9 days on Brazil’s Estrada Real – A mix of History, Culture and Natural Beauty (Part 1)

On day 3, we’re really getting into the heart of Minas Gerais and the Serra do Espinhaço.

Whether on sand, asphalt or gravel, motorcycle adventure is always guaranteed on the Estrada Real. Every other road offers new discoveries. The many colonial villages with their typical colorful houses and churches, but also the rugged mountain scenery and the rivers with their countless waterfalls, make up what can be called one of the most important cultural and natural heritages on the planet.

Riding a motorcycle through this unique region offers a once in a lifetime opportunity to relive (to a certain extent) the experiences of the ancient bandeirantes, drovers, officers and other travelers that once roamed these parts.

In 18th century Brazil, there was only one legal way to transport goods, gold and diamonds, but also slaves, tools and other supplies, and that was via the Estrada Real. Opening new roads was considered a crime of lese-majesty, and there were severe punishments for smugglers.

The great importance of this road gave birth to countless towns and cities, some of which, like Ouro Preto or Diamantina, are today listed as World Heritage Sites.

Setting the historical stage:

Few people are aware of the fact that about 70 percent of the gold currently in use all over the world originated in Brazil.

Ouro Preto was the financial center of Brazil during the time of the Gold cycle

For Portugal, these gold deposits were a new and welcome source of income. During the 18th century, there was a big migration (call it a gold rush) from the North east (where the sugar plantations were hit hard by the competition of the Dutch) to the heart of Minas Gerais. Existing cities (like Ouro Preto, Diamantina, Mariana, Tiradentes and São João del Rei) knew rapid growth while numerous new cities emerged.Near the end of the 17th century, the early explorers (Bandeirantes) of Portugal’s new colony discovered gold in the region that would later be called Minas Gerais.

The Portuguese crown imposed heavy taxes, and severe penalties for those who weren’t able to pay, which gave rise to revolutionary groups like the “Inconfidência Mineira” led by Brazilian hero Joaquim José da Silva Xavier (also known as Tiradentes – or toothpuller), which formed the base of the independence of Brazil in 1822.

The Trip

In September 2011, Mirantes Mototravel Brazil set out with 4 riders and a support vehicle on the +/- 2.200 km trip (“Historical Trails & Cities”) along the two parts of the Estrada Real. The trip starts in Volta Redonda, down to Paraty from where we follow the “caminho Velho” (old road) north to Diamantina, and then back south to Rio de Janeiro via the “Caminho Novo” (new road)

Day 1: Volta Redonda – Passa Quatro

Headquarters of Mirantes Mototravel in Volta Redonda – Rio de Janeiro … Ready to hit the road.

We left Volta Redonda around 8.30 am, riding south and after about 20 minutes, the city was behind us and we found ourselves riding through the rural interior of the State of Rio de Janeiro with the Serra da Bocaina in the distance. The weather provisions were very good for the coming 10 days so with no rain to be expected any time soon, we were in good shape.

Once past Rio Claro, the BR155 starts to turn and twist its way up the Serra do Mar, and after a while we found ourselves surrounded by lush forest. The recently renewed, good quality asphalt enabled us to ride at a good pace. Only the steep curves in the mountains kept the speed down.

In Angra dos Reis, we took the BR101 (Rio Santos) direction Paraty, the historical 18th century port town from where the gold and diamonds were shipped to Rio de Janeiro.

Paraty was the most important port in Brazil, until the “caminho novo” was discovered. The new road to Rio de Janeiro reduced the travel time from Diamantina to Rio de Janeiro from three months to one, and also made the trip a lot safer because the last section y to Rio over sea was no longer necessary. Lots of shipments were lost to pirates in the period prior to the discovery of the “Caminho Novo”

On the BR155 leading to Angra dos Reis – rain forest in the serra do mar

We arrived in Paraty around noon and had our first lunch of the trip in “Ristorante O Sole Mio”, the only restaurant in Paraty that is run by a real Italian Chef.

