9 days on Brazil’s Estrada Real – A mix of History, Culture and Natural Beauty (Part 1)

On day 3, we’re really getting into the heart of Minas Gerais and the Serra do Espinhaço.

Whether on sand, asphalt or gravel, motorcycle adventure is always guaranteed on the Estrada Real. Every other road offers new discoveries. The many colonial villages with their typical colorful houses and churches, but also the rugged mountain scenery and the rivers with their countless waterfalls, make up what can be called one of the most important cultural and natural heritages on the planet.

Riding a motorcycle through this unique region offers a once in a lifetime opportunity to relive (to a certain extent) the experiences of the ancient bandeirantes, drovers, officers and other travelers that once roamed these parts.

In 18th century Brazil, there was only one legal way to transport goods, gold and diamonds, but also slaves, tools and other supplies, and that was via the Estrada Real. Opening new roads was considered a crime of lese-majesty, and there were severe punishments for smugglers.

The great importance of this road gave birth to countless towns and cities, some of which, like Ouro Preto or Diamantina, are today listed as World Heritage Sites.

Setting the historical stage:

Few people are aware of the fact that about 70 percent of the gold currently in use all over the world originated in Brazil.

Ouro Preto was the financial center of Brazil during the time of the Gold cycle

For Portugal, these gold deposits were a new and welcome source of income. During the 18th century, there was a big migration (call it a gold rush) from the North east (where the sugar plantations were hit hard by the competition of the Dutch) to the heart of Minas Gerais. Existing cities (like Ouro Preto, Diamantina, Mariana, Tiradentes and São João del Rei) knew rapid growth while numerous new cities emerged.Near the end of the 17th century, the early explorers (Bandeirantes) of Portugal’s new colony discovered gold in the region that would later be called Minas Gerais.

The Portuguese crown imposed heavy taxes, and severe penalties for those who weren’t able to pay, which gave rise to revolutionary groups like the “Inconfidência Mineira” led by Brazilian hero Joaquim José da Silva Xavier (also known as Tiradentes – or toothpuller), which formed the base of the independence of Brazil in 1822.

The Trip

In September 2011, Mirantes Mototravel Brazil set out with 4 riders and a support vehicle on the +/- 2.200 km trip (“Historical Trails & Cities”) along the two parts of the Estrada Real. The trip starts in Volta Redonda, down to Paraty from where we follow the “caminho Velho” (old road) north to Diamantina, and then back south to Rio de Janeiro via the “Caminho Novo” (new road)

Day 1: Volta Redonda – Passa Quatro

Headquarters of Mirantes Mototravel in Volta Redonda – Rio de Janeiro … Ready to hit the road.

We left Volta Redonda around 8.30 am, riding south and after about 20 minutes, the city was behind us and we found ourselves riding through the rural interior of the State of Rio de Janeiro with the Serra da Bocaina in the distance. The weather provisions were very good for the coming 10 days so with no rain to be expected any time soon, we were in good shape.

Once past Rio Claro, the BR155 starts to turn and twist its way up the Serra do Mar, and after a while we found ourselves surrounded by lush forest. The recently renewed, good quality asphalt enabled us to ride at a good pace. Only the steep curves in the mountains kept the speed down.

In Angra dos Reis, we took the BR101 (Rio Santos) direction Paraty, the historical 18th century port town from where the gold and diamonds were shipped to Rio de Janeiro.

Paraty was the most important port in Brazil, until the “caminho novo” was discovered. The new road to Rio de Janeiro reduced the travel time from Diamantina to Rio de Janeiro from three months to one, and also made the trip a lot safer because the last section y to Rio over sea was no longer necessary. Lots of shipments were lost to pirates in the period prior to the discovery of the “Caminho Novo”

On the BR155 leading to Angra dos Reis – rain forest in the serra do mar

We arrived in Paraty around noon and had our first lunch of the trip in “Ristorante O Sole Mio”, the only restaurant in Paraty that is run by a real Italian Chef.

Delicious Penne a l’arrabiata in “Ristorante O sole Mio”, near the historical center in Paraty

Since we were in the dry season this time, I assumed that the road would be in reasonably good condition, but we could already see the clouds hanging over the mountain, which didn’t promise a lot of good.We didn’t have a lot of time to hang around in Paraty, because we had one of the heaviest sections of the trip ahead of us. The ascent of the Serra do Mar to get to the city of Cunha. It is a steep, rocky and usually muddy climb from sea level to over 1500 m in just over 8 km. The two times I had already passed this road, both going up and down, I dropped my bike at least once.

I was especially worried about our Spanish participant, who was almost 70, and not very tall, riding a Honda Falcon, which we already lowered about 5 cm.

The initial part of the ascent was pretty ok, but once we hit an altitude of 500m, the mist set in and visibility dropped considerably. The mist was so thick that it felt like a drizzly rain, soaking us in no time.
Luckily, the mud was not nearly as bad as I saw the other times, and everybody made it to the top in one piece. About halfway up the ascent, we met a couple in a normal car riding down. The woman was driving. She stopped and I could see that she was kind of panicking, thinking that they were lost in the middle of nowhere.

