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. 

Picking up hitchhikers. A great way to meet locals – Bahia – Brazil

My Land Rover Defender “Big Blue”

Besides discovering different parts of Brazil on my motorcycle, I also love to do road trips in my Land Rover Defender… In July 2010 I was doing a 2 week trip to the Chapada Diamantina in the heartland of Bahia, when I picked up 3 hitchhikers in one day.

I know that most people would say that picking up hitchhikers in Brazil, especially in the poorer states (like Bahia) can be considered dangerous, but I did it and hereby declare that it wasn’t dangerous at all. Of course, I’m not going to pick up just about anybody.

On the 7th day of my trip, I was making my way east, coming from Itacaré, one of Bahia’s famous surf spots, and entered a 43 km long jungle road that leads to Ubaitaba. As it had been raining most of the night, the road was very muddy. 10 km into the jungle, I noticed a skinny old man waving me down. I stopped and the man asked if he could ride with me to Ubaitaba. He looked pretty harmless so I thought: “why not?”.

It was not too long before we were engaged in a pleasant conversation. The man told me he lived in Ubaitaba, but has a “Rocinha” close to the place where I picked him up. (“Rocinha” = vegetable garden – not to be confused with the favela in Rio de Janeiro).

In Europe, some people I know are growing vegetables in their back yard, but this man – who turned out to be 83 – had to travel 30 km on bad jungle road to get to his piece of land. He also said that he would normally take a bus, but that this was very uncomfortable on these bumpy roads, and he claimed that he knows people who had broken bones after riding one of these buses.

A typical dirt road in the south of Bahia. This one was 80 km to the coast.

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, and since that was one of the options for me to get to the Chapada Diamantina, I decided to give the lady a ride. I asked her to get in the back seat, because I just moved all my stuff back to the front, after dropping the old man loff, and she didn’t mind.We arrived in Ubaitaba and I said goodbye to my old new friend. My next goal was the city of Jequié, and the road leading there (the BA330), according to my GPS, would be “Muito Ruim” (very bad). To my pleasant surprise, the asphalt was brand new all the way to Jequié.

Once moving, she started to tell me her life’s story, about being born and raised in the area, working in the fazendas, getting married to the wrong guy, having children (a girl and two boys), getting divorced… the works….

Dirt road outside the Chapada Diamantina – Bahia – Brazil

One of her boys had been bitten by a snake just a few days ago on his way back from school. Getting him to the hospital was a big problem, because they don’t have a car, nor do they have a phone. Luckily they found a person who took them to the hospital and now the boy was better.

He wasn’t able to go to the Festa Junina though. Her other boy went 5 nights in a row… Festa junina is MAYOR STUFF in this part of Brazil. Anyway, she was going to visit her sisters in Maracas.

When I asked her about the poverty that lots of people seemed to be living in around these parts, she answered that the only two things you really need are “saúde and paz” (health and peace). All the rest is not so important. She also said she felt a little sorry for me traveling all by myself, but then she told me “you are alone with God, so you’re not really alone”. wise words from a very simple person.

Another dirt road, this time in the north of Minas Gerais, headed for Jequitinhonha

After dropping my second passenger off at her sister’s house in Maracas, I stopped at a gas station to buy Diesel, and to figure out the best way to get to my next goal: Marcionilio Souza. I noticed a dirt road on my paper map, but that 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 “vai embora” (just go)… He also said that the road was not very good, and there was a serra, but mostly descending…

Riding into Maracas, I had noticed that it was very quiet in the streets. There was a world cup game in progress, between Brazil and Holland, so all the local bars were packed with men, their eyes glued to the TV sceern. I was expecting deafening noise from hundreds of “vuvuzela’s”, but the silence was speaking for itself… Just before I left the gas station, I learned that Brazil had lost the game against Holland and was out of the world cup… bad news and no 8th title for Brazil. Someone said “a vida continua” (life goes on)… and I left.

Ok, so I was about to tackle 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 was not the worse I’ve seen so far, and had a few signs on crucial places pointing to Marcionilio Souza, my next waypoint.

Going down the serra – Maracas is at +/- 1000m and the descent takes you back down to about 350m – there were some stunning views, and the road was getting better all the time. After the descent, it was flat for about 35 km and the road turned soft and sandy, like riding on a beach. This was truly a jeep’s wet dream. At times I was going 100km/h.

Further up the road to Jequitinhonha: this place is called “Mata Escura” (dark forest) and I heard that Brazilian soldiers are getting their survival training here.

After Marcionilio Souza, things changed drastically. The BA245 was as bad as it gets. It was pretty clear that this road had been asphalted with a layer way too thin, and now the road was all broken up, with the worst kind of potholes everywhere, making it worse than it probably was before they put the asphalt.

In this hell hole, I picked up my 3rd hitchhiker that day. A working guy who wanted to get to Itaeté, and judging by his smell, he wasn’t one of those Brazilians who take two showers per day. But he had useful information for me.

When I told him that I was planning to get to Lençois by 18.00pm, he said that there would be no way I would get there that early, and driving after dark was not advisable because of the road conditions AND  the BANDIDOS!!!. That sounded like I was in the Far West or something. He advised me to either stay in Itaeté, or try to get to Mucugé, which was closer and the road would be better.

I decided to follow his advice and change plans and head for Mucugé instead of Lençois. 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…

During the remaining days of this trip, I picked up one more hitchhiker (a lady with her 10 year old son, who was also carrying a small dog in her purse) and I must say that the encounters and conversations I had with these four totally different local people were some of the most valuable moments of the trip. It was once more a confirmation for that Brazil isn’t any more dangerous than any other place in the world…

A few days later, I had another remarkable encounter with three young guys in the middle of the jungle, but that is another story

Hope you enjoyed the read. All comments welcome.

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

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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8 days exploring Rio de Janeiro and surrounding states

after crossing the serra do mar, we have our first view of the bay of Angra dos Reis, with over 300 islands.