Delicious Penne a l’arrabiata in “Ristorante O sole Mio”, near the historical center in Paraty

Since we were in the dry season this time, I assumed that the road would be in reasonably good condition, but we could already see the clouds hanging over the mountain, which didn’t promise a lot of good.We didn’t have a lot of time to hang around in Paraty, because we had one of the heaviest sections of the trip ahead of us. The ascent of the Serra do Mar to get to the city of Cunha. It is a steep, rocky and usually muddy climb from sea level to over 1500 m in just over 8 km. The two times I had already passed this road, both going up and down, I dropped my bike at least once.

I was especially worried about our Spanish participant, who was almost 70, and not very tall, riding a Honda Falcon, which we already lowered about 5 cm.

The initial part of the ascent was pretty ok, but once we hit an altitude of 500m, the mist set in and visibility dropped considerably. The mist was so thick that it felt like a drizzly rain, soaking us in no time.
Luckily, the mud was not nearly as bad as I saw the other times, and everybody made it to the top in one piece. About halfway up the ascent, we met a couple in a normal car riding down. The woman was driving. She stopped and I could see that she was kind of panicking, thinking that they were lost in the middle of nowhere.

Almost crying, she asked if this road was going to Paraty and if it would eventually turn into a “normal road”… I told her that she was on the correct road and already had the worst part behind her, which seemed to calm her down a bit. The guy next to her (Boyfriend, husband…?) didn’t look too happy either.

Top of the ascent from Paraty to Cunha. Still misty, but everybody made it in one piece and without dropping the bike. (photo: Alexandre Hernandez)

We filled our tanks in Cunha and continued along the BR459 to Guaratinguetá, where we took the BR116 direction east for about 30 km to reach the access to Passa Quatro, our goal for the day.Once on the top, the road was asphalted again and we continued to Cunha, descending back to about 1000m. Much to our relief, the mist subsided and the sun came out, drying our clothes very quickly.

Passa Quatro is a little town in the Serra da Mantiqueira that like many others was founded by the bandeirantes from São Paulo as a resting point during their expeditions into the interior of Brazil.

Today, Passa Quatro is starting to discover its potential as a destination for ecotourism.The natural riches in the region (native forest, rivers, caves, waterfalls…) offer many options for people looking for an adventurous vacation. The city also has various eclectic 19th century houses (casarões) of Portuguese and French origin.

Pousada São Rafael – Passa Quatro

We stayed in Pousada São Rafael in the center of the village. It was my first stay there and I must say I was very pleased. The rooms were perfect, and there is a really nice “living room”, tastefully decorated (inclusive a guitar that I just HAD to try out. :). The pousada also has a pool, which would be great in warmer periods of the year.

The good thing about not-yet-very-touristy places like Passa Quatro, is that they are still very authentic, but the other side is that on a Monday evening in low season there are not a lot of options to find something to eat.

We were told that most of the restaurants in Passa Quatro open only during the weekends, which is understandable, and the only place that we would find open was a small pizza place called “La Motta”.

The great thing about this place was that the chef prepared all the food right in front of us.

Chef preparing our food – Restaurante La Motta – Passa Quatro (photo: Alexandre Hernandez)

All in all it was a fantastic first day of our exploration of the Estrada Real.

Day 2: Passa Quatro – Prados (+/- 280 km)

Today we are headed for Prados, a small place about 25km from Tiradentes, one of the major attractions when it comes to historical cities…

I started the day with an early walk through a still sleepy Passa Quatro, because the day before, we arrived when it was already getting dark… which wouldn’t be the last time that happened…

I noticed a strong smell of something burning in the air and was asking myself whether this was such a healthy place after all. I couldn’t pinpoint where the smell came from, so when I returned to the pousada, I asked the guy at the reception. Turns out the smell was coming from the steam locomotive that they are still using around here…

The guy told me that the “Maria Fumaça” (that’s how most of the steam locomotives are called in Brazil) needed to be fired up early in the morning to heat up the water to produce steam… Made perfect sense to me.

After breakfast we rode down to the old train station to take a few pictures before really hitting the road.


The Maria Fumaça in Passa Quatro, going about it’s daily business. It’s a great sight out of the days of yorn (hope I spelled that correctly) but the smell of the burning cole hangs over the entire village center especially when it’s misty.


