Hiking trip to the top of Pedra Selada – Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

The “Pedra Selada” is one of the peaks of the Serra da Mantiqueira in the state of Rio de Janeiro (about 200 km west from the city of Rio de Janeiro), also home to Itatiaia, the oldest national park in Brazil. The name “Pedra Selada” comes from its saddle shaped summit. (Portuguese for saddle = “Sela”)

The region, with its mountains, countless streams and waterfalls offers many possibilities for outdoor activities like mountain climbing and hiking, rappelling, rafting and mountain biking. It is commonly known as “Mauá”, and is one of the most popular mountain destinations in southeastern Brazil.

The area around Visconde de Mauá is also famous for its collection of high quality Pousadas and chalets.

I took this trip together with my wife Fernanda, and for her it was actually the first time she went on a hike like this.

The 4 km hike to the top,  is a constant uphill walk, getting steeper toward the end. It takes you to an altitude of 1775m and from there you have a great view over the valley of the Rio Preto to the north, the Peaks of the “Agulhas Negras” to the west and the Vale do Paraíba do Sul and the Serra do Mar to the South…

Here are some of the pictures of that day. Click on them to view slideshow…

Hope you enjoyed this post… If you ever find yourself in Rio de Janeiro and feel like doing this or one of the other fantastic hikes in and around Rio, let me know.

Cheers and see you in Brazil

Hang gliding or Parasailing in São Conrado, Rio de Janeiro – Brazil

Hang gliding is just one of many offbeat things you could do in Rio de Janeiro

Some people say that Rio de Janeiro is a city where you can do just about everything without ever leaving the city. Whether it is on water, land or in the air, the possibilities are almost endless

Driving down the coastline of Rio de Janeiro in the direction of Barra de Tijuca (Zona Oeste – west side), you will pass São Conrado, one of Rio’s “noble”, and more privileged neighborhoods, which is surrounded by coastal mountains, creating perfect circumstances for hang gliding.

If you’re not too distracted by the bikini’s on the beach, on a good day, you will probably see a bunch of paragliders (portuguese: parapente)  and hanggliders (portuguese: asa delta) circling around in the air..

The Pedra Bonita take-off ramp is located inside the famous Tijuca National Park, at an altitude of 520 m.

It should only be a 20 minute drive from Copacabana, but depending on the time of day, traffic tends to cause significant delays, so always leave half an hour (or even an hour) earlier than you planned initially.

There are several tour operators offering tandem flights, and some of them can arrange to pick you up at your hotel (for the right price of course).

View of Bairro São Conrado from the takeoff ramp at Pedra Bonita – Rio de Janeiro. Altitude: 520 m Are you ready to jump off?

Depending on wind conditions, flights take from 15 to 20 minutes. After the flight you land on the beach of São Conrado. The price should be around 300R$ (+/-150 Usd)

Here are a few more pictures I took when I visited the ramp (and came close to flying myself).

Preparing the wings…

A hang glider taking off…

A paraglider taking off

A hang glider seconds after taking off…

paraglider seconds after taking off… Free as a bird.

And last but not least, here’s a link to a hanggliding video of my friend, travel writer and photojournalist Mark Eveleigh when he took the plunge himself…

Diamantina – Jewel of Colonial Brazil and the Estrada Real

Diamantina, was the diamond capital of 18th century Brazil. Today, its historical importance is only surpassed by the beauty of its buildings and the surrounding landscapes.

Native Botocudo indians guided the first group of explorers (known as “bandeirantes”) to the Diamantina region in the early 1700’s. The bandeirantes were looking for gold, but in 1714, they found the first diamonds around Diamantina. Until then, diamonds were only found in India, so the find was a major event.

Arraial do Tijuco, as Diamantina was called in that time, became the center of the Diamond District and the Portuguese Crown, interested in the diamonds, isolated the little town from the rest of Minas Gerais by introducing a special regime.

Igreja nossa senhora do Rosário. One of the oldest churches in Diamantina, built by slaves, who payed for the materials by stealing gold. They did this by collecting gold dust in their hair…

The free extraction of diamonds was abolished and replaced by a system by which the diamond mines could only be operated by official contractors, certified by the Portuguese crown. The contractors had great power and influence and they basically determined the pace of life of the people of the region.

The cathedral of Diamantina is from more recent times. It was constructed at the location of the first chapel of Diamantina, which had been destroyed.

Diamantina was the home of one of Brazil’s famous historical figures. Chica da Silva, a black slave women, had a relationship with the richest diamond trader of the city, João Fernandes de Oliveira. The relationship lasted for 15 years and produced 13 children, and Chica da Silva became the richest woman in Diamantina.

One interesting story about her, is that she used her influence during the construction of the Nossa senhora do carmo church. She managed to have the tower of the church built in the back, because she didn’t like the loud bells too close to her house. It was also a provocation from her part, because the church was mainly visited by white members of the local high society, who discriminated her.

Despite the status of her lover, who was eventually called back to Portugal, she was never accepted by the rest of the high society. After her death, all her possessions were destroyed and burned and she was buried in a church for lower class people.

