Tucked away in the western state of Mato Grosso is a landscape where bright red cliffs dramatically mark the edge of a large plateau. A waterfall drops straight down from the top of the cliffs into a lush forest below. Chapada dos Guimarães National Park was the first park we visited in Brazil and turned out to be a great introduction to the country.
Before visiting the park we spent a few days in Cuiabá, the capital of Mato Grosso. We quickly learned that Cuiabá is in one of the hottest places in Brazil, and we were there during the hottest season. At 8:30 in the morning it was already 34°C and by mid-day temperatures were well into the 40s C. It was quite a shock to us having spent the last 2 months in Bolivia at high elevations where it is much colder.
Cuiabá doesn’t see a lot of tourists and there aren’t a lot of sites to visit but we were able to find a few points of interest. The city is located in the geographical centre of South America. To mark this point a tall, marble obelisk sits over top of the original 1909 marker.
Brazil was colonized by the Portuguese beginning in the 16th century. As a result there are a lot of Catholic churches in the historical downtown. Most of the ones we saw were traditional looking churches with steeples and bell towers. The main cathedral however, was re-built rather than restored in the 1970s and it has a very retro look.
We walked along the boardwalk beside Cuiabá River to reach Orla do Porto. It is mostly a single block of colourful buildings that house a few restaurants with views of the river. It was a little disappointing though because in the middle of the day the area was empty and we found out that buildings’ fronts are really just false façades. As we later discovered, most people in the city spend their free time cooling down in the modern shopping malls. In the end we found this to be the best option too.
We originally planned our trip to Cuiabá to go on a wildlife safari in the Pantanal wetlands. We realized though that it would be very similar to our trip to the Pampas in Bolivia (read our story here). In the end we decided not to go to the Pantanal but instead visited the nearby national park.
Chapada dos Guimarães National Park
Only 60 km north of the busy city of Cuiabá is a quiet mountain community and a lovely national park. Chapada dos Guimarães National Park is located at 800 m elevation. Even this small increase in elevation means that the temperatures are a little cooler in the park which makes it a popular get-away destination for residents from hot Cuiabá.
Commonly called Chapada, the park is centered around a series of red sandstone cliffs at the edge of a grassy plateau. As we approached the park we could see small cliffs with unusual rock features below. It was a good preview of what was to come.
Inside the park are several hiking trails that take you to waterfalls, lookouts and unusual rock formations. Even though temperatures were a little cooler it was still very hot for us so we weren’t too keen on doing a long hike with a lot of elevation gain. Instead we decided to combine two hikes to see some of the famous waterfalls. We heard that you can swim at the base of some of them so it sounded like the perfect activity on a hot, sunny day.
Cachoeira Véu de Noiva Lookout Trail (Bridalveil Waterfall),
The first stop on the hike is a lookout above the most famous waterfall in the park. The 1.3 km circuit trail to reach Bridalveil Waterfall begins by walking on a good trail past low trees and dense bush with unusual looking plants. We had hoped for shade but there wasn’t much. It was already quite hot at 9 am.
At about the half-way point of the hike, the first red cliffs came into. From here it was easy to see why the area is called Chapada, which translates in English to tablelands. The flat plateau abruptly ends in tall red cliffs forming a long canyon.
A few steps further and we could see why this hike was so popular. Falling straight down from a height of 86 m, Véu de Noiva was exactly the waterfall we wanted to see to begin our day. Even though we wanted trees on the hike for shade, when we reached the lookout we were glad there weren’t any trees to spoil our view. In front of us a bright red, horseshoe-shaped cliff provides the perfect decoration for the tall cascade. Lush green trees below the cliffs added even more colour. This first waterfall isn’t one you can swim at though, it can only be admired from the lookout.
The waterfall was really pretty when we visited even though it was dry season. We thought that it must be spectacular after rainy season when there’s more water.
Waterfall Circuit Trail
There is a good reason that this 6 km circuit hike is one of the most popular trails in Chapada. The hike takes you by a series of waterfalls that progressively increase in intensity. The route can be done in either direction, but we preferred to do it clockwise because then it saves the best waterfall for last.
For this part of the hike the trail took us into a thick forest that provided us protection from the strong sun. The first couple of falls were merely short drops in the creek. We could have swam in them, but we were searching for the perfect waterfall.
The trail continues to follow the same creek as it cut its way through the forest. The next three falls, Cachoeira do Pulo (Leaping), Degrau (Step) and da Prainha (Little Beach), were a little closer to what we were looking for. They had higher drops as they fell over rock bands and were surrounded by lush vegetation, but they still didn’t entice us to swim.
