Road trip into the heart of Bahia – The Chapada Diamantina (Part 1)

“Big Blue”, my Land Rover Defender 110.

End of June 2010, in full world-cup season, I started out on a road trip to discover the interior of Bahia. Conversing with Brazilian friends, I regularly heard the Chapada Diamantina come up, and all of them described the place as one of the best eco-tourism locations of Brazil. After doing some research on the internet (where would we be without it these days :)), I decided that I had to see this magical place with my own eyes…

It was a great opportunity to test drive the Land Rover Defender that I was going to use as a support vehicle for my Motorcycle touring operation.

To get there from Volta Redonda, where I live, I planned to follow the coastline heading north, crossing Espirito Santo and entering Bahia from the south. On the first day, I had to pass through Rio de Janeiro, and stopped by the school where I did my guide course, to say hello to my ex classmates. There was an interesting presentation going on about the “Festa Junina” tradition in Brazil, so I stayed a while longer than planned… that’s why the first day I didn’t get any further than Búzios.

Pedra Azul: Famous landmark in Espirito Santo – 100 km west from Vitória

The next day, I wanted to get to Vitória. Fernanda’s uncle João has an apartment there and he had already told me not to pass Vitória without stopping by to pay him a visit on my way to Bahia. I was also curious about a famous rock called “Pedra Azul”, located in the Pedra Azul National Park, about 100 km west from Vitória.

Following the BR101 (the road connecting North and south Brazil) I made my way into Espirito Santo, where I started to follow the secondary roads into the interior of the state, direction of Cachoeiro de Itapemirim. This region is primarily coffee territory. many of the hillsides are covered with the plants that provide so many people each day with the necessary caffeine shot. The whole time, the landscape was alternating between coffee plantations, small villages and jungle scenery. I was afraid that I would pass by the Pedra azul and not notice it, but suddenly it was there in all its glory. I took a few pictures and continued on my way to Vitória.

I arrived in Vitória, the capital of Espirito Santo, and I immediately had a very positive feeling about the city. It seemed so much “cleaner” that what I was used to in Rio de Janeiro or São Paulo. It was around 4 pm, so I had two hours of daylight left to see something of the city. João took me for a walk around his bairro (neighborhood) and showed me a nice park close to where he lives. Afterwards, we had dinner in a nice pizza place, where I also met his two lovely daughters. I wanted to get an early start the next morning, so I went to bed around 10pm.

The landscape just north of Vitória: lush green hillsides, coffee plantations and small villages.

I didn’t expect it in the middle of Vitória, but the next morning, a very persistent rooster woke me up around 4.30. I was anxious to get going, so I got up and gathered my stuff. João didn’t want to let me go without some breakfast, and I left his place around 6 am. Vitória is definitely a city that I would like to explore a little more.

The ride north through Espirito Santo was rather pleasant. I stuck to the BR101 most of the time because I wanted to catch up some of the km’s I lost on day one. I remember seeing lots of dead animals along the roadside. Especially dogs. These animals get run over, and serve as a welcome meal for the numerous black vultures roaming these parts.

Espirito Santo has more than just Coffee. I saw a lot of pineapple and banana fields.Espirito Santo also produces papaya, maracujá, lemon, oranges, strawberries and grapes…

Coming from Bahia to Espirito Santo: large trucks with triple trailers and 60 tons of eucalyptus wood. These things often tip over in curves…

I crossed the border with Bahia, and it’s very hard to miss that fact. Ok, there’s the big billboard, welcoming you to Bahia saying “Smile, you are in Bahia”- in Portuguese of course, but what struck me the most, was the transformation of the BR101. As long as I was on Espirito Santo territory, the highway was comparable to most European highways, with two lanes in each direction, separated by a strong guardrail. When you enter Bahia, you see the road narrowing down to a pothole infested secondary road without hard shoulders. I always knew that Bahia was one of the poorer states, like all the states in the North-east of Brazil, but that the difference would be this noticeable, I would never have guessed. The billboard should rather say: “Hang on to your seatbelt, you’re in Bahia”

Once in Bahia, I set course for the coast ASAP. I was planning on following the coastline as close and as long as possible. It didn’t take me a long time to notice that the south of Bahia is a major producer of eucalyptus wood for the production of cellulose (the base material for paper factories).

