Very Brazilian, in both its vastness and its frontier culture, the Mato Grosso region is essentially an enormous plain, home to the sprawling Pantanal swamp – the best place in Brazil for seeing wildlife, and one of the world’s largest wetlands – and rippled by a handful of small mountain ranges. Equally Brazilian, there’s a firm political boundary, a line on a map, across the heart of the swamp, marking the competing ambitions of two mammoth states: Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul. The former state, the northern half of the region, is sparsely populated, with the only settlements of any size – Cuiabá, Rondonópolis and Cáceres – having a combined population of around one and a half million. The name Mato Grosso, which means “thick wood”, is more appropriate to this northernmost state, where thorny scrubland passes into tropical rainforest and the land begins its incline towards the Amazon, interrupted only by the beautiful uplifted plateau of the Chapada dos Guimarães. By contrast, most of the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, which is marginally more populous, is either seasonal flood plain or open scrubland. To the west of Mato Grosso do Sul are Bolivian swamps and forest; the mighty rivers Araguaia and Paraná (one flowing north, the other south) form a natural rim to the east, while the Rio Paraguai and the country named after it complete the picture to the south.
The simple road network and the limited sprinkling of settlements make getting about within Mato Grosso fairly hard work. Distances are enormous, and although most of the buses and trunk roads are in relatively good condition, any journey is inevitably a long one. That said, the variety of landscape alone – from swamps and forests to cattle ranches, riverine villages and Indian reservations – makes the trip a unique one and, for the adventurous traveller, it’s well worth the effort.
The cities of Mato Grosso are particularly deceptive. Although surprisingly modern and developed, they’ve only recently received the full trappings of civilization. Portuguese colonists began to settle in the region fairly late, at the time of the great Cuiabá gold rush of the early eighteenth century, though Cuiabá town itself remained almost completely isolated from the rest of Brazil until its first telegraph link was installed in the 1890s. Masterminded and built by a local boy made good – a down-to-earth army officer named Rondon – the telegraph lines were Mato Grosso’s first real attempt to join the outside world. Since the 1980s, with the completion of Highway BR-364, Cuiabá has again become a staging post for pioneers, this time for thousands of Brazilian peasants in search of land or work in the western Amazon states of Rondônia (named after the same local boy) and Acre. While Cuiabá can’t exactly claim to be a resort town – it’s highly urbanized with a high-rise city centre as well as an old colonial nucleus of streets – it is, nevertheless, a natural stepping stone for exploring either the Pantanal, or the mountainous scenery of the Chapada dos Guimarães.
Until 1979 Cuiabá was capital of the entire Mato Grosso. Campo Grande in the south, however, was also growing rapidly and playing an increasingly important financial and administrative role within Brazil. When the old state was sliced very roughly in half, Campo Grande became capital of the brand-new state of Mato Grosso do Sul. This tightening of political control over the various Mato Grosso regions reflects their rapid development and relative wealth – a complete contrast to the poorer, even more expansive and much more remote wilderness of the Amazon basin. These days Campo Grande is a bustling, very modern city of almost a million people, with most visitors stopping here en route to the Pantanal.
Topographically, and in terms of its tourist potential, Mato Grosso will always be dominated by the Pantanal, the world’s largest contiguous wetland or swamp, renowned for its wildlife. In the past, between two million and five million caiman alligators were “culled” annually from the Pantanal, and today it retains possibly the densest population of alligators in the world. This spectacular region is, however, better known for its array of birdlife, with over 464 identified species (though none of them endemic), and its endless supply of fish, with 325 species – including a great many piranha, which are used in an excellent local soup. So far it’s proved impossible to put a road right through the Pantanal, and travelling anywhere around here is slow.
After Cuiabá and Campo Grande, Corumbá, on the western edge of the swamp, is probably the next most popular urban destination and a good base for visiting the Pantanal. Compared to Cuiabá and the northern areas, it’s usually a less expensive entry point for the swamp. A relatively small city, Corumbá is only half an hour from Bolivia, but seven or eight from Campo Grande, the nearest Brazilian outpost. It is possible to travel through the Pantanal by river from Corumbá, directly to the port of Cáceres near Cuiabá, though unless you can afford a tailor-made luxury tour this adventurous fluvial route takes at least a week, and often longer.