A September 2004 trip
to Pantanal by actonsteve
Quote: Mysterious, remote and dangerous -- a description that fits the Pantanal, the largest inland swamp in the world. It's a haven for wildlife and offers some of the most memorable experiences and activities on the continent of South America....
In 1935, Colonel Fawcett arrived to explore the unmapped South American interior. He hauled on his backpack, put on his pith helmet, and set off to explore the Matto Grosso...
And promptly disappeared...
The fate of Colonel Fawcett is unknown. He disappeared into the Matto Grosso and was never seen again. The part of South America he explored is a trackless waste of impenetrable swamp called "The Pantanal". The Pantanal is gigantic. It covers most of south western Brazil and is the size of France. Until recently it was so untamed that no roads crossed it. Settlements clung to its outskirts and the interior was bursting with the dangerous and exotic animals. The Pantanal is now an exciting tourist destination and is the best place to see wildlife on the entire continent.
The Pantanal is so well stocked with wildlife that you almost spot animals under every tree and bush. Safaris out into the swamps include viewing of savage flesh-eating piranha, skittish giant river otters, screeching macaws, colossal yellow anacondas, weird looking giant anteaters, elusive jaguars, noisy howler monkeys, colourful toucans, and the greatest population of jacare (crocodiles) on earth. The Pantanal is said to contain up to 32 million jacare. The wildlife viewing here is much better then the Amazon as the creatures are easier to spot then in the jungle. You can view these creatures from horseback, foot or vehicle and the wide brown rivers of the perfect for the fishing of piranha.
The more time you spend in the wildlife haven of the Pantanal the more unappealing the civilised world becomes. You can spend hours whiling away the day at some waterhole watching flights of birds come down to drink, jacare laze under the hot sun, armadillos scamper in the undergrowth, and herds of capybara, a kind of giant aquatic guinea-pig, graze at the waters edge.
The Pantanal is seasonal. For five months of the year, it is the rainy season. The water levels rise to create a vast swampland. The only way to get around then is by watercraft. And the cowboys of the Pantanal, the fazendeiros, slosh through the shallow swamp water on well-trained horses. The fazendeiros corral over 30 million zebus (cattle), which are allowed to roam free in the swamp. Only in the wet season is it not able to cope and becomes one vast lake, dotted with swampy islands, stretching for hundreds of miles.
The hot season runs from April to October. The best season to visit is September (when I was there), and the swamp has dried up so much under the heat that only a few waterholes are left. The rest of the Pantanal are vast savannah/watermeadows where the terrain is so flat, you can see for miles around. This is peak tourist season in the Pantanal. The fazenda-lodges fill up with guests who want to catch a glimpse of creatures they have only heard about and experience a little touch of the wildness of South America.
The Pantanal is notoriously hard to get to.
From other parts of Brazil, the obvious way of reaching it is flying. The main point of entry for the southern Pantanal (remember, this swamp is 700 miles north to south) is the city of Campo Grande (pronounced Campo Granjee) which is not only the jumping-off point into the Pantanal but to Bonito, Corumba, and the nearby Bolivian border. It's actually a rather good, efficient airport with the main internal Brazilian carriers VARIG, TAM, and VASP clearly using it a lot.
The best way to see the Pantanal is on a guided tour. There are plenty of tour operators in Copacabana (www.ipacomtravel.com) who do a fly/fazenda Pantanal package for as little as £60 a night. These generally include transport from the airport to the fazenda, excursions, and food. You can do your own Pantanal tours with tour operators in Campo Grande. These are often in a group, involve camping in the swamp and you are at the mercy of Matto Grosson guides. You can arrange these for as little as £20 a night, but they can be very rigorous and hard-going, involving lots of walking each day.
Hotel | "Pusada Aguapé - Ecolodge on the edge of the swamp"
Situated on the edge of the Pantanal, 30 miles from the nearest major road and over 160 miles from the airport at Campo Grande, this is where you get the true taste of wilderness in the Pantanal. But this is no rough-and-tumble camp in the jungle; it is an ecolodge which gives five-star service, a working cattle ranch which allows visitors to spot the diverse life of the Pantanal through eco-tourism and enjoy the life of the fazendeiros (cowboys) and their cattle ranching ways.
