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…