Almost crying, she asked if this road was going to Paraty and if it would eventually turn into a “normal road”… I told her that she was on the correct road and already had the worst part behind her, which seemed to calm her down a bit. The guy next to her (Boyfriend, husband…?) didn’t look too happy either.

Top of the ascent from Paraty to Cunha. Still misty, but everybody made it in one piece and without dropping the bike. (photo: Alexandre Hernandez)

We filled our tanks in Cunha and continued along the BR459 to Guaratinguetá, where we took the BR116 direction east for about 30 km to reach the access to Passa Quatro, our goal for the day.Once on the top, the road was asphalted again and we continued to Cunha, descending back to about 1000m. Much to our relief, the mist subsided and the sun came out, drying our clothes very quickly.

Passa Quatro is a little town in the Serra da Mantiqueira that like many others was founded by the bandeirantes from São Paulo as a resting point during their expeditions into the interior of Brazil.

Today, Passa Quatro is starting to discover its potential as a destination for ecotourism.The natural riches in the region (native forest, rivers, caves, waterfalls…) offer many options for people looking for an adventurous vacation. The city also has various eclectic 19th century houses (casarões) of Portuguese and French origin.

Pousada São Rafael – Passa Quatro

We stayed in Pousada São Rafael in the center of the village. It was my first stay there and I must say I was very pleased. The rooms were perfect, and there is a really nice “living room”, tastefully decorated (inclusive a guitar that I just HAD to try out. :). The pousada also has a pool, which would be great in warmer periods of the year.

The good thing about not-yet-very-touristy places like Passa Quatro, is that they are still very authentic, but the other side is that on a Monday evening in low season there are not a lot of options to find something to eat.

We were told that most of the restaurants in Passa Quatro open only during the weekends, which is understandable, and the only place that we would find open was a small pizza place called “La Motta”.

The great thing about this place was that the chef prepared all the food right in front of us.

Chef preparing our food – Restaurante La Motta – Passa Quatro (photo: Alexandre Hernandez)

All in all it was a fantastic first day of our exploration of the Estrada Real.

Day 2: Passa Quatro – Prados (+/- 280 km)

Today we are headed for Prados, a small place about 25km from Tiradentes, one of the major attractions when it comes to historical cities…

I started the day with an early walk through a still sleepy Passa Quatro, because the day before, we arrived when it was already getting dark… which wouldn’t be the last time that happened…

I noticed a strong smell of something burning in the air and was asking myself whether this was such a healthy place after all. I couldn’t pinpoint where the smell came from, so when I returned to the pousada, I asked the guy at the reception. Turns out the smell was coming from the steam locomotive that they are still using around here…

The guy told me that the “Maria Fumaça” (that’s how most of the steam locomotives are called in Brazil) needed to be fired up early in the morning to heat up the water to produce steam… Made perfect sense to me.

After breakfast we rode down to the old train station to take a few pictures before really hitting the road.


The Maria Fumaça in Passa Quatro, going about it’s daily business. It’s a great sight out of the days of yorn (hope I spelled that correctly) but the smell of the burning cole hangs over the entire village center especially when it’s misty.


After some pictures of the steam train, it was off to Caxambu

We followed the MG158 north until the end, where it merges with the BR354 which goes all the way to Caxambu.

Like most typical back roads around these parts, the roads were very twisty and the asphalt of very decent quality. The only downside of twisties like these is, when you get stuck behind a truck, and oncoming traffic makes it dangerous to pass… When I’m alone I usually floor it and pass the truck in 2 seconds, but if there are 3 other riders and a land rover following, it’s better to take the safer approach…

After only one bathroom stop we reached Caxambu, which is especially famous for its 12 water springs, each with a different and unique medicinal quality… Caxambu was one of the favorite holiday spots of the Brazilian Imperial family. Especially Princess Isabel was counting on the forces of the water to help her get pregnant. The “Parque das Aguas”, which is the largest hydromineral complex in the world, is the main attraction in Caxambu… Besides that it is a charming little city with a few churches and other 19th century buildings.


Colorful horse drawn carts in front of the waterpark.

We had to press on if we wanted to get to our lunch destination, which was Carrancas. To get there, we had some 60km of dirt road ahead of us, and we were all looking forward to see the dusty side of the Estrada Real…


And dust we got… this is truly adventure riding at its best. I must add that for me it was pretty easy, riding in front…


And of course a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do…


One of the Thousands of “totems” along the Estrada Real, indicating your approximate location


the serra da Carrancas is in sight…


The beautiful church in the center of Carrancas… You really have to be there to feel the peace and quiet of this place… The only real sound we heard there were the birds singing in the trees…

Carrancas is a very nice little rural town on the Estrada Real, principally living from agriculture, but eco tourism is growing here too… I liked the laid back athmosphere of this place a lot. 100 times better that the hectic situation in cities like Rio de Janeiro. I’m sure you could leave your wallet on top of your bike and nobody would touch it… Try that in Rio.


And then there’s the food… This is a PF (“Prato Feito”)… A full plate of food for 10R$. Meat or eggs are also included but are served separately. We all loved it


After lunch… a short nap.

