Pantanal Stories and Tips

Horseriding in the Pantanal - bonding with the fazendeiros

me looking foolish Photo, Pantanal, Brazil

Whenever I see a bucket set beside a fisherman, I just can't help but look in.

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...

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