Gateways to the Pantanal
The best way to experience the Pantanal and observe its amazing birds and wildlife is by staying at a small lodge; depending on the time of year you'll either head out in a four-wheel-drive, canoe, boat, on foot, on horseback, or a combination of these. The Pantanal has three gateway cities: Cuiabá, which connects to the Transpantaneira Highway and gives access to the South Pantanal; Campo Grande, which leads in to the South Pantanal; and most isolated of all, Corumbá, which stands on a cliff top looking over the Pantanal itself, and provides access to lodges in the southwest of the ecosystem. None of these cities is really worth visiting in itself. Most lodges will pick you up at the airport and whisk you out into the swamp with nary a second glance at the city. The quickest access to the Pantanal is via the city of Cuiabá, just an hour and a half by car from the Transpantaneira Highway.
Tour Operators in the Pantanal
Whether you decide to go to the North Pantanal or the South, whichever lodge you decide to visit, you may find it easier and often cheaper to arrange your visit through a tour operator, who can arrange not only your stay but your transfers to and from the lodge, and even help out with flights to the gateway cities. Sometimes there is a premium on top of the lodge costs for this service. Sometimes the operator can make up his costs through the discount he gets from the lodge, in effect passing this savings on to you. In any case, it's worth checking out what they have to offer. You can always book directly with a lodge afterward if you decide the service being offered isn't worth the money or effort.
Two particularly good operators offer expeditions to lodges in either the North or the South Pantanal. Located in the U.S., Brazil Nuts (tel. 800/553-9959; www.brazilnuts.com) offers packages to a number of lodges, including the two pioneers of Pantanal eco-tourism, Araras Eco Lodge in the North, and Caiman Ecological Reserve in the South.
Located in Campo Grande, Open Door (tel. 067/3321-8303; www.opendoortur.com.br) has some excellent packages for the Pantanal, Bonito, and combinations of the two. Open Door works with a wide variety of lodges in both the North and South Pantanal, including difficult-to-reach reserves such as Fazenda Barranco Alto.