The geographical heart of Brazil is the central highlands (Planalto Central), shared by the states of Goiás, Tocantins and parts of Mato Grosso. This rapidly developing and prosperous agricultural region was, as recently as fifty years ago, still largely Indian country, with a few colonial towns precariously linked by oxcart trails to the rest of the country. The founding of Brasília in the late 1950s ended that, shifting Brazil’s centre of gravity from the coast to the interior and opening up an entire region of the country to settlement and development.
Love it or loathe it, Brazil’s capital is like nowhere else on earth; the world’s largest, most successful and in its own weird way most beautiful planned city, it remains the main reason for visiting the planalto. Brasília’s chief attraction is its extraordinary city architecture, its late-1950s vision of the future now charmingly retro, even sliding over into kitsch. While the capital is no metropolis it is much more cosmopolitan than its relatively small size suggests, heaving with restaurants and bars where much of the city’s business is transacted, as befits a place where politics is the main local industry. Brasília is well connected by long but good-quality roads to the rest of the country and is a good jumping-off point for an overland journey to the Amazon or the Northeast.
Although Brasília may be the region’s main draw, it is by no means the only one. In recent years, the city has become the base for a mostly Brazilian ecotourism boom. People come for the emptiness and beauty of the landscape a few hours north of Brasília, as well as great hiking and more specialized outdoor pursuits like caving and rock climbing. The main centre, Parque Nacional Chapada dos Veadeiros, is an easy excursion from Brasília, and if time is limited, the spectacular waterfall of Salto de Itiquira is a rewarding day-trip. There is also a national park, the Parque Nacional de Brasília, on the city’s periphery, with hiking trails. Although there are two large, modern and prosperous cities near Brasília – Goiânia and Anápolis – there is little for visitors in either of them and unless you have a specific reason for going you’re better advised to stick to Brasília and the more rural parts of the Planalto.
The planalto itself is still at that ideal stage of tourist development where there is enough infrastructure to make it accessible and enjoyable, but not so much that you feel it is too crowded or over-commercialized. Two colonial towns in particular are worth visiting, both in Goiás: Pirenópolis, within easy reach of Brasília, and the old capital of Goiás state, Goiás Velho, a little-visited jewel that is as beautiful as any of the better known cidades históricas of Minas Gerais. Further north still, the state of Tocantins has its eastern and western frontiers defined by two of the largest tributaries of the Amazon, the Araguaia and Tocantins, but the state has little to offer the visitor and is best bypassed on the way to more interesting destinations in the North or Northeast.Read More
The topography and ecology of the planalto are unique, known within Brazil as the cerrado, only partly translated by the word “savanna”. Much of it looks startlingly African: red earth, scrubby vegetation, dusty in the dry season, missing only giraffes and zebras for the illusion to be complete. What makes it spectacular is the topography, which begins to break up the high plains into a series of hill ranges, cliffs, mesas, plateaus and moorland almost as soon as you start heading north from Brasília. This irregular landscape is situated between two enormous watersheds, the Paraná to the south and the Amazon to the north, both of which have the headwaters of major tributaries in the planalto. The hills and mountains are riddled with thousands of rivers and streams, forming spectacular waterfalls and swimholes within easy reach of Brasília.
As ecotourism grows, so too do the threats. Good soils and communications, and its proximity to Minas Gerais and São Paulo mean development here is far more intense than in the Amazon. The ranchers who spearheaded the early wave of settlement of the planalto are still there, but giving way to large-scale commercial agriculture, especially soybeans. This has underlain the development of the two largest cities in Goiás, Goiânia, the state capital, and Anápolis, and as it becomes one of the world‘s breadbaskets much of the planalto now looks like the US Midwest when you fly over it or drive through, with endless geometric fields and irrigation canals stretching to the horizon. Over sixty percent of the native vegetation has been converted to farmland or pasture, compared to fifteen percent of the Amazon, and the unique flora and fauna of the cerrado – the giant anteater and armadillo, the maned wolf, the glorious wildflowers that speckle the area with colour in the rainy season – are all increasingly endangered. If things continue at the present rate, within a generation the only islands of true cerrado left will be the national parks.