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Where to spot jaguars

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The swish of a tail in the long grass, the dip of a head to drink at the riverbank - they may seem elusive but once you have trained your eye, expect the first glimpse of a jaguar to set your heart racing. After lions and tigers, jaguars are the largest of the big cats, and like their fellow felines bring a spine tingling thrill with every sighting.

Jaguar on the shores of a river in the Pantanal, Brazil

The jaguar is similar in appearance to the leopard, although jaguars are more solidly built and have shorter limbs. It seems that of all the big cats, jaguars have the strongest jaws, adapted for crunching through tough reptilian scales and turtle shells, which form a substantial part of their diet in some areas.

Jaguar hunting a caiman in Pantanal Brazil

The jaguar is present in much of South and Central America, and though their territory is much reduced from centuries past, they roam over large areas of the continent, particularly in tropical or subtropical forests, swampland areas and landscapes featuring waterways. They have been sighted in the southern US states of Arizona and New Mexico too, though these occurrences are vanishingly rare. There is a strong popular association between jaguars and water, although in fact they can live in many environments from desert areas to rainforests.

Jaguar resting in the Pantanal

Central and South America offer your best chance of seeing jaguars in the wild, and there are certain areas you should put on your shortlist if jaguar sightings are a priority. With the help of our local experts, we’ve put together this overview of our most jaguar-friendly destinations to help you decide where to go on your next adventure.

Brazil

If you are serious about spotting a jaguar in the wild then there is one destination that should shoot to the top of your list - the Pantanal wetland in Brazil. It is unquestionably the place with the highest likelihood of a jaguar sighting anywhere in the world.

Jaguar hunting by Cuiaba river in Brazil's Pantanal

The Amazon Rainforest may have a similar density, but the tangled vegetation and inaccessibility of many areas means an encounter is unlikely. The Pantanal on the other hand is much more open and the vegetation is more sparse, largely due to the fact that during the wet season much of the landscape is waterlogged. During the dry season, however, the watery ponds and marshes shrink back leaving open grasslands and ensuring that the water-loving wildlife is concentrated around the area’s rivers.

Capybara grazing with cowbird on back in Brazil's Pantanal

The bonus for wildlife spotters is that man has fished these rivers for centuries and left the jaguar undisturbed, so the sight of people approaching by boat does not send these magnificent creatures slinking towards the nearest cover. They are often to be seen along riverbanks snoozing or fishing, and will obligingly stay there while you observe and photograph them for long periods.

a male jaguar in the Pantanal, Brazil

Where wild animals are concerned nothing is 100% certain, but to optimise your chances of seeing a jaguar in the wild take a safari in the Pantanal wetlands. An added bonus is the mind blowing biodiversity in the area, meaning that any Pantanal safari will be an exciting and memorable adventure, with or without a jaguar sighting.

Giant river otters in Brazil's Pantanal

Costa Rica

Jaguars are present in many areas of Costa Rica, usually protected zones where they are undisturbed by human activity. There are several areas that offer a reasonable chance of a sighting such as the National Parks of Monteverde, Santa Rosa, Tortuguero, Corcovado and Rio Macho. They are elusive because they prefer dense vegetation and often hunt at night, so spotting a jaguar in Costa Rica is not guaranteed, but Tortuguero is considered the area where you stand the best chance.

Jaguar in Costa Rican jungle

Changing habitats have meant jaguars have had to adapt their behaviour to survive - though the preferred territory of a lone male is usually hundreds of square kilometres, they have had to become more tolerant of other individuals because virgin forest is shrinking. This tolerance has come about because there is an abundance of prey.

Corcovado National Park, Costa Rica

Belize

There are Jaguars present in most areas of Belize but the population is especially dense in Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, set up over 30 years ago as a protected section of forest stretching across almost 400 square kilometres of pristine habitat. There are around 200 jaguars present in the reserve which is one of the densest known populations of these elusive cats in the world.

Jaguar in Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, Brazil

That said, their shy nature and stealthy habits make them phenomenally difficult to spot, even if you overnight in one of Cockscomb’s camps. Their survival depends on their ability to remain out of sight and they are particularly adept at doing just that in Belize’s tangled rainforests. You are perhaps more likely to see evidence of jaguar activity in the reserve than an actual cat, so you might find tracks or droppings for example.

Jaguar crossing sign in Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, Belize

While you are keeping your eyes peeled for jaguars, there are plenty of exciting bird species to look out for and a wide variety of other interesting wildlife including other big cat species, such as puma and ocelot, as well as otters, peccaries, deer, pacas and coatimundis.

aracari toucans in Belize

Make it happen

The thrilling moment of locking eyes with a jaguar is an unforgettable wildlife encounter. Why not get in touch with our local experts today and find out what other fabulous experiences you could pack into your trip? To speak to someone in the TravelLocal office please call +44 (0) 117 325 7898.

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