Serra da Canastra: Birthplace of the mighty São Francisco River

The wall of the Serra da Canastra plateau. Up there is the higher part of the Serra.

Just type “Serra da Canastra” into Google and click on “Images” and you will quickly see why I had to go and check this amazing place out.

The Serra da Canastra:

Serra da Canastra situation map (Google Earth)

The Serra da Canastra is a mountain range in the south west of the state of Minas Gerais,located about 250 km (in a straight line) west from the state capital Belo Horizonte. The distances to get there by car are 320 km (from Belo Horizonte), 540 km (from São Paulo) and 725 km (from Rio de Janeiro).

The main reason for creating the environmental protection area (APA) in the Serra da Canastra back in 1972, is that it holds the spring of the São Francisco river (also referred to as “Velho Chico”), one of Brazil’s most important rivers .

The São Francisco river is the longest river flowing entirely on Brazil territory. It starts its almost 3000 km trajectory on the plateau of the Serra da Canastra, and from there, it makes its way to the north eastern region of Brazil, where millions of people depend on the water it brings to the region. It empties in the Atlantic ocean on the border between the states of Sergipe and Alagoas.

One of the dirt roads crossing the lower park area

The park consists of a lower part and a higher part, and a full visit of the area takes 4 or 5 days. If you come by car, make sure it is in decent shape, because some roads, especially the ones leading up to the higher part are pretty steep and rocky. I myself didn’t have any problems with my Defender, but I saw several smaller city cars struggling to ride up the precarious road.

The São Francisco river cascading down from the plateau of the Serra da Canastra. The almost 200m high Casca d’Anta waterfall is one of the Serra’s main attractions

The city of São Roque de Minas located east of the park, is considered the gateway to the Serra da Canastra. From there you can take the road leading up to the higher part of the park.

The route from São Roque de Minas to the high part of the Casca d’ Anta waterfall.

The map above shows the route from São Roque de Minas up the high plateau:

  1. Green: São Roque de Minas – Park entrance (+/- 6 km)
  2. Blue: Park Entrance – Source of the São Francisco River (+/- 6 km)
  3. Pink: final part to the upper part of the Casca d’ Anta waterfall (+/- 22 km)

This trip up the plateau and back to São Roque de Minas takes most part of one day (especially when you get lost somewhere) and you can see that it covers only a small part of the park (green area). The dotted lines are the main dirt roads in the park, which are kind of O.K. to do with a city car, but there are also dozens of smaller roads branching off of these main roads, and those are usually only accessible with a 4×4 vehicle.

The ride up to the entrance of the park is about 6 km and as I mentioned earlier, it’s not a walk in the park for a city car. Once you make it to the park’s entrance, the guards there will search your vehicle for alcohol and tools that can be used to cut vegetation. My Defender has an ax and a shovel mounted on top of the fenders and I had to hand them over to the guards. That way I HAD to come back the same way and could forget about doing a tour and ride back to São Roque via a different way.

The visitor’s center – Serra da Canastra

About 1,5 km inside the park you’ll see the visitor’s center, where you can find a wealth of information about the Serra da Canastra’s history, fauna and flora. You’ll be happy to learn that there are Poemas, maned wolves and other endangered species roaming the area.

You could easily spend half a day browsing all the information available at the visitor’s center, but I had more things to explore, so I hit the road and it was not long before I saw the sign, indicating I had arrived at the place where the São Francisco river has it’s spring.

Sign indicating the place where the Rio são Francisco starts its almost 3000 km to the Atlantic ocean.

The spring itself is not that spectacular. It’s merely a small puddle of crystal clear water the seems to appear from under a bush. Small fish can be seen in the water. Spectacular is knowing that this water is going to travel all the way to the Atlantic Ocean, 3000 km further up north.

Following the main dirt road across the flat, windy landscape for another 22 km brings you to the high part of the Casca d’ Anta waterfall, where the São Francisco takes its first 200 m plunge into the valley of the Serra da Canastra.

Along the way you might get lucky and spot some wildlife, like a deer one of the maned wolves, but don’t get your hopes up too much. I did see this Carcará eagle on top of a termite hill, that was kind enough to sit still and pose for a picture.

A solitary Carcará eagle in the higher part of the Serra da Canastra

By the time the São Francisco reaches the edge of the plateau, it has grown from a small puddle into a full blown river, picking up water along the way. After a short, sometimes difficult hike, you can reach a ledge about 10 m away from the waterfall, from where you have a great view over the lower southern part of of the park. I must say that I hadn’t been very lucky with the weather. It had been overcast or raining most of the time.

