Northern Pantanal Region

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The Northern Pantanal comprises about a third of the total area of the Pantanal.

It is remarkably rich in wildlife in the Northern Pantanal, with some areas harboring what is believed to be the largest concentration of jaguars in the world.

Jaguar in the Pantanal of Mato Grosso
Jaguar in the Pantanal of Mato Grosso

A drive along the Transpantaneira in the Northern Pantanal is also popularly regarded as one of the best wildlife watching experiences in South America.

In addition to the wildlife, the region has an exuberant culture – with great festivals in Cuiabá, Poconé and Vila Bela da Santíssima Trindade.

The Northern Pantanal region comprises about a third of the Pantanal’s total area and is more aquatic than the southern region.

It is made up of a plain with a large number of rivers, lakes and lagoons – which flood and come together during the rainy season.

The area is punctuated by wooded hills that remain above water level and provide a refuge for wildlife during the rainy season.

Archaeological evidence also suggests that these hills were the site of the first human settlements in the region.

The Northern Pantanal was also the first region of the Pantanal to become the focus of European colonization.

This settlement was driven by the discovery of gold in the early 18th century – leading to the founding of Cuiabá, Poconé and Vila Bela da Santíssima Trindade (then on the borders between the rival Portuguese and Spanish empires).

Parque Nacional do Pantanal Matogrossense
Parque Nacional do Pantanal Matogrossense

The early settlement and the diversity of cultures involved have left a rich cultural heritage that visitors to the region can still witness today.

Cities and Regions in the Northern Pantanal

Map of the Pantanal
Map of the Pantanal

1. Cuiabá

Despite being outside the Pantanal, the city of Cuiabá is the center of travel in the region.

However, when passing through, it is highly recommended that visitors experience the museums, regional cuisine and cultural festivals that the city has to offer.

Cuiabá is the capital of the state of Mato Grosso. Together with its sister city, Vázea Grande, across the river from Cuiabá, it is the state’s main metropolitan area – with a combined population of almost 1 million.

If you’re flying into the region, this will probably be your first stop.

Cuiabá is the gateway to the northern Pantanal – as well as the nearby Chapada dos Guimarães and other attractions. Cuiabá also has its own local culture and sights worth exploring.

Cuiabá is one of the hottest cities in Brazil, literally, sometimes reaching 43 °C (110 °F).

These high temperatures correspond to the rainy season – which also makes it more humid. It is believed that the city’s name, Cuiabá, comes from the Bororó indigenous word IKUIAPÁ – which means “place of IKUIA”. Ikuia is the name the Bororó gave to the practice of fishing with a bow and arrow.

2. Cáceres

The Pantanal region around Cáceres includes several historic farms, ecological areas in the Taiamã and Serra das Araras Ecological Stations, and a large annual fishing festival.

The city is also the center of several boat hotels that allow you to explore the interior of the Pantanal in comfort.

The historic city of Cáceres is known as the “Little Princess of Paraguay”. Every year, it hosts the largest freshwater fishing competition in Brazil (and probably the world) – as well as beautifully restored old buildings.

The surrounding district includes two ecological research stations, cave diving and opportunities for extended fishing trips in Barco-Hotels in the middle of the Pantanal.

3. Poconé

Poconé is a must-see for wildlife.

Also known locally as the Pink City, due to the blooming of the ipês, Poconé is the main gateway to the Northern Pantanal.

It is the starting point for the Transpantaneira, a 150 km stretch of dirt road that connects Poconé to Porto Jofre – a journey that offers some of the best wildlife viewing opportunities.

Transpantaneira in the Northern Pantanal

The region is served by an established network of lodges and farms.

The region includes the Transpantaneira – a dirt road that leads into the heart of the Pantanal (and also gives access to around a dozen ranches) with unparalleled wildlife watching opportunities.

Poconé’s culture, with the annual cavalcade that recreates a medieval battle between Christians and Moors, and the Masked Dance are also unique.