Casa da Glória. a former orphanage and one of the principal symbols of the city

Another famous son of Diamantina was Juscelino Kubitschek de Oliveira, who became the Brazilian president, responsible for the construction of Brasilia, the new capital of Brazil. He was born in Diamantina in 1902 and the house where he spent his childhood and adolescence is one of Diamantina’s touristic attractions.

Birth place of Juscelino Kubitschec, which can be visited…

Today, no more diamonds are found in Diamantina, but the riches that was brought to this city by the precious stones, can still be seen all over the place.

Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Carmo. Last resting place of Chica da Silva, one of Diamantina’s most colorful historic figures…

I decided to take a guide and he showed me the most important attractions during a four-hour walk around the center. For me, this is one of the most beautiful places I have seen in Brazil so far.  A definite “must see”.

Rock Climbing to Christ the Redeemer (Corcovado), Rio de Janeiro

Corcovado mountain, with Christ the Redeemer on top

Rio de Janeiro is a great place for rock climbing, and one of the more difficult climbs, but also one of the most beautiful ones is Corcovado mountain (also referred to as K2), on top of which stands the most famous landmark of Rio de Janeiro: the statue of Christ the Redeemer. When a good friend of  mine invited me to do this climb, despite not being a real rock climber, I didn’t think twice and accepted…

The climb starts at 500m above the city. You can hike the whole way to the base, but we took the car to a parking place, from where we took a minivan that goes all the way up, but we got out halfway. After a 15-20min hike through some quite dense jungle, we reached the starting point of the climb and geared up.

Like I said before, I’m not a real rock climber, and this climb is considered to be the hardest one to get to the top of Corcovado mountain, so I had a few moments where I thought that I wouldn’t be able to stretch myself far enough to get any further ahead, but turning back was not really an option, so in the end I did make it, not without a little cheating I must admit :). There were stunning views of the city during the entire climb, and this is one of the things that make this such a great experience… From the top you also have one of the most spectacular views of Rio de Janeiro.

This is one thing definitely worth doing, and I’m looking forward of doing it again in the future, but first I need to get some more rock climbing training/ experience,  and oh, needless to say that you cannot be afraid of heights

Here, I had a major “damn, I’m going to have to turn back” moment. Not a lot to hold on to and a little water running down the wall, making everything very slippery.

A welcome ledge to take a breather and admire the stunning scenery

Ok, real rock climbers will say I’m cheating here, grabbing a hold of the metal bar sticking out of the rock face. I need to train more…

One of the dozens of helicopters that daily take tourists to circle the statue of Christ the Redeemer

We made it!!! and it felt really good 🙂

Up close and personal: the world-famous statue of Christ the Redeemer

The “postcard view” from the top of Corcovado: The center of Rio de Janeiro and Sugar Loaf mountain

Enduro riding in the Serra da Mantiqueira, Brazil

On Nov 26, 2010, Maryel and me set out to explore a dirt road, leading east from Campos do Jordão to the Br-459. I had been wanting to check out this road for a long time, so I was glad we finally found some time to do it. Since we had no idea what to expect, we took our dirt bikes, and that turned out to be the right call, because the trail is not really an easy one, but for anyone who would like to do a +/- 90km enduro ride, it’s perfect. As a special bonus, the views of the surrounding Serra da Mantiqueira were sometimes breathtaking.

The starting point of our ride, was on the Br-459, 16 km north-west of Piquete, some 160km from Volta Redonda, my home town, so we left early in the morning, taking the Br-166 in the direction of Sao Paulo.

A photo taken from the moving car… The Serra da Mantiqueira early in the morning, all misty after a night of heavy rain. We were expecting to get rain today as well, but luckily it stayed dry all day.

The BR116, one of the finest highways in Brazil, but also one of the most expensive ones, especially once you enter the state of São Paulo.

After unloading the bikes… Maryel’s Yamaha 250 competition cross bike and my KTM 450EXC… That van is pretty handy if you ask me…

This photo was taken a few minutes after we both hit the ground on a very slippery part of the track. Wet red hard soil covered with slimy moss or something is like riding on ice… On the way back I slipped on the exact same spot and went down again. Maryel managed to stay upright this time. Afterwards he told me that my tires were inflated way too hard. I guess so… I’m only an amateur

Here’s where the track ends and the nice road to the city of Campos do Jordão (also known as Suiça Brasileira – Brazilian Switzerland) starts. We had to head back.

On the way back to Piquete, Maryel wanted to see if he could ride up this slope… Is this guy for real? I have seen him do some pretty amazing stuff on that bike, but if you ask me, this is a little over the top…

Riding a relatively easy stretch… We didn’t take a lot of pictures, since I don’t have one of those small camera’s that fit in a back pocket (actually I didn’t even have a back pocket :o), and the conditions were pretty muddy at times… also, stopping every 5 minutes to take the camera out of the backpack would slow us down significantly…

Back at the starting point, after almost 100km of enduro riding. We did an extra 6km after taking a wrong turn and getting kind of lost for a while…

I saved the route (one way – without the “getting lost” part)- in the GPS… Here’s the map and profile. anyone who’s interested in the .gpx file can email me on raphael@mirantes-mototravel.com

the Routemap of the trip (one way – without the “getting lost” part)

the GPS altitude profile – one way. The altitude varied from 1400m to almost 1850m

Hope you enjoyed it.
As always, comments welcome…

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Motorcycle trip: Iguassu Falls – Brazil – Argentina – Paraguay

Ever since I arrived in Brazil in January 2009, I had been curious about the world-famous Iguaçu falls, so when a friend told me that there was going to be a Motorcycle meeting at Foz do Iguaçu, organized by Brazil Riders, I didn’t think twice about going there and make an 11 day motorcycle trip out of it.

