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.

Brazil Down under – A taste of the South…

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One of the things that is so interesting and amazing about Brazil, is that it sometimes feels like many different countries in one. When you travel from the north to the south of this immense country, you’ll experience not only differences in the climate, geography, fauna and flora, but also in culture, architecture, food, the way people talk and behave, etc.

The south of Brazil has been populated in particular by people coming from different parts of Europe, and that had a significant influence on the region. For me, it was one of the lesser known parts of the country, so I decided to take a 10 day motorcycle trip to get more familiar with “Brazil Down Under”

Day 1: Campinas

Our first Gas stop on the BR116 on our way to campinas – there would be about 20 of these stops on this trip

Maryel and me left Volta Redonda around 2pm and made our way to Campinas, one of the biggest cities in the state of Sao Paulo and more of an industrial city than touristic.

The ride itself wasn’t all that exiting since we stayed on the main roads (the BR116 and the SP065) Only a strong head wind, that tried to blow us off the road, made things a little more interesting.

The weather gradually changed for the worse and by the time we were almost in Campinas, we saw the first rain. Things also started to get really chilly…

We arrived after about 400km at the house of our good friend Alexandre, where we spent the first night. Before going to bed however, we went out for something to eat in Ponto1 BAR, the oldest bar in the Barao Geraldo neighborhood of Campinas, famous for its great food and live music. We even enjoyed a Belgian beer with our food, so our first night was perfect .

Day 2: “Pisteiros” headquartes – Campinas.

Pisteiros – Brazil’s motorcyclists community (www.pisteiros.com.br)

After a good nights sleep and tasty breakfast at Alex’ house, it was time to move on to our next stop: the headquarters of the PISTEIROS, where our friend Evandro was expecting us.

Evandro created a place where all passers-by on motorcycles, touring South America and looking for a place to crash for a couple of days, are always welcome. The reception is fabulous (like in most places in Brazil) and Evandro has everything you need to get your batteries recharged…a bed, wifi… the works.

Evandro also showed us his brand new site. The English version of the Pisteiros site, which was in Portuguese (Duh). I would call it “Pisteiros for Gringos”. Anybody interested in Adventure riding with a focus on Brazil is more than welcome to sign up on the new site.

Day 3: Morretes

Somewhere on the Perfect São Paulo roads on our way south

Evandro was joining (and guiding) usthat day, since he was going to meet up with a few riders and do a tour around the south as well.After a chilly night (August is winter time here in Brazil, and in spite of being a “tropical” country, it can get really cold in some places), we loaded up our bikes and took off.

The weather channel was not really promising a good day… rain and cold, but to our enjoyment it was “only” cold. The sky was blue most of the day and we were able to make good progress on the close-to-perfect roads of São Paulo State. Interesting detail: it seems that on many of São Paulo’s “secondary” highways, motorcycles don’t have to pay at toll booths.

Other than that, I have to say that I found most of the roads and scenery in that part of the state of São Paulo kind of “bleak”, compared to what I’m used to in other parts of Brazil, but hey, it cannot be spectacular all the time, right?

Once in the State of Parana, the roads became more twisty and views turned a little more interesting. At one  point we drove through an area that was hit by a flash flood two days earlier, due to 72 hours of torrential rain, and the signs of devastation were still very much visible in the landscape around the river.

The Ribeira river rose 13m two days earlier, destroying several houses on its banks… Notice the debris on the lightposts, left by the flood .

The Ribeira river rose 13m two days earlier, destroying several houses on its banks… Notice the debris on the lightposts, left by the flood .

Near Curitiba, the capital of the state of Parana, we headed east to Morretes, where we arrived around 6.30pm that day.A little earlier would have been better, because then we wouldn’t have had to ride down the beautiful Estrada da Graciosa in the dark to get to Morretes. It wouldn’t be our last unpleasant descent…

Our place for the night was Pousada Dona Laura, A very nice place in the historical center of Morretes, recently resored and for about 60R$ per person…

Day 4 ( 5, 6 and 7): Florianópolis

Floripa’s “Golden Gate Bridge”: No longer in use and very beautiful at night, when it is all illuminated. Due to weather conditions, I couldn’t get a good picture of the bridge at night.

