In only a few decades, rampant urban development and the clearing of surrounding land for the planting of lucrative cash crops such as soy beans has led to the destruction of the majority of the native Cerrado vegetation that once covered the Planalto. Despite this tragic devastation—of roughly 10,000 Cerrado plant species only 44 percent exist elsewhere in the world—several parks preserve this unique mixture of grassland, dry forest, and buriti palms.
In Brasília itself, you can follow various hiking trails through a preserved swatch of typical Cerrado vegetation at the well-organized Jardim Botânico (Setor de Mansões D. Bosco, Cj. 12, Lago Sul, tel. 61/3366-2141, 9 a.m.–5 p.m. Tues.–Sun., R$2), located along the southern shores of Lago Paranoá. To get here, take the 147 bus from the rodoviária.
Farther away, along the city’s northern fringes, is the vast Parque Nacional de Brasília (BR-040 Km 9, Setor Militar Urbano, tel. 61/3465-2013, 8 a.m.–4 p.m. daily, R$3), known popularly as “Água Mineral” due to its abundant freshwater springs and natural pools in which you can take a dip. Several walking trails lead through preserved Cerrado vegetation including trees bearing pequi and mangaba fruits and ipês sprayed with yellow and violet blossoms. During the week, when the park receives fewer visitors, your chances of glimpsing armadillos, monkeys, and capybaras are higher. To get here, take a cab or the W3 Norte Circular bus, which passes along W3 and can let you off near the park entrance.
Within an hour or two from the city limits, you can venture even more deeply into the Cerrado, although in most cases you’ll need a car. For a quick getaway, Cachoeira da Saia Velha (BR-040 Km 35 south of Brasília, tel. 61/3627-0000, 8 a.m.–4 p.m. daily, R$7–10) is an ecological reserve with a waterfall and a handful of refreshing natural pools.
Also close to Brasília is Poço Azul (DF-001 Km 105, tel. 61/9648-1559, 5 a.m.–7 p.m. daily, R$15 per car), a park with waterfalls and brilliant turquoise pools where you can go swimming and diving and also practice rappelling. Bring food and drink for a picnic since there are no restaurants. To get here take the DF-001 from the Eixo Norte towards Lago Oeste for 20 kilometers (12 miles) to the end of the highway, before following a signed dirt road for 9 kilometers (6 miles).
Two hours northeast of the city, the town of Formosa is the base for visiting the Salto de Itiquira (tel. 61/3503-5108, 8 a.m.–4 p.m. daily, R$10), a spectacular 170-meter-high (558-foot-high) waterfall, surrounded by a park filled with lush tropical vegetation and natural swimming pools. Although you can take a bus from the rodoferroviária (long-distance bus station) to Formosa, getting a ride to the falls (40 kilometers/25 miles away) is tricky and expensive (if you have to depend on a taxi from the bus station). If you have a car, just follow the BR-020 and BR-030 to Formosa and then follow GO-44 along to Itiquira.
Other nearby waterfalls, pools, caves, and gorges can’t be reached easily, even by car. Instead they require hiking on trails that weave through striking, unmarred landscapes. For guided day trips, contact Bluepoint (SCLN, 310, Bl. D, Lj. 71, tel. 61/3274-033, www.bluepoint.com.br).
© Michael Sommers from Moon Brazil, 2nd Edition