Bananal: São Paulo’s most influential 19th Century City

Bem vindo em Bananal – Welcome to Bananal

Bananal started In 1783, when a small chapel was erected in the rough lands along the Bananal River in the old Captaincy of São Paulo. It became one of the richest and most influential cities of the region during the 19th century “coffee cycle”.

The valley of the Paraíba River has always been one of the main travel routes in Colonial Brazil, for the transport of gold and diamonds from the mines in Minas Gerais to the port town of Paraty, from where everything was shipped to Rio de Janeiro and further to Portugal. Towards the end of the 17th century, small villages emerged all along this gold and diamond route, providing lodging for travelers and drovers.

In 1708, a new route, that connected the mines in Minas Gerais directly to Rio de Janeiro, was opened. This new road (known as “caminho novo”) was not only less precarious, but also reduced the travel time to Rio de Janeiro from three months, to only one month. Because of the opening of this new road, the small villages in the Paraíba Valley lost their reason of existence and almost disappeared, but thanks to the cattle trade, coming from Rio Grande do Sul, to supply the mining region, the valley again became an obligatory passage.

In 1770, the road connecting Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo was completed, and to populate the region along this road, Sesmarias (grants) were given to people who were engaged in the construction of the road. This is how a man called Joao Barbosa Camargo and his wife, became the owners of the Sesmaria of the Bananal River, and the city of Bananal was born.

One of Bnanal’s most important townhouses – former city getaway of one of the rich 19th century Coffee Barons

During the first decades, the agricultural activity in the region was predominantly subsistence farming (Growth of crops only for consumption by the farm family), but the situation started to change with the arrival of the coffee culture, with its much bigger farms, fuelled by slave labor.The name Bananal is believed to be derived from the indigenous word “Banani” which means “with lots of curves” referring to how the Bananal River makes its way across the landscape. Another explanation of the name refers to the many banana plantations that existed in the region.

The profits from the coffee trade were used to buy more slaves and expand the farms up to the point that the fazenda homes had become large estates surrounded by workshops, senzala’s (slave quarters) and a coffee terrace (large open space to dry the coffee).

Around 1840, Bananal had become the second largest coffee producer in the province of São Paulo and a lot of the richest farmers of the Paraíba valley were concentrated in the region around the city. These farmers began to refine their way of life and the fazenda’s main houses were transformed into palaces, decorated with imported furniture and frescoes of European painters on the walls. They also started to use slaves in domestic service.

one of the top attractions in Bananal: the metal train station, imported from Belgium as a sort of building package, which was very revolutionary in that time.

The “coffee barons” of Bananal formed the elite of the Empire, and with their money deposited in banks in London, they extended loans to the emperor to finance the war in Paraguay. They also financed the construction of a railway that passed through most of the fazendas and went all the way to Barra Mansa in the Province of Rio de Janeiro.Since 1822, Brazil was no longer a colony of Portugal, and the influence of the presence of the emperor in Rio de Janeiro made that the farmers, who were also given noble titles, started to adopt the way of life of the French court. They erected luxurious houses in the city to spend time during festivities or between harvests. At one point, Bananal even had two orchestras, consisting of slaves, specialized in European opera music.

For some time, the city had its own currency, and one of the most powerful landowners in the city, Vallim Manoel de Aguiar, had when he died in 1878, only in public debt bonds, almost 1% of all paper money issued in Brazil.

But the prosperity based on the “green gold” didn’t last very long. Towards the end of the 19th century, the land began to show signs of exhaustion and the opening of another railway (Santos-Jundiaí) facilitated the flow of products from further inland to the coast, allowing the expansion of coffee plantations in western Sao Paulo.

This is said to be one of the most beautiful architectural “ensembles” of Bananal, consisting of three early 19th century townhouses, facing Pedro Ramos square

In the 1950’s, the region suffered yet another setback: the construction of the “Via Dutra” highway from Sao Paulo to Rio de Janeiro. This new highway replaced and deactivated the old “Estrada dos tropeiros” passing through Bananal, Arreias, Silveiras and São José do Barreiro, which became almost like ghost towns. (According to the writer Monteiro Lobato, who lived in Areias and witnessed the decline of the region)The final blow came with the abolition of slavery in 1888. The children of the landowners could not keep the wealth inherited from their parents and pastures for cattle took the place of coffee. The power, influence and wealth of the families of Bananal and the rest of the valley, was forever lost and all that remains are memories of this glorious period.

Today, Bananal is becoming more and more a touristic hotspot, attracting tourists from all over the world, not only to learn about its history, whose testimonies are the beautiful townhouses in the city and the many preserved and restored coffee farms in the region, but also to enjoy the natural beauty of the Serra da Bocaina (Bocaina mountains), holding the largest Atlantic rainforest reserve of Brazil.

Brazil: 30 stunning pictures from two years of travel

I have been traveling across Brazil since January 2009 and have taken thousands of photos. Some of them better than others of course. It was a tough process, but here is the selection of my 30 most stunning pictures of Brazil.(so far)

Secluded beach and blue water near Arraial do Cabo – Rio de Janeiro

Late afternoon on a beach near Cabo Frio – Rio de Janeiro

Steep cliffs at the costa das Baleias – South Bahia – Brazil

Sunset over the Rio Parana – Mato Grosso do Sul

Overlooking the Serra dos Órgãos – Rio de Janeiro State

Fishing boats on the beach near Arraial do Cabo – Rio de Janeiro.

Pedra do Roncador – Rio de Janeiro

Lopes Mendez beach on Ilha Grande (favorite beach of Ayrton Senna)- Rio de Janeiro

Rio de Janeiro after sunset, seen from Suga Loaf

View over Rio de Janeiro (by day) from Sugarloaf mountain The first beach is Praia Vermelha… in the background to the left: Copacabana Ipanema and Leblon.

Sunset in Piçinguaba – São Paulo

Sun setting at Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas – Rio de Janeiro

Morning mist in the serra da Mantiqueira near Caxambu – Minas Gerais

Pedra Azul – Espirito Santo – Brazil

Deserted beach – South Bahia

Sunset over Monte Pascoal – Famous landmark – Bahia

Dirt Road in South Bahia

Dirt road in the Chapada Diamantina – Bahia

Dirt road near Pedra Azul – Minas Gerais

Diamatina city center – Minas Gerais

The rugged landscape of the Estrada Real – Minas Gerais – Brazil

Spactacular!! Iguassu falls – Parana

The biggest man made forest and second biggest urban forest in the world: Tijuca – Rio de Janeiro

Beach near Trindade- Rio de Janeiro

Morning mist near Nova Friburgo – Rio de Janeiro

Rocinha, biggest favela in South America – Rio de Janeiro

Climbing up to Christ the Redeemer -Rio de Janeiro

Ititiaia National Park – Rio de Janeiro

Serra do Rio do Rastro in Santa Catarina – South of Brazil

I hope you enjoyed these pictures… Please scroll down and leave a comment to let me know which photo you liked the most.

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…