Riding a motorcycle through the gorgeous landscapes of Rio de Janeiro state is a great way to get a first taste of Brazil.

Rio de Janeiro is one of Brazil’s smaller states, but has a lot to offer: There are five different serras, national parks, Atlantic rainforest, a marvelous coastline, charming small rural villages, and several historically important cities. Add to all this the diverse cultural and gastronomical riches and the charming and hospitable nature of the Brazilian people and you end up having an experience that will make you fall in love with Brazil and its people…

 Anyone looking for fun, sun, good rides, interesting culture, great food and a lot of mountain and coastal scenery will definitely find this an unforgettable adventure.

Day 1: Costa Verde

Leaving Volta Redonda, it takes only 15 minutes to find yourself riding through twisting back roads surrounded by nature. To get to the coast we take the Serra do Piloto, crossing the Serra do Mar, a 1500km mountain range stretching from Espirito Santo all the way down to Santa Catarina in the south of Brazil.

after crossing the serra do mar, we have our first view of the bay of Angra dos Reis, with over 300 islands.

Hitting the coast in Mangaratiba, a port/ fisherman’s village from where you can take boat trips to Ilha Grande, one of the more than 300 Islands in the Bay of Angra dos Reis, we continue our journey following the BR101 to the west. This road follows the coast and is considered one of the most scenic coastal roads of Brazil.

Our first stop of the day is Paraty, the colonial port town, from where in the 18th century gold and diamonds were shipped to Rio de Janeiro and from there to Portugal. Many of these gold transports were attacked by pirates, who had found a great hiding place on the aforementioned Ilha Grande. Due to it’s preserved colonial and imperial architecture, Paraty became a world heritage site in 2004.

After a brief visit to Paraty, we continue on the BR101 and stop to have lunch in Trindade, a small, laid back village with paradise-like beaches about 30 minutes from Paraty. After a tasty meal we start the last stretch to Itamambuca beach near Ubatuba.

The cobblestone streets of downtown Paraty, virtually unchanged since the 17th century. In 2004 this little colonial town became a world heritage site.

Day 2: Serra da Mantiqueira and Circuito das Aguas.

Having breakfast at pousada Todas as Luas, surrounded by the Atlantic rainforest and with colorful birds all around is a great way to start a new day…

Our goal for today is the city of Caxambu, and after a delicious breakfast at pousada Todas as Luas, we take off in the direction of Ubatuba and from there, head north and into the Serra do Mar once again. The road leading up into the mountains from Ubatuba is top quality asphalt with a few very tight hairpins. From up in the serra you have a great view of the Costa Verde.

After a twisty ride up the Serra do mar, you have a great view of Ubatuba and the Atlantic ocean

Next, it’s on to Campos Do Jordão. Brazil’s highest located city (1630m) and also referred to as “Brazilian Switzerland”. The city’s architecture is mainly Swiss, German or Italian inspired. We visit the local Artisan brewery (Baden Baden) , which brews 7 different beers, based on old German recipes. We are also offered a taste sample of the different beers, but we have to pass on that, because we still have a long way to go and Brazil has a Zero Tolerance policy towards alcohol and driving.

The entrance to Campos do Jordão, also known as Brazilian switzerland. Founded by Swiss settlers and with its elevation of 1640 m, the highest city in Brazil.

After leaving Campos do Jordão, we headed further north, taking the first real dirt road of the trip, a +/- 30km stretch to Piranguçu.

The first part of the road leads through the Environmental protection area of the Serra da Mantiqueira and offers some great views of the surrounding mountains. The rest of the way to Caxambu is all twisting back roads of good quality asphalt, but unfortunately for us, it started raining during our descent from Campos do Jordão and by the time we reached Caxambu we were drenched to the bone.

The bad weather prevented us to to see a lot of the town, which is famous for its twelve mineral water sources, each with its unique medicinal qualities.

We checked into a pousada in the center of Baependi, some five kilometers from Caxambu. and spent most of the evening trying to get our clothes dry for the next day.

Day 3: Montanhas Mágicas and Vale do Café

Overcast and drizzly during our trip through the “Montanhas Mágicas”

Today our trip will take us through an area known as the “região das montanhas mágicas” or the “region of the magic mountains”, to get to our destination. This area is known for its many waterfalls, native forest, hiking trails, colorful birds and other wildlife(Locals told us that there are even onças – leopards – roaming this area) which offers lots of possibilities for the practice of eco-tourism and all kinds of outdoor sports. Hiking, rafting, mountain biking, rappelling… it’s all possible here.

We leave Baependi around 8 Am in a light drizzle. Our clothes are still damp from yesterday’s downpour, but that is part of motorcycling. We know that when the sun comes out, we will be dry in no time…

On our way to Fazenda Santa Clara… Still drizzling

Heading south, we pass through the small villages of Liberdade and Bocaina de Minas. From there further on to Passa Vinte and Santa Rita de Jacutinga, where we stop for lunch. By then we are already starting to look pretty muddy, but the ride so far was great.This area has very few asphalt roads, so for most of the day we take to the dirt roads. The constant drizzle makes the roads slippery, but not to the point that we cannot ride them.

After lunch, we move on, and some 25 km from Santa Rita de Jacutinga, we visit Fazenda Santa Clara, a beautiful 18th century farm that made quite a name for itself by reproducing slaves instead of coffee or sugar-cane. Halfway the 18th century it became illegal to import African slaves, so farms like these kept the slave market alive.

Today you can visit the fazenda and see the place where the slaves used to be kept and the “tools” they used to keep them obedient. The main house is quite impressive, and, besides a huge kitchen and a chapel, it has 52 rooms and 12 salons. The fazenda and its beautiful surroundings were also used as a stage for a number of famous Brazilian novelas (Soap series)

18th century Fazenda Santa Clara – instead of coffee or livestock, this place produced slaves.

