The Pantanal. The largest tropical wetlands and one of the most richly biodiverse locations in the world. This pristine and remote paradise in the western part of Brazil is home to the largest big cat in the Americas, the jaguar. The jaguar is the top predator in the Pantanal and regularly feeds on caiman, capybara, and giant river otters, among many other species of fish and mammal. The beauty of the Pantanal is unlike any place you’ll ever visit. Rivers and tributaries wind in and out through the jungle flora creating the most magical bends and breaks in the canopy full of plants, birds, and mammal species in every corner and every turn. The scent in the air smells of crisp, clean leaves and tree bark as you coast along the river in the boats looking for jaguars on the side of the banks.
Our journey on this year’s Pantanal trip began in Porto Jofre, at Panthera’s ranch known as Jofre Vehlo. A partnership that began years ago with Alan Rabinowitz has made the Panthera staff and community, especially in Brazil, like family to us at C4C so we always stay on their property at their lodge. Our group arrived at Jofre Vehlo in the evening after a five hour drive down the Transpantaneira Highway. Along the drive we saw hundreds of birds, caiman, capybara, Pantaneiro cowboys, and the most exciting spotting of all…a JAGUARUNDI!!! This species is extremely difficult to see in the wild. They are very elusive and fast. As a wildlife biologist working in the field frequently, I have never even seen one on my camera traps in all of the jungles of Central and South America I work in despite it being my favorite small cat species in the world. As our group was driving down the highway, our amazing driver Zedekeias slowed down after spotting something crossing the road ahead. As we got closer, we saw a small black cat species and realized it was the elusive jaguarundi. Such an extremely rare spotting started our trip out with the best of luck we could have possibly hoped for.
Upon our arrival at the Jofre Vehlo ranch, we were greeted with warm welcomes from our friend and Director of Panthera Brazil, Rafael Hoogesteijn and the whole ranch staff. After a long day of flying and driving, we called it an early night once we filled our tummies with the wonderful dinner the staff had prepared for us.
Days in the Pantanal begin very early with the rising sun. The best time to see animal activity in any ecosystem is at dusk and dawn and our first morning on the river was no exception. We woke up before the sunrise for a quick breakfast and were out on the river by first light. The river was chilly and misty as we made our way past other local ranches to the “jaguar corridor.” Within fifteen minutes of cruising we spotted our first jaguar! A cluster of boats was pulled over by the riverbank which is always a sure sign there is a jaguar in sight. And there it was. A beautiful female jaguar lounging on a fallen tree that was protruding into the river. Only about 50 feet away, bathing in the sun, she let us observe her without a care in the world for close to twenty minutes. Our group was speechless. Their first wild jaguar sighting ever!!! It was truly a magical moment to witness our wildlife conservation guests seeing this wild animal in her natural habitat for the first time.
The rest of the day was filled with five more jaguar sightings as we watched them hunt, play, rest and swim right in front of us. In addition to the jaguars, our guest saw hundreds of bird species along the way as well as caiman and capybaras galore.
In the evening we made our way back to the ranch for dinner and drinks. Our youngest guest, Raina turned 21 years old the week before so our Panthera hosts arranged a surprise birthday cake and celebration in her honor. Thanks to our gracious hosts, Suelen and Jasmine, our group enjoyed a beautiful celebration in honor of Raina turning 21.
The next few days were spent like the first, with full days on the water in the mornings and afternoons and breaks for lunch back at the ranch during the scorching midday hours. Every day our group had at least five different jaguar sightings as well as the ever-entertaining antics of the giant river otters multiple times. We’d spend hours with these animals, merely feet away from us, watching in wonder as they went about their daily business.
On our fifth day in the Pantanal we began the long journey to our second location, the Amolar Mountains, which is a five-hour boat ride down the river. Along the way we made two stops. First, we stopped by a local family’s home to deliver and install a solar panel our wonderful guide, Ailton bought to support the local communities in the area. Ailton is a saint. He is the most wonderful person you will ever meet and has a heart of gold, always selflessly helping others in any way he can. He has dedicated his life to protecting jaguars and educating people on their importance. Not only is he the best guide in the Pantanal, but he built and owns one of the jungle lodges for jaguar tourism in Porto Jofre. Everything he has he attributes to jaguars. They are his life, his love, and his passion. In addition to guide, entrepreneur, naturalist, educator, and driver (the list goes on) he is also a skilled handyman and electrician. He can literally fix and install anything that needs to be done.
