Jaguar in the Pantanal on our Brazilian vacation
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Jaguar Safaris In The North And South Pantanal: Which Is Better? (2024)

Last Updated on May 29, 2024 by Nicole

My husband and I spent 10 days in the Pantanal in Brazil in October. It was simply magnificent. If you love seeing wild animals in their natural habitat, living their lives largely undisturbed by humans and modern life, then this is the destination for you. Over 10 days, we saw 14 jaguars, a handful of giant otters, tapirs and giant anteaters, and hundreds of capybaras, caiman, and birds (as well as other animals). We spent days on beautiful rivers with barely a person or building in sight, spotting and watching these incredible creatures and it was extraordinary. In this article, I will provide our itinerary, a planning guide about how to organize your trip, and an overview about the differences between the south and north Pantanal, and which, in my opinion, is better if you don’t have time to visit both.

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jaguar in north pantanal
One of 14 jaguars we saw in North Pantanal.
Capybara in North and South pantanal
birds you see on north pantanal itinerary

At A Glance

I know you are busy. If you only have a couple minutes to spare, here are the key takeaways from this article.

  • Both the North and South Pantanal offer excellent wild life viewing. Caimans, capybaras, tapirs, and dozens and dozens of different species of birds are easily found in both areas.
  • If you want to see Jaguars or Giant Otters, you should go to the North Pantanal.
  • If you want to see Giant Anteaters, you should go to the South Pantanal.

If you can find more time, try to read my full article. It explains my suggestions, gives you details about experiences that you will have, and provides travel tips.

Background To Our Pantanal Vacation

Once I researched the Pantanal and decided that it was the area that I wanted to visit, I enlisted the help of John at Brazil Nature Tours to help craft my itinerary. He was very helpful and patient, answering the endless questions that I had.

What I especially appreciated was, through our discussions, not only was he recommending programs and lodges already listed on the company’s website, but also making other suggestions to satisfy my requests. He really listened to my goals for this holiday.

Ultimately, the 10 days that we spent in the Pantanal was everything for which we hoped.

We were picked up and dropped off at all airports and transferred to and from our lodges and hotels effortlessly.

We stayed for 4 nights at Southwild Jaguar Flotel in the North Pantanal and for another 4 nights at Pousada Refugio da Ilha in the South Pantanal. At each lodge, we had our own English speaking naturalist guide who guided us on our private tours. Each lodge offered their own daily programs but left it to us to ultimately decide at what time we wanted to start or stop, or whether we wanted to make changes to the activities.

All meals at the lodges were included in the cost of our stay, and any meals purchased on our way to or from a lodge were always at a good and well priced restaurants with clean bathrooms.

We never felt unsafe. Quite the opposite, we only met wonderfully kind and hardworking people. As you will see from my more detailed description below about our time in each destination, we spent hours traveling to and from airports to our lodges. We saw a good chunk of the Pantanal and had an opportunity to really get a feel for the area.

Apart from arrival and departure cities, it was mostly wide open land with a few towns here and there. There was not one instance that I felt anything but welcomed.

Where And What Is The Pantanal

The Pantanal is a natural region in Brazil encompassing the world’s largest tropical wetland area, and the world’s largest flooded grasslands.

It is located mostly within the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul (from Campo Grande airport), but it also extends into Mato Grosso (from Cuiaba airport) and portions of Bolivia and Paraguay. If you look at a map, it is found almost in the center of South America.

For context, the Pantanal is larger than 29 US states and at least nine European countries, and yet, it is only a small fraction of Brazil.

caiman on pantanal vacation in braziil

This massive wetland has the highest density of animals in the Americas. In addition, it has the largest concentration of caimans in the world, with approximately 10 million. Jaguars, the largest feline in the Americas, love to hunt caiman. Accordingly the Pantanal, has one of the highest density of jaguars anywhere in the world. The Pantanal is also home to the biggest parrot on the planet, the Hyacinth Macaw.

Hyacinth Macaw in pantanal in braziil
Hyacinth Macaw

Some people confuse the Amazon and the Pantanal. For clarity, the Amazon and the Pantanal are two very distinct areas in Brazil and offer different wildlife viewing and experiences.