Next, we pass through the Serra da Beleza, an area that attracts many UFO spottersfrom all over the world and make our way to Conservatória, a very musical place, as the name suggests, also known as “a capital mundial da seresta” or “world capital of serenades”. Every Friday evening, guitar players roam the streets, playing their serenades and filling the air with melancholic music and songs of love and broken hearts.

the road to Santa Rita de Jacutinga was very muddy, and on our way to Fazenda Santa Clara there was more mud… It’s all part of the great thing that is motorcycling

As a result of the abolition of slavery in Brazil in 1888, coffee production collapsed and many of the former coffee farms (fazendas) became cattle farms or were converted into museums or guesthouses (pousadas).We leave the magic mountains and the Serra da Beleza behind us and continue on our way to Miguel Pereira, located in the region called “Vale do Café”. This is the valley of the Paraiba do Sul River. In the 19th century, 75% of the world’s coffee consumption was produced in this region.

Day 4: Serra dos Órgãos

Leaving Miguel Pereira, and the Vale do Café, we start climbing again. Today we will cross the Serra dos Órgaos, located some 50km north of Rio de Janeiro.

Petrópolis, the imperial city of Brazil: In Brazil’s Imperial period (1822 – 1889), Pedro I, Brazil’s first emperor fell in love with this area after visiting it and decided he would have a palace built to spend the hot summer months. With the help of a small army of German immigrants, he started building what is now the Imperial city of Petrópolis. His plans were continued by his son Pedro II.

A number of famous people used to live in Petrópolis, one of which is inventor Alberto Santos Dumont, the “father of aviation”. His house, besides the cathedral and the beautiful Imperial Museum, is one of the touristic attractions of Petrópolis.

The cathedral in Petrópolis – Last resting place of Dom Pedro II (the last emperor of Brazil) and his family

From Teresópolis, it is about 60 km more to Nova Friburgo, another city founded by Swiss settlers and today the “capital of lingerie” of Brazil.The city was struck severely by a flash flood an mudslides in January 2011, one month after we visited it.After doing a small city tour in Petrópolis, we take the twisty road through the National park of the Serra dos Órgãos and move on to Teresópolis, the sister city of Petrópolis, named after the empress Teresa Cristina, wife of Dom Pedro II. Teresópolis is famous and loved amongst rock climbers.One of the most famous rock formations of the Serra dos Orgãos is the “Dedo de Deus” or “finger of God”, which on clear days can be seen from Rio de Janeiro.

The flood was caused by one month’s worth of rain in 24 hours,  and came down upon the city and surrounding area’s during the night, destroying hundreds of houses, killing over 800 people, and leaving thousands homeless.  The cities of Petrópolis and Teresópolis suffered considerable damages and losses of lives too, but the area around Nova Friburgo was hit the worst. (read also: Região Serrana,- one year after the deluge).

By now, the city seems to have recovered a bit, but there are still thousands  of people living in tent camps, and traces of the land slides are still visible in the mountain slopes around the city, as a reminder of the biggest disaster of this kind in the history of Brazil.

Our final destination, Lumiar is a district of Nova Friburgo and a place of exceptional natural beauty, especially attractive for people who love Eco-tourism.

Enjoying the view in the National Park of the Serra dos Órgãos, on the way to Teresópolis.

View of the city of Nova Friburgo, founded by Swiss immigrants on the run for Napoleon Bonaparte. Notice the European inspired architecture.

Day 5: Costa do Sol and Búzios

The area around Lumiar early in the morning. If only a picture could show smells and sounds

Today we leave the mountains and head back to the coast, taking the BR142 (also referred to as “Serra-Mar” or connection between the mountains and the ocean…), which starts in Nova Friburgo and is one of the best 60 km of twisting roads I have seen so far during my trips through Brazil.

The BR142 connects to the BR101 in Casimiro de Abreu, which we exit again after about 15 km to take the road to Rio das Ostras.

In Rio das Ostras we start following the coastal road, heading for Búzios, probably the most famous vacation destination of the state of Rio de Janeiro. As so many (rich) foreigners decided to make Búzios their new home, this fabulous peninsula is also known as “Gringo Paradise”. Unfortunately because of the many “gringo’s”, Búzios is significantly more expensive than the average beach location and not really suited for travelers on a budget (like myself).

Riding through one of the small coastal communities on the way to Búzios

The small village soon became the “place to be” for many European Jet Setters, and until today, Búzios still has some the flair one can also find on the French Riviera…Búzios actually used to be a pretty insignificant fisherman’s village, until world-famous French movie star Brigitte Bardot discovered the place in the sixties.

One of the major attractions on the peninsula, apart from it’s numerous fabulous beaches, is the bronze statue of Brigitte Bardot on the principal beachfront boulevard…

Here are a few more pictures we took during our tour of Búzios:

Praia da Ferradurinha in the distance

Praia do Forno

The statue of Brigitte Bardot, who discovered this paradise peninsula, looking out over the bay..

We get back on the road and head for Arraial do Cabo, our place for the night. Arraial do Cabo is famous for being one of the best scuba diving spots in Brazil, or even in the world, thanks to the abundance of marine life in the relatively cold ocean water, which in turn is a result of the natural phenomenon called “resurgence“. Cold, nutrient rich water coming from the South rises to the surface and attracts a wide variety of marine life.

Day 6: Região dos Lagos and Rio de Janeiro

Riding through the dunes near Arraial do Cabo… Great fun!!

We keep riding as close to the ocean as possible, taking the RJ102, passing the 25 km long Araruama lagoon, eventually having to go north and connect to the BR106, which will take us to Rio de Janeiro, but not before crossing another Serra: the “Serra do Mato Grosso“, yet another region that attracts many eco-tourists and outdoor sports enthusiasts.Today, we travel through the “Região dos Lagos” heading for probably the most famous city in Brazil: Rio de Janeiro, “a Cidade Maravilhosa”:  To get there from Arraial do Cabo, we first take a dirt road through the dunes, which is a totally different experience from all the other dirt roads so far. Here the terrain is sandy and soft, with few obstacles, and so pretty easy and a lot of fun to ride.

