Cowboys, caiman, capybaras, cows, creeks and Irish beef farmers – it could only be Easter in the Pantanal

So we are just back from the Pantanal, the world’s largest wetlands (at just about 195,000 square kilometres). The Pantanal is a big almost flat spread of land where in the wet season the water level rises three metres flooding the whole area. In the dry season the water disappears and the area becomes a massive dust bowl, so I am glad we visited in the wet season!

The Pantanal wetlands

Looks like land, splashes like water!

The area is 99% privately owned, and almost totally used for beef farming, the area has over 2,500 fazendas (farms) with up to 8 million head of cattle spread over them. Traditionally the favourite cow for this extremely dry or extremely wet landscape has been the Indian Brahman cows, these are hardy beasts, but pretty slow growing and not that meaty, so they have recently started cross breading them with Scottish Angus beasts which are fast growing and meaty to create the Brangus breed which has taken on the best of both breeds, its sturdy, stocky, cooks a good chapatti and is very good with money.

Brangus Cow

A Brangus Cow

So we visited in the wet season, which means that 80% of the land was under water, what looks at first to be dry land is either completely waterlogged mud, or simply just a floating sea of plants in about 2 metres of water, it’s pretty amazing stuff, and a wild life fan, twitcher or nature lovers dream holiday.
For the four days we were there we stayed as guests at Pousada dos Monteiros– a family run working farm which also hosts tourists and introduces them to the Pantanal. To get to the Farm we flew to Campo Grande (1.5 hours from Sao Paulo) where we were picked up by our host Artur. Artur is one of three sons who now run the farms, but as well as that he also hosts the tourists who stay on the farm and he was a great host. So after throwing our stuff in Arturs Hilux we drove 120km north on tarred road, then 100km on dirt road to get to the farm. The drive was an experience in itself, with the roads very rough due to the fact that its the rainy season, so if you ever want to try rally driving in a double cab hilux then this is the destination for you!
Here is a google map showing the location – the farm is in the south of the Pantanal, so you can see the size of the Pantanal spreading out to the north of the Farm:,-55.546875&spn=2.455615,5.141602&z=8

By law in Brazil if you are a farmer, you need to leave 20% of your farm wild, you also cant farm on any river banks, you need to leave them to grow wild. The 20% of your farm that you are leaving wild does not include the area along the river banks, so most farms in the Pantanal are about 30% wild. The way the Pantanal works is that there are many trees and shrubs, but because of the long wet season they only grow on the elevated areas, so you have many small “islands” of trees with large areas of grassland around them, the grass goes underwater, but the trees stick up above the water, so most of the farmers in the Pantanal, don’t clear their paddocks of trees as it seems to anchor the land, so the paddocks are not paddocks like we are used to, they look like lightly forested scrubland with areas of grass and lots of clumps of trees. With so many trees and lots of grass its a great habit for many animals, so the area is literally a riot of animal life, from anacondas, pumas, jaguars, 100’s of varieties of birds, caiman (small alligators), ant eaters, armadillos and all sorts of things in between, then you have the farm animals – its like a mini African safari (only mini as in the size of the animals).

So we arrived at the first of the families three farms, where we were warmly welcomed with a great meal and a cool drink, then some quality time in the hammocks under the giant mango tree:

Cath, Craig and Janine at Hammock Time

Cath, Craig and Janine at Hammock Time

Then we jumped back into the worlds fastet hilux and zoomed to São João Farm where we were staying for the three nights.

Sao Joao Farmstead

Sao Joao Farmstead as the afternoon storm rolls in.

Just in the short drive we had already seen 100’s of animals and birds, after the cityscape of Sao Paulo, it was a reinvigorating change:

Capybara – the world’s largest rodent, a giant guinea pig – or the worlds smallest hippo

Capybara – the world’s largest rodent, a giant guinea pig – or the worlds smallest hippo

Caiman – if only I could get a bit closer…..

Caiman – if only I could get a bit closer…..

So we had an early night and the next day we headed out for a day of safari, driving around the farm and spotting animals, it was great, there was animals everywhere, and thanks to gregs new zoom lens, we were able to get some great snaps.

A bird

A bird (no I don’t know the name, you can tell I ain’t a bird man)

A Rea

A Rea – AKA big fast scary bird

A swamp deer

A swamp deer

A wild piglet

A wild piglet

The deer and piglets are the only animals on the farm that you can legally hunt, if you kill a native animal in Brazil its an automatic jail sentence, they say you are better to kill a person than an animal in brazil as you usually get a shorter jail sentence!

