Nicknamed the "brunette city" because of its chestnut-coloured earth, CAMPO GRANDE has in the last forty years been transformed from an insignificant settlement into a buzzing metropolis with a population of over 724,000. Founded in 1889, the city was only made the capital of the new state of Mato Grosso do Sul in the late 1970s, since when it has almost doubled in size, though it retains a distinctly rural flavour. Its downtown area manages to combine sky-scraping banks and apartment buildings with ranchers' general stores and poky little shops selling strange forest herbs and Catholic ex votos. Reminiscent in parts of quiet southern US cities, it's a relatively salubrious market centre for an enormous cattle-ranching region, as well as being an important centre of South American trade routes from Paraguay, Bolivia, Argentina and the south of Brazil. A pioneering place, many of the early twentieth-century settlers here were Arabs, who have since gone mostly into businesses such as restaurants and hotels; there is also a large Japanese section of the immigrant population, which has left its mark on the local culinary trade. The city has a number of splendidly planned praças and parks with large, leafy trees, bringing wild birds from the countryside into the modern centre.
An obvious place to break a long journey between Cuiabá or Corumbá and the coast, Campo Grande tries hard to shake off the feeling that it's a city stuck in the middle of nowhere. Apart from the gaucho influence, the town centre is much like that of any other medium-sized city: the people are friendly and there's little manifest poverty. The generally warm evenings inspire the locals to turn out on the streets in force. People chat over a meal or sip ice-cold beers at one of the restaurants or bars around Avenida Afonso Pena, the Praça Ari Coelho or blocks 22–23 of Rua Dom Aquino, and guitars, maracas and congas are often brought out for an impromptu music session.