Stop for an Açaí: full of vitamins and energy and very tasty

To get to Rio de Janeiro from Niterói, we cross the “Ponte Rio – Niterói” a 16km long bridge over Guanabara Bay and arrive in Rio’s port area, which is currently receiving lots of attention and investments from the city, to make it more attractive for people to live, after decades of neglect.As expected, the closer we got to Rio de Janeiro, the more traffic, and the more attention to the road is needed. Before reaching Rio de Janeiro, we pass through Niterói, located on the east side of the Guanabara Bay. Niterói is the third most visited city in the state of Rio de Janeiro. It was once the State capital, but had to leave that title to Petrópolis in 1903 and later to Rio de Janeiro.

We make our way to the famous beaches of Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon, and pass a number of important places like Praça XIX, Cidade do Samba, Morro da Providência (Rio’s oldest favela)… After cruising along the beaches, it’s time to look up our hotel for the night and freshen up for a walk around Lapa, Rio’s most famous nightlife quarter… after all it’s Saturday night…

Crossing the 16 km long Bridge over Guanabara Bay to get to Rio de Janeiro.

Finally… The beaches of Rio de Janeiro… here’s Ipanema. Further in the background: Copacabana.

The famous Sugar Loaf Mountain (Pão de Açucar) towering over Copacabana’s beach front hotels…

Day 7 : Exploring Rio de Janeiro

Today we set out to get to know Rio de Janeiro a little better. There are lots of possibilities: Take a tour of the historic center, visit Sugar loaf, Christ the redeemer, Maracana Stadium, hang out on the beach or visit Rocinha, the biggest favela in south America…

We toured arond the city and took lots of pictures. I know that pictures say a lot more than words, so I’m just going to shut up now and let you enjoy the views…

The view from our hostel in Santa Teresa, one of the neighborhoods near the historic and cultural centre of Lapa…

Fundição Progresso: a former factory of kitchen stoves and bank vaults… currently a concert and events hall.

The famous former aquaduct “Arcos da Lapa”. Built in the 18th century to bring the water of the Rio Carioca to the center of Rio de Janeiro. Today there’s a trolley riding on top of the arcs…

Rio Graffiti…

Cathedral Metropolitana de São Sebastião – Rio’s modern cathedral.

The sambódromo, where every year the Carnival defilés take place…

On the way to the top of Sugar Loaf

Rio de Janeiro as seen from the top of Sugar Loaf

Capoeira in the city…

View from Rocinha: Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas and on the mountain top just left from the middle: Christ the Redeemer.

Hope you enjoyed this… we sure did.

After this fantastic day of sightseeing, it was time to return to our hostel for a last night in Rio… Get some sleep for the last riding day back to Volta Redonda…

Day 8 : Back home to Volta Redonda …

We leave Rio de Janeiro after a relaxed breakfast around 10am. The plan is, to stay as close to the coast as possible to enjoy the ocean views as long as possible… Before leaving the city we visit a last attraction: the hanggliding ramp in São Conrado. From there you have another wonderful view of the west side of Rio de Janeiro.

São Conrado, one of the “richer” neighborhoods of Rio de janeiro, as seen from the Hanggliding ramp…

From the hanggliding ramp, a 30 minute walk through the forest takes you to the top of Pedra Bonita, from where you have this fabulous view of the Tijuca forest, the biggest man planted urban forest in the world.

A last view of the Atlantic Ocean before heading inland

THE END

Thanks for sticking with me and reading it all the way. I hope that I succeeded in giving you an idea of what Rio de Janeiro, and Brazil for that matter, have to offer someone who wants to explore the country on a motorcycle… If you are interested in doing this tour with us, check out the details and book your own motorcycle adventure on our website.

Mato Grosso do sul – the ride home from Iguassu falls.

After my trip to Iguaçu falls, I was planning to ride further south and explore some of the state of Santa Catarina, especially to ride the Serra do Rio do Rastro.

Unfortunately, the weather reports were predicting a rain and cold weather in the south for days to come and forced me to change plans and travel home via Mato Grosso do Sul. I would at least ride to Bonito, Brazil’s eco-tourism capital, and maybe get to see some of the world-famous Pantanal.

Day 6: Back to Guarapuava.

I traveled to the falls in the company of Rodrigo, Suzana, and Mike. Rodrigo and his girlfriend Suzana live in Guarapuava, halfway between Curitiba and Foz do Iguaçu, and had invited myself and Mike, an US expat who lives in Santa Catarina, to meet up at their house and travel together for the rest of the trip. At the meeting in Foz do Iguaçu, I had met Alex, an architect and fellow motorcycle adventurer from Campinas (State of São Paulo). When Alex learned that I was going to ride to Mato Grosso do Sul, he immediately said that he wanted to join me. I didn’t mind some company along the way, especially when going into unknown territory, so that would work great for me.

To close the Iguaçu Falls event, Rodrigo had invited Mike, Alex and myself to spend a last day at his house in Guarapuava, before splitting up and going our own way. Our trip back to Guarapuava ended in the rain… Alex and myself were ahead of Rodrigo and Mike because Rodrigo decided to do some more shopping in Paraguay.

Alex and me left Foz do Iguaçu around 9.30 and had an easy ride for several hours. We stopped to have lunch near Cascavel, and as we went on, it became clear that there was rain ahead. Alex had also told me that he felt that there was something wrong with his bike. Sure enough, it started raining and pretty quickly it also became a lot colder. we had to stop several times because Alex’ bike wasn’t functioning well. It seemed to be some  kind of electrical problem, and Alex tried to fix it as much as possible with limited tools and resources, and we managed to get to Guarapuava, almost at the same time that Rodrigo and Mike arrived.

