When I traveled to Brazil several years ago, I had the goal of seeing a jaguar.
Arguably the best place to see a jaguar in the world is the Pantanal.
The Pantanal is bordered on the south by Campo Grande, the north by Cuiaba, and the west by the border.
Pros and Cons of the North Pantanal and South Patanal
The south pantanal is the most convenient of the two locations. It is closer to Iguacu Falls than the North Pantanal and can be reached via a night bus as opposed to 27 hours of bus rides.
If you plan to head to Bolivia (Santa Cruz) or come from Bolivia, there is a train called Red Oriental that connects Corumba (425km west of Campo Grande). This train is also known as the “Death Train” because it is not that comfortable. There may also be a bus, but the most common method is the train.
You also have the options to fly from Puerto Suarez to Santa Cruz, Bolivia on Boliviana de Aviación or AeroSur.
Traveler also has the luxury of traveling to , which is becoming increasingly popular.
The biggest con in my opinion is that lots of the Pantanal in the south are ranch lands. It is also less likely to see the Jaguar in the South than in the North. While many people claim the South is just as good as North, I find that hard to believe.
The biggest con of the North Pantanal is that it is a challenge to get there if planning to head into Bolivia. If you are simply flying in and out than there really isn’t an issue. You can easily fly in Cuiaba (North) or Campo Grande (South).
The pro is that it is the best place to see Jaguars. You drive down the Transperian Road into the part and at the of the road there is the option of a boat ride.
In the end, we choose to go to the North Pantanal.
Did we see the Jaguar in the North Patanal?
YES WE DID!
We took 27 hours of bus rides to Cuiaba. We ended up doing 3 day / 2night stay in the north Pantanal. Our hotel picked us up from Cuiaba.
Within the first couple of minutes, we saw a crab eating fox, Capybara, Macau, and caimen. It was pretty amazing.
It went from 90 degrees to 50 degrees within 24 hours. Do not expect to be hiking around? You literally get on the back of a pick-up truck with some benches.
To confirm we were in the right spot, we met several other tourists that flew to the North Pantanal simply to spot Jaguar. For the first day and half, we saw no Jaguars and were extremely cold in the back of the pick-up.
On the last day, we drove all the way to the end of the road and then got on a boat. It was cold, rainy and most people decided to stay at the hotel at the end of the road. 5 of us decided to make the adventure out on the river. We all of a sudden saw buzzards in the air and two minutes later we spotted a Jaguar.
We literally saw the Jaguar for 30 minutes. It was epic! We were extremely close to the Jaguar!
While the group that was at the hotel was disappointed, they ended up seeing another Jaguar a day or two later. I think this is proof that this is the best place to see Jaguars. Our guide at the hotel indicated that people on average see a Jaguar every three or four days, but it is totally random.
Travel to Santa Cruz via San Matias
When booking our hotel in the North Pantanal, the owner indicated that there was a bus from Caceras to Santa Cruz. Our hotel had a driver that took us to Caceras, but as we approached Caceras, he indicated that it was best if we headed to San Matias to get to Santa Cruz.
There is a bus that leaves from San Matias to Santa Cruz, but it leaves like every other day. The border crossing is literally a stick across the road with about 20 Bolivian military personnel handing out on the grass. We signed our name in a book at a Coffee table, and we were off to San Matias.
We unfortunately missed the bus. We could stay in San Matias, but San Matias is not the safest looking town. We ended up talking to our driver who agreed to drive us to San Ignacio. There was no gas stations in San Matias. We had to get gas from some barrels in someone’s backyard. We got stopped every 30 minutes by military people asking for a bribe. It was quite a scary experience, but we ultimately did make it to San Ignacio. San Ignacio was actually surprisingly nice and we stayed at a nice hotel. The next day we got on a local bus that took us to Santa Cruz.
In short, it is possible to get from San Matias to Santa Cruz, but it is not easy. I would have the hotel in North Pantanal do the research for you.
I also found out a post on the Thorn Tree Forum from someone in Lonely Planet that explained the trip. It is definitely the road less traveled, but it is quite an adventure.
GOT TO LOVE THE NORTH PANTANAL!