After resting in the shade at Little Beach, the hiking trail brought us to a long staircase bordered by dense bush. As we walked down the stairs, we could hear the sounds of water crashing over the cliff long before we saw it. Finally, from the bottom of the steps we had a great view of the waterfall we had been hoping for. Dropping down a 30 m break in the tall cliff, Cachoeira das Andorinhas (Waterfall of the Swallows) is the tallest on the circuit hike with a large pool at its base. It has the perfect setting for a refreshing dip. By the time we reached it, temperatures had reached the high 30s and the strong sun was more intense than we were used to. Wading into the natural pool, the water felt surprisingly cold against our hot skin.
When to visit
Dry season lasts from May to September and rainy season lasts between December and April. The best time to visit to see the waterfalls would be soon after rainy season ends. We visited near the end of dry season in September and were surprised that the waterfalls still had a lot of water. It’s not advisable to visit during rainy season though as many of the trails will be inaccessible.
About the park
The park has multiple gates depending on the trail you want to hike and none of them are walking distance from town. The trailhead for both of waterfall hikes is 12 km from town so you either need to have your own car or hire a guide. We were lucky that the owners of our guesthouse were able to drop us off and pick us up later in the day.
You can do as we did and combine Véu de Noiva Lookout with the Waterfall Circuit Trek for a half day hike. Where the two trails join there is a restaurant and a kiosk selling drinks and snacks. There is a limit to the number of people allowed to do the Waterfall Circuit Trek per day, but when we were there we only saw 10 or 12 other people. Weekends are supposedly much busier.
You can do both of the waterfall hikes described without a guide, but most of the other hikes in the park require a guide.
The park is open from 9am – 4 pm. There is no entry fee.
Chapada dos Guimarães Town
Just outside of the park is a friendly town of the same name. Chapada dos Guimarães Town is the perfect place to use as your base for exploring the park. Its cute downtown is surprisingly ready for visitors with excellent coffee shops, restaurants and a few arts and craft shops. They get a lot of tourists from Cuiabá, a few from the rest of Brazil but they are definitely not used to foreign tourists. Even though we didn’t speak Portuguese and they didn’t speak English, the people were very welcoming and did what they could to communicate with us. It was a great introduction to the friendliness of Brazilians.
Other than visiting the park there are a few places of interest right in town.
Much like the Jesuit Missions established by the Spanish in eastern Bolivia (read our story here), the Portuguese built similar missions in western Brazil. One of those is located in this small community. The plain exterior of Our Lady Santana of Sacramento Church made us have low expectations for what we’d see inside. Once we walked through the doors however, our opinions changed. The church looks much like it would have when it was built, over two centuries ago.
As we stepped inside, our footsteps echoed on the large wooden floor planks. Blue and white azulejos tiles adorn the walls beside decorated wooden shrines. At one time the wooden moldings around the door frames would have been covered in gold, but today only flecks of colour remain. The altar is so fragile that no one is allowed on it, but the details in its woodwork can be appreciated from a distance. The old wooden sculptures on the altar as well as the pulpits on the side walls add so much character to the large room. In the end this old, un-refurbished church became one of our favourites.
It’s not easy to visit this church other than during mass, but the owner of our guesthouse volunteers at the church and was able to take us for a tour.
Mirante Morro Dos Ventos (Mount of the Winds Lookout)
When you’re in town it is easy to forget about the surrounding rugged landscape. A lookout just outside of town however offers a great view of the dramatic red cliffs that fill in the gap between the high plateau and the hilly land below. It’s a popular place to watch the sunset when the red cliffs glow from the final rays of the sun.
There were many birds in this area including small green parakeets and colourful red macaws. None came close enough to capture in a picture, but it is a memory we will keep forever.
The entry fee is R$10 fee per pedestrian or R$40 per vehicle.
In addition to Chapada dos Guimarães National Park there are many other waterfalls and lagoons in the nearby area to explore. To see them though you would need to have a car or hire a guide.
Getting To Brazil from Bolivia by land
It’s not usually very complicated to travel between countries in South America by land. Getting through the border between San Matias, Bolivia and Cáceres, Brazil is a little more difficult. If you don’t have a car you will have to take a bus from Santa Cruz to San Matias. If you’re already in San Ignacio, only one bus company stops in San Ignacio on the way to San Matias. You can get the current timetable from the San Ignacio bus station. When we were there it was scheduled to arrive in San Ignacio at 2 am. Once you get to San Matias take a taxi to the Bolivian immigration office at the border where you need to get your exit stamp. From there you can walk to the Brazilian side where supposedly buses can take you so Cáceres in Brazil. Our taxi offered to drive us all the way to Cáceres for 300 Bolivianos. At first it seemed a bit pricey, but when we passed through the Brazil border, there were no buses and we’re not actually sure how frequent they are. In Cáceres you need to visit the Federal Police Station to get your visa. Our taxi drove us to the station. In the end we found it worth it to take the taxi.
Coming Next – Visiting the Amazon Rainforest
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To read about more of our adventures go to Destinations.
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