Almost 95% of the Pantanal is owned privately, mostly by farmers. The area is not very fertile so it is mostly used to raise cattle.

The Importance Of Timing In The Pantanal

There is a vast difference between the wet and dry season in the Pantanal.

The rainy summer season runs from about November to April, during which the bulk of the basin’s roughly 40 to 55 inches of annual precipitation falls. This leads to much of the Pantanal being submerged underwater, with waters rising up to five meters (sixteen feet) during January and February.

From July through to the end of October, it is the dry season in the Pantanal. Not only does it not rain, but it is so hot and dry that the land that was once underwater by several feet in the rainy season is bone dry, with most small rivers almost completely drying up and disappearing.

caiman on side of road in Pantanal
Caiman grouping around small dried up river.

We were there in October, the very end of the dry season. I can attest that the land was incredibly dry and small inland rivers were basically puddles with dozens and dozens of caimans and other wildlife surrounding them, trying to get their food and water from what little water was left.

What this means from a wildlife perspective is that in the dry season, all animals are drawn to the larger rivers in order to eat, drink and survive. On the other hand, during the rainy season, these same animals could be driven to completely different areas, staying on higher ground if land animals. They do not need to go to the large rivers in search of water or food.

As we did not go to the Pantanal in the rainy season, I can’t speak to what you will see or your experience during this time. However, our guides told us that a whole different ecosystem evolves and there are also significant wildlife encounters that you can have, many of which are completely different than what you will see in the dry season.

Accordingly, before booking, you should figure out why you are going to the Pantanal and what animals you wish to see. Make sure you time your trip so that the weather allows you the best opportunity to see these unbelievable animals.

North Pantanal Itinerary And Planning Guide

We first went to the North Pantanal on our trip to Brazil. We flew 2 hours from Sao Paulo to Cuiaba on a direct early morning flight, and were collected from the airport by a driver and Zaine, our naturalist guide for our 4 night/5 day stay at the Southwild Jaguar Flotel.

Once settled, we immediately started the 152 miles (245 km) drive to Porte Joffre, the place from which we would pick up our boat to take us to our lodge. The land journey, if done without stops takes around 4.5 hours.

For the first half of the drive, we were on paved roads. However, the roads were unpaved and gravel for the second half of the drive, essentially from the entrance gate of the Pantanal to Porte Joffre. We had to go much slower on these roads than the paved ones.

But that was just fine. Almost immediately upon entering the Pantanal, we casually passed hundreds of caimans, dozens of capybaras, and of course, birds, birds and more spectacular birds.

birds on pantanal itinerary

We stopped for lunch on our way and another time for a bathroom break. All told, it took us 6 hours to reach Porte Joffre. However, time passed quickly as we were lost in the animal viewing.

Southwild Jaguar Flotel

We were greeted at Porte Joffre by a speed boat and Tito, a lovely local young man who whisked us 30 minutes along the Cuiaba River (and others) to our lodge. We later learned that this was our private boat for our 5 day stay and Tito was our captain who also helped Zaine spot animals.

Within seconds of leaving the port, we were completely immersed in the deep browns of the river, the emerald greenery of the trees and grasses along the shores, and the beautiful and exotic birds flying overhead and resting on the shore. Apart from the occasional boat, there was little evidence of any civilization.

After 30 minutes, we arrived at our hotel which is unlike most hotels anywhere in the world. Before us, there was two air-conditioned small ferry sized boats anchored end-to-end that had been converted into a hotel.

Southwild Jaguar flotel in North pantanal
Southwild Jaguar Flotel

One boat offered 12 spacious and luxury guest rooms called Jaguar Suites, all of which featured four-meter-wide, floor-to-ceiling, sliding glass doors, comfortable bed and ensuite, and sitting area. On the top deck, there was an outside communal area with seating and fantastic views of the river and the shore.

The other boat offered fewer rooms that were also a lot more modest. They had large very comfortable beds and an ensuite with excellent air conditioning, but the rest of the room was very small and basic. In addition, these rooms were located right underneath the communal dining room and indoor living room for everyone, and next to where guests loaded and unloaded from their boats.

