The Pantanal, the name given to the vast wetlands of southwest Brazil and eastern Bolivia, is famous for congregations of massive numbers of birds and mammals. We will stay at some delightful lodges and be spoiled by the easy birding. This tour is timed for the end of the dry season, when birds are often concentrated in the few remaining wet areas, and mosquito numbers are at their lowest. The low river levels also make it easier to spot Jaguars on the sandy banks, and we’ll devote a day searching for this alluring creature. The northern Pantanal is easily combined with a trip to the southern Amazon, where the birding is a little more challenging, although the rewards are perhaps greater; the Cristalino Jungle Lodge has its own private reserve with a mind-boggling bird list of nearly 600 species. This itinerary includes looking for Jaguars deep in the Pantanal, offering a very real chance to see the most magnificent mammal in the new world.
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Day 1: Cuiabá. We’ll meet you at the airport and take you to a nearby hotel for the night.
Day 2: Chapada dos Guimarães. We’ll start early and drive about 1h23m northeast of the city to a scenic escarpment. The scrubby cerrado (savanna) may not look like much, but it can be surprisingly good for birds such as White-banded and White-rumped Tanagers, White-eared Puffbird, Coal-crested Finch, Black-throated Saltator, and Chapada Flycatchers. Hummers can sometimes be common here depending on the number of plants in flower, and there is a chance to find the handsome Horned Sungem. We’ll also try for Collared Crescentchest, but this skulker can often be quite difficult to find. As the morning heats up, we’ll seek shade in the tall gallery forest lower down in the valley.
It has a totally different set of birds such as Planalto Slaty-Antshrike, Band-tailed Manakin, Black-fronted Nunbird, Saffron-billed Sparrow, Moustached Wren, and sometimes even the gaudy Frilled Coquette. After an opulent lunch at a restaurant with an unforgettable view, we’ll bird near a magnificent escarpment offering great views and a chance for Red-and-green Macaw, King Vulture, Black-and-white Hawk-Eagle, Helmeted Manakin, and sometimes even the very rare Orange-breasted Falcon. We overnight in Chapada dos Guimarães.
Day 3: Chapada to Cristalino Jungle Lodge. After a few more hours birding in the Chapada, we return to Cuiabá and catch a midday 1h30m hour flight to the town of Alta Floresta. From here, we travel in bus (or 4WD vehicles depending on road conditions) for another hour, and time permitting we will stop at a palm grove to look for Point-tailed Palmcreeper. Once we reach the dock at the edge of the river, we’ll board a motorboat and head up the Cristalino River to Cristalino Jungle Lodge, our home for the next five nights. Cristalino Jungle Lodge has quickly gained the reputation as being the finest lodge in the southern Amazon, with comfortable rooms, great food and service, and terrific birding.
Days 4-7: Cristalino Jungle Lodge. With four full days to explore the area, we’ll have the chance to visit most of the best birding sites. Dawn on one of the sturdy 160 ft. (50 m) high canopy towers is an unforgettable experience. The great views over the treetops gives us a good chance of seeing canopy species like Red-necked, Lettered, and Curl-crested Aracaris, Gould’s Toucanet, Black-girdled Barbet, Tooth-billed Wren, Pompadour and Spangled Cotingas, Ringed, Scaly-breasted, and Cream-colored Woodpeckers, and Red-fan and Kawall’s Parrot, among many others. Later in the morning, the towers give a great chance to see raptors as they ride the thermals over the forest. White-browed Hawk, Double-toothed and Gray-headed Kites, several species of Hawk-Eagle, are possible, and if we are very lucky we could even see a Crested or Harpy Eagle.
A notable feature of the Cristalino area are the scattered rocky outcrops that rise above the surrounding forest. We’ll spend a morning on one of these “serras”, looking for a number of localized species that prefer this habitat, such as Natterer’s Slaty-Antshrike, Spotted Puffbird, White-fringed Antwren, and Fiery-tailed Awlbill. The more open nature of this habitat also makes it a good place to look for Brown-banded Puffbird, several species of parrots and parakeets, and hummingbirds.
Birding the terra firme forest trails is challenging, but a vast array of birds live there, so a significant amount of time will be spent searching for the many antbirds, foliage-gleaners, woodcreepers, woodpeckers, puffbirds, flycatchers, and countless others that skulk in the dark corners of the forest. Some of our targets include Dark-winged Trumpeter, Bare-eyed Antbird, Cryptic Forest-Falcon, Para Foliage-gleaner, Red-necked Woodpecker, Amazonian Pygmy-Owl, Snow-capped Manakin, Blue-cheeked Jacamar, Alta Floresta Antpitta, Cinnamon-crested and White-crested Spadebills, White-eyed Antwren, and Rufous-necked Puffbird. Some of the trails pass through patches of dense bamboo, which harbor a different selection of birds like like Manu and Striated Antbirds, Amazonian Antshrike, Rose-breasted Chat, Dusky-cheeked Foliage-gleaner, Large-headed and Dusky-tailed Flatbill, and a distinctive race of Dot-winged Antwren.
