As promised, here is a full comment on my stay in Brazil from 18 – 25 March 2012.
This was an absolutely amazing holiday! The riding was intense – I certainly got very tired – but the countryside was lovely and the local people wonderful.
Of course, being the only foreigner there, I did not have a standard itinerary, so I suppose that my comments can’t be taken as a reflection of the typical experience. In some cases we did things and went to places that they said they could not do with a bigger party – either because it might be difficult with several people or because it was impossible to get a van there to prepare food. I made clear to them at the start that I had no expectations in terms of food – “I eat what you eat, I drink what you drink” – so at times we ate simply from saddle bags (although being gauchos they still had a habit of making a fire and cooking meat – I just helped gather up some firewood).
So I had a fascinating time, and was really immersed in the culture. There was one of me and four of them. I got credit for this – they thought I was “brave” not being worried about being the only foreigner. Except for one of the gauchos, their English wasn’t great, but we communicated fine and they found it very funny teaching me Portuguese words. If I suffered, it was on days when we spent 7 hours riding, sometimes at a hectic pace. But this did not prevent me from doing anything – it was just that at the end of the day I was in serious pain and walking like an old man and everyone (including me) found it very funny. They then made me drink caipirinhas as well as beer to feel better. The atmosphere was at all times great: these gauchos are warm-hearted, fantastic people. Practical and assured on the land, and great at cooking in the evenings.
The first 2 nights I was at Fazenda da Chapada, owned by Daniel Camargo Klein. Daniel is a helluva guy, large and brimming with life. On Monday we went for a 3.5 hour ride in the area, which was really about acclimatisation. On Tuesday we left, headed towards Fazenda Rodeio Bonito. There were three of us – Daniel, the gaucho Giancarlo and me – and the distance was 45kms across country. We stopped at Fazenda da Ferradura for lunch, provided by an elderly couple who spoke no English but were very welcoming and warm to me.
We arrived in the evening at Rodeio Bonito, owned by a woman called Luzia, who has a stunning farmhouse designed by her architect daughter. A converted barn, it’s all stone and wood, and wonderfully furnished. Luzia spoke decent English – she had lived in Dallas for 3 years. For this reason, Daniel thought it a good idea that we used Rodeio Bonito as a base – in addition it’s in the heart of Coxilha Rica, with lovely open countryside. It was a wonderful place to stay – I had a bedroom upstairs; the agreement with Luzia was that the gauchos took over the kitchen every evening (she became a guest in her own home), and she and I typically sat drinking at the counter that enclosed the kitchen, talking and joking and joining in the general mayhem while listening to gaucho songs. These generally express a feeling for the land and lifestyle, as well as the universal theme of unrequited love… something that anyone might relate to…
On Wednesday morning I walked around the farm with Luzia, hearing about the history of her family, the area and the culture, and going into a natural forest and across some marshland. In the afternoon, I had a 4-hour ride with the guys up to the top of local hills, with views for miles over the surrounding area. Riding back in the dark we were surrounded by fireflies, a quite bewitching experience.
On Thursday four of us, led by Daniel, rode to a waterfall some 20km distance and made a barbecue lunch there. We took everything with us in saddlebags (lots of beer and meat). This was somewhere they say they like to go, but can’t take larger groups to. Afterwards we stopped at a really old fazenda (Sao Joao) and looked around inside – a lot of old family photos, documents and furniture.
Friday was a really hectic day. Two of the gauchos and I took 10 horses overland to another fazenda. This was fast-moving: we covered 30km in under 3 hours, mostly at a trot but sometimes cantering. Chasing the horses up and down hill, over rocks, through forests and streams was amazing – whips cracking, shouting, water shooting everywhere. This was the point when it came home to me that I was living a cowboy fantasy! Liberation! Our destination was Fazenda Limoeiro, another old place totally isolated in the heart of Coxilha Rica. We left all the horses there to roam in the fields and were picked up and drove perhaps 20km to another fazenda, from where we took new horses and rode some 15km back to Rodeio Bonito.
Saturday morning we left Rodeio Bonito, which was sad – Luzia was in tears because we were going. This was a long ride, across country back to Daniel’s Fazenda da Chapada. Just me and two gauchos. We stopped for lunch in a small natural forest, then stopped for water at a fazenda, where we sat and talked with three generations of a local family. The teenage daughter spoke some English, so although she was shy I spoke to her a bit, and everyone was clearly very pleased. At times like this I really felt an honoured guest – I was treated with kindness and great respect, and tried to reciprocate with smiles and half-bows and basic greetings and thanks in Portuguese.
