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…

Ilha Grande: Hiking, backpacking and scuba diving Paradise.

Located in the bay of Angra dos Reis, about 100 km west of Rio de Janeiro, Ilha Grande (Big Island), with its many secluded, sandy beaches, Atlantic rainforest and relaxed way of life, is a popular weekend and holiday destination in Brazil.

History of Ilha Grande

During the colonial period of Brazil, 400-500 years ago, Ilha Grande was a popular hideout for pirates, who used the island as a base for attacking the ships that carried gold and diamonds from Paraty to Rio de Janeiro. In the 18th century it became a base for slave traders and a prison, which only closed in 1994. After the prison closed, the island was turned into a natural reserve and this paved the road for the tourism that today is the major source of income for the inhabitants.

Getting there

A typical schooner… Great way to do the crossing to Ilha Grande. People who get seasick easily, are better off taking one of the bigger ferries.

You can only get to Ilha Grande by boat, leaving from the ports of Angra dos Reis or Mangaratiba. The trip is about 1,5 hours and can be done by ferry or, a liitle more bumpy and adventurous, by schooner (my favorite). You arrive at the village of Abraao, Ilha Grandes major port/ hub, where most of the hotels and pousadas are located. Once on the island, you get around on foot or by small boats, that take you to the various beaches around the Island, or on a snorkeling or fishing trip.

Hiking

There are several hiking trails on the island. Starting from Abraao, you can just go a few kilometers to the next beach, or hike around the island in five to ten days, camping along the way. It is recommended to take a guide when going on a extensive hike. More than once, people have gotten lost in the dense forest.

One of the popular attractions on the island is the “Pico do Papagaio“, a mountain with a top in the shape of a parrot’s beak. The hike to the summit (almost 1000m) is considered heavy and again, should only be attempted with a guide.

Lopes Mendes beach on Ilha Grande. One of the most beautiful beaches on the Island. Even in high season there’s plenty of space for everybody.

Other hiking destinations are the beaches “Lopes Mendes”, “Dois Rios” and “Praia do aventureiro”, all located on the south side of he island.

Scuba diving

The clear waters around Ilha Grande and the smaller islands in the surrounding area make for a great number of terrific diving spots. In the village of Abraao you’ll find several agencies that offer diving trips all around the island, some of them have English speaking staff and instructors. A few of the most popular spots are: “Gruta do Acaiá”, “Ilha dos Meros” and “Ilha do Gurirí”. More info on this site (Portuguese).

If you’re not a scuba diver, snorkeling is another way to enjoy the awesome underwater scenery. You’ll find various places where you can rent a mask and flippers.

Important: When you plan a stay on Ilha Grande, make sure you stock up on cash, since most pousadas, restaurants and shops don’t accept cards and there are no banks or even ATM’s on the island. Other than that, you won’t see any cars (except of the police and fire department) or supermarkets, and you also won’t be able to use your mobile phone. In other words, everything is pretty basic on this tropical island paradise, but not having all these things is really part of the attraction.

Useful links:

  • check out this Map of Ilha Grande (source: Wikipedia)
  • find the best places to stay on Ilha Grande: Hidden Pousadas Brazil (advanced search => by city/town => Ilha Grande)
  • Ilha Grande Portal (English)

Rock Climbing to Christ the Redeemer (Corcovado), Rio de Janeiro

Corcovado mountain, with Christ the Redeemer on top

Rio de Janeiro is a great place for rock climbing, and one of the more difficult climbs, but also one of the most beautiful ones is Corcovado mountain (also referred to as K2), on top of which stands the most famous landmark of Rio de Janeiro: the statue of Christ the Redeemer. When a good friend of  mine invited me to do this climb, despite not being a real rock climber, I didn’t think twice and accepted…

The climb starts at 500m above the city. You can hike the whole way to the base, but we took the car to a parking place, from where we took a minivan that goes all the way up, but we got out halfway. After a 15-20min hike through some quite dense jungle, we reached the starting point of the climb and geared up.

Like I said before, I’m not a real rock climber, and this climb is considered to be the hardest one to get to the top of Corcovado mountain, so I had a few moments where I thought that I wouldn’t be able to stretch myself far enough to get any further ahead, but turning back was not really an option, so in the end I did make it, not without a little cheating I must admit :). There were stunning views of the city during the entire climb, and this is one of the things that make this such a great experience… From the top you also have one of the most spectacular views of Rio de Janeiro.

This is one thing definitely worth doing, and I’m looking forward of doing it again in the future, but first I need to get some more rock climbing training/ experience,  and oh, needless to say that you cannot be afraid of heights

Here, I had a major “damn, I’m going to have to turn back” moment. Not a lot to hold on to and a little water running down the wall, making everything very slippery.

A welcome ledge to take a breather and admire the stunning scenery

Ok, real rock climbers will say I’m cheating here, grabbing a hold of the metal bar sticking out of the rock face. I need to train more…

One of the dozens of helicopters that daily take tourists to circle the statue of Christ the Redeemer

We made it!!! and it felt really good 🙂

Up close and personal: the world-famous statue of Christ the Redeemer

The “postcard view” from the top of Corcovado: The center of Rio de Janeiro and Sugar Loaf mountain

Santa Rita de Jacutinga – Hidden eco-paradise in south Minas Gerais – Brazil

It was on one of my first motorcycle road trips, exploring the dirt roads of the “Vale do Cafe” after arriving in Brazil in early 2009, that I missed a right turn and ended up crossing the state border between Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais, that I got to know a hidden little gem of a village called Santa Rita de Jacutinga, or short: Santa Rita.

