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

Easy 4×4 – the Tinguá Biological Reserve – Rio de Janeiro State

“even though it was raining most of the time during my trip, I still enjoyed every second of it.”

The trip started out dry, but then the rain started and things got a little more wet and muddy.

Doing some research afterwards, I learned that this road had been opened in the early 17th century as one of the first links between the city of Rio de Janeiro and the gold and diamond mines in the interior of Minas Gerais.In my never-ending quest for new interesting places, I stumbled upon an ancient road, called “Caminho do Imperador” wich connects the municipality of Miguel Pereira and the Imperial city of Petrópolis.

As an extra bonus, this historic road, that starts out as just another dirt road a little outside and east of Miguel Pereira, suddenly becomes a lot more interesting when it enters the State Biological reserve of Tinguá.

The Tinguá reserve is a 260km² patch of dense atlantic rainforest, located just north-west of Rio de Janeiro in the municipality of Nova Iguaçu. The area, which represents a significant portion of the Atlantic Forest’s biological diversity, became a Biological Reserve in 1989. Since then, numerous studies on local fauna and flora were carried out here. Recently (2011) there was also an interesting survey in the communities around the reserve, to collect information about, and preserve the knowledge of medicinal plants among the local population.

The rugged landscape of the reserve consists of cliffs, cut by torrential rivers, and various so-called “serras” or mountain chains, the highest of which is the serra da Tinguá, reaching  an altitude of. 1600m. The distance between Miguel Pereira and The main road (BR040) is about 42km and all along the way I was thinking that this would also be a fantastic place to hike or practice mountain biking. . .

Riding through the reserve gives you that unmistakable “Indiana Jones” kind of feeling and even though it was raining most of the time during my trip, I still enjoyed every second of it. A stop at the highest point didn’t give me the great view I would have on a sunny day, since mist was hiding most of the surrounding mountains, but just being there and hearing nothing but the sound of birds, monkeys and running watermade for another wonderful memory…

Sadly, but not surprisingly, as with so many other “protected” areas, an area of this size is very difficult to oversee, and Tinguá is also under a lot of pressure as a result of the ever-expanding communities along its borders and the pollution that goes with it. also Hunting (poaching) and capturing forest animals to sell on the black market, present another threat to the already suffering local fauna.and flora.

Enjoy the following pictures

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And this Video…

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

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. 

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…

4×4 trip crossing the Chapada Diamantina national park – Bahia, Brazil

On day 8 of my trip through the Chapada Diamantina, I had spent the night in Mucugé, a small village on the south side of the Chapada, and I was planning to make a counterclockwise tour around the park, visiting Igatú, passing through Lençois and finding a place to stay in Conceição dos Gatos, a small village on the north-east side of the park.

Knowing that I had only about 130 km to go that day, I had taken my time for having breakfast and left Mucugé; around 9.00 am, direction Igatú, my first goal for the day.

A few kilometers out of Mucugé, I noticed a sign of a diamond museum and decided to take a look. The museum, called “casa do diamante”, is located in a former house/workshop of a “garimpeiro” (diamond miner). the museum holds a fine collection of machines and tools that were used during the period when the diamond industry was blooming here (18th – 19th century).

Machines to process diamonds and other tools at the “Casa do Diamante”

I always thought that there are no volcanoes in Brazil, but given the fact that diamonds are formed inside volcanoes -so I’ve been told- and then spit out during eruptions, I gues I have to let go of that idea. Looking around in the Chapada Diamantina, they must have had one bad ass volcano around here once upon a time.

The steep dirt and cobblestone road leading to Igatu

Igatú is a small former diamond mining village, that only recently started to develop its touristic potential. It’s said to be the most peaceful place of the Chapada.

I spent some time walking around in Igatú, which, according to the tourist guides, is the most peaceful village of the Chapada. To get there it’s a 6 km dirt and cobblestone road that becomes pretty heavy towards the end. I’m glad to have a 4×4, but it keeps amazing me how the Brazilian people seem to go just about anywhere in their regular city cars.

Igatú is as quiet as the guides said, I walked around in the village and bought a few small souvenirs. I was starting to get hungry so I went to look for something to eat. There was not a lot of choice, since there was only one restaurant open. The restaurant had only 4 tables, and was run by a kind black lady called Maria. I only had to tell her that I was a vegetarian for her to disappear in the kitchen and reappear 15 minutes later with a big plate of rice, beans, tapioca puree and a raw vegetable mix… perfect! It was very tasty and in the end I only paid 12R$ (about 5 Euros).

