Brasília and the Planalto Central Travel Guide

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.

The planalto

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.

The city

Arriving in BRASÍLIA, especially at its futuristic airport, is like falling into a science-fiction novel. The entire city, and especially the central area, has a startlingly space-age feel and look, albeit with a decidedly retro twist. Originally intended for a population of half a million by the year 2000, Brasília and the area around it today has close to five million people and is the only one of Brazil’s major metropolitan areas still growing quickly. Looking at the gleaming government buildings or zooming down the city’s excellent roads, it really can seem Brasília is the modern heart of a new world superpower. The illusion is rapidly dispelled: drive ten minutes out of the city in any direction and you’ll hit the cidades satélites, poorer satellite cities that house Brasília’s low-income workers, who commute into town to serve the needs of the government-employed elite. As well as being the national capital, Brasília is also the capital of its own state, the Distrito Federal, the Federal District, which also includes the satellite cities. The whole Federal District is in fact the perfect symbol of modern Brazil, though not in the way its creators intended: affluence close to but segregated from poverty, favelas over the horizon, and poor newcomers invading the countryside where the nation’s elite have their walled-off weekend retreats.

Brasília’s highlights are all fairly obvious architectural ones. Anyone with a taste for the best of 1950s and 1960s architecture will think they have died and gone to heaven, but there are other attractions, too. Nightlife is energetic, revolving around huge numbers of bars and restaurants that benefit from the city’s marvellous nocturnal climate, fresh and pleasant all year round. Cinema is especially good here, patronized by a large local middle-class with an appetite for foreign films, and one side-benefit of the presence of the elite is the regular appearance of top-level performing arts.

There is a distinct New Age feel to parts of the city and environs; it has a special attraction for the wacky religious cults and UFO enthusiasts in which Brazil abounds. Some visitors find Brasília alienating, and the central part of the city can certainly seem that way, with its jumble of undistinguished skyscrapers, malls and massive empty spaces – the absence of planned gardens and parks is the centre’s major design flaw. At night the centre is deserted and dead, even at weekends, thanks to the city’s rigid zoning laws, which have put all its hotels there. The popular image of Brasília as a concrete jungle comes from visitors who never leave the centre; in fact, no other Brazilian city has as many trees and parks, and the older residential areas are very pleasant to walk in, with the trees so dense it often seems the housing blocks have been built in the middle of a wood. The real life of the city, especially at night, can be found in the asas, the residential wings that swing north and south of the centre, where all the restaurants, clubs and bar life are to be found. At night, the outdoor bars and restaurants can make parts of it seem positively Parisian.

Oscar Niemeyer

Still working at the grand old age of 101 in 2009, Oscar Niemeyer is the greatest architect Latin America has produced. He’s best known for his unique contribution to Brasília, but during his long and highly productive life he has also left his mark on virtually all of Brazil’s major cities, especially Rio and Belo Horizonte. Widely regarded as the most influential modernist architect of the twentieth century after Le Corbusier, he has also designed important buildings in Europe, notably the Serpentine Gallery in London and the Le Havre Cultural Centre in France.

Born in Rio in 1907, he was influenced as a student by Le Corbusier’s geometric ideas on urban planning and design; his first major commission, the building of the Ministry of Education in Rio in 1937, now known as the Palácio Gustavo Capanema, shows this influence clearly. By the 1940s Niemeyer began to show his independence and originality with a series of buildings in the Belo Horizonte suburb of Pampulha, which gave a recognizably Brazilian twist to Le Corbusier, adding curves, ramps and buttresses to buildings decades ahead of their time. But Niemeyer’s designs were controversial: the São Francisco church in Pampulha was completed in 1943 but not consecrated until 1959, so reluctant was the Catholic Church to endorse such a radical departure. But the germs of Brasília were clearly evident in his work in Pampulha, a decade before the new capital was begun.

After Brasília, Niemeyer became an international star and beyond criticism in his own country, which had its advantages: he was the only militant communist never to be troubled by the military dictatorship. He built a number of other unforgettable buildings, the most spectacular being the Museum of Modern Art in Niterói, across the bay from Rio, perched like a modernist flying-saucer over the sea. As the nation’s leading architect, with major buildings spread over multiple countries, Niemeyer has made a major contribution to Brazilian culture and modern history.

Day-trips from Brasília

Although it is sometimes difficult to imagine in the concrete heart of Brasília, the city is at the centre of some spectacular natural scenery that is easily accessible as day-trips from the capital. We’ve concentrated on straight day-trips or places where an overnight stay is possible but not really worthwhile. Other destinations a little further out but still easy to get to from Brasília like Pirenópolis, Goiás Velho and Chapada dos Veadeiros, where you can really get to grips with the cerrado rather than get a taste of it, are dealt with separately in the section below on Goiás state. Another interesting destination is Caldas Novas - one of the world’s largest hot-spring aquifers.

When out walking in the cerrado, remember at all times of year the sun is hot and the altitude means you will burn quickly, so a hat and lashings of sunscreen are essential. Stout sandals are a good footwear choice, allowing you to negotiate the rocky, uneven beds of the streams and swimholes. Be aware flash floods pose a danger in gorges during the rainy season. Even when the sun is shining, rain can be falling unseen in headwaters.

