Cuiabá was founded on April 8, 1719, as the capital of Mato Grosso State. It's a pleasant modern town of 500,000 that sits in the middle of Brazilian cattle country. It was once not unusual to see folks on the street in cowboy duds, but Cuiaba is now a modern city. It's still a great place to stock up on boots, saddles, and other western gear. The city serves as the main gateway to the northern part of the Pantanal—the Transpantaneira Highway starts just 98 km (61 miles) away—and as the jumping-off point to the Chapada dos Guimarães. While in the city there is much to do and see. There's a beautiful open downtown center where you can find live music, open air shopping, street vendors, and fresh coconut water.
Cuiabá is served by Marechal Rondon International Airport. Despite its name, virtually all flights are domestic. If you're coming from abroad you'll probably fly in from São Paulo or Rio de Janeiro.
You can get in by car; there are highways coming in from all directions.
Most people arrive in Cuiabá and immediately leave on a Pantanal tour. The hotels, sights, and restaurants all within walking distance of the town center. The main hotel neighborhood and center of town is quite safe. The only part of town to avoid is along the riverside. Taxis are inexpensive — R$7 to R$21 to get around town — and they're quick for getting out to the airport or bus station. Lodges will usually arrange transportation and pickup from hotels.
Driving the Transpantaneira -- There are a couple of ironies about the Transpantaneira. Though the name implies that the road traverses the entire flood plain, the highway stops in Porto Jofre, 144 km (89 miles) from where it began, and at least that far from the opposite edge of the Pantanal. The other irony is that the project, which if completed would likely have destroyed the Pantanal (by skewing the ecosystem's drainage pattern), has instead, in its unfinished state, become one of the great wildlife-viewing areas of the world. Ditches on either side of the roadbed have become favorite feeding grounds for kingfishers, capybara, egrets, jabiru storks, giant river otters, and caiman by the dozen. Spend but a day on the Transpantaneira, and you'll see more wildlife than you'd see in a week in the Amazon.
The posted speed limit on the Transpanteira is 60 km/h, but expect to the drive to be significantly slower, especially when the roads turn to mud after rain. The slow drive may be part of the reason the wildlife can easily be found on or near the road. Only the first 3 km is paved. The remainder is a dirt road. Further, travel grinds to a crawl over the mix of over 100 wood and concrete bridges to reach Porto Jofre. Many of the wood bridges are in poor shape despite regular repair.
Sights in Cuiabá - The excellent Secretaria de Turismo gives out a very detailed map showing all the various sights in Cuiabá, complete with pictures. It's a nice try, but pleasant though the city is, there's really little to see here.
- Basilica do Senhor Bom Jesus de Cuiabá, Praça da República. Tu-F 08:00-11:00 and 14:00-18:00. A stylish modern cathedral with some nifty Art Deco features and great stained glass. Mass is at 6AM and 6PM daily.
- Almost next door there's the yellow baroque Palácio de Instrução tel: 065/321-3391. M-F 08:00-17:00, now home to Cuiabá's history and natural history museums. Admission is R$1 for both. The history museum is mostly devoted to the 1860s war between Brazil and Paraguay, largely fought in this remote region. The natural history wing features a wide assortment of stuffed dead animals—all rather tatty looking—and some great Indian clubs and arrows and headdresses.
- Down by the renovated riverside port area there's the Museu do Rio Cuiabá and the Municipal Aquarium, Av. Beira Rio s/n (where the Av. 15 de Novembro crosses the river; tel; 065/623-1440. Tu-Su 09:00-18:00. Features displays and exhibits on the changing face of the river, and a small collection of local Pantanal fish.
