Serra da Canastra: Birthplace of the mighty São Francisco River

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

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

The Serra da Canastra:

Serra da Canastra situation map (Google Earth)

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

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

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

One of the dirt roads crossing the lower park area

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The visitor’s center – Serra da Canastra

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rio de Janeiro to Buzios and back – Motorcycle weekend

Nearly deserted place between Arraial do Cabo and Ponta Negra where we had a Guara-Viton

 

Buzios, Cabo Frio , Saquarema, Arraial do Cabo… places where people from Rio de Janeiro like to go to spend weekends or holidays. My friend Osman, a British/Turkish expat and fellow motorcyclist had been waiting for a long time to try out his Husqvarna 610 and we decided to head out on a weekend trip.Our goal for this trip would be the area east of Rio de Janeiro, also known as “Região dos Lagos” (Region of the lakes). Osman is also an avid diver and wanted to check out some of the diving shops in Arraial do Cabo.

Day 1: Rio de Janeiro – Búzios – Arraial do Cabo

We met on a sunny Saturday morning around 7 am at “posto 9” in Ipanema and since there was almost no traffic we decided to take a small city tour and stop at a few famous spots in Rio de Janeiro before leaving the city.

First stop: Cinelândia with the Teatro Municipal

Second stop: Praia Vermelha and Sugar Loaf

After a brief moment and taking pictures at Cinelândia and Praia Vermelha we set course for the Rio – Niterói bridge, the 13 km long bridge over Guanabara bay, connecting Rio de Janeiro with its sister city Niterói.

In Niterói we took the coastal road because I wanted to take Osman to one of the forts that used to guard the entrance of the bay. I also knew from an earlier trip in 2009 that there was a connection from the fort to the Piratininga lagoon, but when we arrived at the army base, the guard told us that it was no longer possible to get permission to drive through the barracks to Piratininga because the whole area was now only accessible for military personnel.

On the way to the fort we passed the famous MAC museum (museum of contemporary arts), one of Oscar Niemeyer’s creations in Niterói.

The MAC museum in Niterói

We could not take the coastal road to Piratininga so we headed for the “old” main road leading east (the RJ-106) and actually found ourselves a decent section of dirt road before reaching it. Before continuing the long asphalt section to the região dos Lagos, we stopped at an Açaí place and had breakfast.

Most people heading for the Região dos  lagos out of Rio de Janeiro would opt for the BR-101, which is a national highway following the Brazilian coast from the north to the south, but the RJ-106 (a state road), whis is a two-lane road, has less heavy traffic, better scenery and NO pedagio (toll). Ok, here and there the tar could be in better  condition, but for the kind of trip we were on, this was definitely the better choice.

Osman – probably as happy as a pig in shit – on his Husqvarna 610 heading east. The mountains of Rio Bonito already in sight.

After about 2 hours we reached Araruama, and its big lagoon. The lagoon stretches 30 km from east to west and is 12 km wide at its widest point.

Brief photo stop at the Araruama lagoon

From Araruama it was another 60 km to Buzios, where we had lunch at the Buda Beach restaurant, which has great reviews on Tripadvisor.

A great view over the water while having lunch is always a bonus. I think the restaurant included that in their prices 🙂

After lunch we went for a tour around the peninsula. Búzios, also known as “Gringo Paradise, has over 20 different beaches and some awesome viewpoints. We stopped at a few beaches and even did some off-roading to reach one of the more remote viewpoints.

One of the many beaches in Búzios.

 

Off road in Búzios: on the way down from an elevated view point. The rain creates some tricky ruts here and there.

Day 2: Arraial do Cabo – Rio de JaneiroAfter circling the peninsula, we needed to get a move on if we wanted to make it to Arraial do Cabo before dark. The sun sets early in this part of the world. Osman had the name and address of one of the diving shops (PL-divers) and after some looking we found the place. The same people also run a pousada connected to the diving shop, and it had a closed parking for the bikes, so we felt very lucky. The pousada (pousada Suia) was very clean, had good beds and a decent breakfast. Good price – quality.

After a good night’s rest and a tasty breakfast, it was time to load up the bikes and head back to Rio de Janeiro. We were planning on checking out some 4×4 trails that I had never ridden before, and there was a real risk that the road would end somewhere in the middle of nowhere or hit a deep river, forcing us to trackback several kilometers. We wanted to be in Rio before dark so there was no time to loose.

A few km outside of Arraial do Cabo we entered the dunes. This road was familiar to me, but after about 4 km, we took a sidetrack that would take us straight on the beach and that would be the unknown part.

The sidetrack started out pretty firm, but it didn’t take long before the bike started to float from left to right and before long we were looking at a 200m wide white beach. This was what we came here for, so we hit the sand and sure enough the bikes (the riders too) had to work hard to even ride through the loose sand. It was a matter of keep going or get stuck.

Both of us made it through, and once we got closer to the water, the sand was a lot better to ride and for a moment we had a little piece of heaven on earth…


Osman and his Husqvarna on the beach. It doesn’t get a lot better than this.

This beach goes on for 40 km, but we didn’t do the whole distance because riding in this sand, the bikes use a  lot of gas and we weren’t planning on running dry before reaching a gas station.  This meant that at one point we had to get OFF of the beach, which was harder than getting on it, because now we had to ride up through the sand instead of down…

Me on the beach… perfect weather conditions and awesome scenery. What more can a person ask for?

Here’s me trying to get off the beach… riding up… got a lot of sand in my shoes here 🙂

We got off the beach without too much trouble, and circled around, taking a small aspalt road that took us into Saquarema, where we took gas. From there, it was another 60 km, which was about 50/50 asphalt and dirt of the good kind. At Ponta Negra we rode up to the lighthouse, which was another great viewpoint.

