Although a relatively young state, Mato Grosso do Sul is nevertheless considered to be one of Brazil’s better-established economic regions. It has a distinct cowboy flavour: here, close to the border with Paraguay and just a bit further from Argentinian gaucho territory, it’s not uncommon to end up drinking maté sitting on a horse under the shade of a tree by day or dancing Spanish polkas through the night in some of the region’s bars. Until the eighteenth century the whole region was Indian territory and was considered an inhospitable corner of the New World. A hundred and fifty years and numerous bloody battles later, Mato Grosso do Sul might now be developed and “civilized” but – thankfully – it’s still a place where you can forget about industrial ravages and wonder at nature’s riches. The downside is that the Brazilian Ministry of Health recommends yellow fever inoculations for this area.
The state capital, Campo Grande, is a useful base from which to start delving deeper into Mato Grosso do Sul or to explore one of the largest and most beautiful wetlands in the world. The road connection to Corumbá, a frontier settlement on the edge of both the swamp and Bolivia, is well served by daily buses, and one or two good tour companies operate from Campo Grande itself, so reaching the depths of the Pantanal is fairly easy. The swamp, however, is vast, so whilst you can also get a feel for what it’s like from a variety of road-linked places closer to Campo Grande – like Coxim, north of the city, or Aquidauana, to the west – exposure to the flora and fauna is best off-road.
The south of the state is favoured by the beautiful hills of the Serra da Bodoquena and Serra de Maracaju and, deep in the Bodoquena hills, you can visit the spectacular cave systems, forests and rivers of the Bonito area, another major destination in itself. Further south, 319km from Campo Grande, Ponta Porã sits square on the Paraguayan border, from where there’s a two-day overland route to Asunción. There are also several daily bus services from Campo Grande via Dourados and Mundo Novo to Guaira and the amazing falls of Foz do Iguaçu in the neighbouring state of Paraná.
Today, COXIM is a quiet town of some 33,000 people, situated on the eastern edges of the Pantanal, and easily reached by bus from Campo Grande in around three to four hours (six or seven hours from Cuiabá). The scrub forest area to the east, north of Campo Grande, was formerly the territory of the Caiapó Indian nation, who ambushed miners along the routes to Goiás and Cuiabá from São Paulo, posing a serious threat to Portuguese expansion and development in the mid-eighteenth century. Coxim is a fantastic fishing centre: the fisherman Pirambero runs excellent trips into the swamp, down the Rio Taquari, to catch piranhas (ask for him at the port). If you’re really serious about angling, contact IBAMA, at Rua Floriano Peoxoto 304 (t 67/3291-2310), or the Banco do Brasil for a temporary fishing permit (R$25) and, for more detailed local information, try the local fishing club, the Iate Clube Rio Verde, at Rua Ferreira, Bairro Piracema (t 67/3291-1246). Besides fishing, swimming in the Rio Taquari around Campo Falls is another popular pastime, in spite of the razor-toothed fish, and, nearby on the Rio Coxim, the Palmeiras Falls are a good place for a picnic or to set up camp. From November through to January, the two falls are the best places to see the incredible piracema spectacle – thousands of fish, leaping clear of the river, on their way upstream to the river’s source to lay their eggs.
Several daily buses connect Campo Grande with Aquidauana and Anastácio (2hr) and Corumbá (7hr), the scenery becoming increasingly swamp-like the further west you travel. West of Campo Grande, the savanna becomes forested as the road approaches the first real range of hills since leaving the Atlantic coast. The Serra de Maracaju sticks up like a gigantic iceberg in the vast southern Mato Grosso, and beyond, interesting geological formations dominate the horizon: vast towering tors, known as torrelones, rise magnificently out of the scrubby savanna. Further west, around the small train station of Camisão, is a relatively lush valley supporting tropical fruits, sugar cane and, of course, beef cattle, and up towards the swamp’s edge lies the little town of Miranda, popular for its fishing.
The Serra de Maracaju provided sanctuary for local Terena Indians during a period of Paraguayan military occupation in the 1860s. Under their highly ambitious dictator, Solano López, the Paraguayans invaded the southern Mato Grosso in 1864, a colonial adventure that resulted in the death of over half the invasion force, mostly composed of native (Paraguayan) Guaraní Indians. This was one period in Brazilian history when whites and Indians fought for the same cause, and it was in the magnificent Serra de Maracaju hills that most of the guerrilla-style resistance took place.
