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

Day Tripping at Tijuca Forest – Rio de Janeiro: another day at the office

On the top of Pico da tijuca - Rio de Janeiro

On the top of Pico da Tijuca. Sweating like a horse in almost 40°c temperatures, but no complaining from any of us 🙂

Rio de Janeiro was basking under a perfect summer day and although this time of the year most people come to the Cidade Maravilhosa to enjoy the Carnaval, two Dutch girls asked me to take them for a walk on the green side of Rio de Janeiro… the Tijuca Forest. No need to say I was more than keen… 

I picked the girls (Monique and Annette) up at Rio Hostel in Santa Teresa around 7.30 in the morning and we started the 20 km ride to the Tijuca Forest. Because of the Carnaval festivities, the police had blocked some of the streets around the Sambódromo, where the garbage left by the last “blocos de carnaval” gave the place a deserted look.

Before reaching the parking space from where the hiking trail to the Pico da Tijuca starts, we made a brief stop at the Cascatinha waterfall, considered the most beautiful one of the park.

First stop in the Tijuca Park: The Cascatinha Waterfall

Our first hike for the day was the Pico da Tijuca, a 2,5 km walk to the 1.012m high summit of the highest mountain in the Tijuca Forest. The trail winds through sometimes dense forest, but is very well indicated and maintained. The Pico da Tijuca offers an awesome view of the center and north zones of Rio. On a clear day, like yesterday, it’s possible to see the Serra dos Órgãos with the “Dedo de Deus” (Finger of God) located 50km north of Rio.

Monique and Annette climbing up to the Pico da Tijuca. Jungle trail in the middle of the city.

Almost on the top of Pico da Tijuca, climbing the 117 steps that were carved out of the rock-face to accommodate the Belgian king Albert on his visit in 1921

Next stop before lunch, was the “Vista Chinesa”, which derives its name from the chinese style pavilion where tourists can find some shade while enjoying another privileged view of the marvelous city.

The Chinese “pagoda” style pavilion at the Vista Chinesa viewpoint

The view over Rio de Janeiro from Vista Chinesa with Christ the Redeemer to the left, overlooking the Lagoa Rodrigo Freitas and the morro do Cantagálo in the middle and the Sugar Loaf in the background.

The Vista Chinesa is only one of several viewpoints scattered all across the Tijuca Forest, each one offering another breathtaking view of Rio de Janeiro from a different angle, showcasing some of the city’s most famous attractions like Christ the Redeemer, Sugar Loaf, Lagoa, Dois Irmãos, Pedra da Gávea and Rocinha.

Continuing our tour of the Tijuca Forest, we went on in the direction of the coast, heading for the hanggliding ramp of Sáo Conrado, where you can watch people of all walks of life take the plunge into the lush green scenery of the forest.

Always special to see hang-gliders take off. This is must definitely be the closest thing to being a bird…

Watching the hanggliders do their stuff is something I could do for hours, but we had another hike on our list. The Pedra Bonita trail is only 1.2 km long, considered “medium difficulty” and is one of my favorite spots in Rio.

To our disappointment, the guard at the entrance said that we couldn’t go up because of a kidnapping that had occurred at the Pedra da Gávea. The police were still searching for the kidnappers, who were supposedly armed and hiding somewhere in the forest between Pedra da Gávea and Pedra Bonita.

More people arrived at the entrance who wanted to do the trail. They had heard that the search party had ended and Pedra Bonita would be safe, after which the guard allowed us to go ahead.

Monique and Annette on top of Pedra Bonita. In the background the silhouette of the Pedra Branca massive. Rio’s other (and biggest) Urban forest.

Catching the last rays of a perfect summer’s day on top of pedra bonita with the lagoas of Barra de Tijuca and the sheer endless beach of Recreio das Bandeirantes in the backdrop.

Pedra Bonita was the perfect end to a fantastic day (especially because there was no sign of any kidnappers). As the sun was slowly setting in the west, we sat down for a while on the granite mountain surface, which was still hot from a day of Brazilian sun, and tried to take it all in.