After some pictures of the steam train, it was off to Caxambu

We followed the MG158 north until the end, where it merges with the BR354 which goes all the way to Caxambu.

Like most typical back roads around these parts, the roads were very twisty and the asphalt of very decent quality. The only downside of twisties like these is, when you get stuck behind a truck, and oncoming traffic makes it dangerous to pass… When I’m alone I usually floor it and pass the truck in 2 seconds, but if there are 3 other riders and a land rover following, it’s better to take the safer approach…

After only one bathroom stop we reached Caxambu, which is especially famous for its 12 water springs, each with a different and unique medicinal quality… Caxambu was one of the favorite holiday spots of the Brazilian Imperial family. Especially Princess Isabel was counting on the forces of the water to help her get pregnant. The “Parque das Aguas”, which is the largest hydromineral complex in the world, is the main attraction in Caxambu… Besides that it is a charming little city with a few churches and other 19th century buildings.


Colorful horse drawn carts in front of the waterpark.

We had to press on if we wanted to get to our lunch destination, which was Carrancas. To get there, we had some 60km of dirt road ahead of us, and we were all looking forward to see the dusty side of the Estrada Real…


And dust we got… this is truly adventure riding at its best. I must add that for me it was pretty easy, riding in front…


And of course a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do…


One of the Thousands of “totems” along the Estrada Real, indicating your approximate location


the serra da Carrancas is in sight…


The beautiful church in the center of Carrancas… You really have to be there to feel the peace and quiet of this place… The only real sound we heard there were the birds singing in the trees…

Carrancas is a very nice little rural town on the Estrada Real, principally living from agriculture, but eco tourism is growing here too… I liked the laid back athmosphere of this place a lot. 100 times better that the hectic situation in cities like Rio de Janeiro. I’m sure you could leave your wallet on top of your bike and nobody would touch it… Try that in Rio.


And then there’s the food… This is a PF (“Prato Feito”)… A full plate of food for 10R$. Meat or eggs are also included but are served separately. We all loved it


After lunch… a short nap.

We left Carrancas to the north and followed the road out of the Serra da Carrancas. After about 26 km, in Itutinga, we took a right on the BR265, direction São João del Rei and Tiradentes. Together with Ouro Preto, these two cities are probably the best known in touristic circles. They have a large patrimonium of beautifully preserved 18th century churches and other buildings.


The center of São João del Rei.. an example of preserved 18th century architecture, but very touristy.


The other side of the square…


São Francisco de Assis… The second most decorated church in Brazil. Its interior holds a treasure of sculptures of Brazilian artist Aleijadinho.


Between São João del Rei and Tiradentes: The first “Mark” (primeiro marco) of the Estrada Real…


Then it was on to Tiradentes… here my GPS kind of flipped and we lost some time driving around in circles…


Steep cobblestone roads and, here too, beautiful 18th century architecture… smaller than São João del Rei, but just as touristy.


We arrived in Prados when it was getting dark


You guessed it… another 17th century church… They all look the same, but they are not, trust me


Our place for the night… Pousada “Recanto da Guará”. Simple and pure.


there were a couple of these cabins, each with 2 rooms… Great place to wake up in. nothing but nature around and plenty space to park our wheels

PS: For day 2, I worked with more and larger pictures… Let me know what you prefer for the coming days…

Day 3: Prados – Caeté (+/- 240 km – 95 km unpaved)

Day 3 was going to be a day of dusty dirt roads. We made our entry into the heart of Minas Gerais and the “Serra do Espinhaço”, a 1000 km long mountain range that connects the mining region of Minas Gerais with the Chapada Diamantina in Bahia, which is another great place where once diamond mining was the top economical activity.

These Espinhaço (Spine) mountains are home to cities like Ouro Preto, Mariana and Diamantina, some of the most important historical cities in Brazil. The gold and diamond mines have long dried up, but these mountains are still a rich source of iron ore and manganese…

It was a chilly morning when we woke up in pousada “Recanto da Guará” in Prados. There were some clouds, keeping the sun from coming out, but the previsions said that it wouldn’t rain and so we were looking forward to another great riding day.

