Bananal: São Paulo’s most influential 19th Century City

Bem vindo em Bananal – Welcome to Bananal

Bananal started In 1783, when a small chapel was erected in the rough lands along the Bananal River in the old Captaincy of São Paulo. It became one of the richest and most influential cities of the region during the 19th century “coffee cycle”.

The valley of the Paraíba River has always been one of the main travel routes in Colonial Brazil, for the transport of gold and diamonds from the mines in Minas Gerais to the port town of Paraty, from where everything was shipped to Rio de Janeiro and further to Portugal. Towards the end of the 17th century, small villages emerged all along this gold and diamond route, providing lodging for travelers and drovers.

In 1708, a new route, that connected the mines in Minas Gerais directly to Rio de Janeiro, was opened. This new road (known as “caminho novo”) was not only less precarious, but also reduced the travel time to Rio de Janeiro from three months, to only one month. Because of the opening of this new road, the small villages in the Paraíba Valley lost their reason of existence and almost disappeared, but thanks to the cattle trade, coming from Rio Grande do Sul, to supply the mining region, the valley again became an obligatory passage.

In 1770, the road connecting Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo was completed, and to populate the region along this road, Sesmarias (grants) were given to people who were engaged in the construction of the road. This is how a man called Joao Barbosa Camargo and his wife, became the owners of the Sesmaria of the Bananal River, and the city of Bananal was born.

One of Bnanal’s most important townhouses – former city getaway of one of the rich 19th century Coffee Barons

During the first decades, the agricultural activity in the region was predominantly subsistence farming (Growth of crops only for consumption by the farm family), but the situation started to change with the arrival of the coffee culture, with its much bigger farms, fuelled by slave labor.The name Bananal is believed to be derived from the indigenous word “Banani” which means “with lots of curves” referring to how the Bananal River makes its way across the landscape. Another explanation of the name refers to the many banana plantations that existed in the region.

The profits from the coffee trade were used to buy more slaves and expand the farms up to the point that the fazenda homes had become large estates surrounded by workshops, senzala’s (slave quarters) and a coffee terrace (large open space to dry the coffee).

Around 1840, Bananal had become the second largest coffee producer in the province of São Paulo and a lot of the richest farmers of the Paraíba valley were concentrated in the region around the city. These farmers began to refine their way of life and the fazenda’s main houses were transformed into palaces, decorated with imported furniture and frescoes of European painters on the walls. They also started to use slaves in domestic service.

one of the top attractions in Bananal: the metal train station, imported from Belgium as a sort of building package, which was very revolutionary in that time.

The “coffee barons” of Bananal formed the elite of the Empire, and with their money deposited in banks in London, they extended loans to the emperor to finance the war in Paraguay. They also financed the construction of a railway that passed through most of the fazendas and went all the way to Barra Mansa in the Province of Rio de Janeiro.Since 1822, Brazil was no longer a colony of Portugal, and the influence of the presence of the emperor in Rio de Janeiro made that the farmers, who were also given noble titles, started to adopt the way of life of the French court. They erected luxurious houses in the city to spend time during festivities or between harvests. At one point, Bananal even had two orchestras, consisting of slaves, specialized in European opera music.

For some time, the city had its own currency, and one of the most powerful landowners in the city, Vallim Manoel de Aguiar, had when he died in 1878, only in public debt bonds, almost 1% of all paper money issued in Brazil.

But the prosperity based on the “green gold” didn’t last very long. Towards the end of the 19th century, the land began to show signs of exhaustion and the opening of another railway (Santos-Jundiaí) facilitated the flow of products from further inland to the coast, allowing the expansion of coffee plantations in western Sao Paulo.

