Brazil Down under – A taste of the South…

his post has been featured on “WordPress Freshly Pressed”

One of the things that is so interesting and amazing about Brazil, is that it sometimes feels like many different countries in one. When you travel from the north to the south of this immense country, you’ll experience not only differences in the climate, geography, fauna and flora, but also in culture, architecture, food, the way people talk and behave, etc.

The south of Brazil has been populated in particular by people coming from different parts of Europe, and that had a significant influence on the region. For me, it was one of the lesser known parts of the country, so I decided to take a 10 day motorcycle trip to get more familiar with “Brazil Down Under”

Day 1: Campinas

Our first Gas stop on the BR116 on our way to campinas – there would be about 20 of these stops on this trip

Maryel and me left Volta Redonda around 2pm and made our way to Campinas, one of the biggest cities in the state of Sao Paulo and more of an industrial city than touristic.

The ride itself wasn’t all that exiting since we stayed on the main roads (the BR116 and the SP065) Only a strong head wind, that tried to blow us off the road, made things a little more interesting.

The weather gradually changed for the worse and by the time we were almost in Campinas, we saw the first rain. Things also started to get really chilly…

We arrived after about 400km at the house of our good friend Alexandre, where we spent the first night. Before going to bed however, we went out for something to eat in Ponto1 BAR, the oldest bar in the Barao Geraldo neighborhood of Campinas, famous for its great food and live music. We even enjoyed a Belgian beer with our food, so our first night was perfect .

Day 2: “Pisteiros” headquartes – Campinas.

Pisteiros – Brazil’s motorcyclists community (www.pisteiros.com.br)

After a good nights sleep and tasty breakfast at Alex’ house, it was time to move on to our next stop: the headquarters of the PISTEIROS, where our friend Evandro was expecting us.

Evandro created a place where all passers-by on motorcycles, touring South America and looking for a place to crash for a couple of days, are always welcome. The reception is fabulous (like in most places in Brazil) and Evandro has everything you need to get your batteries recharged…a bed, wifi… the works.

Evandro also showed us his brand new site. The English version of the Pisteiros site, which was in Portuguese (Duh). I would call it “Pisteiros for Gringos”. Anybody interested in Adventure riding with a focus on Brazil is more than welcome to sign up on the new site.

Day 3: Morretes

Somewhere on the Perfect São Paulo roads on our way south

Evandro was joining (and guiding) usthat day, since he was going to meet up with a few riders and do a tour around the south as well.After a chilly night (August is winter time here in Brazil, and in spite of being a “tropical” country, it can get really cold in some places), we loaded up our bikes and took off.

The weather channel was not really promising a good day… rain and cold, but to our enjoyment it was “only” cold. The sky was blue most of the day and we were able to make good progress on the close-to-perfect roads of São Paulo State. Interesting detail: it seems that on many of São Paulo’s “secondary” highways, motorcycles don’t have to pay at toll booths.

Other than that, I have to say that I found most of the roads and scenery in that part of the state of São Paulo kind of “bleak”, compared to what I’m used to in other parts of Brazil, but hey, it cannot be spectacular all the time, right?

Once in the State of Parana, the roads became more twisty and views turned a little more interesting. At one  point we drove through an area that was hit by a flash flood two days earlier, due to 72 hours of torrential rain, and the signs of devastation were still very much visible in the landscape around the river.

The Ribeira river rose 13m two days earlier, destroying several houses on its banks… Notice the debris on the lightposts, left by the flood .

The Ribeira river rose 13m two days earlier, destroying several houses on its banks… Notice the debris on the lightposts, left by the flood .

Near Curitiba, the capital of the state of Parana, we headed east to Morretes, where we arrived around 6.30pm that day.A little earlier would have been better, because then we wouldn’t have had to ride down the beautiful Estrada da Graciosa in the dark to get to Morretes. It wouldn’t be our last unpleasant descent…

Our place for the night was Pousada Dona Laura, A very nice place in the historical center of Morretes, recently resored and for about 60R$ per person…

Day 4 ( 5, 6 and 7): Florianópolis

Floripa’s “Golden Gate Bridge”: No longer in use and very beautiful at night, when it is all illuminated. Due to weather conditions, I couldn’t get a good picture of the bridge at night.

Floripa’s “Golden Gate Bridge”: No longer in use and very beautiful at night, when it is all illuminated. Due to weather conditions, I couldn’t get a good picture of the bridge at night.

We left Morretes right after breakfast and rode up the Estrada da Graciosa again, because the previous day we did it in the dark…I decided to take the camera and film Mariel riding up the serra, but on the cobblestones I wasn’t able to keep the camera still, so that footage was pretty much useless.

We wanted to get to Florianópolis, the capital of Santa Catarina State. On the way there, we would als pay a visit to our friend Mike in Piçarras, who is moving back to the States in a few months..

We basically stayed on the main road south and between Curitiba and Joinville, going down to sea level again, we ran into a couple of traffic jams, several kms long… Traffic was not moving at all and many people were having a pick-nick on the spot, indicating that they hadn’t been moving for some time.

Of course, being on motorcycles, we didn’t wait in line, but zig-zagged our way through the rows of vehicles, expecting to see some big accident in front of the line, but there was only ONE truck that had broken down and caused this whole mess…

On the way down the serra, we did see a few seriously mangled remains of trucksthat obviously never made it to their destinations…

A street artist at work in Floripa. He told me he was restoring his work and it would take him about three months to finish the whole wall.

A street artist at work in Floripa. He told me he was restoring his work and it would take him about three months to finish the whole wall.

We arrived in Piçarras and had lunch together with Mike and his wife, but instead of continuing our trip to Floripa right after lunch, as planned, we ended up going back to hisplace for a last coffee (no beer since we still had some riding to do).

Well… the coffee was great, and the chat even more, so we ended up talking for a few hours and then, we had to do the final 130 km to Floripa in the dark… which wasn’t too bad. I did notice however, that people in this part of Brazil seem to drive a lot faster than what I’m used to… kinda like in Germany?

Evandro had told us about this cool hostel in Floripa (Sunset Backpackers Hostel), and it was about 7.30pm when we arrived there. We checked in, had some dinner and called it a night…

Evandro was right about the hostel… It IS a very nice place. Clean, rooms with view on the lagoa, pool, free internet, Wifi… and close to a very popular surfing beach (praia mole). Price is 30BRL per person – incl. breakfast.

The big villas in “Jureré Internacional”, Brazil’s equivalent of Beverly Hills and one of the attractions on Florianópolis.

We stayed in Floripa for the next three days. On the first day we checked out the north side of the island and on the second day we went to the south part.

Florianópolis, apart from being the state capital (did I mention that earlier?) is a place where a lot of rich and famous Brazilians live. On the north side of the island there’s a neighborhood called “jurere internacional” –  known as “the Beverly Hills of Brazil” – and yeah, the houses are HUGE there, compared to what I’ve seen so far in Brazil.

FLoripa, sometimes referred to as “the magic island”, is a popular vacation destination for people from Curitiba but also Argentinians like to spend their vacation here… There are many great beaches all around the island and the roads are in good to very good condition. There is even an airport on the island…

Sunset over the Lagoa de Conceição – our view from the Sunset Backpackers Hostel

The only downside is the traffic… it looks to me like the island is getting “over capacity” (expression often seen on Twitter :)). When driving around, you hardly get to go faster than 40-50 km/h and especially in the north, around the lagoa da conceição the traffic jam never stops…

We visited the island in the off-season, and the locals told me that during the summer months it’s faster to walk than to take your car to get somewhere… Looks like it is time for the local authorities to take some action to improve this situation…

Otherwise Florianópolis is a great place for people who want to spend their vacation in a place with beautiful nature but everything else (airport, shopping, big city…) close by. It looks like a perfect place for surfers too, although I am far from an expert in that area

After two days of exploring the Magical Island in the south of Brazil, we were planning to continue our tour of Santa Catarina, but bad weather made us decide to stay put for one more day. Always amazing how much a place changes when it starts to rain.

Day 7: Fraiburgo.

Our original plan to ride south from Floripa and up the Serra do Rio do Rastro (THE highlight of our trip) got changed by the weather provisions. According to the BR-weather forecast, it would keep raining for two days, but after that, it would turn for the better… We figured that we could ride west first, and aim to arrive at the Serra do Rio do Rastro when the weather would be good. How does that sound for a plan?

Despite not only rain, but also pretty heavy winds, we rode out of Florianopolis and our rain gear was tested to the limit. The hardest part about it, is getting started, but once you’re on the road, you pretty much -have to- accept the fact that you’re going to end up soaked and cold.