The centerpiece of Cuiabá is a small green square called Praça de República. The modern but very stylish basilica fronts this square, as does the tourist information office and the small natural history museum. The most important street in Centro (central Cuiabá), Avenida Getulio Vargas, runs northwest from Praça da República. Most of the city's better hotels and several restaurants cluster around Avenida Getulio Vargas about 8 blocks from the square. Directly northeast of Praça República, there's a small shopping district, centered on Rua Eng. Ricardo Franco. Two blocks southeast of Praça República, Avenida Getulio Vargas hits the broad traffic arterial Avenida Ten. Cel. Duarte. On the far side of this street there's a large city park, Parque Antonio Pires de Campos, and on the ridge behind that, the neighborhood of Bandeirantes, where there are a few cheaper hotels. It takes about 10 to 15 minutes to walk from either Banderiantes to Praça República, or from Praça República to the Avenida Vargas hotel enclave.
Three days is the minimum reasonable itinerary for the Pantanal. Four or five days allows you to take things easier; with wildlife viewing, the longer you spend in an area, the better your chances of seeing animals. Spend the minimum possible time in Cuiabá then a take a slow wildlife-spotting drive out along the Transpantaneira to a lodge.
- Take a guided hike, and after sunset, go for a spotlight drive on the Transpantaneira to see the night creatures: capybaras, tarantulas, and (with the most incredible of luck) jaguars. It is also strongly recommended that you take the time to explore the Pantanal as it was meant to be seen, on the back of a horse.
- Canoeing one of the North Pantanal's small rivers is a great way to spot monkeys and giant river otters.
- After exploring the Pantanal, consider a 1-day or overnight trip to the Chapada dos Guimarães, the highlands to the north of Cuiabá. The beautiful red-rock formations, plateaus, and canyons offer excellent hiking and fabulous views, great waterfalls and swimming holes, and some excellent birdlife, including red macaws.
The main commercial district in Centro is concentrated around the Praça da República. You'll find many stores selling clothing and shoes, as well as stationery, toiletries, film, batteries, and food. There are 3 great malls:
- Pantanal Shopping Mall (one of the biggest in west of Brazil).
- 3 Americas Shopping (low-budget).
- Goiabeiras Shopping (close to downtown).
Native & Regional Arts and Crafts - A number of excellent crafts stores with native and regional works can be found around Centro.
- Feira de Artesanato, Praça Santos Dumont, at the corner of Avenida Getulio Vargas. A weekend crafts market Saturday 08:00-20:00 and Sunday 15:00-21:00.
- Artindia, ☏ . Rua Pedro Celestino 301, Centro. M-F 08:00 - 11:30 and 13:30 - 17:00. Run by Funai, the Brazilian federal Indian department, to promote indigenous arts and crafts.
- Casa do Artesão, Rua 13 de Junho 315, ☏ . Daily 08:00 to 18:00. A bit further out of downtown, towards the river. Located in a lovely tile-covered colonial building, the Casa's collection is very large.
- Porto, Rua 13 de Junho 315 at the corner of Avenida Metelo, ☏ . Daily 08:00 to 18:00. Expensive but the quality is high.
Cowboy Equipment & Clothes -- Cuiabá is the place to pick up everything you need for that real Pantaneiro cowboy look. If you need a hat, boots, or jeans, stop by:
- Texas Country, ☏ . Av. Getulio Vargas 1021, Centro.
- Selaria e Sapataria Centro Oeste, ☏ . Av. Ten. Cel. Duarte 318. Another great store to get properly outfitted. The store sells inexpensive quality clothing and gear for real cowboys, no trendy Shania Twain-look-alike stuff. We're talking boots, hats, good jeans, gloves, spurs, and chaps; if you're going riding, your various body parts will thank you for it.
- Adriano, Av. Getúlio Vargas, 985 (Centro I), ☏ . Italian.
- Al Manzul, (Parque) Cachoeira das Garças (Acesso pela Av. Arquimedes Pereira Lima (old highway of the mill)). Classified by the magazine 4 Rodas as the best Arab restaurant in Brazil.
