The Pantanal UNESCO Biosphere Reserve is the world’s largest freshwater wetland and is the best place in South America for spotting wild animals and one of the best places in the world to see birds. Capybaras, anacondas, peccarys, giant otters, hyacinth macaws and ocelots are common sights and it's even possible to see the most elusive South American mammal: the Jaguar.
Video by Ailton Lara
Within Brazil the Pantanal comprises around 230,000 square km devided between two states, Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul; it also extends beyond Brazil into Bolivia and Paraguay. The plain slopes 1-3 cm in every kilometer from north to south and west to east to the basin of the Rio Paraguay and is rimmed by low mountains. From these, 175 rivers flow into the Pantanal and after the heavy summer rains they burst their banks, as does the Paraguay river itself, to create vast shallow lakes broken by patches of high ground and stands of Cerrado forest. Plankton then swarm in the water form a biological soup that contains as many as 500 million microalgae per litre. Millions of amphibians and fish spawn or migrate to consume them. And these in turn are preyed upon by waterbirds and reptiles. Herbivorous mammals graze on the stands of the water hyacinth, sedge and savannah grass and at the top of food chain lie South America’s great predators – the jaguar, the ocelot, the maned wolf and the yellow anaconda.
In June, at the end of the wet season, when sheets of water have reduced, wildlife concentrates around the small lakes or canals and there is nowhere else on earth where you will see such vast numbers of birds or caimans. Only the plains of Africa can compete for mammals, and chances of seeing jaguar or one of Brazil’s seven other species of wild cats are greater here than anywhere in the continent.
Living in the immense area of the Pantanal with its adversities, is the native man of the region: the Pantaneiro. He can also be called peão. Integrated with everything around, he knows that all the actions of nature, such as the wet and dry seasons, are responsible for the richness and the life of the Pantanal. The area has been used for cattle farming for decades. Pantaneiro ‘cowboys’ and their cattle herds have a history of living in harmony with the Pantanal wildlife.
The long distances and the difficult access to other regions made the Pantaneiro Man used to isolation and loneliness. Once in a while the Pantaneiro's solitude is broken when a group of pantaneiros get together to herd cattle, or when they participate in the traditional parties at neighboring farms. Herding the cattle can make days turn into weeks as the men travel by horse, taking thousands of cattle to dry pastures so they can feed.
After leaving the animals by themselves for a few months, the peão brings them back to their original pastures or takes them to be sold in a nearby city. This kind of trip resembles American cowboys' journeys through the Middle West, but in this case, the travelers traverse a wetland area. In that isolated region the most usual means of transport is the pantaneiro horse and oxcart, resistant to work inside the water, and crafts of varied sizes and types.
The people of the Pantanal preserve their culture and traditions not only through their work on the land but also in their traditional festivals and parties, where people dance to the sound of the viola (Brazilian guitar), which is, at the end of the party, used to play sad, folksy songs. It is saidin common folklore that, because of its ability as a musician, the devil is forbidden to touch the viola.
One such traditional festival is the Festival de São Benedito, which takes place in Cuiabá, the Capital of Mato Grosso State.
A religious display with an Afro-Brazilian origin, the Festival of São Benedito takes place in June and is a tradition that has been kept alive by the African people who settled in Mato Grosso to work in the mines, on the farms, in factories and as domestic servants. The festival first took place in 1719 when the City of Cuiabá was founded, and is dedicated to the Afro-Brazilian Saint Benedict, patron of the city, featuring folkdances such as the Siriri, the Cururu, and the Congo.
The richness of the Brazilian Culture is often shown on its traditional cuisine. The passion for flavor and the ingredients brought from immigrants add up to recipes that show how passionate and intense the Brazilian people are.
In the remote region of Mato Grosso, the traditional cuisine has a combination of the colors and flavors of the Cerrado. The Pantanal Matogrossense plays an important part, as the fish found in the area are used in most dishes.
The most common side dishes include: rice, beans and ‘Farofa de Banana’ (made of plantains and mush of manioc flour). ‘Caldo de Piranha’ (piranha broth) is also a mandatory dish, along with ‘Mojica’ (fish stew), ‘Filé de Pintado’ (catfish filets), ‘Moqueca de Pintado’ (spicy piranha soup),and ‘Ventrecha de Pacu’ (fried ribs of ‘Pacu’ fish).
In the traditional cuisine of Mato Grosso, it is very common to find dishes that combine meat to traditional spices of the Cerrado. Beef and pork are often used as well. Among the most famous recipes of Mato Grosso are: ‘Maria Isabel’ (rice with beef and spices), ‘Guisado à moda cuiabana’ (stew made Cuiabá style), ‘Feijão tropeiro’ (beans with pork rind, sausage, cabbage and cassava flour), ‘Feijoada’ (black bean stew, with pork and sausage, served with rice and farofa), and ‘Picanha’ (Brazilian BBQ Beef, made with top Sirloin or Rump Cap), among many others.
All these flavours and combinations add up to a fantastic experience. Rich, colorful and tasty, the Pantanal Cuisine is sure to impress.