The southern gateway into the Amazon, Cuiabá has always been firmly on the edge of Brazil’s wilderness. Following the discovery of a gold field here in 1719 (one version of the town’s name means the “river of stars”), the town mushroomed as an administrative and service centre in the middle of Indian territory, thousands of very slow, overland miles from any other Portuguese settlement. To the south lay the Pantanal and the dreaded Paiaguá people who frequently ambushed convoys of boats transporting Cuiabá gold by river to São Paulo. The fierce Bororo tribe, who dominated Mato Grosso east of Cuiabá, also regularly attacked many of the mining settlements. Northwest along a high hilly ridge – the Chapada dos Parecis, which now carries BR-364 to Porto Velho – lived the peaceful Parecis people, farmers in the watershed between the Amazon and the Pantanal. By the 1780s, however, most Indians within these groups had been either eliminated or transformed into allies: the Parecis were needed as slave labour for the mines; the Bororo either retreated into the forest or joined the Portuguese as mercenaries and Indian hunters; while the Paiaguá fared worst of all, almost completely wiped out by cannon and musket during a succession of punitive expeditions from Cuiabá.
Although it’s a major staging post for the Pantanal, there isn’t a lot in terms of organized tourism in the immediate region around Cuiabá, and what there is is mostly aimed at local people. Nevertheless, the scenery and air of mystery around Chapada dos Guimarães makes for a rewarding side-trip from the city – much more of a draw than either the hot springs of Águas Quentes or the beach at São Antônio do Leverger.
Most of the year it’s not the town itself that brings most people out to Chapada dos Guimarães. The stunning countryside, of which over three hundred square kilometres is protected as the Parque Nacional da Chapada dos Guimarães, consists of a grassy plateau – at 800m the highest land in Mato Grosso – scattered with low trees, a marvellous backdrop for photographing the local flora and birdlife. Within walking distance, there are waterfalls, fantastic rock formations and precipitous canyons, as well as some interesting, partially excavated archeological sites. The most spectacular of all the sights around the village is the Véu de Noiva waterfall, which drops over a sheer rock face for over 60m, pounding into the forested basin below. You can take a tour there with most of the operators listed above (from around R$20 a person a day, depending on how big the group is). Alternatively, you can get there by walking or perhaps hitching from the village of Buruti, on the road from Cuiabá, about 12km before Chapada dos Guimarães; Buruti is accessible by bus and only about 6km or an hour and a half’s walk from the falls. Alternatively, the falls lie within a couple of kilometres of the road if you jump off the bus some 6km beyond Salgadeira (ask the driver to show you the track).
A paved road winds its way up to the scenic and increasingly popular mountain village of Chapada dos Guimarães, set on the plateau of the same name just 64km from Cuiabá. Located bang on one of the oldest tectonic plates on the planet, it also sits close to the geodesic centre of South America (the equidistant point between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans).