Serra da Canastra: Birthplace of the mighty São Francisco River

The wall of the Serra da Canastra plateau. Up there is the higher part of the Serra.

Just type “Serra da Canastra” into Google and click on “Images” and you will quickly see why I had to go and check this amazing place out.

The Serra da Canastra:

Serra da Canastra situation map (Google Earth)

The Serra da Canastra is a mountain range in the south west of the state of Minas Gerais,located about 250 km (in a straight line) west from the state capital Belo Horizonte. The distances to get there by car are 320 km (from Belo Horizonte), 540 km (from São Paulo) and 725 km (from Rio de Janeiro).

The main reason for creating the environmental protection area (APA) in the Serra da Canastra back in 1972, is that it holds the spring of the São Francisco river (also referred to as “Velho Chico”), one of Brazil’s most important rivers .

The São Francisco river is the longest river flowing entirely on Brazil territory. It starts its almost 3000 km trajectory on the plateau of the Serra da Canastra, and from there, it makes its way to the north eastern region of Brazil, where millions of people depend on the water it brings to the region. It empties in the Atlantic ocean on the border between the states of Sergipe and Alagoas.

One of the dirt roads crossing the lower park area

The park consists of a lower part and a higher part, and a full visit of the area takes 4 or 5 days. If you come by car, make sure it is in decent shape, because some roads, especially the ones leading up to the higher part are pretty steep and rocky. I myself didn’t have any problems with my Defender, but I saw several smaller city cars struggling to ride up the precarious road.

The São Francisco river cascading down from the plateau of the Serra da Canastra. The almost 200m high Casca d’Anta waterfall is one of the Serra’s main attractions

The city of São Roque de Minas located east of the park, is considered the gateway to the Serra da Canastra. From there you can take the road leading up to the higher part of the park.

The route from São Roque de Minas to the high part of the Casca d’ Anta waterfall.

The map above shows the route from São Roque de Minas up the high plateau:

  1. Green: São Roque de Minas – Park entrance (+/- 6 km)
  2. Blue: Park Entrance – Source of the São Francisco River (+/- 6 km)
  3. Pink: final part to the upper part of the Casca d’ Anta waterfall (+/- 22 km)

This trip up the plateau and back to São Roque de Minas takes most part of one day (especially when you get lost somewhere) and you can see that it covers only a small part of the park (green area). The dotted lines are the main dirt roads in the park, which are kind of O.K. to do with a city car, but there are also dozens of smaller roads branching off of these main roads, and those are usually only accessible with a 4×4 vehicle.

The ride up to the entrance of the park is about 6 km and as I mentioned earlier, it’s not a walk in the park for a city car. Once you make it to the park’s entrance, the guards there will search your vehicle for alcohol and tools that can be used to cut vegetation. My Defender has an ax and a shovel mounted on top of the fenders and I had to hand them over to the guards. That way I HAD to come back the same way and could forget about doing a tour and ride back to São Roque via a different way.

The visitor’s center – Serra da Canastra

About 1,5 km inside the park you’ll see the visitor’s center, where you can find a wealth of information about the Serra da Canastra’s history, fauna and flora. You’ll be happy to learn that there are Poemas, maned wolves and other endangered species roaming the area.

You could easily spend half a day browsing all the information available at the visitor’s center, but I had more things to explore, so I hit the road and it was not long before I saw the sign, indicating I had arrived at the place where the São Francisco river has it’s spring.

Sign indicating the place where the Rio são Francisco starts its almost 3000 km to the Atlantic ocean.

The spring itself is not that spectacular. It’s merely a small puddle of crystal clear water the seems to appear from under a bush. Small fish can be seen in the water. Spectacular is knowing that this water is going to travel all the way to the Atlantic Ocean, 3000 km further up north.

Following the main dirt road across the flat, windy landscape for another 22 km brings you to the high part of the Casca d’ Anta waterfall, where the São Francisco takes its first 200 m plunge into the valley of the Serra da Canastra.

Along the way you might get lucky and spot some wildlife, like a deer one of the maned wolves, but don’t get your hopes up too much. I did see this Carcará eagle on top of a termite hill, that was kind enough to sit still and pose for a picture.

A solitary Carcará eagle in the higher part of the Serra da Canastra

By the time the São Francisco reaches the edge of the plateau, it has grown from a small puddle into a full blown river, picking up water along the way. After a short, sometimes difficult hike, you can reach a ledge about 10 m away from the waterfall, from where you have a great view over the lower southern part of of the park. I must say that I hadn’t been very lucky with the weather. It had been overcast or raining most of the time.

Serra da Canastra – View from the top of Casca d’ Anta

And to wrap this post up: here is my VIDEO DEBUT… A far from professional report of the visit of the higher part of the Serra da Canastra National park. Enjoy