Brazil: Pantanal Photo Tour

The world-famous Pantanal, a huge seasonal wetland the size of Texas, offers some of the best wildlife viewing in the world. We have timed this tour for the dry season, so birds are concentrated in the areas where there is still standing water. The feeding frenzies of hundreds of herons, ibis, storks, terns, screamers, jacanas, vying with dozens of hungry caiman offer truly unforgettable spectacles and amazing photo-ops. A sure highlight will be the huge electric blue Hyacinth Macaws, truly one of the world’s most spectacular birds, and we see them in good numbers, up close, on most tours.

The Pantanal is a vast area of wetland, and to maximise our time there, we’ll stay in four different lodges, each with their own strengths for photographers. All of these lodges (one doubles as a working cattle ranch) are situated near rivers and wetlands that are packed with waterbirds, and surrounded by gallery forest. One of these, Pousada Piuval can’t be beat for its sheer number and variety of birds, while Pantanal Mato Grosso Lodge offers boat rides where you can get very close to herons, up to five species of kingfisher, and families of mischievous Giant Otters. Sandwiched in between these will be a short stop at Pouso Alegre Lodge, an area of pristine habitat, which has a heady list of mammals, and usually offers the best chance to photograph Giant Anteaters. All lodges are like mini oases, and keen photographers can stay busy even in the heat of the day with the dozens of birds hanging around just outside the rooms. Towards the end of the trip, more than two days will be spent trying to photograph the most magnificent of all neotropical mammals, the Jaguar. Nowhere else is it seen more reliably, and we’ll have our own fast, private boat and boat driver to maximize our chances.

Day 1: Arrival in Cuiabá. You’ll be transferred to a hotel near the airport for the night.

Days 2-3: Pousada Piuval. On the morning of day 2, we’ll drive south about two hours to Pousada Piuval at the northern edge of the Pantanal, where we’ll spend two nights. Piuval is a truly amazing place for bird photography – numbers of both species and individuals can be astronomical, and the wide open nature of the Pantanal makes great shots a given. The habitat is a mosaic of open pasture, wetlands, and scrub interspersed with islands of forest. We’ll spend our mornings stalking the likes of Southern Screamer, Plumbeous Ibis, Red-legged Seriema, Bare-faced Curassow, Greater Rhea, Whistling Heron, Blue-fronted Parrot, Long-tailed Ground-Dove, Great Rufous Woodcreeper, White Woodpecker, and Red-crested Cardinal, to name just a few. This is one of the best spots for Hyacinth Macaw, which can be seen in good numbers every day, and we’ll spend time trying to get the perfect shot of these majestic birds. Depending on conditions, we may visit a small canopy tower one afternoon offering eye-level views of Orange-backed Troupial and Gray-crested Cacholote as well as a vista of the surrounding wetlands that are teeming with birds and other wildlife.

Hyacinth Macaw is an iconic bird of the Pantanal
Hyacinth Macaw is an iconic bird of the Pantanal (Pablo Cervantes Daza)

Day 4: Pousada Puival to Pouso Alegre. We’ll swap one great location for another as we work south along the Transpantaneira. Pouso Alegre’s status has increased in recent years, as its reputation as the place to see, and photograph, the impressive Giant Anteater, has grown, and this will be our major target. Pouso Alegre is in fact a haven for many rare mammals, as it has pristine habitats lacking in many other Pantanal lodges, with mammals like Giant Armadillo, Ocelot, and Crab-eating Fox all known to be there. Of course, birds are plentiful too, and some of the classic Pantanal birds are here, like Hyacinth Macaw, Toco Toucan, Red-headed and Yellow-billed Cardinals, and even the secretive Agami Heron stalks the waterways on site. A single night will be spent at Pouso Alegre.

Giant Anteater is a truly impressive beast
Giant Anteater is a truly impressive beast (Pablo Cervantes Daza)

Days 5-6: Pixaim River area. Traveling south along the Transpantanal Highway can get us some truly great photo opportunities. Some sections of the highway are lined with literally thousands of caimans as well as waterbirds as far as the eye can see. Yellow-billed and Large-billed Terns flit over the isolated pools offering great chances to practice flight shots. We’ll arrive at our next lodge for lunch. We’ll stay at one of several lodges in the area depending on availability and river conditions. Boat trips on the Pixaim River are the undoubted highlight of a stay at this lodge. Experienced boat drivers know how to get up close and personal with numerous herons (with luck both Agami and Boat-billed among the more common species), Sunbittern, Sungrebe, up to five species of kingfisher, Giant Otters, and maybe even a Brazilian Tapir. The lodge area itself is an oasis full of birds any time of the day, and feeders bring in Chestnut-eared Aracari, Orange-backed Troupial, Grayish Saltator, Grayish Paywing, and others. Gallery forest along the river is difficult for photography, but some may want to give it a shot since it offers an escape from the blazing sun. With persistence and the help of your guide you have chances for great birds like Pale-crested Woodpecker and Helmeted Manakin, or monkeys including Brown Capuchin and Silvery Marmoset.