I booked it as a tour in Rio, which included a return flight to Campo Grande and transport from the airport. In fact, if you don't have your own transport, reaching the pousada can be difficult. It is reached via a rutted track which crosses the Pantanal swamps/water meadows, and in good weather, it takes two hours. Only four-wheel-drive vehicles can really manage it, because during the wet season (Nov-Apr), the track turns into a tropical quagmire. But once there, the staff will make you feel very welcome, and you get to see the scale of the place.
Firstly, it is a working zebu (cattle) farm. It is scattered over the water meadows, and over 1,400 of the creatures and stables are incorporated so the fazendeiros can round up their vast herds. Owned by the same family over the last 150 years, activities were diversified 11 years ago, and it became an eco-lodge. Money has been spent on it, with 14 rooms, an open-air restaurant, swimming pool, relaxation cabana (complete with capybara statues and hammocks), and even a small airstrip. The rooms are in good order -- Toucan tapestry, double beds, blue colouring, complimentary soap, hot shower, and obligatory tree frog on the ceiling. All this on the edge of the biggest inland swamp in the world.
The big attraction, though, is to get out and see the Pantanal. Just past the stables is a tributary river, so fishing and canoeing are popular. The pousada has permanent guides who can take you out trekking in the daytime, piranha-fishing, and jacare(crocodile)-spotting at night. And the attraction is the wildlife, which seems to invade the Pousada Aguapé. Toucans sit in the trees, anteaters roam the horse paddocks, and one evening, as we were having one last coffee, a marsh deer came into the restaurant, and we were able to feed it from our hands.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on December 4, 2004
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"Brazilian Adventure", 1935, Peter Fleming
The above is taken from the book from Peter Fleming (brother of 007 creator Ian), who was sent into the Matto Grosso by his newspaper to find out what happened to Colonel Fawcett and his expedition twelve years earlier. Fleming never found him and encountered his own adventures, and whatever befell Colonel Fawcett remains a mystery. But there is something still of the spirit of adventure in the Pantanal. A feeling of danger and excitement never quite goes away -- the very air is laced with mystery. The Indians have gone and been replaced by giant fazendas (cattle ranches), now used to house tourists, sending them out on treks and boat trips to view the same wild denizens of the swamps that menaced Fleming and Colonel Fawcett.
Its very remoteness is its most attractive feature. The swamp is colossal -- the size of France. Stretching over 230,000 square kilometres and flowing into the nearby countries of Bolivia and Paraguay. The water in the Pantanal is not stagnant; it flows from north to south, depending on the season. It is fed by about 200 rivers, whose waters it absorbs like a sponge. Except, of course, during the dry season, due to the monsoon-like rains, everything overflows -- ponds become lakes, meadows become water courses, and roads are washed away. The animals of the Pantanal find themselves stranded on islands, unable to move around the swamp unless they cross waters inhabited by piranha, jacare, and constrictor reptiles. This is the best time to see the animals of the Pantanal. It is almost possible to see very rare creatures such as jaguars, ocelots, and tapirs when they are stranded on these islands.
Getting to the Matto Grosso
If you look at your map of South America, the Pantanal is almost in the dead centre -- a long way from Rio and the tourists resorts of the Northeast. The best way is, of course, to fly. Numerous carriers fly to Campo Grande (pronounced Grahnjee), which is the gateway to the southern Pantanal and Cuiaba, which is the same for the northern Pantanal. Scattered around the edges are numerous towns which are now on the tourist bandwagon and do tours or trips into the massive swamp. Campo Grande is the only one which you could call a city (and a small one at that) the others -- Corumba and Aquiduana -- could only be described as fazendeiro (cowboy) towns. There are others which have set themselves up as ecology destinations, such as Coxim and Bonito, whose nearby attractions aren't just about the Pantanal.