We left Carrancas to the north and followed the road out of the Serra da Carrancas. After about 26 km, in Itutinga, we took a right on the BR265, direction São João del Rei and Tiradentes. Together with Ouro Preto, these two cities are probably the best known in touristic circles. They have a large patrimonium of beautifully preserved 18th century churches and other buildings.


The center of São João del Rei.. an example of preserved 18th century architecture, but very touristy.


The other side of the square…


São Francisco de Assis… The second most decorated church in Brazil. Its interior holds a treasure of sculptures of Brazilian artist Aleijadinho.


Between São João del Rei and Tiradentes: The first “Mark” (primeiro marco) of the Estrada Real…


Then it was on to Tiradentes… here my GPS kind of flipped and we lost some time driving around in circles…


Steep cobblestone roads and, here too, beautiful 18th century architecture… smaller than São João del Rei, but just as touristy.


We arrived in Prados when it was getting dark


You guessed it… another 17th century church… They all look the same, but they are not, trust me


Our place for the night… Pousada “Recanto da Guará”. Simple and pure.


there were a couple of these cabins, each with 2 rooms… Great place to wake up in. nothing but nature around and plenty space to park our wheels

PS: For day 2, I worked with more and larger pictures… Let me know what you prefer for the coming days…

Day 3: Prados – Caeté (+/- 240 km – 95 km unpaved)

Day 3 was going to be a day of dusty dirt roads. We made our entry into the heart of Minas Gerais and the “Serra do Espinhaço”, a 1000 km long mountain range that connects the mining region of Minas Gerais with the Chapada Diamantina in Bahia, which is another great place where once diamond mining was the top economical activity.

These Espinhaço (Spine) mountains are home to cities like Ouro Preto, Mariana and Diamantina, some of the most important historical cities in Brazil. The gold and diamond mines have long dried up, but these mountains are still a rich source of iron ore and manganese…

It was a chilly morning when we woke up in pousada “Recanto da Guará” in Prados. There were some clouds, keeping the sun from coming out, but the previsions said that it wouldn’t rain and so we were looking forward to another great riding day.

We started with a simple breakfast, prepared by the owner of the pousada, and after a long goodbye ceremony (the little daughter of the owner wanted to go with us) we took the road that would lead us to the BR383, which we had to follow north until it merged with the BR040.

After a few km on the 040, we took the MG-443 for about 3 km and then the fun was about to start… We entered the MG-030 and now we were back in the dirt roads.

This was a whole other kind of dirt road than the one to Carrancas. It looked like there had been some rain here, since the dirt was certainly not dry. I remembered seeing some lightning flashes the night before when we were in Prados, so probably this was where that thunderstorm had hit.


A short stop in the first part of the 95km of dirt roads of the day… here, the road is still large and used by lots of trucks…

The first 20 km or so, we encountered a lot of trucks, and that meant road works, or mining activities. The last time I was on the Estrada Real, I already had noticed that many of the dirt roads were in the process of being asphalted.

For me as a tour operator, that’s a negative thing, because I really like these dirt roads, and asphalting them takes away some of the authenticity of the Estrada Real. On the other hand I also think about the many people LIVING in these roads. For them, an asphalt road means faster and safer traffic, and not getting isolated during the rainy season… I guess you can never do good for everybody, but it would be sad to see all the dirt roads disappear.

Anyways… I don’t think they will be able to put aspalt on all the dirt roads for a while, so for now, we still have many kilometers of them and during the ride to Caeté we had to cover about 95 km of dirt and dust.


Dirt and dust indeed


What more do you need?

We passed several little places like Miguel Burnier and Amarantina, which all had this quiet, laid back feel to them. Most of the time however, it felt like we had the whole world to ourselves, and that is a pretty awesome feeling.


Still smiling


I really don’t remember what this was about… so don’t ask me…

At one point, we were at the summit of a mountain at +/- 1750m and the view there was something else. We took some pictures and fooled around for a while.


Sometimes we need to take time for some deep self reflexion…


Or to drink something… water of course… Where would we be without water?


Or to ruin a picture of a perfect landscape, by putting a few dirty bikes in front of it


Or only one bike…


If you think riding a motorcycle through here is hard, try building a bridge like that one…

José and me wandered off a little and we noticed this strange phenomenon. Part of the hillside was covered with these beautiful pinkish flowers that were not to be seen anywhere else around there.


The pink flowers were only on that patch of the hillside… There were no flowers like that anywhere else in sight, which I thought was kind of odd

Getting closer, it looked like the hillside had been burnt, and the flowers were growing on the burnt stomps of the brush that was growing there before. I took a closer look, but given the fact that I am far from being a biologist, it was very hard for me to see if the flowers were the actual flowers of the original plant, or parasites. I would really like to find out. If someone reading this has an idea, please let me know.


Anybody know these plants? Looks like the flowers emerged from the stomp of the burnt brush, but it can also be some kind of parasite… 

From there, the road started going down and, as we noticed, getting smaller and bumpier and harder to ride.

The dust, that up to now was pretty… well… normal, became finer and was in some places like a layer of almost liquid talcum-powder, making it very challenging to stay on two wheels sometimes, especially going downhill in steep curves.