Another Brazilian-Dutch couple joined us and we talked about how Rio de Janeiro was definitely a unique place, which would at least take a year to fully discover.

Giving the Brazilian-Dutch couple a ride to Copacabana, I returned Monique and Annette to their hostel after an 11 hour tour of the Tijuca Forest. I’m sure they will remember this day, at least until the pain in their legs and other body parts has worn off :).

I still had another 120 km ahead of me to get back home, where I arrived around 9 pm but for a day like this I would get out of bed at 4.30 am any day, even on a Sunday. I guess you could say that for me, this was just another day at the office, but people, WHAT an amazing office it is.

Give me a call next time you’re in Rio and I’ll show you around so you can see for yourself.

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?)

Pedra Branca, Rio de Janeiro – The World’s Biggest Urban Forest

Areal view of the Pedra Branca State Park, a 125km² section of Atlantic Rainforest in the west zone of Rio de Janeiro (Photo: Rede Globo)

The Pedra Branca Massive is with its 12 hectares of rain forest clad mountains currently the biggest urban forest in the world and one of the best places for experienced hikers in the city of Rio de Janeiro.

“I looked at Mark and said: “Man, sorry, but I did it… I deleted the track…” None of us really panicked, but we both knew that it wasn’t going to be easy to find our way back through this dense wilderness…”

When travel writer and photojournalist Mark Eveleigh asked me if I had some trekking ideas for hikes close to Rio de Janeiro, I first took him on a tour around the Tijuca national park, which has good infrastructure and a few great hikes for everyone’s liking.

So what about Pedra Branca forest?“, was his next question… I had to admit that I hadn’t checked that one out yet, but after some online research, I found out that the park had some very interesting hiking possibilities, the toughest of which is a 8,5 km hike to the “Pico da Pedra Branca”, the highest point of the park, and with 1.025m also the highest point of the entire City of Rio de Janeiro.

I thought that this was a great way to check the place out and as I expected, Mark was totally on board with the idea

The Pedra Branca State Park

Few people know that the city of Rio de Janeiro is home to the two biggest urban forests in the world. The Tijuca Forest used to be the biggest one for a long time, until expansion of the city’s territory led to the annexation of some of the neighborhoods west of the Pedra Branca Massive like Campo Grande and Santa Cruz. From then on, Pedra Branca became the biggest urban forest in the world.

However… Tijuca forest still has the title of biggest man-planted forest.

With its 125 km², Pedra Branca is a section of Atlantic rain forest, almost three times the size of the Tijuca forest. Just like the Tijuca forest it is a rugged, mountainous area with dense tropical vegetation and peaks up to 1025 m. Its “ruggedness” and steep slopes saved this area (as well as about 100.000km² in other areas all over Brazil) from becoming farming or cattle land.

The Hike to Pedra Branca peak…

I had to leave Volta Redonda around 3.30 am and drive about 120 km to pick up Mark at 7.00 am in Ipanema. From Ipanema it is another 40 km to the east entrance of the park in Jacarépagua.

In a cabin at the entrance, there are two guards and you need to register your name and ID and tell them where in the park you are intending to go. When I said that we were going to the Pico da Pedra Branca, the guards looked at us and said that we were sure going to return with scratched up legs. According to them, the trail was very “fechado”, meaning that it was overgrown with vegetation and barely visible at some places.

The Casa Amarela. somewhere halfway up the Pico da Pedra Branca trail (photo: clubedosavontureiros.com)

They also told us that, different from the Tijuca forest, the trails at Pedra Branca have no indications, apart from a few arrows carved in trees. This sounded like it could turn out to be a real adventure hike.

I had brought my Garmin 60GSx, which is perfect for this kind of situation. I would record our progress, and when in doubt we could just trackback, so even if we wouldn’t be able to find the way to the top (yeah, right…), getting back would never be a problem.

I activated the GPS to start recording, and after a few last pointers from the guards we took off. Pretty soon the trail became confusing. We were supposed to cross the river somewhere, but there were several tracks leading to the river, and none of them seemed to continue on the other side.