Nov. 10, 2010

From my home town Volta Redonda to Iguaçu Falls is about 1.800 km, depending of the route you choose. I don´t like the big highways and that means I would take a slightly longer route, using smaller back roads as much as possible. When I left Volta Redonda early in the morning, a couple of friends on motorcycles and my Colleague Maryel in the Land Rover were joining me for the first 30km.

Just a few kms north of Volta Redonda, the landscape already changes to a dominant color of green. This is the road to Santa Isabel and Santa Rita de Jacutinga, one of my favorite roads in the region. 50km of great asphalt and curves.

My escort on the point of their return. In the background, the highest point of the serra da Mutucá.

To Rodrigo´s place in Guarapuava is 1.300 km and I wanted to arrive there on thursday, nov 11. I didn´t intend to do the trip to Guarapuava in one day, but I wanted to get as far as possible on the first day, so I let Volta Redonda at 7 am, driving north to Santa Rita de Jacutinga an Bom Jardim de Minas. The roads were in good condition and the weather was sunny and dry. Perfect for a day´s riding.

Since I wanted to get as far as possible, I stayed on asphalt roads and made good progress, only stopping to eat and buy gas. One of the minor downsides of the XT660 is, that it has a limited range of about 300 km on a full tank, and after 200 km the “low gasolina” indicator lights up. The only setback of the day was getting lost in the city of Limeira. A part of the road that I was supposed to follow, was blocked by road works and since there was no signalization for an alternative route, I ended up in a part of the city that was a grey spot on my GPS. I spent almost 2 hours to get back on track.

Later in the day the weather started to change for the worse. Big storm clouds started building up and I decided it was a good time to put on my rain gear, but somehow I was able to stay out of reach of the storm and only got a few drops of rain. The whole time the wind was blowing fiercely and only when it started to get dark, things began to return to normal. Usually, people will tell you it’s not a good idea to be on the road after dark, but I was on a good road (in São Paulo state, most roads are good…) so I decided to go on for another 250 km. When I got to  the city of Itapeva, about 30km from the state border with Paraná, I finally checked in to a hotel.

To my pleasant surprise, there seem to be several toll booths in the state of São Paulo that are free of charge for motorcycles.

Nov 11, 2010

I wanted to get to Guarapuava and according to my GPS it would only be only 377 km. I rode 930km the day before, so this would be a piece of cake. I sent a message to Rodrigo that I would arrive sometime around 2 pm.
After hitting the road around 8.30 am, I immediately felt it was a lot colder than the day before, and the wind was blowing even harder. Not my kind of weather  . November is springtime – almost summer – here in Brazil, so it should be sunny and warm, but this was more like Belgium in the fall, except that it didn’t rain (yet) and the scenery was a lot more beautiful.

After about 20 km, I was pulled over by the police and I had to show my documents and those of the bike. I was kind of nervous, because the São Paulo police has a fierce image, but everything was ok and I was “liberado” after a 10 minute hold up.

Once across the Parana border, the road started to become more twisty and the scenery became more mountainous, which is a lot nicer to ride. I was on the PR-151, heading for Ponta Grossa, and noticed some signs, saying this is one of the best roads in the south of Brazil. Since this was my first serious trip into the south, I wouldn’t know if that information was correct, but I’ll let you know later on.

In Ponta Grossa I needed to take the BR-277 heading west toward Guarapuava. Up until this point it was still very cold and windy, and I was even forced to stop a few times to allow my body to warm up again. I decided that next time I would take a trip south, I would bring my winter gear. Looking further to the west I could see the clouds getting thinner though, and that is a good sign. After all, when I checked the weather channel earlier this week, it showed sunny and warm weather in Guarapuava, and why on earth would a weather channel be wrong, right?

50 km before reaching Guarapuava, I felt my bike starting to act weird… It had all the symptoms of a flat rear tire, I stopped to check it out and sure enough, I found a nail in my back tire. YAY… My first flat tire in Brazil… Champagne!!

First flat of the trip… Actually, my first flat in Brazil.

I tried to continue riding on the shoulder (very slowly), hoping to get to a service station, but after 5-6 km, it started to become impossible to ride on without doing real damage to the tire. I noticed a guy who appeared to be in some kind of uniform waiting on the side of the road and stopped to ask him if he knew a borracharia nearby. He said that he works at the next toll station and he´s about to be picked up by a van to take him to work. The toll station has a towing service and he promised to send the tow-truck to pick me up.

Small detail… yes of course I had tried to call the towing service, but like in many parts of Brazil, I didn’t have any signal on my mobile phone.