In the afternoon we went for a horse trek around the farm, including crossing some of the deeper parts of the wetlands, as the last time Greg rode on a horse he ended up in an Indian hospital, and with Caths last horse experience also turning into a “man from snowy river” re-enactment and then you throw in the chance of a 6metre anaconda trying to eat your horse, plus of course the ever present piranahas and caimans this little horse ride ended up feeling like a Crocodile Dundee adventure! Luckily our hosts picked the horses perfectly and Greg ended up with a horse so slow he was overtaken by growing grass, and Caths horse had a horse bum fixation so it just loved playing follow the leader!

So the farm runs a massive heard of beef cattle, they have a small dairy herd for their own diary needs, but they are too far away from a major road to sell any dairy products, but thanks to a foot and mouth disease outbreak 400kms away and European food laws, they can’t sell their beef in Europe, where they can earn good prices. Brazil has the largest beef herd in the world, with 180,000,000 cattle, so we had lots of chats with our hosts about Brazilian farming, about how the markets work, how the industry is changing, but mainly about how their efforts to sell beef in Europe are being blocked by the European farmers (specifically the Irish beef industry apparently). You can imagine their surprise when I told them the village that I used to work in had a foot and mouth outbreak only last year, but the area has been opened for selling beef again.

The problem apparently runs something like this, Europe has decided that you can only sell beef in Europe if you can trace the beef back to it source farm, which sounds like a fine idea when you think in terms of small European beef farms on small European paddocks, to show the source of the meat the farmers tag each of their cows with an ear tag. This is a simple task when your heard is from 20 – 100 odd head of beef, like the Irish average (and that’s total stock, including diary, breeding and calves). For a Pantanal farmer the average heard can be 20,000 heads of beef, and instead of living in nice Irish pasture with little or no trees or shrubs in the paddock, the Brazilian beef lives in massive fields full of trees and scrub which cause havoc with the ear tags, the tags catch on tree branches, tearing off and often causing infections in the cattles ears. But the European farming lobby (led by the Irish beef farmers) has said that no beef can be sold in Europe unless its tagged and traceable and the brands that are put on the beef in Brazil, don’t count, it has to be ear tags, which is proving to be a real problem for Brazilian farmers. Europe has recently partly relented and allowed 106 Brazilian farms to export beef to Europe, but only fillet mignon and sirloin steaks – the rest of the cuts of beef are not allowed. So 106 farms out of the estimated 8,000 farms in Brazil are allowed to export two cuts of meat to Europe – not exactly a level playing field, and probably another example of seeing the world with a slightly wider perspective after our time in Latin America.

So enough about the politics of beef, what about the caiman I hear you say! Well the next day was Easter Sunday, so keeping the Whitaker tradition going we got up to watch the “sun dance” at sunrise, quite a sight in a place as beautiful as this:

The sun dances as it rises across the Panatanal

The sun dances as it rises across the Panatanal

So on our second day we went for boat cruise, this is pretty easy given how much water there is around, you just drive 100 metres and launch your boat – just about anywhere, so we went for a ride along the Negra river, which in the dry season is about 10 metres wide, but in the wet season can be up to two kilometres wide, we cruise up the river watching birds, anteaters, Capybara and Caimans feeding in the shallow water, and kept a constant eye out for Piranhas and Anacondas (we didn’t see any unfortunately, or fortunately perhaps)!

At lunch time we stopped on one of the many small islands and made camp, well Artur and Bluey made camp:

Our Island Camp in the Negra River, with Bluey cooking lunch

Our Island Camp in the Negra River, with Bluey cooking lunch

So Craig, Janine, Cath and I went Caiman hunting…. it didn’t take long to find a caiman, in fact there were lots of caiman sunning themselves only 10 metres from our camp! Now a caiman is a small alligator (well upto 2.2 metres is big enough for me) and they have a temperament similar to a dog, don’t bug them and you are fine to stand close, step on their tail, threaten their young, or get too close and they are likely to bite you… ok, let’s hope we don’t stumble upon a caiman nest heh!!!

Which is of course what happened, Greg literally stumbled across a nesting mother with her 12 little ones:

Mum Caiman, watches and waits…

Mum Caiman, watches and waits…

Baby Caiman at play

While baby Caiman at play

Surely it can’t hurt to pick on up can it? Can it?????

Surely it can’t hurt to pick on up can it? Can it?????

Mummy Caiman on the attack

Ok, it can, mummy caiman attacks!

Now do I:
A) stay for another photo,
B) crap myself,
C) run?

Greg chose to run, that was bloody scary….

So lesson learned, don’t get near a mummy caiman, they growl and run really fast when they want to!

Sure the Amazon is the most famous place in Brazil, but it’s going to have to be pretty bloody amazing to beat this place…..

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2 Responses to Cowboys, caiman, capybaras, cows, creeks and Irish beef farmers – it could only be Easter in the Pantanal

  1. chewdog says:

    what about the giant guinea pigs? catch any?

  2. Greg Newman says:

    As so many people have asked, we stayed with these guys, they were perfect hosts!

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