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)

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.

Disaster weekend – Ibitipoca State park – Minas Gerais

Road sign to Ibitipoca Park

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ibitipoca – Park Entrance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ibitipoca – Inside the Park

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ibitipoca – Surrounding scenery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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