Floripa’s “Golden Gate Bridge”: No longer in use and very beautiful at night, when it is all illuminated. Due to weather conditions, I couldn’t get a good picture of the bridge at night.

We left Morretes right after breakfast and rode up the Estrada da Graciosa again, because the previous day we did it in the dark…I decided to take the camera and film Mariel riding up the serra, but on the cobblestones I wasn’t able to keep the camera still, so that footage was pretty much useless.

We wanted to get to Florianópolis, the capital of Santa Catarina State. On the way there, we would als pay a visit to our friend Mike in Piçarras, who is moving back to the States in a few months..

We basically stayed on the main road south and between Curitiba and Joinville, going down to sea level again, we ran into a couple of traffic jams, several kms long… Traffic was not moving at all and many people were having a pick-nick on the spot, indicating that they hadn’t been moving for some time.

Of course, being on motorcycles, we didn’t wait in line, but zig-zagged our way through the rows of vehicles, expecting to see some big accident in front of the line, but there was only ONE truck that had broken down and caused this whole mess…

On the way down the serra, we did see a few seriously mangled remains of trucksthat obviously never made it to their destinations…

A street artist at work in Floripa. He told me he was restoring his work and it would take him about three months to finish the whole wall.

A street artist at work in Floripa. He told me he was restoring his work and it would take him about three months to finish the whole wall.

We arrived in Piçarras and had lunch together with Mike and his wife, but instead of continuing our trip to Floripa right after lunch, as planned, we ended up going back to hisplace for a last coffee (no beer since we still had some riding to do).

Well… the coffee was great, and the chat even more, so we ended up talking for a few hours and then, we had to do the final 130 km to Floripa in the dark… which wasn’t too bad. I did notice however, that people in this part of Brazil seem to drive a lot faster than what I’m used to… kinda like in Germany?

Evandro had told us about this cool hostel in Floripa (Sunset Backpackers Hostel), and it was about 7.30pm when we arrived there. We checked in, had some dinner and called it a night…

Evandro was right about the hostel… It IS a very nice place. Clean, rooms with view on the lagoa, pool, free internet, Wifi… and close to a very popular surfing beach (praia mole). Price is 30BRL per person – incl. breakfast.

The big villas in “Jureré Internacional”, Brazil’s equivalent of Beverly Hills and one of the attractions on Florianópolis.

We stayed in Floripa for the next three days. On the first day we checked out the north side of the island and on the second day we went to the south part.

Florianópolis, apart from being the state capital (did I mention that earlier?) is a place where a lot of rich and famous Brazilians live. On the north side of the island there’s a neighborhood called “jurere internacional” –  known as “the Beverly Hills of Brazil” – and yeah, the houses are HUGE there, compared to what I’ve seen so far in Brazil.

FLoripa, sometimes referred to as “the magic island”, is a popular vacation destination for people from Curitiba but also Argentinians like to spend their vacation here… There are many great beaches all around the island and the roads are in good to very good condition. There is even an airport on the island…

Sunset over the Lagoa de Conceição – our view from the Sunset Backpackers Hostel

The only downside is the traffic… it looks to me like the island is getting “over capacity” (expression often seen on Twitter :)). When driving around, you hardly get to go faster than 40-50 km/h and especially in the north, around the lagoa da conceição the traffic jam never stops…

We visited the island in the off-season, and the locals told me that during the summer months it’s faster to walk than to take your car to get somewhere… Looks like it is time for the local authorities to take some action to improve this situation…

Otherwise Florianópolis is a great place for people who want to spend their vacation in a place with beautiful nature but everything else (airport, shopping, big city…) close by. It looks like a perfect place for surfers too, although I am far from an expert in that area

After two days of exploring the Magical Island in the south of Brazil, we were planning to continue our tour of Santa Catarina, but bad weather made us decide to stay put for one more day. Always amazing how much a place changes when it starts to rain.

Day 7: Fraiburgo.

Our original plan to ride south from Floripa and up the Serra do Rio do Rastro (THE highlight of our trip) got changed by the weather provisions. According to the BR-weather forecast, it would keep raining for two days, but after that, it would turn for the better… We figured that we could ride west first, and aim to arrive at the Serra do Rio do Rastro when the weather would be good. How does that sound for a plan?