Serra da Canastra – View from the top of Casca d’ Anta

And to wrap this post up: here is my VIDEO DEBUT… A far from professional report of the visit of the higher part of the Serra da Canastra National park. Enjoy

9 day Motorcycle trip on the Estrada Real – Part 2 (days 5 to 9)

This is Part two of a longer post. Go to Part 1 (days 1 to 4)

Day 5: Exploring the area around Diamantina

Today we’re taking a day to see a little more of the region around Diamantina. The guy who does the night watch in our pousada turned out to be a guide as well and he was more than happy to show us around, see a few of the waterfalls and the little village of Biribiri, tucked away in the rugged hills north of Diamantina. After breakfast we took off, five of us in the Land Rover and Alex and me on our bikes…

First stop was the 5m high, concrete, illuminated cross on top of one of the hills (alto da serra) around the city, from where you have a great view over the entire city…

The view from the hill is quite cool… 
The other side wasn’t so bad either…

Looks like everybody was so busy taking pictures of the surrounding views, that we ended up with no picture of the cross itself 

After taking in the views, we went on to the “Caminho dos escravos”, a 9 km long road, paved with big stones, constructed in the first half of the 19th century by slaves. This road connected the fazendas and the diamond mines. Today it is used to do ecological hikes.


On the “caminho dos escravos”… Imagining how hard it must have been for the people who once constructed this road…

Biribiri was next on the list…
It is a small village, about 12 km north of Diamantina, founded in the 19th century near a cloth factory, to house the people that worked there. The factory isn’t working anymore and most of the people left. Only two families remain.

Located in a evnvironmental protection area (Parque ambiental de Biribiri), the small village is an oasis of peace and tranquility and definitely worth a visit. It was very nice meeting Antonio, a local descendant from a slave family, who was very gifted at telling the history of the place.

While we were having lunch in the only restaurant, there was a guy playing violin under a tree at a small distance from us… imagine the atmosphere of the place.

After entering the Biribiri park, where our license plates were registered, we had some 12 km of dirt road ahead to get to Biribiri, and along the way we had the chance to visit two waterfalls…


Cachoeira da sentinela… obviously with a small flow of water due to the dry time of the year…


…which didn’t stop Alex from taking a plunge 


Moving on to the next cachoeira…


An old bridge, leading to the cachoeira das cristais…
Cachoeira das Cristais…
And finally the village of Biribiri… Oasis of peace and tranquility.
We went for another hike to see yet another waterfall, called “escorregador” wich means “slide”
The river bed leading to Biribiri…
Lunch in Biribiri…

After having lunch in the village, we continued our exploration, visiting one more waterfall, and went back to the pousada, where our hostess Beatrice welcomed us with a delicious table full of minas gerais delicacies… no extra charge. I must say our stay at pousada Castelinho was delightful and Beatrice and her staff did everything to make us feel at home… The pousada has a main house and 4 cabins (chalets) but I do recommend to stay at the main house, which is a little more expensive but you feel much more part of the family, which is what pousadas are all about.

Our last night in Diamantina, we went down to the historical center and visited the Museu da diamante and the house of Chica da Silva, which was a very famous figure in Diamantina. A freed slave woman, and very beautiful, she had a relationship with the richest man in Diamantina for about 15 years. The house holds paintings of her, depicting the deadly sins…

After a walk in the historical center, we went to the old market place to get some dinner, and Alex discovered that there was a Vesperata going on… the vesperata is one of Diamantina’s attractions: a open air concert in the middle of the historical center. The orchestra’s musicians are posted in the first floor windows around the square, creating the perfect surround experience…


Unexpectedly, we were able to witness the famous Vesperata in the historic center of Diamantina…

Our Spanish friend José was very happy to be able to witness the Vesperata, because as a matter of fact, I called the day before we arrived in Diamantina, and was told that there wouldn’t be any Vesperata that weekend…

Diamantina was the Norternmost point of our trip, and tomorrow we start riding south again, tracing the “Caminho do Diamante” of the Estrada Real… More dust ahead

Day 6: Diamantina – Conceição do Mato Dentro (+/- 130 km)

Day 6 is about getting to Conceição do Mato Dentro, a small city about 130km south of Diamantina. Despite its size, it has managed to earn the title of “Ecotourism capital of Minas Gerais.To get there we would have to ride the authentic Estrada Real, which in this area is mainly dirt roads and means more dust ahead.Since it was a relatively short riding day, we wanted to get to our destination around noon, to have some time left to go hiking to the highest waterfall in Minas Gerais: the “Tabuleiro” waterfall.The first leg was from Diamantina to Serro, the city where we had lunch 2 days earlier. After that we would pass Alvorado de Minas and a few other small places. Most of the roads would be dirt roads, but, like I mentioned before in this report, here and there we saw the signs that more and more roads are being asphalted.