The closer we came to Niterói, the beaches gradually became more crowded, until we had to make our way between cars, bikes, bicycles, quads, buggies and pedestrians who were enjoying their Sunday afternoon on the beach.

The dirt road leading from Marica to Itaipuaçú… here we could still open the throttle.

Military police patrolling and keeping a watchful eye. Note the barrel sticking out of the window…

One more section of loose sand before getting back on the asphalt. This is hard labor people 🙂

This concludes the last dirt section of the trip. From here it’s all asphalt back into Rio de Janeiro. But first we had to get over that hill in the background.

In conclusion, here’s our route.

I hope you enjoyed the ride.

Note: This route can also be done with a normal car, except for the beach part in Arraial do Cabo (you can do the 6 km through the dunes though) and the last section of loose sand in Itaipuaçu. even with a 4×4 vehicle, you would have to get on the asphalt sooner than we did because at the end of the beach road in Itaipuaçú there’s only a small bridge over the canal, and cars cannot go there… notice there are no cars in the last picture. that would be your hint that you’re too far. (that is if you would make it through the soft sand :))

Cheers

Spotting Carcará Eagles in the Serra da Mantiqueira preserve – Rio de Janeiro

On the way back from an attempt to hike up the Pedra Selada in the Serra da Mantiqueira and ended up spotting a couple of Carcará eagles.

one of the dirt roads winding through the Serra da Mantiqueira preserve

It looked like it would be a sunny day, and we set out from Volta Redonda around 10.30 and by 11.00 we were already riding through the foothills of the Mantiqueira mountains. When we got to the place where the trail starts, it was totally deserted and that was strange, considering that it was a Saturday in the touristic high season in Brazil. We figured that most people probably were afraid that it would rain. About 1 km into the trail it became clear why there was nobody else there. The trail was totally washed away by a landslide and getting up there would be a challenge that I would have gladly taken on by myself, but I saw in the look on my partner’s face that this hiking trip was ending right there. Disappointed, we went down again, and decided to take the rest of the afternoon to ride a loop through the area and enjoy some of the peace and quiet. At one point, we saw two Carcará eagles on the road, enjoying a meal of some kind. Of course the birds took off when we got too close, but landed in a pine tree nearby, giving me an opportunity to shoot some pictures. [tribulant_slideshow post_id=”24208″]

See the eagles in the pine trees?

A little closer: not one but two Carcará eagles, which is quite rare

And a close up. These are really impressive birds

The Carcará’s meal: an ubfortunate black eared possum (Gambá de orelho preto)

Hope you enjoyed this (i know the last picture wasn’t very tasteful, but that also is part of nature, right?)

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)

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…

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…

10 tips for independent travelers in Brazil

Here are 10 things to keep in mind when you are planning to take a road trip in Brazil.

  •  Driver’s License: If you’re going to drive in Brazil, you need an international drivers license, or a translated and authorized copy of your local license. A translation is only valid for 6 months. If your international license doesn’t have Portuguese, it has to be translated too.
  • Use a SPOT tracking device : once outside an agglomeration, you can be almost certain that cellphone coverage is unavailable..
  • Learn Portuguese: Brazilians are very friendly, open and hospitable people. Being able to speak and understand at least basic Portuguese (preferably a little more than that), will bring great enhancement to your trip. Except in the big cities (Rio, São Paulo), you will NOT find people who speak anything else than Portuguese. Oh and when asking for directions, take anything the locals tell you with some grain of salt, especially when they tell you it’s “pertinho” (close). Everything is pertinho, but in reality it’s pretty far.Things are relative in Brazil, distance and time in the first place.
  • Be friendly and humble when you meet local (usually poor and simple) people. They will respect you for it.
  • Avoid the bigger roads. They are loaded with trucks. BIG ONES, up to 30m and 60 tons. These things are fast, loaded to the maximum (probably over capacity in some cases), loaded badly, causing them to tip over to one side and a lot of them drive dangerously. They will overtake at high speeds with poor or no visibility on oncoming traffic or block the entire road on ascents when they are supposed to keep to the right side…. As a general rule, it’s best not to assume that anyone (except you of course) is going to follow the rules.

    Avoiding the bigger roads…

  • DON’T drive after dark. It is dangerous because of the stuff you can encounter on the road. Farm animals, cars or trucks with no lights or no brakes. Driving at night will also make you miss out on a lot of great scenery…
  • Make sure you have enough cash with you. In some more remote places you cannot pay with cards. Also try not to carry big notes, because it could be a problem to change (troco). You don’t want to be forced to buy something you don’t want just because the shopkeeper doesn’t have change to a 100 R$ bill. Twenties and tens are best.
  • Carry different credit cards. Sometimes they accept only one kind (like VISA or MASTER). Also sometimes international cards are  not accepted.
  •  Start watching out for a gas station once your tank is below half, and preferably choose one of the big brands (BR, SHELL, TEXACO, ESSO…) . You never know when you’re going to find the next one. Once, I was forced to buy gasoline from a local, who had stored it in 2L plastic bottles in his garage. He charged me twice the normal price.
  • Hitchhikers : The safest thing to do is to NOT pick them up. Especially in poorer areas, LOTS of people are trying to get a free ride. I myself – trusting my gut feeling – picked up hitchhikers on 4 occasions. A little old man on a jungle road, An elderly woman on her way to her family, a worker on his way home, and another elderly lady with a little boy. All  these people were really nice and gave me good advice about the places that I was planning to go to. If you trust your gut feeling, go for it, if you don’t, better not pick up anybody.

Hope this was useful – All comments welcome.

[tfb username=’mototoursbrazil’ count=’true’ lang=’en’ theme=’light’