A common sight that day… flooded areas due to the heavy rains of the past couple of days

From Floripa, we took the BR282 direction Lages… This is a pretty decent road, but the thing about rain is: visibility drops considerably, as so does the speed and one’s sense of humour.  Well, we could only hope that the internet weather provisions were correct and that it would stop raining sometime during the day…

Almost halfway Lages we took the SC302 north, direction Rio do Sul… great twisty ride, and it stopped raining hard… Now it was just raining… When we were almost in Rio do Sul, the rain had stopped completely, so all in all we only had 3 hours of intense rain, which was enough to get our feet soaked. I managed to keep the rest of me dry, but Mariel’s rain gear didn’t seem to be completely watertight (made in Brazil ) so he got wet in more places than just his feet …

At one point we noticed a road block. Coming closer, we saw that the rising river had flooded the road… According to one guy there, the water was still on the rise (about 3 cm per minute)… Yay

As we were not really looking forward to spending the night there, I asked the MP’s (Military Police) if we were allowed to continue… he looked at us, said something like “looks like these bikes are high enough” and let us pass… I took the middle of the road and Mariel went to the side… The problem is, that any holes in the road are invisible, so it’s always kind of a gamble riding through mirky water like this without crossing it on foot first. turned out that Mariel had the shallow side and was laughing at me because the water almost got into my airfilter

The Landscape on the road to Rio do Sul – Santa Catarina. The sky started to open up a bit, but not for long…

We wanted to get to Fraiburgo by the end of the day, and the route I had chosen (on Google maps) the day before, would mean we only had to do a measly 370km that day. Of course, the rain had to ruin those plans… We would take the shortcut via Taió and Santa Cecilia, but in Taió we came across a sign saying that the dirt road to Santa Cecilia was closed… The rain of the past days had triggered a lot of landslides and according to local authorities, nothing could get through before the cleaning crew passed.A little further down the road, the same situation… Road block… Cars and trucks stopped… This time, one of the trucks on the other side of the flood made the crossing and that’s how we could see how deep it was. It looked ok, so we went for it again. This time, it was me who could laugh, because in the middle of the water Mariel’s engine died… Ok, I wasn’t really laughing, because, well… if the water got in the engine, it would mean being stuck there for some time.

The yellow sign telling us that the road was closed… no choice than to turn back and add 200km to our trajectory to get to Fraiburgo.

By the time we got to Fraiburgo, it was pitch dark and we were pretty tired after almost 12 hours on the road and so we headed straight to the RENAR hotel… A pretty chique (and pricy) place, that looks like it has been snatched off of a mountain somewhere in Switzerland and dropped in Brazil… Our friend Evandro had organized a motorcycle event there earlier this year and mentioning his name got us a serious discount on the room…:).This meant that we had to backtrack 50km and then follow the BR470 for almost 200km (a major road with lots of trucks, and the wind was almost blowing us off the road, making things even more fun ). Getting to Fraiburgo was suddenly going to take us an extra 2 hours. Yay…

The hotel had sauna and (hot) swimming pool, which were a welcome treat after a day of rain, cold and wind…

Day 8: The Serra do Rio do Rastro

After a good nights sleep in Fraiburgo’s most chique hotel, we were planning to get to the Serra do Rio do Rastro, the famous 8 km climb / descent linking the cities of Lauro Muller and Bom Jardim da Serra… The total distance between these two cities is actually about 35 km but the most interesting section, is the spectacular climb (or descent) with a collection of really tight switchbacks

We rode out of Fraiburgo and took the road to Treze tillias, a small city that is also known as “the Brazilian Tirol”. The city was founded in the 1930’s by the former minister of agriculture of Austria.

They try to keep the Austrian culture alive with typical folklore festivities and wood sculpting. Treze +Tillias (Thirteen Lime trees) is home to various music, dance and singing groups, all typically Austrian or German. It was kind of weird to see so many german names on the shop signs… Apart from German and Austrian Immigrants, the region was also inhabited by Italian people. The route we took was a part of the “Rota da Amizade“.

The weather continued to be against us: cold, misty and some rain once in a while. The good thing was, that it didn’t rain hard enough to get us wet, but it sure reduces the chances of taking nice pictures…

By the time we arrived in Bom Jardim da Serra, it was around 5 pm so I thought that we could just as well descent the Serra to Lauro Muller and find a place for the night there, but about 2 km before the start of the descent, we found the road blocked by the firefighters, who were removing mud from the road… indicating that it had been raining really hard here not too long ago

Bombeiros cleaning up the mud after the rain…

In a few places, where the water would usually drip down from the steep walls, we literally had to ride through waterfalls that changed the road into a raging river.After the firefighters cleared the road, we continued towards the descent, not knowing that from one second to the other, we would be engulfed in a white hell of mist, rain and cold, which made our descent not only very wet and unpleasant, but also kind of dangerous, as we literally couldn’t see 10m in front of us.

Another danger were falling rocks. We noticed several pretty big ones on the road… When water comes down from a mountain wall like that, it can take loose rocks with it, that can hit you on the head or cause serious damage to your vehicle. Maybe it had been a better idea not to ride down in these conditions, but we made it in one piece.

Once down in Lauro Muller, the rain was a lot less, and we were very frustrated that we had especially changed our route to arrive at the Serra with good weather, only to find our descent ruined by the poorest conditions ever. We continued on to the next city (Orleans – which sounds kinda French ), where we found a hotel to get warm and try to dry out for the next day.

Day 9: Blumenau

Lauro Muller the next morning. The Serra do Rio do Rastro in the background.

We headed back to the city of Lauro Muller, the city at the foot of the Serra do Rio do Rastro, and from there, continued on toward the twisty road that would take us back up to Bom Jardim da serra, 1200m higher.the next greeted us with open, blue skies and a brilliant sun, so instead of going straight north, we decided to backtrack, ride up the Serra again and make our way to Blumenau via Urubici. This would mean we would have to ride 100km more than when we would take the direct route, but we just couldn’t pass up on the chance to see the serra do Rio do Rastro with open weather.

I had seen some pictures of this Serra before and it really looked spectacular, but nothing compares to riding up there yourself. The great thing about being on a motorcycle, is that you can virtually stop everywhere to soak up the view.

Serra do Rio do Rastro – Around 1000m (cloud level). Some curves are so tight that trucks have to maneuver back and forth several times to pass them. Getting stuck behind one of them obviously doesn’t make a ride up or down the serra very pleasant.

Serra do Rio do Rastro – Around 1000m (cloud level). Some curves are so tight that trucks have to maneuver back and forth several times to pass them. Getting stuck behind one of them obviously doesn’t make a ride up or down the serra very pleasant.

Serra do Rio do Rastro – Around 1000m (cloud level). Some curves are so tight that trucks have to maneuver back and forth several times to pass them. Getting stuck behind one of them obviously doesn’t make a ride up or down the serra very pleasant.

At the summit of the Serra (alt. 1.450m). The clouds only make it look more real.

After an awesome ride up the serra, we continued on to Urubici, and.it didn’t take long before we could put on our rain gear again. Of course, when we left the hotel that morning, we were at an altitude of 200m and after climbing the Serra it was back to 1400m, which translated in a totally different weather situation.

In Urubici, we had some lunch and decided to check out the “Pedra Furada”, a rock with a huge hole in it, which is one of the major natural attractions of the region, so we took the road leading east and up to the Serra do Corvo Branco… Of course we missed the sign leading to the Morro da Igreja, from where you can see the Pedra Furada, and ended up on top of the serra do Corvo Branco, from where the view wasn’t bad at all either.

About halfway back to Urubici, we found the correct road to the morro da Igreja (alt. 1800m) that we missed on the way up, only to find out that there was no way to see the Pedra Furada due to the (again) heavy mist… Well, the only thing we gained was more kms to our route that day… An easy 250 km ride to Blumenau became 430 km.

Serra do Corvo Branco near Urubici… We were actually looking for the Pedra Furada, but due to heavy mist, this landmark was invisible…

On our way to Blumenau, we took an inside road, leading north from the BR282 passing via “Angelina” and “major Gercino”. This was a dirt road, and to make things interesting, a little after leaving Urubici, it had started raining again... Swell. As expected, the section of dirt road was pretty slippery, and made us slow down significantly. Luckily, the last 20 km that were also marked as dirt road in my GPS had been asphalted.

However, to get to Blumenau we had to go through the city of Brusque at dusk and rush hour, which was  probably the worst time to pass through there because of the traffic jams, and this resulted in us arriving in Blumenau only around 7.30pm… pitch dark of course… This was another city that we weren’t going to be able to explore a little more…

Day 10: Back home

Normally we would have taken the road along the coast to get back home, spending one more night near Santos, but In the morning, Mariel noticed that his front shocks were leaking some oil. We decided to head home and do the remaining +/- 950 km to Volta Redonda in one go.

We passed via Joinville to Curitiba and took the BR116 from there. This section of the BR116 (between Curitiba and São Paulo) is known as the “Rodovia da Morte” (highway of death), which is kind of a scary name, but I have to say that apart from the road not being in top shape, I didn’t really feel like this road was any more dangerous than any other road in Brazil. In fact, I found the first 150 km from Curitiba to Jacupiranga to be very scenic, especially where the road passes the Environmental Protection Area of Guaraqueçaba…

On Wikipedia, I read that the reason for the name “highway of death” is that it is the road with the highest indice of mortal accidents in Brazil (Duh ). Also, there’s a +/- 40 km section between Miracatu e Juquitiba, known as “Serra do Cafezal”, that is still not duplicated. I suppose that’s where most of the accidents happen..