There are two ways of getting there. The obvious one is flying. VASP, VARIG, and TAM -- the internal Brazilian carriers -- all fly to Campo Grande and Cuiaba. The fares, by Brazilian standards, are high, but with the exchange rate, they only work out about £70/$100 for a return from Rio. The major air hub for Brazil is Sao Paolo. There are two terminals in this gigantic city (whenever I see it from the air, it always reminds me of that STAR WARS planet where the capital city has devoured the entire globe). Sao Paolo Garulhas deals with international flights, while the memorable Sao Paolo Cogonhas serves internal flights within Brazil. I feel it is fair to warn you that changing planes internally at Cogonhas is an ordeal. They are working in improving the transit lounge, but even so, you've never seen such chaos in an airport while they do it. Make sure you get directions on where your boarding gate is. There is a percentage chance that the gate shown on the board will not be in the transit lounge. My gate to my flight to Campo Grande was at the other end of the airport, and I had to get an airline employee to show me the way.
At the other end, Campo Grande is a nice little airport. It's open all night, so if you have got an early flight, you can have a doze before boarding, and the facilities there including currency exchange, information, car hire, and bus services. One of the things you will notice about Campo Grande is that it is infested with fazendeiros. It's a rough "man's" town that has grown into an efficient little city, and you can see the cowboys ambling along the streets. They really look the part, dressed in denim and straw hats, and most look as if they were film stand-ins for Charles Bronson. But the main reason you come to Campo Grande is to book a trip into the Pantanal. Most hotels will do excursions, but there are also a number of tour companies in town. Some will try and catch travellers at the bus station and airport.
The bus is the only other alternative to the Matto Grosso. From Rio, it is 30 hours. From Sao Paolo, 25. A true bum-numbing experience. Some people break it up in the weird space-age capital of Brasilia or come up from Iguacu. Anyhow, this is much cheaper than the plane, working out to £25/$50. This would be the true Brazilian travelling experience, if only your backside and bladder could stand it.
Getting into the Pantanal
Once you have reached the Matto Grosso, you now want to get into the swamp and get wildlife spotting. I cheated; I used a travel agent in Rio who arranged everything before I left London. So I just had to turn up, catch a plane, and then have someone waiting for me at the other end. But I did meet many people who had done it themselves or found a tour in Campo Grande or Cuiaba.
It is not recommended that you do it by yourself. The dangers of the Pantanal are very real. The transpantaneira highway borders the swamp for hundreds of miles, and you can see some animals from its tarmac. But to reallyget a good look, you must venture into the swamp that the rare animals inhabit. The roads west and north from Campo Grande will show you bird life and maybe rheas (ostriches), but to catch a glimpse of capybara and piranha, you must venture far deeper.
Buses run to all the towns in the Pantanal. Two towns have escpecially come into the ascendant in the last few years, particularly with eco-tourists. The first is Coxim, which is mainly a fishing centre, though it does do trips into the swamp. Coxim is situated north on Campo Grande on the road to Cuiaba. The second is going to be massive. It has the potential to become the adventure capital of Brazil and is called Bonito. This is a real hippy town on the road west to Corumba. Numerous pousadas have already grown up, and the main attraction is the rolling swampland surrounding the tiny town. There are plenty of natural attractions around the town which can be seen on tours such as Gruta do Lagoa Azul (Grotto of the Blue Lake), which is hidden inside a nearby hill, and most famously Aquario Naturale, which is a river so clear and fresh you can go snorkeling with the many river fish around Bonito and get up close to them. Luckily, piranha do not swim up that particular river.
Of course the best way of getting into the Pantanal, if you are not staying on a fazenda, is a camping tour. These are what the budget travellers generally opt for, and they can be booked in Campo Grande or Bonito. They can work out a price as cheap as $50 a day, which includes guide, food, and tents. You many be bunched with many other nationalities doing "the budget thing", and John Malathronas does an excellent piece of writing on this in his wonderful book "Brazil -- life, blood, soul.." A friend of mine did it, and she didn't have to worry about mosquitoes, as none inhabit the Pantanal.
She just had to worry about the world's most poisonous spider dangling above her sleeping bag.