The towing service came indeed… and was very efficient… and free of charge. I guess this is why you pay toll…

After I waited there for about half an hour, the tow truck came and dropped me off at the next borracharia. I had to take the wheel out myself because the guy wasn´t used to work with bikes, and when he took out the tube, it was damaged beyond repair. I didn´t have a spare tube (another lesson learned: always carry a spare tube ), and neither did the guy, so he had to take his car and go find a tube. He came back with a used tube that I had to pay 30 R$ for. It didn´t look 100% ok, but I didn´t seem to have another choice, so I agreed.

After fixing the tire, a little further there was the first real treat of this trip. A “mirante” with a nice view of the Serra da Esperança.

Note: A “Mirante” is the Portuguese word for a place where you park your bike (or car) for a while to enjoy a great scenery… On my trips, there’s a lot of these places (usually not indicated like this one) and that is the origin of the name of my motorcycle travel company: Mirantes Mototravel Brasil

Guarapuava was about 40km further and I got there around 4 pm with no further problems. Rodrigo showed up at the meeting place on his Suzuki Intruder 125cc, the bike he uses for getting around the city, and we drove up to his place. I was going to spend the night there, but was really surprised that he had a separate guest room for me. One more example of the incredible Brazilian hospitality amongst motorcyclists…

Rodrigo told me that there would be another “gringo” riding with us to Iguassu falls. An US ex-patriot called Mike. Rodrigo and Mike had already done a few trips together. When Mike arrived, Rodrigo told us that we were all invited to a BBQ at the house of his friend Roberto. Roberto turned out to be a fanatic motorcyclist as well. He showed us a video of the trip to Machu Picchu in Peru he made in 2005 with 4 other friends, which seems to have been a pretty awesome adventure.

We couldn’t stay too late at Roberto´s house, because we had to wake up at a decent hour the next morning, and went to bed around midnight.

Nov 12, 2010>

From Guarapuava to Foz do Iguaçu is about 400 Km, and we left around 9 am. The plan for the day was, to have lunch in Cascavel and then get to Foz do Iguaçu… pretty simple.

There were four of us, on 3 motorcycles. Rodrigo and his girlfriend Suzanna on a Honda Sahara 350, Mike with a Suzuki V-strom 650 and me on the Yamaha XT660R. Since Rodrigo was riding the smallest bike, and two up, he would ride in the lead most of the way. Especially in situations where we had to overtake a truck, Rodrigo would be a bit slower as Mike or myself, but it still surprised me how fast the old 350cc was going.

We pulled up at a motorcycle friendly BBQ place in Cascavel for lunch, and I was happy to see that there also was a vegetable buffet, so even me, the vegetarian of the bunch, had no problem filling my stomach.

After leaving Cascavel, we noticed heavy clouds started forming and everybody put on some rain gear. Luckily, we managed to stay away from the worst and only got some minor rain. After a last tank stop, we were on the final stretch into Foz do Iguaçu and made it safely to Hotel Suiça, where the Brazil Riders event wold take place. When we arrived, the place was already packed with hundreds of motorcyclists from all corners of Brazil, but despite the large number of people, the organization was excellent.

We registered and while I went to set up my tent, Rodrigo and Mike headed to their hotel…

Next stop: The falls.

Nov 13 and 14, 2010: Visit to the falls and Itaipu dam.

On Saturday (nov 13) we went to see the Argentinian side of the great Iguaçu waterfallsand on Sunday (Nov 14) we visited the Itaipu electrical Dam. Both days were pretty awesome. The weather couldn´t have been better and this made the weekend even more unforgettable.

It was as if Foz do Iguaçu had an extra attraction for a weekend because of all the motorcycles passing by in a long convoy, which apparently made some people pull over their cars and getting out to take pictures. I even saw a local TV crew filming and interviewing people several times.

Closing event on Sunday was a dinner in a huge BBQ house, where we also got to see a performance of local music and dances, some of which were pretty spicy.

Our group at the border with Argentina… At this point, patience was a good virtue

Also across the border, in Argentina, the road to the park continued to be of excellent quality.

Another waiting line.. this time to get into the park. The guy standing on the left of the picture is Rodrigo…

Once inside the park I realized I should have brought a pair of shorts… I spent the whole day walking around in my riding pants and at the end of the day I could literally pour the water out of my boots note: The bird in the park logo is the Great Dusky Swift. see more about this further down…

The park has a lot more than just the falls… This park (created at the end of the 1930’s) is a preserved part of the original Atlantic Rainforest and lots of animals can be seen here too.

Colorful Birds… there are about 350-400 species of birds around here

A coati… make no mistake… these guys look cute but they are carnivorous… and are known to bite people…

And then we saw the falls… in one word WOW!!!

The word Iguaçú means “big water” in the Tupi-Guarani etymology. The Iguaçú river, which forms the Falls eighteen km before the river meets the Paraná river, overcomes a ground unevenness and plunges 65m with a width of 2,780m. Its geological formation dates back to approximately 150 million years.

getting closer to the falls, the sound is already impressive…

Garganta do diabo (or in Spanish: Garganta del Diablo)

The sheer size of these falls, and the noise of the water are overwhelming… In the mist, you constantly see birds (Great Dusky Swift) which make their nests in the cliffs behind the falls and can be seen feeding on insects trapped in the maelstrom of the falls. Watching these birds navigate the chaotic vortex of water and wind swirling about is simply astonishing. They never seem to stop, capturing prey, carrying nesting material, and even mating in this absurdly dynamic environment.