Amenities at Southwild Jaguar Flotel

The amenities at the lodge were very limited. There was a large dining room with wifi where we ate our three meals per day. There was a large selection of food offered buffet style for each meal. Seating was dining room tables and chairs. There was also a bar in the dining room that was cash-only.

The only other indoor common space was adjacent to the dining room. It was a large living room style that also served as a spot that the main naturalist guide for the lodge (different from our guide) gave nightly 30 minute lectures about different commonly seen animals in the area.

While we were there, he lectured on jaguars, giant otters, and caimans. These talks were really informative and interesting.

Other than the dining room, living room, and the outdoor top deck of the other boat, there wasn’t anywhere else for guests to go or sit (apart from your own room).

Impressions Of Our Stay At Southwild Jaguar Flotel

The reason that people choose to stay at the Southwild Jaguar Flotel is that you are immersed in nature, on the river, and in a part of the Pantanal that offers you the best opportunity to spot jaguars, Giant Otters, and other animals nearby, or a short boat ride away. There were multiple rivers that were easily accessed from the lodge.

There were only a couple of floating hotels like this in the area. What other accommodation was available was traditional, on land near or beyond Porte Joffre, and required you to use up parts of your day getting to and from your lodge to the areas with the animals.

However, choosing to stay at the Flotel meant that there was very little to do when not on your boat looking for Jaguars and other wildlife encounters.

As for the rooms, we stayed in the modest suites below the living room. I thought that we had booked the nice suites, but we had not. Our travel agent said that had we booked the other suites, we would have had to pay thousands more dollars. However, this was not made clear to us. Accordingly, if you wish to stay here, make sure that you are very clear about which category of room that you want and are booking.

As described above, these rooms were very basic and could be noisy when people were getting into and out of their boats, or during meal time when people were walking overhead. We always travel with ear plugs and a white noise maker so this did not impact us. However, if you are sensitive to sound, these rooms would not be ideal.

Nonetheless, they had two of the most important things – a very comfortable bed and amazing air conditioning. Temperatures were over 100 degree Fahrenheit (40 degree Celsius) when we were there!


There was lots of healthy food. During each buffet, there were multiple entrees, salads, and desserts offered. No one would ever go hungry on the Flotel. However, the food wasn’t particularly remarkable.

In my experience, food at ecolodges is rarely exceptional. What makes an excellent ecolodge – remoteness and trying to be as authentic to the natural surroundings as possible – makes it a difficult spot for chefs to easily access a variety of ingredients to produce well seasoned or interesting food.

There was also a big emphasis on re-purposing food. So, steak that was offered at lunch would reappear at dinner, served in a slightly different way. While I appreciated that they were trying to limit waste, it wasn’t appetizing knowing that you were seeing the same food reappear for a few meals.

Daily Schedule At The Jaguar Flotel

Each morning, we woke up at 5:30 am, had breakfast, and got on our boat no later than 6:30 am. With sweltering temperatures and high humidity, we needed to look for wildlife in the cooler parts of the day. By 11:00 am, the heat and sun were brutally hot. Neither animals nor humans wanted to be anywhere but in cool shady spots.

From 11:00 am – 2:30 pm, we ate lunch and normally read or napped in our room.

After that, we returned on our boat searching for more wildlife until sunset, around 5:45 pm.

Just before it got too dark, we came back to the boat, showered and headed up for drinks, dinner, and any lecture that may be offered. We always ate our meals with Zaine, our guide.

By 9:00 pm, we were in bed and asleep.

Jaguar in the Pantanal on our Brazilian vacation
One of the jaguars we saw getting into the water.
Pantanal holiday to see wildlife
The same jaguar swimming across the river.

Wildlife Encounters In The North Pantanal

Over the next 3 days, we encountered 14 different jaguars. We saw them swimming (they LOVE the water), mating, resting in trees over rivers, sleeping in underbrush next to the rivers, and stealthily stalking the shores.

We saw literally hundreds of caiman of all sizes, both in the water, on the sandy shore, and in the low lying grasses.