Riding through this “talcum”, even at low speeds created an explosion of dust, which is a real PIA for the guy behind you, because he will have zero visibility for a while…

As we are all (ahum) expert riders, we managed to make it in one piece to Caeté around 3pm, just in time to grab a bite to eat in the only “kilo” restaurant in the center.


Our group riding into Caeté… finally…


Well, looks like Alex is happy…


Look mommy… no hands.


Look mommy… nobody

Alex and me went out to look for a place to stay and found a pousada (Adega Estoril) a little outside the center, where we could rest our weary bones for the night…

Day 4: Caeté to Diamantina… (345 km – all paved)

Yesterday it was a dustbath for most of us (the guide – me – who rides in the front doesn’t have that problem  ) and today will be the first “all asphalt” day of the trip…

We left Caeté after an early breakfast. the air was humid and there was a light drizzle, but we knew that there was no real rain forecast so it didn’t really bother us.

We took the MG-435 out of Caeté, riding north to connect with the BR-381, where we took a right, going east. After another 30 km, we turned left and took the MG-434 to Itabira.
From there it was on to Guanhães and Serro, where we stopped for lunch…


After getting out of Itabira, we stopped at this Lanchonete to have a quick bite and a “Caldo de Cana”

By the time we reached Serro, we had already done about 250 km, so we could take our time to have lunch… which we did.


Main street of Serro… Notice the chuch on top of the hill to the left.


Lunch in the historical center of Serro… At one point the wind blew a bunch of mannequin dolls (right side) to the ground. After lunch I took off without my backpack…

Serro is a city about 30 km south of Diamantina, founded in 1701. Once the administrative and juridical center of the region, today, the people of Serro make their living with cattle farming and production of the famous Serro cheese. The city is also starting to explore its potential for cultural and eco tourism. Lovers of the Brazilian 18th and 19th century architecture will find the historical center a nice place to explore. Various churches, chapels and houses that once belonged to noblemen make up a rich patrimony.

The last 90 km to Diamantina were “tranquilo” as well, and we arrived around 4pm. Well in time to freshen up and get ready to go out for dinner…


Almost military discipline… exact same distance between two riders


Headng for Diamantina…


The landscape in the Diamantinais area is very different than for example in the serras of Rio de Janeuro state. The terrain is a lot more rugged here


Our entrance in the city of Diamantina…


Pousada Castelinho… Our home for the coming two days.


And this is how we look in casual clothes. My friend Renata (on the left), who lives in Diamantina was so kind to show us around and take us to a great restaurant near the cathedral (Deguste dressing)

The Magic of Itatiaia National Park – Rio de Janeiro – Brazil.

History

Veu da Noiva (bride’s veil) waterfall in Itatiaia

Itatiaia National Park is the first and so also the oldest National Park of Brazil. It was inaugurated in 1937 and covers almost 30.000 hectares of the larger Environmental Protection Area of the Mantiqueira mountain range.

Getting to the Itatiaia Park from Rio de Janeiro is a +/- 200 km drive via the BR116 (Rio – São Paulo). The distance from São Paulo is about 250 Km. I’m lucky to live in Volta Redonda, which is only 80km from the park.

How to get there?

Coming from Rio de Janeiro, Follow the BR116 (Dutra) and take the exit for Itatiaia, right after the “Graal” restaurant. Follow the indications to the National park and you arrive at the gate… The entrance fee is 11R$ per person (about 7 Usd).

You don’t have pay for the car. They will give you a badge that you need to return upon exiting the park. They want to make sure that everybody is accounted for.

Situation of Itatiaia National Park – Brazil

Once inside the park, you just follow the road, which climbs steadily to an altitude of about 1.100m. After about 4km there’s a visitor’s center/museum, where you can see the history of the creation of the park, old photos and an interesting exposition about all the plants and animals in the park.Interesting, but not surprising, to find out that there are even Pumas (Onça Parda) in these forests.

Near the center, you can stretch your legs for a short 15-20 minute hike, descending to the “Lago azul” Once past the visitor’s center, you can continue following the road until reaching a bridge over the Campo Belo river, which is the end of the line for your car.

Typical trail in Itatiaia. Rocky and sometimes pretty steep, but well maintained and safe.

From that point you can start a few short hikes to see the various waterfalls in the area, or the longer ones (20-30km) into the higher parts of the park.

If you only have a day or afternoon, it’s advisable to do only the short hikes. The longer ones are serious hikes and require equipment, food and water, since you would be spending the night in one of the shelters higher up in the mountains.

We were only there for the day, so we stuck to the “easy” stuff

The trails in the lower part of the park are rocky and sometimes pretty steep, but well maintained and safety equipment is in place. In some parts there are stairways to make the climb easier.

Food.

After seeing the Veu da Noiva and Itaporani waterfalls, and the Piscina da Maromba, it was time for some lunch.Don’t worry if you didn’t bring any food yourself, because the park is home to a restaurant, not far from the parking near the piscina da Maromba.

At 40R$ (about 26 Usd) per person (without drinks and tip of 10%) it is certainly not cheap. Ok, it’s “all you can eat”, but seriously, I can buy veggies for a whole week for that kind of money. Anyways, at least the food was delicious and it is one of the first times that I had 3 courses in a restaurant in Brazil, including dessert.