Despite not only rain, but also pretty heavy winds, we rode out of Florianopolis and our rain gear was tested to the limit. The hardest part about it, is getting started, but once you’re on the road, you pretty much -have to- accept the fact that you’re going to end up soaked and cold.

A common sight that day… flooded areas due to the heavy rains of the past couple of days

From Floripa, we took the BR282 direction Lages… This is a pretty decent road, but the thing about rain is: visibility drops considerably, as so does the speed and one’s sense of humour.  Well, we could only hope that the internet weather provisions were correct and that it would stop raining sometime during the day…

Almost halfway Lages we took the SC302 north, direction Rio do Sul… great twisty ride, and it stopped raining hard… Now it was just raining… When we were almost in Rio do Sul, the rain had stopped completely, so all in all we only had 3 hours of intense rain, which was enough to get our feet soaked. I managed to keep the rest of me dry, but Mariel’s rain gear didn’t seem to be completely watertight (made in Brazil ) so he got wet in more places than just his feet …

At one point we noticed a road block. Coming closer, we saw that the rising river had flooded the road… According to one guy there, the water was still on the rise (about 3 cm per minute)… Yay

As we were not really looking forward to spending the night there, I asked the MP’s (Military Police) if we were allowed to continue… he looked at us, said something like “looks like these bikes are high enough” and let us pass… I took the middle of the road and Mariel went to the side… The problem is, that any holes in the road are invisible, so it’s always kind of a gamble riding through mirky water like this without crossing it on foot first. turned out that Mariel had the shallow side and was laughing at me because the water almost got into my airfilter

The Landscape on the road to Rio do Sul – Santa Catarina. The sky started to open up a bit, but not for long…

We wanted to get to Fraiburgo by the end of the day, and the route I had chosen (on Google maps) the day before, would mean we only had to do a measly 370km that day. Of course, the rain had to ruin those plans… We would take the shortcut via Taió and Santa Cecilia, but in Taió we came across a sign saying that the dirt road to Santa Cecilia was closed… The rain of the past days had triggered a lot of landslides and according to local authorities, nothing could get through before the cleaning crew passed.A little further down the road, the same situation… Road block… Cars and trucks stopped… This time, one of the trucks on the other side of the flood made the crossing and that’s how we could see how deep it was. It looked ok, so we went for it again. This time, it was me who could laugh, because in the middle of the water Mariel’s engine died… Ok, I wasn’t really laughing, because, well… if the water got in the engine, it would mean being stuck there for some time.

The yellow sign telling us that the road was closed… no choice than to turn back and add 200km to our trajectory to get to Fraiburgo.

By the time we got to Fraiburgo, it was pitch dark and we were pretty tired after almost 12 hours on the road and so we headed straight to the RENAR hotel… A pretty chique (and pricy) place, that looks like it has been snatched off of a mountain somewhere in Switzerland and dropped in Brazil… Our friend Evandro had organized a motorcycle event there earlier this year and mentioning his name got us a serious discount on the room…:).This meant that we had to backtrack 50km and then follow the BR470 for almost 200km (a major road with lots of trucks, and the wind was almost blowing us off the road, making things even more fun ). Getting to Fraiburgo was suddenly going to take us an extra 2 hours. Yay…

The hotel had sauna and (hot) swimming pool, which were a welcome treat after a day of rain, cold and wind…

Day 8: The Serra do Rio do Rastro

After a good nights sleep in Fraiburgo’s most chique hotel, we were planning to get to the Serra do Rio do Rastro, the famous 8 km climb / descent linking the cities of Lauro Muller and Bom Jardim da Serra… The total distance between these two cities is actually about 35 km but the most interesting section, is the spectacular climb (or descent) with a collection of really tight switchbacks

We rode out of Fraiburgo and took the road to Treze tillias, a small city that is also known as “the Brazilian Tirol”. The city was founded in the 1930’s by the former minister of agriculture of Austria.

They try to keep the Austrian culture alive with typical folklore festivities and wood sculpting. Treze +Tillias (Thirteen Lime trees) is home to various music, dance and singing groups, all typically Austrian or German. It was kind of weird to see so many german names on the shop signs… Apart from German and Austrian Immigrants, the region was also inhabited by Italian people. The route we took was a part of the “Rota da Amizade“.