- Casa Suiça, Av. Subtle Miguél, ☏ . Chef Hans has an alpine-style restaurant with a great area outdoors. Besides plates of Swiss cookery, it serves some adaptations as well as petiscos and draft beer.
- Cedro's, Pça. April 8, 1046 - Goiabeiras, ☏ . Arab food.
- Le Chez Babet, Av. President Marquês - Quilombo. French restaurant neoclassical style. The atmosphere is elegant and the service excels.
- Getúlio Grill, Av. Getúlio Vargas, 1147 - Goiabeiras, ☏ . Meats, sushi bar, and chops. Very busy nightclub weekends.
- Meridian 56, Av. Issac Póvoas, 1039 - Goiabeiras, ☏ . Fish.
- O Mestrinho, R. Quinco Caldas, 119, ☏ . Regional food. Weekends it has meats.
- Morro of Santo Antonio, Av. Isaac Póvoas, 1167 - Goiabeiras, ☏ . Restaurant, bar, nightclub.
- Morro dos Ventos (Access from the highway to Campo Verde, km1 (Farm Hills of Winds), 3 km), ☏ . Regional food.
- Nívio's Tour, Pça. D Wunilbaldo, 631, ☏ .
- Peixaria Popular, Av. S. Sebastião, 2324 - Goiabeiras, ☏ . Pantaneira cuisine: typical plates done with fish of the area.
- Regionalissimo, R. 13 de Junho, 314 - Porto, ☏ .
- Taberna Portuguesa, Av. 15 de Novembro, 40 - Porto, ☏ . Portuguese food.
- Garage Club, ☏ . Innovation is the word best describes Garage. The club has become a reference in the central western part of Brazil when the subject is electronic music. Some of the Top International DJs have shaken the dance floor of Garage Club in Cuiaba such as Vitalic, Phonique, Layo & Bushwacka!, Funk Dvoid, Terry Lee Brown Jr, Joris Voorn, Oliver Huntemann, along many others.
- Praça Popular (Popular Square). A public space located in the popular neighborhood of the city of Cuiaba, which has many restaurants and bars concentrated around it.
- Zumzum Bar Disco, ☏ . The most entertaining gay club/ bar in Cuiaba, with drag-queen performances, live music and go-go boys. Usually open from Thursdays till Saturdays.
- Araras Lodge. Likely the best spot for exploring the Pantanal. The location by the Transpantaneira is excellent, and lodge owner Andre Thuronyi has done extensive work to improve the local wildlife habitat. With only 14 rooms, the lodge is pleasantly small and rustic. No fancy rooms or amenities; each guest room comes with a private bathroom and a hammock on the veranda.
- Deviller Hotel. It's the only luxury hotel in Cuiabá, but rooms are fairly standard. They're comfortably furnished with a desk, armchair, and table; the colors and decor are slightly dated, but the bathrooms are modern and come with bathtubs. It's the amenities that you really get what you pay for: it's the only hotel in town with a business center, room service, spacious swimming pool, and sun deck.
- Hotel Mato Grosso. In the center of Cuiabá, just a few blocks from the Praça da República. The hotel has just completed renovating the hallways and rooms. The rooms have had the carpets replaced by tiles, making for a much cleaner and brighter look. Rooms are either standard or deluxe; standard rooms are a bit small and dark (they look out the side of the building). The more spacious deluxe rooms overlook the front of the hotel and come with a queen-size bed. There are deluxe rooms on the quieter upper floors. The suites aren't worth it -- they're really just two adjoined bedrooms. The eighth and ninth floor are nonsmoking.
- Paiaguás Palace Hotel. One of the better bets for affordable accommodations in Cuiabá. Because of its location on a busy road, a 10-minute walk from the Praça de República stands, the Veneza tries harder, including goodies like free airport transfer, free Internet access, and a very steep discount during at least half the year. Rooms are pleasant, with a good-size queen bed, table, writing desk, and standard-size bathroom.
- Várzea Grande — just across the river