Walking around in the Argentinian side of the park, you can admire the falls from many different angles…

and another angle… they just seem to go on and on…

You can get into one of the boats down there and take a ride right up to the waterfalls. (and probably get soaked in the process)

Next day : ITAIPU DAM (one of the modern wonders of the world…)

Sunday: Visit to Itaipu Dam

this is the “production side” of the dam (where the water comes out…) This is not one of my favorite pics, because I look a little too much like a regular tourist. I would NEVER wear socks in sandals, but this time I had to, otherwise I wouldn’t have made it into the plant…in Paraguay apparently you cannot ride a motorcycle on sandals, so I put the socks on to make it look like I was wearing shoes… and it worked 🙂

Next stop… Back to Rodrigo’s place in Guarapuava and then on to… well… another place

4×4 trip crossing the Chapada Diamantina national park – Bahia, Brazil

On day 8 of my trip through the Chapada Diamantina, I had spent the night in Mucugé, a small village on the south side of the Chapada, and I was planning to make a counterclockwise tour around the park, visiting Igatú, passing through Lençois and finding a place to stay in Conceição dos Gatos, a small village on the north-east side of the park.

Knowing that I had only about 130 km to go that day, I had taken my time for having breakfast and left Mucugé; around 9.00 am, direction Igatú, my first goal for the day.

A few kilometers out of Mucugé, I noticed a sign of a diamond museum and decided to take a look. The museum, called “casa do diamante”, is located in a former house/workshop of a “garimpeiro” (diamond miner). the museum holds a fine collection of machines and tools that were used during the period when the diamond industry was blooming here (18th – 19th century).

Machines to process diamonds and other tools at the “Casa do Diamante”

I always thought that there are no volcanoes in Brazil, but given the fact that diamonds are formed inside volcanoes -so I’ve been told- and then spit out during eruptions, I gues I have to let go of that idea. Looking around in the Chapada Diamantina, they must have had one bad ass volcano around here once upon a time.

The steep dirt and cobblestone road leading to Igatu

Igatú is a small former diamond mining village, that only recently started to develop its touristic potential. It’s said to be the most peaceful place of the Chapada.

I spent some time walking around in Igatú, which, according to the tourist guides, is the most peaceful village of the Chapada. To get there it’s a 6 km dirt and cobblestone road that becomes pretty heavy towards the end. I’m glad to have a 4×4, but it keeps amazing me how the Brazilian people seem to go just about anywhere in their regular city cars.

Igatú is as quiet as the guides said, I walked around in the village and bought a few small souvenirs. I was starting to get hungry so I went to look for something to eat. There was not a lot of choice, since there was only one restaurant open. The restaurant had only 4 tables, and was run by a kind black lady called Maria. I only had to tell her that I was a vegetarian for her to disappear in the kitchen and reappear 15 minutes later with a big plate of rice, beans, tapioca puree and a raw vegetable mix… perfect! It was very tasty and in the end I only paid 12R$ (about 5 Euros).

Since there were no other customers, Maria joined me in the dining room and started telling me about the history of Igatú. She told me that the village currently has +/- 375 inhabitants, but that there used to be over 8000 in the diamond era. After the diamonds ran out, the population fell back to about 100. It’s been only 10 years since the village had been discovered by tourism.

the road leading out of Igatú to the north isn’t a lot better than the one I took to get there…

My next goal was Lençois, the main city of the Chapada Diamantina. the shortest route to get there, according to my GPS, was a 4×4 track leading straight through the Chapada Diamantina National Park and since I was driving a Land Rover Defender, I didn’t even think twice about taking that route.Little did I know then, that I was about to spend the night in the park…

Crossing a dry river bed near Andarai…

Initially, the 4×4 trail was pretty easy to ride. I had to clear one tree that was hanging too low over the road at one point, but that’s why this car has a axe attached to it, right? 

Here’s the tree that I had to cut away… It would have destroyed the lights on the roof.

Gradually, the road became worse, but nothing too difficult. A regular car wouldn’t be able to continue though.

Then I reached a point where the road seemed to end at a river bank, but looking ahead, I could see that I would have to cross the river, twice, since it made a wide curve, with a patch of really deep sand inbetween the two crossings.

The water was about 1m deep, so before entering, I had to move a few things inside the car to higher locations, to prevent them from getting wet. The river bank was prety steep, so going into the water was easy. Coming out on the other side in the deep sand was not, and I felt that the car was getting stuck.

I got out and started digging in front of the wheels to get to firm ground and after trying a few times, I was able to get across the patch of sand, and reach the second crossing of the river.

I noticed that the bank on the other side, also consisting of loose sand, was quite a bit steeper than the first one, and that didn’t give me a good feeling. There was no other option than to try, so I put the car in gear and entered the water. I managed to get through the water, but as soon as the front wheels reached the loose sand of the opposite bank, things started to get difficult, and the tires started to dig deeper and deeper in the sand until the car was totally grounded. this time I was REALLY STUCK

River Crossing 2 - Chapada Diamantina - Bahia - Brazil

Second crossing… This time the car dug itself in completely… It took a lot of digging – with the unexpected help of 3 guardian Angels – and eventually some creativity with the winch to get the car out of this one… and then the battery died.