The weather continued to be against us: cold, misty and some rain once in a while. The good thing was, that it didn’t rain hard enough to get us wet, but it sure reduces the chances of taking nice pictures…

By the time we arrived in Bom Jardim da Serra, it was around 5 pm so I thought that we could just as well descent the Serra to Lauro Muller and find a place for the night there, but about 2 km before the start of the descent, we found the road blocked by the firefighters, who were removing mud from the road… indicating that it had been raining really hard here not too long ago

Bombeiros cleaning up the mud after the rain…

In a few places, where the water would usually drip down from the steep walls, we literally had to ride through waterfalls that changed the road into a raging river.After the firefighters cleared the road, we continued towards the descent, not knowing that from one second to the other, we would be engulfed in a white hell of mist, rain and cold, which made our descent not only very wet and unpleasant, but also kind of dangerous, as we literally couldn’t see 10m in front of us.

Another danger were falling rocks. We noticed several pretty big ones on the road… When water comes down from a mountain wall like that, it can take loose rocks with it, that can hit you on the head or cause serious damage to your vehicle. Maybe it had been a better idea not to ride down in these conditions, but we made it in one piece.

Once down in Lauro Muller, the rain was a lot less, and we were very frustrated that we had especially changed our route to arrive at the Serra with good weather, only to find our descent ruined by the poorest conditions ever. We continued on to the next city (Orleans – which sounds kinda French ), where we found a hotel to get warm and try to dry out for the next day.

Day 9: Blumenau

Lauro Muller the next morning. The Serra do Rio do Rastro in the background.

We headed back to the city of Lauro Muller, the city at the foot of the Serra do Rio do Rastro, and from there, continued on toward the twisty road that would take us back up to Bom Jardim da serra, 1200m higher.the next greeted us with open, blue skies and a brilliant sun, so instead of going straight north, we decided to backtrack, ride up the Serra again and make our way to Blumenau via Urubici. This would mean we would have to ride 100km more than when we would take the direct route, but we just couldn’t pass up on the chance to see the serra do Rio do Rastro with open weather.

I had seen some pictures of this Serra before and it really looked spectacular, but nothing compares to riding up there yourself. The great thing about being on a motorcycle, is that you can virtually stop everywhere to soak up the view.

Serra do Rio do Rastro – Around 1000m (cloud level). Some curves are so tight that trucks have to maneuver back and forth several times to pass them. Getting stuck behind one of them obviously doesn’t make a ride up or down the serra very pleasant.

Serra do Rio do Rastro – Around 1000m (cloud level). Some curves are so tight that trucks have to maneuver back and forth several times to pass them. Getting stuck behind one of them obviously doesn’t make a ride up or down the serra very pleasant.

Serra do Rio do Rastro – Around 1000m (cloud level). Some curves are so tight that trucks have to maneuver back and forth several times to pass them. Getting stuck behind one of them obviously doesn’t make a ride up or down the serra very pleasant.

At the summit of the Serra (alt. 1.450m). The clouds only make it look more real.

After an awesome ride up the serra, we continued on to Urubici, and.it didn’t take long before we could put on our rain gear again. Of course, when we left the hotel that morning, we were at an altitude of 200m and after climbing the Serra it was back to 1400m, which translated in a totally different weather situation.

In Urubici, we had some lunch and decided to check out the “Pedra Furada”, a rock with a huge hole in it, which is one of the major natural attractions of the region, so we took the road leading east and up to the Serra do Corvo Branco… Of course we missed the sign leading to the Morro da Igreja, from where you can see the Pedra Furada, and ended up on top of the serra do Corvo Branco, from where the view wasn’t bad at all either.

About halfway back to Urubici, we found the correct road to the morro da Igreja (alt. 1800m) that we missed on the way up, only to find out that there was no way to see the Pedra Furada due to the (again) heavy mist… Well, the only thing we gained was more kms to our route that day… An easy 250 km ride to Blumenau became 430 km.

Serra do Corvo Branco near Urubici… We were actually looking for the Pedra Furada, but due to heavy mist, this landmark was invisible…

On our way to Blumenau, we took an inside road, leading north from the BR282 passing via “Angelina” and “major Gercino”. This was a dirt road, and to make things interesting, a little after leaving Urubici, it had started raining again... Swell. As expected, the section of dirt road was pretty slippery, and made us slow down significantly. Luckily, the last 20 km that were also marked as dirt road in my GPS had been asphalted.