One  thing I never saw a restaurant doing before, was that after making the tab, the waiter told me that he would write the price INCLUSIVE a 10% markup on the back of the note, and that I was “free to pay that extra 10% if I thought that the service was good”… OK, the service wasn’t bad at all, but this restaurant already charged “tourist” prices, which I found extremely high, so I took the liberty of not paying the extra 10%. I still paid almost double of what a comparable lunch in a “non-touristic” restaurant would cost.

Birds

This little guy came sitting right beside me to have his picture taken. It was one of the most colorful birds around there, and is known in Brazil as “Saira de Sete cores” – Do yo see the seven colors?

The great thing about this restaurant though, wasn’t the food, but the fact that they had a few bird feeders hanging just outside near the deck, and it was a coming and going of the most colorful birds I had ever seen(outside of a zoo that is).

I know that at this point I’m supposed to start proclaiming a list with the names of all the birds I saw there, but I’m everything but an ornithologist, so I can just tell you that I saw various species of hummingbirds (also known as Colibris in Belgium and “Beija-flor” in Brazil), very colorful little birds called “saira de sete cores” (7 colored Saira) and other ones, one of which I’m pretty sure was a woodpecker (in the colors of the Belgian – or German – flag)

It was the first time ever that I tried to take pictures of hummingbirds in flight and I have to tell you… It ain’t easy. These guys are so fast that, by the time your autofocus did its job and you press the button, you end up with a picture of the feeder, but no bird  I probably spent half an hour taking picture after picture, but in the end I did go home with a few decent ones (all lucky shots of course.

Besides the birds, there were a few other animals we had the honor of spotting. There were squirrels, monkeys, butterflies, some crawling creatures like lizards and centipedes, but unfortunately (or luckily, just the way you look at it) we didn’t see a puma.

All in all, the Itatiaia National park is a great place to visit for anyone who wants to get a feel of the atlantic rainforest. It gives you an idea about what most of the south-east and south of Brazil must have been like before the “smartest species on the planet” started to destroy it.

To conclude, here are some more pictures…

Click any picture to see full size 

The lower part of the Itatiaia National Park

Lago Azul, near the visitors Center – Itatiaia – Rio de Janeiro

Find the three monkeys – Itatiaia – Rio de Janeiro

Overly backlit photo of a monkey – Itatiaia – Rio de Janeiro

Woodpecker (Pique a pau) in the colors of the Belgian flag – Itatiaia – Rio de Janeiro

This little guy came sitting right beside me to have his picture taken. It was one of the most colorful birds around there, and is known in Brazil as “Saira de Sete cores” – Do yo see the seven colors?

Humming birds – Itatiaia National Park – Rio de Janeiro

Feeding birds – Itatiaia National Park – Rio de Janeiro

Feeding birds – Itatiaia National Park – Rio de Janeiro

Colibri – Hummingbird – Beija-flor – Itatiaia National Park – Rio de Janeiro

Piscina da Maromba – Itatiaia National Park – Rio de Janeiro

Butterfly having a sip of water – Itatiaia National Park – Rio de Janeiro

Arriving at the Itaporani waterfall – Itatiaia National Park – Rio de Janeiro

Fernanda and Me at the Itaporani waterfall – Itatiaia National Park – Rio de Janeiro

Red Flowers – Itatiaia National Park – Rio de Janeiro

Typical trail in Itatiaia. Rocky and sometimes pretty steep, but well maintained and safe.

A stairway making the climbing easier – Itatiaia National park – Rio de Janeiro

Veu da Noiva Waterfall – Itatiaia National park – Rio de Janeiro

Veu da Noiva (Bride’s Veil) waterfall – Itatiaia National park – Rio de Janeiro

Want to see even more? Check this set on Flickr (27 Photos)

Ibitipoca State Park – Hiking in the south of Minas Gerais – Brazil.

Last Sunday, I took out a day to go visit the Ibitipoca State Park. With its +/- 1500 hectares, it is probably one of the smallest parks in Brazil, but according to the information I found, it is also the one with the best infrastructurein the state… The greater region where the park is located, is called the “serra da Ibitipoca” and is famous for its quartzite caves, which are said to be very rare, but also for its natural pools, waterfalls, special rock formations, great views and typical fauna and flora. There are two options, both of them involving a 25-30 km of unpaved road, to get to Conceição de Ibitipoca, a small town 3 km from the park entrance, and where you will find pousadas, camping areas, restaurants and souvenir shops. The first option is via the city of Olaría, which is the shortest route, coming from São Paulo. The second option is via Lima Duarte. I checked out both options, and find the road from Lima Duarte to Conceição de Ibitipoca in a much better condition than the one from Olaría. So, coming from São Paulo it is worth doing the extra 16 km to Lima Duarte. Make sure you have a GPS, a good map or a driver who knows the area because signalization is very scarce to non-existent. I also suggest to visit the park in the dry season(April – November), because the rain would surely make it very difficult for ordinary cars to make it to Conceição de Ibitipoca, where you will find you’ll have to do some 25 km of unpaved road, leading from Lima Duarte to the small town of Conceição de Ibitipoca,

History of the park:

Rocky path leading up from the Cachoeira dos Macacos. Good shoes and physical condition recommended…

