The easiest way to enter the Pantanal from Cuiabá is via the town of Poconé, 100 kilometers (62 miles) to the south. The Pantanal itself begins as you continue south from Poconé along the Rodovia Transpantaneira. Back in the 1970s, when megaprojects were in vogue throughout Brazil, the plan was to build a highway that plowed all the way through the Pantanal from Poconé to Corumbá. Fortunately, neither human beings nor human technology were any match for this aquatic ecosystem—the project was aborted after 145 kilometers (90 miles), at Porto Jofre, a fishing village on the shores of Rio Cuiabá.
Over the years, the former highway has metamorphosed into a decidedly bumpy road connected by 126 wooden bridges in varying states of disrepair. However, despite the fact that it is quite overgrown in spots, it is still the only road that actually leads into the Pantanal. Moreover, the earth that was cleared away for the highway’s construction left holes that have become ponds, canals, and lagoons. These watering holes attract a wealth of wildlife, making the journey along the Transpantaneira into a fantastic safari (although one that can only be undertaken in the dry season).
The first stretch of the Transpantaneira, between Poconé and the Rio Pixaim, is lined with numerous fazenda lodges (cattle are often driven along the actual rodovia). Even if you don’t check in as an overnight guest, you can visit these ranch-hotels during the day and partake of the facilities and activities they offer. The second stretch, leading to Porto Jofre, is much wilder and more remote (neither electricity nor cell phone coverage have arrived). Make sure you leave Poconé with a full tank of gas and drive slowly—not only due to the precariousness of the road but to avoid running over any jacarés, deer, or capybaras that may be crossing. Also make sure to stock up on mineral water (not included in all-inclusive packages and expensive when you’re chugging umpteen little bottles a day).
From Porto Jofre, you can venture farther into the Pantanal by boat, either by sailing up the Cuiabá and Piquiri Rivers or, if you’re feeling very adventurous and have lots of time on your hands, by catching one of the infrequent cargo boats that cut all the way through the Pantanal to the town of Corumbá in Mato Grosso de Sul (which could take 2–5 days).
Although there are several small and basic hotels in Poconé, you’re better off staying at one of the numerous, somewhat more comfortable (and more expensive) fazenda lodges located in the surrounding region. Aside from full-board accommodations, they offer recreational activities and a variety of guided excursions into the wilder regions of the Pantanal. Package trips to the Pantanal usually involve guides taking travelers up and down the Transpantaneira with stops at various fazenda lodges, and this is a good strategy if you’re traveling on your own, allowing you to experience the region in more depth and improving your chances of seeing a greater range of wildlife.
Close to Poconé, Pousada Piuval (Rod. Transpantaneira Km 10, tel. 65/3345-1338, R$220–340 pp) is an appealing place located on a sprawling cattle ranch with lakes and patches of forest that guarantee lots of fauna. Guest rooms are a little tight but inviting, and there is a large pool. Included in the daily rate are a guided hike and the choice of an excursion by boat or horseback. The newest and most comfortable of the Transpantaneira’s 21 fazenda lodges, Curicaca Eco Lodge (Rod. Transpantaneira Km 28, tel. 65/3023-3166, R$300–400 pp) is also the only one that is no longer a fazenda. Taking its eco-mission seriously, the well-designed and spacious bungalows of recycled wood are hidden away in the midst of a wooded reserve along the shores of the Rio Novo (along which guided canoe trips are offered). Helping to increase the impression of being plunged into nature are the anteaters and coatis that casually amble by the pool, bar, and rustic restaurant serving extremely good food.
Farther along, the Pousada Araras Eco Lodge (Rod. Transpantaneira Km 32, tel. 65/9983-0529, R$280–400 pp) is one of the Pantanal’s eco-pioneers, and the owner’s conservationist efforts ensure that there is plenty of wildlife in close proximity. Bilingual nature guides offer myriad excursions (all included in the daily rate) on horseback and in canoes (by day and night) as well as photo safaris, piranha fishing, and overnight trips. The lodge is stylishly rustic and makes creative use of organic materials. There is a lovely pool, and wooden walkways lead across the lagoons to lofty wildlife observation decks. Reflecting regional culinary traditions, the menu relies on local fish, meats, and organically grown fruits and vegetables. The minimum stay is two days, and its international reputation means you’ll need to reserve in advance. Meanwhile, the Bar do Araras, located at the entrance, is the only place to get a caipirinha along the entire Transpantaneira.
Close to the end of the Transpantaneira, the Jaguar Ecological Reserve (Rod. Transpantaneira Km 100, tel. 65/3646-9679, R$280–400 pp) offers you the best chance at catching a glimpse of what everyone comes to the Pantanal to see: an onça pintada (jaguar). The scrubby brush surrounding the fazenda is crawling with the large felines, at least in dry season, and if you don’t run into one walking around with a guide, you’re likely to see one sunning itself on the banks of the Rio Cuiabá at Porto Jofre, only 40 kilometers (24 miles) away and a popular day trip. You’re also guaranteed to see and hear the brilliant blue (and very rare) hyacinth macaws that roost in the trees outside the bright pumpkin-colored chalets.
Information and Services
In Poconé, try the Secretaria de Turismo e Meio Ambiente (Praça da Matriz, tel. 65/3445-1952, 7 a.m.–1 p.m. Mon.–Fri.) for tourist information. For cash withdrawals, you’ll find a Banco do Brasil at Rua Campos Sales 449.
From Cuiabá’s Rodoviária, Tut (tel. 65/3321-4326) has six daily departures to Poconé (2.5 hours, R$10). If you’re driving, follow BR-070. If you don’t have a car, expect a taxi from Cuiabá to cost R$150–200. On the way back, consider taking a taxi coletivo (1.5 hours, R$25 pp) departing from Praça Matriz, which will deposit you wherever you want in Cuiabá.
Excerpted from the Third Edition of Moon Brazil.