After some backtracking, we eventually found the crossing and the trail started to climb steadily from there.To make up for the lost time, we kept going at a fairly fast pace, even uphill.

This was a very different hike than the one in Tijuca National Park. The guards were right. There was no signalization and the trail was quite hard to find sometimes. We had to look for signs like branches that were cut off, that indicated where the trail had been cleared at one point. Also, November is springtime in Brazil, meaning that the vegetation is growing quickly and the trail closes up faster than the people can keep it open.

Another big difference with the pico da Tijuca hike, was that this trail starts almost at sea-level, while the Tijuca trail starts at an altitude of almost 700m. The Tijuca trail is also a lot shorter. So, while Tijuca is a fairly easy 3 km hike on a trail that is well indicated and maintained, covering a difference in altitude of about 350m, the Pedra Branca trail is a 8.5km of dense jungle, with close to no indications climbing about 1000m.

Needless to say that Pedra Branca is not for the average person. You have to be in good physical condition and  If you want to do this hike without a local guide, you better have some experience in finding your way using your orientation skills… as we would find out later that day

Fauna at Pedra Branca: Snakes and stuff…

Making our way through the dense vegetation, we didn’t see a lot of animals, besides birds and butterflies, but we were able to tell there were animals, probably Coatí and Porco do Mato (Peccary) through all the noises we heard all around us… and the animal droppings we found in lots of places along the trail.

At a given moment, I heard a ruffle a few meters in front of me and I saw a green snake slithering from right to left across the trail, disappearing in the thick growth.

These Green snakes (or Cobra Cipó) are considered nonpoisonous, but in reality they posses a strong poison. However,  their non-aggressive nature (they usually flee very quickly) and the fact that the fangs are located in the back of their mouth result in very low accident statistic.

Of course, the Atlantic Rainforest is known to be home to a few other species, like the Jararaca (pit-viper), the coral snake and the Surucucu (Bushmaster) and these guys are really dangerous…

Rattlesnakes (Cascavel) are also found in Brazil, but they live in dryer areas more to the north…

You should always be aware of the fact that, no matter how beautiful the surroundings, there are also some real dangers out there. Always check the place where you’re going to sit, or your boots before putting them on… Spiders, scorpions and ants like to crawl in there…Don’t put your hand in a hole in the ground, be careful when climbing trees etc… with a little caution and common sense you can prevent your great hike from turning into a nightmare in a heartbeat

I guess you can understand that I’m always kind of dumbfounded to see people (usually Brazilians) in flip-flops and beach attire hopping around in these jungle environments.

Ok… so far the Biology class 

Casa Amarela…

The Casa Amarela. somewhere halfway up the Pico da Pedra Branca trail (photo: clubedosavontureiros.com)

There was a guy -apparently living there – with a bunch of dogs. It was not immediately clear what his role was, but I guess he is some kind of caretaker of the Casa Amarela… we chatted for a while, had a few bananas and were on our way again. It was there and then that I realized that I had left my camera in the car… Damn!One of the way-points (actually, the only one), somewhere halfway the trail to the top, is the “Casa Amarela”, a building that was once the main house of a “sitio” called Santa Barbara. (sitio = small farm – bigger than a Chacara, but smaller than a Fazenda). The fact that we arrived there meant that we were on the right track… Yey!

The guy told us that it would be about one more hour walking to the top. He also said that from here the trail would become even steeper… which sounded fine to us. :)

There was a barbed wire fence going up the slope, which made it easy to follow, and after a while we reached the only clearing of the whole trail where you can get a glimpse of the surrounding landscape. This is very much a hike for people who want to enjoy the time in the forest and don’t care so much about the visual aspect.