One of my favorite animals were the capybaras. These giant rodents often hung out and played with their offspring in the shallow parts of the river. I could watch them for hours.

capybara on 5 day Pantanal trip
large adult male capybara on land
Large adult male capybara on land.

Giant otters were also easily found. These critically endangered animals were playful and cute, but as a group, a serious threat to predators who dared approach. We loved watching them dig out their nest into the bank of the river, ready for bedtime.

Giant otter in north pantanal
Giant otter
Giant otter in nest in north pantanal
Giant otter coming out of nest.

And then there were the birds! I am not a bird watcher or even a bird enthusiast, but in the Pantanal, you can’t help but be mesmerized by the hundreds of species of gorgeous and fascinating birds that were everywhere you looked. They were incredible.

We spent hours and hours, mostly alone, exploring the rivers around us and never got tired of spotting these astounding animals.

The only other time we were not alone was when a jaguar was spotted. When that happened, the guides in each boat warned the other guides by walkie-talkie, and most of the time, about a dozen boats eventually arrived trying to spot it.

Some people then spent hours sitting and watching the jaguar, hoping for a unique animal behaviour – mating, swimming, or even a kill. Nothing might happen – the jaguar could simply walk mere feet back into the brush and grasses along the shore and disappear – or you could be rewarded with amazing sights. However, the stifling heat meant most jaguars stayed near the water. Each boat decided how they wanted to spend their time – stay and watch, or move on to other wildlife encounters.

wildlife on 5 day north pantanal trip
Jaguar up a tree.

You never went ashore. All land was private and there were no paths. Our whole time in the North Pantanal was spent on the water and it was wonderful.

Other Resources

We have had many wonderful adventures in Central and South America. For more information about other destinations and our experiences, please see:

South Pantanal

After 4 nights, we left and made our way back to Cuiaba to catch our flight to Campo Grande in the South Pantanal. If you book a direct flight, it is only an hour’s flight.

From Campo Grande, we were picked up and driven 141 miles (227 km) to our next lodge, Pousada Refugio da Ilha. The drive took just over 3 hours.

The drive was on paved roads except for the last 10 minutes when we were nearing the lodge. We went through a few towns but spent most of the drive in the countryside. However, unlike the North Pantanal, we only saw a handful of animals on our drive. It wasn’t very populated, but compared to the North Pantanal, there were more towns, buildings and civilization along our route.

Pousada Refugio da Ilha

Pousada Refugio da Ilha is a family owned inn that sits on its own private reserve. It only offers 8 suites in its beautifully sprawling main house. All of them are large, authentically and uniquely decorated, and charming. Each room has air conditioning and its own outside private seating area.

Pousada Refugio da Ilha in South pantanal
A view of the main house at Pousada Refugio da Ilha.
view point at Pousada Refugio da Ilha on 5 day south pantanal vacation
One of the view points at Pousada Refugio da Ilha.

Located on an island formed by two river branches, Pousada Refúgio da Ilha is on the edge of the crystal clear waters of the Salobra River, in the Salobra River Delta. From every vantage point from the main house or around it, you see different bodies of water filled with various fauna, birds, caiman and capybaras. Within steps of the main house, you are at the banks of the river, ready to climb into a boat to discover wildlife along its banks.


The main house offered lots of seating areas to read or watch tv, and an honor bar to enjoy cocktails at any point during the day. You could walk around the property, crossing bridges over ponds or standing on decks, watching the wildlife that called the property home. There was also spots to lay out and sunbathe, or swim in the river, if you were so brave.


Food was exceptional. The chef was overseen by the owner and worked from her own family recipes. Every meal was served buffet-style with several delicious dishes on offer each time. For every meal, there was a fantastic selection of entrees, side dishes, and desserts, notwithstanding there were only 8 guests staying at the inn when we were there. The food was likely the best food that we had ever eaten at an eco-lodge.

Daily Schedule at Pousada Refugio da Ilha

Once again, we were assigned our own private English speaking guide for our 4 nights’ stay – in this case, the son of the owners.