Sqawking, twittering, cawing, melodic birdsong -- all occur as soon as the sun comes up. The volume is excruciating. It woke me up, and I staggered out the door to see if I could spot the perpetrators. Perched in a couple of trees opposite were a number of birds making cawing noises. As I watched, more arrived, fluttering in from the savannah and flashing off their bright yellow beaks and beady eyes -- toucans! They are exceptionally rare birds in Brazil, and about five of them were perched in the tree above me.
When I reached the open-air dining area, I realised why they were here. Early in the morning, tropical birds congregate, and our waitress and guide were tossing them bread from the kitchen. At one point, we had eight toucans around us, as well as a number of other marsh birds. They hopped onto the tables on their short legs, croaking for attention, their heads turned on their sides so they could see down their long beaks. The toucans would squabble, they would perch on posts next to the kitchen, and one memorable bird had his beak broken. It did not stop him clutching the bread in his beak, tossing it in the air, and then slipping it down his throat. And then looking around with his beady eyes for more food.
We saw even more birds on the escorted walk through the Pantanal one morning. Our guide was called Silvio, a man who lived with his family on the fazenda and was in charge of the activities on the ranch. A Mexican couple, Carlos and Brenda, and I followed him out of the fazenda gate. The immediate area around the ranch houses fields containing horses and zebu (cows). We walked across what was a minefield of cowpats and rutted tracks. Our presence alerted all the creatures in the vicinity by the shrill cries of the predatory hawk, the Caracara.
We immediately saw our first herd of zebu, who stopped whatever they were doing (not much, just chewing the cud) and just stared at us. It was an eerie feeling having about twenty skinny-looking cows watch you as you move across the field. Zebus were introduced to Brazil from the Portuguese colonies in India, because European breeds couldn't survive the tropical climate. There are now just as many zebu as there are people in Brazil (155 million), and they do look faintly Asian. I saw this kind of cow moving along the road in the heat when I was in Rajasthan. This herd vaguely shadowed us, warily watching us, as if they expected us to suddenly burst into a run and start rustling them. But instead, we turned away and walked into the Mataforest.
The forest was exceptionally dry. It was a cycad forest with the trees forming a canopy and the ground littered with brittle dry leaves. These crunched audibly as we marched over them -- and any animal that was in the forest was instantly scared away. This was evident when we spotted two South American foxes, who immediately put as much difference between us as they could. We were to see the same pair on the nocturnal safari later that evening, and they threw glances back at us as they retreated with an ever-graceful trot.
We emerged from the forest on the edge of a large pond. This is all that was left from the wet season four months ago. Desperate jacare (crocodiles) and piranha crowd the pool in what is the only bit of water left. During the night, the earth surrounding the pool had been torn up like a tractor. We asked what did this, and Silvio replied that it was a group of peccaries -- these are vicious, wild pigs that are dangerous to approach -- and their tusks which had done this damage to the ground. We walked around the pond, and apart from a waterbird and chick which fled at our approach, the only signs of life were baby jacare, with their eyes poking up from the water.
Then it was back to the savannah/water meadows and a massive herd of zebus which, to alleviate boredom, had decided to follow us. One or two is fine, but it was truly unnerving to see a wall of cows follow us across the savannah. When we stopped, they stopped. Silvio had to wave his stick at a bull when it got too close. At one point, we hid near a huge termite mound until they lost interest and wandered off. Speaking of termites, one creature I would really like to see is the giant anteater, but they are exceptionally rare. Then back to the forest, and Silvio had to cut our way through with a machete. We made so much noise between us -- either boots crunching on leaves or the thwump of the machete -- that everything must have heard us.
We did have one scare, though; we blundered into a zebu cow just about to give birth. She had hidden herself away in the forest and was making noises, as she was in great pain. Silvio said that they get anxious and aggressive this close to giving birth. Also, watch out for jaguars -- they had lost 28 calves this year to jaguars already. Jaguars wait in the undergrowth for such an easy kill.
As we emerged from the forest, a fazendeiros cowboy rode up on a white horse with sun hat, bristling moustache, and leather boots. He confirmed to Silvio that a jaguar been seen in this vicinity in the last few days. Whenever I get envious of the fazendeiros lifestyle, spending their lives in the saddle, rounding up cattle, I must remind myself of the threat of jaguars. Ho hum...I don't have to worry about that on the London Underground.