The only clearing during the 8,5km trail to the Pico da Pedra Branca presenting a photo opportunity (photo: http://www.clubedosavontureiros.com)

We didn’t have a lot of trouble following the trail from the Casa Amarela, but at one point we reached a T-section, where we initially took a left, but quickly realized that this was not the right direction. So we tried the other way, until coming upon a little wattle and daub hut in the forest, surrounded by banana trees.A little further the path started to go down and it continued to do so for quite some time, so after having climbed almost 800m, you go down again, losing 100m, so if you were glad that you “only” had 200m to climb, make that 300m…

We checked out the place to see if there was someone (apart from the donkey that was going about his business of grazing quietly) to ask the way, but the place was deserted. We went back and eventually Mark discovered the trail… We had walked right passed it without even noticing. Another indication of how easy it is to get lost in these forests.

The Top…

This was the only way to get up the boulder and see something of the surrounding landscape… Photo: Mark Eveleigh – thewideangle.com

If you expect an easy overview of the surrounding scenery, you’re in for another surprise. The vegetation is so dense up there, that the only place you can see something is on top of the boulder, and of course there’s no ladder After another 20 minutes of steep climbing and crawling over and under fallen trees and bamboo, we found the top, which is clearly marked with a 3m high boulder that looks like it has been carefully placed there to make this peak a few meters higher than the Pico da Tijuca…

Luckily there’s enough bamboo around and that’s how we were able to get on top of the boulder where Mark could take a few photos.

It just was too easy to be real. Something just HAD to go wrong…

This was probably the moment where I told Mark that I accidently erased all the GPS ‘s data… Photo: Mark Eveleigh – thewideangle.com

During the hike to the top, I had noticed that I hadn’t cleared my previous data in the GPS, so I had no correct idea of the distance that we had already walked. At one point, Mark mentioned to “reset” the data in the GPS once we would reach the top and then the GPS would record the correct distance as we would backtrack down the mountain… mmm… good idea.

I saved the track and cleared the recorded data, but the numbers were still not reset to zero. I thought I had done something wrong and repeated the procedure… this time I saw all zero’s. Ok, we were set and ready to go!!

First, we sat down for about 15 minutes to have lunch (more bananas :)) before setting out to start the descent… which would not be a walk in the park either… Some sections were really steep to climb up, so descending these sections would be a tough cookie on calves, shins and knees.

I wanted to load up the saved track into the GPS to start backtracking, but to my surprise, the track was no longer in the database… WTF?? I checked again, nothing… restarted the GPS… nothing… Ok, this was not very good news. Mark had even said at one point to make sure I would not delete the track, and I had reset the GPS data before with no problems, but somehow I had managed to delete EVERYTHING… Saved tracks, routes, waypoints… the GPS was as empty as the Greek treasury ….

I looked at Mark and said: “Man, sorry, but I did it… I deleted the track…” None of us really panicked, but we both knew that it wasn’t going to be easy to find our way back through this dense wilderness… We sized up the situation and concluded that it should be possible to find “a” way out, considering we still had about 6 hours of daylight left. Plan B would be to spend the night in the small hut that we found earlier… I wasn’t looking forward to plan B, that’s for sure 

Finding the way out of the Pedra Branca forest…

Ok, so the new challenge of the day was to get back down from the mountain in one piece without GPS and only a vague idea of how to go about it… Swell

The first part was easy enough, and soon we were back at the T-section I mentioned earlier… We knew we had to go left here and climb about 100m (in altitude… not distance)  to get back to the clearing. Well, it didn’t work out that way. Somehow we found ourselves coming back to the T-section over and over again… the proverb “running around in circles” suddenly didn’t seem so unreal anymore…

From my online research, I remembered that there were several entrances to the park, and one of them was in Campo Grande. The GPS was still doing a perfect job as map and compass and showing me where we were, and I suggested that the path leading to the left from the T-section might be the one leading to Campo Grande… It was a hunch and the route to Campo Grande was 11,5 km instead of the 8,5 to Jacarépagua, but that would still be better than spending the night in the forest.

This man was on his way home to his chacara in the Pedra Branca forest. He said that we were on the right way out (well, I think that’s what he said) Photo: Mark Eveleigh – http://www.Thewideangle.com

We decided to take that route, although it meant that we didn’t know where (in what kind of neighborhood) in Campo Grande we would end up. Also, from Campo Grande we would have to find transportation back to the car in  Jacarépagua on the other side of the mountains, which would be a 35km bus, van, taxi (whatever) ride… Our plan to get back in Ipanema by 5.00pm went straight down the drain.