I started digging again, thinking that I would probably have to put up my tent and spend the night there, when suddenly two guys appeared out of nowhere. They were black, in their twenties and their clothes looked kind of shaggy. They didn’t look dangerous at first sight, but moments like these are always a little tense. You don’t know these guys and you’re all alone in the middle of a forest. If they are the bad kind of people, you could be in for a lot of trouble.

As usual, these guys were nothing but curious about what was happening. Apparently I had passed their house, but because of the dense forest, I didn’t even notice it. There was even a pousada nearby, owned by the parents of one of them, and they were taking care of it while the parents were gone for a few days.

From left to right: Domingos, Tiago (who charged my battery) and Rodrigo. I wouldn’t have gotten the car out of the sand without them. thanks guys!

Both of them started to help digging out the car (with their hands) but after a few attempts it was clear that I needed another strategy… I have a winch on the Land Rover, but the problem was that there was this totally empty space in front of the car and nothing to hook the cable on to. So I had the idea of cutting a tree and putting it into the ground 20m in front of the car to have a fixed point. 30 minutes later we had everything set up and with the first attempt, the car was free. (hallelujah). I noticed that the cable of the winch was rolled up very messy and was also full of sand, so I decided to roll it off again and roll up nicely. Thing is, I made the stupid mistake of doing this with the engine of the car turned off, and by the time the cable was rolled up again, the battery was completely drained. At that point it was clear to me that this was as far as I would get that day. My new friends made a call to another guy in Andaraí. this guy came all the way down with his 125cc motorbike, took my battery back to Andaraí to charge and was back at 7.00Am the next day.

I spent the night in the pousada, which was only a few hundred meters from where I got stranded. Rodrigo and Domingos made dinner on a old fashioned “Forno de Lenha” which was basic but it tasted delicious. The pousada itself was very basic as well. No glass windows, but only wooden shutters, lots of dogs, chickens and other animals running around… A perfect place for someone who wants to experienece the simple, rural lifestyle of the people of the Chapada, rather than staying at a luxurious pousada.

“Pousada Roncador”, named after the waterfall nearby. A very simple place in the middle of the jungle.

Before going to bed, I had a long conversation with Rodrigo, who turned out to be only 17, talking with great respect for his parents and full of big plans for the future (get a college degree, travel the world…), despite his not so fortunate social situation. I sure hope he may succeed…

Motorcycle trip: Serra da Mantiqueira: the mountains that cry – Brazil

I love the Serra da Mantiqueira. It is a magical place that every nature and adventure loving person should have visited at least once in their lifetime. The name stems from the native Tupi language and means “Mountains that cry” referring tot he countless waterfalls that can be found here.(click here for online pictures)

So far, I was able to explore most of the Serra by motorcycle, sometimes getting stuck and having to backtrack due to bad road conditions. My biggest “frustration” (if you can call it that) so far was always that I hadn’t been able to find a decent dirt road to get from the east side of the serra to a city called “Itamonte”, located on the west side of the serra without eventually ending up having to take the BR116 (highway between Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo) for about 20km and then take another asphalt road leading up to Itamonte… Although the twisting climbing asphalt road to Itamonte is incredibly scenic as well, the presence of cars, trucks and buses makes it a lot less attractive for an adventure motorcycle rider.What can I say, I just loooove the dirt roads.

According to the tracksource map I use in my GPS, there are several trails going from east to west through the mountains, but a lot of them are trekking trails, or real 4×4 trails, meaning that there’s no way you can do them on a relatively heavy (660cc) motorcycle. (something I learned the hard way on another occasion: see my Dirt road motorcycle adventure in Brazil)

Anyways, when a group of guys from Rio de Janeiro asked me to organize a weekend tour, I got more determined than ever to find a dirt road route to Itamonte.

The best option I could find on the GPS map was a road that starts in Bocaina de Minas, and that leads all the way to Itamonte. This road cannot be found on Google maps, so that would be an indication that it is a road “off the beaten track”.

Here’s the GPS map showing the 60km dirt road connection between Bocaina de Minas and Itamonte.

I talked about it with my colleague Maryel, who is my support car driver, but also a local motocross champion, and we decided we would go and explore the route.

To get to Bocaina de Minas we had to cover another 100km. Here’s the route:

Starting in Volta Redonda, we took the RJ-153 to Amparo. From there we made our way west – north – west – north, passing the little villages of Quatis and Falcão, arriving at the “cachoeira da Fumaça“, one of the most spectacular waterfalls of the region. After a short visit of the waterfall, we started a pretty steep climb to the point where we had to take a right again to get to Bocaina de minas. In the mean time we had passed the state border between Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais.

Bocaina de Minas is at an altitude of a little over 1200m, so we kept climbing a little more. When we got to Bocaina de Minas, it was time for lunch, so we went out to look for a place that Maryel remembered from an earlier visit here. The restaurant was called João Grandão (big John) referring to the size of the owner. It was a very simple restaurant with good, honest food. We paid 16R$ for the two of us (all you can eat) so it was also really cheap.