Day 7: Alex tries to fix his bike.

As I mentioned before, Alex had told me that he would join me on my further trip to Mato Grosso do Sul, but now, with his bike in this uncertain condition, he thought it would make more sense to head home to Campinas instead. The next day he would put the bike in one of the bike shops in Guarapuava (recommended by Rodrigo) and try to deal with the problem, before making the final decision. Alex spent the next day in the in the local shop, but unfortunately nobody was able to fix the problem, and so Alex decided to go home.

Day 8: On to Mato Grosso do Sul.

After spending most of day 7 in a local LAN-House (internet café) and cooking a meal for my host Rodrigo and the rest of our group, it was time to hit the road again and start the next leg of my tour. The weather channel predicted sunny and warm weather for Mato Grosso, so I was feeling pretty good to be back on the road… My goal for the day was to get to Bonito, also known as the eco-tourism capital of Brazil, which was about 900km from Guarapuava.

The first couple of hours, there were lots of clouds and I even had some rain, but the further north I got, the more blue in the sky and by the time I stopped for lunch, the sun was out. Just the way I like it

I was making good progress and was hoping to arrive in Bonito that same night, but destiny decided otherwise…

A little before Nova esperança (still in Parana) I had my second flat tire of this trip. Unfortunately, this time it didn’t happen on a toll road so there was no free tow truck to get me to the next borracharia. I had to push the bike for several kms before finding a borracharia and in the blistering sun, wearing heavy motorcycle pants and riding boots, I had the best workout of the trip

Luckily I had enough water in my camelback.

Another visit to a borracharia… Second flat of the trip

I lost about 3 hours due to the flat tire and I had hardly crossed the border between Parana and Mato Grosso do Sul when it started getting dark. I pushed on for another 50 km until I reached a big gas station in Bataiporá. Next to the gas station was a hotel that looked pretty ok, though some people had warned me about this kind of place… Lots of lonely truck drivers often spells “prostitution hot-spot”. I checked the place out for a while, but didn’t notice anything weird so I took a room, which was very small but still a lot bigger than my tent, so more than sufficient for me…

The mighty Paranã river: Seventh biggest river in the world…

I was a few seconds too late to take a great sunset shot…. The sun had just dropped behind the horizon.

The next morning: My hotel in Bataiporá next to a big gas station. A place to crash. Most guests are there for only one night.

Besides this praying Mantis I discovered on the bed frame in the morning, the room was pretty much bug free… Probably this guy ate all the other ones :o)

Day 9: Bonito – Eco-tourism capital of Brazil

I left the hotel in Bataiporá around 7.30am and started the last stretch to Bonito.

Mato Grosso do Sul is very big, and the roads are long and straight. I’m more a fan of the winding up and down mountain roads, so this part of the trip was a little boring for me. I passed a few cities and smaller communities and around noon I stopped at a gas station to fill the tank and decided to have lunch in a restaurant further up the road. It’s always nice to see people’s reactions when you tell them that you’re not going to have any meat. Brazil has a strong meat-eating culture, and here in the deep interior, it seems to be even stronger. Anyway, I had a nice meal and an hour later I was back on the road.

A (almost) deserted gas station in Mato Grosso do Sul… You don’t find them like this in Rio de Janeiro or São Paulo.

The road restaurant where I had a simple but tasty meal. (I really need to start taking pictures of the food…)

65km until Bonito, the ecotourism capital of Brazil… don’t have any pics of the city (dead battery)… Always a reason to go back :o)

The last 65km to Bonito the landscape turned a little more mountainous and the road was more twisty. I arrived there around 2.30PM and checked into the local hostel. As you could expect in a hostel, there was a very international group of guests, and I ended up sharing the room with were 2 Brazilians, an Italian, a guy from Switzerland, and an Argentinian. The Swiss guy was even born in Belgium, so there was some kind of connection. The rest of the day I went for a walk in the city (my camera battery was empty, so I don’t have any pics of downtown Bonito :o(

Later that night, I had dinner with a newly wed couple from Niterói (near Rio de Janeiro) that was also staying in the hostel. I found out that in most restaurants in Bonito you can eat Jacaré (crocodile)… Of course I passed on that, but the people who tried it, say that it tastes a bit like chicken. So be it.

some of the attractions in Bonito (photo: www.overmundo.com.br). Bonito, as the name suggests, is a very nice place, but also pretty expensive, compared to other places in Brazil that are less touristic but not necessarily less beautiful.

I didn’t make it a late night, because the next morning I wanted to get an early start… The one thing I don’t like about sleeping in the same room with so many people, is that there always seems to be at least one guy who snores… no different this time. Comes with the territory I guess…

Day 10: Trés Lagoas (border with São Paulo state)

I didn’t have the time to explore some of the spectacular natural attractions in the region around Bonito, since I arrived a day later than planned…Stupid flat tires… I guess this is one of the things you have to learn to deal with when on the road with a motorcycle (or a car for that matter): plans can change. Oh well, one more place to put on my bucket list.

I wanted to get as far east as possible, catching at least a glimpse of the famous Pantanal wetlands, but also due to the change of plans, I had a feeling that I wasn’t going  to get close enough and I wouldn’t have the time to make the trip any longer since I wanted to get home in time for my birthday

From Bonito, I went north on the MS-178, which is a 60 km dirt road in the process of being asphalted, (dirt roads are being asphalted in great numbers all over Brazil it seems…) and then onto the MS-339 to get on the big road (BR-262) leading to Campo Grande, the capital of Mato Grosso do Sul. From Campo Grande it was pretty much following the same BR-262 until reaching trés Lagoas.

Shaggy houses along the road near the entrance of a big farm. And yes, there are people living here.