The BR116 is one of the most important connections between the South east and the South, and a lot of the traffic are heavy trucks… We also passed a few sections with road works and those are always more dangerous and subject to traffic jams and accidents.

The worst part of the day, however, was passing the city of São Paulo. Although a little more disciplined than in Rio de Janeiro, the friday evening traffic was still pretty horrible, and the fact that it was getting dark, wasn’t helping a lot…

Anyways, around 10pm we reached Volta Redonda after about 4000km in 10 days (7 real riding days)

Here is an image of our (approximate) route in Googlemaps… Unfortunately, the real link was too long and wouldn’t process.

I hope you enjoyed this ride report.Unfavorable weather conditions and lack of more time prevented us from going further south into Rio Grande do sul, but that is a trip we can do on another occasion.

Thanks for reading. (I know this is kind of a long one :))

Easy 4×4 – the Tinguá Biological Reserve – Rio de Janeiro State

“even though it was raining most of the time during my trip, I still enjoyed every second of it.”

The trip started out dry, but then the rain started and things got a little more wet and muddy.

Doing some research afterwards, I learned that this road had been opened in the early 17th century as one of the first links between the city of Rio de Janeiro and the gold and diamond mines in the interior of Minas Gerais.In my never-ending quest for new interesting places, I stumbled upon an ancient road, called “Caminho do Imperador” wich connects the municipality of Miguel Pereira and the Imperial city of Petrópolis.

As an extra bonus, this historic road, that starts out as just another dirt road a little outside and east of Miguel Pereira, suddenly becomes a lot more interesting when it enters the State Biological reserve of Tinguá.

The Tinguá reserve is a 260km² patch of dense atlantic rainforest, located just north-west of Rio de Janeiro in the municipality of Nova Iguaçu. The area, which represents a significant portion of the Atlantic Forest’s biological diversity, became a Biological Reserve in 1989. Since then, numerous studies on local fauna and flora were carried out here. Recently (2011) there was also an interesting survey in the communities around the reserve, to collect information about, and preserve the knowledge of medicinal plants among the local population.

The rugged landscape of the reserve consists of cliffs, cut by torrential rivers, and various so-called “serras” or mountain chains, the highest of which is the serra da Tinguá, reaching  an altitude of. 1600m. The distance between Miguel Pereira and The main road (BR040) is about 42km and all along the way I was thinking that this would also be a fantastic place to hike or practice mountain biking. . .

Riding through the reserve gives you that unmistakable “Indiana Jones” kind of feeling and even though it was raining most of the time during my trip, I still enjoyed every second of it. A stop at the highest point didn’t give me the great view I would have on a sunny day, since mist was hiding most of the surrounding mountains, but just being there and hearing nothing but the sound of birds, monkeys and running watermade for another wonderful memory…

Sadly, but not surprisingly, as with so many other “protected” areas, an area of this size is very difficult to oversee, and Tinguá is also under a lot of pressure as a result of the ever-expanding communities along its borders and the pollution that goes with it. also Hunting (poaching) and capturing forest animals to sell on the black market, present another threat to the already suffering local fauna.and flora.

Enjoy the following pictures

We cannot display this gallery

And this Video…

Follow @twitter

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

Motorcycles and me – a never ending love story

The kind of bike my uncle used to have and where I had my very first rides on as a kid.

My love for motorcycles started way back when I was a little boy and all in awe about my uncle’s old Flandria. During the school holidays, I used to spend a lot of time at my grandmother’s house, and stood by and watched my mom’s little brother (my uncle) tinkering with the engine, or just cleaning it.

A few times he took me along for a little spin, and I remember feeling completely exited and overwhelmed by the power of the 50cc engine. Of course, I was very small and a 50cc for me was huge…

Close to my grandma’s house was a motocross track, and every year around Easter there was an important world-champion race, that lasted an entire weekend. I remember watching the riders doing their training sessions from my grandmother’s house with binoculars during the week, and on saturday and sunday, nobody could keep me away from that track.

The Belgian motocrossers have dominated the sport for decades, and for me, going to those events was kind of like a Rolling stones concert with the Beatles as opener. All the world’s best riders were present and gave it all they had. Names like Joël Robert, Roger de Coster, Sylvain Geboers (father of Eric Geboers), Harry Everts (father of Stefan Everts) are probably no longer in people’s memories, but for me, these guys were gods, and in my dreams I was riding like them… Those were good times actually.

My first bike was one like this, only, mine was grey: a Yamaha RD 50cc

This bike was pretty famous amongst my generation as one of the best bikes to “tune” (basically: make it go faster) and instead of the limited 40 km/h my RD was able to do speeds up to 110 km/h (downhill and down wind of course).During my teen years I continued to be fascinated by Motorcycles, anxiously awaiting the moment when I would turn sixteen so I could finally get a bike of my own. When the big moment arrived, I had saved up some money from a few student jobs I did, and bought a used Yamaha RD 50cc from a friend.

Eventually, I ended up having an accident with it and I didn’t have any money to repair it, so I sold it.

Not very long after the accident with the RD,  I turned 18, old enough to buy a real motorcycle, but my parents were against it, the accident in mind, and talked me into buying a car instead, which would be safer. So… At 18 I had a car instead of a motorcycle, but I noticed that a car had a few advantages that were quite important for me at that point in my life:

  1. My first REAL motorcycle: the Suzuki Marauder 800cc

    At 19, I met the girl who would become my wife, and she had a problem with motorcycles, to put it mildly… actually she downright HATED them and everything connected to them… To her, everyone riding a bike was a pig. No more, no less…end of story. was learning to play the guitar and dragged it along with me everywhere I went, and with a car, that was a lot easier – and safer – than on a bike. I had already destroyed one guitar in the previously mentioned accident, and wasn’t looking forward to go through that again…

  2. With a car, you could give friends (read “girls”) a ride to the parties, and my Citroën Diane was very popular I must say…
  3. A car was drier and warmer than a motorcycle (ok, this is a weak one)

So out of love I had to get to terms with the idea that riding a motorcycle would be something I could only dream about for the rest of my life.

My Suzuki Bandit 1200cc… I got a good deal on it because nobody seemed to like the color…

All those years I had kept my secret desire to buy a motorcycle carefully tucked away, but when I got single again, there was no one to tell me what to do (or not to do) anymore, and it didn’t take longer than ten days before I had my first real motorcycle on my driveway: a secondhand Suzuki Marauder 800.So then you get married, and you have kids (two of them) and a career (only one), and before you know it, you’re twenty years further … and divorced.

I had a lot of fun with it. I took it to the south of France and back, blew up the engine, had two accidents (both times a car coming out of a street without looking) and that was the end of the Marauder…

Time for a change, and the shop owner where I bought the Marauder had already told me that if I wanted to travel some more, I would be better off with a heavier bike, like the Suzuki Bandit 1200 and since he made me a good deal on a brand new one in his showroom, I was easily persuaded.

I took the Bandit across most of Europe, once doing 8000 km in three weeks, and after 1,5 years I had done 40.000 km.

Me and my Honda CB1300… A real beast.

I knew that in Brazil, I would need a bike that could handle both on and off-road riding, and back in Belgium I had already made up my mind that I would go for a KTM 650 or 990 Adventure, but once in Brazil, I found out that the KTM’s were extremely expensive and there was no dealership in Volta Redonda.It was around that time that I had my eye on a very beautiful Honda CB 1300 that the bike shop had in the window for quite some time. I had told the shop owner once: “don’t sell this one, after I worn out the Bandit, I’m going to buy it”. Sure enough, I ended up getting my third bike in 4 years…Untill I moved to Brazil.

After some research I learned that the best (price – quality) dual sport bike available in Brazil at the time, was the Yamaha XT660R. The Yamaha dealership in Volta Redonda also gave me a very good impression and so I decided to buy the XT660R. I would rather have bought a Teneré, If they would have been available, but that wasn’t the case.

My bike of choice for the Brazilian roads: the Yamaha XT660R. The Teneré would be even better, but not available in Brazil

Most adventure riders will tell you that on a motorcycle road trip, it is all about the freedom, the independency, the feeling of being more in touch with your surroundings.I rode tens of thousands of kilometers with the XT660R and took it into pretty rough terrain and it turns out to be a great bike. Perfect to go and explore a country like Brazil, where road conditions often make it necessary to have a bike capable of more than just smooth asphalt.

Fact is, on a motorcycle, even the most regular trip can turn into an adventure.

A motorcycle also makes it easy to meet people. Especially in Brazil, I have people (not only fellow motorcyclists) come up and talk to me all the time, asking about the bike, where I come from, where I’m going and I usually end up getting lots of great information about the region I’m traveling through.