We pull over on the side of the riverbank, in the middle of nowhere, jump out to the family’s property, and began assisting Ailton on a solar panel installation for the community. When I say we “assisted” it was more of us watching Ailton in wonder while we ran around playing with puppies and chickens. In the end, after only about thirty minutes, we left them with a fully functioning solar panel that will allow them to have electricity in that remote part of the Pantanal.
Our second stop along the way was to see Vicente, the last remaining descendent of the indigenous Guato Tribe. He has spent his entire life in a little hut along the river. We met him for the first time in 2018 on our first Pantanal trip with Panthera. He is the sweetest old man ever and when you ask him how old he is, he says, “76 or 77. I don’t remember.” When you pull up to his house, you immediately know you are in the right place because you are bombarded with TONS of cats! And I mean, tons! He has about 40-50 cats all over the place that live on his property. They are everywhere. Inside the house. Outside the house. In the trees. On the roof. Chasing each other in the grass. Laying on all the benches and tables. I’ve even seen one sleeping inside a hollowed-out caiman shell that Vicente used as a bowl. Everywhere.
We delivered some gifts we had to Vicente and stayed with him a while chatting and catching up. Before leaving we told him we would be back in two days to take him with us to see the petroglyph carvings from his ancestral tribe that were carved in some rocks along the river. He was very happy to have us there and said he would love to join and take us to the petroglyphs.
We said our goodbyes and continued on our way to the Amolar lodge. Once we arrived at the lodge, we were greeted by my good friend Diego who is a wildlife veterinarian all over Brazil. Diego would be our guide in the mountains for the next few days and had flown all the way from Corumba to be with us for the second year in a row. We put our luggage away and freshened up then came back down to the river to kayak out to the lake for sunset.
We rowed out to the lake in our kayaks just in time to watch the sun begin to set over the mountains. Surrounded by giant lily pads, we lounged back in our kayaks all in a row and chatted with Diego while we watched the sun fall behind the mountains on a crisp, perfect evening.
After kayaking we had dinner, drinks and lots of laughs then called it an early night. We would be starting early the next morning for our big hike in the mountains and wanted to be well rested. We woke up at sunrise, had a quick breakfast, then hopped in the boat for the short ride to the trailhead of the Valley Trail in the Amolar Mountains. We spent the next four hours hiking through the jungle, up and up until we reached the lookout point that overlooked the entire valley. Such a beautiful view from up there looking out at the vast mountain range that circled around us. Just breathtaking.
We made our way down into the valley then turned around to head back just before the midday heat became too much to bear. The weather during the hike was scorching even with us having begun early to beat the heat. By the time we made it back to the lodge we were drenched in sweat and exhausted. What better way to cool off after a long hike than to go swimming in the natural pools! After a wild ride in a rundown safari vehicle down the trail, and another short hike through the jungle, we arrived at the natural pools and spent the rest of the afternoon swimming and playing in the fresh water.
The next morning, we woke up for another early hike, this time much shorter though and on a little jungle trail behind our lodge. We were in search of monkeys. There are multiple species of monkeys in that area including, Titi monkeys, Night monkeys and the smallest and most adorable ones…the Marmosets. We didn’t find any monkeys but we had fun climbing into the trees ourselves.
Next up in the afternoon we went back to pick up Vicente as promised. When we arrived, he was on the river in his canoe, fishing for piranhas and he had a very lucky catch that day. His canoe was filled with them. He dropped them off at his house and hopped in our boat to lead the way to the petroglyphs.
