The region known as Pantanal or the Gran Pantanal is the largest tropical wetland in the world, with an area of 210,000 km2. Approximately 80% of it falls in Brazil, within the States of Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul, while the remaining part covers north of Paraguay and east of Bolivia, where it's known as Chaco. Its name comes from the Portuguese word swamp, pantano.
This immensely huge savanna located in the upper Paraguay river and several tributaries conforms the largest freshwater continuous inundated system to be found today. During rainy season - December to May - its level rises between three and five meters, covering about 80% of the total area.
As a consequence of the floods, this fragile ecosystem generates an enormous wildlife concentration with such a great biodiversity that makes it absolutely unique. In fact, it was designated as a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in the year 2000.
According to the Brazilian Ministry for the Environment, Pantanal exhibits 463 species of birds, 132 of mammals, 263 of fish, 113 of reptiles, 41 of amphibians and over 2,000 species of plants. Its most famost bird, icon of the region, is the Jabirú stork o Tuyuyu -Jabiru mycteria. It can reach up to 1.5 meters in height.
As a sort of introduction to Pantanal's wildlife, here's a short list of some of its most distinguished inhabitants...
To add a visual dimension to the wealth you'll come across when ready to experience Pantanal, here's a small photo introduction in the form of a haiku deck...
Traditionally, Pantanal has been considered the Mecca for anglers in Brazil and, together with cattle ranching, the economic engine of the region for decades. However, ecotourism has becomed increasingly important in this regard, with related activities such as bird watching, photographic safaris, horseback riding and other outdoor activities that attract visitors from all over the world.
In fact, it is a better place to spot wildlife than the Amazon rainforest itself. While the dense foliage of the jungle makes harder to see animal life, the open marshes of Pantanal - particularly during dry season, July to September - provide the opportunity to see animals in their natural environment as they concentrate around the lagoons formed after the floods recede.
Pantanal has little population density and no towns. In many senses, it remains a wild and almost inaccessible region, so vast that locals need to use small planes and motorboats to move around, due to the limitations of road transport. Even 4WDs need to respect seasonal flooding.
In this regard, the main access route is the Transpantaneira - also known as MT-060 - it runs for around 45 km between the city of Poconé and Porto Jofre, crossing over one hundred wooden bridges.
The cities of Cuiabá - capital city of the state of Mato Grosso - Campo Grande - capital city of the state of Mato Grosso do Sul - and Corumbá (also in Mato Grosso do Sul) are the best gateways to Pantanal.
The region started to apper in old maps as early as XVI under the name of Laguna de los Xarayes (Xarayes lagoon). Xaraye is the name of a long extint aboriginal tribe. Early Spanish explorers Martínez de Irala and Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca thought of it as a lagoon, based on the vast expanse of water they encountered.
If you'd like to learn more about the history of the region, there is an interesting paper in Spanish language written by Maria de Fátima Costa from the Federal University of Mato Grosso (Brasil) - "El Mito geográfico de la laguna de los Xarayes y el Pantanal Brasilero".