A herd of water buffalo rest in a pool of water surrounded by short grasses.

Water buffalo are a common sight on Ilha de Marajó. Photo © Celso Abreu, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

In The New York Times last week, “Frugal Traveler” Seth Kugel posted about a trip to a region of the Brazilian Amazon that runs counter to the images most people conjure up when they ponder a journey to the world’s largest and most diverse rainforest.

Eschewing the clichés – not to mention the considerable number of hours and dollars that are often necessary to get off the beaten path and into what’s left of the unspoiled jungle itself – Kugel and a pal traveled to the Ilha de Marajó. While this island – which lies at the mouth of the Amazon, 90 km from the state of Pará’s capital of Belém (3 hours by ferry) – is little known to foreigners, it’s big in size (comparable to Switzerland) and unique in many ways.

Today, aside from providing food and transportation, buffalos are a major source of livelihood whose hides supply the local leather industry.

Marajó seduces with beaches that are backed by mangroves, whose lush vegetation is teeming with exotic cranes, herons, and ibises as well as monkeys, caimans, and sloths. It also boasts a rich local culture – with millennium-old pottery-making traditions and unique music and dances – carimbó and lundú – that mingle indigenous, Portuguese, and African influences.

However, what most people really notice (and which Kugel alludes to time and time again) is the fact that Ilha de Marajó is overrun by water buffalo… as in hundreds of thousands of them. As in buffalos outnumber human beings 3 to 1. As in the police ride buffalos instead of horses (or patrol cars) and buffalos tow municipal garbage trucks. As in the Marajó version of a cheeseburger is a buffalo steak topped with buffalo mozzarella.

Nobody quite knows how buffalos ended up on Marajó to begin with and, of course, various explanations abound. One of the more believable versions credits their introduction to 18th-century Franciscan monks, while another claims they were survivors of a capsized ship that was transporting buffalos from India to French Guyana.

Today, aside from providing food and transportation, buffalos are a major source of livelihood whose hides supply the local leather industry. On Marajó, numerous buffalo fazendas (ranches), are open to visitors. Aside from a chance to get firsthand insight into the daily lives of Marajoanos and a behind-the-scenes look at a working buffalo farm (you can often ride and sometimes even milk the buffalos), many of these fazendas are located on plains and wetland areas that are rife with wildlife. Several even offer all-inclusive accommodations.

Although at first glance, they might appear a little surly, buffalo are actually quite docile. Moreover, those that serve as transportation vehicles undergo special training to deal with tourists. Of course, apart from encounters on the beaches, fields and streets of Marajó, you’ll also come across buffalos on almost every restaurant menu on the island.

More tender and flavorful than beef, water buffalo meat is also 40 percent lower in cholesterol. As a main course, two of the most popular buffalo recipes are filé marajoara, in which a prime cut of succulent meat is grilled beneath a slab of creamy buffalo cheese, and frito de vaqueiro (literally “cowboy fried”), in which less noble parts of the animal are cut into cubes, cooked slowly over low heat in their own fat, and eaten with pirão de leite (a puree of milk and manioc flour). Of course, more refined inventions also exist; my saliva glands kick into overdrive by the mere thought of buffalo steak bathed in a sauce of cupuaçu (a white-fleshed Amazonian fruit for which “ambrosial” is an understatement).

As for vegetarians, there’s no need to feel excluded; buffalo milk makes an appearance in everything from butter and cheese to desserts such as the classic doce de leite, a thick, rich caramel pudding made of boiled milk and sugar.