Conceição de Ibitipoca (the name means “house of stone” in the Tupi language) is one of the oldest towns of Minas Gerais, and like so many other places, was discovered and claimed by the “bandeirantes” (first explorers of Brazil) in search for gold around 1692. It became an official village with the construction of the first church (Igreja Nossa Sra de Conceição) in 1726. If you visit Conceição de Ibitipoca today, it is hard to believe that this tiny village was once one of the most important places in the captaincy of Minas Gerais. When the gold ran out, a lot of people moved away, but in the 1970’s the area was rediscovered by biologists and other scientists for its unique geography and natural treasures. One of the characteristics of the park, is the presence of rare plants and animals, some of which are in danger of extinction. Since 1987, the park has been fitted with a good quality infrastructure (some say the best in the state), and receiving visitors from all over Brazil and the world, becoming ever more famous as a ecotourism destination.

Hiking:

The Rio do Salto with on one side the rocky wall

When I went to hike in the park, I had only an afternoon, but to see all the park has to offer, it’s best to take out 4 days. Amongst the principal attractions, there are seven caves, various waterfalls and peaks. The most famous spot is the “Janela do Ceu” (window to heaven), which is located at the north side of the park. It is a challenging 8km hike to get there, but it is definitely worth the effort. . The south side, the side that I was able to explore, holds the so-called “circuito das aguas” (water circuit). A trail leading south from the restaurant, follows the Rio do Salto, that flows through a rocky, canyon-like landscape, with on one side a vertical 20m high wall, that looks like it has been pushed upward in a geological event millions of years ago. Following the river downstream, you come to the “Ponte da Pedra” (bridge of stone), where the river, over time, carved out a huge tunnel in the rock wall. From there it is another steep descent to the “Cachoeira dos macacos” (monkeys waterfall) where a natural pool invites to take a swim in the clear, yet brownish colored water. The color is the result of decaying organic material in the river more upstream.

The Cachoeira dos Macacos (Monkey’s waterfall).This is the last place where the river forms a natural pool, fit for swimming, before exiting the park to the south. As this picture was shot in the driest period of the year, The waterfall would certainly be a lot more spectacular in wetter months. Notice the clear but brownish colored water, which is the result of decaying organic material further upstream of the river.

After a visit to the Cachoeira dos Macacos, it’s back north again following a quite challenging rocky path back up, taking you to the top of the vertical wall on the other side of the river, from where you have a whole different perspective of the river as it cascades down. At a certain point, I saw a sign leading to the “Pico do Pião”, and to the “Lago  dos espelhos”, but to my frustration, I didn’t have enough time to visit these attractions… Days are short in these parts. Even in summertime, It gets dark around 8 pm here. The longer days is one thing I kinda miss about Europe. Anyways, I completed a 10km hike in an afternoon, which was not so bad, considering the fact that there are so many places that invite you to stop and take in the view, slowing you down considerably.

Infrastructure:

The park is full of signs like this one, but they are not always logical: “Gruta dos Coelhos” means “Rabbit’s cave”… so why is there a jaguar on the sign 🙂

As I mentioned before, this is one of the parks with the best infrastructure in the state of Minas Gerais, and I believe it would be very difficult to get lost in this park, firstly because it is not big, but also because of the clear signs placed all over the place. With these signs, the rudimentary map you can get at the visitors center and some basic orientation skills, it is easy sailing (or hiking) through the park. However, a word of caution… There are some places where you can make a nasty fall, and warning signs telling you not to get too close to the edge are only in Portuguese. I’m sure that with a little common sense, you should be able to assess the situation and see when it could be dangerous.

Good to know:

  • Opening hours: 7am – 6pm
  • Price: 15 Brl (10 Usd) per person  / an extra 10 Brl ( 7 Usd) if you want to enter with your car.
  • limited number of visitors applies: on week days: Max 300 visitors allowed in the park at any given time. during weekends or holidays the maximum number is 800. Make sure you get there in time or you might not get in (like me the first time I wanted to visit the park)
  • Some of the trails are quite steep and uneven, so put on good quality hiking shoes. I’m always amazed when I see so many people wearing only flip-flops, or poor quality tennis shoes…
  • Pass by the visitor’s center to get a map and take look at the maquette of the park, to get an idea of the layout of the park and decide where you want to go.

Inside the “Ponte de Pedra”, a natural tunnel carved out by the water over millions of years.

It took me two years and 8 months to finally get to visit this small but beautiful and very valuable piece of Brazilian eco heaven and I will certainly go back there to explore the rest of it.

Brazil Down under – A taste of the South…

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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 :))

Morretes: Colonial charm and Atlantic Rainforest at the foot of the Serra do Mar

Being one of the oldest cities in the southern Brazilian state of Paranã, Morretes is a most charming colonial town, tucked away in one of the largest and best preserved areas of Atlantic rainforest of south Brazil.

Just like the rest of Brazil, the region where Morretes was founded in 1721, was initially inhabited by indigenous tribes, like the Guarani and the Carijó, who eventually had to give way to the Portuguese colonizers.

In the 1640’s, gold deposits were found in the area and this attracted a growing population of adventurers and miners, most of them coming from São Paulo, but later also followed by immigrants from all over Europe and even Japan.