The seasonally flooded forest on the edge of the Cristalino River is mostly dry this time of year, making it easier to access good sites for Flame-crested Manakin, Glossy Antshrike, and Bronzy Jacamar.
Cruising the river is a relaxing way to spend the hotter parts of the day, and is the best way to see such species as Razor-billed and Bare-faced Curassows, Amazonian Umbrellabird, several species of macaw, as well as mammals like Giant Otter and Brazilian Tapir.
This is truly one of the top birding spots in the world and there will be plenty to keep us busy for every minute.
Day 8: Cristalino to the Pantanal. After some final birding, we drive back to Alta Floresta for lunch, then fly back to Cuiabá in the afternoon. After collecting our luggage, we’ll drive about two hours to the start of the famous Transpantaneira, or Pantanal Highway. We’ll spend the first two nights at Pousada Piuval, a comfortable lodge on a working cattle ranch near the start of the highway.
Day 9: Pousada Piuval. Piuval has some of the most impressive birding anywhere on the planet, with huge numbers of birds seen and daily lists reaching astronomical numbers, some of the highest of any of our tours. The reason why it’s so great is the easy access to a wide variety of habitats, including rivers, wetlands, flooded pastures, gallery forest, and dry scrub. Some of the main highlights are the huge Hyacinth Macaws (seen daily), Greater Rhea, Bare-faced Curassow, Chestnut-bellied Guan, up to four ibises, the hulking Southern Screamer, Jabiru, Maguari Stork, Nacunda Nighthawk Black-collared Hawk, White Woodpecker, Gray-crested Cacholote, Great Rufous Woodcreeper, Mato Grosso Antbird, White-lored Spinetail, and Red-crested Cardinal.
Day 10: Piuval to the Pixaim River. We’ll bird a different spot near Piuval for a great chance to see the magnificent Scarlet-hooded Blackbird along with Rusty-collared Seedeater, Chotoy Spinetail, Suiriri Flycatcher, and others, before returning to the lodge to target anything else we are still looking for. After lunch, we drive two hours south, deeper into the Pantanal. We’ll stay two nights at a lodge on the edge of the sluggish Pixaim River, where boat trips on the river are not only fun but also a very relaxing way to see Boat-billed Heron, Sungrebe, Blue-throated Piping-Guan, Black-collared Hawk, up to five species of kingfisher, Giant Otter, and more; if water level is low enough, we may also encounter an Agami Heron. As darkness nears, Band-tailed Nighthawks appear to hunt insects over the river. Spotlighting in the evening might get us Spot-tailed Nightjar, Pauraque, and maybe a mammal or two. Note: The September 2017 departure will spend one night here on the way down to Porto Jofre and one night on the way back, rather than two nights on the way down. ––>
Day 11: Pixaim River. We’ll spend the early morning birding near the lodge, where feeders often bring in Chestnut-eared Aracari, Solitary Black Cacique, Silver-beaked Tanager, Grayish Saltator, Grayish Baywing, and Yellow-billed Cardinal, and then head into the gallery forest. The open nature of the forest makes it relatively easy to see many birds, and Band-tailed Antbird, Rusty-backed Spinetail, Buff-breasted Wren, Large-billed Antwren, Golden-green Woodpecker, Helmeted Manakin, and more can usually be seen without too much difficulty. A Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl imitation can often bring in large mobbing hordes of passerines, like Flavescent Warbler, Ashy-headed Greenlet, Stripe-necked Tody-Tyrant, and others. After a mid-day break, we’ll have another boat trip on the river.
Day 12: Pixaim River to Porto Jofre. After breakfast, we’ll board our van and drive south towards the end of the Pantanal Highway. We’ll make several stops along the way to search for the gorgeous Scarlet-headed Blackbird, shy Cinereous-breasted Spinetail, vociferous Fawn-breasted Wren, elegant Maguari Stork, as well as others. We’ll reach our very comfortable hotel at the very end of the road in late morning, and after lunch, we’ll spend the afternoon cruising the rivers looking for Jaguars as well as birds and other wildlife.
Day 13: Jaguar searching. Jaguar is the main target here, and we’ll spend the day cruising various rivers in a fast motorboat looking for this magnificent animal. Our boatmen are in radio contact, so if there is a jaguar seen we can head for the location – often at high speed! Jaguars here are not very shy and will often stay in view for extended periods of time. We will not ignore other birds and wildlife during our search, but Jaguar does take priority over everything. Some birds we may see from the boat include Sungrebe, Pied Lapwing, Yellow-billed and Large-billed Terns, Black Skimmer, Greater Ani, Anhinga, Great Black Hawk, Gray-necked Wood-Rail, and more. Families of Giant Otters are fairly common, and it is not too unusual to see a Tapir.
