueger
Tuesday, Feb 23rd, 2021 at 11 am (Mountain)