Sometimes while traveling, you have to take a leap of faith. With present day travel reviews and internet, it is hard not to know exactly what to expect when traveling. Until you don’t.

A custom Pantanal Expeditions private tour took up three-quarters of our time in Brazil crossing the Mato Grosso region most tourists only graze. Do you want to go off the grid? Touring this Brazilian state may be your ticket, especially if you aren’t staying in places that provide wifi.

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Entering the Pantanal.

Douglas, the proprietor of Pantanal Expeditions, has been guiding in the Pantanal for years. Andy interacted with him during his short trip to Bonito and speaks positively about his experience.

When we decided to head to Brazil for our honeymoon, Andy researched tours through Pantanal Expeditions, along with competitors. Douglas was cheaper than the competition, which begged us to ask if the saying “you get what you pay for” would come back and haunt us.

In addition to being relatively affordable, it was hard to find reviews of the overall trips he operated, along with reviews of Douglas specifically. We combed through the internet and found a review in French, which was translated to broken English for us to get the gist. Thank you Google Translate! The review was positive with one drawback, car trouble. The vehicle left them stranded and revising their itinerary.

Douglas is a small team of one. Organizing and negotiating a custom itinerary took weeks to iron out with long stints of silence. If he is on a tour, he is tending to clients and may not have the best internet connection to monitor email. As long as you are patient and plan way ahead of time or are booking a standard tour option, then this probably is not as much of a headache.

A huge sigh of relief when Douglas greeted us with a sign in Cuiabá’s small airport.

First Impressions

An eccentric individual who did seem knowledgable for the area. It didn’t take long for the plans to start to change. As we walked to the car from the airport, he broke the news that his hostel located next to a noisy pop-up bar was not ready for guests. Not wanting to invest in this place for tourists to stay and sleep, his project was put on hold.

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The 2002 (or so) 2-door Fiat hatchback covered in a layer of Pantanal dust inside and out was our wheels for the week. Next stop an unplanned hotel along the way to the Pantanal or until the car started to stall through town bouncing over speed bumps. Every time the car jolted over a bump, it stalled. Immediately shifting to neutral to ignite the engine again seemed like a fun game until we hit the open road.

After a few hours of driving, the car finally stalled into park at a Poconé hostel, where we checked into a basic room. Hotels like these make me regret not packing a tent to pitch along the way. Douglas left to stay elsewhere and the first few hours of the Pantanal made us question if the Fiat was going to start in the morning, let alone for the next 8 days.

Touring the Pantanal

Finally heading to the main attraction–wildlife. Cruising along the Transpantaneira, birds lined the road’s trenches way before we arrived at the first ecolodge on the trip. I was already jotting down the long list of birds Douglas helped us identify. The road is poorly maintained with rickety wooden bridges.

The next day it was time to head to Porto Jofre, a port on the Cuiabá River where we would spend a few days boating around the river in search of jaguars. Douglas’ motor was damaged by the lodge owner’s son where he was storing it, so we weren’t able to get on the water the first day and spent the day sitting around as Douglas picked up his boat and loaded the inoperable motor. I was frustrated as I really hate sitting still when traveling. This is when I started keeping track of everything that went wrong throughout the remainder of the trip.

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Pousada Porto Jofre’s dining quarters and where Pantanal Expeditions stores its boat.

We were slowly learning the Brazil culture with how Douglas managed these storage partnerships.

Our lodge was 30 km away from Porto Jofre, so we spent time driving the rough, dusty road between the two. Not a huge problem when wildlife was along the road to entertain the long bumpy drive.

Douglas delivered.

Navigating sometimes narrow passages, we pushed and rocked our way free through the swampy, shallow sections. I was alert and ready at every turn firing my trigger finger as much as my camera could keep up. Douglas explained and identified most of the wildlife. He had years of experience and sometimes had trouble identifying them in English.

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It didn’t take long to find other boats anchored near a jaguar resting in the thick trees. Not being able to get a good view and being scolded for the idling engine, we continued to cruise the rivers in search of jaguars–spotting many birds, caimans, and capybaras. Douglas does not carry a radio, so wildlife is found without help–unless we passed by them. If a boat captain uses a radio on the river, it is expected they return the favor and tip off other boats when jaguars are seen. Little did I know how important Douglas’s choice was to not carry one.

The third day on the river the owner of the lodge we were staying at slowed down to tell us there was a sighting. Racing through the river channels to get to the jaguar was almost sickening as we disrupted the wildlife on the banks and in the water. It was obvious where the jaguar was from the amount of boats anchored (we now sourced an old car part as an anchor).

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Following our lodge-mates to the jaguar’s location.

The aggravated jaguar was on the move. The other boat we followed moved downriver in the direction the jaguar disappeared. We pulled out our packed lunches and took a break. Before we knew it, it was lunch time for not only us but the jaguar as well. The tall river grass rustled on one quick burst, and the jaguar snatched up a tasty cocoi heron before disappearing to eat and nap in peace.

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After the commotion, we followed our new river friends to find more wildlife. En route, the other boat was leading through the winding river until they caught a branch below the water surface and almost flipped. It happened so fast, but a tourist was dumped from their boat into the caiman-filled water. Douglas started taking control to get the other boat stabilized with ours, so she could climb back into their boat. The other tour operator started scooping water. Their boat was unbalanced, and we got them to stop and rearrange to prevent overturning again. I was fortunate for the high safety standards Douglas upholds. No one on the other boat was wearing life jackets with only one accessible on board. Even after the incident, none of them reached for it.

As we continued back towards Porto Jofre in search of Giant Otters, we docked on shore for a quick refuel. The other boat kept going and we thought we would catch up to them as they were moving slower after the incident. We saw the otters and then continued to cruise around the rivers. It was getting late, and we had to drive all the way out of the Pantanal. Douglas finally stopped and said he was done looking for the other boat. I didn’t realize that was what he was doing. However, on the way back to the port, Andy spotted a jaguar!

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We had the jaguar all to ourselves and were able to get decent pictures even with all the brush coverage. The last spotting was the most authentic, and I felt way better about the overall experience. Thanks to Douglas for not carrying a radio!

For my favorite wildlife photos, check out “Macaws, Caimens and Jaguars, OH MY! – It’s Wild in Brazil.”

Touring Ecolodges

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None of the lodges were over the top. We stayed in a few throughout our adventures in the Pantanal. Accommodations along the Transpantaneira Highway are made up of ranches and can be hit or miss. Breakfasts, packed lunches, and dinners were provided to the guests. The rooms were decent sized and were overall clean. An occasional frog would be in the toilet bowl or hiding somewhere in the room.

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