Before tackling the 60km of unknown road ahead of us, we asked around to see if anyone could tell us if we would be able to get to Itamonte taking the dirt road, and the locals weren’t very positive. They told us that many of the roads between there and Itamonte had been destroyed by the heavy rains of the summer, and they were doubtful if we would make it through. Despite the negative answers of the locals, we decided to go on and see how far we would get. The worst that could happen was that we would have to backtrack and try another route another day.

As with almost all major dirt roads in the interior of Brazil (and I assume also in other countries), they seem to follow a river, whis is logical, since the first explorers of the land (called the Bandeirantes) also followed the rivers, or the trails already in use by the indigenous people. This road was tracing the Rio Grande and the first 15km to Santo Antonio do Rio Grande was pretty easy. A broad unpaved road with no difficulties. Once passed the little village of Santo Antonio, we started to see what the locals in Bocaina de Minas meant… almost every few 100m the road showed signs of repairs, some of which were ongoing as we passed several groups of workers, doing their best to make the road useable again.

All in all, the last 35km to Itamonte were a great ride with a few more technical stretches but nothing really difficult. Getting closer to Itamonte, the road gradually becomes more difficult, and we also saw some areas where the rains had done some significant damage, but also these stretches were repaired or in the process of being repaired.

Rocinha, biggest favela in S.America, Rio de Janeiro – Brazil

Favela Rocinha – Rio de Janeiro

Rocinha, Rio’s biggest favela has been off-limits for tourists for many years due to the violence that comes with drug trafficking, but this has changed.

In December 2010, as part of an 8 day motorcycle tour

, we spent a few days in Rio de Janeiro, staying at “Rio Hostel” in Santa Teresa, one of Rio’s most charming historic bairros. Walking around Santa Teresa, we visited places, like Lapa, the bohemian nightlife centre, and Rio Scenarium, Rio’s most beautiful nightclub (according to some), but it’s also a museum…

During our visit to Rio Scenarium, I asked our guide (Isabela from “Trustinrio“) if it would be possible to visit Rocinha, which is South America’s biggest – and at that time still “upacified”- favela

(After a cleansing operation in the “Complexo do Alemão” – another favela complex – a month earlier, it was believed that many of the 400 drug traffickers that got away, were hiding inside Rocinha.) Her answer was short and clear: “Sure, why not”, like it was just another visit to the Sugar loaf mountain…

We met up with Isabela at the Arcos da Lapa and boarded a minivan that took us on a wild ride across town to the access road of the favela. Riding a minivan across Rio de Janeiro is an experience in itself. When we were on the Avenida Atlantica, passing all the beaches of Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon, our driver seemed to have a lot of fun racing another van that was going in the same direction. Maybe it was just his way to make his day a little more interesting.

The other passengers didn’t seem to be worried too much, but sadly 35.000 people die in traffic accidents in Brazil every year… I have to admit that it was kind of exiting though.

Arriving at the entrance of Rocinha after a pretty wild minivan ride…

We got out of the van and the first thing we noticed, was the large number of mototaxis, gathered at the entrance of the favela. Isabela told us that we would take one of the mototaxis to get to the highest point of the favela, and then walk back down… It was a first for me, getting on the back of a small 125cc motorcycle and my driver, as I expected, wasn’t paying a lot of attention to other traffic or traffic rules. Regardless, we got to the top in one piece… well… Maryel got there about ten minutes later.

He explained that his motoboy had to go to the bathroom, so they made a detour and he had to wait outside the guy’s house while he was going to do his business. Maryel said that at the house, he saw five guys with machine guns, but they didn’t bother him…Once Maryel had arrived, we bought some water and started going back down.

To be honest, my first impression was not that we were in a potentially dangerous place. Everything seemed more or less the same as in a normal “bairro”, but during my two years in Brazil, I have seen so many TV news reports about the situation in the favelas and it is better not to let your guard down.

A sure sign of the fact that Rocinha is in the process of becoming more  “touristy” was a small souvenir stand we found at the top, and the guy who was running it did his best to speak english. He showed us the English dictionary that he kept handy for when he had to look up something. According to him, most people living in Rocinha are very aware of the fact that tourists can bring a little – financial – improvement in their lives, and are doing their best to clean up the image of the place.

One thing that is really striking, is the incredible view that the people of Rocinha have. At the highest point of the community, you overlook all of the “Zona Sul” of Rio de Janeiro: Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas, Christ the Redeemer, Pão de Açúcar, Guanabara bay… the works.

the more than privileged view from the highest point of Rocinha: The Lagoa, Corcovado, Pão de Açúcar, Guanabara Bay…

Closer up of Christ the Redeemer as seen from the highest point of Rocinha

Isabela told us to be careful and not take pictures of certain places… on our way down we saw a few guys sitting on the sidewalk with assault rifles in their laps… when we passed them they actually said a friendly “Boa tarde”, but I guess in another situation they would just as easily take our stuff, or worse…

Regardless of the fact that there are agencies offering favela tours here in Rio de Janeiro, there is still a real danger for anyone venturing alone into these places and ending up in a wrong area or not behaving according to local rules… I would advise everybody not to enter a favela all by him/herself, but to take a good, local guide.