I ended up not seeing anything of the Pantanal, which was kind of bummer, but I promised myself to return here to check out this area in more depth. What I did see though, is that there must be a lot of wildlife here, because I saw various dead animals on the side of the road, which was kind of sad…

Road kill 1: a Capivara

Roadkill 2: A Tatu

Roadkill 3: A Coati…This poor guy was still warm…

In Trés Lagoas, it took me some time to find a pousada, but eventually I found a place. It was a little weird, because it was a brand new pousada in what looked like a very poor part of the city… the houses around the pousada reminded me of the favelas in Rio de Janeiro, but the owner assured me it was a very safe neighborhood (which is exactly what I would tell people if I were the owner).  later that evening, a busload of university students from Roraima arrived. They were headed for São Paulo to attend a conference on environmental protection. These guys were definitely in the mood for a party, and the racket went on until about 3am… Guess who didn’t get a lot of sleep that night.

Final day: 1.100 km back home…

On this last day, I didn’t take any pictures for a few reasons. 1. I was riding the whole day without stopping to get home, and 2. It rained practically the whole time, which also brought on a lot of fog, so not really ideal conditions to take pictures.

One thing that I didn’t find very amusing was that once I got across the São Paulo state border, the Pedagio’s (toll booths) were all over the place, and no free passage for motorcycles this time. Every 20 km there was another Pedagio, and every time the price got a little higher… I asked the lady in one of the pedagio’s what kind of scam this was, because the road wasn’t even in good shape, but she told me to take it up with the governor. No arguing there… 

What I will never forget about this day is that during the last 500kms, I got battered by heavy rainstorms. Just when I had to cross the Mantiqueira mountains with its very twisty climbs and descents…

Looking back, I now think it would have been a better (and a lot safer) plan to look for a hotel for the night instead of riding through that inferno… Even my SPOT sattelite messenger stopped working in the last 120km. I still don’t know what caused that. I guess it was all the electricity in the air.

Anyways, I got home in one piece once more AND in time for my birthday…

Thanks for reading… hope you enjoyed it… All comments are welcome.

Disaster weekend – Ibitipoca State park – Minas Gerais

Road sign to Ibitipoca Park

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ibitipoca – Park Entrance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ibitipoca – Inside the Park

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ibitipoca – Surrounding scenery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Motorcycle trip: Iguassu Falls – Brazil – Argentina – Paraguay

Ever since I arrived in Brazil in January 2009, I had been curious about the world-famous Iguaçu falls, so when a friend told me that there was going to be a Motorcycle meeting at Foz do Iguaçu, organized by Brazil Riders, I didn’t think twice about going there and make an 11 day motorcycle trip out of it.

Nov. 10, 2010

From my home town Volta Redonda to Iguaçu Falls is about 1.800 km, depending of the route you choose. I don´t like the big highways and that means I would take a slightly longer route, using smaller back roads as much as possible. When I left Volta Redonda early in the morning, a couple of friends on motorcycles and my Colleague Maryel in the Land Rover were joining me for the first 30km.

Just a few kms north of Volta Redonda, the landscape already changes to a dominant color of green. This is the road to Santa Isabel and Santa Rita de Jacutinga, one of my favorite roads in the region. 50km of great asphalt and curves.

My escort on the point of their return. In the background, the highest point of the serra da Mutucá.

To Rodrigo´s place in Guarapuava is 1.300 km and I wanted to arrive there on thursday, nov 11. I didn´t intend to do the trip to Guarapuava in one day, but I wanted to get as far as possible on the first day, so I let Volta Redonda at 7 am, driving north to Santa Rita de Jacutinga an Bom Jardim de Minas. The roads were in good condition and the weather was sunny and dry. Perfect for a day´s riding.

Since I wanted to get as far as possible, I stayed on asphalt roads and made good progress, only stopping to eat and buy gas. One of the minor downsides of the XT660 is, that it has a limited range of about 300 km on a full tank, and after 200 km the “low gasolina” indicator lights up. The only setback of the day was getting lost in the city of Limeira. A part of the road that I was supposed to follow, was blocked by road works and since there was no signalization for an alternative route, I ended up in a part of the city that was a grey spot on my GPS. I spent almost 2 hours to get back on track.

Later in the day the weather started to change for the worse. Big storm clouds started building up and I decided it was a good time to put on my rain gear, but somehow I was able to stay out of reach of the storm and only got a few drops of rain. The whole time the wind was blowing fiercely and only when it started to get dark, things began to return to normal. Usually, people will tell you it’s not a good idea to be on the road after dark, but I was on a good road (in São Paulo state, most roads are good…) so I decided to go on for another 250 km. When I got to  the city of Itapeva, about 30km from the state border with Paraná, I finally checked in to a hotel.

To my pleasant surprise, there seem to be several toll booths in the state of São Paulo that are free of charge for motorcycles.

Nov 11, 2010

I wanted to get to Guarapuava and according to my GPS it would only be only 377 km. I rode 930km the day before, so this would be a piece of cake. I sent a message to Rodrigo that I would arrive sometime around 2 pm.
After hitting the road around 8.30 am, I immediately felt it was a lot colder than the day before, and the wind was blowing even harder. Not my kind of weather  . November is springtime – almost summer – here in Brazil, so it should be sunny and warm, but this was more like Belgium in the fall, except that it didn’t rain (yet) and the scenery was a lot more beautiful.

After about 20 km, I was pulled over by the police and I had to show my documents and those of the bike. I was kind of nervous, because the São Paulo police has a fierce image, but everything was ok and I was “liberado” after a 10 minute hold up.

Once across the Parana border, the road started to become more twisty and the scenery became more mountainous, which is a lot nicer to ride. I was on the PR-151, heading for Ponta Grossa, and noticed some signs, saying this is one of the best roads in the south of Brazil. Since this was my first serious trip into the south, I wouldn’t know if that information was correct, but I’ll let you know later on.