For me, a motorcycle is by far the best way to discover a country like Brazil (or any other country), and I will probably be riding as long as my health allows me to…

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. 

Alternative route to Ubatuba… close but no cigar

Adventure, Brazil, dirt roads, ecotourism, motorcycle trip, Mountain, outdoors, Road trip, Serra da Bocaina

In February 2010 I wanted to check out Ubatuba, A coastal town located at the northern coast (Litoral Norte) of São Paulo State, also known as the costa Verde (green coast).

I heard some good things about the place (great beaches, mountains, trekking, diving, fishing, surfing, extreme sports…) and looking at the Tracksource maps on my computer, I noticed that there was an alternative way to get there… via unpaved roads crossing the serra da Bocaina…

One thing about me is, that if there’s an alternative – preferably unpaved – route to get somewhere, I’m going to use that, rather than take the beaten track…

On a previous ride, I had already found a track crossing the Serra da Bocaina and the Bocaina National Park to get to Cunha, another historic place linked to the Gold route, but from there it was another 90 km of unknown terrain, mostly dirt road, leading to the Serra do Mar and Ubatuba.

The first leg of the trip was from my home town (Volta Redonda) to São Jose do Barreira a small village on the “Estrada dos Tropeiros” (the link is in Portuguese, but the pictures speak for themselves). Tropeiros were the guys who traveled three months, all the way from Diamantina in the heart of Minas Gerais with a pack of mules loaded with gold and/or diamonds that had to be shipped from Paraty to Rio de Janeiro and from there across the Atlantic to Portugal…

From São Jose do Barreira to Cunha is about 95km, with 2/3 being dirt road and VERY beautiful. I was lucky with the weather that day. February is one of the wettest months of the year and not a lot of people know that the region called the Costa Verde has the same amount of rainfall as the Amazon rain forest, which is why many local people refer to Ubatuba as “UbaCHUVA” (Chuva = Rain) :).

Riding up the Serra da Bocaina, during the first 25 km the road looked like it had recently been repaired and so it was in pretty good condition. After that, it got interesting (I don’t use the word “bad” when it comes to dirt roads :)) The road went from sandy to rocky, and a few pretty technical sections, but nothing too difficult.a normal car wouldn’t get through though. It kept climbing up to an altitude of about 1.300m and the view from there was stunning, to say the least.

Near “Campos de Cunha” I needed to buy gas, so I pulled up at the padaria (bakery), bought some water and asked the lady where the gas station was. She told me that there was NO gas station in Campos de Cunha. Probably due to the expression of disbelief and despair on my face, she smiled and said that there was this man in the village who I could buy gas from.

She gave me some pointers and after a few wrong turns, and asking more directions from other people, I found the guy’s house…

When he opened his garage door, I could hardly believe what I saw… Hundreds of 1.5 liter pet bottles filled with gasoline were stacked against the back wall. This place was a time bomb.

I really didn’t want to hang around there any longer than needed, so I quickly bought 2 bottles (3 liters) of gasoline, which would be enough to get me to Cunha. Of course, this guy charged me double the price of what I would pay at a gas station, but I guess he had to include his transport costs.

I got to Cunha, bought a full tank of fuel and started what would be the final leg of the trip to Ubatuba…It started with a section of dirt road leading away from the main road that leads to Paraty, but after that, well, good question… I guess that’s the adventure part, right?  I just needed to get to Ubatuba, find a pousada for the night and return to Volta Redonda the next day… nothing too hard.

Finding the first part of dirt road was easy enough, because it was indicated on my GPS, and I entered it… The first 5 km were ok, I saw houses, so people were living there, but then things started to get harder…

As long as there were houses, it’s safe to assume that the road will be kept in pretty decent condition, but as soon as the “residential” area ends, you can expect just about anything.

This part of Brazil was battered by very heavy rainfall from December through January, and stories about landslides were in the news every day.

Roads like these, which are not registered as “BRxxx” or “RJxxx” don’t get any maintenance from the government, so it is basically up to the people who are living in the remote parts of the area, to keep the road open so they can get to where they need to be…

A lot (you could say “most”) of the locals in these parts are using horses to get around, and can easily get past landslides or other obstacles, so some roads can be damaged, or even washed away by the rain to the point that there’s no way you ever going to get through it by car… even a 4×4… or a Yamaha XT660 without dirt-bike tires for that matter

There were some sections where I had to maneuver my way around holes in the road in which I could easily disappear, bike and all… It’s unbelievable what the force of water can do… It never seizes to amaze me.

At one point (I think I had that coming sooner or later :)) the road was blocked by a landslide… the whole road surface was covered with a 30cm thick layer of slimy red mud, about 40m across.

There was a small “sitio” (small farm) close by, so I figured that if I would have a problem, I could ask help there… Having no other option, I decided to go for it and try to blast through the mud  (the other option was, to turn back and go home…)

I took a 50m running start and charged into the landslide… yeah, right… After about 5m, the bike was stuck… and I mean really stuck.

As I was struggling to pull the bike back out of the blubber, the people of the sitio (as expected) were watching me from a distance, (probably laughing their asses off at the stupid gringo) and as they saw that I wasn’t going to get the bike out on my own, two guys came over to help…did I already mention that Brazilians are the most helpful people I ever met? In Europe they would probably stand there and keep laughing…

As they were giving it their all to get the bike back on solid ground, I did hear them mumble some stuff about how crazy you need to be to ride a “big” bike like this in these roads…:o)

After a lot of pulling, the bike finally was free and one of the guys showed me a way around the landslide… believe it or not, this was pure enduro, not really the stuff that you would do on a bike like mine… especially without knobby tires.

I had to go down a very narrow and steep trail leading down the slope toward the river, and ride back up after passing the slide… I guess this was how they did it on their horses… Yeah, Right :).  Did they ever see anyone do this on a motorcycle? No, of course not, but if I wanted to go on, that was the only way… I didn’t have knobby tires, so it would be very tricky… Long story short, I dropped the bike at least 4 times, I don’t want to remember – but I got down and back up the slope in one piece…

10 km further, the final blow… I came to a point where I had to cross a bridge over a small stream. the problem was, that due to the rains, the stream had very recently overflown its banks and the water had taken out most of the wooden bridge. Also, the banks on either side of the stream were transformed in knee deep mud, which made this a serious obstacle.

Before attempting the crossing, I walked over to the other side to check out the situation there.. The remains of the bridge seemed strong enough to carry the weight of the bike, but on the other side I had another 50m of knee-deep mud to cross.

My brain was telling me that I would never get through this mud with this bike and with these tires, but I was so close to the next town (Vila de Catucaba) and the only other option was, to turn back and face that land slide all over again… I decided to take my chances and face the mud…

It was hell. Well, crossing the remains of the bridge was actually quite easy (much to my surprise) but on the other side the mud was a lot deeper and as expected, the tires didn’t get any grip…

Pushing branches under the wheels allowed me to advance a ridiculous 30cm at a time and it would take me a few hours to cover the remaining 50m to the dry ground, but it was my only option, so I carried on.

After struggling like that for about 30 minutes (and believe me, this is hard labor in the hot Brazilian sun) my guardian angel (I wouldn’t know who else) sent me a guy on a horse passing by. He was so kind as to help me push the bike and that is probably why I didn’t have to spend the night there…

After all was said and done, my bike looked like this:

After getting out of the mud, I was kind of letting go of the idea to reach Ubatuba… I had seen enough mud and dirt roads for one day (almost 200kms) and was all covered in mud – as was the bike.

I had serious doubts that any pousada would even let me in, looking like this, so I decided to get on the first asphalt road and take the fast way back home. It was already getting close to 6pm so it would be getting dark soon. it was about 250kms to get home, and only 75 to Ubatuba, but I couldn’t care less about Ubatuba at that point… It wouldn’t go anywhere and I would try again some other time.

3,5 hours later, I arrived home, extremely tired, cold as hell, but glad that I made this trip… At least I knew that this was not the way to get to Ubatuba on a XT660R, well certainly not in the wet season it isn’t

This is the route I was planning to follow…

And this is what I really did

The map shows my route as I left from Volta Redonda, making my way to Bananal, Arapeí and São Jose do Barreira, where the real ride (dirt roads) started…

Picking up hitchhikers. A great way to meet locals – Bahia – Brazil

My Land Rover Defender “Big Blue”

Besides discovering different parts of Brazil on my motorcycle, I also love to do road trips in my Land Rover Defender… In July 2010 I was doing a 2 week trip to the Chapada Diamantina in the heartland of Bahia, when I picked up 3 hitchhikers in one day.

I know that most people would say that picking up hitchhikers in Brazil, especially in the poorer states (like Bahia) can be considered dangerous, but I did it and hereby declare that it wasn’t dangerous at all. Of course, I’m not going to pick up just about anybody.

On the 7th day of my trip, I was making my way east, coming from Itacaré, one of Bahia’s famous surf spots, and entered a 43 km long jungle road that leads to Ubaitaba. As it had been raining most of the night, the road was very muddy. 10 km into the jungle, I noticed a skinny old man waving me down. I stopped and the man asked if he could ride with me to Ubaitaba. He looked pretty harmless so I thought: “why not?”.

