By Alana Benson
Last winter, I was lucky enough to spend a month working as a specialty English teacher at the ACES School in Palmas, Brazil. When I wasn’t in the classroom, I explored the small and beautiful city with the families I stayed with and some local teachers who took me under their wing. My “teacher friends” helped me with my Portuguese while we explored hidden waterfalls and secret beaches—and of course while we sat for hours at barbecue joints.
A New City
The city of Palmas is no older than Taylor Swift, having been incorporated as the capital of the Brazilian state of Tocantis in 1989. Before that, the area was largely agricultural. With rich and poor alike looking for a safer alternative to larger cities, people flocked to the newly created capital and set up shop. Palmas, though located in the center of the country, is nestled up next to a massive hydroelectric dam, which both powers the city and provides locals with a giant lake for some much-needed relief from the heat. Praia Graciosa serves as the city’s main beach, bustling with churro carts, beachside bars and clubs, and a boat rental service for party boats. Having a birthday party on one is almost a right of passage.
With its central location, the only thing Palmas is really close to is nature. Just a 45 minute drive outside the city is Taquaruçu, a series of waterfalls along a gorgeous hiking path. The residents refer to the area as cerrado, or a savannah. Due to its proximity to the Amazon, locals consider the Tocantis region to be quite dry— though to me, the naturally-occuring mango trees and bird of paradise flowers made me feel like I was walking through the jungle. The waterfalls are a true locals-only secret, and the only people you’ll see there are likely from the area. Jalapão State Park is better known, though much further off the beaten path. About six hours from Palmas, this unique landscape has crystal clear hot springs, waterfalls, and sand dunes. For the best experience, book a tour through Cerrado Dourado, a family-owned touring business that provides all the accommodations.
Palmas, unlike its larger cosmopolitan counterparts, retains the feeling of a small community. The city filters out for two hours around lunchtime, and everyone leaves work to go enjoy lunch with family (and take a nap). In the evenings, whether it’s a Monday or a Friday, people escape the heat at open-air Brazilian barbecue, or churrasco, restaurants. The city squares are packed with families and friends enjoying fire-grilled steaks, rice, and beans.
Arts and Crafts
The city also preserves its strong history of handicrafts. At the weekly market, a whole section consists of capim dourado crafts, earrings, baskets, bowls, and vases made entirely of a strong, golden grass that grows solely in this region of Tocantis. The artisans make intricate patterns out of the grass, and each stall shows off the different skills of the artists. Small baskets are common, but one artist makes scenic wall hangings out of the grass and corn husks. One even makes clocks with the grass! Every home I visited had a fruit bowl made out of capim dourado, and it made buying gifts for friends and family back home nice and easy.
Hungry? You Better Be
Brazilians like to eat. A lot. This made it easy for me to fit in well with the culture, and I took full advantage of the opportunity to try lots of new foods. From coxinha, the fried, teardrop-shaped chicken bites, to paçoca, a ground mixture of dried beef, cassava flour, and red onions that creates a savory snack, the flavors and textures were all new to me. The woman who hosted me in her home even taught me to make brigadeiro, a traditional birthday desert. Every day, a friend would ask if I had tried a new and different Brazilian specialty, to which my response was always, “Not yet!”
It might seem intimidating to visit the Brazilian interior, but what I discovered was the incredible warmth of a giving people, gorgeous natural wonders, and some delicious new recipes to try. If you’re thinking about making a trip to Brazil, don’t skip the small towns and cities, and definitely don’t skip Palmas.