Take the Florida Everglades and multiply it by 10, populate it with record-holding wildlife like the world's largest snake and rodent, and add a local culture that shares more in common with the cowboys of the Wild West than the beach bunnies of Rio, and you've got the Brazilian Pantanal, easily South America's best place to view wildlife. The world's largest wetland, the Pantanal sits between three of the continent's prime ecosystems, the Amazon rainforest, the Brazilian Savannah, and Paraguayan Chaco (dry forest), making it a veritable melting pot of South American plant and animal life. And, unlike the Amazon rainforest—where dense tree cover hides much of the wildlife—most of the animals in the Pantanal can be easily spotted in the region's grasslands and marshes.
Surprisingly, most of the Pantanal is privately owned ranchland, not national park. Although the ranchers and wild animals coexist fairly well, the past few decades have seen thoughtless outside developers, poachers, and chemical runoff from upstream farms threaten to destroy it. A few conservationists have been buying up ranches to protect them, however, including Brazilian Andre Thuronyi, who established a 7,400-acre reserve in the northern Pantanal in 1992. Thuronyi rehabilitated the land and built the region's first eco-lodge, Araras, and hired locals to serve as guides and stewards. Now, species that were once nearly wiped out in the area have grown in number, with some—like the blue macaw and jabiru stork—taking up residence right outside the lodge.
On even a short stay at the lodge (I visited for four days last August), you can easily see a hundred or more bird species; mammals like giant anteaters, giant river otters, and capybara (think 140-pound guinea pigs); reptiles like anacondas and caiman (a crocodilian species); and, if you're lucky, jaguars.
During a stay at Araras, you'll be able to see wildlife in a variety of ways, including day and nighttime game drives, canoe trips on nearby rivers, walking safaris, treetop observation towers, and on horseback. Horseback riding in the Pantanal is particularly fun because the specially bred Pataneiro horses have no problem wading through neck-deep marshes filled with caiman, and the wildlife doesn't spook when you're on a horse. Plus, the guides, who are mostly former cattle drivers and ranch hands, are happy to teach you about the Pantanal's fascinating cowboy culture.
The lodge has 19 rooms with private bathrooms, a swimming pool, and indoor and outdoor dining rooms and bars. At the end of the day, it's great to feast on a steak fresh from the neighboring ranches and then relax in a hammock with a caipirinha, a Brazilian libation made of sugarcane liquor and pulverized fruit.
Trip planning:Rates include round-trip transfers from the airport in Cuiaba, accommodations, all meals, guides, and excursions. When searching for flights, it may be best to book international and internal flights separately, as many U.S.-based online sellers do not include fares from all the domestic Brazilian airlines. Using this strategy for August travel, fares from Miami to Sao Paulo (Brazil's main international gateway) start at $755, including taxes, from Hotwire and fares from Sao Paulo to Cuiaba start at $472 round-trip including taxes on Gol.
Sleep under the stars in Chilean Patagonia
Lodge:EcoCamp Patagonia Price:from $1,059 per person for four-day packages