It was not too long before we were engaged in a pleasant conversation. The man told me he lived in Ubaitaba, but has a “Rocinha” close to the place where I picked him up. (“Rocinha” = vegetable garden – not to be confused with the favela in Rio de Janeiro).

In Europe, some people I know are growing vegetables in their back yard, but this man – who turned out to be 83 – had to travel 30 km on bad jungle road to get to his piece of land. He also said that he would normally take a bus, but that this was very uncomfortable on these bumpy roads, and he claimed that he knows people who had broken bones after riding one of these buses.

A typical dirt road in the south of Bahia. This one was 80 km to the coast.

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, and since that was one of the options for me to get to the Chapada Diamantina, I decided to give the lady a ride. I asked her to get in the back seat, because I just moved all my stuff back to the front, after dropping the old man loff, and she didn’t mind.We arrived in Ubaitaba and I said goodbye to my old new friend. My next goal was the city of Jequié, and the road leading there (the BA330), according to my GPS, would be “Muito Ruim” (very bad). To my pleasant surprise, the asphalt was brand new all the way to Jequié.

Once moving, she started to tell me her life’s story, about being born and raised in the area, working in the fazendas, getting married to the wrong guy, having children (a girl and two boys), getting divorced… the works….

Dirt road outside the Chapada Diamantina – Bahia – Brazil

One of her boys had been bitten by a snake just a few days ago on his way back from school. Getting him to the hospital was a big problem, because they don’t have a car, nor do they have a phone. Luckily they found a person who took them to the hospital and now the boy was better.

He wasn’t able to go to the Festa Junina though. Her other boy went 5 nights in a row… Festa junina is MAYOR STUFF in this part of Brazil. Anyway, she was going to visit her sisters in Maracas.

When I asked her about the poverty that lots of people seemed to be living in around these parts, she answered that the only two things you really need are “saúde and paz” (health and peace). All the rest is not so important. She also said she felt a little sorry for me traveling all by myself, but then she told me “you are alone with God, so you’re not really alone”. wise words from a very simple person.

Another dirt road, this time in the north of Minas Gerais, headed for Jequitinhonha

After dropping my second passenger off at her sister’s house in Maracas, I stopped at a gas station to buy Diesel, and to figure out the best way to get to my next goal: Marcionilio Souza. I noticed a dirt road on my paper map, but that 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 “vai embora” (just go)… He also said that the road was not very good, and there was a serra, but mostly descending…

Riding into Maracas, I had noticed that it was very quiet in the streets. There was a world cup game in progress, between Brazil and Holland, so all the local bars were packed with men, their eyes glued to the TV sceern. I was expecting deafening noise from hundreds of “vuvuzela’s”, but the silence was speaking for itself… Just before I left the gas station, I learned that Brazil had lost the game against Holland and was out of the world cup… bad news and no 8th title for Brazil. Someone said “a vida continua” (life goes on)… and I left.

Ok, so I was about to tackle 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 was not the worse I’ve seen so far, and had a few signs on crucial places pointing to Marcionilio Souza, my next waypoint.

Going down the serra – Maracas is at +/- 1000m and the descent takes you back down to about 350m – there were some stunning views, and the road was getting better all the time. After the descent, it was flat for about 35 km and the road turned soft and sandy, like riding on a beach. This was truly a jeep’s wet dream. At times I was going 100km/h.

Further up the road to Jequitinhonha: this place is called “Mata Escura” (dark forest) and I heard that Brazilian soldiers are getting their survival training here.

After Marcionilio Souza, things changed drastically. The BA245 was as bad as it gets. It was pretty clear that this road had been asphalted with a layer way too thin, and now the road was all broken up, with the worst kind of potholes everywhere, making it worse than it probably was before they put the asphalt.

In this hell hole, I picked up my 3rd hitchhiker that day. A working guy who wanted to get to Itaeté, and judging by his smell, he wasn’t one of those Brazilians who take two showers per day. But he had useful information for me.

When I told him that I was planning to get to Lençois by 18.00pm, he said that there would be no way I would get there that early, and driving after dark was not advisable because of the road conditions AND  the BANDIDOS!!!. That sounded like I was in the Far West or something. He advised me to either stay in Itaeté, or try to get to Mucugé, which was closer and the road would be better.

I decided to follow his advice and change plans and head for Mucugé instead of Lençois. 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…

During the remaining days of this trip, I picked up one more hitchhiker (a lady with her 10 year old son, who was also carrying a small dog in her purse) and I must say that the encounters and conversations I had with these four totally different local people were some of the most valuable moments of the trip. It was once more a confirmation for that Brazil isn’t any more dangerous than any other place in the world…

A few days later, I had another remarkable encounter with three young guys in the middle of the jungle, but that is another story

Hope you enjoyed the read. All comments welcome.

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

Happy as a pig in shit – Serra da Mantiqueira Motorcycle Weekend

Our international trio: Robert (Dutch) – George (brazilian) – Osman (British/Turkish)

In June 2011, we went on a weekend motorcycle trip through the Serra da Mantiqueira, with its endless dirt roads, gorgeous landscapes, waterfalls, rivers and small rural villages.On the second day we crossed the “Vale Histórico do São Paulo“, also known as the “Estrada dos Tropeiros” one of the historically most important regions of Brazil during the Coffee era. It was along this route that the first emperor of Brazil (Dom Pedro I)  traveled from Rio de Janeiro to São Paulo to declare the independence of Brazil in 1822.

Our small, yet international group (Turkish, Dutch, Brazilian) took off around 8.30 on Saturday morning and the weather channel promised sunny and dry weather the whole weekend…

Main square in Santa Rita de Jacutinga with the Igreja Matriz.

Our next goal was Passa Vinte, another little village situated at the confluence between the states of Minas Gerais and Rio, where the Mantiqueira mountains form a valley that looks like the concave shell of a large oyster. the initial inhabitants of Passa Vinte gave the place the name “Cedro” (cedar) due to the large amount of these trees in the region.We rode north out of Volta Redonda and shortly after leaving the city, we were on the RJ153 that winds through a hilly landscape towards Nossa Senhora do Amparo, one of the first small villages we would pass along the way. From Amparo, we continued north on the RJ153 and crossed the state border with Minas Gerais, to arrive in Santa Rita de Jacutinga, where we stopped briefly to admire the Igreja Matriz.

We quickly passed Passa Vinte to push on to Fumaça, home to the famous “Cachoeira da Fumaça” a cascading waterfall of approximately 1,5 km long, that we  couldn’t pass by without stopping to take a few pictures.

On route to Fumaça, we had to cross this shallow stream. Maryel is following in the Land Rover with the luggage and in case any of the bikes would have a problem.

Osman had clearly done this before.

At the cachoeira da Fumaça, we rested for a while, shot a few pictures and removed a few layers of clothing because by then the sun was starting to heat up things. From there, the road became more rugged as we commenced a long climb, following the Rio Preto, which forms the border between Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais states, to arrive in Bocaina de Minas around 14.00h. We decided to have lunch in a typical “mineiro” restaurant, where you take your plate into the kitchen, where all the food is on the stove and load up all you can eat for about 10 R$ (5 USD) per person – inclusive drinks.

The Fumaça waterfall. One of the longest cascading waterfalls in Brazil.

A simple but tasty lunch at the restaurant of João Grandão. Typical Mineiro food and all you can eat for about 10 R$ per person.

After lunch, we had another 60 km of Dirt roads ahead, with a few more technical stretches, but our group seemed to have the necessary experience to pull it off.

Lying ahead: the Mantiqueira mountains which we would have to cross to get to Itamonte. We climbed to about 1.750m

We spent the night at Pousada Riberão do Ouro, a rural pousada located about 5 km south of Itamonte. For 100R$ per person Single room) or 136R$ (double room) for a shared room we enjoyed great hospitality in a pleasant setting. The pousada has a swimming pool, a children’s playground, a fishing pond and a restaurant serving typical cuisine of Minas Gerais.We reached Itamonte, our place for the night around 17.00h, just before it would start to get dark. Probably the only thing I miss about Europe, are the long days in the summer. Here in South east Brazil, in the wintertime it is dark by 18.00h, but in summertime it also gets dark pretty early, around 20.00h.


This is one of the more rugged roads leading through the serra da Mantiqueira, Some off road experience comes in handy here…

The next morning, after a delightful breakfast, we started the second day of our trip. After the many kilometers of dirt roads of the day before, today would be a day with more asphalt roads, starting with the 50 km descent out of the Mantiqueira mountains, from Itamonte to Engenheiro Passos,where we would take the Dutra highway for about 10 km, take the exit in Queluzand from there push on to Silveiras, the first of the historical cities of the Vale Histórico.

Our place for the night: Pousada Riberão do Ouro just outside Itamonte. an oasis of peace and tranquility in an open green setting.