This is said to be one of the most beautiful architectural “ensembles” of Bananal, consisting of three early 19th century townhouses, facing Pedro Ramos square

In the 1950’s, the region suffered yet another setback: the construction of the “Via Dutra” highway from Sao Paulo to Rio de Janeiro. This new highway replaced and deactivated the old “Estrada dos tropeiros” passing through Bananal, Arreias, Silveiras and São José do Barreiro, which became almost like ghost towns. (According to the writer Monteiro Lobato, who lived in Areias and witnessed the decline of the region)The final blow came with the abolition of slavery in 1888. The children of the landowners could not keep the wealth inherited from their parents and pastures for cattle took the place of coffee. The power, influence and wealth of the families of Bananal and the rest of the valley, was forever lost and all that remains are memories of this glorious period.

Today, Bananal is becoming more and more a touristic hotspot, attracting tourists from all over the world, not only to learn about its history, whose testimonies are the beautiful townhouses in the city and the many preserved and restored coffee farms in the region, but also to enjoy the natural beauty of the Serra da Bocaina (Bocaina mountains), holding the largest Atlantic rainforest reserve of Brazil.

Ilha Grande: Hiking, backpacking and scuba diving Paradise.

Located in the bay of Angra dos Reis, about 100 km west of Rio de Janeiro, Ilha Grande (Big Island), with its many secluded, sandy beaches, Atlantic rainforest and relaxed way of life, is a popular weekend and holiday destination in Brazil.

History of Ilha Grande

During the colonial period of Brazil, 400-500 years ago, Ilha Grande was a popular hideout for pirates, who used the island as a base for attacking the ships that carried gold and diamonds from Paraty to Rio de Janeiro. In the 18th century it became a base for slave traders and a prison, which only closed in 1994. After the prison closed, the island was turned into a natural reserve and this paved the road for the tourism that today is the major source of income for the inhabitants.

Getting there

A typical schooner… Great way to do the crossing to Ilha Grande. People who get seasick easily, are better off taking one of the bigger ferries.

You can only get to Ilha Grande by boat, leaving from the ports of Angra dos Reis or Mangaratiba. The trip is about 1,5 hours and can be done by ferry or, a liitle more bumpy and adventurous, by schooner (my favorite). You arrive at the village of Abraao, Ilha Grandes major port/ hub, where most of the hotels and pousadas are located. Once on the island, you get around on foot or by small boats, that take you to the various beaches around the Island, or on a snorkeling or fishing trip.

Hiking

There are several hiking trails on the island. Starting from Abraao, you can just go a few kilometers to the next beach, or hike around the island in five to ten days, camping along the way. It is recommended to take a guide when going on a extensive hike. More than once, people have gotten lost in the dense forest.

One of the popular attractions on the island is the “Pico do Papagaio“, a mountain with a top in the shape of a parrot’s beak. The hike to the summit (almost 1000m) is considered heavy and again, should only be attempted with a guide.

Lopes Mendes beach on Ilha Grande. One of the most beautiful beaches on the Island. Even in high season there’s plenty of space for everybody.

Other hiking destinations are the beaches “Lopes Mendes”, “Dois Rios” and “Praia do aventureiro”, all located on the south side of he island.

Scuba diving

The clear waters around Ilha Grande and the smaller islands in the surrounding area make for a great number of terrific diving spots. In the village of Abraao you’ll find several agencies that offer diving trips all around the island, some of them have English speaking staff and instructors. A few of the most popular spots are: “Gruta do Acaiá”, “Ilha dos Meros” and “Ilha do Gurirí”. More info on this site (Portuguese).

If you’re not a scuba diver, snorkeling is another way to enjoy the awesome underwater scenery. You’ll find various places where you can rent a mask and flippers.

Important: When you plan a stay on Ilha Grande, make sure you stock up on cash, since most pousadas, restaurants and shops don’t accept cards and there are no banks or even ATM’s on the island. Other than that, you won’t see any cars (except of the police and fire department) or supermarkets, and you also won’t be able to use your mobile phone. In other words, everything is pretty basic on this tropical island paradise, but not having all these things is really part of the attraction.

Useful links:

  • check out this Map of Ilha Grande (source: Wikipedia)
  • find the best places to stay on Ilha Grande: Hidden Pousadas Brazil (advanced search => by city/town => Ilha Grande)
  • Ilha Grande Portal (English)

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”.

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.