The late nineteenth century saw an influx of Brazilian colonists into the Aquidauana and Miranda valleys as the authorities attempted to “populate” the regions between Campo Grande and Paraguay – the war with Paraguay had only made them aware of how fertile these valleys were. Pushed off the best of the land and forced, in the main, to work for new, white landowners, the Terena tribe remained vulnerable until the appearance of Lieutenant Rondon (after whom the Amazonian state of Rondônia was named). Essentially an engineer, he came across the Terena in 1903 after constructing a telegraph connection – poles, lines and all – through virtually impassable swamps and jungle between Cuiabá and Corumbá. With his help, the Terena managed to establish a legal claim to some of their traditional land. Considered by FUNAI (the federal agency for Indian affairs) to be one of the most successfully “integrated” Indian groups in modern Brazil, the Terena have earned a reputation for possessing the necessary drive and ability to compete successfully in the market system – a double-edged compliment in that it could be used by the authorities to undermine their rights to land as a tribal group. They live mostly between Aquidauana and Miranda, the actual focus of their territory being the town and train station of Taunay – an interesting settlement with mule-drawn taxi wagons and a peaceful atmosphere. You’ll find Terena handicrafts on sale in Campo Grande.
AQUIDAUANA, 130km from Campo Grande, is a lazy-looking place and very hot, sitting under the beating sun of the Piraputanga uplands. Since the demise of the passenger trains to Corumbá, it sweats somewhat uncomfortably some distance from the main BR-262 highway, and, though it still serves as one of several gateways into the Pantanal, it’s better known for fishing and walking, with some superb views across the swamp. These days, most visitors see little more than the signpost at the crossroads where the highway bypasses the town; if you stop by here, it’ll most likely be to use the highway café or toilet facilities at the junction. If you do go into town or stay over here, it’s worth enquiring about two nearby but seldom visited sites: the ruins of the Cidade de Xaraés, founded by the Spanish in 1580 on the banks of the Rio Aquidauana; and the Morro do Desenho, a series of prehistoric inscriptions on the riverbank and in the nearby hills.
Far removed from mainstream Brazil, hard by the Bolivian border and 400km west of Campo Grande, the city of CORUMBÁ provides a welcome stop after the long ride from either Santa Cruz (in Bolivia) or Campo Grande. As an entrance to the Pantanal, Corumbá has the edge over Cuiabá in that it is already there, stuck in the middle of a gigantic swamp, only 119m above sea level. Its name, in Tupi, means the “place of stones” and, not surprisingly, Corumbá and the Pantanal didn’t start out as a great source of attraction to travellers. As early as 1543, the swamp proved an inhospitable place to an expedition of 120 large canoes on a punitive campaign against the Guaicuru tribe. Sent by the Spanish governor of Paraguay, it encountered vampire bats, stingrays, biting ants and plagues of mosquitoes. And while it doesn’t seem quite so bad today, it’s easy to understand why air conditioning is such big business here. It was Corumbá’s unique location on the old rail link between the Andes and the Atlantic that originally brought most travellers to the town, but, ironically, the same swamp that deterred European invaders for so long has rapidly become an attraction, at the same time that the Brazilian part of the rail link has been closed down.
Crossing into or out of Bolivia from Corumbá is a slightly disjointed procedure. Leaving Brazil, you should get an exit stamp from the Polícia Federal at Praça da República 51 in Corumbá (easiest before 11am or between 7pm and 9pm), before picking up a Bolivian visa (if you need one) from the consulate at Rua Antônio Maria Coelho 881 (t 67/3231-5605). After that, it’s a matter of taking the bus (from the Praça Independência on Rua Dom Aquino Corréa) for the 10km to the border, checking through Bolivian immigration and receiving your passport entry stamp. Money can be changed at decent rates at the border.
Train tickets for Santa Cruz should be bought at La Brasilena train station in Quijarro, a few minutes by colectivo (a type of shuttle bus; R$5) or bus from the Bolivian immigration office. First class to Santa Cruz costs R$70, second class R$40. The first-class carriages are comfortable, with videos, but everything sways and the toilets are dirty. Limited food is available on board, and also from the trackside villages during the train’s frequent stops. Insect repellent and clothes that cover your flesh are essential, as the lights of the carriages attract all manner of biting insects at night. Drinking water and a torch are also useful. As timetables vary considerably, check at the station in Corumbá or Quijarro at least a couple of days in advance. It’s worth going to Quijarro the day before departure to actually make your booking.
Entering Brazil from Bolivia is essentially the same procedure in reverse, although US citizens should remember to pick up visas in the Brazilian consulate in Santa Cruz before leaving.