And me? Well, what can I say? I was only two feet away from them…
Along with the Maracana stadium and the churches of Salvador de Bahia, the highlight of this trip to Brazil has to be the jacare (crocodiles) in the Pantanal. This region of Brazil is famous for its sheer volume of jacare/caiman, and the Pantanal is meant to have over 32 million. They far outnumber human beings in this part of South America, and for the most part, these caiman are pretty harmless. According to Silvio, our guide, they will not eat anything bigger then themselves and spend their time in the drying pools of the savannah catching insects, piranha, and occasionally, when times get hard, each other.
Part of the stay at Pousada Aguape was a dusk trip into the water meadows/savannah to see the jacare. We knew it was going to be special when we saw Silvio haul a canvas bag of meat portions and fish pieces into the open-air car. For three hours, we were taken out into the wilds, way beyond the cattle paddocks of the pousada, out to where a thousand creatures lived and flourished. We were taken out in the most basic of safari vehicles -- an open-topped car with wooden boards for seats. And as it was early spring in Brazil, the weather was warm during the day, but the temperature plummeted at night. There was no rain, but taking a jumper or sweater out with us was advised, as it became very chilly.
The advantage of going out in a car is that you are on a higher level than a horse or on foot and can see further across the water meadows. As it was approaching sunset, the wildlife of the Pantanal had one more flurry of activity before settling down for the night. There were hawks and birds in the trees, including that magnificent predator, the Caracara. Numerous herds of zebu are left out here for the night (despite jaguars), and occasionally, in the distance were marsh deer, and far, far away, we thought we saw the South American ostrich -- the rhea. As dusk fell, huge flocks of birds headed back to their nests and the feeling of the Pantanal began to change, brought home to us by the shuffling shape of an armadillo which fled into the undergrowth as if he had been shot from a cannon.
We bumped along a track for an hour until reaching our destination -- an elongated lake surrounded by jungle. We climbed down from the car, and Silvio fetched his canvas bag. Sunset was occurring, and through the dappled orange light, we could make out five jacare lounging on the bank near a picnic table. We approached, and they did nothing; only when Silvio opened his canvas bag did they start to stir. The hissing started, and they slowly came to life. Eyes started to appear by magic in the pond next to us. The jacare on the bank started to move in our direction until they were right next to us. It was unnerving, having a untamed wild reptile a few feet away from you. The show really began when Silvio started to toss them meat and fish.
They snapped it up. Their heads were thrown back to swallow the flesh, and they made strange gulping sounds which were returned by those in the pond. More and more emerged from the water, and started to hiss and snap at each other to get at the meat. When they got a lump, they would immediately hold their heads up, keeping it away from the others. We were exceptionally close, almost within touching distance. Brenda stood on a table until one took his meat and then hid underneath it. And at one point, I felt a brush at the back of my leg, and there were more emerging behind me! There must have been about one hundred in the lake, and their gulping sounds reverberated across the water whenever we approached. About ten were drawn up on the waters edge, and Silvio clapped his hands sending them scooting into the water like a scene from a Tarzan film. I asked if we were in any danger, and the translation was that they do not eat anything bigger than themselves. But if you were immobile and couldn't fight back? Well, that would be a different story.
Finally, we dragged ourselves away and walked the shore of the lake. The receding light was now yellow, and the trees around us housed nesting birds. The sounds of their cawing and squawking were deafening. Four trees near the lake were literally top-heavy with roosting avians (aves in Portuguese), and their silhouettes were stark against the setting sun. But it was in the minutes after dusk that we saw our best animals. Back in the open-topped car, shivering with cold, we made our way back to the pousada, and Silvio’s torchlight picked up a number of shapes. Near the river, the white light caught the rear of an animal with tremendous bulk and tiny little legs -- these could only be capybaras. One large male walked ahead of the car for a while, so we got a good look at his enormous hairy backside, black face, and gerbil hair. He literally held us up for ten minutes as he prevaricated which part of the river he wanted to slide into while his family chewed grass near the water’s edge.