Today, Morretes is a quiet, laid back town, that enchants its visitors with its beautifully preserved 18th century architecture and the stunning beauty of the Atlantic rainforest that surrounds it in every direction.

Why Visit Morretes?

One of the green squares in the historical center of Morretes

The city itself, but especially the forest, with its many trails, waterfalls and rivers, presents numerous options for anyone looking for total tranquility or an active vacation, practicing various outdoor activities like hiking, kayaking, rafting, mountain-biking or mountaineering…

A very popular “radical sport” is what is locally known as “Bóia cross“. Floating down the river for 6 km in an inflated truck tube. Fun guaranteed!

During a stroll through the historical center, with its colonial houses, historical churches and green squares, you can get a good feel for the 18th and 19th century way of life of the people of Morretes.

The many big mansions suggest that the city must have known a period of great wealth, but when the gold deposits ran out, the population had to fall back on agriculture, cattle farming, trading and handicraft activities.

View of the historical center and the Nhundiaquara river from the Ponte Velha (old bridge)

The tourist industry today provides an extra way for people to make a decent living, but statistics show that about 30 per cent of the city’s population is still poor.

One more attraction of Morretes is the Nhundiaquara River, flowing through the city center. This river, that connects the coastal area to the highlands, once was the only way people had to penetrate inland.

View of some houses near the Nhundiaquara river

The river is navigable for about 12km and offers possibilities for water-sports (like bóia cross). The old bridge (ponte velha – inaugurated in 1912) crossing the river in the city center is also considered a work of art.

At one point, the river spreads out and creates an area with a few natural beacheswhere people can go to swim or relax.

How to get there?

1. BY CAR, MOTORCYCLE, BUS

The gate at the entrance of the “Estrada da Graciosa”

Whether you choose to take your own car or Motorcycle (like me), travel by bus or taking the tourist train, one way or another, you simply have to get through the Serra da Graciosa, which in itself already is a gorgeous trip.

By car (or motorcycle), the “Estrada da Graciosa” (PR410) is the best option. It covers the last 40km from Curitiba to Morretes and makes the 1000m drop from the highlands to practically sea level in just 10km. The steepest section – with obviously the best views – has various places where you can stop and enjoy the scenery, and even do a BBQ.

During the steep descent, the views and smells of the rainforest are sometimes breathtaking, and needless to say that the difference in altitude almost immediately also affects the temperature and humidity. A warning though: beware of the cobblestones, these can get very slippery when wet.

2. BY TRAIN:

Another great option is the tourist train from Curitiba to Paranaguá.

View from the train from Morretes to Curitiba

This railroad connection, some call it one of the most important tourist attractions of the state of Parana, is a remarkable piece of engineering. Its construction started in 1880 and in five years, the builders were able to complete the 110 km of railroad track, including 14 tunnels and 30 bridges.

The man responsible for this great work, was a black Brazilian engineer called Antonio Pereira Rebouças Filho, who wouldn’t have had an easy life, considering the fact that slavery in Brazil was only abolished in 1888, three years after the completion of the railroad.

Tragic detail: the death toll amongst the workers, hired for the job was enormous. 50% of them died during the five year construction period.

That said, the train ride itself is Fantastic! The windows of the train are super wide and you are allowed to open them for maximum enjoyment of the great scenery, the sounds and smells of the forest.(Although during the descent, the brakes of the train make a lot of noise :)) Almost the whole time you’re so close to the forest that you could almost touch it.

Also check out this great video by @canalbrazil

Traveling through the south of Brazil, Morretes is definitely a place to put on your “places to see” list.

Hope you enjoyed this.Any comments welcome

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

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And this Video…

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

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

Bem vindo em Bananal – Welcome to Bananal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brazilian sex motels – 10 things you should know.

A motel in Brazil is not quite the same as in, for example, the US. In Brazil, you go to a motel to have sex, or at least try…

When you come to Brazil, whether it’s on vacation, a business trip or other purposes, and no matter if you’re a man or a woman, there is always the possibility (chance, risk, call it what you want…) that you end up in a situation where you need a room for one, two or three hours. (for sex, what else? Nespresso? Yeah, right!)

So what do you do? If you’re in Rio de Janeiro, you might find a hotel that rents rooms by the hour, but a more obvious choice would be a motel, because that’s where people go to have sex around here.

OK, but how does it work? you might ask. Well, it’s really not that hard (which is not what I would want you to have to admit to the girl you just took there :)). Here are a few pointers for all you SINGLE, UNMARRIED people out there who are planning to come to Brazil at one point in their lives, with no intention whatsoever to cheat on their spouse or other people they have a relationship with.

Nothing better than to be informed, right?

  • Don’t pick a sex motel that looks cheap. If it looks cheap, it usually is, meaning that things might just not be as clean as you would like it. The more expensive ones usually are surprisingly clean. (see the links at the end of this post)
  • You don’t NEED to bring protection. It is usually available (sort of a room service thing.) at no extra charge. Of course this is for the normal stuff. you might find a kind of menu (like a mini bar list) where they offer various sex toys, gels and other stuff to “enhance the experience” and these, of course, are not free. I have serious doubts that any of those gels and oils really work, but that’s on a personal note.
  • Luxurious motel room

    Most sex motels will have different kinds of rooms or suites, from basic to luxurious. Obviously the luxurious ones will take a bigger bite out of your budget.