A White Woodpecker near the lodge along the Pixaim River
A White Woodpecker near the lodge along the Pixaim River (Nick Athanas)

Days 7-9: Porto Jofre and Jaguar search. Well spend the morning of day 7 driving south along the Tranpantanal Highway to the end of the road at the Cuiaba river. This drive offers our best chance to get shots of the gorgeous Scarlet-hooded Blackbird and the stately Maguari Stork. We’ll arrive at our hotel in time for a quick lunch, then board our private boat to begin searching for Jaguars. This involves cruising up smaller tributaries of the the Cuiabá River, watching carefully for any movement. The boatmen also share information with each other via radio, and if a cooperative jaguar is found by another boat, we’ll try to get to the spot as soon as possible. We also won’t ignore other photo opportunities, and should encounter the likes of Sungrebes, Black-collared and Great-black Hawks, scores of herons and kingfishers, as well as Giant Otters, Tapirs, Capybara, and possibly even other cat species. Three nights will be spent in Porto Jofre in order to give us plenty of chances to track down, and shoot, Jaguars and other Pantanal wildlife.

This guy was shot from a boat on my first trip to Porto Jofre. A highlight of my life.
This guy was shot from a boat on my first trip to Porto Jofre. A highlight of my life. (Iain Campbell)

Day 10: Pantanal to Cuiabá. Depending on whether we are still after the ultimate Jaguar photo, we may spend more time in the morning on the river, or we may depart earlier to have further time with the many subjects along the Transpantanal highway. We’ll then drive back north out of Pantanal to Cuiabá, where we spend our final night.

Is he wondering if it would make a tasty snack?
Is he wondering if it would make a tasty snack? (Nick Athanas)

Day 11: Departure. The tour ends this morning with transfers to the airport.



PACE: Relaxed to moderate. It’s important to be out early to take advantage of the cooler temperatures and better light. Breakfast will typically be at about 5:30-6:00am. On most days there will be a lot of downtime after lunch, since the light is poor and it’s usually very hot. There is only one especially long drive on this trip, on day 10. One afternoon, most of 2 full days, and (if necessary) another morning will be devoted to photographing Jaguars, though we will also photograph birds and other animals when possible; jaguar photography is done by motorboat, and these outings typically last between 4 and 6 hours before returning to the lodge.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Easy. The Pantanal is totally flat. Some photography will be done by foot, some by boat, and a bit by vehicle.

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, full-time hot water, fans, and air conditioning. Electricity is available everywhere 24 hours a day. Wi-fi is usually available but it is often slow and usually only works in certain areas of the lodge (not within the guest rooms).

PHOTO PHILOSOPHY: For the first four days and the last day, we’ll be photographing mostly on foot (but we’ll have a vehicle to take us between sites), targeting mainly birds. The rest of the trip will be spent mainly photographing from boats, with the occasional photo shoot near the lodge on foot. About three days will be focused on Jaguar photos, but we’ll shoot other things during that time if the opportunity arises, such as birds, Giant Otters, tapirs, and monkeys. There are bird feeders that offer decent photo ops at the lodge next to the Pixaim River.

GEAR: A long telephoto lens (500 or 600mm) or a good 300 or 400mm with a teleconverter is recommended for smaller birds, but is usually overkill for Jaguars, where a 300mm (with full-frame DSLR) or a high-end zoom is ideal. There is usually so much light that tripods are rarely essential for sharpness, but of course can be helpful to hold your heavy gear so you don’t have to. Lighting is harsh towards the middle of the day, so fill flash can help mitigate strong shadows.


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, boatmen, and lodge/restaurant staff; accommodation from the night of day 1 to the night day 10; meals from dinner on day 1 (unless you arrive too late for dinner service) to lunch on day 11; reasonable non-alcoholic drinks during meals; safe drinking water between meals; one of our photo guides with camera and audio playback gear from the morning of day 2 to mid-day of day 11; hotel shuttle bus between the airport and hotel on day 1; ground transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary from day 2 to the afternoon of day 11 in a suitable vehicle (with a smaller group the guide will drive, and for larger groups there will be a local driver); private boat transport for the group on the Pixaim River; private boat transport for the group for Jaguar photography on the afternoon of day 7, the full day of days 8 and 9, and (if necessary) the morning of day 10; entrance fees to the sites mentioned in the itinerary; a printed and bound checklist to keep track of what you have photographed (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; 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.