The schedule was similar to the Jaguar Flotel since it was still exceptionally hot, humid and sunny. We woke up at 5:30 am, had breakfast, and then, left for our morning activity. We would come back around 11:00 am, have lunch and free time until around 2:30 pm. Then, we would head out for our afternoon excursions, returning at sunset.

After a shower, we had drinks, dinner, and either chatted with other guests, watched tv, or headed back to our room. Bedtime was also very early – usually 9:00 pm.

private motorized boat from Pousada Refugio da Ilha
A boat safari along the narrow rivers with capybaras in the grasses.

Activities And Experiences At Pousada Refugio da Ilha

Over 4 days, we got to choose from several activities.

We could take our own private motorized boat to explore the rivers and see the wildlife. This was in some ways very similar to our time in the North Pantanal – same type of boat and we were surrounded by stunning scenery: lush green grasses and brush along the shores of the river obscuring anything beyond; brown murky rivers, and not a person, boat, or building in sight.

However, the rivers here were exceptionally narrow and shallow in many spots. This allowed us to get even closer to the wildlife that we spotted along the way.

It offered a land safari with an open air jeep, similar to one that you would find on an African safari. This allowed us to go deep into the forests and lowlands, looking for other animals and birds not necessarily drawn to the rivers. This is where we saw our first giant anteater and it was incredible!

giant anteater in south pantanal
Giant anteater

We also did a night safari which was cool. After sunset, we drove on the private reserve in the safari jeep. Our guide shone a spot light out into the fields and trees trying to spot nocturnal animals.

One of my favorite experiences was canoeing on the river. We loved paddling and being able to hear the animals and birds call out. With the noise of the engine on the motorized boat, we normally couldn’t hear the animals. However, with the silence of the canoe, we were able to get even closer to caimans and capybaras who would not hear us approach.

canoeing in south pantanal on 5 day getaway
Canoeing on the river.

The inn also offered horseback riding which I would have loved to do, but it was just too hot.

On our last day, we did a full day river cruise on the motorized boat. We went deep into nature, following rivers even further away from civilization. The kitchen at the lodge packed us a picnic lunch, which was delicious, so we didn’t have to return until sunset. This is when we saw 4 tapirs.

Tapirs are the largest land animal in South America. They look like a cross between an elephant and a pig. They LOVE the water – even mate in the water – but are also incredibly shy. Often, you may spot one, but as soon as they hear you approach, they quickly disappear into the brush.

tapirs on south pantanal 5 day vacation
tapirs on south pantanal 5 day holiday
Tapirs mating.

However, on this day trip, at the farthest point away from the lodge, we had four different encounters with tapirs. We literally stumbled across each one of them in the water as we turned a bend in the river.

What is incredible is that tapirs totally submerge in the water, including their heads. They can swim underwater for long periods to avoid detection. Luckily for us, because of the narrow size of the river, we were able to cut the engine of the boat, float along the current, and follow them once they popped their head out of the water. Only when they ran into the long grasses along the banks did we lose them.

Which Area Of The Pantanal Is Better?

If you have the time and budget, I would highly recommend that you go to both the North and South Pantanal. They each offer unique experiences.

However, if you have to choose one spot, which one should you choose?

That depends.


If you want to get to your lodge as quickly as possible, then you should choose Pousada Refugio da Ilha in South Pantanal. It took only 3 hours by car and was predominately on paved roads.

On the other hand, Southwild Jaguar Flotel takes a minimum of 4.5 hours by car (without stops), and you spend at least 50% of the time on unpaved gravel roads. Then, you need an additional 30 minutes by boat. All told, with lunch and bathroom breaks, you should allot between 6-8 hours to reach the hotel.

Accommodation and Food

Southwild Jaguar Flotel is very unique. It places you right in the middle of some of the best game viewing in the Pantanal. You are largely cut off from civilization so you are able to become immersed in the spectacular natural surroundings.

However, there is very little else to do at the lodge other than eat and sleep. If sophisticated food is important to you, then the Flotel will disappoint.

On the other hand, Pousada Refugio da Ilha offers more of a traditional hotel experience. Every room is beautifully decorated. You can freely walk around the property and enjoy watching tv or lounging in the sun. Food is exceptional. You are immersed in nature while you are on the property and along the rivers.