We also caught the two officious little foxes we saw earlier that day, and the night calls as you bump along can be rather creepy. I never ceased to be amazed by the diversity of life in the Pantanal. Well and truly worth crossing oceans and continents to see...
I was relaxing in my room when the cry was heard. I immediately got up, grabbed the camera, and sprinted to where the noise was coming from. Just beyond the swimming pool is the start of the horse paddocks, and within easy distance of the pousada was a taratura (giant anteater -- see photo): the one animal, apart from the jaguar, that I had set my heart on seeing in the Pantanal.
It shuffled along, sniffing the ground, trying to see if the ant or termite nests were still in the place it remembered. Silvio opened the gate to the paddock, allowing us entry, and we slowly crept as close as we could (30 feet) without spooking it. It was an extraordinary-looking creature; on first glance, you didn't know which part was the head and which was the body. Then its elongated head became apparent, along with its long, rolling, grey-haired body, ending in a bushy tail, while its claws tore at the green earth. A horse whinnied a greeting and walked over to the creature. The anteater wasn't perturbed but continued to paw the ground. Only when the horse nudged it with its head did it shuffle away...
A few hours later was a river trip in a motor canoe. At the back of the pousada, past the stables, is one of the hundreds of tributaries of the Rio Paragui. At this point, it is quite wide, about 70 feet across, and is lined by jungle. During the wet season, the river bursts its banks and floods the fields around the pousada. The zebus (cows) and horses are forced to retreat to the higher ground, and grazing becomes very scarce. During the dry season, as it is now, the river shrinks but still remains moderately deep and fast-flowing. Its brown waters are one of the few water sources around here, and its banks are filled with creatures. Its depths are, too, with not only the ubiquitous jacare but anacondas and the most dangerous of the piranha family -- the black-bellied piranha.
It was the piranhas which worried me as I strapped on my lifejacket. I just hated the idea of them swimming in the water below me as we cruised along the river. I asked about them and was told they were harmless. The pousada does "piranha fishing," so Silvio announced that "you are more likely to eat them then they are to eat you..." But still, I didn't want to take any chances; I've seen "You Only Live Twice," and that morning, I didn't shave and made sure I didn't have any cuts in case I fell into the water. The boat itself was sturdy and a reasonable size. Silvio took the tiller/motor, and Carlos, Brenda, and I seated ourselves on the benches. It was with a roar of the diesel engine that we spun about and headed upriver.
We settled back as the jungle swished past. There is something melodic about jungle river travel -- the motion of the boat, the ever-present green, and the buzz of the motorboat lull you into a catatonic state. Once every few minutes, Silvio would shout a name in Portuguese, and you would scan the undergrowth or water. Whether you see it or not (and his eyes were better then mine), he would spin the motorboard around and head further upriver. There was plenty of life, including the usual birds and jacare(small crocodiles) which slid into the river at our approach. But after ten minutes, we struck gold!
Silvio slowed the motorboat and pointed at tree roots sticking out of the water. A face popped up, hissed at us, and then submerged again. Giant river otters! Exceptionally rare and elusive endangered creatures, and we had found a married pair! The boat was positioned for a better view, but it was clear that the pair had submerged. They appeared again twenty feet away! They hissed a warning with their little brown heads bobbing in the current -- and then they were gone. We chased them up and down the river bank for twenty minutes, occasionally getting a glimpse of head or tail amongst the roots of trees. When we finally gave up, I began to feel sorry for them being harassed and didn't mind moving on. Around the next bend, however, were local fishermen who were best avoided. The fishermen can be very territorial and aggressive in this part of the Matto Grosso.
As the afternoon wore on, the sun began to set on the river (see photo) and a group of noisy roosting howler monkeys caught our eye. The tell-tale signs of moving branches gave them away, and I could just see them against the setting sun. The river took on an ethereal quality at sunset. The light changed, and the current swept us back downriver to our starting place. Time to just sit back and savour the moment....
