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Sunday, November 13, 2011

Part 1, Chapada Revisited: Aging City Dropouts Blend with Eco-Tourism in Brazilian Wild West

Youths escaping from urban lifestyles arrived in Chapada dos Guimaraes long before the slogan, Mecca of Eco-tourism, appeared on the town’s welcome sign.

Back in the 1980s before “eco-tourism” became a common term, I watched the young settlers celebrating nature. They bathed naked in waterfalls and smoked pot in the wilderness. Some planted fruit trees and organic vegetables. Some made whole grain bread and babies.
They found paradise in Brazil’s wild west in a region of steep cliffs at the edge of a plateau in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul.
Some of the youths I met in the 1980s still live in Chapada. Now they are 50ish or older, and many make a living from the development they reject.
Jorge, who stayed in Chapada, once tried to stop development by darting out naked on the dirt road in front of his property whenever he spotted land buyers. He wanted to scare them away, but people from the nearby city of Cuiaba kept building vacation homes.
Jorge’s green road in the Jamaca valley (photo, left ) is no longer the exclusive domain of the “alternative” community. However, his lifestyle remains much the same, though now he complains bitterly about having arthritis.
Jorge, 56, still lives in the Indian hut he built (photo bottom of post.) The blood of three races runs in his veins, but he says he finds refuge mostly in his Indian heritage. He frequently visits the Xavantes, one of the tribes in the region. Like the Xavantes, he wears several inches of wood in each ear; the Indians use the pieces to dream and to make predictions.
Jorge abandoned an urban lifetyle some 27 years ago when he suddenly quit his job as manager of an insurance company in nearby Cuiaba. He subsisted mainly on agriculture and playing guitar at a bar during his first 15 years in Chapada.
Finally during the last 12 years, Jorge ( photo, top left), started making a living from the outsiders he once tried to repel. As a guide, he takes “eco-tourists” into the wilderness, where he keeps extending his arms towards the scenery while he exclaims, “What a show ! It activates your internal energy.”
Jorge tells eco-tourists about medicinal plants in the cerrado, the tropical savannah that covers much of the region. For example, some leaves cure burns; others aid constipation; some can be used as nail files.
Jorge contends that if people were aware of what the cerrado contains “we would not be using it to plant soy beans or polluting its rivers with agro toxins.”
By a river surrounded by enormous rocks, he then points out a place to view jaguars. He picks up what he says is a fossilized sea shell, a way to touch the remote past when the cerrado was allegedly covered by ocean.
Then there are the unique plants thriving in the fierce heat of the dry season (August, September.) One of them, the pepalantus (photo above, right), was nicknamed “abacaxi lunar”( lunar pineapple ) by Jorge’s fellow malucos (freaks).
Jorge and his companions are passionate about their surroundings. However, to them Chapada means more than a natural wonderland. One early settler, Cida, calls Chapada a sacred planetary center.
The geographical center of South America is located in Chapada, and the exact speck that marks the middle of the continent is considered a “power spot.” The pioneers also vested Chapada with spirituality because of their belief that UFOs landed there and humans inhabited the region during ancient times, according to my brother, Mike, one of the earliest refugees.
Now that magical center of South America is behind the locked and guarded gates of the National Park of Chapada dos Guimaraes, some 81,545 acres set aside about 20 years ago. Today people may enter that area only with registered guides, unlike the time Jorge and his friends roamed freely among cliffs and waterfalls now inside the park.
Even though Jorge’s passion became his vocation, he misses a wilder time before he blended with eco-tourism. It is a conflict he shares with other refugees from his era ( See Part 2. To be posted soon.)
Story and photos by Carola C. Reuben, Earthy Reporter, copyright 2011


  1. Great post, Carola! That place really seems to be a special location. I'd love to visit there sometime. Being a guide for eco-tourism seems like a good compromise and at least he's turning people on to the ecology of the place. Education is good for ecology! It must have been idyllic back then.

  2. I find this article very interesting, contrasting the situation between the old unspoiled natural surroundings and the present day development. It painfully demonstrates the high price of so-called "progress". The photos are very comprehensive., and give a real feel of what the countryside and people are like

  3. Fascinating - what a different way to live. Would love to hear more about the practical aspects of living there, the change of seasons, the growing of food, etc. Is it all pretty traditional as it might have been a hundred years ago? Or have some technological developments found there way there? Great article!

  4. This topic could be expanded in so many directions; it could nclude the aspects you mention. However, in this format it would not be practical to keep expanding.
    In some ways, the place remains as it was 100 years ago. However, in today's world, technology is nearby; change can be very fast. Ideas are not far away, either. For instance, see how an "alternative" culture was juxtaposed in this place.