Is seven the charm? Last July, a wedding in the family and my Dad’s new book release brought me back to the part of Brazil where I grew up. It had been about seven years since I had last visited the place I called home for 33 years and my list of people to see and things to do had grown much longer than a couple of weeks could possibly accommodate. But I knew I needed to walk again the plateaus of Chapada dos Guimaraes no matter what. I missed the ample views of its savannas and canyons, its rustic flowers and trees with twisted trunks.
It felt good to be back and the cool weather was helping so it’s no wonder I have a big smile as I set off with a small group of family and friends on the trail to Caverna do Frances (Frenchman’s Cave) and Blue Lagoon (Lagoa Azul).
The soil of Chapada dos Guimarães is very sandy. In these photos the gray matter you see is a thin layer of sand hardened due to oxidation. Underneath this layer, white sand lies protected from erosion. The gaiters are a requirement as a protection against potential snake bites. On a cool day like this, they added welcome warmth.
Our guide for the day is Elenice, this lovely and spirited woman whose passion for this region is contagious. Elenice’s English is only basic but her husband, Noah, speaks excellent English as well as several other languages. Elenice was introduced to us by my father, John Coningham, a long-term student of Chapada dos Guimaraes, the Pantanal (Brazilian Wetlands) and the Amazon. If you ever need a guide in the area, just come to the town of Chapada dos Guimaraes and mention either of the three names. You will be in good hands.
Many speak of Chapada dos Guimarães as a mystic place and I understand why. Its altitude and climate lead to many cool foggy days and nights, which trigger the imagination.
Its location, in the geodesic center of South America, attract attention, and the fact that many of the rivers that form the Pantanal (Brazilian Wetlands) are born here, and therefore the source of life for much of the flora and fauna of the region, bring the place a spiritual dimension.
About two hours into our leisurely walk we reach the entrance to Caverna do Frances (Frenchman’s Cave), which you can see in the photo below taken from inside the cave. In the language of the Bororo Indians who used to inhabit the region, the cave was called Aroe Jari (Home of the Souls) and used as a burial site.
Walking across the amphitheater it is possible to feel how hollow the ground is from previous excavations in connection with the burials once conducted there. To appreciate the cave, bring flashlights as it gets very dark inside. To preserve the cave and visitors’ health, going much further into the cave than the amphitheater is not allowed.
After a short lunch break, our walk continues as we hope to get to Lagoa Azul (Blue Lagoon) before 2:00 pm, the time when the sunlight is best to bring out its colors. As usual, though, Dad won’t be rushed. He takes a minute to explain some of the many mysteries of this region to a friend. This is the kind of thing I remember about my father. Long walks with frequent stops to admire plants, bugs, animals, what have you; a constant enchantment with the natural world which is now part of my blood.
Dad’s infectious love of Brazil and its natural environment has obviously also influenced my younger sister:
Talking about being rushed, I remember one and only occasion in which my was Dad hurrying up. We were in the city of Sao Paulo, for some reason I cannot recall, and had to catch some transportation – a bus or a train. I am not sure how old I was, maybe 10 or so (Good, now you must be thinking whether I am ever sure of anything..). I remember his concern and making a big effort to keep pace with his long legs as he strode towards the station. “How far is it?”, I remember asking. “About one kilometer”, Dad said. That was one of the longest kilometers I have ever walked!
Almost two o’clock, and the crew approaches the entrance to Lagoa Azul. But there’s a problem: the clouds aren’t cooperating and the lagoon is looking more like a dark green-gray. We need the clouds to clear just enough for the 2:00 pm sun to hit the water directly.
Ah, here it is!
How to get there
There is a regular bus service from the main bus station in Cuiaba to the bus station in the town of Chapada dos Guimaraes. The first bus leaves at 5:45 AM and the last one at 7:00 PM (please re-confirm with the bus company as these things change). The trip lasts between one hour and 90 minutes, depending on the service you choose. Another alternative is to rent a car, which you will need in order to see the surroundings.
Except for the attractions right along the Cuiaba-Chapada road, most places worth visiting are not well indicated at all. I do recommend hiring a good local guide who can not only get you to places but enrich your visit with good information about the region.
Where to stay
There is a variety of places to stay in Chapada dos Guimaraes, an option for every budget. Towards the high end, Pousada Penhasco (www.penhasco.com.br) is a good option. Right in the center of town, Pousada Solar do Ingles (http://www.chapadadosguimaraes.com.br/solardoingles/inicio.htm) is an interesting alternative, for those preferring a smaller, more cozy environment, and the ability to explore the town on foot. And if you are in town, don’t miss on a visit to local artist Miguel Penha’s studio (www.miguelpenha.com).