After driving in the boat for about twenty minutes, we pulled up to a part of the river that was covered in trees. Vicente told us it was there. We were a bit confused because it was just a bunch of trees. Then, our friend and boat driver Ailton steered the boat straight into the hanging branches and a secret cove opened up in front of us. A giant rock wall covered in ancient petroglyphs was tucked behind this secret entrance. Ailton and Vicente jumped out into the water and found some fallen logs to create a makeshift bridge for us girls to walk across to the shore. We made it to the shore and started climbing up the wall to get to the petroglyphs at the top. Vicente led the way. It was magnificent to see these thousand-year-old carving from his ancestral tribe, a tribe that is almost completely gone and that only has one last, pure descendant left of, which is Vicente. Witnessing this history in person was one of our favorite parts of our visit down to the Amolar Mountains, as we listening to him speak with Ailton about his tribe while we were on top of the cliff, overlooking the mountains in front of us from above the treetops. We climbed down, hopped back in the boat, and said our goodbyes to Vicente once more before dropping him off at his “house of cats.”
For our last night in the mountains, our hosts made plans for a special sunset journey to a beach on the Bolivian border about an hour away. The boat ride was magical as we made our way past beautiful beaches at the foothills of the mountains, little cabana houses along the water, and finally to the obelisk in the sand that is the marker for one of the borders between Brazil and Bolivia. We spent the next couple of hours sharing wine and laughs as we watched the sunset over the water. On the ride back, the scent in the air was so wonderful I could never describe it in words other than saying I wished at that moment that I could bottle it up and savor it forever.
The next morning, we would leave the Amolar Mountains to head back to Porto Jofre and back to the jaguars, but that evening was one I will never forget and will always be a reminder of how spectacular the people, animals, and environment are in the Amolar region of the Brazilian Pantanal.
Our next day was long. After a five hour boat ride back to the ranch in which we were lucky enough to see a family of otters playing in the river, we arrived just in time to head out on an evening spotlighting drive with Rafael, the Director of Panthera Brazil and a group of guys from Red Yaguarete, an Argentina nonprofit organization dedicated to the protection and preservation of jaguars in their country. On the drive we saw two ocelots, a giant red-footed tortoise, multiple deer species, crab-eating foxes, an adorable owl, many different bird species, and a breathtaking sunset.
Our next, and second to last day of the trip was probably the best. We spent the entire day our on the water and it definitely paid off. We had TEN jaguar sightings that day! To celebrate we went to the nearby lodge Ailton owns called Jaguar Camp and met up with the guys from Red Yaguarete, Ailton, another local guide Marcos, and our friend and wildlife photographer Chris Brunskill and his local guide/friend, Branco. After a short presentation by Ailton on the local culture and history of the Pantanal, we spent the rest of the evening, drinking, singing, and laughing. It was the perfect ending to a perfect day on the water with ten jaguar sightings, a record for me and many others.
On our last day we saw five more jaguars. We said our goodbyes to our friend Ailton who had been with us the entire trip, guiding us, driving us and joking with us along the way. We are forever grateful to him for his knowledge, friendship and beautiful soul. Thank you, Ailton, for making the world a better place for people and jaguars alike. You are a true Pantanal treasure.
We said our goodbyes to our Panthera family, a group of amazing people who continue to protect jaguars and the people in the Pantanal who live among them. Special thanks to Rafael (Director of Panthera Brazil), Suelen (teacher at Panthera’s school), all of the staff at the Panthera ranch, cooks, cowboys, cleaners, drivers, ranch hands, and our driver Zed. Other special thanks to our Amolar family, Rabelo, Marina, Joseph, Adriano and Diego. And of course, many more thanks to Ailton for being the best guide in the Pantanal and for showing us the beauty of your home, through the wonder and fascination of your own eyes. Last but not least, I’d like to thank our 2019 Pantanal participants for joining us this year on an epic adventure in jaguar conservation. B.J., Sarah and Raina! Thank you for your continued support in wildlife conservation and thank you for your passion and love for animals that radiates through you wherever you go. The world needs more powerful, inspiring women like you and on behalf of everyone at Climb for Conservation, thank you and we look forward to seeing you again on another C4C expedition.
Written by: April Kelly
Wildlife Conservation Biologist
Climb for Conservation
Photos by: April Kelly