This year I strayed from the usual Montana riding experience or the alternative of crossing New Zealand to try riding in the Santa Cantarina state of Brazil. I knew the area from business trips and wanted to get behind the cities, hotels and beaches to the real Brazil.
The reality was ahead of my expectations-this riding beats Rockies and European trail riding hands down.
The trip starts with a pick up from the delightful holiday island of Florianópolis, also good for a few days pampering at the end of the trip.
I was early in the season and the ride consisted of myself and the intrepid boss of Southern Cross, the German Brazilian Peter. Driven by the Ranch Owner Elvio we wound up the valley to the mountain town of Urubici. The gaucho experience got off right away with a visit to the local rodeo where I was warmly welcomed despite being as conspicuously foreign as if I had worn a NASA space suit. This is the gaucho life with gaucho people and their lives centres on their horses. You rapidly realize you are not visiting a dude ranch for visitors.
The proper riding started the next day. There is not much in the way of tourist infrastructure here and the tour is cleverly built around Elvios extended family. So you mount up at his Mum's house and then head out trailing from family Fazenda to family Fazenda for a few days, before reaching Elvios own ranch deep in the plateau country.
The horses were sturdy local Crioulo and Crioulo crosses and made short work climbing through the sub tropical vegetation up to the plateaus where we were free to canter at will through the mountain pasture. The saddles are comfortable and padded by 3 layers of sheepskin, and the raincoats came out several times for Lord of the Ring type deluges and proved the best I have used anywhere. The mountain rains made for adventure as we made our way through the sub tropical vegetation along with thunder crashing down.
Most of the time it was bright and sunny and we meandered from fantastic view to fantastic view. Lunchtime was usually an improvised barbecue by a stream and a well earnt snooze after a swig or two of Cachaça.
The horses were rotated regularly since the going is tough and we learnt their individual personalities, as well as the mules that carried packs.
The star mule took our luggage back to civilization at the end of the week causing only slight concern when it disappeared over the horizon with Peters working cash flow for the next few weeks and my passport and credit cards. But in the true Brazilian way order was soon restored.
The accommodation was simple but comfortable and the food and drink varied and plentiful. Evening entertainment centred on what became a needle chess championship or just hanging out drinking wine and beer.
We had plenty of chances to see the ranch at work, from milking (ever tried an early morning cappuccino straight from the udder?), to herding to activities that brought a tear to my eyes never mind the bullocks. Everything is at a steady pace and you can participate a much or as little as you wish to.
Language is an issue but Southern Cross makes sure that translation is available. And in any event, everyone is so friendly and laid back you get the message eventually.
Without reservation, this is a superior alternative to the trail rider in search of an authentic trip. The riding level is moderate and the most required skill is confidence in steep ascents and descents. It's more hanging on than dressage! Once you have gone through the Santa Catarina experience, you will find the conventional European or North American trail ride tame.
It's good value too, at about 1000 pounds including all, but you do need to get to Florianópolis. It's an easy flight from São Paulo and the holiday becomes best value when combined with some sightseeing or sun worshiping to set off the flight costs.