Day 14: Jaguar searching and return to Cuiabá. The plan for the morning will depend largely on how well we did with Jaguars during the previous outings. If we’re still trying for a better view of Jaguar, we’ll spend most of the morning cruising the rivers, and leave the hotel after an early lunch. If we had great Jaguar sightings, we may instead prefer some land-based birding, departing the hotel earlier in the morning with a packed lunch. We’ll spend the afternoon driving back to Cuiabá, where we spend the final night.
Day 15: Departure: The tour ends this morning in Cuiabá. The hotel provides free airport transfers upon request at any hour.
PACE: Mostly moderate, but somewhat relaxed in the Pantanal. It’s important to be out early, since the birding is better, and the temperatures are cooler. Breakfast will typically start from between 4:45am and 6:00am, and one will be a packed breakfast. On many (but not all) days there will be a lot of downtime after lunch to relax. On a few days, we will likely stay out after dark to spotlight for birds and mammals. The drives are not especially long on this tour; most are 2 hours or less, with one 5 hour drive, not counting birding stops, on day 14. The afternoon of day 12, most of day 13, and (if necessary) the morning of day 14 will be devoted to looking for Jaguars, though we will also look at birds when possible; jaguar searching is done by motorboat, and these outings typically last between 4 and 6 hours before returning to the lodge.
PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY:Moderate in the Amazon; easy in the Pantanal. Most of the birding is done from flat roads and trails. You can expect to walk 2-3 miles (3.2-4.8 km) per day on average. There is one moderately difficult hike at Cristalino in hilly and rocky terrain; a walking stick helps, and some participants may choose to skip that outing and relax around the lodge instead. At Cristalino, parts of two mornings will be spent on two different 140 ft (40 m) metal canopy towers. The towers are accessed by staircases.
CLIMATE: This tour takes place in the dry season, which is also winter in Brazil. Temperatures usually vary from about 60°-90°F (16°-32°C),and it is usually very sunny. However, cold fronts are not unusual in the Pantanal this time of year, and the temperature can sometimes drop to around 45°F (7°C) in the early morning. Since part of the time in the Pantanal is spent on fast boats, it is important to bring cold weather gear just in case. There might be a bit of rain, but it is usually very little, and sometimes none at all.
ACCOMMODATION: Very good to excellent, all have private, en-suite bathrooms, and full-time hot water. Electricity is available everywhere 24 hours a day, except at Cristalino, where the generator runs from 5-10pm and sometimes at other times of the day. Except for Cristalino, all lodges have air conditioning. Cristalino has ceiling fans, though they only operate when the generator is running.
PHOTOGRAPHY: This is a birding tour, but casual photographers will have great opportunities to photograph birds and mammals in the Pantanal. Photography in the Amazon is harder, but there are good opportunities along the river and from the towers. Serious bird photographers may wish to check out our Pantanal Photo Tour.
TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: A valid passport is required; the passport must be valid for at least six months past your intended stay. Tourist visas are currently not required for citizens of the US, Canada, Australia, UK, EU, New Zealand, and South Africa. For other nationalities, please check with the nearest Brazilian embassy or consulate for current requirements. Travel requirements are subject to change; please double check your visa requirements a few weeks before you travel.
WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Tips to drivers, local guides, boatmen, and lodge staff; roundtrip airfare between Cuiabá and Alta Floresta; accommodation from the night of day 1 to the night day 14; meals from dinner on day 1 (unless you arrive too late for dinner service) to breakfast on day 15 (if you have a very early departing flight, you may miss the included breakfast on the last day); safe drinking water as well as tea and coffee during meals; safe drinking water between meals; Tropical Birding tour leader with scope and audio gear from the morning of day 2 to the evening of day 14; hotel shuttle bus between the airport and hotel on day 1, and between the hotel and the airport on day 15; ground transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary from day 2 to day 3 and from day 8 to day 14 in a suitable vehicle with a local driver; transfers between Alta Floresta and Cristalino Jungle Lodge (may be shared with other lodge guests); private boat transport for the group while at Cristalino Jungle Lodge; private afternoon boat rides on days 10-11 (2 hours each); private speedboat for the group for jaguar searching on the afternoon of day 12, all day on day 13, and the morning of day 14; entrance fees to the sites mentioned in the itinerary; a printed and bound checklist to keep track of your sightings (given to you at the start of the tour – only electronic copies can be provided in advance).
WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Optional tips to the tour leader; tips for luggage porters in Cuiabá (if you require their services); international flights; excess luggage charges; snacks; additional drinks apart from those included; alcoholic beverages; travel insurance; excursions not included in the tour itinerary; extras in hotels such as laundry service, minibar, room service, telephone calls, and personal items; medical fees; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.