Beyond the city and Federal District of Brasília, the hill-studded, surprisingly green cerrado of Goiás state extends towards another modern, planned city, Goiânia, and the historic old towns of Pirenópolis and Goiás Velho, the latter in particular worth going out of your way for. Although gold mining started there in a small way during the seventeenth century, the first genuine settlement didn’t appear until 1725. These days agriculture is the main activity: ranching is important but it is soybean production that is booming, driving the conversion of the dwindling remnants of cerrado into enormous farms. The small rural towns are all increasingly prosperous as a result, the state road system is excellent by Brazilian standards, and it’s easy to imagine most of Goiás looking like the interior of São Paulo a generation from now. Indeed, the main cities of Goiânia and Anápolis, with their rising affluence and acres of new high-rises, already look very much like the cities of the paulista interior – and are about as interesting to visit, which is not very.
In the north of Goiás is the heart of the planalto, a jumble of cliffs, spectacular valleys and mountain ranges in and around the national park of Chapada dos Veadeiros, excellent for hiking and a thoroughly worthwhile excursion from Brasília, although you’ll need a few days to do it justice. In the south, the thermal springs of Caldas Novas and Rio Quente bubble up into giant hotel complexes, while, over on the western border with Mato Grosso, the Parque Nacional Emas has less spectacular landscapes than Chapada dos Veadeiros but is wilder, a little more inaccessible (although still easily reached from Brasília), and a better place to see wildlife, in particular the large American rhea.
The Rio Araguaia with its many beautiful sandy beaches, forms the 1200-kilometre-long western frontier of both Goiás and Tocantins states. The latter, created for political rather than geographic or economic reasons in 1989, contains the huge river island, Ilha do Bananal, and its Parque Nacional do Araguaia. The main and central section (BR-153) of the 2000-kilometre-long highway from Goiânia and Brasília to Belém also runs through Tocantins. The only town of any significance is Araguaína, a flyblown settlement in the middle of a largely converted savanna.
PIRENÓPOLIS, a picturesque market town of about 21,000 people, straddles the Rio das Almas, 112km north of Goiânia in the scrubby mountains of the Serra dos Pireneus. Founded by bandeirantes in 1727 as a gold-mining settlement, it’s a popular weekend retreat for residents of Brasília and often very busy during main Brazilian holidays, but well supplied with accommodation to suit all budgets.
Renowned for its religious architecture and historic feel, the town of Goiás Velho is the main settlement west of Goiânia. But it is the huge Rio Araguaia, one of the Amazon’s main southern tributaries, that attracts most Brazilians to Goiás. Even though most of the river now falls within the state of Tocantins, the Goiás section has hundreds of fine sandy beaches suitable for camping, and some well-established resorts, very popular with the residents of Goiânia and other towns in Goiás. Rich in fish, the Araguaia is particularly busy during the dry season from May to September when the water level drops, and serious anglers come from São Paulo and Goiânia to compete. The gateway to the river is ARUANÃ, a small town served by only a few hotels, just over 380km northwest of Goiânia.
The historic town of GOIÁS VELHO – originally known as Vila Boa, and now often just called Goiás – is strung along and up a steep valley cut by the Rio Vermelho. It is one of the most beautiful colonial towns in Brazil, without the great churches and museums of the best of the cidades históricas in Minas but easily the equal of any of them in the calm elegance of its cobbled streets and squares, and much their superior in lack of commercialism. Its more remote location well to the north of the country’s other eighteenth-century mining zones has made it the best-preserved colonial town in the country. It is simply gorgeous, fully deserving its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
If you need to cool off in the afternoon after walking the old city streets, there’s a natural swimming pool out by the Cachoeira Grande waterfalls on the Rio Vermelho, just 7km east of town – the best (and cheapest) way to get there is on the back of one of the local motorbike taxis. The pool is pleasant when quiet, but it can get crowded at weekends. The most beautiful sight in the area is the Cachoeira das Andorinhas (Swallow Waterfall), 8km out of town, which makes for a wonderful day-trip. On the only road out of town, cross the Rio Vermelho, passing by the pretty church of Igreja de Santa Bárbara, perched on a small hill overlooking the municipal cemetery. Taking the dirt road to the left of the church (signposted Hotel Fazenda Manduzanzan), continue 7km through picturesque hill country until you reach a signposted trail entrance in front of the hotel (R$121–350), which has a pool and offers horse riding. The waterfall is another kilometre from here – when in doubt, always bear left. The last few hundred yards rise steeply through a forested gorge before ending at a glorious, tree-choked swimhole with a waterfall and – true to its name – swallows darting around. A highlight is a natural rock chamber that channels part of the waterfall into a cavern.
It’s easy to get to the area by bus from Brasília and Goiânia, but a bit of a logistical challenge once you’re here: without a car distances are long, local buses are almost nonexistent, and you’ll have to rely a guide’s contacts to get around. As there is no accommodation in the park itself, you’ll have to base yourself in the small towns of MINEIROS or CHAPADÃO DO CÉU, though both are a considerable distance from the park; the former, geared more to visitors and with a population of around 43,000, is unfortunately 85km away. The latter, only 27km from the park, is more rustic, and much smaller with less than 5000 inhabitants. There are direct buses to Mineiros from both Brasília and Goiânia, and to Chapadão from Goiânia only.
You’ll need to hire a local guide which, together with the transport they arrange, will set you back between R$100 and R$175 a day depending how many people are in your group; the more the cheaper. Both Mineiros and Chapadão do Céu have a highly organized association of local guides, which should be your first port of call; they will quote you a price and take care of the formalities with IBAMA, the national parks authority, such as registering entry and exit and paying the R$5 entrance fee (you have to pay your guide’s entrance fee).
