Stone cities, honey & nowhere to sleep – a Chapada de Guimarães

The Chapada de Guimarães – one hour north of Cuiabá, the capital of Mato Grosso – was the last stop on our journey. However, we made the crucial mistake to go there on the 31st of December.

Apparently, this is the ONE day of the year where everybody wants to go to the little city carrying the same name as the mountain range. While we got to see the top sightseeing attraction our friends had told us to check out,

Waterfall - The bride's veil - Veu da Noiva

and visited two minor ones, our plan was to go hiking the next day. Only that finding a place to stay for the night proved to be impossible, and that in a city that seems to have one of the highest ratios of B’n’B per capita.

Even so, nothing remotely within our budget and our expectations. It was kind of fascinating to discover that apparently New Year’s Eve commands double if not the triple of what’s considered an otherwise normal price. At one moment, we found ourselves briefly considering to pay 300 bugs for a room hardly worth a third of that. After a dozen or so stops, it turned out to be cheaper to drive back to Cuiabá, have a fancy dinner and to stay in a nice business hotel.

Coming back two days later, we found out that one hike started just behind a little shop selling local honey & sweets (on km 47 of the Rodovia Emanuel Pinheiro, to be precise), finding ourselves quite unexpectedly in the cidade da pedra – stone city – enjoying some stunning views.

A word on the people

One of the luxuries of traveling is to meet people from all kinds of origins, classes or educational backgrounds. Sometimes that can be challenging, sometimes that can be wonderful.

In all of the Pantanal, we found people to be very kind and helpful. It’s easy to see that life out there is somewhat slower, simpler but often also harder. Still, people were not only very respectful, but also very curious to know more about these two gringos who would share a few days on a boat with them.

They were equally eager to tell us more about their lives out there on the farms, on the boat, or in the city. It sometimes was a glimpse in a different world. A world I would have liked to explore though I’m not sure if I would like to live there.

One thing that stood out as not respectful however, was the way they deal with nature. The only possible explanation for all the waste thrown in the water, is that, maybe, there is just too much of it. Too much green, too much water, too many animals and of course, too many mosquitos. It almost seems as if there was an endless supply. If only that was true.

Traveling through time IV

Eventually, arrive we did. After a change to a smaller motor boat and the stop at an abandoned, mosquito infested hotel, we arrived somewhere around mid-morning in Porto Jofre. What had looked like a minor town on the map turned out to be 3 bungalows and a group of geese, one of which had barely escaped a jacaré attack in the morning.

At least, that’s what the owner of the bungalows told us, along with the information that he was not really open for business. Still, we got lucky. A couple from São Paulo who had been camping in Porto Jofre for two days with the daughter and mother in law, was just packing up their huge SUV.
For once, I’d admit that they actually had the right kind of car. Not only was it perfect for camping, and to deal with the non-asphalted road, it also provided enough space on the loading space to seat two crazy tourists with their luggage.

Thus, we gained a free safari all along the Transpantaneira, seeing Tuiuiu, pantanal deer, more jacaré, more capybaras and Southern screamers. Once we reached Poconé, which turned out to be the kind of city it appeared on the map, we got off at the first decent B’nB, switched on the Air Condition, took a shower and returned, slightly regretful, to the 21st century.

Traveling through time III

Time loses its importance quickly out there in the Pantanal. People get up with the sunlight, eat, sleep during the worst heat and avoid the late afternoon mosquito swarms. Powered by a Diesel engine, the little boat made its way slowly up the Rio Paraguay and then the Rio Parana. Both are large waterways framed by green, thick covers.

As we learned during the trip, the Pantanal is already filling up in December, due to the rains coming from the Amazonas. While water stands low in the dry months from May till October, it starts raining in November and the chances of seeing animals are consequently decreasing. Still, we saw hundreds of birds, capibaras, jacaré and even one morning huge otters. Everything but the famous onça – jaguars.

I found the boat journey a very peaceful, slow way to travel: nothing to worry about, no pressure to be anywhere at any precise time. An engine failure in the middle of the night, or a steering problem during the day, doesn’t matter. The answer to the question when we would arrive, was “Monday, se deus quiser”.