Going down the narrow streets, it was really interesting to see how the people had constructed their houses on this hillside… sometimes it was hard to see where one house ended and another begun. I couldn’t help but think about how it would be to live in a community like this. Over the years, it seems like not only poor people are living here, since we saw a fair number of good quality houses and also doctors and dentists cabinets. No doubt this has its effect on real estate prices here.

In many ways a favela is very much like any other neighborhood, with supermarkets, bakeries, bars and schools, but of course, the majority of people here is still poor and live in very badly constructed houses, sometimes with no electricity or water. Also the health conditions of people here is way below average. In certain areas, we saw big piles of garbage, which – of course – had a horrible smell and most likely would attract rats and/or other pests…

Overlooking the west side of Rocinha. In the background: São Conrado highrises and Pedra da Gávea

In total about 400.000 people call this place home.

At a certain moment, Isabela entered a house and took us to an apartment of a person she knew. This house had a terrace looking out over the west side of the favela, and the owner welcomed us in a very friendly way. We spent some time taking in the awesome views and taking pictures, before thanking our host and walking further down.

Our guide Isabela and the owner of the house on the man’s terrace, chatting and enjoying the great view and the Brazilian summer sun…

There are many stories about the favelas in Rio, and most of them are about the drug traffickers terrorizing the population. I’m sure that most of those stories are true, but something you rarely hear in the news, is that the majority of people in favelas are honest, hard working people that only want what other people all over the world want: lead a normal life, raise a family and a decent future for their children…

As with many places I visited in the 2.5 years that I have been living in Brazil, I had the feeling that I only saw the tip of the iceberg and would need at least a couple of days to really get to know this interesting and exiting place, and I’m certainly going back when I have the chance.

UPDATE – September 2012

Since the pacification operations started,  you hardly ever hear the word “Favela” any more in the local media more and more it is being replaced by the word “comunidade” (community).

Santa Rita de Jacutinga – Hidden eco-paradise in south Minas Gerais – Brazil

It was on one of my first motorcycle road trips, exploring the dirt roads of the “Vale do Cafe” after arriving in Brazil in early 2009, that I missed a right turn and ended up crossing the state border between Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais, that I got to know a hidden little gem of a village called Santa Rita de Jacutinga, or short: Santa Rita.

The village only recently started to discover and develop its touristic potential so it has nothing of a typical touristic place, like for instance Tiradentes, one of the most famous historical villages, which gets its income almost only out of tourism.

When I arrived there the first time in 2009, access to the village was only via dirt road. Today this has changed: two asphalt roads, one to the south and one to the north, make the village more accessible for visitors.

Santa Rita, also known as “a cidade das cachoeiras” or “city of waterfalls”, as the name implies, is famous for its more than 70 waterfalls scattered across an area of almost 500 km².

A great way to discover the most important ones is on horseback, but it can also be done by car (preferably a 4×4) or during a mountain bike or hiking trip, during which you will be blown away by the beautiful sights around each curve in the road, or the flocks of colorful birds you will encounter.

Besides birds, there are a lots of other forest animals you could run into here: monkeys, Coatis and various kinds of reptiles like lizards and snakes… the latter potentially dangerous, so better stick to the trails when you’re hiking.

Fazenda Santa Clara… During the 18th century its main activity was the production of slaves.

As you probably figured out by now, this is a place for people who are looking for rural or adventure tourism… the local “centro de aventuras” offers rappelling, rafting, cascading, canyoning and trekking. The organization could be a little more professional, but they are doing their best…

Authentic antique equipment of the former “slave factory”…

Unlike the more touristic places in the region, and again, due to the fact that tourism is a fairly new phenomenon here, Santa Rita doesn’t have a lot of accommodation (yet). there are 6 pousadas in the center, and 6 more outside of the village (max 8km from the center) Here is a link to a map showing the points of interest and places to stay in the wide area.

A long board with holes for feet and hands… This is where slaves had to spend the night after they had behaved badly…

One of the most important historical attractions in the region is the 18th century “Fazenda Santa Clara”, about 20 km of – sometimes precarious – dirt road from Santa Rita.

This gigantic farm was built on top of a hill and almost resembles a medieval castle. It has 90 rooms, 12 of which are salons, and 365 windows, lots of them just painted on the white walls.

Another view of the slave quarters at fazenda Santa Clara

Sinister detail: this farm’s primary activity was not growing coffee or raising cattle, but the production of slaves… After the abolition of transatlantic slave trading in 1836, fazendas like these were providing the huge coffee fazendas in the area with new slaves, until slavery was finally abolished in Brazil in 1888.

Visiting the fazenda, and seeing the places where the slaves were kept, and sometimes tortured, compared to the luxurious quarters of the owners, leaves a very strong impression.

Pousada “Pouso de Minas”, one of the 6 pousadas in the rural area around Santa Rita… great places to stay with kids…

The many rivers in the region make great playground in a lush green environment… again, a paradise for kids.

Whenever I feel like taking a break from the city, I find myself on the road leading to Santa Rita and the Serra da Beleza that surrounds it. For me it is the place where I find peace and tranquility, a good, homemade meal and an authentic, unspoilt atmosphere of the Brazilian rural interior as it must have been like many years before tourism even existed…

Hope you enjoyed the read.