The road from Diamantina to Serro…

When I passed here in August 2010, this was still an authentic dirt road. As you can see, the nxt time we will pass here it will be a new, good quality asphalt road.


Arriving in Conceição do Mato Dentro…


Taking gas…


We arrived in Conceição do Mato Dentro around lunch time, so we found this typical “mineiro” restaurant…


Another table shot.


The riding was over, but we weren’t done for the day. Our pousada was located close to the entrance of the “Parque Estadual Serra do Intendente”, where we could do a hike to the Cachoeira do Tabuleiro. It was not the easiest of hikes, with a very steep and at times slippery section to get down to the river that leads up to the waterfall.


The waterfall in the distance… As expected, here also, there was a ridiculously small amount of water. In the rainy season, it looks like this:


I need to come back when the fall looks like this… must be awesome to rappel off of this one.


Once down at the river, it’s another few kms to the 18m deep “poço” (pont) at the foot of the fall…


No way to ride a bike here… Any bike


As I said… Ridiculously small amount of water… The almost 300m high wall was an impressive sight though. Alex, Maryel and myself went in for a swim (that usually was just a few seconds, due to the low temperature of the water :)).


After our hike, a well deserved relaxing moment at the pousada.

Day 7: Conceição do Mato Dentro – Ouro Preto (250 km – 140 km unpaved)

Today we ride to Ouro Preto, the city that was once called “Vila Rica” (Rich city) due to the fact that it was the place where all the taxes were collected. The gold and diamonds, coming from the north (Diamantina), but also from the surrounding area, had to pass through Ouro Preto in order to be melted and converted into bars that carried the seal of the Portuguese Court.

A tax of 20% (um Quinta – one fifth) of all the gold that passed here was taken and went straight to the Royal family.

Apart from the “Quinta” there was a fixed tax (+/- 1000 kg of gold) for the posession of a mine. Once the mines started to run dry, the owners of the mines were no longer able to pay these taxes and most of them lost their posessions. Around that time, Brazil was being kept kind of a secret to the rest of the world, but on the other hand, the sons of the richest land owners in Brazil were sent to Portugal to study, and that is where they learned about how things were changing, especially in France and the United States.

Many of them returned after their studies with ideas of an independent Brazil, and that is how Minas Gerais became the center of a movement for the independency of Brazil.


Here too, many roadworks to eventually put a layer of asphalt on the dirt roads…


Sometimes, passing these sections was a bit of a challenge… Seriously, it was harder than it seems in the picture…


Places like this, where you can fill your water bottle next to a small chapel are likely to disappear or at least lose some oif their charm…


This farmer will have a harder time taking his animals from one place to another when more cars will pas here at higher speeds…


For the time being, there are still lots of roads with beautiful viewpoints.


There used to be a bridge here, but it was burnt, The jeep would never be able to pass here, forcing us to make a detour, discovering a few great 4×4 roads…


Here, we were getting close to Itambé do mato dentro.


We finally arrived in Mariana, another historical city, about 15 km east of Ouro Preto.


It was Sunday, and the central square was the scene of a lot of musical activity…


And then there was Ouro Preto… Enjoy the following pictures of this beautiful city… This building is the Museu da inconfidência. The “inconfidência Mineira” was the movement, led by “Tiradentes” for the independence of Brazil.


Praça Tiradentes… With the statue of the Brazilian hero


One of the many beautifully decorated churches.


Another Church..


And another…


Steep cobblestone roads… And another church…


A small Artisan market, principally selling soapstone artifacts…

Day 8: Ouro Preto – Ibitipoca (+/- 250 km)

Today’s ride is going to be a breeze… only 250 km and only the last 20 km will be unpaved…
Leaving Ouro Preto, we stopped at the local artisan market, where they sell primarily artifacts in soapstone… It opens at 7.00 am, which I thought was pretty unusual … Anyways.

