The state of Mato Grosso is dominated completely by Cuiabá, a city of over half a million people. Located in the very south of the political region, roads radiate from this commercial and administrative centre like tentacles, extending over the plains in every direction. The city is over 1000km from Brasília, almost 1500km from Porto Velho and more than 1700km from São Paulo: an opportune place to break a long overland haul. Beyond its strategic importance, though, Cuiabá’s friendly personality and interesting city centre, combined with the breathtaking scenery of the nearby Chapada dos Guimarães, can easily lure you into staying longer than planned.
Cuiabá is as good a springboard for a trip into or through the Pantanal as Campo Grande or Corumbá. Furthermore, it offers long haul but simple access by bus west into the remoter Amazon region towards Bolivia and Peru, east towards Goiânia and Brasília, and north, for the more adventurous, towards Santarém and Manaus. No longer a true frontier zone, it’s an established cattle-ranching and soya-producing region where cows and beans are much bigger business than tourism. Between Cuiabá and Brasília industrially farmed soya bean fields extend to every horizon.
Apart from in the mysterious and stunning Chapada dos Guimarães, there is relatively little tourism infrastructure outside Cuiabá and the Pantanal. The reality for most travellers will be a flight or an intrepid journey by bus (and perhaps river) to some other distant city. The most arduous of the options used to be the awful Highway BR-163 from Cuiabá to Santarém, which, in theory, connects at Itaituba with the BR-230 Transamazônica Highway for Altamira, Marabá and Belém. However, around 400km of road has been reclaimed by jungle along the Rio Jamanxim in southern Pará, making it impassable to anything other than four-wheel-drive vehicles for the foreseeable future: the furthest north you can drive is the Serra do Cachimbo on the fringes of Pará state. The fastest road is Highway BR-364 (known as the BR-070 in Mato Grosso) through Cuiabá, which ultimately links São Paulo with Rio Branco and Cruzeiro do Sul.