Nicknamed the “brunette city” because of its chestnut-coloured earth, CAMPO GRANDE has in the last forty years been transformed from an insignificant settlement into a buzzing metropolis with a population of over 724,000. Founded in 1889, the city was only made the capital of the new state of Mato Grosso do Sul in the late 1970s, since when it has almost doubled in size, though it retains a distinctly rural flavour. Its downtown area manages to combine sky-scraping banks and apartment buildings with ranchers’ general stores and poky little shops selling strange forest herbs and Catholic ex votos. Reminiscent in parts of quiet southern US cities, it’s a relatively salubrious market centre for an enormous cattle-ranching region, as well as being an important centre of South American trade routes from Paraguay, Bolivia, Argentina and the south of Brazil. A pioneering place, many of the early twentieth-century settlers here were Arabs, who have since gone mostly into businesses such as restaurants and hotels; there is also a large Japanese section of the immigrant population, which has left its mark on the local culinary trade. The city has a number of splendidly planned praças and parks with large, leafy trees, bringing wild birds from the countryside into the modern centre.
Look at any map of the region and you’ll see a thin black line tracing the path of a long railroad that connects São Paulo on the Atlantic with Campo Grande, where it forks to Corumbá on the Bolivian border, and to Ponta Porã on the Paraguayan frontier. Unfortunately, the privatization of the Brazilian railways has led to the closure of all passenger lines west of Bauru, perhaps forever. This is a real shame, not least because the Corumbá line formed part of an even longer rail system, connecting with the Bolivian Tren de los Mortes to Santa Cruz, from where it’s still possible to continue by train into Chile or via La Paz into Peru, over Lake Titicaca (by boat or around it on a bus) and on to Cuzco. There seems little chance in the immediate future of the lines being reopened (though freight trains are still running), but with ever-increasing tourist interest in the Pantanal and Mato Grosso do Sul, we can only hope that services may in the course of time resume.