However, you don’t have the same feeling of being far away from civilization (because you are not). You are close to a small local community and can be often reminded that you are only a short drive to the highway depending on the excursions you are doing.

Jaguar on 5 day north pantanal vacation
Another jaguar in North Pantanal spending time in the water.


Without question, if you want to see jaguars, you MUST go to the North Pantanal and try and stay at the Jaguar Flotel. The guides are trained to quickly spot them and there is a system in place to inform all the guides in the area when a jaguar is located.

There are jaguars in the South Pantanal and we were told that there are occasional sightings of jaguars along the river near and around Pousada Refugio da Ilha. However, it is far less common.

We did not see any jaguars in the South Pantanal over 5 days, compared to the 14 jaguars we saw in the North over a similar time period.

Other Wildlife

Both areas offer an opportunity to spot lots of other wildlife other than jaguars. They are almost equal in opportunity. However, there are differences.

In the North Pantanal, around the Jaguar Flotel, we were surrounded by literally thousands of caimans and observed several Giant Otter families.

baby caiman in north pantanal
Baby caiman.

In the south, we saw lots of caimans, but by no means anywhere close to what we saw in the north. In addition, we were told that there was a Giant Otter family living near Pousada Refugio da Ilha but there weren’t any when we were there.

Both locations offered lots of opportunities to see birds. If you like to see birds, but are not a bird watcher, then you will likely be happy in either spot. However, if you are a passionate bird watcher, then you should head to the north.

bird in north pantanal
A bird that we spotted in North Pantanal.
A bird that we spotted in South Pantanal.
A bird that we spotted in South Pantanal.

In the North Pantanal, there is far less civilization and far more area for the birds to live without conflicting with humans compared to the south. In addition, in the north, there are extremely large and wide rivers, and also lots of smaller narrower ones. Each river draws their own bird species.

In the south, the rivers around Pousada Refugio da Ilha were very narrow so we could get very close to the birds that we saw. However, we had access to far less rivers and accordingly, saw less species than the north.

Beyond the North Pantanal being better to spot jaguars, Giant Otters, caiman, and birds, the south does have its own advantages.

We only saw Giant Anteaters in the south and we had the most extraordinary encounters with the elusive and shy tapirs in the south. In the north, we once saw a tapir on one of the large wide rivers, but it quickly and easily ran away as we tried to boat closer to the shore. We never saw another one again.

Traveling with Children

It would be hard staying on the Jaguar Flotel with young children. There is very little opportunity to run around. In addition, the wildlife viewing is more challenging on children. Once you spot a jaguar, you must stay motionless and quiet. This becomes even more important if other boats and tourists arrive.

Accordingly, Pousada Refugio da Ilha would be better for young children. They could play outside with close parental supervision. There is also enough room inside for them to play, a tv, and land based activities that they could also enjoy.


Within a two hour’s drive from Pousada Refugio da Ilha is Bonito, a city that is a center of ecotourism and adventure tourism in Brazil. We spent 3 days in Bonito at the beautiful Pousada Boyra after our time at Pousada Refugio da Ilha.

Bonito offers some extraordinary and unique experiences that are completely different than anything we did anywhere in the Pantanal. I would highly recommending adding some time here, in addition to the North and South Pantanal.

However, if you have to choose between visiting only the North or the South Pantanal, then you should review my article Best Things To Do In Bonito In Brazil and the experiences that we had as this could be another factor when considering where you should spend your time in the Pantanal.

Last Word

For animal lovers, the Pantanal is one of the most extraordinary places to visit. It offers a whole array of animal and bird life that you can’t see anywhere else in the world. In many respects, it rivals an African safari experience, but for far less money. For those of us who live in North America, it is easier to reach than Africa and has little to no time change.

It is also one of the only places that you can truly watch jaguars in the wild. For that reason alone, it should be on every animal enthusiast’s bucket list.

It is still largely untouched. It offers a sophisticated tourism infrastructure, but without the demand. That will likely change. If you are interested, I would highly recommend you visit as soon as you can.

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