Since there were no other customers, Maria joined me in the dining room and started telling me about the history of Igatú. She told me that the village currently has +/- 375 inhabitants, but that there used to be over 8000 in the diamond era. After the diamonds ran out, the population fell back to about 100. It’s been only 10 years since the village had been discovered by tourism.

the road leading out of Igatú to the north isn’t a lot better than the one I took to get there…

My next goal was Lençois, the main city of the Chapada Diamantina. the shortest route to get there, according to my GPS, was a 4×4 track leading straight through the Chapada Diamantina National Park and since I was driving a Land Rover Defender, I didn’t even think twice about taking that route.Little did I know then, that I was about to spend the night in the park…

Crossing a dry river bed near Andarai…

Initially, the 4×4 trail was pretty easy to ride. I had to clear one tree that was hanging too low over the road at one point, but that’s why this car has a axe attached to it, right? 

Here’s the tree that I had to cut away… It would have destroyed the lights on the roof.

Gradually, the road became worse, but nothing too difficult. A regular car wouldn’t be able to continue though.

Then I reached a point where the road seemed to end at a river bank, but looking ahead, I could see that I would have to cross the river, twice, since it made a wide curve, with a patch of really deep sand inbetween the two crossings.

The water was about 1m deep, so before entering, I had to move a few things inside the car to higher locations, to prevent them from getting wet. The river bank was prety steep, so going into the water was easy. Coming out on the other side in the deep sand was not, and I felt that the car was getting stuck.

I got out and started digging in front of the wheels to get to firm ground and after trying a few times, I was able to get across the patch of sand, and reach the second crossing of the river.

I noticed that the bank on the other side, also consisting of loose sand, was quite a bit steeper than the first one, and that didn’t give me a good feeling. There was no other option than to try, so I put the car in gear and entered the water. I managed to get through the water, but as soon as the front wheels reached the loose sand of the opposite bank, things started to get difficult, and the tires started to dig deeper and deeper in the sand until the car was totally grounded. this time I was REALLY STUCK

River Crossing 2 - Chapada Diamantina - Bahia - Brazil

Second crossing… This time the car dug itself in completely… It took a lot of digging – with the unexpected help of 3 guardian Angels – and eventually some creativity with the winch to get the car out of this one… and then the battery died.

I started digging again, thinking that I would probably have to put up my tent and spend the night there, when suddenly two guys appeared out of nowhere. They were black, in their twenties and their clothes looked kind of shaggy. They didn’t look dangerous at first sight, but moments like these are always a little tense. You don’t know these guys and you’re all alone in the middle of a forest. If they are the bad kind of people, you could be in for a lot of trouble.

As usual, these guys were nothing but curious about what was happening. Apparently I had passed their house, but because of the dense forest, I didn’t even notice it. There was even a pousada nearby, owned by the parents of one of them, and they were taking care of it while the parents were gone for a few days.

From left to right: Domingos, Tiago (who charged my battery) and Rodrigo. I wouldn’t have gotten the car out of the sand without them. thanks guys!

Both of them started to help digging out the car (with their hands) but after a few attempts it was clear that I needed another strategy… I have a winch on the Land Rover, but the problem was that there was this totally empty space in front of the car and nothing to hook the cable on to. So I had the idea of cutting a tree and putting it into the ground 20m in front of the car to have a fixed point. 30 minutes later we had everything set up and with the first attempt, the car was free. (hallelujah). I noticed that the cable of the winch was rolled up very messy and was also full of sand, so I decided to roll it off again and roll up nicely. Thing is, I made the stupid mistake of doing this with the engine of the car turned off, and by the time the cable was rolled up again, the battery was completely drained. At that point it was clear to me that this was as far as I would get that day. My new friends made a call to another guy in Andaraí. this guy came all the way down with his 125cc motorbike, took my battery back to Andaraí to charge and was back at 7.00Am the next day.

I spent the night in the pousada, which was only a few hundred meters from where I got stranded. Rodrigo and Domingos made dinner on a old fashioned “Forno de Lenha” which was basic but it tasted delicious. The pousada itself was very basic as well. No glass windows, but only wooden shutters, lots of dogs, chickens and other animals running around… A perfect place for someone who wants to experienece the simple, rural lifestyle of the people of the Chapada, rather than staying at a luxurious pousada.

“Pousada Roncador”, named after the waterfall nearby. A very simple place in the middle of the jungle.

Before going to bed, I had a long conversation with Rodrigo, who turned out to be only 17, talking with great respect for his parents and full of big plans for the future (get a college degree, travel the world…), despite his not so fortunate social situation. I sure hope he may succeed…