Destination Brasil

Brasilia national park, the Jigsaw Puzzle of the Tropical Cerrado Forest

Tras un corto recorrido de diez kilómetros desde el centro urbano, el Parque Nacional Brasilia, con una extensión de 40.000 hectáreas, salvaguarda ecosistemas naturales de gran importancia ecológica y belleza escénica.

Text and Photos: Javier Pinzón

For several days now, my friend and host Geraldo Ferraz has been talking to me about the enormous green lung that provides oxygen for his city, Brasilia. He explains that it spreads over an amazing expanse of 100,000 acres and was created in 1961 to protect the Cerrado Forest, an endemic ecosystem with ecological significance to rival its scenic beauty. We pick a day for our adventure, kit ourselves out as explorers, and head out early in the morning. It is merely a short hop from the city center, since the park is located inside the Brasilia city limits. Once in the park, surrounded by enormous trees and under the spell of the songs of hundreds of birds, I have trouble seeing how so many ecosystems can exist so close to “civilization.” I set out to put the pieces of this giant jigsaw puzzle together in an effort to understand how biodiversity survives in this expansive, yet ultimately small, swath of the planet.

Our tour begins on the Capybara Trail (nearly a mile long), which takes us to one of the examples of diversity found in the Cerrado, a vast ecoregion of savannah in Brazil. Here is my first piece of the jigsaw puzzle: a majestic forest of very tall trees blocks the view and creates another world that shelters more than 1,500 species of animals, and incidentally, provides the shade that makes our walk more agreeable. We travelers walk in silence, trying to spot animals, but at first the only thing I can see is a spider popping out of its hiding place in the ground. Signs explain that only 20% of the original Cerrado Forest is still standing due to encroaching agriculture, cattle-ranching, and exploitation of vegetation to produce natural carbon.

A second piece of the puzzle soon falls into place: the gallery forest, which is a very different environment because of the rushing river water that breaks the silence, but also because of the canopy formed by trees arching over the river. It is cooler here, since the leafy canopy of giant trees blocks the sunlight. The incredible variety of vegetation includes copaiba trees, which can reach up to 115 feet tall and bear fruit that is a favorite of small wild animals.

The abundance of diverse fauna includes rare and endangered species like the maned wolf, the giant armadillo, the ocelot, and the giant anteater, not to mention endemic species like the yellow-faced Amazon parrot and more than 159 species of birds. Speaking of which, a group of birds suddenly raises a ruckus in the upper canopy. Although we can hear them, they are too high to photograph. Being here and seeing how the many species of plants and animals are interconnected and dependent on each other shows us why the clearings created by humans are a threat; they change the distribution of the area’s animal life.

Along the way, we also learn that the gallery forest functions as a water filter, preventing erosion during the rainy season, which is why this type of vegetation is appropriately known as “sacred forest” in many places. This forest is also the source of the water in the Santa María Reservoir, which provides 25% of the potable water used in the national capital of Brasilia.

We finish the first trail and continue our walk along a cobblestone path that leads to the Meditation Island trail. My tired companions elect to remain behind at one of the park’s mineral water pools, but I follow my Brazilian guide. This path has few trees and we stroll amidst broad, flower-filled meadows: this is yet another piece of the virtual jigsaw puzzle I am assembling in an effort to understand this natural treasure.

This type of terrain is known as “clean field.” A 25-minute hike takes us to a turquoise lake, where we sit and rest and soon discover that it is an ideal place to meditate, as no outside sounds penetrate. I sit down, close my eyes, and listen to nature. My body gradually relaxes as I absorb the birdsong and feel the breeze caressing my face, until my guide says it is time to press on.

As we leave, we meet up with our companions and set out on the third trail: the Crystal Water trail. Low vegetation predominates and the terrain is known as “dirty field.” We walk the three-mile path under a blazing sun. There are many plants, mostly grasses of the genera Andropogon, Aristida, Axonopus, Paspalum, and others, along with low trees and bushes.

Halfway through our walk, the temperature drops pleasantly as we enter the transition zone between the dirty field and the gallery forest and our friendly shade trees begin to appear. We also come upon a brook where we splash refreshing clear water on our faces. The water is so clean that many people who engage in sports in the park drink directly from the wells. Further on, there are several ponds where birds of various species ignore us as they noisily enjoy a bath.

We are a little tired after the walk and eager to dip into the mineral water pools, which constitute one of the park’s biggest attractions. Two large pools were formed from the wells on the banks of Camp Creek, where sand was extracted before Brasilia was built. This is the last piece of the jigsaw puzzle.

We encounter a troop of monkeys at the pools. The guide tells us that they are always present and that we need to be careful with our belongings, especially food, since the monkeys are expert thieves. No sooner have the words left his mouth than one of the mischievous animals stealthily approaches a tourist’s bag and steals some cookies. It is amusing, but could easily be a problem if it becomes a habit.

After our long, hot walk, we prepare to enjoy the crystalline waters and take a well-deserved rest in paradise, but not before we finish assembling the pieces of this jigsaw puzzle that is the great Cerrado ecoregion, which took 35 million years to adapt to the swings between wet and dry seasons. The site predates the emergence of humans, who need to understand sooner rather than later how important it is to preserve this place.

Our rest is interrupted by an alarm indicating that the park gates will be closing. It signals the end of the day for us, but for others, it indicates the start of a huge meal: the pool begins to draw many kinds of birds, as if the bell announced dinner time. Now is the time for us to take photographs before the last bell rings and we need to leave this natural marvel.