The movie Planes, Trains and Automobiles is rife with travel mishaps, from John Candy setting the rental car on fire to Steve Martin losing his shoe in a snow storm.
Our travels through the Pantanal weren’t quite so epic.
But we did find ourselves in a few pickles:
- After a 5am wake-up in São Paulo, 2 subway rides, 1 flight and a 3-hour wait for a bus that we almost missed, we arrived in Pocone both assuming the other had arranged the transfer from the bus stop to our lodge. We could have just called the lodge… if either of us had written down the phone number! We had to pay an inflated price for a taxi to take us to a hotel in town, ask the hotel to look up our lodge online, and then call the lodge for us. But the lodge hadn´t been prepared to pick us up and they weren’t available to do so. By this time is was 8pm and we ended up having spend R$100 to stay at the Skala Hotel in Pocone, which incidentally was lovely, comfortable and clean (In the end, our lodge kindly refunded us the cost for that night, so we actually saved money since the hotel was cheaper than the lodge.)
- The bus driver in Chapada let us off at the wrong stop on the highway. Our pousada was outside of town, and the driver said he knew where it was. But he left us off at mile marker 47, and it turned out our pousada was at marker 41. Not such a long distance… IF it hadn’t been 95F degrees, IF we hadn’t had luggage and IF we hadn’t been dumped on the side of a twisty mountain road, with cars and trucks flying around the curves at high speed. There was only one house with a small shop that was closed. We had to knock on several doors to find the owner, who tried to call our hotel. Except when she did, the phone number didn’t work (turned out there was a digit missing from our form!) So, she gave us some water to drink, helped us flag down a driver, who drove to the hotel to tell the owner. The owner then picked us up in his beat-up pickup truck — in which I sat on Rodrigo´s lap, crammed up against the windshield, as we whipped around sharp mountain turns.
Ah, travel days!
But the bigger issue for us overall was finding accurate and consistent information on the Pantanal. In general, it was hard to find that in Portuguese, let alone in English.
The Pantanal is massive and generally thought of as northern and southern sections. Cuiaba is the main town in the north, while Campo Grande is the urban center in the south. (Corumbá is in the west near the border with Bolivia and Paraguay, but we didn’t travel there.)
Cuiaba is the jumping off point for the northern Pantanal and Chapada. Overall, the tourist infrastructure is less developed here than it is in the south. This is partially a good thing as it keeps the area from being overwhelmed with people and development. But it makes it hard to plan and navigate.
Pocone is about one hour west by bus from Cuiaba. It´s the end of the line for the paved road and the start of the Transpantaneira Highway, a 144km dirt road which ends in Porto Jofre. Depending on where your hotel is, you are looking at anywhere from 15 minutes to 3 hours bumping along this dirt highway.
Chapada is about 45-minutes northeast of Cuiaba.
Bonito is located about 4-6 hours from Campo Grande on a good (and scenic) paved highway.
Our biggest unexpected expense was the cost of traveling between transportation hubs.
SOME IMPORTANT POINTS THAT AREN’T MENTIONED IN ANYTHING WE READ:
>Taxis at the Cuiaba airport charge R$58 to go 7km to the bus station
>If you go to the edge of the airport parking lot, you can catch a taxi for R$25
>We read there was a local bus from the airport to this bus station, but we never found it
>There are 2 bus stations in Cuiaba, located at opposite ends of the city.
>The bus that goes to Pocone is at one station; the bus that goes to Chapada is at the other
>Taxi drivers are sharks in the Pantanal – their prices are ridiculously inflated and most will not negotiate (and I mean in Portuguese!)
HERE IS A BREAKDOWN OF WHAT WE SPENT ON JUST TRANSPORTATION
(prices based on 2 people):
>R$25: Taxi from airport to bus station #1.
>$R30: Bus to Pocone
>R$10: Taxi from bus station to hotel in Pocone – to call our lodge
>R$60: Taxi from Pocone to bus station #2 (We chose to pay more for this option, instead of taking the bus to station #1, then either figuring out the local bus system to go across town to station #2 OR pay at least R$40 for a taxi
CUIABA TO CHAPADA:
>R$30: bus from Cuiaba to Chapada (from station #2)
>R$40: Local buses around Chapada
>R$80: Fee to owner of our pousada to drive us to the Cuiaba airport. (There was a 5:45am bus back to Cuiaba, but it would have left us at bus station #2, which was on the other side of town from the airport. We didn’t think we had enough time to figure out the local city bus system in time to make a 10am flight, and a taxi across town would have easily cost us R$50.)
