(CNN) — Our boatman gets a radio call that a jaguar mother and two cubs have been spotted moving along a riverbank in the Pantanal wetlands of southern Brazil about 20 minutes from our present location.
But when we arrive, there's no sign of the big cats.
That's because they're in the water -- swimming across the Cuiaba River right in front of our boat.
The mother seems hell-bent on reaching the other side as quickly as possible. But the cubs are just too curious. The little jags linger in mid-river, staring at our boat like they've never seen anything so ludicrous. It takes a snarl from mom before they resume their swim, eventually crawling up a muddy bank and disappearing into the jungle.
It's the kind of moment that wildlife enthusiasts live for. Not just seeing or photographing magnificent animals in their natural habitat, but doing so at such close range you could literally reach out and touch them.
But that's the Pantanal, where experiences normally reserved for prize-winning wildlife documentaries are a daily occurrence.
'You can actually see the animals'
The Amazon Basin may have the reputation for harboring South America's iconic animals. But you're actually much more likely to encounter those critters in the Pantanal.
"The Pantanal is much more wide-open country," says Judy Drunha, an Amerindian who now leads wildlife tours in both places. "You can actually see the animals. And many different kinds. The trees, the vegetation is just too thick in Amazonia."
Considered the world's largest freshwater wetlands, the Pantanal is a mosaic of rivers, lakes, swamps and mudflats.
Although mostly in Brazil, the wetlands creep across the border into neighboring Paraguay and Bolivia -- a total area nearly as large as the island of Great Britain or the state of Utah.
With myriad waterways and expansive grasslands rather than solid walls of vegetation, the landscape is similar to Africa's Okavango Delta or Florida's Everglades.
A cousin of the crocodile, caiman are bountiful in the Pantanal.
But the wildlife is vastly different.
Hands down, the Pantanal is the single best place on the planet for viewing jaguars in the wild. And their numbers are growing.
Drunha says the region's jaguar population has increased from around 400 animals when she first started guiding the wetlands in the 1990s to around 1,000 today.
Researchers point to several reasons why the jaguars have rebounded in such a spectacular fashion in the Pantanal: a surplus of food, less poaching and the realization by locals that wildlife tourism is more profitable than farming, ranching or resource extraction.
"The new generation has a different attitude towards wildlife," says Pantanal rancher Carlos Jurgielewicz. "There is much more awareness about nature and preservation than when I was a child. We realize that we can now make more money from showing than shooting the animals."
Animals and endangered cowboys
The sun sets over the Rio Cuiba in Brazil's Pantanal wetlands.
And jaguars aren't the only animal attraction.
Among the region's other intriguing species are giant anteaters, blue-and-gold hyacinth macaws, capybaras and tapirs, giant river otters, the rare and endangered maned wolf, massive anacondas and the ubiquitous caiman.
A South American cousin of the crocodile, caiman are found in astounding numbers — an estimated 10 million.
As the main food source for jaguars, caiman are considered one of the main reasons why the big cats thrive in these wetlands and why jaguars are considerably larger in the Pantanal than anywhere else in their range.
The wetlands are also home to the rare and endangered pantaneiro -- cowboys that carry on a lifestyle that originated in the 1700s, when the Pantanal was settled by ranchers moving up from the Brazilian coast.
Riding horses that have evolved adaptations for long hours of working in water, the pantaneiro manage herds of gray, humpbacked Brahmin cattle that often number into the thousands.
Because vehicles still can't penetrate much of the Pantanal, weeklong Wild West-style cattle drives are still used to get the livestock to market.
From rodeo shows and intricate leather tack to twangy cowboy music and a tasty regional cuisine, the pantaneiro have also evolved a unique culture over the past 300 years.
Giant anteaters roam the region.
Two of the area's cowboy culinary favorites are arroz de carreteiro or "oxcart rice" (a mixture of rice and beef jerky) and sopa paraguaya (a cake-like mixture of corn, cheese, onions and water similar to cornbread).
"Sopa paraguaya dates from a border war we had in the 1860s," says Luiz Paiva Filho, a Campo Grande-based guide who specializes in the south Pantanal. "It was the main food for the Paraguayan soldiers who invaded this region, and the locals liked it so much they adopted it for their own."
Food aside, much of pantaneiro culture is under threat for many of the same reasons that traditional cowboy culture gradually faded away in the American West.
"Young people are leaving the Pantanal because they want to see what's in the outside world," says ranch owner Rita Coelho Lima, whose parents pioneered the Fazenda Baia das Pedras in 1940. "And the ones who stay are changing.
"Five years ago they were still wearing traditional cowboy clothes. But now you see some of them with Chicago Bulls shirts. Everyone wants a cell phone and the Internet. The traditional culture is already gone on the edge of the Pantanal and slowly changing here in the heart."
Traveling to the Pantanal -- and getting the most out of visiting the wetlands -- is fairly straightforward these days but still requires a bit of planning.
The vast majority of visitors fly into Cuiaba, capital of Mato Grosso state, and head south along the Trans-Pantanal Highway in their own vehicle or as part of a prearranged tour.
About a third of the 155-mile (250-kilometer) route is paved, and the rest is a hard-packed dirt road that doesn't require four-wheel drive or high clearance.
At the end of the road lies the remote wilderness town of Porte Jofre, where fishing camps and riverside lodges offer accommodation, meals, guided river tours -- and wild animals wandering through the property.
"Don't walk around after dark," warns the front desk manager to anyone checking in at the Hotel Pantanal Norte, "because jaguars sometimes visit us." It's a fact confirmed by huge paw prints in the dusty road outside the lodge.
Campo Grande in Mato Grosso do Sul state is the main gateway to the more secluded southern Pantanal. From there's it's a daylong drive into the heart of the wetlands, the latter half along rough country roads where four-wheel drive and high clearance are definite necessities.
A number of ranches in the region do triple duty working as cattle spreads, ecotourism destinations and research centers.
At the Fazenda Baia das Pedras, for instance, visitors discover the wetlands via guided horseback rides or open-topped safari vehicles. At the break of dawn they can watch the hyacinth macaws gather in the trees around the ranch house.
Later in the day, they can sip traditional tereré (iced maté tea) with the cowboys or share beers with researchers studying the area's giant armadillos.
There are no roads between the northern and southern parts of the Pantanal. The only way to visit both regions in a single trip -- other than doubling back through or Cuiaba or Campo Grande -- is organizing a transfer by small plane between Porto Jofre and whatever ranch you're staying at down south.
Adventure operators like Terra Incognita Ecotours streamline the process by organizing everything at both ends and the aerial transfer between north and south -- a one-hour flight that affords a chance to eyeball the wetlands from above to truly appreciate their vastness.
While wildlife flourishes year-round in the Pantanal, the best time to view jaguars and other large mammals is the end of the dry season (July-September), when animals are more likely to congregate near waterways for food, drink and protection.