From Ouro Preto, we made our way up to the BR040, which is known to be a dangerous road, due to the sometimes poor condition and the heavy traffic. Once on the 040, we rode about 70 km further south to Barbacena, which was the only section of “major highway” we did during this trip…


Quick stop at one of the “Pão de Queijo” places on the BR040

In Barbacena, we had to find our way through the city to get on the MG338, leading south west for about 62 km, to Santa Rita de Ibitipoca, where the asphalt runs out. The last 20 km to Conceição de Ibitipoca was unpaved, but nothing too difficult to ride.


The small, winding MG-338, from Barbacena to Santa Rita de Ibitipoca.


In Santa Rita de Ibitipoca Evandro’s GPS and mine were not on the same page… which had already happened a few times before… This time mine was correct 


These things are very common in the rural dirt roads… they are called “Mata Burro” (Donkey Killer) and are used to keep cattle from wandering off. apparently, cows and other farm animals are afraid to cross one of these… this one was a very easy one, but sometimes the space between two beams is bigger than the width of our tires… The thing to do is to cross them diagonally… that is , if you see them in time. I don’t have to draw a picture of what would happen when your front wheel gets caught in one, right? 

We arrived in Conceição de Ibitipoca around noon, as expected, and were planning to have another afternoon hike in the park, but we heard from the local people that the park closes on Mondays… bummer.


The first restaurant we tried in Ibitipoca was closed… only opens during weekends and “Feriados” (holidays)


But we managed to find some food anyway…


After lunch, we checked in at the pousada (Canela de Ema) and since the park wasn’t open, everybody had a free afternoon…

The park was not the only thing that was closed… The mall, where they have a LAN house (internet café) wasn’t open either… I love these small, remote places, but you need to take the good with the bad… Since there is no bank in town, people need to have a “day off” to drive down to Lima Duarte (about 25 km of unpaved road) to go and do their bank stuff…

So, the only thing resembling a LAN house that I could find, was a prehistoric PC in the back room of a clothing store. The screen image disappeared every 30 seconds and the lady had told me that I had to give it a good whack to bring the image back… that seemed to work, but also some of the keys on the keyboard weren’t coming back up after pushing them… All in all an interesting internet experience.

Meanwhile, Alex and Evandro were having a good time at the pool of a hotel near our pousada, and José, our Spanish friend apparently found a few hiking trails a little outside of the town center and had a great afternoon walk…


Alex and Evandro made a few new friends here … They are called “Mico Estrela” or “Black ear tufted Marmosets” and are pretty much endemic for this part of Brazil – Basically the State of Minas Gerais.

Here too, there were not a lot of options when it came to having dinner… the only restaurant/pizzeria that was open, had very good food though…

Oh… and Ibitipoca has a marvelous sunset… Check it out

Final Day: Back to Volta Redonda…

Normally, we would ride to Rio de Janeiro on day 9, and back to Volta Redonda on day 10, but for practical reasons, our Spanish friend José decided that it would be better to ride to Volta Redonda on day 9, and take him to Rio de Janeiro with the jeep on the same day. This way he has one extra day in Rio de Janeiro before flying back to Spain…


It was a fantastic morning in Ibitipoca. Evandro and I were up very early to see the sun appear over the horizon.


The breakfast at Pousada Canela de Ema was one of the best of the entire trip, especially in combination with the location and the view you have from the dining room windows…


Getting ready for the last leg of the trip to Volta Redonda…

Leaving Conceição de Ibitipoca, we had to do a last section of unpaved road of about 25 km in order to get to the BR-267 in Lima Duarte, where we took gas…

We took the BR-267 direction west until Bom Jardim de Minas, and from there it was further south to Santa Rita de Jacutinga and Santa Isabel do Rio Preto, from where it was only about 50 more km’s to get to Volta Redonda…


Somewhere on the road between Bom Jarim de Minas and Santa Rita de Jacutinga… This region is called “As montanhas Mágicas” (The magic mountains…)


I remember this being a dirt road back in 2009… Here too, more and more roads are getting a blacktop coating…

In Volta Redonda, we had lunch and Alex and me took off to Rio de Janeiro with the jeep, to drop off José at his hotel… the hotel was in the historical center of Rio, in Cinelândia, where Obama held a speech when he last visited Brazil (at least I think the speech was PLANNED there)


Riding on the “Elevado da Perimetral” one of the busiest access roads to the center of Rio… after 9 days of relatively easy and tranquile traffic, this is a very unpleasant change of scenery 


Passing the port area, we spotted a docked submarine… I didn’t know Brazil had these… Pretty fancy chopper in the foreground too if you ask me…


After dropping off José in one of the most hectic traffic situations I have ever seen in Rio de Janeiro, Alex and me headed back to Volta Redonda… Alex would be back in a few days to see the Metallica concert…

Thus ends yet another trip through one of the most important historical regions of Brazil… Thanks for sticking with me through this long post… I hope you enjoyed reading it and get inspired to come and ride in Brazil yourself.

