Square, practical, unknown: This formula best describes the city of Palma. Endless, straight streets, here and there a skyscraper, in the distance the river Tocantins. Everything very clear. Palmas cannot compete with the charm of historic cities like Rio. But how should it? When the state of Tocantins broke away from the great Goiás in 1988, the capital emerged from nothing, so to speak. In the meantime it has grown to a good 300,000 inhabitants.
You have to look for tourists with a magnifying glass. Tocantins is rarely mentioned in guidebooks despite being larger than Britain. Which is why it is considered an insider tip among Brazil's states. It's worth a visit - because of the nature! If there is anything in abundance here, then it is the lush flora and fauna between the Amazon rainforest and tropical savannah, which is considered the most biodiverse in the world.
In Tocantins, as everywhere in Brazil, rainforest has been and is being cut down, primarily to gain space for soybean cultivation. Pineapple plantations and cattle pastures are also unmissable. But at least deforestation here fell by around eight percent in 2019 compared to the previous year, reports the Brazilian space agency INPE after evaluating satellite images. In other states, on the other hand, it rose by more than 40 percent in some cases.
And several nature or national parks were set up. Lakes and mountains, the Ilha do Bananal, the largest river island in the world, beckon on an area that is larger than the former West Germany. And the jalapao. This remote, hard-to-reach state park in east Tocantins is the real insider tip.
Habitat of tapirs, anteaters and maned wolves, with toucans, parrots and eagles circling overhead, it offers huge potential for mindful eco-tourism and adventure tourism. It's still in its infancy. Even Brazilian tourists are only gradually discovering the Jalapão.
And that's only because a heartbreaking telenovela sparked her wanderlust. In 2017, "O Outro Lado do Paraíso" ("The Downside of Paradise") was filmed here. Since then, many have dreamed of following in the footsteps of the protagonist Clara, who emerged victorious from all sorts of intrigues.
Mass tourism is therefore not to be expected. "What we lack from the outset are flight connections," says Marcelo Perim, President of the Cetur tourism authority. So far, Palmas has only been served by a few cities such as São Paulo or Brasilia. Anyone traveling from Rio de Janeiro, for example, has to accept a stopover.
After all, some specialist tour operators have recognized the potential and are offering tailor-made trips to this unknown corner of Brazil. One who works with them on site is Bruno Coelho. He worked as an engineer in São Paulo for a long time, but at some point he had had enough of the big city. "The Jalapão was a total discovery for me," enthuses the passionate mountain biker.
A few years ago he founded the Mukaú agency to explore the area with small tour groups. "Mukaú" means something like "all together" in the language of the indigenous people. And in fact, it quickly becomes clear that in the Jalapão you can only set off together. There are hardly any paved roads, instead there is a labyrinthine network of more or less poorly developed off-road paths that are rarely signposted.
Four-wheel drive vehicles sometimes have to dig through deep holes here, a tough test for sensitive backs. Nevertheless, there is something fascinating about spending hours looking at nothing but the deserted, red sand tracks that stretch through the lush green savannah landscape.
There is not much going on here, half a day can go by before you meet another car. Civilization is worlds away. It is all the more astonishing that there are a few pousadas, relatively comfortable guesthouses, where a perfect caipirinha is served in the evening and a sumptuous breakfast is served in the morning.
"What no guest suspects: what attractions the bushland is peppered with," Bruno Coelho predicted before the trip. And be right. The savannah offers crystal-clear rivers, over 80 waterfalls, canyons, table mountains, dunes - and something that only exists here: so-called fervedouros, springs with fine, white sand from which crystal-clear, cool water is constantly gushing. Framed by banana trees, these turquoise natural pools are almost kitschly beautiful, and they offer a welcome dip.
Alternatively, waterfalls such as the Cachoeira da Formiga, the ant waterfall, offer refreshment. Or rivers like the Rio Sono. In some places it has shallow areas with beaches, although it is so clean that bathers should avoid sunscreen and bug spray.
Elsewhere it turns into dangerous white water, which in turn lures to rafting. An improvised base on the river bank lends stable rubber boats, life jackets, helmets and brings you back to the starting point after the wet adventure.
With just five inhabitants per square kilometer, Tocantins is very sparsely populated. On the way you hardly get to see people. The humble villages can be counted on one hand. From the unadorned clusters of houses, only an improvised church occasionally stands out, recognizable by inscriptions such as "Deus é Amor", "God is love".
An exception is Mumbuca. The site is one of five quilombos spread across the Jalapão: the settlements are home to descendants of African slaves who fled Bahia or elsewhere in earlier centuries and were the first to settle the area alongside the indigenous people. "Today, their villages are protected by the state, so they can continue their traditional way of life," explains the guide.
Occasionally a local rides through the settlement on a donkey, another sits in front of his house and plays a guitar he made himself from the wood of a buriti palm tree, the neighbors are busy braiding. They make earrings, bracelets, necklaces and whole hats from Caipim dourado, the rare golden grass that grows here – each piece is a small work of art that shines like gold. The pieces are sold at fair prices in the village shop.
Visitors are welcome in Mumbuca, as long as they don't go wild taking photos without being asked. If you take your time, you can also talk to people. For example with the elderly Doutoura, the village healer, who is revered by everyone and likes to talk about how she uses herbs to cure toothache.
Or with young Daniela, who normally works in a hotel in the provincial capital to finance her studies. Move away from Mumbuca altogether? That is out of the question for her. "Palmas may lure you with its asphalt streets and shopping malls," she says, but what does that compare to the mysterious bushland of the Jalapão?
How to get there: Palmas airport is only served by domestic flights, such as the airlines Azul or Gol.
Round trips: Due to the difficult road conditions, those unfamiliar with the area should not travel the Jalapão on their own. The best way to book a tour for small groups is with a tour operator that specializes in Brazil, such as Ruppert Brasil, Globotur, Aventura or Gateway Brasil. You should plan four to seven days for a visit. A week with accommodation, meals, trips in an all-terrain vehicle and activities such as rafting costs around 1000 euros from Palmas (without flight).
Best travel time: We recommend the months of May to September, because then there is no threat of heavy rain, although it is very hot all year round.
Participation in the trip was supported by the Brazilian tourism authority Embratur. You can find our standards of transparency and journalistic independence at axelspringer.com/de/Werte/downloads.
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