Brasília and the Pantanal
It was barely 50 years ago that Juscelino Kubitschek was elected Brazil’s president, largely as a result of his wildly ambitious plans to construct a capital from scratch right in the middle of Brazil (i.e., in the middle of nowhere). To carry out this endeavor, he hired two young talents: architect Oscar Niemeyer and an urban planner named Lúcio Costa. Construction began in 1957, and three years later, the world’s most famous and controversial planned city was unveiled. Although the Royal Institute of British Architects referred to its gleaming space-age geometric palaces, monuments, and “sectors” as “the Moon’s Backside” over the years, Brasília’s unearthly charms have seduced architecture buffs from around the globe.
Architecture aside, one of Brasília’s raisons d’être was to facilitate the opening up of the vast and isolated interior of Brazil’s Central-West, a region of elevated plains whose unique landscape, the Cerrado, conjures up the muted colors and scrubby foliage of East Africa’s savannahs. As a result, the city is an ideal departure point for exploring natural and cultural treasures located in the surrounding state of Goiás.
Highlights include the Chapada de Veadeiros, whose surreal rock formations, bathed by numerous waterfalls, are a hiker’s paradise, as well as the charming colonial towns of Pirenópolis and Goiás Velho, which are largely overlooked by foreign tourists.
Beyond Goiás, straddling the Wild West frontier states of Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul, lies one of the most fantastically diverse ecosystems on the planet. Larger than Great Britain, the Pantanal—which literally means “swamp”—is an ecotourist’s dream come to life. Alligators, jaguars, anacondas, capybaras (the world’s largest rodents), and brilliantly hued exotic birds of every size imaginable are just a few of the most popular forms of fauna you’re likely to meet up with.
The more than 200 species of fish that live in the Pantanal’s rivers make it one of the best places in the world for freshwater fishing—and for eating (make sure to try the piranha soup). Rivaling the flocks of birds and schools of fish are the great herds of cattle that use the wetlands as their pasture. Their presence accounts for vast ranches, some of which, nestled deep within the Pantanal, double as wildlife reserves and eco-resorts.
The region has other natural treasures as well. Close to Mato Grosso’s capital of Cuiabá lies the Chapada dos Guimarães, a magnificent series of cliffs, gorges, and waterfalls that offers great hiking. Located on one of the planet’s oldest tectonic plates, it resembles the Grand Canyon gone tropical. And not far from Mato Grosso do Sul’s capital of Campo Grande, the unspoiled nature surrounding the town of Bonito constitutes Brazil’s most successful example of sustainable ecotourism.
Aside from unspoiled tropical landscapes, Bonito’s main draw is its many rivers. Their pure, crystalline waters have given rise to flutuaçâo, a sport that involves donning a snorkel, mask, and lifejacket, and then letting the current carry you downriver while you rub shoulders with a dazzlingly colorful array of tropical fish. Although many of these attractions are quite literally off the proverbial beaten track, getting to and traveling through these unique regions is an adventure in itself.
© Michael Sommers from Moon Brazil, 2nd Edition