Ranching and ecolodges highlight abundant wildlife.

George Oxford Miller

HOT SHADOWS FROM THE GLOWING coals flash over the rotisseries of meat like lightning at sunset. Hunks of meat, skewered on eight-foot-long wooden saplings, sizzle over a four-foot-deep pit dug in the sandy ground. A Brazilian cowboy tends the fire while we chat with the other ranch hands.

In Brazil, the churrascaria, or ranch-style barbecue, is as much a tradition as the Bosa Nova beat and Rio beaches. Last year, I ate in a churrascaria near the Dallas/Fort Worth airport. The eat-till-you-die barbecue restaurants have become popular in metropolitan areas across the U. S. Waiters dressed in designer gaucho pants and white cotton shirts keep your plates filled with a flame-kissed meats sliced straight from the rotisserie onto your plate.

At the Mangabal Ecolodge and ranch deep in Brazil's Montana-sized Pantanal, the workers wear blue jeans and boots still covered with trail dust. They gather around the fire pit after spending the day herding cattle and branding calves. A group ambles over from the ranch headquarters to the six-room ecolodge and join the party.

"How fresh is this meat?" I ask the cowboy-cook.

"We brought the calf in from the field about four hours ago," he says

Fernando de Barros, the owner of the 20,000-acre ranch, inspects the rotisseries of ribs, flank, pork, veal, and one with what looks like a long ribbon twisted around the pole. He removes a side of veal and slices some onto a platter. We sample bite-sized pieces from each rotisserie as the meat slowly grills over the flames.

The grass-fed, organic beef packs more flavor but is a bit more chewy than the feed-lot beef at home. Finally, he removes the rod with the fleshy ribbon wrapped around it and slices it into bite-sized chunks.

"The intestines are a local delicacy," he says and offers us first pick of the char-broiled chitlings.

I'm a sport and try some. They taste like the fried pork skins I ate as a kid.

In Rio de Janeiro, we dined on the savory feijão com arroz (beans and rice) typical of the countryside and spicy, coconut-flavored seafood from the coastal state of Bahia. But in the Pantanal, Brazil's ranchlands, beef rules. Yet, we come to the Pantanal for more than calories and cowboy culture. The churrascaria is only the first chapter in our Brazilian adventure.

THE PANTANAL IS THE SERENGETI of  South America. The Amazon has the reputation for wildness, but the Pantanal, with about 1,200 animal species, is where you actually can see the abundance of wildlife. An estimated 652 species of birds, 102 species of mammals, and 177 species of reptiles, including 20 million crocodilians, call the Pantanal home.

The Pantanal stretches across 81,000 square miles of seasonally flooded grasslands and woodland hummocks along the border of Brazil, Paraguay, and Bolivia. From October to April, rains turn the vast basin into the world's largest oasis. Hemmed in by mountains and plateaus, the sea of rising water gobbles up the landscape from horizon to horizon. Roads vanish, temporary rivers wind through the forests, and pastures turn into swamps.

When the rains start, any creature that can't swim or wade seeks higher ground. That includes jaguars, margays, tapirs, deer, anteaters, armadillos, monkeys, and the gray Zebu cattle, a humped breed from India that tolerates heat and wetness. Birds migrate from as far away as North America and Patagonia to join the feeding frenzy (not unlike a churrascaria) on the fish that spawn in the expanding marshes. It's the Everglades times one hundred.

The pristine wilderness is one of the last safe harbors for the maned wolf, marsh deer, giant otter, giant anteater, hyacinth macaw, and giant armadillo, all endangered, all the largest of their kind in South America. So, it's with no little anticipation that we came this far to see one of the world's most remarkable wildlife spectacles.

We arrive in May when dry land once again is reclaiming the inundated roads and pastures. The rains will start again in October. After sightseeing for three days in Rio, we fly to the town of Campo Grande, then transfer to a Cessna for a short hop over inundated forests and plains to Mangabal Ecolodge and ranch.

The next morning as the cowboys saddle up for a day on the range, we wake to a cacophony of parrots, toucans, ibises, and macaws. On the front porch of the rustic lodge, a rhea, an ostrich-sized bird, waits to greet us. Parrots clamor in the trees, woodpeckers drum on  the palms, and hawks perch in the treetops.

After breakfast, we load into a Toyota flatbed truck with safari seats and head out to search for the wildlife. We don't have to go far. Thousands of long-legged ibises, herons, and other wading birds tiptoe through a flooded pasture within sight of the lodge.

"In another month, this will be a dry land," Barros tells us. "About 80 percent of the Pantanal floods in the wet season. Rivers that flow through the forests become little streams then disappear. Cattle will move into this area to eat the new grass. With the seasonal flooding, we don't have to worry about overgrazing."

For now, another creature feasts on the aquatic vegetation. Hundreds of capybaras graze like cows in the shallows. The 100-pound creatures, the world's largest rodent, look like miniature hippos swimming through the water. A mother with four dog-sized juveniles ambles in front of the truck and joins a group of about 50 lolling in the shade of a tree.

"Capybaras are one of the jaguar's favorite foods," Barros says. "So are cattle. I lose about eight percent a year to the cats. But it's all part of living in the Pantanal."

The next day begins before dawn with a birdwaching walk to a nearby slough. First light reveals hundreds of wood storks, herons, and egrets perched in the trees. As the sky brightens, the birds begin to flutter and glide from the trees. Silhouetted against a golden sky, the squadrons soar overhead to their feeding grounds.

Thousands of wood ducks circle and land, flocks of ibises probe the mud with curved bills, and green clouds of screaming parakeets fly over. Dozens of five-foot-tall jabiru storks, the icons of the of the Pantanal, stalk through the shallows like mimes in slow motion. Little of this scene has changed since the continents formed millions of years ago.

After a week in the Brazil, we discover that the Pantanal is more than a vast game park. Like a time machine, our journey takes us to place where nature's seasonal cycle still operates unimpeded by human interruption, where spectacular concentrations of wildlife flourish, and where remote lodges offer a slice of the cowboy culture little changed for more than 100 years.

Barbecue and swamp creatures

Wildlife and cowboy culture thrive in Brazil's vast Pantanal wetland.

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