However, to get to Blumenau we had to go through the city of Brusque at dusk and rush hour, which was  probably the worst time to pass through there because of the traffic jams, and this resulted in us arriving in Blumenau only around 7.30pm… pitch dark of course… This was another city that we weren’t going to be able to explore a little more…

Day 10: Back home

Normally we would have taken the road along the coast to get back home, spending one more night near Santos, but In the morning, Mariel noticed that his front shocks were leaking some oil. We decided to head home and do the remaining +/- 950 km to Volta Redonda in one go.

We passed via Joinville to Curitiba and took the BR116 from there. This section of the BR116 (between Curitiba and São Paulo) is known as the “Rodovia da Morte” (highway of death), which is kind of a scary name, but I have to say that apart from the road not being in top shape, I didn’t really feel like this road was any more dangerous than any other road in Brazil. In fact, I found the first 150 km from Curitiba to Jacupiranga to be very scenic, especially where the road passes the Environmental Protection Area of Guaraqueçaba…

On Wikipedia, I read that the reason for the name “highway of death” is that it is the road with the highest indice of mortal accidents in Brazil (Duh ). Also, there’s a +/- 40 km section between Miracatu e Juquitiba, known as “Serra do Cafezal”, that is still not duplicated. I suppose that’s where most of the accidents happen..

The BR116 is one of the most important connections between the South east and the South, and a lot of the traffic are heavy trucks… We also passed a few sections with road works and those are always more dangerous and subject to traffic jams and accidents.

The worst part of the day, however, was passing the city of São Paulo. Although a little more disciplined than in Rio de Janeiro, the friday evening traffic was still pretty horrible, and the fact that it was getting dark, wasn’t helping a lot…

Anyways, around 10pm we reached Volta Redonda after about 4000km in 10 days (7 real riding days)

Here is an image of our (approximate) route in Googlemaps… Unfortunately, the real link was too long and wouldn’t process.

I hope you enjoyed this ride report.Unfavorable weather conditions and lack of more time prevented us from going further south into Rio Grande do sul, but that is a trip we can do on another occasion.

Thanks for reading. (I know this is kind of a long one :))

Morretes: Colonial charm and Atlantic Rainforest at the foot of the Serra do Mar

Being one of the oldest cities in the southern Brazilian state of Paranã, Morretes is a most charming colonial town, tucked away in one of the largest and best preserved areas of Atlantic rainforest of south Brazil.

Just like the rest of Brazil, the region where Morretes was founded in 1721, was initially inhabited by indigenous tribes, like the Guarani and the Carijó, who eventually had to give way to the Portuguese colonizers.

In the 1640’s, gold deposits were found in the area and this attracted a growing population of adventurers and miners, most of them coming from São Paulo, but later also followed by immigrants from all over Europe and even Japan.

Today, Morretes is a quiet, laid back town, that enchants its visitors with its beautifully preserved 18th century architecture and the stunning beauty of the Atlantic rainforest that surrounds it in every direction.

Why Visit Morretes?

One of the green squares in the historical center of Morretes

The city itself, but especially the forest, with its many trails, waterfalls and rivers, presents numerous options for anyone looking for total tranquility or an active vacation, practicing various outdoor activities like hiking, kayaking, rafting, mountain-biking or mountaineering…

A very popular “radical sport” is what is locally known as “Bóia cross“. Floating down the river for 6 km in an inflated truck tube. Fun guaranteed!

During a stroll through the historical center, with its colonial houses, historical churches and green squares, you can get a good feel for the 18th and 19th century way of life of the people of Morretes.

The many big mansions suggest that the city must have known a period of great wealth, but when the gold deposits ran out, the population had to fall back on agriculture, cattle farming, trading and handicraft activities.

View of the historical center and the Nhundiaquara river from the Ponte Velha (old bridge)

The tourist industry today provides an extra way for people to make a decent living, but statistics show that about 30 per cent of the city’s population is still poor.

One more attraction of Morretes is the Nhundiaquara River, flowing through the city center. This river, that connects the coastal area to the highlands, once was the only way people had to penetrate inland.

