Six Days, Two Worlds: The Pantanal and the Chapada dos Guimarães
With less than a week in hand and not much in my pockets I was lucky to pick a place in Brazil's far west to visit, the Mato Grosso state, home of two entirely different ecosystems, the Pantanal wetlands, and the Chapada dos Guimarães, luckily not far from each other.
It's hard to beat this amazing short trip packed with alligators, river hogs, piranas, horse-riding in the wetlands, treks through jungle to hidden waterfalls and and an off-road drive along the cliffs of sandstone canyons.
My friend and I land shortly before dusk (one hour earlier than standard Brazilian time), at the small airport in the capital of Mato Grosso, Cuiabá. The first thing we do is to rent a cheap, robust and fuel-efficient Fiat Uno. We are about to embark on a trip to two different worlds.
One of them is the Pantanal, the largest wetlands in the world, encompassing three countries. The other, only 200km northeast of the Pantanal, the sandstone canyons of the Chapada dos Guimarães.
The state of Mato Grosso, one of the westernmost in Brazil, borders several others in addition to two countries, Bolivia and Paraguay. Flying in from Sao Paulo, we see a patchwork of organized soy and corn plantations as well as cattle farms (Mato Grosso is a world class soy and beef exporter).
The northern part of the state is part of the Amazon forest. Tales of native American tribes in the vast Amazon reservations entice us, but our aims, time, and budget, are a little more modest. Six days, two worlds.
After a quick stop at a supermarket to grab things to eat in the car and trip essentials such as water and toilet paper, we head to Poconé, as the sun splashes down on the dry plains. 100km southwest from Cuiabá, Poconé is the starting point of the Transpantaneira Highway.
The name sounds grandiose, but the highway is a dirt road crossing the wetlands until Porto Jofre, 149km southward, interspersed by running-board bridges, some in pretty bad shape.
We arrive in Poconé at around 7pm and rent a double room at hotel Skala, in front of a sprawling but empty square, and just minutes away from another, lined with Internet cafes and busy bars.
After eating fried pacu, a local fish, and very cold soft drinks at a lunch kiosk next to the hotel, we go to sleep, to prepare for the adventure.
Under one hundred degree heat, and armed with an ample supply of water, we head from Poconé toward Porto Jofre. The landscape of the Pantanal is a sprawling plain of low wet vegetation, though we are in the dry season, which goes from May to August.
That means alligators, garças, tuiuius, capivaras, and other animals of the South-American fauna are very near each other, to be able to soak up their food in the shallow water. They seem to live in peaceful terms with each other.
The alligators lay in the sun, some with their mouths glaringly open. Meanwhile, herons and spoon-beaked colhereiro birds, so pink they look like props for tropical hotel decor, transit in between the gators, with no sign of menace.
The capivara, called water-hog by Charles Darwin on the Voyage of the Beagle, also hounds in close quarters with the others, posing for pictures in a very easygoing fashion. This is easily explained: none of them belong to the same food chain.
The amazement of seeing so many alligators soon wears off, but we are astounded by the glimpse of a deer, an endangered species (along with the anteater and the Brazilian puma).
Seeing the garças pick out worms from the gators’s mouths reminds one of Herodotus’ passage in the Histories in which he describes the work of the sandpiper with his beak inside the monstrous jaws of the Nile crocodile.
The majestic flight of the tuiuiu bird is a sublime moment, as it floats down to its high-perched nest, to meets its partner and offspring. This bird is the symbol of the Pantanal and can reach a wingspan of three meters (ten feet).
Hungry and overwhelmed by the heat, we stop at Pixaim, 70km away from Poconé. Even though this is the best season to go, we have to run for shelter from the sun.
Between October and February, the rain is intense and relentless, as are the mosquitoes and the heat, and the road is no longer accessible. Then your only option is to take a boat from Porto Cercado, 42km east from Poconé, and travel down the Cuiabá River.
The best way to see the wetlands is by being in the water. You need a boat, but not just any boat. Since the Pantanal is a National Park, you need a vessel and a guide certified by Ibama, the national environmental agency.
