When you travel to the Pantanal, there’s a small chance that you might run into a tourist who claims their foremost desire is to catch sight of a giant anteater, a tapir, an anaconda, or a brilliant blue hyacinth macaw. Chances are they’re lying. Deep down, everyone who goes to the Pantanal yearns for one thing above all: to come face to face with the majestic and elusive onça pintada, a.k.a. jaguar.

It starts as soon as you get to Cuiabá . Check into your hotel and start checking out the other gringos, all of whom are on their way to, or have just returned from, the world’s largest wetlands. Based on observation, the returnees can easily be divided into two factions; the triumphant (those who were lucky enough to see a jaguar) and the dejected (those who were not).

I couldn’t help wondering (praying?) if a jaguar sighting would be in the cards for Annie and me.

When my sister, Annie, and I checked into the Pousada Ecoverde, the air was thick with onça talk. Soon after we arrived, owner Joel Souza steered us to the pousada’s giant guestbook and suggested we peruse it. Its pages were filled with accounts (many in English) of visiting the Pantanal and the thrill of coming face-to-face with the world’s third largest feline. As I poured over the exalted descriptions of these encounters – which ranged from quick flashes of gold and cream gleaned through binoculars to up-close-and-personal “Is she going to eat me now?” moments, I couldn’t help wondering (praying?) if a jaguar sighting would be in the cards for Annie and me.

We certainly had several positives in our favor. The first was that our trip to the Pantanal coincided with the end of the dry season; the best time for spotting jags. The second was that we were headed to the end of the Transpantaneira, highway, a region famed for its jaguar sightings. In fact, the fazenda-lodge where we were spending our first two nights – the Jaguar Ecological Reserve – was in situated in prime jaguar country. According to accounts (and Joel’s guest book), the great majority of travelers who had been there in the last month had succeeded in catching at least a fleeting glimpse of the biggest cat in the Americas.

Considered one of the most endangered species on the planet (according to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species), there are an estimated 50,000 Pantera oncas in the world today; approximately 5,000 of them make their home in the Pantanal. Traditionally, jaguars were hunted by the region’s cattle ranchers (aside from caimans and capybaras, there’s nothing a jag likes better than some Grade A beef) as well as trophy hunters.

(In Chapada dos Guimarães, we met the elderly British owner of an exquisite pousada , the living room of which was furnished with a stuffed jaguar head, a jaguar skin rug, and jaguar skin pillows – all extremely beautiful and shocking in their environmental incorrectness. A retired big game hunter, our host intimated that one reason for going into the hotel business was that IBAMA, Brazil’s environmental agency, after prohibiting hunting of the Pantanal’s wildlife, had begun cracking down on anyone who broke the rules.)

Indeed, thanks to IBAMA, and to the rise of ecotourism in the Pantanal, jaguar populations have actually increased as have sightings along the Transpantaneira. For those tourists seeking jaguars as feverishly as if they were seeking gold, their best chance at striking it rich is at the end of the highway, at the port of Porto Jofre. Here, along the banks of the Rio Cuiabá, tourists who glide by in boats are likely to spot jaguars lazily sunning themselves along the riverbanks or feeding on fish guts tossed away by local fishermen.

It’s in this region that American conservationist and biologist, Charles Munn, and his German-Peruvian wife, Mariana Valqui, set up the Jaguar Research Station, where guests stay in tents or on a houseboat. To help fund scientific studies and bring attention to the plight of the Pantanal’s unique biosphere, the station aims to tap into a new but potentially profitable niche: jaguar tourism. Munn has it all worked out: According to his statistics, during the July-October dry season, the likelihood of glimpsing a jaguar in the neighborhood, over a period of 3 days, is 97 percent.

Talk about a gold mine: the world’s first and only guaranteed jaguar destination.

Meanwhile, to find out whether Annie and I were lucky enough to meet the jaguar of our dreams, stay tuned for Part 2.

Read the next part of this article.