  • For reasons of discretion, every room should have a separate garage box,from where you have access to the room. Just park your car inside, lock the door and enter the room.
  • Once inside the room pick up the phone and let the receptionist know that you are going to use the room. You don’t have to dial any number. The connection is automatic. While one of you is on the phone, the other one can already activate the sauna or the Jacuzzi (never a dull moment  ). In case you can’t figure out how to operate these (or you have a hard time finding the porn channel on the TV), again, just pick up the phone and ask. That’s what the receptionist is there for.
  • After you did what you came to do (have sex, or just watch TV… right?), you once more pick up the phone and ask the receptionist to “fechar a conta” and someone will come to the room (very discretely. The person never enters the room) and receive your money. (yeah, I know, that phone is possibly the most important instrument in the room :))
  • Sometimes, paying with a card can be complicated because the wireless card reader doesn’t have a signal all the way to the room etc., so I strongly suggest that you have cash on you to pay the bill. You never know.
  • If you’re an adventurer and pick up someone from the sidewalk, make sure that your great looking woman isn’t a guy… Seriously… these guys are amazingly good at what they do.(dressing up as a woman)
  • Also make sure that your sex partner is of age. Unfortunately, many under-aged girls and boys are still forced to roam the streets of cities like Rio de Janeiro and sell their bodies to support their families or their own crack addiction. Please stay away as far as possible!!! If you get caught having sex with a minor in a motel, you will suffer dire consequences. You’ll end up in a Brazilian jail, which is already a frightening place, even known to be deadly for child molesters (most inmates have a woman, daughter or niece, so rapists and child molesters are very unpopular in there), and almost certainly your face will be shown on national TV as well.
  • If you come to Brazil as a couple though, I think it could be a great and fun idea, as well as an offbeat experience to try out a few of these motels. No kidding, it could give your sex life a boost.
Another way motels come in handy, is when you find yourself in a place you don’t know and you’re unable to find a pousada or hotel right away. A motel is safe, not too expensive AND has a private and closed parking. Especially when you’re traveling on a motorcycle, this can be a lifesaver. Only downside: sometimes, the neighbors keep you awake, but then there’s always the porn channel on TV.
Check out the websites of these three classy sex motels in Rio de Janeiro.
  • VIP’S Suites – Leblon – Rio de Janeiro
  • Motel Skorpios – Barra de Tijuca – Rio de Janeiro
  • Motel Hawaii – Barra da Tijuca – Rio de Janeiro
For addresses and  other information of the better motels all over Brazil: Click Here
Here’s another great post about “casual sex in Brazil” by Robert Shrader (@leavyrdailyhell)

Hope this was useful, or at least entertaining.

What about you? Did you ever end up in a Brazilian sex motel? Leave a comment and let me know… 

Brazil: 30 stunning pictures from two years of travel

I have been traveling across Brazil since January 2009 and have taken thousands of photos. Some of them better than others of course. It was a tough process, but here is the selection of my 30 most stunning pictures of Brazil.(so far)

Secluded beach and blue water near Arraial do Cabo – Rio de Janeiro

Late afternoon on a beach near Cabo Frio – Rio de Janeiro

Steep cliffs at the costa das Baleias – South Bahia – Brazil

Sunset over the Rio Parana – Mato Grosso do Sul

Overlooking the Serra dos Órgãos – Rio de Janeiro State

Fishing boats on the beach near Arraial do Cabo – Rio de Janeiro.

Pedra do Roncador – Rio de Janeiro

Lopes Mendez beach on Ilha Grande (favorite beach of Ayrton Senna)- Rio de Janeiro

Rio de Janeiro after sunset, seen from Suga Loaf

View over Rio de Janeiro (by day) from Sugarloaf mountain The first beach is Praia Vermelha… in the background to the left: Copacabana Ipanema and Leblon.

Sunset in Piçinguaba – São Paulo

Sun setting at Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas – Rio de Janeiro

Morning mist in the serra da Mantiqueira near Caxambu – Minas Gerais

Pedra Azul – Espirito Santo – Brazil

Deserted beach – South Bahia

Sunset over Monte Pascoal – Famous landmark – Bahia

Dirt Road in South Bahia

Dirt road in the Chapada Diamantina – Bahia

Dirt road near Pedra Azul – Minas Gerais

Diamatina city center – Minas Gerais

The rugged landscape of the Estrada Real – Minas Gerais – Brazil

Spactacular!! Iguassu falls – Parana

The biggest man made forest and second biggest urban forest in the world: Tijuca – Rio de Janeiro

Beach near Trindade- Rio de Janeiro

Morning mist near Nova Friburgo – Rio de Janeiro

Rocinha, biggest favela in South America – Rio de Janeiro

Climbing up to Christ the Redeemer -Rio de Janeiro

Ititiaia National Park – Rio de Janeiro

Serra do Rio do Rastro in Santa Catarina – South of Brazil

I hope you enjoyed these pictures… Please scroll down and leave a comment to let me know which photo you liked the most.

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…