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Brazilian Backcountry

The slender two-lane road to the western pampas runs through pale open country "pure in line and color," Erico Verissimo, the region's great novelist, once noted. "It was simple, ingenious," he wrote. "One could say it was painted in watercolors by the hand of a child."

At the side of the road, men in voluminous peasant trousers called bombachas lounged beside bags of fresh tangerines that dangled from branches stuck in the ground, as though hungry hoboes were preparing to depart. A few brightly colored Guarani Indian wicker baskets slung in trees marked the entrance to an encampment. "There are very few Guarani left," said my Brazilian friend Flavia Bastos, who was accompanying me on a 10-day road trip through Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil. "They're nomadic, but the government is trying to force them onto reservations."

It was long after dark when we arrived at the Estancia do Sobrado's massive colonial farmhouse. We had oriented ourselves through the black and empty land with guesswork and directions from ranch hands who emerged from the darkness like wraiths. Jacques Souza and his wife, Berenice, greeted us at the estancia with a dinner of ling¸iÁa (sausage) made on the farm—slowly cooked before the fireplace and dusted with farofa, manioc flour.

The ranch, or fazenda—thousands of acres with thousands of head of livestock—has been in Jacques's family for eight generations. In the spacious living room, photos, old spurs and bolos, Victrolas, and an ancient immigrant trunk coexist with the VCR and some new tango records from Argentina. Immaculate 19th-century furniture fills the bedrooms, and a pale-blue metal Victorian bassinet stands in the corner of a roomy bathroom. Whimsical Portuguese Art Deco tiles decorate the floors of the downstairs rooms.

Guests from all over the globe travel to the Sobrado to experience the traditional rhythms and skills of fazenda life. An old gaucho still hand-braids the estancia's lariats and horse tack, twirling large disks of cowhide laces into a single thong. The family customs of crossbreeding and butchering cattle are carried on. Jacques often takes guests down a eucalyptus-scented trail to an overlook where they can appreciate the blanket of gold and green that stretches around them. "It's all ours. Up to the horizon," he says with pride.

TUCKED BETWEEN THE COLD SURF OF THE SOUTH Atlantic and the Spanish-speaking countries of Argentina and Uruguay, Rio Grande do Sul was Brazil's urban frontier, the last settled state. Today, it is Brazil with a difference. While still graced with a rugged natural beauty and a strong identity similar to the rest of the country, Brazil's southernmost state is among the most developed places in South America, a buzzing industrial and agricultural entrepôt that feels half-European, half-Brazilian.

Colonial Rio Grande do Sul attracted the autonomous Portuguese cowboy—the gaucho (pronounced "gah-oo-sha" in Brazil)—who ranged the pampas starting in the 1700's. The gauchos fought the Spanish and the Indians; they battled bandits, religious fanatics, and Brazilian armies in the civil wars that swept though the pampas for decades. The state's Farroupilha Revolution against Brazil's hegemony raged from 1835 to 1845, ending after the gauchos negotiated an amnesty.

All that turmoil has left today's gauchos (as people from Rio Grande do Sul are known) with a legacy of prickly independence and intense pride of place. There are gaucho TV and radio shows, and the 40 gaucho music festivals gather as many as a million people annually—more than the state's soccer stadiums. The flag of Brazil's Lone Star State still carries the name Rio Grande Republic, and as recently as 1993 there was an attempt to secede from the country and create the Federal Republic of the Gaucho Pampa.

at first light, our blue-eyed gaucho guide, Paulo Hafner, cantered up to the B&B where we were staying in the mountains of the Gaucho Serra. He was wearing the pampas uniform of bombachas, boots, and a crumpled felt boater, and came ready to lead me and Flavia on a day's ride through the mountains to Itaimbezinho Canyon, one of the continent's deepest gorges. More than 2,000 feet down, the canyon supports completely different climatic zones at the top and bottom; the rim is so precipitous that cowboys must take care that cattle don't topple in. At the bottom of the gorge, a pewter-hued river courses through the thick vegetation.

It was a ride through endless golden-brown hills, along a route marked by old colonial houses and herds of Hereford and humpback zebu cattle. At the canyon's rim, we stopped to take in the rainbow of colors blazing off the steep walls in the late sun. Fatigue speeded my dismount, and I lay on the warm ground nursing my body, sore from 15 miles of cantering and trotting. As I watched a column of leaf-cutting ants march in a line of tiny green sails, I gave up trying to figure out what parts hurt, since all seemed to answer in the affirmative when questioned. Flavia fell into a deep sleep.

As afternoon turned to evening, we made our way back to our hotel. Though the route was through a vast open countryside barely etched by a few faint trails, my horse sensed the way home. He insisted on thundering runs up the high hills, racing Flavia's horse to the top. At the gate, he happily cantered into his stable.

Paulo came trotting in after me, clearly unaffected by the ride; Flavia was sore, but not wounded. We joined a circle of gauchos who had gathered in front of the stable, and watched as a tea server poured hot water into a cuia, the ornate gourd that locals use to drink a bitter, electric-green tea called chimarr“o. He passed the cuia to Flavia. Between sips through a silver straw, she chatted with the cowboys, then returned the cuia to the server. He warmed the same tea and passed it to the next gaucho. Around and around it went, in a circle of caffeinating conviviality.

IN THE DECADE THAT FOLLOWED THE 1888 end to slavery, some 800,000 Europeans immigrated to Rio Grande do Sul to tend the vineyards and cattle ranches. Today, up in the Gaucho Serra, their German and Italian settlements remain intact. The region stretching from Taquara to Santa Cruz do Sul is like a subtropical Tyrol, with tall stone Lutheran churches anchoring tidy towns populated by blond Brazilians who still speak German. In Gramado, 75 miles from the state's capital of Pôrto Alegre, polka music drifts through the araucaria trees of a Biergarten, and fondue restaurants sit beside chocolate shops. The only snow in the country falls here, and the Swiss architecture, exclusive clothing stores, and coffee bars appeal to Brazilians who travel south for a bit of Alpine skiing.

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