Tocantins & Jalapao – the Brazilian Outback at its best
The state of Tocantins was only created in 1989, taken from the northern half of Goias. A brand new state capital was also created in Palmas, Brazil’s newest major city, which was founded at the geodesic centre of Brazil. The area lies at the junction of four different ecosystems, making it an area rich in biodiversity. The Cerrado, Tropical Rainforest and a Pantanal-type wetlands all meet at different points of the state, and completely different habitats bring an incredible variety of birdlife, one set completely different from the other within a few hundred yards.
Palmas has grown into a modern city of 230,000 inhabitants, with river beaches (although piranhas in the river mean that swimming can be difficult! One of the beaches has a swimming net...) and a photogenic bridge spanning the enormous Rio Tocantins. The ecotourism jewels of the state are outside the city, in the waterfalls that tumble down the valleys from the tops of the serras, and in the wilderness of the Jalapao State Park. Taquaruçu is the closest to Palmas, a quiet little town surrounded by clean falls, the most impressive of which are around 70m high. The highest of them, Roncadeira, can also be descended by rapel. Many of the falls have excellent swimming areas underneath.
The Jalapao State Park may be the major reason to visit Tocantins, a wilderness area of savannah, crossed by clear rivers, with eroding flat-topped serra that used to be the bottom of the sea. The Jalapao Dunes are perhaps the most photographed part of the region, but the whole park is photogenic, with expansive views from the tops of the serra and beautiful clear falls on the Rio Sono such as Formiga and Velha. The park feels so remote that even the wildlife seems to have left. The grasslands do not support much wildlife, nor cattle or horses, which probably explains why it remained in its natural state, unlike the plantations and cattle ranches around Palmas. Macaws do proliferate, with maned wolves, foxes, armadillos and anteaters also possible sightings. One of the highlights of a visit to Jalapao are the fervedouros, watering holes where underground rivers burst through the sandy surface, watering the banana trees around them. The joy of spending time in these makes the journey out to Jalapao worthwhile. These beautiful spots have the distinction of making it impossible to sink in the water, as the bubbling sand helps you to stay afloat.
South of Palmas lies another wilderness area in the Serra Geral, with more caves, canyons and waterfalls in an ecotourism area less visited than Jalapao. The serra gave up the last of its gold centuries ago and few people now visit this region, which is certainly one of the outdoor attractions.
The remaining pockets of Amazon Rainforest north of Palmas are home to diverse species, some of which are possible to see on a visit to the Projeto Aratama Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre, set in a plantation ranch. The centre helps animals injured or orphaned on the roads and ranches of Tocantins, including their very own puma. Packages confiscated from smugglers in the area also find their way to the centre, with baby macaws requiring care from staff, visitors and volunteers alike.
The vast plantation areas to the west of the state have wonderful birdlife, similar to the Pantanal although with endemic species such as the much-sought and very rare Kaempfer's woodpecker. The rainforest surrounding the Rio Formoso, Rio Javaes and Rio Araguaia is home to many species of bird, reptile and mammal, with the seasonal Ilha do Formoso and the Cantao National Park being good places to encounter giant otters, caiman, turtle and jaguar on the muddy riverbanks. Toucans, ararinha (the little macaw), beautiful kingfishers and many more birds constantly cross overhead. The Javaes and Araguaia Rivers are two branches of the same water, splitting around Ilha do Bananal, the largest fluvial island on the planet. The island is largely set aside for national park and indigenous territory, with various communities making their homes in small aldeias, especially on the outer edges of the island. It is possible to visit some of the communities, although permission is necessary for most and visits to Bananal require much advance planning.
Tocantins is one of the least visited states of Brazil, although for some people it can be worth the journey for the mix of scenery, bird and wildlife that can’t be found elsewhere in Brazil.
Suitable Destination For: Lovers of wide-open spaces, ecotourism, waterfalls, clean rivers, bird and other wildlife, and the wilds of the Brazilian interior.
Best Time to Visit: It will always be hot in Tocantins, and usually always either humid or dry, depending on which ecosystem is present. April and May after the rains are possibly the best time to visit Jalapao, with flowers and green grasses which become very dry later in the year.
Essential Sights & Activities: The waterfalls around Taquaruçu; Jalapao State Park; Ilha do Bananal; the wildlife of the areas bordered by the Tocantins, Formoso, Javaes and Araguia rivers.