It is my second attempt to reach Brazil's Pantanal, the world's largest wetland, home to a staggering array of flora and fauna. Years ago, I skipped a night bus to Campo Grande, the region's capital, in order to spend more time exploring the waterfalls down south in Iguazu. The bus, I later found out, had a head-on collision en route, making me extremely lucky and marking the Pantanal as a place of ill fate. Yet travel is all about timing, and several years later, while in Sao Paulo, it felt right to give it another go - though it also felt right to bypass the bus and take a cheap flight instead.
The Pantanal comprises a vast 624,000-square-kilometre floodplain, caused by a huge compression in the Earth's crust, stretching across two Brazilian states and into Bolivia and Paraguay. Brazil has passed a host of laws to protect this unique biosphere, although 95 per cent of it is still privately owned and used primarily for cattle ranching and agriculture. The high water table creates fertile land for farmers, and much of Brazil's beef industry - about 22 million head of cattle - is located here. Yet, with both domestic and foreign ecotourism booming, many cattle farms now have the financial incentive to offer homestays, conservation activities and wildlife encounters.
This is how I found Pousada Aguape, founded 150 years ago and still owned by the same family. A working cattle ranch, the pousada now has 14 basic but comfy air-conditioned rooms, wildlife drives, a restaurant, a pool and a small landing strip.
On a late-afternoon horseback ride, I watched the sky fade to peach and purple under the gaze of a pair of blue hyacinth macaws resting on a nearby tree. The Pantanal has the largest concentration of crocodilian reptiles on Earth, so it didn't take long to spot a caiman on the edge of a lake. My horse trudged along, weary of deep puddles and perhaps the large anacondas that live in the area. Up ahead grazed a herd of white zebu cows, among the hardiest and most aggressive of domestic cattle, and therefore perfectly suited for the surroundings. Roaming free, the cows feast on a rich organic diet of swamp grass, which might well be the reason why Brazilian beef has its reputation for quality.
Along with us meat-eaters, the Pantanal's alpha predator is the jaguar, elusive and rare. Visitors come from all over the world with the hopes of seeing one. Over the course of two safaris and one night drive, I spotted caiman, marsh deer, emu, fox and capybara, the world's largest rodent. Despite a light show - atmospheric conditions created spectacular lightning storms, the night sky lighting up with the flashbulb intensity of paparazzi on the red carpet - the jaguar refused to come onstage.
A further 160 kilometres into the wetlands, I discovered Fazendo San Francisco, another ranch enjoying the success of its third transformation: first cattle, then rice, now tourists. Of the Fazendo San Francisco's roughly 15,000 hectares of forest, jungle and river, half has been set aside for conservation. Aboard a large wildlife viewing boat, I sail up various tributaries, watching birdlife in the trees and caimans drifting along the banks.
Catching piranha is as easy as fastening a baited line to a twig, and lightly slapping the water. Within seconds, I hook myself a meat-stripping monster, which is rather small and, according to my guide, misunderstood. Locals don't fear piranhas quite as much as we do, since they know that piranha prey mostly on other fish. That evening's night safari yielded a muscular tapir, the largest indigenous mammal in South America. The jaguar, alas, was still backstage.
The heat and humidity in the Pantanal are intense. But, even when the air feels as thick and sticky as toffee, covering up is recommended as protection from the bugs. It was a relief of sorts to leave the bush for the town of Bonito, which has emerged in recent years as the capital of Brazil's outdoor-adventure industry. With hostels and five-star eco-lodges, Bonito attracts everyone from backpackers to high rollers.
Local operators offer ATV tours, caving, rafting, wildlife, river diving and waterfall treks. The highlight of the latter is the Boca da Onca, the highest waterfall in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, a perfect day trip from Bonito. Visitors have the option of walking to the waterfall along a five-kilometre wooden boardwalk, or abseiling off a 90-metre platform. The chance to dangle from a rope, high above a jungle, alongside a spectacular waterfall that literally means Mouth of the Puma, is too exotic to pass up. Other than the adrenalin buzz, the reward is a refreshing swim beneath the giant cascade, and a lovely walk back to the visitor centre, cooling off in rock pools along the way.
But the highlight of my Pantanal adventure is another cattle ranch turned eco-attraction. Rio da Prata now generates 80 per cent of its revenue from tourism, with travellers drawn to its steady-flowing crystal-clear stream packed with huge freshwater fish. Visitors rent a buoyant wetsuit, snorkel and mask and simply float on their stomachs, the current leading them to the pickup point. For three hours, I drift in an underwater wonderland among fierce-looking dourado, catfish and pike. With a sensation not unlike flying, Rio da Prata provided the most amazing river experience I've encountered.
Pantanal literally means "swampy land," which doesn't have quite the same allure as "Amazon." Still, its bountiful wildlife, birdlife and memorable activities made it well worth chancing fate. And next time, maybe I'll spot a jaguar.
Watch a video clip of Robin exploring the Pantanal.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Robin Esrock is the host of the OLN/CITY-TV series Word Travels. His website is moderngonzo.com.