This time, I was pleasantly rewarded. Swimming around a battered plastic bucket were two small fish, not more then five inches long. They were going at tremendous speed, whizzing around as if to find a way out. But it was only when I looked closer that I noticed the species of these fish. Their bulky bodies, short fins, black bellies and underhanging lower lip lined with vicious teeth. The fishermen’s catch were the scourge of South America -- piranhas.
He held me back with his arm and muttered something in Portuguese. Brenda translated it as "they jump!" and promptly moved to have a look herself. We were by a pool about an hour’s ride from the fazenda. A lone fisherman sat alone by the pool where piranha were trapped by the dry season. He already had two and would get up and go home when he had caught five. Piranha, though boney, make good eating in these parts.
He ran into the fisherman and his catch whilst on one of the best excursions from Pousada Aguape. The fazenda is a working ranch. Zebu (cattle) are raised here to be sold to other ranches for breeding purposes (with a few shipped off for the dinner table). The place is run by fazendeiros (cowboys) who spend their lives on horseback. One afternoon, they were to take me, the Mexican couple, and a red-faced South African called Crispin on a wildlife spot in the surrounding countryside. As the pousada is a working ranch the stables were not far away and we were each given horses to ride. I had never been horseback riding. It can't be that difficult, can it? My first problem is that my feet were too big to fit into the stirrups. Cue much hilarity, as I had to take off my boots, leave them behind, and swing on top of the horse in my socks.
Leading us was a young Matto Grosson on a dappled horse and an "old hand". Pousada Aguape has been rearing cattle for 150 years and has only recently diversified into tourism, and the "old hand" looked like he had spent most of those 150 years riding horses. I have to say he was great. He looked like something out of a Zane Grey novel, with a wonderfully grizzled appearance, cowboy boots, and a bristling white moustache. He would bring up the rear and ride the same speed as the slowest (usually me!), and of course, didn't speak a word of English.
We then rode out of the farm gate, through the horse and zebu paddocks, and out onto the savannah. I've never ridden before and was assured that this was no problem, and luckily, the horse was on "automatic". I was rather surprised by how much I enjoyed it. It was, thankfully, rather easy -- keep my bootless feet in the stirrups, don't pull on the bridle, and if you want to move faster, lightly tap the horse on the backside. We formed a sort of party, with the young Matto Grosson in front, followed of course by safari-boy Crispin, the Mexican couple, then me. We pushed on through the savannah, not seeing much, but the experience was very relaxing. Certainly, if there were any animals out there, they would not be put off by any engine noise or crunching footsteps. I didn't feel stuck or trapped, and it was nice to experience the mode of travel my ancestors would have used. I was even given a straw hat to keep off the sun. I truly did look like "Hopalong Cassidy".
Then it was through forest, savannah and exposed water meadows. Carlos mentioned that you could tell that these grassy meadows were under water for most of the year. You could almost see the mark on the trees where the water level is during the rainy season. But in September, everything had dried out, and only a few dry waterholes were left. We found one with a piranha fisherman and about ten jacarelounging on the bank sunning themselves. We used the opportunity here to dismount, drink cold water, and put on insect repellant. I had to be very careful of snakes just being in my socks. Then it was back on the horses and back onto the savannah, and I had to concentrate on keeping up. Occasionally, I fell behind and had to lightly tap the posterior of my mount for it to trot back to the others. The bouncing motion of the horse made my teeth rattle.
Egrets and eagles were spotted, as well as massive turtles sunning themselves. Near the road, we came into the range of a pair of mated blue macaws high up in the branches. Blue macaws are exceptional, and this pair squawked so aggressively, I'm sure their little egos thought they had driven us off. One more thing on the road was a flattened armadillo -- someone hadn't seen it cross at night. Then it was back through the paddocks to the stables. As we approached, there was only one thing on my mind..
My boots! They are still there! They haven't been chewed by zebu! Now all I have to do is work out how to get down off this horse...
Beaches? Yes, I suppose, though they're not a prerequisite. I only spend a fraction of my time on a beach. I once spent two weeks roaming around Hungary, Austria, and the Czech Republic -- no beaches there the last time I looked. Scenery? Oh yes, and it has to be of the exotic sort -- jungles and mountains, just like in Thailand. A fascinating culture? Yes, please, if possible as bizarre and fascinating as India's. Wildlife? Well, nothing can really beat East Africa, but I really enjoy interesting fauna. History? Something that will give Europe a run for its money...