Cristalina, Formosa and the Itiquira waterfall

From Brasília, an easy day-trip involves taking one of the frequent buses from the rodoferroviária to the town of CRISTALINA, a two-hour ride south of Brasília into the Goiás plateau. Indeed, the journey itself is one of the main reasons to go, as you’ll pass through the distinctive rolling hills of the planalto along the BR-040 towards Belo Horizonte. Prospectors who came here looking for gold in the early eighteenth century came across a large quantity of rock crystal; the European market opened up over a century later, and today Cristalina is an attractive, rustic town, based around the mining, cutting, polishing and marketing of semi-precious stones. Quartz crystal and Brazilian amethyst can also be bought here at very reasonable prices, mostly from enormous warehouses on the edge of town that pull in passing motorists.

If you only have time for one day-trip, though, your best bet is to take the two-hour bus ride to the town of FORMOSA, not so much for the place itself, pleasant though it is, as for the stunning waterfall and park of Salto de Itiquira, for which Formosa is the jumping-off point. The park, which is about 40km away, is well signposted if you are in a rented car, but buses are infrequent; haggling with a local taxi driver at the bus station should get you a return trip for around R$70. It’s worth it: the drive is beautiful, with the spectacular 90-metre waterfall visible from miles away as a white line against the towering cliffs of the Serra Formosa. Surrounding the waterfall is a municipal park (admission R$7), well laid out with a series of swimholes that make it a great place to spend the day. The most spectacular of all is at the very top of the only path, where the waterfall comes plunging down. Although there is a snack bar at the car park, by far the best place to eat is the Dom Fernando restaurant, with an excellent buffet of local food, and freshly grilled meats to order. It’s located in splendid isolation at Km 6 on the road to the waterfall, but is only open weekends and holidays – otherwise there’s a restaurant to the right of the park entrance. The park is at its best during the week, when it’s less crowded.

The cathedral and commercial sectors

Between the ministries and the downtown rodoviária, and within walking distance of either, the Catedral Metropolitana Nossa Senhora Aparecida is one of Brasília’s most striking edifices. Marking the spot where the city of Brasília was inaugurated in 1960, it is built in the form of an inverted chalice and crown of thorns; its sunken nave puts most of the interior floor below ground level. Some of the glass roof panels in the interior reflect rippling water from outside, adding to the sense of airiness in the cathedral, while the statues of St Peter and the angels suspended from the ceiling (the inspired gravity-defying creations of Brazilian sculptor Bruno Ceschiatti) help to highlight the feeling of elevation. Nevertheless, although some 40m in height and with a capacity of two thousand, the cathedral seems surprisingly small inside.

Teatro Nacional

On the northern side of the Eixo Monumental is the Teatro Nacional. Built in the form of an Aztec temple, it’s a marvellous, largely glass-covered pyramid set at an angle to let light into the lobby, where there are often good art exhibitions with futuristic and environmental themes. Inside are three halls: the Martins Pena, the Villa-Lobos (the largest, seating 1200) and the much smaller Alberto Nepomuceno. Most theatre productions are in Portuguese, but all three venues are also used for concerts – Brasília has a symphony orchestra, and popular musicians often play here as well. As the main city venue for ballet and dance, the theatre is always worth checking out; thanks to the presence of the government and diplomatic corps, you might luck out and catch an illustrious visitor like the Bolshoi.

The malls

The main central shopping centre, the Conjunto Nacional, stands on the northern side of the rodoviária. Contained in a huge concrete block that’s covered with massive product advertisements, the flashy jewellery and furniture shops combine with restaurants and fast-food outlets, and unlike the modern shopping centres in other Latin American cities the Conjunto Nacional is not just a playground for the rich; everyone seems to shop here. The busy northern conjunto is much more upmarket than its neighbour across the way, the CONIC mall, which is increasingly run-down and now dangerous at night, when the only people moving are the prostitutes and clientele patronizing a basement complex of fleapit sex cinemas. Stuck underground between the two giant shopping blocks, the downtown rodoviária bus and metrô station is also on three levels, and here you’ll find more shops, toilets, snack bars and a bus information office.

The Central Banking building and beyond

By far the most interesting place to visit within easy walking distance of the rodoviária can be found in the unlikely setting of the Central Bank building, the unmistakeable concrete-and-black-glass skyscraper in Setor das Autarquias Sul, visible from anywhere in the centre. Tucked away by the building’s rear entrance is the Museu da Moeda, or the Museum of Money, where you’ll find a quirky but fascinating display of Brazilian currency from colonial times. It’s very interesting as social history, but overshadowed by the second part of the display, an extraordinary exhibition behind armoured glass of the largest gold nuggets ever found in Brazil – most dating from the 1980s, when the Central Bank was buying nuggets from the Amazon gold rush. Behind the bank building is Centro Cultural da Caixa, the city’s main art gallery, at any one time housing at least two travelling exhibitions; it’s dependably high quality and free.

