I had dreamed about visiting the Pantanal ever since I first heard about this ecological gem in the central west of Brazil. The word "pantanal," which literally means "swamp," doesn't do justice the region's outstanding biodiversity (in fact, thinking of it as a swamp is about as mistaken as calling Australia a desert).
In actuality, the Pantanal is a vast alluvial plain, with elements of marsh, savannah, rain forest, meadow and even caatinga (semiarid land with scrub - including cacti). Inside its 230,000 square kilometers, the Pantanal is home to more than 80 species of mammal, 60 species of reptile, 260 species of fish and some 650 bird species (including the migratory birds that pass through). This is one of the most important ecosystems on the planet and hosts one of the highest concentrations of wildlife in the New World - hence the attraction. Like most visitors, I came hoping to get a glimpse of toucans, macaws, jacare (alligators), monkeys, capybara (the world's largest rodent) and from a safe, respectable distance perhaps even a jaguar.
The Pantanal, which is surrounded on all sides by higher lands, has two distinct seasons: the rainy season (October to March) and the dry season (April to November). During the rainy season, travel can be difficult as the many rivers through the region flood their banks. The one attempt by the Brazilian government at putting a road through (from north to south) resulted in the Transpantaneira, which goes less than 140km into the Pantanal (and has 118 bridges, all but two made of wood). There are three main cities from which most visitors organize - Cuiba to the north (where you can access the Transpantaneira), Campo Grande to the south, and Corumba to the southwest, along the Bolivian border.
I decided to visit the Pantanal via Cuiaba, and planned to organize a trip with Joel Souza, who is one of the pioneers of ecotourism in the Pantanal. His name was passed on to me with high recommendations (from both colleagues and from readers who've written into Lonely Planet in recent years). It wasn't quite so straightforward setting up a trek, as I had a tough time getting through to Joel. Fortunately, Joel was there at the airport when I arrived; he was waiting - not for me exactly, but for any traveler who might come through looking for a tour.
Despite his vast experience as a guide (25 years leading tours into the Pantanal), Joel has a straightforward, humble manner, and like other guides, he still approaches travelers at the bus station and airport; for those who don't know who he is, he can arouse suspicion in wary travelers. "You are Joel Souza?" I asked after he handed me his card. "Yes, yes, that's me," he said in very good English. "I've been looking for you," I said.
That night I stayed in the simple pousada (guesthouse) that Joel and his family run in the old part of Cuiaba. After checking out the restaurants and other pousadas in town, I met Joel for a drink at a ramshackle cantina, reminiscent of something you'd find in the back streets of Oaxaca, Mexico. Like some of the other patrons at the bar, Joel bears many of the features of his Guarani ancestors. (Joel's late grandmother was Guarani.)
Over glasses of cold Bavaria (a Brazilian beer despite the name), Joel told me about some of his passions in life - which included the Pantanal, but he was also an aficionado of aircraft, short-wave radio and birds. "It must be the zodiac of the air," he mused. He explained that reception for his radio is fantastic in the Pantanal, with vast open spaces and no interference for miles. Listening to the BBC's "Voice of America" was one of the tools he used to learn English. Today, he sometimes tunes into stations broadcasting from Germany, Finland even Indonesia. "I don't understand a word of it, but I still like to listen, to hear the music, and think about a different part of the world."
Joel told me that he doesn't lead treks as often anymore to the Pantanal, instead, he has several guides - "the best," he said - working for him. He said that he loves going to the Pantanal because it is always changing. "The plants grow up so fast that if I stay away for a while and come back, the region looks completely new. Tomorrow, you will get an idea of all this."