View of some houses near the Nhundiaquara river

The river is navigable for about 12km and offers possibilities for water-sports (like bóia cross). The old bridge (ponte velha – inaugurated in 1912) crossing the river in the city center is also considered a work of art.

At one point, the river spreads out and creates an area with a few natural beacheswhere people can go to swim or relax.

How to get there?

1. BY CAR, MOTORCYCLE, BUS

The gate at the entrance of the “Estrada da Graciosa”

Whether you choose to take your own car or Motorcycle (like me), travel by bus or taking the tourist train, one way or another, you simply have to get through the Serra da Graciosa, which in itself already is a gorgeous trip.

By car (or motorcycle), the “Estrada da Graciosa” (PR410) is the best option. It covers the last 40km from Curitiba to Morretes and makes the 1000m drop from the highlands to practically sea level in just 10km. The steepest section – with obviously the best views – has various places where you can stop and enjoy the scenery, and even do a BBQ.

During the steep descent, the views and smells of the rainforest are sometimes breathtaking, and needless to say that the difference in altitude almost immediately also affects the temperature and humidity. A warning though: beware of the cobblestones, these can get very slippery when wet.

2. BY TRAIN:

Another great option is the tourist train from Curitiba to Paranaguá.

View from the train from Morretes to Curitiba

This railroad connection, some call it one of the most important tourist attractions of the state of Parana, is a remarkable piece of engineering. Its construction started in 1880 and in five years, the builders were able to complete the 110 km of railroad track, including 14 tunnels and 30 bridges.

The man responsible for this great work, was a black Brazilian engineer called Antonio Pereira Rebouças Filho, who wouldn’t have had an easy life, considering the fact that slavery in Brazil was only abolished in 1888, three years after the completion of the railroad.

Tragic detail: the death toll amongst the workers, hired for the job was enormous. 50% of them died during the five year construction period.

That said, the train ride itself is Fantastic! The windows of the train are super wide and you are allowed to open them for maximum enjoyment of the great scenery, the sounds and smells of the forest.(Although during the descent, the brakes of the train make a lot of noise :)) Almost the whole time you’re so close to the forest that you could almost touch it.

Also check out this great video by @canalbrazil

Traveling through the south of Brazil, Morretes is definitely a place to put on your “places to see” list.

Hope you enjoyed this.Any comments welcome

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. 

Alternative route to Ubatuba… close but no cigar

Adventure, Brazil, dirt roads, ecotourism, motorcycle trip, Mountain, outdoors, Road trip, Serra da Bocaina

In February 2010 I wanted to check out Ubatuba, A coastal town located at the northern coast (Litoral Norte) of São Paulo State, also known as the costa Verde (green coast).

I heard some good things about the place (great beaches, mountains, trekking, diving, fishing, surfing, extreme sports…) and looking at the Tracksource maps on my computer, I noticed that there was an alternative way to get there… via unpaved roads crossing the serra da Bocaina…

One thing about me is, that if there’s an alternative – preferably unpaved – route to get somewhere, I’m going to use that, rather than take the beaten track…

On a previous ride, I had already found a track crossing the Serra da Bocaina and the Bocaina National Park to get to Cunha, another historic place linked to the Gold route, but from there it was another 90 km of unknown terrain, mostly dirt road, leading to the Serra do Mar and Ubatuba.

The first leg of the trip was from my home town (Volta Redonda) to São Jose do Barreira a small village on the “Estrada dos Tropeiros” (the link is in Portuguese, but the pictures speak for themselves). Tropeiros were the guys who traveled three months, all the way from Diamantina in the heart of Minas Gerais with a pack of mules loaded with gold and/or diamonds that had to be shipped from Paraty to Rio de Janeiro and from there across the Atlantic to Portugal…

From São Jose do Barreira to Cunha is about 95km, with 2/3 being dirt road and VERY beautiful. I was lucky with the weather that day. February is one of the wettest months of the year and not a lot of people know that the region called the Costa Verde has the same amount of rainfall as the Amazon rain forest, which is why many local people refer to Ubatuba as “UbaCHUVA” (Chuva = Rain) :).