This trail was a lot more open, so we had good visibility over the surroundings almost the whole time, which made it easier to navigate. After 1,5 hours we started to see some chacaras, and that was a great thing, because the people living in the chacaras would have to have a road to get to Campo Grande to sell their products.

At a given moment we encountered an old man on a horse making his way up the mountain. I made him stop and asked if we were on the road to Campo Grande… He started saying a lot of things, but because about 95% of his teeth were gone, it wasn’t easy to understand him. We continued on the same trail, which was very tough at some places, making me feel sorry for the horse.

Having a beer and talking to the locals after making it out of the forest… The man next to me is 73 years old, came to Brazil with his father from the island of Madeira when he was 10… Worked in the field his whole life and never learned to read or write.

Eventually the trail turned into a double track road and we ended up in a small bairro of Campo Grande, where we had a cold beer at the first bar we found…

There was a guard at this side of the park as wall, and I asked him to call his colleagues in Jacarépagua to advise them that we were on the other side, but he said that he didn’t have a phone, and even if he would, he didn’t have any contact information of his colleagues. Even though I found that a little strange and very unprofessional, I can’t say I was surprised… After all, this is Brazil, right?

After finishing the beer (which gave me an instant headache – I don’t mix well with alcohol…) we found a bus to take us to the central station in Campo Grande, from where we took a van to Jacarépagua, where we had diner in a very ok restaurant (which I can’t remember the name of) before driving back to Ipanema, where we arrived around 9.30pm…

I checked into the hostel where Mark was staying as well, took a shower, a nap and after a caipirinha on Ipanema beach I went to bed… All in all it had been another fantastic day!!! (right mark? :))

Hiking to Pedra Bonita – one of the top 5 viewpoints of Rio de Janeiro.

Floresta da tijuca – the biggest man made urban forest in the world.(as seen from Pedra Bonita

 

If you’re visiting Rio de Janeiro, and need a break from the bustling touristy areas, as well as some fresh air, Pedra Bonita is a place with exceptionally beautiful views of the city of Rio de Janeiro and the Tijuca forest and it only takes an easy 20-30 minute hike.

The start of the trail leading to Pedra Bonita is located right next to the parking space of the hang-gliding ramp of São Conrado, so before or after the hike a visit to the ramp is a definite bonus.

How to get to Pedra Bonita

From Zona Sul (Copacabana, Ipanema…) to the start of the trail is about 18 km (see map below) or 20 km if you take the more scenic coastal road, and depending on the day of the week and the time, it could take some time to get there… so plan accordingly.

Once you arrive at the parking of the hanggliding ramp, go back about 200m to find the entrance to the trail, which is indicated with a sign saying “Trilha da Pedra Bonita”. According to the sign, the average time to complete the trail is 25 minutes, but if you set a good pace, you can do less than that.

The hike

The trail is 1.5 km long and climbs the whole time, taking you from +/- 500 to almost 700m. It is a very easy trail, with steps where the inclination is too high, so it isn’t more difficult than climbing a staircase.

When you get to the top, you have one of the most privileged views of the city of Rio de Janeiro: The tijuca forest, Rocinha (the biggest favela in South America), The beach of São Conrado (where the hanggliders land, Christ the Redeemer, Barra da Tijuca, Pão de Açucar, Pedra da Gávea (another great hike on my bucket list)… all of it is spread out in front of you.

Of course, the best time to enjoy these views, is on a clear day, and as mentioned earlier, while you’re there, why not take advantage of the fact that the hang-gliding ramp is right there… It’s really cool to see the people take off with their gliders or delta wings. Maybe you even get tempted to try it yourself.

Oh, and the ramp also has a bathroom and a small bar where you can have something to drink…

Here’s a map, showing the route from Copacabana (Zona Sul) to the hanggliding ramp.

Map with the route from Copacabana to the hanggliding ramp

I’ll shut up now, and let you enjoy the view through some of the pictures I took there…

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.

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.