The Chapada dos Veadeiros is an enigma - a national park and Unesco world heritage site with everything from a rare plant species that could yet yield a revolutionary treatment for HIV to a landing strip for UFOs.

In the centre of an environmental region known as the Cerrado it is home to some of the most breathtaking countryside and most peculiar plants in the world. It also has a bizarre edge - dozens of New Age cults gather here in the hope of spotting UFOs. An asphalt airstrip, big enough to land a Boeing 747, lies unused waiting only for aliens.

"People go down to the airport on Saturday nights to wait for the extra-terrestrials. It is a nice party," says Patricia, who moved to the area three months ago from the capital, Brasilia. "I first came two years ago and they say once you take the waters here you will always come back."

There is no other infrastructure for miles. The nearest hospital is three-and-a-half hours away in Brasilia - an important fact in an area with poisonous snakes.

Futuristic features

The population of the largest town, Alto Paraiso, reaches just 8000. Its numbers began to swell when rumour spread of the mystic qualities of the land in the 1980s.

So-called Third Millennium groups descended from all over Brazil to set up communes, attracted by the fact that the park sits on a giant quartz plate so luminous that it is visible from space.

The crystals are so common here that the door of the grocery store in neighbouring Sao Jorge, with a population of just 500, is casually propped open by a cathedral-shaped crystal the size of a football.

Locals will also tell you that Alto Paraiso, which translates as High Heaven, sits on the 14th Parallel which puts it on the same track as Machu Picchu in Peru, revered by many as a mystical site.

The deceased Indian guru Osho has a community of free-love followers here and there are devotees of the coming of the Maitreya Buddha. Hostels are built in the shape of pyramids and igloos, with names that translate as Good Vibes and Solar Temple.

Wild life

But it is the flora and fauna of the chapada, almost half of which is found only in this region, which really sets the area apart. The national park, which covers 60,000 hectares, is teeming with life, most of it unknown to science.

Much of the flora is yet to be
studied by scientists

American researchers are just beginning to study the canela de ema, a tree that takes 300 years to reach a height of just two metres. They hope it can lead to a replacement for the anti-HIV cocktail AZT.

"We just do not know what we have here. There are teams of scientists arriving all the time to study the plants but there is so little that is documented," says Marco, a guide who has worked for nine years in the park.

"The cerrado does not have the same attraction as the Amazon, for example, but it is teeming with life."

Danger zone

Buriti palm trees stud the landscape, home to the species of deer that gave the park its name.

Entrance is only permitted with a guide. Dangers abound to the casual tourist with boa constrictors, rattlesnakes and other creatures whose venomous bite can kill a man in an hour. The spotted leopard is the other chief pre-occupation.

Prized sightings include wolves, hawks and the king vulture. There are parrots, humming-birds, yellow-beaked toucans and a seemingly infinite variety of insects.

Locals make tasty skewers of the backsides of the black and brown tanajura ant, which they collect after rainfall. The tanajura is said to be good for the eyes and throat.

Colonial past

European explorers arrived at the end of the 16th century searching for gold and exterminated the indigenous Indian population.

Many tourists hope they will spot
aliens in this remote park

Legend has it that the first wheat seeds were introduced by the Egyptians around 1800. Coffee cultivation later that century replaced the wheat, followed by the discovery of the extraordinary crystal wealth.

Brazil's largest community of quilombos - the decendents of runaway slaves brought from Africa - made its home here too. The Calunga fled their masters from the coastal port of Salvador de Bahia in the late 19th century.

Today domestic tourism has become the principal source of income for its inhabitants. When Brasilia was purpose-built in the 1950s in the interior 1000km from the coast, the Chapada became a weekend refuge for civil servants and politicians.

Tourism for all

Tourism blossomed in this strange landscape which boasts 150 waterfalls, a rock formation that looks like one vast lunar landscape, crystal clear waters and, of course, crystals.

Health spas with hydro-massage and an ambience of peace, ecology and spiritual harmony are the commercial selling points for stressed city-dwellers.

The authorities have imposed a cap on the number of people who can enter the park each day (450), which can reach 45 degrees in the dry season. Six months of the year are marked by torrential rainfall, which can close paths because of the dangerous rise in water levels.

The park is developing its
attractions for visitors

Now the Chapada is opening up to the possibilities of adventure sports - for the disabled.

Dad? Moreira, 40, developed a neurological problem nine years ago that affects his sight and coordination. With the non-governmental organisation Special Adventure he is almost evangelical about paragliding, rafting and climbing.

"Sometimes people think I am a drunk man. If they don't understand when I explain my condition, I tell them that they must be drunk. For disabled people to get out of their houses is one thing, to take part in adventure sports is another. The possibilities here are fantastic," he says.

For New Agers, runaway slaves, scientists, the sick, the disabled, tourists and maybe even also for little green men, the Chapada dos Veadeiros is an odd but irresistible magnet - a peculiar paradise in the middle of nowhere.