The eucalyptus forests go on as far as you can see, and trucks with triple trailers and up to 60 tons of eucalyptus wood are all over the place, transporting the wood to cellulose factories in Espirito Santo. A local told me that the Eucalyptus tree is chosen because it grows so fast. In 7 years the trees are ready to be harvested.Taking the less traveled roads through the eucalyptus forests, you can see large areas where the trees have recently been cut down and new trees have been planted.

It’s not a nice sight, all these “sterile” and artificial forests with nothing but eucalyptus trees in straight rows… but who am I to judge the means of income of the people of Southern Bahia? In the forests, far from any town or village, I saw huts made of “Pau a pique” (wattle and daub). It was hard to believe that people were actually living here, but I saw a small boy (4 – 5 years old) playing near one of the houses. These people live 40 – 50 km from the nearest school, the parents are uneducated and they have no means of transport. I couldn’t help wondering how these kids ever have a chance of a decent education.

Charcoal production, another (legal?) activity in southern Bahia. Notice the -ugly- eucalyptus forest in the background.

I was headed for Nova Viçosa, a small fishermen’s village on the Whale coast (costa das baleias). According to Fernanda’s sister, this was the place to be, but I was rather disappointed. Despite some touristic folders promising “year round touristic activities”, the place was dead.It was too late to move on to another village, so I had to look for a place to spend the night. I took the advice of the “Brasil 2010 guide” and stopped at a pousada that turned out to be run by a Swiss couple.

The pousada was ok, but it was the management that worried me a little. As a couple, you are supposed to work together as a team, and it was pretty clear that the woman was taking care of everything and the husband wasn’t doing anything to help. His commitment was limited to sleeping and smoking cigarettes. Judging by his smell, he was also in desperate need of a shower. The guy drove me around the village in his car and couldn’t say one good thing about Brazil or the Brazilian people . He was clearly not happy with his situation and my guess is that they were “trapped” here, after investing in the pousada and not having the return they hoped for.

I had to speak German with him, because after 14 years in Brazil, he wasn’t able to say one decent sentence in Portuguese – or English for that matter. When I asked him if he was happy here in Brazil, he said: “my wife is happy…” I guess that sums it up… These people should have been divorced a long time ago. Very sad to live like this.

The coastal dirt road from Prado to Cumuruxatiba was a great change from the hundreds of kilometers of eucalyptus forests. My first glimpse of the Bahia coast.

I was glad to get out of Nova Viçosa and especially the pousada, where the rotten atmosphere between the Swiss owners was a serious downer. I had breakfast and left as soon as it was light. continuing my trip north along the coast. It was about 150 km to Prado, a small, charming beach town about 100 km south of Porto Seguro.

This part of Bahia is called the “costa das baleias” (Whale coast) due to the appearance of groups of humpback whales every year. Needless to say that the whales are one of the major touristic attractions of this region.

I had to do a pit stop here to do an oil change and also to find someone to fix my radio, that had stopped working earlier that day. By the time all this was done, it was time for lunch. After I filled my stomach at a small “kilo restaurant” for about 3 Usd, I went on my way.

The mechanic of the gas station who changed the oil had told me about a great dirt road right next to the coast that went all the way to Cumuruxatiba (short: Cumuru), which is a very quiet and laid back little paradise on the Whale Coast. I saw a sign saying: “Aqui, Deus descanse depois criar o mundo. Não acorda ele com o seu som” (Here, God takes a rest after creating the world. Don’t wake him up with your noise.).

Dirt road leading inland near the Monte Pascoal Ntional Park…

From there, I had to take a dirt road leading inland and passing north of the “Parque nacional do descobrimento” in the direction of the “Monte Pascoal National Park”. This road was not on the paper map, but WAS shown on my GPS, which means that somebody already had been there, which usually makes it a pretty safe bet.

Eventually, the road disappeared from the GPS, and since it wasn’t on the paper map either, I only had my compass to make sure I kept going in a northern direction, which would eventually take me on to the paved BR498, from where I could get on the BR101.

To make things even more more interesting, I discovered that my left rear damper had broken off and only the top part was still attached to the car…I had to remove the piece to prevent it to cause more damage, which made me lose more time.

Sunset over Monte Pascoal

Around 6.30 pm, I reached the BR498, leading to the BR101 and it was pitch dark by then. I had done almost 300 km of dirt road that day and was glad to be on some smooth surface. It was 150 km to Arraial d’Ajuda, which is only a few km south from Porto Seguro, but with a damaged suspension, I had to keep the speed down and only arrived around 11 PM.