In Ponta Grossa I needed to take the BR-277 heading west toward Guarapuava. Up until this point it was still very cold and windy, and I was even forced to stop a few times to allow my body to warm up again. I decided that next time I would take a trip south, I would bring my winter gear. Looking further to the west I could see the clouds getting thinner though, and that is a good sign. After all, when I checked the weather channel earlier this week, it showed sunny and warm weather in Guarapuava, and why on earth would a weather channel be wrong, right?

50 km before reaching Guarapuava, I felt my bike starting to act weird… It had all the symptoms of a flat rear tire, I stopped to check it out and sure enough, I found a nail in my back tire. YAY… My first flat tire in Brazil… Champagne!!

First flat of the trip… Actually, my first flat in Brazil.

I tried to continue riding on the shoulder (very slowly), hoping to get to a service station, but after 5-6 km, it started to become impossible to ride on without doing real damage to the tire. I noticed a guy who appeared to be in some kind of uniform waiting on the side of the road and stopped to ask him if he knew a borracharia nearby. He said that he works at the next toll station and he´s about to be picked up by a van to take him to work. The toll station has a towing service and he promised to send the tow-truck to pick me up.

Small detail… yes of course I had tried to call the towing service, but like in many parts of Brazil, I didn’t have any signal on my mobile phone.

The towing service came indeed… and was very efficient… and free of charge. I guess this is why you pay toll…

After I waited there for about half an hour, the tow truck came and dropped me off at the next borracharia. I had to take the wheel out myself because the guy wasn´t used to work with bikes, and when he took out the tube, it was damaged beyond repair. I didn´t have a spare tube (another lesson learned: always carry a spare tube ), and neither did the guy, so he had to take his car and go find a tube. He came back with a used tube that I had to pay 30 R$ for. It didn´t look 100% ok, but I didn´t seem to have another choice, so I agreed.

After fixing the tire, a little further there was the first real treat of this trip. A “mirante” with a nice view of the Serra da Esperança.

Note: A “Mirante” is the Portuguese word for a place where you park your bike (or car) for a while to enjoy a great scenery… On my trips, there’s a lot of these places (usually not indicated like this one) and that is the origin of the name of my motorcycle travel company: Mirantes Mototravel Brasil

Guarapuava was about 40km further and I got there around 4 pm with no further problems. Rodrigo showed up at the meeting place on his Suzuki Intruder 125cc, the bike he uses for getting around the city, and we drove up to his place. I was going to spend the night there, but was really surprised that he had a separate guest room for me. One more example of the incredible Brazilian hospitality amongst motorcyclists…

Rodrigo told me that there would be another “gringo” riding with us to Iguassu falls. An US ex-patriot called Mike. Rodrigo and Mike had already done a few trips together. When Mike arrived, Rodrigo told us that we were all invited to a BBQ at the house of his friend Roberto. Roberto turned out to be a fanatic motorcyclist as well. He showed us a video of the trip to Machu Picchu in Peru he made in 2005 with 4 other friends, which seems to have been a pretty awesome adventure.

We couldn’t stay too late at Roberto´s house, because we had to wake up at a decent hour the next morning, and went to bed around midnight.

Nov 12, 2010>

From Guarapuava to Foz do Iguaçu is about 400 Km, and we left around 9 am. The plan for the day was, to have lunch in Cascavel and then get to Foz do Iguaçu… pretty simple.

There were four of us, on 3 motorcycles. Rodrigo and his girlfriend Suzanna on a Honda Sahara 350, Mike with a Suzuki V-strom 650 and me on the Yamaha XT660R. Since Rodrigo was riding the smallest bike, and two up, he would ride in the lead most of the way. Especially in situations where we had to overtake a truck, Rodrigo would be a bit slower as Mike or myself, but it still surprised me how fast the old 350cc was going.

We pulled up at a motorcycle friendly BBQ place in Cascavel for lunch, and I was happy to see that there also was a vegetable buffet, so even me, the vegetarian of the bunch, had no problem filling my stomach.

After leaving Cascavel, we noticed heavy clouds started forming and everybody put on some rain gear. Luckily, we managed to stay away from the worst and only got some minor rain. After a last tank stop, we were on the final stretch into Foz do Iguaçu and made it safely to Hotel Suiça, where the Brazil Riders event wold take place. When we arrived, the place was already packed with hundreds of motorcyclists from all corners of Brazil, but despite the large number of people, the organization was excellent.

We registered and while I went to set up my tent, Rodrigo and Mike headed to their hotel…

Next stop: The falls.

Nov 13 and 14, 2010: Visit to the falls and Itaipu dam.

On Saturday (nov 13) we went to see the Argentinian side of the great Iguaçu waterfallsand on Sunday (Nov 14) we visited the Itaipu electrical Dam. Both days were pretty awesome. The weather couldn´t have been better and this made the weekend even more unforgettable.

It was as if Foz do Iguaçu had an extra attraction for a weekend because of all the motorcycles passing by in a long convoy, which apparently made some people pull over their cars and getting out to take pictures. I even saw a local TV crew filming and interviewing people several times.

Closing event on Sunday was a dinner in a huge BBQ house, where we also got to see a performance of local music and dances, some of which were pretty spicy.

Our group at the border with Argentina… At this point, patience was a good virtue

Also across the border, in Argentina, the road to the park continued to be of excellent quality.

Another waiting line.. this time to get into the park. The guy standing on the left of the picture is Rodrigo…

Once inside the park I realized I should have brought a pair of shorts… I spent the whole day walking around in my riding pants and at the end of the day I could literally pour the water out of my boots note: The bird in the park logo is the Great Dusky Swift. see more about this further down…

The park has a lot more than just the falls… This park (created at the end of the 1930’s) is a preserved part of the original Atlantic Rainforest and lots of animals can be seen here too.