Riding up the Serra da Bocaina, during the first 25 km the road looked like it had recently been repaired and so it was in pretty good condition. After that, it got interesting (I don’t use the word “bad” when it comes to dirt roads :)) The road went from sandy to rocky, and a few pretty technical sections, but nothing too difficult.a normal car wouldn’t get through though. It kept climbing up to an altitude of about 1.300m and the view from there was stunning, to say the least.

Near “Campos de Cunha” I needed to buy gas, so I pulled up at the padaria (bakery), bought some water and asked the lady where the gas station was. She told me that there was NO gas station in Campos de Cunha. Probably due to the expression of disbelief and despair on my face, she smiled and said that there was this man in the village who I could buy gas from.

She gave me some pointers and after a few wrong turns, and asking more directions from other people, I found the guy’s house…

When he opened his garage door, I could hardly believe what I saw… Hundreds of 1.5 liter pet bottles filled with gasoline were stacked against the back wall. This place was a time bomb.

I really didn’t want to hang around there any longer than needed, so I quickly bought 2 bottles (3 liters) of gasoline, which would be enough to get me to Cunha. Of course, this guy charged me double the price of what I would pay at a gas station, but I guess he had to include his transport costs.

I got to Cunha, bought a full tank of fuel and started what would be the final leg of the trip to Ubatuba…It started with a section of dirt road leading away from the main road that leads to Paraty, but after that, well, good question… I guess that’s the adventure part, right?  I just needed to get to Ubatuba, find a pousada for the night and return to Volta Redonda the next day… nothing too hard.

Finding the first part of dirt road was easy enough, because it was indicated on my GPS, and I entered it… The first 5 km were ok, I saw houses, so people were living there, but then things started to get harder…

As long as there were houses, it’s safe to assume that the road will be kept in pretty decent condition, but as soon as the “residential” area ends, you can expect just about anything.

This part of Brazil was battered by very heavy rainfall from December through January, and stories about landslides were in the news every day.

Roads like these, which are not registered as “BRxxx” or “RJxxx” don’t get any maintenance from the government, so it is basically up to the people who are living in the remote parts of the area, to keep the road open so they can get to where they need to be…

A lot (you could say “most”) of the locals in these parts are using horses to get around, and can easily get past landslides or other obstacles, so some roads can be damaged, or even washed away by the rain to the point that there’s no way you ever going to get through it by car… even a 4×4… or a Yamaha XT660 without dirt-bike tires for that matter

There were some sections where I had to maneuver my way around holes in the road in which I could easily disappear, bike and all… It’s unbelievable what the force of water can do… It never seizes to amaze me.

At one point (I think I had that coming sooner or later :)) the road was blocked by a landslide… the whole road surface was covered with a 30cm thick layer of slimy red mud, about 40m across.

There was a small “sitio” (small farm) close by, so I figured that if I would have a problem, I could ask help there… Having no other option, I decided to go for it and try to blast through the mud  (the other option was, to turn back and go home…)

I took a 50m running start and charged into the landslide… yeah, right… After about 5m, the bike was stuck… and I mean really stuck.

As I was struggling to pull the bike back out of the blubber, the people of the sitio (as expected) were watching me from a distance, (probably laughing their asses off at the stupid gringo) and as they saw that I wasn’t going to get the bike out on my own, two guys came over to help…did I already mention that Brazilians are the most helpful people I ever met? In Europe they would probably stand there and keep laughing…

As they were giving it their all to get the bike back on solid ground, I did hear them mumble some stuff about how crazy you need to be to ride a “big” bike like this in these roads…:o)

After a lot of pulling, the bike finally was free and one of the guys showed me a way around the landslide… believe it or not, this was pure enduro, not really the stuff that you would do on a bike like mine… especially without knobby tires.

I had to go down a very narrow and steep trail leading down the slope toward the river, and ride back up after passing the slide… I guess this was how they did it on their horses… Yeah, Right :).  Did they ever see anyone do this on a motorcycle? No, of course not, but if I wanted to go on, that was the only way… I didn’t have knobby tires, so it would be very tricky… Long story short, I dropped the bike at least 4 times, I don’t want to remember – but I got down and back up the slope in one piece…

10 km further, the final blow… I came to a point where I had to cross a bridge over a small stream. the problem was, that due to the rains, the stream had very recently overflown its banks and the water had taken out most of the wooden bridge. Also, the banks on either side of the stream were transformed in knee deep mud, which made this a serious obstacle.