You will rarely be able to set out until the following day, as cars and drivers have to be found. Given the time it will take to reach the park itself, your best bet is to complete the formalities the day before and set off at dawn the next day. The association in Mineiros is located on Praça Marcelino Roque (t 64/661-7153, e email@example.com), and although the English spoken there is rudimentary, you can get by. In Chapadão do Céu, the association is at Avenida Ema, quadra 51 (t 64/634-1228); ask for Sr Rubens or Sra Elaine on t 62/634-1309.
Although there aren’t many accommodation options, all are perfectly adequate and cheap. Of the hotels in Mineiros, the best is the Pilões Palace (t 64/3661-1547; R$121–260), on Praça Assis, with its own restaurant and bar. The Dallas at 223 Quinta Avenida (t 64/3661-1534; R$41–120) has quite comfortable rooms, while the Líder (t 64/3661-1149; R$71-120) on Rua Elias Machado and Pinheiros (R$41-70) on Rua Oito are serviceable if basic. Accommodation in Chapadão do Céu is much more basic. In town, your best options are Hotel Ipê (t 64/3634-1722; R$71-120), Rua Ipê 213, Pousada das Emas (t 64/3634-1382; R$71-120) on Rua Ipê, and Hotel Rafael (R$41-70) on Avenida Indaia. Out of town, the Fazenda Santa Amelia (t 64/3634-1380; R$121-180) has a pool, chalets and apartments, horseriding and a reasonable restaurant out at Km 65 of the GO-050 road; to find the place take the sign posted turn-off from the GR-050 for 15km (the last 5km of this is dirt track). As for dining options, you’ll be limited to a couple of churrascarias in each town, plus the hotel restaurants – not haute cuisine, but satisfying after a day’s hiking.
The Parque Nacional Chapada dos Veadeiros in the north of Goiás is the heart of the planalto, its stunning natural scenery among the most beautiful and distinctive in Brazil. The hundreds of square kilometres of wild and sparse vegetation, extraordinary geological formations, cave systems, waterfalls and hiking trails make this one of the best destinations for ecotourism in the country. A few hours north from Brasília and easily accessible by bus, the park has good local support for tourism, and apart from the occasional holidaying diplomat up from the capital, it is still remarkably unknown as a destination to foreign tourists.
The main point of arrival for visitors to the park is ALTO PARAÍSO DE GOIÁS, a base from which to explore the surrounding countryside more than a place to hang out in itself. If you really want to explore the Chapada, your best bet is to take the bus to the village of São Jorge, which is much closer to the national park and the best hiking.
To really get to grips with Chapada dos Veadeiros you need to head 37km further up a good-quality dirt road to the small village of SÃO JORGE, next to the only entrance to the national park. Looking around São Jorge, you can see the potential that ecotourism has to protect landscapes and generate jobs and income at the same time. Before the creation of the national park in 1980, the main industry hereabouts was the mining of rock crystals. When the practice was eventually made illegal in and around the park, the parks authority, prodded and helped by the World Wildlife Fund, recognized the need to create jobs linked to the park and invested heavily in training local ex-miners to be guides – the perfect choice, since no one picked over every remote nook and cranny of the landscape quite like them. So there is a good reason why IBAMA, the federal parks authority, makes it compulsory for visitors to the park to be accompanied by a guide.
Hiking options around São Jorge are less strenuous than in the national park, but still spectacular. You could easily spend a week doing a series of rewarding day-hikes without even entering the national park, and for those travelling with children, for whom the long hikes in the park are not realistic, these shorter hikes are a great family outing. All destinations are reached by heading along the road that passes the village, either west or east – that is, towards or away from Alto Paraíso.
The most striking hike around São Jorge leads to Vale da Lua, a forested valley where the river São Miguel has carved a narrow canyon through an extraordinary series of sculptured granite curves. To get there from the village, head to the main road and continue 4km east – in the direction of Alto Paraíso. On your right you come to a signposted trail into the Vale da Lua. There is a nominal entrance fee; you can either follow the trail directly to a swimhole, or else peel left, along a different route towards the swimhole, by walking down the valley, the best route to see its extraordinary geology. Flash floods can be a problem here in the rainy season, given the narrowness of the gorge, so exercise caution.
Back at São Jorge, heading in the opposite direction, away from Alto Paraíso, will take you, in quick succession, to Raizama, a beautiful gorge with a series of swimholes and waterfalls, and Morada do Sol, which has less-spectacular waterfalls, but more spectacular views up and down the valley. Another 5km up the main road will bring you to a private estate, Água Quente, where the owner has channelled a natural warm spring – tepid rather than hot – into a couple of large pools, making this a wonderful place to soak and recover from the walk. All of the above destinations charge a R$2.50–5 entrance fee.
Visitors to the park are restricted to two trails in its southern corner, both 10km long and each a day’s worth of exploring. Although you’ll only see a fraction of the park, this area is the most spectacular, an unforgettable blend of hills and cliff-faces (mostly in the middle distance; fortunately you don’t have to climb them), plunging waterfalls, swimholes and forests. You encounter the full range of cerrado vegetation as well: veredas (open moorlands lined by burití palms), floresta de galeria (full-sized deciduous forest along watercourses) and campo sujo (the classic, shrubby savanna characteristic of Africa).
Created in 1989, the state of Tocantins is not an obvious geographical or cultural unit, merely a political and bureaucratic invention. Most visitors pass through the region rather than spend time around the state’s hot and flyblown towns. The only attraction here is the Ilha do Bananal – but it is underdeveloped and can be an expensive, tiring headache of a place to get to, unless you’re taking a guided tour; for now, we don’t recommend bothering with it. Otherwise, you may end up changing buses in either Palmas or Araguaiana on your way overland through the state to the Amazon or the Northeast.