All of the above can be found in Brazil.
Beaches? Well, Itaparica and Praia do Forte go on forever. Regularly voted the most beautiful in the world is Jericoacoara, west of Fortaleza. Scenery? Can anything beat the Pantanal? That endless savannah and exotic animal viewing at twilight, not to mention those jungle-covered granite peaks around Rio de Janeiro. Culture? Salvador de Bahia has such a strong, exotic culture that it creates massive "culture shock" in some travellers. Wildlife? How many people can say they have seen toucans and giant anteaters so close-up? And history? Take a look at Pelhurinho in Salvador or Farol de Barra in the same city. Both are the genesis of a great nation.
When reading the above, if it sounds like tourist office hyperbole, then I apologise. I am an unabashed Brasilophile. I make no apology for it, but at the same time, I am aware of its faults. And that, for me, gives an interesting friction to Brazil. It is paradise -- there is no doubt about that -- but it is a paradise with problems. This, to me, makes it rather endearing. It is not a country which bludgeons every visitor into agreeing with the population that it is the greatest on the earth. It's not a country that brags about its "lifestyle" and looks down on others who don't quite have the benefits that it has. Brazil is a country with massive potential. Its natural resources are endless, but it is aware of its own failings. In fact, I sometimes wonder if it is too blind to its benefits, it is so obsessed with its failings.
While at the Praia do Forte in Bahia, I met a young couple. They were from the south of Brazil, Porto Alegre, a city which still gets cold during winter. They were up in sunny Bahia for a small holiday and conversed in American English (?), as it was the only English they knew. They asked me whether I liked their country. As usual, I responded with my usual enthusiasm and couldn't quite understand why they didn't reciprocate. When pushed about what was good about their country, they eventually came up with "the beaches". Most of the benefits, in their eyes, were counteracted by the existence of very high crime. And, yes, I'll not deny it doesn't exist. You can almost feel the hairs on the back of your neck go up as you walk back in the darkness, down Avenida Atlantica or Barra in Salvador. Brazil's famous "achilles heel" is still there and probably always will be.
And on this trip, I saw the Brazil of the news soundbite. The most memorable example of this is the street children in Salvador. You can almost see the beach vendors flinch when they appear on the scene. Their eyes never leave them until they leave their patches, and those lying in the sun watch them like zebras watch nearby predators. I can't think of a harder life than what those street children in Salvador have. You first notice them when you enter the city, with their small camps built out of rags on the cities' traffic islands. They don't inhabit Pelurinho but roam around Barra and can be rather unnerving, especially at night. But at the same time, lots of time and effort are put in to help them. The guides around the historic district of Salvador are all ex-street children who have pulled themselves up by their boot straps. They are no longer seen as the menace they were in the eighties, when the police took very drastic measures.
And that seems to be it with Brazil. It slowly seems to be gentrifying. The economy is still as tough as ever. Unemployment is a major issue here, and the vast majority of its enormous wealth is still kept amongst a conspicuous minority. But it seems to be determined to do something about it, from police on Copacabana Beach protecting the tourists to the decaying historic district of Salvador getting a new lick of pastel paint. The will to impress seems to have reemerged. If you come to South America looking for festering slums, you will find them, but you'll also be surprised to find wealthy middle-class districts, an educated populace, and an impressive media scene. If you feel comfortable in Spain or Portugal, you will feel comfortable in Brazil.
And yet it is still a country of the future, a country clawing its way back to solvency and respectability. But it will always have that slightly rakish quality -- there is a touch of the bad boy about Brazil. Its as if it can't help but misbehave. It has too much energy, and it wants to go on laughing, flirting, and fighting. When you scan Ipanema Beach and its people, these are the qualities which bounce back. Fighting age? Responsibility? Love? It throws its head back and laughs heartily at what is expected of it in life.
Brazil is a country which will never, thankfully, grow up...
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