The descent from Itamonte to the Dutra highway is almost 50 km of twisties, winding through the fabulous Mantiqueira landscape, littered with spectacular views of the Itatiaia park region. The quality of the asphalt starts out to be excellent when leaving Itamonte, which is tempting to open the gas a little more, but once across the São Paulo border, the road quality decreases significantly and we had to keep the speed down to avoid accidents.

We made it to the Dutra highway, then to Queluz and started our next leg to Silveiras which would take us through a stretch of dirt road that I had never taken before, but since it was indicated on my GPS, I figured it would be ok. Turned out that this road, after a few kilometers, became a private road and so we started  following another road that seemed to go in the direction of Silveiras, but was not on my GPS. At one point we came at a T-section and took a right turn. After a few kilometers, we encountered a local man and I asked for directions. Apparently, this road would eventually become too bad for the bikes and even for the Land Rover, and according to him, we should have gone to the left at the T-section. We backtracked the short distance and eventually got on the right road, which connected to the Estrada dos Tropeiros, and we arrived in Silveiras.

Silveiras is the place where the headquarters of the National Foundation of Tropeiros was established. The tropeiros were the people who traveled long distances with a pack of mules to transport goods from one big city to another. Usually from Rio to São Paulo or vice versa. Tropeiros also used to transport gold and diamonds from the interior of Minas Gerais to the coast.

Silveiras: First city of the Estrada dos Tropeiros and Headquarters of the National Foundation of Tropeiros. The fountain (Chafariz) at the central square was the place where all the citizens came to get their water.

In Silveiras, a local guy who introduced himself as Toninho came up to us and started telling us about the horseback tours that he organises. They go with a group of people on horseback, traveling through the region the way the ancient Tropeiros used to do. Seems to me like a great way to spend a few days.

A short stop in Areias, once one of the richest cities of the state of São Paulo

Our support vehicle: “Big Blue”

We had a drink in Areias and decided that we would not stay on the Estrada dos Tropeiros, but take another route that would lead us back north to the Serra da Mantiqueira and the dirt roads. I found a dirt road leading to Resende, from where we could get to Penedo and from there further on in the direction of Visconde de Maua.After taking in the atmosphere in Silveiras, we moved on to Areias. The cities here are all located around 25 km from each other. This is the distance a tropa could generally travel in one day. Areias was once one of the richest cities of São Paulo state, thanks to the coffee industry that was flourishing here. It was also the preferred weekend getaway for the coffee barons of the region.

We pushed on to São José do Barreiro, which is the place from where you can get access to the Bocaina National Park, and found the entrance to the dirt road to Resende about 14 km further. It was the first time I took this road and was pleasantly surprised with its condition. We took Gas in Penedo and started the climb towards Visconde de Maua. Halfway to Visconde de Maua, we turned right to get to Pedra Selada, from where we went on to Fumaça. The last leg of the trip took us to FalcãoQuatisAmparo and finally Volta Redonda.

More dirt roads to Pedra Selada.

And the road to Fumaça

After almost 500 km of motorcycling, we needed a suitable closing of the weekend, so after everybody had the chance to clean up and have a snack, we gathered at the International Karting track of Volta Redonda. where we gave in to our need for speed for one last time. Osman gave everything he had and turned out to be the fastest one of us.

Ready to take of on the Karting Track

Osman finished first, but we are all winners here… FLTR: Robert, me, Osman, Maryel and George.

Osman, George and Robert, thank you for a fantastic weekend. You guys are welcome to come back any time.

Mato Grosso do sul – the ride home from Iguassu falls.

After my trip to Iguaçu falls, I was planning to ride further south and explore some of the state of Santa Catarina, especially to ride the Serra do Rio do Rastro.

Unfortunately, the weather reports were predicting a rain and cold weather in the south for days to come and forced me to change plans and travel home via Mato Grosso do Sul. I would at least ride to Bonito, Brazil’s eco-tourism capital, and maybe get to see some of the world-famous Pantanal.

Day 6: Back to Guarapuava.

I traveled to the falls in the company of Rodrigo, Suzana, and Mike. Rodrigo and his girlfriend Suzana live in Guarapuava, halfway between Curitiba and Foz do Iguaçu, and had invited myself and Mike, an US expat who lives in Santa Catarina, to meet up at their house and travel together for the rest of the trip. At the meeting in Foz do Iguaçu, I had met Alex, an architect and fellow motorcycle adventurer from Campinas (State of São Paulo). When Alex learned that I was going to ride to Mato Grosso do Sul, he immediately said that he wanted to join me. I didn’t mind some company along the way, especially when going into unknown territory, so that would work great for me.

To close the Iguaçu Falls event, Rodrigo had invited Mike, Alex and myself to spend a last day at his house in Guarapuava, before splitting up and going our own way. Our trip back to Guarapuava ended in the rain… Alex and myself were ahead of Rodrigo and Mike because Rodrigo decided to do some more shopping in Paraguay.

Alex and me left Foz do Iguaçu around 9.30 and had an easy ride for several hours. We stopped to have lunch near Cascavel, and as we went on, it became clear that there was rain ahead. Alex had also told me that he felt that there was something wrong with his bike. Sure enough, it started raining and pretty quickly it also became a lot colder. we had to stop several times because Alex’ bike wasn’t functioning well. It seemed to be some  kind of electrical problem, and Alex tried to fix it as much as possible with limited tools and resources, and we managed to get to Guarapuava, almost at the same time that Rodrigo and Mike arrived.

Day 7: Alex tries to fix his bike.

As I mentioned before, Alex had told me that he would join me on my further trip to Mato Grosso do Sul, but now, with his bike in this uncertain condition, he thought it would make more sense to head home to Campinas instead. The next day he would put the bike in one of the bike shops in Guarapuava (recommended by Rodrigo) and try to deal with the problem, before making the final decision. Alex spent the next day in the in the local shop, but unfortunately nobody was able to fix the problem, and so Alex decided to go home.

Day 8: On to Mato Grosso do Sul.

After spending most of day 7 in a local LAN-House (internet café) and cooking a meal for my host Rodrigo and the rest of our group, it was time to hit the road again and start the next leg of my tour. The weather channel predicted sunny and warm weather for Mato Grosso, so I was feeling pretty good to be back on the road… My goal for the day was to get to Bonito, also known as the eco-tourism capital of Brazil, which was about 900km from Guarapuava.

The first couple of hours, there were lots of clouds and I even had some rain, but the further north I got, the more blue in the sky and by the time I stopped for lunch, the sun was out. Just the way I like it

I was making good progress and was hoping to arrive in Bonito that same night, but destiny decided otherwise…

A little before Nova esperança (still in Parana) I had my second flat tire of this trip. Unfortunately, this time it didn’t happen on a toll road so there was no free tow truck to get me to the next borracharia. I had to push the bike for several kms before finding a borracharia and in the blistering sun, wearing heavy motorcycle pants and riding boots, I had the best workout of the trip

Luckily I had enough water in my camelback.

Another visit to a borracharia… Second flat of the trip

I lost about 3 hours due to the flat tire and I had hardly crossed the border between Parana and Mato Grosso do Sul when it started getting dark. I pushed on for another 50 km until I reached a big gas station in Bataiporá. Next to the gas station was a hotel that looked pretty ok, though some people had warned me about this kind of place… Lots of lonely truck drivers often spells “prostitution hot-spot”. I checked the place out for a while, but didn’t notice anything weird so I took a room, which was very small but still a lot bigger than my tent, so more than sufficient for me…

The mighty Paranã river: Seventh biggest river in the world…

I was a few seconds too late to take a great sunset shot…. The sun had just dropped behind the horizon.

The next morning: My hotel in Bataiporá next to a big gas station. A place to crash. Most guests are there for only one night.

Besides this praying Mantis I discovered on the bed frame in the morning, the room was pretty much bug free… Probably this guy ate all the other ones :o)

Day 9: Bonito – Eco-tourism capital of Brazil

I left the hotel in Bataiporá around 7.30am and started the last stretch to Bonito.

Mato Grosso do Sul is very big, and the roads are long and straight. I’m more a fan of the winding up and down mountain roads, so this part of the trip was a little boring for me. I passed a few cities and smaller communities and around noon I stopped at a gas station to fill the tank and decided to have lunch in a restaurant further up the road. It’s always nice to see people’s reactions when you tell them that you’re not going to have any meat. Brazil has a strong meat-eating culture, and here in the deep interior, it seems to be even stronger. Anyway, I had a nice meal and an hour later I was back on the road.

A (almost) deserted gas station in Mato Grosso do Sul… You don’t find them like this in Rio de Janeiro or São Paulo.

