Mato Grosso: The Wild Wild West

It was in Mato Grosso (‘thick forest’) where explorers, indigenous hunters, gold seekers and nature lovers came together. Today the state is divided in 2: in the north, the state of Mato Grosso and in the South Mato Grosso do Sul, both home to Brazil’s spectacular wildlife.

The Amazon gets all the glitz and glamour but it is the Pantanal that shines as the best place for river fishing, and viewing animals up close. With an impressive concentration of animals such as jaguars, caimans, anacondas, piranhas, macaws and other wildlife, the region’s offering in terms of getting to understand local culture and local foods is certainly hard to miss.

Mato Grosso is equally the home of many indigenous Brazilians. Some live as they have for many centuries up north, The Erikbatsa, for example, are noted for their featherwork.

I started my trip in Cuiabá, Mato Grosso’s capital. The name is of obscure Indian origin, reportedly meaning “arrow-fishing” and alludes to the Bororo custom of using arrows to fish. Others say that a Portuguese man was taking a bath in the river using a kind of plate made with half coconut (named cuia), and the stream took it, and the man said: Cuia ba (something like “the cuia is gone”).

I wasn’t sure if it was in this very river where the Portuguese man took his bath but a short drive from the city center led me to a local fishing village featuring a rodizio of local fish.

Banana farofa

In the north, the cuisine is mostly conquered by fish. Pacu, dourado and pintado come frito (‘fried’), grelhado (‘grilled’), assado (‘baked’) or defumado (‘smoked’). To give some examples:

Stew of Pintado (Mato Grosso’s Surubim fish)

Pirão (gravy made from fish stew juices)

Mojica (Brazilian seafood stew with manioc root and pieces of Pintado fish)

And my personal favorite…Deep-fried Pacu ribs (omnivorous freshwater fish related to the Piranha)

You can’t forget dessert in Brazil! Rapadura de Leite (Milk candy)

The next day I paid a visit to a friend’s farm (one of many within the state) where I learned the process of raising them, and how to feed them. I was surprised they were still walking around in the extreme heat!

Baby chicks

Here, piggy!

Milky way cow

Fresh guava..a bird's favorite

I also made a side trip to Chapada dos Guimarães, a rocky plateau, 800m higher than the city which featured breathtaking views of the National Park (and where more traditional food was tasted).

Cachoeira da Martinha (Martinha Waterfall)

On the way, I tried Costelinha de Porco (Baby Pork ribs cut in slices with rice and vegetables…this is a half portion…). In the south, the dishes are more influenced by cattle and grains

Deep-fried Manioc (root) – their version of french fries.

As you drive through the city and its neighboring towns, it’s a dusty land with miles and miles of plantations, savannas and rolling hills. I have come during the ‘dry’ season, and boy is it dry. The weather tracker indicates that it’s 38 degrees celsius, but it feels much more than that.

The locals say it doesn’t rain during this time, not once. Proof is seen on the agricultural plantations, with the grey-looking trees and the small fires that start up because of the heat. Luckily there’s a raining season, about 6 months of it but that’s during the winter time where the trees are green and fields bloom.

However, one thing that never changes is Brazil’s major ecosystem, the Pantanal; home to the best fishing rivers in the world and the only tribe living there, the Bororo.

Unlike the Amazon, the Pantanal is an open space where wildlife is much easier to see. The world’s largest wetland is approximately 20 times the size of the Everglades in Florida. Very few people live in this wetland and since distances are so great and public transport so poor, most travel in motorboats. The National Park status of the Pantanal has made it easier for conservationists to protect the area. Though the name pantano alludes to swamp, the Pantanal, rather is an seasonal alluvial plain, it was originally an ancient inland sea (called Xaraes) which began to dry out 65 million years ago with the Amazon Sea.

I stayed in the SESC Pantanal Private Natural Heritage Reserve (Reserva Particular do Patrimonio Natural SESC Pantanal) which is a privately owned reserve in Brazil, established in 1998 and 878.7 km2 in size.

It holds a mix of permanent rivers, seasonal streams, permanent and seasonal floodplain freshwater lakes, shrub dominated wetlands and seasonally flooded forests, all dedicated to nature preservation. Not too far away from the river, they also grow organic herbs and plants.

Pimenta (pepper)

Hortela (mint)

Scallions

Despite the scorching heat of the summer, I visited the Pantanal at its peak fishing season since during the breeding season (in the winter), fishing is prohibited. 20 species of piranha, dourado and other fish like pacu, surubim, piraputanga and pintado (to name a few) were available to catch.

Our boat, Chau.

Now, we're ready to go. Ice cold beer 🙂

We used tuvira (banded knife fish). It is a small eel that emits an electrical charge that attracts sport fish such as dourado and other large catfishes.

The boats that cross the river don’t usually have weights on them to hold the boat down, instead, the boats drive through some marshes allowing the boat to remain still.

Driving deep within the Pantanal but staying still on marshes, we also caught some wildlife. Caimans (part of the Alligator family) came and went nearby the boat – scary but not threatening apparently.

Capivara, the largest rodent in the world. They looked like giant hamsters but are semi-aquatic mammals. Their meat here is hunted.

Unfortunately, we weren’t so lucky. Every time we threw the line to the river, we felt a bite but when we pulled back to see what we caught, small and large-size piranhas had bitten our fish instead (before the large ones had the chance).

These fishes from afar don’t look threatening but once you open their mouths and see their teethes, you think twice. I got to hold one of these and their skin is slippery and soft. You must hold them by the gills as they move a lot when out of the water – also it helped to not get bitten as once they hook on to your skin – you can say goodbye to that limb of yours.

People swim in some parts of these rivers. I asked them if they were afraid of piranhas and they answered no, since piranhas only attack if they see blood. Either way, I’m not going in.

We bumped into another boat which used parts of cow hearts to attract larger catfishes. Here, we made an exchange. A couple of live tuvira for a whole cow heart. Unfortunately for us, the next day, our cow hearts disappeared and we had to continue using tuvira which only led us to more piranhas.

It was a short-lived experience but a fun one.

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