The Torre de Televisão and Eixo Monumental

The Torre de Televisão (TV Tower) on Eixo Monumental is an obvious city landmark and easily reached on foot or by bus (#131 from the rodoviária). The 218-metre-high tower’s viewing platform is a great place from which to put Brasília into perspective, and there is no better spot to watch the sunset – though frustratingly there is no bar to watch it from. At the weekend the tower is also popular for its craft market, held around the base – a good place to pick up cheap clothes.

Memorial JK (Juscelino Kubitschek)

Further up the Eixo is the Memorial JK (Juscelino Kubitschek), best reached by one of the many buses heading up the Eixo, as it’s too far to walk. Here, a rather Soviet-looking statue of Brasília’s founder stands inside an enormous question-mark, pointing down the Eixo towards the heart of government. The museum below reverently reproduces JK’s library and study, while the man himself lies upstairs in state in a black marble sarcophagus, backlit by an extraordinary combination of purple, violet and orange lights – the only thing missing is a sound system piping in “The Age of Aquarius”. All around is a fascinating display of personal mementoes of JK’s career and the founding and construction of the city, including photos and video clips of his funeral and the dedication of the Memorial – in turning out in their hundreds of thousands in his honour, despite the desire of the military dictatorship to keep the event low-key, the population of the Distrito Federal made the first important anti-military demonstration, one of the reasons for the subsequent slow relaxing of the military’s grip on power.

Parque Sara Kubitschek

A short walk from Setor Hoteleiro Sul, taking up one entire side of the Eixo, is the enormous Parque Sara Kubitschek, named after JK’s wife (bus #152 from the rodoviária passes by) – a massive mosaic of playgrounds, jogging tracks, bars and restaurants, picnic grounds, artificial lakes, parklands and woods. If you want to walk or jog in Brasília, this is the place to do it. The southern entrance, a block away from the hotel sector, is where many of the attractions are concentrated, including an enjoyably tacky but perfectly safe (despite appearances) funfair that will appeal to young children, and a place to hire pedalôs – adult-sized tricycles that are harder work than they look, but great fun nonetheless. The best time to visit is Sunday morning, when the locals turn out en masse to jog, work out, sunbathe or read the paper, while dozens of kiosks and street-sellers tout everything from iced green coconuts to shiatsu massage.

Beyond the centre

The residential parts of Brasília are rarely thought of as a destination for visitors, but the older areas are by far the best place for a stroll during the day. The parks and gardens between the blocks are extremely well designed, and even at the hottest times of year you can walk for hundreds of yards in certain areas without leaving the shade. The oldest superquadras are all in Asa Sul; 108 Sul was the first to be completed in the whole city, designed as a showpiece to make the city tolerable for those bureaucrats moving here from Rio (a miserable failure in that respect at the time, but things eventually improved as the trees grew). The adjacent blocks from 107 down to 104 were all built shortly after and make for a great urban walk – take a bus or walk up W3 Sul, get off at the 508 block, walk two blocks down, and then start strolling towards the centre. There are plenty of comercials along the way if you want to make a pit stop.

Jardim Botânico

For a taste of the cerrado before heading deeper into the planalto, or just a temporary break from the city, consider venturing to the Jardim Botânico, at the far end of Asa Norte, and the Parque Nacional de Brasília, across the striking JK Bridge over Lago Paranoá in Lago Sul. Both were created in the early 1960s to preserve large green spaces within easy reach of the city – it seemed superfluous then, but the pace of development has been so fast that there would be very little native cerrado anywhere near the city without them. The Jardim Botânico, at Setor de Mansões Dom Bosco in Lago Sul, is a calm and well-organized retreat where you can experience the flora and fauna of the cerrado at first hand. There’s an information centre, a large display of medicinal plants of the region, a herb garden, and over forty square kilometres of nature reserve with an extensive network of trails. It’s good hiking, but make sure you bring a hat and water.

Parque Nacional de Brasília

The Parque Nacional de Brasília, the city’s very own national park, at the far end of Asa Norte, is the only area of native vegetation large enough around Brasília to support proper wildlife populations. During the week, you will have the place largely to yourself, and while the park itself is enormous, visitors are restricted to its southern corner, where the main attractions are two very large swimming holes, Piscina Velha and Piscina Nova, both a short, well-signposted walk from either of the two entrances, and built around a stream, preserving the natural flow of the water. When there is nobody there, this is a lovely spot – especially for a picnic. You may spot capuchin monkeys leaping acrobatically through the trees, but they have become used to scavenging picnic remains so take care not to leave food lying around, and be sure to pack plastic bags away as the monkeys regularly choke on them.

Although the swimming holes get very crowded at weekends, virtually everyone sticks to the water, so if you want space and some solitude, head up the slope to a small fenced trail through a section of gallery forest and continue up the hill until you come up onto open cerrado savanna. Here you’ll find another much longer trail, a four-mile circuit called the Água Cristal (crystal water trail), which lives up to its name, taking you through a number of clearwater streams before dumping you back more or less where you started. The views are beautiful, although it is frustrating you can’t hike into them.

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updated 26.04.2021

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