We started with a simple breakfast, prepared by the owner of the pousada, and after a long goodbye ceremony (the little daughter of the owner wanted to go with us) we took the road that would lead us to the BR383, which we had to follow north until it merged with the BR040.

After a few km on the 040, we took the MG-443 for about 3 km and then the fun was about to start… We entered the MG-030 and now we were back in the dirt roads.

This was a whole other kind of dirt road than the one to Carrancas. It looked like there had been some rain here, since the dirt was certainly not dry. I remembered seeing some lightning flashes the night before when we were in Prados, so probably this was where that thunderstorm had hit.


A short stop in the first part of the 95km of dirt roads of the day… here, the road is still large and used by lots of trucks…

The first 20 km or so, we encountered a lot of trucks, and that meant road works, or mining activities. The last time I was on the Estrada Real, I already had noticed that many of the dirt roads were in the process of being asphalted.

For me as a tour operator, that’s a negative thing, because I really like these dirt roads, and asphalting them takes away some of the authenticity of the Estrada Real. On the other hand I also think about the many people LIVING in these roads. For them, an asphalt road means faster and safer traffic, and not getting isolated during the rainy season… I guess you can never do good for everybody, but it would be sad to see all the dirt roads disappear.

Anyways… I don’t think they will be able to put aspalt on all the dirt roads for a while, so for now, we still have many kilometers of them and during the ride to Caeté we had to cover about 95 km of dirt and dust.


Dirt and dust indeed


What more do you need?

We passed several little places like Miguel Burnier and Amarantina, which all had this quiet, laid back feel to them. Most of the time however, it felt like we had the whole world to ourselves, and that is a pretty awesome feeling.


Still smiling


I really don’t remember what this was about… so don’t ask me…

At one point, we were at the summit of a mountain at +/- 1750m and the view there was something else. We took some pictures and fooled around for a while.


Sometimes we need to take time for some deep self reflexion…


Or to drink something… water of course… Where would we be without water?


Or to ruin a picture of a perfect landscape, by putting a few dirty bikes in front of it


Or only one bike…


If you think riding a motorcycle through here is hard, try building a bridge like that one…

José and me wandered off a little and we noticed this strange phenomenon. Part of the hillside was covered with these beautiful pinkish flowers that were not to be seen anywhere else around there.


The pink flowers were only on that patch of the hillside… There were no flowers like that anywhere else in sight, which I thought was kind of odd

Getting closer, it looked like the hillside had been burnt, and the flowers were growing on the burnt stomps of the brush that was growing there before. I took a closer look, but given the fact that I am far from being a biologist, it was very hard for me to see if the flowers were the actual flowers of the original plant, or parasites. I would really like to find out. If someone reading this has an idea, please let me know.


Anybody know these plants? Looks like the flowers emerged from the stomp of the burnt brush, but it can also be some kind of parasite… 

From there, the road started going down and, as we noticed, getting smaller and bumpier and harder to ride.

The dust, that up to now was pretty… well… normal, became finer and was in some places like a layer of almost liquid talcum-powder, making it very challenging to stay on two wheels sometimes, especially going downhill in steep curves.

Riding through this “talcum”, even at low speeds created an explosion of dust, which is a real PIA for the guy behind you, because he will have zero visibility for a while…

As we are all (ahum) expert riders, we managed to make it in one piece to Caeté around 3pm, just in time to grab a bite to eat in the only “kilo” restaurant in the center.


Our group riding into Caeté… finally…


Well, looks like Alex is happy…


Look mommy… no hands.


Look mommy… nobody

Alex and me went out to look for a place to stay and found a pousada (Adega Estoril) a little outside the center, where we could rest our weary bones for the night…

Day 4: Caeté to Diamantina… (345 km – all paved)

Yesterday it was a dustbath for most of us (the guide – me – who rides in the front doesn’t have that problem  ) and today will be the first “all asphalt” day of the trip…

We left Caeté after an early breakfast. the air was humid and there was a light drizzle, but we knew that there was no real rain forecast so it didn’t really bother us.