Traveling through time II

The freight boats that bring cattle  down from the farms to the city, are the same that bring the farm workers, groceries, household appliances up the river. They are rather simple though we didn’t ask too many questions but focussed instead of getting hammocks, mosquito nets, water and some snacks.

The last item proved to be unnecessary as all food was included. By making friends with the ship cook, nicknamed Bolacheiro “big cookie” earlier on, we were sure to have our share.

MS corumba pant chalana boiadeira

Despite its small size, the boat had three classes for sleeping – upper deck with wind = 1st class, lower deck, no wind = 2nd class, and the cattle platform = 3rd class – and everybody shared one bathroom. The water from the river was not only used for showering and flushing, but also, as we found out later, for cooking.

All in all, there were 40 people on the boat: Families with small kids on the way to visit the in-laws, farm workers going back after the Christmas break, a nurse working with a 750 head strong community of indigenas further inlands, and a father with his less than enchanted teenage daughter who were going to spend the next month on the farm of the extended family.

Fellow travelers in the Pantanal

Even though I enjoyed every minute of the trip, I can see the point of the teenage daughter. The modern world has not reached most of the farms which often have no electricity, no mobile network and of course, no internet. One month can be very long under such circumstances.

Somewhere out in the Pantanal

Traveling through time I

There are trips where you cover more than just distances. Traveling through the Pantanal turned out to be one of them, at least for 36 hours.

After taking the bus from Bonito to Corumba, our plan was to find a boat that would take us to Cáceres*, in the Northern Pantanal. We knew that tourist boats do the 700km journey. However, only during the fishing season, which end of December is not.

The first person we asked, told us that there was no such thing, and never existed in the 30 years he had lived in the town. Obrigada and on we went.

Corumba_Pantanal

Already the next stop proved to be the right one. The owner of a sightseeing boat doing day trips up the Pantanal made the contact to the owner of a, much smaller, freight boat. After the latter joined us on the boat of the former, some chatting, and some free drinks, we agreed on paying 800R$ to be brought all the way to Porto Jofre**. In Porto Jofre, which looked like a little town on the map, at the end of the Transpantaneira, we were hoping to catch a ride.


*Start of the Rondon-Roosevelt expedition
** It helps to be flexible

Bonito, Mato Grosso do Sul – Very pretty indeed

It is somewhat surreal to be gently carried by the current of a crystal-clear river, surrounded by swarms of fish that treat you like a log of wood. They come so close that touching them seems only a matter of moving your little finger. Of course they would be too fast, and, in any case, the teeth of a meter long dorado do not invite close inspection. Looking back, this is my favorite memory from visiting Bonito, in Mato Grosso do Sul.


[Not my video, just sharing what it looked like]

Bonito was recommended to us by so many Brazilian friends as a “Have to visit” place, that we were slightly apprehensive. In the past, our perception as to what was “muito legal” had somewhat differed from theirs.

Still, as we were told that many people would go for Christmas, we booked our passeios – trips – ahead which did nothing to dissipate our doubts. And while most of these trips had the potential to not suit our free-roaming minds – happening only in groups, accompanied by a guide, and at fixed times – we found it to be an overall enjoyable experience.

In a good sense, one could describe tourism in Bonito as ‘German style’. Everything is very organised. Transport to & fro was very much on time, on the spot were restrooms, restaurants and relaxation areas. Starting 20 years ago, Bonito has become one of the top destinations for eco-tourism, thanks to a ‘one voucher, one price’ scheme which limits the number of tourists who can access the protected, private areas per day.

These areas include trails along waterfalls, giant sinkholes home to dozens of red-green macaws and crystal-clear rivers harboring huge dorados, pintados and pacus. The fact that everything is neatly organized takes a bit the adventure out but it has the advantage that nature is protected from the people and the people from themselves.

In the end, we did several trips: two trails along waterfalls, three times snorkeling in rivers, and of course, watching dozens of macaws circling around when not cautiously eyeing tourists.

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