The road restaurant where I had a simple but tasty meal. (I really need to start taking pictures of the food…)

65km until Bonito, the ecotourism capital of Brazil… don’t have any pics of the city (dead battery)… Always a reason to go back :o)

The last 65km to Bonito the landscape turned a little more mountainous and the road was more twisty. I arrived there around 2.30PM and checked into the local hostel. As you could expect in a hostel, there was a very international group of guests, and I ended up sharing the room with were 2 Brazilians, an Italian, a guy from Switzerland, and an Argentinian. The Swiss guy was even born in Belgium, so there was some kind of connection. The rest of the day I went for a walk in the city (my camera battery was empty, so I don’t have any pics of downtown Bonito :o(

Later that night, I had dinner with a newly wed couple from Niterói (near Rio de Janeiro) that was also staying in the hostel. I found out that in most restaurants in Bonito you can eat Jacaré (crocodile)… Of course I passed on that, but the people who tried it, say that it tastes a bit like chicken. So be it.

some of the attractions in Bonito (photo: www.overmundo.com.br). Bonito, as the name suggests, is a very nice place, but also pretty expensive, compared to other places in Brazil that are less touristic but not necessarily less beautiful.

I didn’t make it a late night, because the next morning I wanted to get an early start… The one thing I don’t like about sleeping in the same room with so many people, is that there always seems to be at least one guy who snores… no different this time. Comes with the territory I guess…

Day 10: Trés Lagoas (border with São Paulo state)

I didn’t have the time to explore some of the spectacular natural attractions in the region around Bonito, since I arrived a day later than planned…Stupid flat tires… I guess this is one of the things you have to learn to deal with when on the road with a motorcycle (or a car for that matter): plans can change. Oh well, one more place to put on my bucket list.

I wanted to get as far east as possible, catching at least a glimpse of the famous Pantanal wetlands, but also due to the change of plans, I had a feeling that I wasn’t going  to get close enough and I wouldn’t have the time to make the trip any longer since I wanted to get home in time for my birthday

From Bonito, I went north on the MS-178, which is a 60 km dirt road in the process of being asphalted, (dirt roads are being asphalted in great numbers all over Brazil it seems…) and then onto the MS-339 to get on the big road (BR-262) leading to Campo Grande, the capital of Mato Grosso do Sul. From Campo Grande it was pretty much following the same BR-262 until reaching trés Lagoas.

Shaggy houses along the road near the entrance of a big farm. And yes, there are people living here.

I ended up not seeing anything of the Pantanal, which was kind of bummer, but I promised myself to return here to check out this area in more depth. What I did see though, is that there must be a lot of wildlife here, because I saw various dead animals on the side of the road, which was kind of sad…

Road kill 1: a Capivara

Roadkill 2: A Tatu

Roadkill 3: A Coati…This poor guy was still warm…

In Trés Lagoas, it took me some time to find a pousada, but eventually I found a place. It was a little weird, because it was a brand new pousada in what looked like a very poor part of the city… the houses around the pousada reminded me of the favelas in Rio de Janeiro, but the owner assured me it was a very safe neighborhood (which is exactly what I would tell people if I were the owner).  later that evening, a busload of university students from Roraima arrived. They were headed for São Paulo to attend a conference on environmental protection. These guys were definitely in the mood for a party, and the racket went on until about 3am… Guess who didn’t get a lot of sleep that night.

Final day: 1.100 km back home…

On this last day, I didn’t take any pictures for a few reasons. 1. I was riding the whole day without stopping to get home, and 2. It rained practically the whole time, which also brought on a lot of fog, so not really ideal conditions to take pictures.

One thing that I didn’t find very amusing was that once I got across the São Paulo state border, the Pedagio’s (toll booths) were all over the place, and no free passage for motorcycles this time. Every 20 km there was another Pedagio, and every time the price got a little higher… I asked the lady in one of the pedagio’s what kind of scam this was, because the road wasn’t even in good shape, but she told me to take it up with the governor. No arguing there… 

What I will never forget about this day is that during the last 500kms, I got battered by heavy rainstorms. Just when I had to cross the Mantiqueira mountains with its very twisty climbs and descents…

Looking back, I now think it would have been a better (and a lot safer) plan to look for a hotel for the night instead of riding through that inferno… Even my SPOT sattelite messenger stopped working in the last 120km. I still don’t know what caused that. I guess it was all the electricity in the air.

Anyways, I got home in one piece once more AND in time for my birthday…

Thanks for reading… hope you enjoyed it… All comments are welcome.

Disaster weekend – Ibitipoca State park – Minas Gerais

Road sign to Ibitipoca Park

One of the great things about being a tour operator is that I need to take a road trip on a regular basis, to check out new places to see if they are interesting enough to be included in one of our motorcycle tours.

In a country like Brazil, this can hardly be considered as “work”, but things don’t turn out as planned all the time… On this particular trip just about everything seemed to go wrong

Last year’s Easter weekend, I wanted to check out Ibitipoca state park (+/- 1500 Hectares) in the Serra da Ibitipoca, a disjunction of the Serra da Mantiqueira in the south of Minas Gerais, about 70 km west of the city of Juiz de Fora. This region is famous for its quartzite caves, which are said to be very rare, but also for its natural pools, special rock formations, great views and typical fauna and flora.

I just had a few pretty expensive repairs done on the engine of my Land Rover, and I figured this would be a good opportunity to test it on a relatively short trip. Ibitipoca is about 150km from where I live. About half of the distance is unpaved road, the final part of which is pretty rough…which I didn’t know when I started out. Previous “getting stuck in the middle of nowhere” experiences in mind, I made it a habit of also taking my mountain bike with me whenever I intend to go driving around in unknown territory.

The plan was pretty simple: Start out on Friday morning, arrive in Ibitipoca around noon, settle down in a pousada, explore the town, hike around the park on Saturday and return on Sunday…Piece of cake, right?

I drove off on Friday morning, following the RJ153 north to Santa Isabel. From there I took the unpaved road via Santa Rita de Jacutinga to Bom Jardim de Minas. (note, dec 2011: this is no longer an unpaved road).  I took a right on the BR267 until Olaria, where I turned left to enter the final 25km dirt road to Ibitipoca. It didn’t have a BR or MG code, and these roads are usually rougher and, more often than not, poorly maintained…

Ibitipoca – Park Entrance.

Ok, there I was, about 10km from Ibitipoca with a broken down car, and of course no cell phone signal, but this was exactly why I brought my mountain bike, right? What is 10k after all? I changed into my biking clothes, took the bike out and started the 10km ride to Ibitipoca. Actually, it was a great workout. Ibitipoca is at an altitude of about 1300m and the views of the mountainous surroundings made the mess I was in seem a little bit less of a nightmare.zBut I was driving the mother of all 4X4 vehicles, so I should be ok, right? Wrong! After about 15km, the engine started making weird sounds and sure enough, a little later, in the middle of an uphill section, the engine died. I let the car roll backwards until I reached a more leveled spot, where I could “park”.

There was a very small village (more like a cluster of a few houses and a church) about 3 km from where I started, but it looked kind of run down and I decided it was better not to stop here. Arriving in Ibitipoca, I asked around where I could find a mechanic, and they showed me the way to the center. The center was very crowded, not unusual on a Easter weekend, and I found out that the only mechanic in town was occupied in some sort of promotional film shoot that was taking place this weekend.

There was nothing else to do but to wait until the film shoot was over, so I looked for a bar/restaurant to have something to eat and relax until the mechanic would be available. After my lunch, I asked the waitress if she had an idea when the film shoot would be over and she said that it would take at least until 6pm. That was not really the best of news, because my biking clothes were completely soaked from sweating and I didn’t have any dry ones. Also, at this altitude it wasn’t going to take long before it would get pretty cold.

After thinking it over, I decided to ride back to the car, put on some dry clothes and come back hiking. I figured that by the time I would be back, maybe the mechanic would be ready, although the question also was wether this guy would be in the mood to go out on another rescue mission after working at the film shoot all day long. Anyways, there were not a lot of other options, were there?

The ride back to the car was all downhill, which made it kind of dangerous… Like I said before, this section of dirt road was pretty close to being a 4×4 trail, but I managed to get back to the place where I left the jeep in one piece.

I stuffed my bike back in the trunk, changed into dry clothes and started walking back to Ibitipoca… I hadn’t walked very far when I heard a sound of a heavy engine behind me. I looked back and to my big surprise, a TOW TRUCK was coming around the bend. It was old and nearly fell apart, but it was a tow truck… I tried to make it stop, but the guys inside signaled me to jump on the back, which I did.

A few kilometers further, the truck stopped in the small, run down place that I mentioned earlier, and the guys, two brothers, got out of the cabin. After a brief introduction, I told them that the blue Land Rover they had passed was mine, and that I needed a mechanic. Not surprisingly, the man that was driving the truck said that he was a mechanic. Wow, sweet… I had a tow truck AND a mechanic. The mechanic agreed to go back to my jeep and try figure out the problem.

They started to run around in the small village, and when they came back, they had collected a wrench here and a hammer there until they were comfortable they had enough tools to at least diagnose the problem. We would use an old VW Beetle (fusca) of one of the villagers to take the ride down to the jeep. I have seen a lot of these VW Beetles all over the rural interior of Brasil, and I must say I admire them for the way they seem to be able to ride trough the most rugged roads.