We took the MG-435 out of Caeté, riding north to connect with the BR-381, where we took a right, going east. After another 30 km, we turned left and took the MG-434 to Itabira.
From there it was on to Guanhães and Serro, where we stopped for lunch…


After getting out of Itabira, we stopped at this Lanchonete to have a quick bite and a “Caldo de Cana”

By the time we reached Serro, we had already done about 250 km, so we could take our time to have lunch… which we did.


Main street of Serro… Notice the chuch on top of the hill to the left.


Lunch in the historical center of Serro… At one point the wind blew a bunch of mannequin dolls (right side) to the ground. After lunch I took off without my backpack…

Serro is a city about 30 km south of Diamantina, founded in 1701. Once the administrative and juridical center of the region, today, the people of Serro make their living with cattle farming and production of the famous Serro cheese. The city is also starting to explore its potential for cultural and eco tourism. Lovers of the Brazilian 18th and 19th century architecture will find the historical center a nice place to explore. Various churches, chapels and houses that once belonged to noblemen make up a rich patrimony.

The last 90 km to Diamantina were “tranquilo” as well, and we arrived around 4pm. Well in time to freshen up and get ready to go out for dinner…


Almost military discipline… exact same distance between two riders


Headng for Diamantina…


The landscape in the Diamantinais area is very different than for example in the serras of Rio de Janeuro state. The terrain is a lot more rugged here


Our entrance in the city of Diamantina…


Pousada Castelinho… Our home for the coming two days.


And this is how we look in casual clothes. My friend Renata (on the left), who lives in Diamantina was so kind to show us around and take us to a great restaurant near the cathedral (Deguste dressing)

The Magic of Itatiaia National Park – Rio de Janeiro – Brazil.

History

Veu da Noiva (bride’s veil) waterfall in Itatiaia

Itatiaia National Park is the first and so also the oldest National Park of Brazil. It was inaugurated in 1937 and covers almost 30.000 hectares of the larger Environmental Protection Area of the Mantiqueira mountain range.

Getting to the Itatiaia Park from Rio de Janeiro is a +/- 200 km drive via the BR116 (Rio – São Paulo). The distance from São Paulo is about 250 Km. I’m lucky to live in Volta Redonda, which is only 80km from the park.

How to get there?

Coming from Rio de Janeiro, Follow the BR116 (Dutra) and take the exit for Itatiaia, right after the “Graal” restaurant. Follow the indications to the National park and you arrive at the gate… The entrance fee is 11R$ per person (about 7 Usd).

You don’t have pay for the car. They will give you a badge that you need to return upon exiting the park. They want to make sure that everybody is accounted for.

Situation of Itatiaia National Park – Brazil

Once inside the park, you just follow the road, which climbs steadily to an altitude of about 1.100m. After about 4km there’s a visitor’s center/museum, where you can see the history of the creation of the park, old photos and an interesting exposition about all the plants and animals in the park.Interesting, but not surprising, to find out that there are even Pumas (Onça Parda) in these forests.

Near the center, you can stretch your legs for a short 15-20 minute hike, descending to the “Lago azul” Once past the visitor’s center, you can continue following the road until reaching a bridge over the Campo Belo river, which is the end of the line for your car.

Typical trail in Itatiaia. Rocky and sometimes pretty steep, but well maintained and safe.

From that point you can start a few short hikes to see the various waterfalls in the area, or the longer ones (20-30km) into the higher parts of the park.

If you only have a day or afternoon, it’s advisable to do only the short hikes. The longer ones are serious hikes and require equipment, food and water, since you would be spending the night in one of the shelters higher up in the mountains.

We were only there for the day, so we stuck to the “easy” stuff

The trails in the lower part of the park are rocky and sometimes pretty steep, but well maintained and safety equipment is in place. In some parts there are stairways to make the climb easier.

Food.

After seeing the Veu da Noiva and Itaporani waterfalls, and the Piscina da Maromba, it was time for some lunch.Don’t worry if you didn’t bring any food yourself, because the park is home to a restaurant, not far from the parking near the piscina da Maromba.