CAMPO GRANDE TO BONITO:
(prices based on 2 people)
>R$140: Shared-van transfer from airport to our hostel in Bonito
>R$112 : Bus back to Campo Grande
>R$35: Taxi from bus station to airport
A NOTE ABOUT ACCOMMODATIONS AND TOURS OVERALL IN THE PANTANAL:
They were expensive in all 3 locations and it was difficult to find any kind of budget accommodations in Portuguese, let alone in English. This was especially true in the Pocone area, where my English reservation inquiries were given a higher quote than Rodrigo´s Portuguese ones. While I am used to the double-standard pricing that many countries use for foreigners vs. locals, the prices seemed SO inflated that it was frustrating.
While it´s cheaper to stay in Pocone and do day trips from there, you have a better chance at seeing wildlife by staying at one of the dozens of lodges, pousadas or ranches that branch off the Transpantaneira. These places charge much more, but they are usually all-inclusive and offer a better experience.
After contacting at least 15 different lodges, we chose Pousada Alegre because it was the cheapest by a long shot. While our rooms were very simple, they were clean and comfortable and the food was delicious and substantial — but without having seen the other lodges, I can´t really guess why they were so much more expensive. I will say that we felt the price we paid for the Alegre was worth every penny.
Pousada Alegre: 3 nights at R$190 per person, per night, including 3 meals and all activities and tours (not including drinks)
Skala hotel in Pocone: R$100 (after not being able to make it to the Alegre the first night)
Our guided tours were included in the cost above. However, there were people at the pousada that had hired a freelance English-speaking guide, Susan, who was excellent. We joined a few of those tours at no extra cost. I am not sure exactly how that worked — perhaps Susan and Luis have some kind of agreement. When we were planning our trip, we had considered hiring an English-speaking guide at an extra cost of R$200 per day, but in the end we decided that was just too much extra. So, we planned to just take our chances with a Portuguese-speaking guide and have Rodrigo translate for me. It turned out that we didn´t need to pay that extra money, since Luis spoke English and we were put on Susan´s tours anyway at no extra cost.
Chapada: We found it odd that prices were so high here, since hotels are NOT all-inclusive. However, there was a music festival in town, so that may have had something to do with it. We chose a place about 15km OUTSIDE of town, Pousada Boa Esperança and used a combination of the local bus, private tour and taxi to get around. Day one we paid for a group tour that comprised of a 7km hike through the canyon to waterfalls and swimming holes. While we probably could have done this ourselves, the trails aren´t marked as clearly as they could be and it was less stressful to have a guide who knew exactly where each waterfall/swimming hole was located. Day two we took the local bus into town and then hired a taxi to take us to see other sights, since the bus doesn´t go to those areas. Even if we had stayed at a hotel in town, we still would have had to pay for transportation, and while the town was cute, we really loved the seclusion and peacefulness of our Pousada. In hindsight, we should have rented a car in Cuiaba and driven to Chapada. It wouldn´t have cost much more than our other transportation combined and certainly would have been more convenient to travel between our pousada, the town, the lookout points, and back to Cuiaba to catch our early flight.
Pousada Boa Esperança: R$455 (3 nights)
Tour: R$140 (2 people)
Bonito: Had the best tourist infrastructure of the 3 places we visited and the most upscale hotels. We were quoted some very high rates for hotels, so we chose to stay in a private room at a HI Bonito Hostel – which was pricey, but still cheaper than any of the regular hotels we looked at. It was also one of the nicest private hostel rooms I´ve seen.
Unlike the other locations, the attractions in Bonito are mostly on private land/farms, so the prices are set, non-negotiable and only accessible through a tour. To complicate matters, transportation is NOT included in the cost of the tour and this price is based on how many people share the transfer. We were quoted a price of R$30-40 per person, but ended up paying much less. We booked both tours and the transportation directly through the hostel. From afar, we found this pricing system to be like a mafia racket. But after going on our tours, we agreed that the prices we paid were well worth it.
HI Bonito Hostel: $R220 (2 nights)
Blue Cave: $R30 per person (1/2 day)
Transport: $R15 pp
Rio do Prata: R$165 per person (full day, includes lunch)