A thriving commercial center, Cuiabá is the only city of note in the vast state of Mato Grosso . Visually, it is a somewhat jarring mélange of colonial vestiges and mushrooming high-rises, but there is enough to keep you occupied here for a day or two. With the only airport connected to the rest of the country, Cuiabá is also Mato Grosso’s most obvious gateway for trips to the northern Pantanal  as well as to the nearby Chapada dos Guimarães , a spectacular region of mountains, canyons, and waterfalls that rises up suddenly out of the otherwise flat Cerrado.
Cuiabá was founded in 1719 when a Paulistano bandeirante stumbled upon gold deposits along the banks of the Rio Cuiabá. Fortune seekers immediately set out in search of instant wealth, although the 3,000-kilometer (1,864-mile) journey from São Paulo  proved so long and treacherous that many never arrived, let alone struck it rich. When gold petered out at the end of the 1700s, the small town remained an isolated outpost in the middle of Indian territory. Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, Cuiabá’s economy depended upon the region’s vast cattle ranches.
A link to “civilization” only came in the 1890s when an enterprising Brazilian army officer named Cândido Rondon built a telegraph system from Goiás Velho  to Cuiabá and then south to Corumbá . (Rondon’s subsequent forays north into the Amazon  inspired the western Amazonian state’s name of Rondônia). However, it wasn’t until the 20th century that trains, planes, and, finally, paved highways connected Cuiabá to São Paulo  in the south, Brasília  and Goiás  to the west, and the Amazon  to the north, transforming the city into a major crossroads.
Although cattle ranching has dwindled in recent years, economic growth has been spurred on by the cultivation of corn, rice, fruit, and soybeans along with the development of the burgeoning ecotourism industry. As a result, Cuiabá is a lively place with a frontier feel to it. While it is one of Brazil ’s fastest growing cities, it is also its hottest. Be forewarned that average temperatures are 27°C (81°F) and can hit highs of 45°C (113°F).
Cuiabá is linked by air to Brasília , Rio , and São Paulo . The Aeroporto Marechal Rondon is 7 kilometers (4.5 miles) south from the city center, in Várzea Grande. A taxi to the center will cost around R$25. If you booked a tour to a fazenda lodge in the Pantanal , airport transfers may be included. The modern rodoviária (Av. Marechal Deodoro, tel. 65/3621-2429) is 3 kilometers (2 miles) north of the city center. If you don’t want to take a cab, there are various municipal buses.
Although the landscape is interesting and roads are not bad, Cuiabá is very far from everywhere by bus—Brasília, for instance, is 1,100 kilometers (682 miles) away. Campo Grande , gateway to the southern Pantanal , is 10 hours by bus. Motta (tel. 65/3621-2514, www.motta.com.br ) and Andorinha (tel. 65/3621-3422, www.andorinha.com.br ) run several buses a day.
Renting a car is not that useful unless you want to drive to the Chapada das Guimarães . Localiza (Av. Dom Bosco 965, tel. 65/3624-7979, www.localiza.com ) and Unidas (Praça do Aeroporto, tel. 65/3682-4052, www.unidas.com.br ) are two options.