We arrived back at Fazenda da Chapada at about 6pm. There was quite a welcome party – Daniel, his wife and two kids, local radio announcer Kaskao who had initially given me a lift from the town of Lages to the fazenda the previous Sunday, and a few friends of the family. I was damn sore, so was immediately put on caipirinhas by Kaskao, whose freelance reportage of local affairs seems to rest heavily upon his love of life and genuine warmth, both fuelled by caipirinhas. We had a very jolly evening – some fantastic food, beef and pork cooked over a fire within the barn – and lots of drinks. I was presented with a gaucho belt amidst a lot of laughter and hugs from everybody. It was touching and I must admit that I felt tearful…
An old man present showed me a pile of photos he’d taken since the mid-1940s – he’d been involved in trucking lumber out of the region for export to Puerto Rico in the 50s – it was all a brief economic history of the region’s links with the outside world. Despite his lack of English and my lack of Portuguese, we understood each other perfectly well, and he was clearly delighted to have an “Englishman” for an audience. We exchanged cigarettes and repeatedly drank to each other’s health… before his (I suspect long-suffering) wife dragged me away to eat more. This pretty much sums up the spirit of the people down there.
I had started my holiday with 4 days in Rio de Janeiro – with which I was supremely impressed. I think I have been to several of the world’s most visually attractive cities (Cape Town, Sydney, Hong Kong, Bergen in Norway), and in my view the geography of Rio beats them all. Going up to the statue of Christ is just superb – its mountain towers 1000m over the city, the statue itself is the most serene man-made monument I have seen, and the views of Rio on a day of cloudless blue-blue sky were unsurpassable. I also found a way to beat the queues for the cablecar at the Sugar Loaf – despite the heat I walked more than half-way up through the forest at the side, and caught the cablecar at the mid base station for the final 170m to the 400m summit. The views from here were great, especially along the coast over Copacabana and Ipanema.
I finished my stay in Brazil by flying from Florianopolis up to Sao Paulo for 2 days. Wandered around and even went into my company’s Brazilian office, where I met with the head of Brazilian equities – an interesting end to a fascinating Brazilian journey. I felt great walking in there wearing my riding boots, jeans and a checked shirt, to be shown smilingly into the boardroom (no doubt with behind the scenes messages on the theme of “there’s a mad guy from London here”). I did leave my leather gaucho hat at the hotel though – unfortunately on the streets of Sao Paulo, the largest city in the southern hemisphere, it made me feel a bit like Crocodile Dundee and attracted a few too many stares. The financial folk of Sao Paulo were very perplexed as to why somebody from London would choose to spend a week riding in the highlands of Santa Catarina, and I did my best to convince them of the marvels of their country and its people. Their knowledge of Santa Catarina seems to be limited to Florianopolis, which is a very trendy seaside resort – all the wealthy Brazilian footballers have villas there and the place is allegedly packed with supermodels. Hell, life does present one with some hard choices, but when all’s said and done - and at the risk of sounding very strange – I have to say that riding with gauchos wins out over supermodels for me…
Specifically, to answer the questions in your questionnaire:
1. The holiday was exceptional. Eye-opening and exhilarating.
2. Favourite memory: driving wild-running horses across country.
3. Would definitely return – in fact it would be easy to fall permanently in love with this area of Brazil.
4. Accommodation was very comfortable – much more than adequate.
5. Food was excellent. Lot of meat – this is the local cuisine – but mixed with plenty of salad and some vegetables. Lot of cheese – again this is local fare. Large quantities of beer and cachaca (cane spirit, the active ingredient in the caipirinha).
6. Horses were good, and in first class condition. They have wonderful endurance – after 7 hours riding they had a lot more life in them than I did.
7. The guides were excellent. Spirited, at ease and genuinely concerned that I was having a good time. 100% reliable – the sort of men that you would happily trust with your life (and I guess I did!). It should be noted that these gauchos are not country bumpkins – far from it: very much citizens of the modern world, who yet love the open country, where they have grown up and intend to make their lives.
I spoke to your local man, the Flemish Paul, on the phone shortly after arrival and on my final day (I didn’t have reception most of the week). We never met, but he was friendly and had clearly done a good job organising things.
8. Riding equipment was good. Saddles were good, and covered in sheepskins – which eases long rides somewhat.
9. Airport transfer was punctual and efficient.
10. No suggestions for improvement. Again, I would repeat that my trip was not a standard one.
Thanks so much for your efforts – for facilitating this unique trip.
Your info was good – I was as prepared as I could be (in reality, I think that one needs to be open-minded and go with the flow – I don’t think anything can really prepare you for the actual experience. I know that many Europeans find this difficult to accept – but an open mind and flexible attitude take you furthest in this life). I would happily book another riding holiday with you. Not sure where I’d go – Ecuador, Argentina, Jordan and India all appeal – as well as back to Santa Catarina. You are absolutely welcome to use my first name and quote me, if that is appropriate and it helps in any way. And I’d be happy to be added to your email list. Damn, I know you’re going to drive me mad with temptation.
Thanks so much for making this possible.
With warmest regards,
Read more about this ride here: Gaucho Experience, Brazil.