The village only recently started to discover and develop its touristic potential so it has nothing of a typical touristic place, like for instance Tiradentes, one of the most famous historical villages, which gets its income almost only out of tourism.

When I arrived there the first time in 2009, access to the village was only via dirt road. Today this has changed: two asphalt roads, one to the south and one to the north, make the village more accessible for visitors.

Santa Rita, also known as “a cidade das cachoeiras” or “city of waterfalls”, as the name implies, is famous for its more than 70 waterfalls scattered across an area of almost 500 km².

A great way to discover the most important ones is on horseback, but it can also be done by car (preferably a 4×4) or during a mountain bike or hiking trip, during which you will be blown away by the beautiful sights around each curve in the road, or the flocks of colorful birds you will encounter.

Besides birds, there are a lots of other forest animals you could run into here: monkeys, Coatis and various kinds of reptiles like lizards and snakes… the latter potentially dangerous, so better stick to the trails when you’re hiking.

Fazenda Santa Clara… During the 18th century its main activity was the production of slaves.

As you probably figured out by now, this is a place for people who are looking for rural or adventure tourism… the local “centro de aventuras” offers rappelling, rafting, cascading, canyoning and trekking. The organization could be a little more professional, but they are doing their best…

Authentic antique equipment of the former “slave factory”…

Unlike the more touristic places in the region, and again, due to the fact that tourism is a fairly new phenomenon here, Santa Rita doesn’t have a lot of accommodation (yet). there are 6 pousadas in the center, and 6 more outside of the village (max 8km from the center) Here is a link to a map showing the points of interest and places to stay in the wide area.

A long board with holes for feet and hands… This is where slaves had to spend the night after they had behaved badly…

One of the most important historical attractions in the region is the 18th century “Fazenda Santa Clara”, about 20 km of – sometimes precarious – dirt road from Santa Rita.

This gigantic farm was built on top of a hill and almost resembles a medieval castle. It has 90 rooms, 12 of which are salons, and 365 windows, lots of them just painted on the white walls.

Another view of the slave quarters at fazenda Santa Clara

Sinister detail: this farm’s primary activity was not growing coffee or raising cattle, but the production of slaves… After the abolition of transatlantic slave trading in 1836, fazendas like these were providing the huge coffee fazendas in the area with new slaves, until slavery was finally abolished in Brazil in 1888.

Visiting the fazenda, and seeing the places where the slaves were kept, and sometimes tortured, compared to the luxurious quarters of the owners, leaves a very strong impression.

Pousada “Pouso de Minas”, one of the 6 pousadas in the rural area around Santa Rita… great places to stay with kids…

The many rivers in the region make great playground in a lush green environment… again, a paradise for kids.

Whenever I feel like taking a break from the city, I find myself on the road leading to Santa Rita and the Serra da Beleza that surrounds it. For me it is the place where I find peace and tranquility, a good, homemade meal and an authentic, unspoilt atmosphere of the Brazilian rural interior as it must have been like many years before tourism even existed…

Hope you enjoyed the read.

Climbing a steel cable to the top of Sugar Loaf. The Via Ferrata

Taking the cable car, you see the side of sugar loaf mountain along which you climb the Via Ferrata.

If you want to tell people you have seen Rio de Janeiro, there are a few “not to miss” attractions and one of them is the Pão de Açucar (Sugar Loaf).
Most people go to the summit of Sugar Loaf the normal way: by cable trolley.

There are however, alternative, more adventurous ways to get there…One of them is a walk to the top (referred to as “costão”), a three hour walk which involves a little rock climbing, but nothing too difficult. I doesn’t require prior climbing experience and can be done with normal running or hiking shoes.

Another way of getting to the top is climbing via a steel cable that runs along the steepest side of the rock, called the “Via Ferrata”. This is a little more difficult than the walk, but it is so rewarding if you get to the top and see the sunset over Rio de Janeiro.

The whole experience starts with a 20 minute uphill trail starting from the base of Sugarloaf, leading through the forest that covers most of the surrounding slopes, until you reach a ledge. From there it is a fairly steep climb to the place where the cable starts and for me, this was actually the hardest part, partially because I found out right there that I hadn’t brought my climbing shoes… I would have to go up with my Asics running shoes. Since Robson was leading the way, and he has been climbing since his teenage years, I was pretty confident that I was in good hands.

My guide Robson taking the first hurdle: a steep wall leading to the starting point of the cable. Notice the cables of the trolley in the blue sky…

Once the steep wall conquered, you just follow the steel cable upwards. The cable is rusted and you can cut your hands on little steel pins sticking out here and there, so wearing gloves is not a bad idea.

Why take the easy way if you can make it more difficult huh?

A short rest halfway… We’ll have a cold one at the top, right? Note the little mountain tip right above my hand? That is Christ the Redeemer

Getting closer to the top…

Like sardines in a can? No thanks :o)

And this is the reward: a stunning view of Rio de Janeiro in the light of the setting sun…

This was one of my first adventurous activities after moving to Brazil in January 2009. I have to thank Robson for taking me there. It was an awesome experience and I couldn’t have done it without him.