Before attempting the crossing, I walked over to the other side to check out the situation there.. The remains of the bridge seemed strong enough to carry the weight of the bike, but on the other side I had another 50m of knee-deep mud to cross.

My brain was telling me that I would never get through this mud with this bike and with these tires, but I was so close to the next town (Vila de Catucaba) and the only other option was, to turn back and face that land slide all over again… I decided to take my chances and face the mud…

It was hell. Well, crossing the remains of the bridge was actually quite easy (much to my surprise) but on the other side the mud was a lot deeper and as expected, the tires didn’t get any grip…

Pushing branches under the wheels allowed me to advance a ridiculous 30cm at a time and it would take me a few hours to cover the remaining 50m to the dry ground, but it was my only option, so I carried on.

After struggling like that for about 30 minutes (and believe me, this is hard labor in the hot Brazilian sun) my guardian angel (I wouldn’t know who else) sent me a guy on a horse passing by. He was so kind as to help me push the bike and that is probably why I didn’t have to spend the night there…

After all was said and done, my bike looked like this:

After getting out of the mud, I was kind of letting go of the idea to reach Ubatuba… I had seen enough mud and dirt roads for one day (almost 200kms) and was all covered in mud – as was the bike.

I had serious doubts that any pousada would even let me in, looking like this, so I decided to get on the first asphalt road and take the fast way back home. It was already getting close to 6pm so it would be getting dark soon. it was about 250kms to get home, and only 75 to Ubatuba, but I couldn’t care less about Ubatuba at that point… It wouldn’t go anywhere and I would try again some other time.

3,5 hours later, I arrived home, extremely tired, cold as hell, but glad that I made this trip… At least I knew that this was not the way to get to Ubatuba on a XT660R, well certainly not in the wet season it isn’t

This is the route I was planning to follow…

And this is what I really did

The map shows my route as I left from Volta Redonda, making my way to Bananal, Arapeí and São Jose do Barreira, where the real ride (dirt roads) started…

10 tips for independent travelers in Brazil

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

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

    Avoiding the bigger roads…

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

Hope this was useful – All comments welcome.

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Ilha Grande: Hiking, backpacking and scuba diving Paradise.

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

History of Ilha Grande

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

Getting there

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

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

Hiking

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

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

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

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

Scuba diving

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

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

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

Useful links:

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

Hang gliding or Parasailing in São Conrado, Rio de Janeiro – Brazil

Hang gliding is just one of many offbeat things you could do in Rio de Janeiro

Some people say that Rio de Janeiro is a city where you can do just about everything without ever leaving the city. Whether it is on water, land or in the air, the possibilities are almost endless

Driving down the coastline of Rio de Janeiro in the direction of Barra de Tijuca (Zona Oeste – west side), you will pass São Conrado, one of Rio’s “noble”, and more privileged neighborhoods, which is surrounded by coastal mountains, creating perfect circumstances for hang gliding.

If you’re not too distracted by the bikini’s on the beach, on a good day, you will probably see a bunch of paragliders (portuguese: parapente)  and hanggliders (portuguese: asa delta) circling around in the air..

The Pedra Bonita take-off ramp is located inside the famous Tijuca National Park, at an altitude of 520 m.

It should only be a 20 minute drive from Copacabana, but depending on the time of day, traffic tends to cause significant delays, so always leave half an hour (or even an hour) earlier than you planned initially.

There are several tour operators offering tandem flights, and some of them can arrange to pick you up at your hotel (for the right price of course).

View of Bairro São Conrado from the takeoff ramp at Pedra Bonita – Rio de Janeiro. Altitude: 520 m Are you ready to jump off?

Depending on wind conditions, flights take from 15 to 20 minutes. After the flight you land on the beach of São Conrado. The price should be around 300R$ (+/-150 Usd)

Here are a few more pictures I took when I visited the ramp (and came close to flying myself).

Preparing the wings…

A hang glider taking off…

A paraglider taking off

A hang glider seconds after taking off…

paraglider seconds after taking off… Free as a bird.

And last but not least, here’s a link to a hanggliding video of my friend, travel writer and photojournalist Mark Eveleigh when he took the plunge himself…

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

Corcovado mountain, with Christ the Redeemer on top

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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