After a short but bumpy ride back to my jeep, the mechanic started to investigate the problem. It didn’t take long before he told me he needed some kind of tube or hose, which I was proud to have in my own tool case. After some blowing air here and sucking diesel there, he told me that there were two problems: 1. there seemed to be some dirt in the diesel, which clogged up the fuel pipes, and 2. my fuel pump was about to give up. He got the engine running again, and told me that it would run for a while, but eventually, no way to say after how long, the problem would come back.

Ibitipoca – Inside the Park

Ok, for now, I was happy that I could go on and get the car to Ibitipoca, which is a lot better than having to leave it behind in the middle of nowhere. By the time I got back to Ibitipoca, it was already getting dark (and pretty cold due to the altitude) and I was hungry again. After checking out the local pousadas and finding out that there was no more rooms available in the whole village, I went back to the restaurant where I had lunch earlier and sat down for dinner.

While I was eating, a group of six Brazilians (3 men – 3 women) arrived and sat down at the table next to me. They seemed a little tipsy, and it didn’t look like they were planning to stop drinking any time soon… One of them asked me if they could take one of the free chairs at my table, which was how they found out that I was a “gringo”. Pretty soon they were asking me the usual questions about where I was from, how I ended up in Brazil, what I did for work, etc… and I ended up being invited at their table to have a few drinks with them.

They also asked where I was staying, and when I said that actually I was planning to put my tent up somewhere, or spend the night in the jeep, they said I could put my tent at the cabin they were renting… which I gladly accepted.

After setting up my tent, my hosts invited me to join them for a walk around Ibitipoca. Actually, I couldn’t have picked a worse time to come here, for it usually gets invaded by tourists on holidays (feriados). The narrow, steep cobblestone streets were packed with mostly young people and there was a strong smell of beer and marihuana hanging in the air all over the place.I walked around for a while, but went back to my tent to get some sleep around 11pm.

My hosts came back from their party around 3am and started some kind of afterparty at the cabin. One of them came to my tent and insisted that I would have a last drink with them. At that point they were all beyond drunk and almost unable to walk, which became kind of funny in the end. I’m very grateful for their offer, but our agenda’s didn’t really match up. After all, I wasn’t there to party but to do some hiking early the next day… Around 5 am they finally let me go back to my tent and go to sleep.

So, Saturday morning around 7.30, I got up, got dressed, bought some breakfast and water in a local padaria (bakery) and took off to the park, which was about 3,5 km from the cabin. On the way over there, I passed a few camping sites and made a mental note that next time I would probably stay at one of those instead of staying with the party folk.

Arriving at the park entrance, I had a very unpleasant surprise… Despite the early hour, there was a long line of people waiting to get in. After talking to a few of them, I learned that you were supposed to buy your entrance ticket the day before if you wanted a chance to get in. I really should have done some more research before coming here

This park has a policy of letting in no more than 300 people at one given time to avoid putting stress on the fauna and flora of the park. After waiting in line for almost an hour, I started to realize that my chances of getting into the park that day were very slim, especially since I didn’t have an entrance ticket yet. At that point I was also more worried about getting home, since there would be a chance that the jeep would break down again. Taking everything in consideration, it seemed like a good idea to abort my hiking plans and concentrate on getting back to Volta Redonda.

I walked back to Ibitipoca (at least I had hiked 7 km that day :), loaded my tent and other stuff in the car, said goodbye to my hosts, who at that point were awake, looking like zombies and preparing lunch, meanwhile enjoying their first few beers of the day… I didn’t like the idea of spending another day, evening and night here, with them getting drunk all over again, so I was kind of glad to get the hell out of there…

Ibitipoca – Surrounding scenery

zI took the same dirt road back to Olaria, passing once again the small village where the tow truck had stopped, and everything seemed to go smoothly. I had been driving around Ibitipoca and didn’t really notice anything weird, so I had the feeling (more like wishful thinking) that the car was going to hold up until I got home.

Yeah, right… About 3 km from the main road, the engine died on me again. Swell… This time I knew where to find help. The guy who fixed my car the day before, was the owner of the gas station of Olaria, so I knew where to find him. Once more I took the bicycle out and started pedaling towards the village.

In what seemed as a confirmation that this was NOT my lucky weekend, the heavens opened up and it started pouring rain so hard that I was soaked in a matter of seconds. By the time I reached the gas station, I was drenched to the bone and feeling very cold.

The gas station was very simple and looked deserted. There were only two pumps, a dirty office, and next to the office, an even dirtier place that seemed to be some kind of tool shed. A number of car wrecks and partially disassembled cars, mainly VW Beetles, were littered around the gas station property. I remembered that the mechanic/owner told me that he was specialized in these cars, and that it was his hobby to fix them up or create a good one out of two or more old ones.

Because I didn’t see anyone, I shouted a few times, and after some time, a skinny, dirty black guy, who didn’t look like he was older than 18, appeared out of the tool shed. Apparently he had been taking a nap on a dirty mattress behind an improvised counter in the tool shed. I asked him where the boss was and he answered something in Portuguese that I couldn’t understand, basically because my Portuguese wasn’t perfect, but also because he was speaking the “sul de minas” dialect that, for me, sounded like another language at that time.

After I asked him four or five times to repeat, I managed to filter out that “the boss” wasn’t there because he was playing football. He wasn’t going to be back for a few hours… Since there was no other option, I found a place to sit down somewhere between the chaos, and waited for two and a half hours for the mechanic to return.

So there I was… It was way passed lunch time, I hadn’t eaten yet, I was freezing my ass off, my car broke down -again- , I didn’t know if I was going to get home any time soon, and it looked like there was another rainstorm coming… I can think of a few better moments in my life

When the mechanic finally returned, it was around 3 pm. He saw me sitting there and immediately knew what the problem was. He was quite convinced that it would be the fuel pump that hat given up, and we took off in the tow truck to pick up my car.

We arrived back at the gas station, and after a short inspection, he decided that it was indeed the fuel pump that needed to be changed. The question now was: where the f… are we going to find a fuel pump for a Land Rover on a Easter Saturday afternoon at almost 4 pm?

The guy had a bunch of address cards in his office and started calling people. After a while, he told me that he found a pump in Juiz de Fora, a city about 70km from where we were. Since it would be impossible to get there in time before closing, he called his cousin in Juiz de Fora, who owns a small supermarket there, and asked him to go and pick up the pump. Meanwhile, the mechanic’s brother had showed up at the gas station and said he would drive me to Juiz de Fora to collect the piece.

I accepted and we took off in the guy’s car, I believe it was a Volkswagen polo. It was still raining pretty hard, but this guy was driving really fast and I can’t say that I was feeling comfortable about that. He told me that he was a truck driver and that he usually was on the road for 3 months in a row, taking his wife and kid along every time. Things are really different in Brazil…

After about 45 minutes we arrived at the cousin’s supermercado in Juiz de Fora. The cousin gave me the box with the pump and I paid him the 150R$. I had a hunch that this maybe was too good to be true, so I took a peak inside the box and immediately saw that this pump was completely different than the one that came out of the jeep. Jeezes, I hate it when I’m right sometimes…

Of course, there was no way of giving the pump back, because the cousin only did us a huge favor picking it up for us, so feeling pretty screwed, I got back into the car and we hit the road again, direction Olaria. By the time we arrived at the gas station, it was already dark.

I was very curious about what was going to happen next. Since I already saw that the pump was wrong, I had been thinking about the possibilities. If the pump turned out to be usable in one way or another, fine, but in a worst case scenario, I needed to start thinking about finding a place to spend the night, and calling a tow service the next day to get my car back to Volta Redonda. Also, all the time this was going on, I had this little voice in the back of my head, trying to tell me that maybe, just maybe, all these people were trying to screw me over…

Upon arrival, I gave the box to the mechanic, saying that I was pretty sure the pump was different, and when he opened the box, he confirmed that it wouldn’t be usable. Swell… To my surprise, he immediately came up with another solution. He would put a 20l jerrycan on the roof of the car and bypass the fuel pump, using gravity to get the fuel into the engine… Ok, why not?

After another hour I was ready to go. Finally… I was getting tired and I still hadn’t eaten a lot that day. I had another 130 km ahead of me, and about half of that was dirt road, which would probably be very muddy after all the rain. At least it wasn’t raining any more. It took me another 3 hours to arrive in Volta Redonda, mainly because I had to take it really slow in the dirt roads.

It is a really bad idea to be driving around in these roads at night. Part of the road can be washed away by a flood and it wouldn’t be the first time somebody ends up in the hospital or the cemetery after taking a dive in the abyss.

Before arriving home, I got pulled over by the police, and because my international drivers license had expired, and the translation of my Belgian license was only valid for 6 months (something I found out right there and then…) I had a very hard time to convince the police officers to let me go and not confiscate my car…

I have no idea what made all these things happen in just one weekend. Probably sometimes things just turn out that way without a specific reason. It was a weekend to remember for sure.

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

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)