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Lean in its tourist numbers, but fat with flora and fauna

From a mile above Fazenda Toucan Cipó, in Minas Gerais, the view is of the cerrado, Brazil’s vast woody savanna, the largest such region in South America and one of the biologically richest savannas in the world. From a mile above Fazenda Toucan Cipó, in Minas Gerais, the view is of the cerrado, Brazil’s vast woody savanna, the largest such region in South America and one of the biologically richest savannas in the world. (Photo By Colin Barraclough for The Boston Globe)
By Colin Barraclough
Globe Correspondent / December 19, 2010

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MINAS GERAIS — We left the house at dawn, climbing a dusty track between limestone crags and stands of ipê trees, their vibrant blossoms forming dazzling clouds of yellow. Up ahead, above a 3,000-foot escarpment, lay the rounded summit of Subida da Senhorita, one of the peaks and open plateaus of the Serra do Espinhaço, which ranges through the state of Minas Gerais in central Brazil.

From a rocky promontory, I looked down at the terra cotta-tiled farmhouse at Fazenda Toucan Cipó, its garden of mango, lemon, and tamarind trees opening to 10,000 acres of orchard, sugar cane, and forest that spread from the escarpment to the meandering course of the River Cipó far below.

I had begun the day earnestly, noting the names of plants found on this land and nowhere else on earth. Many are known only by locals for their tasty, nutrient-rich fruit or for their medicinal properties.

Charles Frewen, the fazenda’s Anglo-Brazilian owner, pointed out the chichá-do-cerrado, whose scarlet fruit opens like a starfish, and the jatobá-da-mata, whose seed pod resembles a sausage. He gesticulated excitedly at the tendrils of the canela-de-ema, which frequently causes forest fires by spontaneously bursting into flame. “This is a wunderlichia,’’ he called out, stopping at a 15-foot bush of waving tendrils. “It’s one of the largest daisies in the world.’’

I quickly abandoned my note-taking, overloaded by the sheer number of rare or endemic species, many with properties I found simply bizarre. Each step, it seemed, revealed some botanist’s delight: the twisted stem of a cactus, a stunted tree whose thick, rough bark protects it from fire, a tiny lilac flower that checkered an otherwise naked rock.

From the mountain’s sculpted peak we gazed below at the fazenda’s undulating folds. A falcon swooped low on the hunt for lizards; the only sound to break the silence was the melodious chorus of chopi blackbirds.

Minas Gerais rarely appears on the standard tourist itinerary of Brazil. A small number of foreign visitors drive north from Rio de Janeiro for seven hours to admire Ouro Preto and Tiradentes, exquisite colonial towns built on the wealth of the country’s 18th-century gold rush, but Brazilians know the state more for its dairy farming and mining industry than for tourism.

For the nature lover, however, Minas Gerais is one of Brazil’s most compelling regions. Roughly the size of France, its terrain ranges from desert, wetlands, and savanna to dense Atlantic rain forest. One tenth of the state is protected by national, state, and private nature reserves that harbor endangered mammals such as the jaguar, puma, and tapir, many of Brazil’s 55,000 known plant species, and some 200 of its 234 endemic bird species.

Hundreds of rural guest houses provide lodgings for the nature-inclined visitor, but Fazenda Toucan Cipó claims both extreme isolation and an unusual terrain, part of the unsung cerrado landscape that is fast gaining the attention of the world’s botanists.

At first glance, the cerrado appears almost barren, its low, scattered trees and thorn bushes more closely resembling Africa’s Great Rift Valley than Brazil’s Atlantic forest or dense Amazon jungle. A hot savanna grassland spreads across broad, 5,000-foot peaks and shallow valleys, broken in places by stands of buriti palm and by dense gallery forests that carpet gulleys and water courses.

Despite its arid appearance, the cerrado contains more plant, insect, and animal species than most other regions in the world. In 2005, UNESCO named the Serra do Espinhaço a biosphere reserve, citing levels of biodiversity that rival Amazonia’s.

In 2007, when British researchers began to carry out small-scale surveys at Fazenda Toucan Cipó, they quickly discovered five plants new to science and several new specimens of endangered or rare species.

The property, which has recently opened to paying guests, lies 30 miles from the nearest village, 60 miles from a factory, and a three-hour drive from the nearest airport at Belo Horizonte. “Watch for the sign with the bullet holes,’’ read the driving instructions Frewen had sent me beforehand. “Ignore the nameless road that disappears to the left, and turn right when you see a large pile of stones.’’

In the end, Frewen picked me up from the nearest bus station and navigated a bewildering network of dirt tracks, finally pulling up at a robust farmhouse of wooden beams and polished brick floors. Its baronial dining room was decorated with silver candelabra and colonial-era chairs of mahogany and embossed leather. A comfortable sitting room with a large library and fireplace opened to the garden; behind the house, I found a big swimming pool fed by fresh spring water from nearby mountains.

Energetic guests can saddle up on Crioulo purebreds or spend their days fly-fishing, canoeing, or caving. I preferred a gentler rhythm of easy strolls, awaking each morning to a rousing dawn chorus. Hummingbirds flitted around a flamboyant tree as I breakfasted on the veranda. The papaya, freshly baked bread, and ciriguela, a tomato-like fruit that tastes like a plum, were all produced on the farm.

One morning, I paddled in rock pools by the River Cipó, watching green kingfishers flash by at the water’s edge. On other days, I did little more than read and eat lunch beneath a lychee tree in the garden or picnic by some gurgling mountain stream. Each dusk, I sipped on icy caipirinhas made from home-distilled cachaça as the waning sun saturated the Subida da Senhorita’s cliffs in a resplendent shade of ochre.

Scientists believe that the natural riches of Brazil’s cerrado landscape require far greater study. For the tourist, too, Fazenda Toucan Cipó and its fascinating terrain merit a longer stay. “It’s such a privilege to be the custodian of this place,’’ Frewen told me on my last night, as we gazed up at a radiant Milky Way. “Just being on the cerrado is the greatest tonic imaginable. It has a way of putting one’s life completely into perspective.’’

COLIN BARRACLOUGH

If You Go

Getting there
Several airlines fly from North America to Belo Horizonte, the capital of Minas Gerais; most flights go via São Paulo. From Belo Horizonte, Setelagoano (www.setelagoano.com.br; $9 each way; 1 1/2 hours) operates regular buses to Sete Lagoas, the nearest city to Fazenda Toucan Cipó.
Where to stay
Fazenda Toucan Cipó
Santana de Pirapama
Minas Gerais
A staffed rental home for up to eight people. From $1,500 per day with a three-day minimum, including all meals and guided excursions. Azul Travel, 011-55-11-3085-7000 www.azullatinamerica.com