I checked into a pousada, took a shower and went straight to bed thinking about the next day and how to find a decent mechanic…

Even in the dark, it looked like I had been able to sniff out a great place for the night. Pousada Antares is run by an Italian – Brazilian couple and is located on a hill close to the beach and has a terrific view from the terrace. The poolside breakfast with view over the ocean was perfect.

I asked around to see if anyone could recommend a good mechanic and there seemed to be two options. The owner of the pousada, said that actually he didn’t like any mechanic in Arraial d’Ajuda, but if he HAD to pick one, it would be “Vincente”, maybe because the name sounds Italian? I decided to check the place out…

Pool and ocean view at Pousada Antares in Arraial d’Ajuda

Most car repair shops you see in Brazil are places that in normal circumstances you really wouldn’t want to come too close to, and the “oficina do Vincente” was no different… A small, dirty shack with a few skinny, toothless black guys in bermuda and chinelos (flip flops) hanging around, looking kind of dangerous, waiting for something to do. If you’re lucky they are still sober at 8.00 AM.

Once you are in Brazil long enough and have a car that tends to break down in the middle of nowhere (I could post a few more stories about this subject …), you get used to these places and things actually aren’t as bad as they look.

After the usual compliments about the Defender (everybody seems to like this car a lot, but they have no idea how much trouble I already had with it…) Vincente’s diagnose was that he would have to repair the damper, because getting a new one would cost me at least 500 USD and would take at least until the next day, but probably 2-3 days to get delivered. He would weld a new piece of screw-thread to the lower end of the damper and that would only cost me 80 R$ (+/- 32 Euros).

Next to the oficina was a big gas station and since the car was also in need of a lubrication, and it was no problem to drive around without the damper, I went there, but the guy in charge of lubrications said that his grease pump wasn’t working. He gave me directions to yet another oficina, which was of the same standard as Vincente’s. I went there and asked the guy if he could lubricate the car, but guess what… This guy was out of grease! swell… I kept talking to him and after I offered him an extra 10 R$, he sighed and told me to put the car inside. Miraculously, there was still enough grease in his pump to get the job done… Around 3.00 PM I went back to Vincente and one of the guys, who judging by his smell had 10 beers for lunch, put the repaired damper in place.

Landing place of the Portuguese in 1500 – Bahia – Brazil

The next day (Day 6) I left Arraial d’Ajuda very early since it was going to be a 430 km ride to Itacaré, with lots of dirt roads. Itacaré is one of Brazil’s surf paradises, but also has a lot to offer in terms of eco-tourism (Trekking, rafting, rappel, Arvorismo…).

First, I had to take a ferry (Balsa) to get across to Porto Seguro. there’ a ferry every half hour and the crossing takes about 10 minutes and costs 11 R$ (about 4.75 Euros).

About 25 km outside Porto Seguro, in a place called Santa Cruz Cabrália, I passed the exact location where Pedro Alvares Cabral and his crew came ashore in the year 1500. There was a scene depicting the catholic service that was held to celebrate the discovery of the new land, with indigenous people watching from a distance.

When I was almost back on the good old BR101, near a place called Itapebi, I passed some barracks, right next to a large garbage dump site, and clearly this was “home” to some very poor people, who probably spent their days scavenging the garbage, looking for something valuable. This too is Brazil, and I think it is something that has to be seen by people visiting the country. It’s one thing to read about poverty, or watch it on TV, but being confronted with the raw reality is a totally different matter.

In huge contrast with the people at the garbage dump I have another anecdote: On my way to Ilheus, passing Canavieras, I spotted a chocolate factory with a very exclusive chocolate boutique attached to it. Of course, being a Belgian, I really couldn’t pass this without taking a look inside.

Coastline near Itacaré. Should be sunny and warm here, but looks a lot more like rain…

They had a big sign saying “home made chocolate” but after I told the salesgirl that I was from Belgium, she admitted that they use the famous Belgian “callibutchi” chocolate. HUH?  It took me some time to figure out that the famous Belgian chocolate she was talking about was “CALLEBAUT”. Brazilians have a way to brazilify foreign words. (like “snooker” => SINUKA… kind of weird but once you know where it comes from it makes perfect sense J)

Anyways, the boutique had a large collection of chocolate goodies, and even some erotic items. I bought a few bonbons, just to get a taste, and a few of them were with Pimenta (red pepper). I don’t think I will buy those again. They were really spicy.