At 40R$ (about 26 Usd) per person (without drinks and tip of 10%) it is certainly not cheap. Ok, it’s “all you can eat”, but seriously, I can buy veggies for a whole week for that kind of money. Anyways, at least the food was delicious and it is one of the first times that I had 3 courses in a restaurant in Brazil, including dessert.

One  thing I never saw a restaurant doing before, was that after making the tab, the waiter told me that he would write the price INCLUSIVE a 10% markup on the back of the note, and that I was “free to pay that extra 10% if I thought that the service was good”… OK, the service wasn’t bad at all, but this restaurant already charged “tourist” prices, which I found extremely high, so I took the liberty of not paying the extra 10%. I still paid almost double of what a comparable lunch in a “non-touristic” restaurant would cost.

Birds

This little guy came sitting right beside me to have his picture taken. It was one of the most colorful birds around there, and is known in Brazil as “Saira de Sete cores” – Do yo see the seven colors?

The great thing about this restaurant though, wasn’t the food, but the fact that they had a few bird feeders hanging just outside near the deck, and it was a coming and going of the most colorful birds I had ever seen(outside of a zoo that is).

I know that at this point I’m supposed to start proclaiming a list with the names of all the birds I saw there, but I’m everything but an ornithologist, so I can just tell you that I saw various species of hummingbirds (also known as Colibris in Belgium and “Beija-flor” in Brazil), very colorful little birds called “saira de sete cores” (7 colored Saira) and other ones, one of which I’m pretty sure was a woodpecker (in the colors of the Belgian – or German – flag)

It was the first time ever that I tried to take pictures of hummingbirds in flight and I have to tell you… It ain’t easy. These guys are so fast that, by the time your autofocus did its job and you press the button, you end up with a picture of the feeder, but no bird  I probably spent half an hour taking picture after picture, but in the end I did go home with a few decent ones (all lucky shots of course.

Besides the birds, there were a few other animals we had the honor of spotting. There were squirrels, monkeys, butterflies, some crawling creatures like lizards and centipedes, but unfortunately (or luckily, just the way you look at it) we didn’t see a puma.

All in all, the Itatiaia National park is a great place to visit for anyone who wants to get a feel of the atlantic rainforest. It gives you an idea about what most of the south-east and south of Brazil must have been like before the “smartest species on the planet” started to destroy it.

To conclude, here are some more pictures…

Click any picture to see full size 

The lower part of the Itatiaia National Park

Lago Azul, near the visitors Center – Itatiaia – Rio de Janeiro

Find the three monkeys – Itatiaia – Rio de Janeiro

Overly backlit photo of a monkey – Itatiaia – Rio de Janeiro

Woodpecker (Pique a pau) in the colors of the Belgian flag – Itatiaia – Rio de Janeiro

This little guy came sitting right beside me to have his picture taken. It was one of the most colorful birds around there, and is known in Brazil as “Saira de Sete cores” – Do yo see the seven colors?

Humming birds – Itatiaia National Park – Rio de Janeiro

Feeding birds – Itatiaia National Park – Rio de Janeiro

Feeding birds – Itatiaia National Park – Rio de Janeiro

Colibri – Hummingbird – Beija-flor – Itatiaia National Park – Rio de Janeiro

Piscina da Maromba – Itatiaia National Park – Rio de Janeiro

Butterfly having a sip of water – Itatiaia National Park – Rio de Janeiro

Arriving at the Itaporani waterfall – Itatiaia National Park – Rio de Janeiro

Fernanda and Me at the Itaporani waterfall – Itatiaia National Park – Rio de Janeiro

Red Flowers – Itatiaia National Park – Rio de Janeiro

Typical trail in Itatiaia. Rocky and sometimes pretty steep, but well maintained and safe.

A stairway making the climbing easier – Itatiaia National park – Rio de Janeiro

Veu da Noiva Waterfall – Itatiaia National park – Rio de Janeiro

Veu da Noiva (Bride’s Veil) waterfall – Itatiaia National park – Rio de Janeiro

Want to see even more? Check this set on Flickr (27 Photos)