Day trips are expensive, but not bargain-proof. You are not allowed to trek or hike, and hunting is punishable with jail-time. Fishing is forbidden from November to February, when the fish go upstream to spawn.
Fishing licenses can be obtained at the Banco do Brasil branches in the capitals of the states of Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul.
After lunch we rent a boat for a one-hour ride along one of the affluents of the piranha-infested Cuiabá river, to spot more alligators along the banks, along with their friends, the capivaras, while the herons fly in flocks just ahead of us, coming together and then dispersing after each river bend.
The highlight of the day takes place on a cattle farm on the outskirts of the Transpantaneira Highway. We rent a couple of the famous Wetlands Horses to ride on the marshes, crossing muddy flats and chest-deep streams.
The horses steadfastly cross streams and bogs alongside lazy gators, at times even diving headfirst into the murky water to eat submerged roots. The guide, a local cowboy, points out puma prints on the sand.
The day ends with our exhausted return to Poconé. A possibility is to sleep one night in one of the rustic resorts along the Highway in order to do alligator spotting by boat after dark.
Refreshed by a good night’s sleep, we head to the Chapada shortly after 10am, back through Cuiabá, unimpressed by its disorganized architecture, and the features of any major Brazilian city, including pollution, billboards, garbage, traffic, and crazy drivers.
The people, however, are pretty friendly when asked for directions. It only takes us ten stops in gas stations to lead us across the jungle-like streets of Cuiabá.
As the canyons draw near to us, we stop several times on the emergency lane to take pictures. After a quick stop at a viewing spot called Devil’s Throat, where the remnants of a truck are still in sight in the midst of the vegetation below the cliff, and passing by the scenic Veu de Noiva park, we soon reach the town of Chapada.
At the Tourism Office, an enormous though sparsely furnished structure, the laconic agent gives us some information on the area’s activities and events. After leaving our backpacks in the friendly and family-run Hotel Turismo, we return to the Veu de Noiva, or Bride’s Veil, a popular name for waterfalls across Brazil.
Though the dense vegetation beneath the jaw-dropping sight of the waterfall probably hides a path to the bottom, we are more enticed by the promises of cooling off in one of the several smaller waterfalls with ample pools.
A stream flows down from the hills and forms a series of waterfalls with easy access. Some of them are very popular with locals, who picnic in the area on the weekends, unfortunately leaving waste which nature does not easily handle.
Following the tracks running along the edge of the cliff, we make our way through rugged and sparse vegetation called caatinga, characterized by gray contorted bark, as well as low bushes with some remnants of dry grass cerrado vegetation in between.
After trekking for the entire afternoon, stopping at each waterfall to cool off, we head back, just as the park is about to close. At night we walk through the tidy cobblestone streets of Chapada, lined with trinket shops, locate a good place to eat, and put up our sore feet for the rest of the evening.
This day we are faced with a challenge. One of the local guides doubts our ability to reach the famous City of Rocks in the Chapada National Park, because not only does it lack any actual road signs to lead tourists but the road itself consists of sand.
Will our puny little car make it through the sand? However, we still have a few things to see before challenging the rugged terrain. First, the geodesic point of South America, one of the taller cliffs in the area, from where we can see Cuiabá sprawling beneath a cloud of pollution.
Then we head back to Veu de Noiva. We want to see a famous landmark called Rock House, a stone structure that resembles a house. The trek there and back take two hours under the merciless sun. Our hats and shirts take very little time to be dry again after dipping them in the streams along the way.
Now it is time to prove our skills to the local guide. I drive the stalwart Uno through the sand road. Low gears, high revs, that’s how you do it. It does not take any sort of special 4x4 traction to reach this amazing place, though it is true, there is very little in the way of road signs and you have to make educated guesses so as not to wander into private property.
Though the setting is grandiose, we are greeted only by an ill-kempt plaque that reads Chapada dos Guimaraes National Park, and another plaque warning us of Risk of Death, with a stick figure falling headfirst down the cliffs.
