Pantanal - Mato Grosso

The Pantanal is one of the biggest freshwater wetlands in the world, it's origin can be dated around 60 millions years ago.

Erroneously called "Mar dos Xaraés" by eighteenth century explorers, who having arrived there during the flood season thought it was a big inland 'sea'.

Situated in the center of South America between parallel 16 at 22 degrees longitude and meridian 55 at 58 degrees eastern longitude and an an average altitude of 110 m, it is in the Upper Paraguay river basin.

The area of the Pantanal depending on the sources ranges from 125.000 to 260.000 km2, during the floods in the rainy season 80% of the Pantanal is submerged, nurturing an astonishing biologically diverse collection of aquatic plants and helping support a dense array of animal species.

The rain controls the regime of the rivers who in turn determine the flood-cycle.

The rainy months occur between October and March, accounting for more than 80% of the annual rainfall in average, between 1.000 and 1.200 mm.

Due to the slow drainage, floods occur between January and June, as both the rising and the receding of the waters suffer the delay of three months. So it's not the rainfall the cause of flooding in the Pantanal, but the slowness of the flow of river waters due to the flatness of the area (80 to 150 m over sea-level) and the difficulty in flowing of river Paraguay. The Pantanal plain is bordered by the Paraguay River basin, it constitutes an enormous internal river delta. Its main tributaries the rivers Cuiabá, Taguari and Miranda descend the slopes of the eats-western Brazilian plateau, depositing their sediments and erosion residues, which have been filling, throughout the years, the large depression area of the Pantanal.

The dramatic increase of water during the rainy season (from 2 to 5 m) nourishes the producers of Pantanal, which in turn nourishes all the other species as well.

The vegetation of the Pantanal  is a mixture of plant communities typical of a variety of surrounding biome regions: these include moist tropical Amazonian Rainforest plants, semi-arid woodland plants typical of northeast Brazil, Brazilian Cerrado savanna plants and plants of the Chaco savannas of Bolivia and Paraguay. Grasslands cover the seasonally inundated areas.

The Pantanal ecosystem is home to 3500 known plant species, 1000 bird species, 400 fish species, 300 mammalian species, 480 reptile species and over 9000 different subspecies of invertebrates.

In 2000 it was designated World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

If the Pantanal is less damaged by man, it's because the region's inhabitants took only what they needed for centuries.

The people of the Pantanal, "pantaneiros" are the result of an interesting ethnic mix between Indigenous, African and European populations, somatically very different from the populations of coastal Brazil.

They can be 'grossly' divided in two categories: Pantaneiros ribeirinhos and pantaneiros vaqueiros.
The first live mostly in isolated regions on the riverbanks.

Their origin goes back to nineteenth century, in the period of "bandeiras": slave hunting expeditions by Portuguese colonial scouts, that had the purpose of enslaving Indigenous tribes, finding minerals and explore unknown wild territories. After the decline of the gold rush descendants of former Indio/African slaves settled down on the riverbanks, creating small mono-familiar communities, often only accessible by boat.
Self-sufficient, harvesting, hunting and fishing only what they need to feed their families, they are integrated with their natural environment. From the guarani, guatò and paiaguà indios they inherited physical agility, a strong family cohesion and the knowledge and respect for nature.
Today most of them still live without electricity and canalized water, some have generators they use for some hours per day to pump water from the rivers, which is then filtered for consumption.
A simple and hard life that follows natures rules, of early sleep and wake up with the rising sun.
A life in harmony with the waters of the Pantanal.

The Pantaneiros vaqueiros have different habits and rhythms. Theirs is a hardworking life of herding cattle, building fences and corrals, rounding calves. Their tools are made from the materials around them, especially leather yielding the saddle, girth and the lasso.
The local diet is made of salted beef, rice and local manioc root, foods that are suited to the long rides through the plains when cattle is tranfered over long distance.

Man’s creativity and resourcefulness when faced with nature’s challenges has a fine example here,
not least when the plain is seasonally flooded and the "Pantaneiro", rather than fighting the elements,
takes time out to work around the house or care for the horses.

Scarcely populated the Pantanal region is mostly private property. Enormous land extensions are used mainly for cattle raising.

Northern Pantanal has only one access: the Transpantaneira Highway. It starts 98 km from Cuiabà in the small city of Poconé and ends after 145 unpaved km and 126 wooden bridges at Porto Jofre on the Rio Cuiabà.
It was built during the military government in 1974 and was supposed to connect Poconé to Corumbà',  on the Bolivian border, but it was never concluded. In Porto Jofre, a former fazenda, now a hotel that caters specially to fishermen, there is nothing beside the hotel.
Here is the beginning of the river region, only accessible by boat, the wildest part of northern Pantanal.
Here nature is at it's best, navigating down the pristine rivers is like entering a pre-historic world, wild, untamed. Home to jaguars, giant river otters, capybaras, anacondas, thousands of caimans and a lush variety of birds of all sizes and colors.
Less famous than the Amazon region, until 10-15 years ago the Pantanal was out of the touristic circuits. It was mainly a destination for fishermen and there was few infrastructure to receive visitors. In the last years with the increase in eco-tourism ventures it has become a favorite destination for  photographers, bird-watchers and wildlife lovers.
The lure of cash has prompted many Brazilian farmers to convert their ranches into fazenda-lodges, accommodations that serve visitors on excursions into the Pantanal. Both high- and low-end tourism are on the rise.

It has a strange mix of visitors; not really appreciated by native tourists, at least not in the wilderness acceptation  (they normally stay at the Pousadas closer to 'civilization' and do the standard comfortable tour circuit, with a bit of horse-riding, and some other 'adventure' activities. I've never met (beside fishermen) any Brazilian tourist from the second half of the Transpantaneira on.
Mostly foreigners from all over the world come here to see and photograph rare animals, the jaguar is particularly sought after.

In 2004 a state park was created in the river area around Porto Jofre, 'Parque Encontro da Aguas', the former vast fazenda was bought off by the state and declared protected area. It still lacks a management plan and it's up to individuals to respect and preserve this gorgeous nature sanctuary.
Let's hope that the appetites tantalized by the jaguar sighting business won't cram it up with tourists and break it's fragile equilibrium.