Brazil’s Best Kept Secret

National Geographic refers to the Pantanal as “Brazil’s Best Kept Secret” due in large part to its relatively unknown bounty in terms of wildlife diversity. 

This region in south-central Brazil covers roughly 75,000 square miles of sprawling wetland and is home to 3,500 known plant species, 9,000 invertebrate species, 325 fish species, 53 amphibian species, 98 reptile species, 656 bird species, and 159 mammal species. 

The word ‘Pantanal’ translates in Portuguese (the language spoken in Brazil) to “wetland, bog, swamp or marsh” a perfect description for the seasonally flooded wetland that covers over 80,000 square miles. During each ‘wet’ season, waters from the neighboring central plateau fill the river systems of the Pantanal. The Cuiaba, Paraguay, Piquiri, and Taquari rivers and their tributaries spill their banks and flood the region. These floodwaters bring with them important nutrients as well as lots and lots of fish. 

While the area is flooded, waterbirds will disperse to find food. Yet, when these floodwaters recede, lagoons shrink and become isolated as small ponds. This creates rich concentrated locales for birds and other wildlife to focus their efforts on. Swamps are full of waterfowl like egret, cormorant, spoonbill, stork, five kinds of kingfisher, as well as the famous Jabiru, which has become one of the unofficial mascots of the region. 

So, while the Amazon may have all of the notoriety, it is actually Brazil’s Pantanal region that just might be one of the best places in the world to see animals in their natural habitats. The Pantanal is perhaps a bit lesser-known but should be at the top of any list of what makes Brazil amazing. Often overshadowed by the Amazon, the Pantanal actually boasts a higher concentration of fauna, comparable to the densest animal populations in Africa.

During Backcountry Journeys’ 13-day Jaguars of Brazil’s Pantanal photography tour, we’ll have a chance to see and photograph an enormous amount of wildlife. Much much more than we can outline here in a single article. But, let’s take some time here to highlight just a few of the amazing critters we’ll see. 

The world’s largest concentration of jaguars now exists in the Pantanal, where abundant prey and waterways offer an ideal habitat for these powerful, water-loving felines. Jaguars are, for the most part, solitary creatures, although their territories often overlap with other cats. They know to keep away through roars, scrapes, and urine markings. The jaguar, or ‘He Who Kills With One Leap,’ has very broad feet with distinctly stubby and splayed digits. These paws are perfect for navigating muddy ground and act as swimming paddles. They are the third largest of the world’s big cats – behind the Tiger and Lion – yet have the strongest bite force of them all. Hunting for photographs of this beautiful creature is the focal point of BCJ’s Jaguars of Brazil’s Pantanal photography tour. Seeing a cat emerge from the darkness of the jungle into the light of the riverbank can be a thrill not matched by many other experiences. 

Jabiru Stork
The Jabiru stork’s name comes from a Tupi-Guaraní language and means “blown out by the wind,” referring to the bird’s swollen neck. The bird’s neck contains an inflatable pouch that swells during danger, anger, or courtship. These storks are the tallest flying birds of South and Central America. The Jabiru stork has become a symbol of the Pantanal region and is seen often during our travels up and down the Transpantaneira Highway. 

The Capybara is the world’s largest rodent, growing to about 175 pounds—which is about the size of a St. Bernard. An unusually social species, capybaras live in groups of 10 to 30 members with sometimes more than 100 members in the dry season. Being hunted is a way of life in the Pantanal.-Being the Jaguar’s preferred dish, they are constantly on the run and use webbed feet and an ability to hold their breath (for five minutes underwater) to escape. Watching from a boat as a jaguar stalks a capybara is one of the more thrilling moments you may have while in the Pantanal. It’s difficult to explain the adrenaline such an event produces, yet one way to find out! 

Jacare Caiman
About 10 million jacaré caimans—thought to be the largest single crocodilian population on Earth—exist within the Brazilian Pantanal. Although threatened by hunting, jacaré caimans reproduce quickly and are currently listed as Least Concern. Caiman is another favorite treat for Jaguars. For as many birds and jaguars, we’ll see and photograph on this tour, the Caiman is the critter we’ll encounter the most. 

Hyacinth Macaw
About 3,000 Hyacinth macaws—the world’s largest parrot—reside in the Pantanal, where they eat fruits and nuts and nest in naturally hollow manduvi trees. Also called Blue macaws, have been observed using pieces of wood or chewed leaf to prevent harder nuts from slipping while they open them, an example of tool use. The species is classified as ‘Vulnerable’ due to habitat loss and trapping for the pet trade. We will most certainly have opportunities to photograph these delightful birds during our travels up and down the Transpantaneira Highway.  

Roseate Spoonbill
The Roseate spoonbill is a large wading bird known for its pink plumage and distinctive spoon-shaped bill. Its upper neck and back are colored white, while the wings and feathers underneath display the more recognizable light shade of pink. The wings and tail coverts are deep red, along with the legs and the iris of the eyes. The Pantanal is a real paradise for birders and photographers, alike. Our trip is billed as ‘Jaguars of Brazil’s Pantanal,’ but a great deal of time – during our travels between Cuiaba and Porto Jofre – is spent photographing birds! With over 600 species to see, you can be assured of variety. The dry season gatherings of wading birds, like the Roseate Spoonbill, as they feast on fish and crustaceans trapped in the shrinking water holes is an annual spectacular to see.

Toco Toucan
The Toco toucan is the largest and probably the best-known species in the toucan family. It has a striking plumage with a mainly black body, a white throat, chest and upper tail-coverts, and red under tail-coverts. What appears to be a blue iris is actually thin blue skin around the eye. This blue skin is surrounded by another ring of bare, orange skin. The most noticeable feature of this bird, however, is its huge bill, which measures up to 9 inches in length; it is yellow-orange in color and with a black base and large spot on the tip. It looks heavy, but as in other toucans, it is relatively light because the inside largely is hollow. The tongue is nearly as long as the bill and very flat. The male and the female are similar in appearance and juveniles are duller and shorter-billed than adults.

Yellow Anaconda
Like all boas and pythons, the Yellow anaconda is nonvenomous and uses constriction to kill its prey, including wading birds, fish, turtles, small caimans, lizards, bird eggs, and small mammals. Depending on the size of their last meal, yellow anacondas can go months without eating. While these aren’t a sure thing during our tour, there certainly remains a chance for a sighting! 

Giant Otter
Giant otters are an incredibly vocal species, using a system of perhaps 22 distinct sounds to communicate. The whole family is involved in rearing pups, as fathers and older siblings often lend a hand. The giant otter is listed as ‘Endangered,’ as deforestation, infrastructure development, and climate change reduce suitable habitat, and pollution and overfishing threaten their prey.

Come join us on the rivers and flooded plains of the Pantanal, and experience Brazil’s ‘best-kept secret.’

2022 & 2023 Available Dates: 

July 19th-31st, 2022 – Available
June 21st to July 3rd, 2023 – Available

Learn More

Additional Readings:

He Who Kills with One Leap

The Wildlife Spectacle of the Pantanal

Hyacinth Macaw: A Restoration Success

Kenton Krueger








Kenton Krueger has spent the past several years guiding backpackers, hikers, and photographers into the wild places of the American West such as Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Glacier, Katmai, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches, Canyonlands National Parks, as well as internationally in Costa Rica & Brazil. 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, former pilot, and spent roughly five years writing and photographing for the award-winning Omaha World-Herald newspaper, out of his hometown, Omaha, Nebraska. Kenton looks forward to utilizing his years of trip leading and 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.

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