The City of Rocks is a grouping of eroded sandstone structures, leaving arches that resemble ruins of Roman temples while some look like decrepit Easter Island figures. A 600-meter rock face is one of the prominent sights in the landscape.
Below, two kinds of vegetation, one bright green, the other darker, curiously snake out from the bottom of the cliff, as if hiding something beneath. Could the only sound breaking the silence be that of a stream flowing under those trees?
We are so enthused by the scenery and the loneliness of the site that we decide to brave the woods to reach one of the opposite brows of the cliff, crowded with smaller rocks resembling totems.
Soon, it begins to get dark, and the track turns into a succession of rugged low trees and stinging shrubs. We think it’s better to go back. The best time to go is just before sunset, and many travel groups arrive just at this time, with local guides, including the one who challenged us.
Night falls over the Chapada, and the last day of our trip approaches. We want to explore what we saw from above. Is there really a stream flowing below the dark winding patch of trees?
Next morning, we take off on an old pickup truck, and our guide, hired the very same morning at a tourism agency specializing in local adventures, tells us his life-story in a nutshell: dentist in Sao Paulo, sells everything and moves to Cuiabá, then marriage flounders and he becomes a guide.
He interrupts his story to lament, with moans and groans, the sight of a baby-anteater as road kill, as we head down the winding cliff road to reach the lower part of the National Park.
Our guide tells us how some people appropriate public land and build weekend homes in National Park area, and it has not been easy to remove them from the sites. Some claim they own “sesmarias,” or land grants from the King of Portugal, from the colonial times.
They forge documents by placing them in boxes full of crickets. The cricket droppings give the papers a yellowish, antique look. These smart alecks build near the translucent honey-brown river that flows from the cliffs.
The water is so clear because it goes through one of the largest natural filters in the world. Due to the accumulation of rainfall for thousands of years, it trickles down the sandstone like water in a sponge, and when it reaches the bottom of the rock it finds its way out from the mountain and becomes a stream.
Our guide relates that local weekenders leave a lot of trash such as plastic cans, bottles, cookie wrappings, beer cans, as they picnic by the water. He hands us diving masks and we swim in the mild current and watch the bountiful schools of fish. The vegetation is very diverse, progressing from low grass to spiky shrubs, from palm trees locally called buriti, to the dense foliage that becomes evident from above.
The guide clearly knows his way around. The pickup truck sluggishly negotiates the sandy track and reaches the tar again, to suddenly disappear behind the tall grass across the road.
He takes us to a similar stream in an area that was once part of the park but now is locally called the Strip of Shame (Tripa da Vergonha), because powerful parties intervened to put that narrow roadside part for sale.
Nevertheless, we put on our masks again and swim in a much broader stream, while the weather seems to take a turn for the worse — dark clouds loom above us. We swim back and forth in a river bend with a rather strong current, disappearing in clouds of fish, and watch water snakes jut their heads from the creviced underwater sedimentary rock, as well as fish who camouflage in leaves.
We hop back on the truck and ride back to the Veu de Noiva to reach the bottom of the waterfall. The jungle is so dense and the air so damp that it looks exactly like the forests in Rio de Janeiro, 2500km away, a typical coastal Atlantic Woods vegetation.
Jumping over fallen trunks, minding thick roots ready to trip the unwary, and the profusion of spider webs stretching across the path, we reach the bottom of the ravine, while the weather definitely decides to put an end to the scorching heat.
It is getting cold rapidly, and after a few more amazing pictures, we run up, to be met by drizzling rain, and temperature around 50 degrees. Just in time to hide inside the park restaurant, order a linguado (sole) tile-roasted over a firewood oven, and drink some cachaça (Brazilian rum) to warm us.
We collect our belongings, bid our farewells to the amazing landscape of the Chapada as we drive back to Cuiabá, return the car at the airport, and land a few hours later under heavy rain in the endless concrete jungle of Sao Paulo.
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