By the time I got to Itacaré, It was raining hard, so all the streets were deserted and the town looked nothing like the otherwise bustling surf paradise. I checked into one of the first pousadas I saw, and after a nice shower, I did some planning for the next day and turned in. I’ll have to check out Itacaré better next time I pass through here.

On day 7 I wanted to get to the Chapada Diamantina, in the center of Bahia State, which is again a +/- 450 km ride, so I made sure I got going at first light (actually, it was still dark). Since I hadn’t had a chance to check out Itacaré the night before, because of the pouring rain I made a quick tour around the city. It has a really beautiful shoreline, but driving through the smaller streets away from the ocean, I saw lots of houses in poor state of conservation. Of course, the rain wasn’t helping to paint a nice picture. A little sun and the place would look totally different.

I was going to take the shortest possible route to the Chapada Diamantina and according to my GPS there would be a great deal of dirt roads. (Yay J).

Big Blue after a 43 km jungle mudbath

Soon after leaving Itacaré, I entered a 43 km long muddy jungle road that leads to Ubaitaba. As I expected, the road was very muddy due to the rain last night, and it didn’t take long before the jeep had the same reddish brown color as the road. I have kind of large tires, and the fenders aren’t able to keep  the mud from getting all over the car. In the middle of the jungle I picked up an old man who needed a ride to Ubaitaba.

In Ubaitaba I said goodbye to my old new friend, cleaned my windows and stopped at a gas station to buy some water and juice. Next, I would have to take the BA330 to Jequié, which, according to my GPS would be “Muito Ruim” (very bad) but to my pleasant surprise, the asphalt was brand new. I was pretty much expecting that this nice asphalt would only last for a short while, but it continued to be great all the way to Jequié.

About halfway to Jequié, I picked up my second hitchhiker for the day. An elderly woman waved me down and asked if I was heading for Maracas. Since that was one of the options, and she told me it would be the best option if I was going to the Chapada Diamantina, I decided to give the lady a ride.

In Maracas, I dropped the lady off at the house of her family and with a last “may God accompany you at your left side, your right side, your front and back side” she joined her sisters. I noticed that the house was very small, but at least 7 women were waiting for her. That was because all the men were watching the world cup game Brasil – Holland… a decisive game for Brazil, because if they would lose this one, they would be out of the cup. The streets were very quit, and that was a clue that things were not looking too good for Brazil.

Roadkill on the way to Marcelinio Souza. The vultures will take care of it.

I stopped at a gas station to buy diesel, and to figure out the best way to get to Marcionilio Souza, my next waypoint. I found a dirt road on my map, but it didn’t show up on my GPS. The guy of the gas station told me that in fact there WAS a road, but a different one than the one on my map. Yikes… even more confusion. He told me to take the road to Planaltino and after about 12 km take a left and “va embora” (just go)… He also said that the road was not very good, and there was a serra, but mostly descending… Just before I left the gas station, I learned that Brazil had lost the game against Holland and was going home. Someone said “a vida continua” (life goes on)…

Ok, so I was about to take a 50 km stretch of not so good dirt road that was neither on the map nor on the GPS. I didn’t like that idea very much, but it was a second pleasant surprise that day to find out that this road had a few signs on crucial places pointing to Marcionilio Souza. Also, the road wasn’t that bad at all. I’ve seen a lot worse.

The BA-245: The worst road EVER

After Marcionilio Souza however, things changed drastically for the bad. The BA245 couldn’t be worse. It was clear that this road had been asphalted with a layer way too thin, and now the road was a complete mess, with potholes everywhere, making it worse than it probably was before they put the asphalt. 65km on a road like this is no joyride, I can tell you that much.

In this hellhole, I picked up a 3rd hitchhiker. A working guy who wanted to get to Itaeté, and judging by his smell, he wasn’t one of those Brazilians that take two showers a day. But he had useful information for me. When I told him that I was planning to get to Lençois by 6 pm, he said that there was no way I would get there that early, and driving after dark was not advisable because of the road conditions but also because of the BANDIDOS. That sure sounded like I was in the Far West or something. He gave me the advice to either stay in Itaeté, or try to get to Mucugé, which was closer and less dangerous.

I decided that it would not be a bad idea to follow his advice and change plans to try and get to Mucugé. Like the guy said, the road from Itaeté to Mucugé wasn’t half bad, and I got there at around 5.30pm, in time to find a pousada and a phone to call home…

END OF PART ONE – Stay tuned for part TWO

I’m always looking for more interesting routes in Brazil so any suggestions you might have are welcome… please leave a comment.