Colorful Birds… there are about 350-400 species of birds around here

A coati… make no mistake… these guys look cute but they are carnivorous… and are known to bite people…

And then we saw the falls… in one word WOW!!!

The word Iguaçú means “big water” in the Tupi-Guarani etymology. The Iguaçú river, which forms the Falls eighteen km before the river meets the Paraná river, overcomes a ground unevenness and plunges 65m with a width of 2,780m. Its geological formation dates back to approximately 150 million years.

getting closer to the falls, the sound is already impressive…

Garganta do diabo (or in Spanish: Garganta del Diablo)

The sheer size of these falls, and the noise of the water are overwhelming… In the mist, you constantly see birds (Great Dusky Swift) which make their nests in the cliffs behind the falls and can be seen feeding on insects trapped in the maelstrom of the falls. Watching these birds navigate the chaotic vortex of water and wind swirling about is simply astonishing. They never seem to stop, capturing prey, carrying nesting material, and even mating in this absurdly dynamic environment.

Walking around in the Argentinian side of the park, you can admire the falls from many different angles…

and another angle… they just seem to go on and on…

You can get into one of the boats down there and take a ride right up to the waterfalls. (and probably get soaked in the process)

Next day : ITAIPU DAM (one of the modern wonders of the world…)

Sunday: Visit to Itaipu Dam

this is the “production side” of the dam (where the water comes out…) This is not one of my favorite pics, because I look a little too much like a regular tourist. I would NEVER wear socks in sandals, but this time I had to, otherwise I wouldn’t have made it into the plant…in Paraguay apparently you cannot ride a motorcycle on sandals, so I put the socks on to make it look like I was wearing shoes… and it worked 🙂

Next stop… Back to Rodrigo’s place in Guarapuava and then on to… well… another place

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

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

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

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

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

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

The steep dirt and cobblestone road leading to Igatu

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crossing a dry river bed near Andarai…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

River Crossing 2 - Chapada Diamantina - Bahia - Brazil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Motorcycle trip: Serra da Mantiqueira: the mountains that cry – Brazil

I love the Serra da Mantiqueira. It is a magical place that every nature and adventure loving person should have visited at least once in their lifetime. The name stems from the native Tupi language and means “Mountains that cry” referring tot he countless waterfalls that can be found here.(click here for online pictures)

So far, I was able to explore most of the Serra by motorcycle, sometimes getting stuck and having to backtrack due to bad road conditions. My biggest “frustration” (if you can call it that) so far was always that I hadn’t been able to find a decent dirt road to get from the east side of the serra to a city called “Itamonte”, located on the west side of the serra without eventually ending up having to take the BR116 (highway between Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo) for about 20km and then take another asphalt road leading up to Itamonte… Although the twisting climbing asphalt road to Itamonte is incredibly scenic as well, the presence of cars, trucks and buses makes it a lot less attractive for an adventure motorcycle rider.What can I say, I just loooove the dirt roads.

According to the tracksource map I use in my GPS, there are several trails going from east to west through the mountains, but a lot of them are trekking trails, or real 4×4 trails, meaning that there’s no way you can do them on a relatively heavy (660cc) motorcycle. (something I learned the hard way on another occasion: see my Dirt road motorcycle adventure in Brazil)

Anyways, when a group of guys from Rio de Janeiro asked me to organize a weekend tour, I got more determined than ever to find a dirt road route to Itamonte.

The best option I could find on the GPS map was a road that starts in Bocaina de Minas, and that leads all the way to Itamonte. This road cannot be found on Google maps, so that would be an indication that it is a road “off the beaten track”.

Here’s the GPS map showing the 60km dirt road connection between Bocaina de Minas and Itamonte.

I talked about it with my colleague Maryel, who is my support car driver, but also a local motocross champion, and we decided we would go and explore the route.

To get to Bocaina de Minas we had to cover another 100km. Here’s the route:

Starting in Volta Redonda, we took the RJ-153 to Amparo. From there we made our way west – north – west – north, passing the little villages of Quatis and Falcão, arriving at the “cachoeira da Fumaça“, one of the most spectacular waterfalls of the region. After a short visit of the waterfall, we started a pretty steep climb to the point where we had to take a right again to get to Bocaina de minas. In the mean time we had passed the state border between Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais.

Bocaina de Minas is at an altitude of a little over 1200m, so we kept climbing a little more. When we got to Bocaina de Minas, it was time for lunch, so we went out to look for a place that Maryel remembered from an earlier visit here. The restaurant was called João Grandão (big John) referring to the size of the owner. It was a very simple restaurant with good, honest food. We paid 16R$ for the two of us (all you can eat) so it was also really cheap.

Before tackling the 60km of unknown road ahead of us, we asked around to see if anyone could tell us if we would be able to get to Itamonte taking the dirt road, and the locals weren’t very positive. They told us that many of the roads between there and Itamonte had been destroyed by the heavy rains of the summer, and they were doubtful if we would make it through. Despite the negative answers of the locals, we decided to go on and see how far we would get. The worst that could happen was that we would have to backtrack and try another route another day.

As with almost all major dirt roads in the interior of Brazil (and I assume also in other countries), they seem to follow a river, whis is logical, since the first explorers of the land (called the Bandeirantes) also followed the rivers, or the trails already in use by the indigenous people. This road was tracing the Rio Grande and the first 15km to Santo Antonio do Rio Grande was pretty easy. A broad unpaved road with no difficulties. Once passed the little village of Santo Antonio, we started to see what the locals in Bocaina de Minas meant… almost every few 100m the road showed signs of repairs, some of which were ongoing as we passed several groups of workers, doing their best to make the road useable again.

All in all, the last 35km to Itamonte were a great ride with a few more technical stretches but nothing really difficult. Getting closer to Itamonte, the road gradually becomes more difficult, and we also saw some areas where the rains had done some significant damage, but also these stretches were repaired or in the process of being repaired.