Most of the region’s economy is still based mainly on livestock and agriculture, but a significant contribution is now coming from tourism.

Gold mining has also returned, but has been modernized, operating under controls aimed at reducing pollution of waterways and the environment.

4. Mato Grosso Pantanal National Park

Porto Jofre (at the other end of the Transpantaneira) is the gateway to the Mato Grosso Pantanal National Park.

Map of the Transpantaneira in the Northern Pantanal
Map of the Transpantaneira in the Northern Pantanal

The area remains undeveloped and almost untouched – which means it is one of the best places in the region to see and photograph a wide variety of wildlife, including more than 600 species of birds, as well as larger animals such as giant anteaters, giant otters, tapirs, howler monkeys and jaguars

The park is located at the confluence of the Paraguay and Cuiabá rivers, and includes several large lakes, such as Uberaba Bay.

It was created in 1981 from an old ecological station and reserve inhabited by the Guató Indians.

The park expanded with the acquisition of several farms on the outskirts of the park.

There aren’t many facilities for visitors and it is more oriented towards conservation and research than tourism. There is no camping or accommodation in the park. However, boat trips through the park can be organized from Porto Jofre.

5. Barão de Melgaço

Barão de Melgaço includes the birthplace of Marshal Cândido Rondon, one of Brazil’s most respected historical figures.

The town has several lakes and inns that are worth exploring – while the regional town of Jaciara is a popular rafting destination.

The Pantanal region of Barão de Melgaço offers other options for travelers.

Although not as famous for its wildlife as the Poconé region, there is still plenty to see and do.

Further afield, the city of Rondonópolis offers visitors the chance to explore rock formations and archaeological sites, while the cities of Jaciara and Juscimeira offer adventure sports such as rafting, abseiling down waterfalls (or just enjoying the view) and the opportunity to relax in thermal pools.

6. Vila Bela da Santíssima Trindade

Finally, the town of Vila Bela da Santíssima Trindade, in the far north of the Pantanal region, is an important historical center that was once the capital of the territory of Mato Grosso.

The city offers a unique insight into Brazil’s African culture – as well as a mixture of fauna and landscapes from the Pantanal and the Amazon along the Guaporé River. It is also the only place in the region where you can find pink dolphins.

Vila Bela da Santíssima Trindade (or Vila Bela) was founded in 1752, and was the first capital of Mato Grosso territory until 1835, when that title was transferred to the more easily accessible city of Cuiabá.

Vila Bela da Santíssima Trindade is located near the border with Bolivia, about 540 km from Cuiabá and 300 km from Cáceres. Although it is still off the beaten track, Vila Bela is well worth a visit. As well as its historical sites, the town preserves ancient African customs (some of which no longer exist in Africa).

The town is close to the Pantanal, but its local environment is a mixture of Amazon rainforest and Catinga (high pastures).

There are high rocky outcrops and picturesque waterfalls. In addition, the Guaporé River, which runs through the town, is the only place in the region where you can see the pink river dolphin, as well as the gray river dolphin (tucuxi or boto-cinza).

However, the city remains underdeveloped, with no major tourist infrastructure, which means that visits are best suited to more adventurous travelers with some basic Portuguese to negotiate accommodation and excursions locally.

See the following publications on the Pantanal of Mato Grosso:

  1. Watching Mammals and Reptiles in the Pantanal
  2. Fishing in the Pantanal – Best places, baits, methods and seasons
  3. Most common fish species in the Pantanal
  4. Bird watching in the Pantanal of Mato Grosso
  5. Most common bird species in the Pantanal of Mato Grosso
  6. Flora of the Pantanal of Mato Grosso
  7. Fauna of the Pantanal of Mato Grosso
  8. Mato Grosso Pantanal – Geography, Climate, Soil and Rivers
  9. History of the Mato Grosso Pantanal – Discovery and Economic Development
  10. Southern Pantanal Region
  11. North Pantanal Region
  12. Why go to the Pantanal in Mato Grosso?

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