Safe travels.

The Magic of Itatiaia National Park – Rio de Janeiro – Brazil.

History

Veu da Noiva (bride’s veil) waterfall in Itatiaia

Itatiaia National Park is the first and so also the oldest National Park of Brazil. It was inaugurated in 1937 and covers almost 30.000 hectares of the larger Environmental Protection Area of the Mantiqueira mountain range.

Getting to the Itatiaia Park from Rio de Janeiro is a +/- 200 km drive via the BR116 (Rio – São Paulo). The distance from São Paulo is about 250 Km. I’m lucky to live in Volta Redonda, which is only 80km from the park.

How to get there?

Coming from Rio de Janeiro, Follow the BR116 (Dutra) and take the exit for Itatiaia, right after the “Graal” restaurant. Follow the indications to the National park and you arrive at the gate… The entrance fee is 11R$ per person (about 7 Usd).

You don’t have pay for the car. They will give you a badge that you need to return upon exiting the park. They want to make sure that everybody is accounted for.

Situation of Itatiaia National Park – Brazil

Once inside the park, you just follow the road, which climbs steadily to an altitude of about 1.100m. After about 4km there’s a visitor’s center/museum, where you can see the history of the creation of the park, old photos and an interesting exposition about all the plants and animals in the park.Interesting, but not surprising, to find out that there are even Pumas (Onça Parda) in these forests.

Near the center, you can stretch your legs for a short 15-20 minute hike, descending to the “Lago azul” Once past the visitor’s center, you can continue following the road until reaching a bridge over the Campo Belo river, which is the end of the line for your car.

Typical trail in Itatiaia. Rocky and sometimes pretty steep, but well maintained and safe.

From that point you can start a few short hikes to see the various waterfalls in the area, or the longer ones (20-30km) into the higher parts of the park.

If you only have a day or afternoon, it’s advisable to do only the short hikes. The longer ones are serious hikes and require equipment, food and water, since you would be spending the night in one of the shelters higher up in the mountains.

We were only there for the day, so we stuck to the “easy” stuff

The trails in the lower part of the park are rocky and sometimes pretty steep, but well maintained and safety equipment is in place. In some parts there are stairways to make the climb easier.

Food.

After seeing the Veu da Noiva and Itaporani waterfalls, and the Piscina da Maromba, it was time for some lunch.Don’t worry if you didn’t bring any food yourself, because the park is home to a restaurant, not far from the parking near the piscina da Maromba.

At 40R$ (about 26 Usd) per person (without drinks and tip of 10%) it is certainly not cheap. Ok, it’s “all you can eat”, but seriously, I can buy veggies for a whole week for that kind of money. Anyways, at least the food was delicious and it is one of the first times that I had 3 courses in a restaurant in Brazil, including dessert.

One  thing I never saw a restaurant doing before, was that after making the tab, the waiter told me that he would write the price INCLUSIVE a 10% markup on the back of the note, and that I was “free to pay that extra 10% if I thought that the service was good”… OK, the service wasn’t bad at all, but this restaurant already charged “tourist” prices, which I found extremely high, so I took the liberty of not paying the extra 10%. I still paid almost double of what a comparable lunch in a “non-touristic” restaurant would cost.

Birds

This little guy came sitting right beside me to have his picture taken. It was one of the most colorful birds around there, and is known in Brazil as “Saira de Sete cores” – Do yo see the seven colors?

The great thing about this restaurant though, wasn’t the food, but the fact that they had a few bird feeders hanging just outside near the deck, and it was a coming and going of the most colorful birds I had ever seen(outside of a zoo that is).

I know that at this point I’m supposed to start proclaiming a list with the names of all the birds I saw there, but I’m everything but an ornithologist, so I can just tell you that I saw various species of hummingbirds (also known as Colibris in Belgium and “Beija-flor” in Brazil), very colorful little birds called “saira de sete cores” (7 colored Saira) and other ones, one of which I’m pretty sure was a woodpecker (in the colors of the Belgian – or German – flag)

It was the first time ever that I tried to take pictures of hummingbirds in flight and I have to tell you… It ain’t easy. These guys are so fast that, by the time your autofocus did its job and you press the button, you end up with a picture of the feeder, but no bird  I probably spent half an hour taking picture after picture, but in the end I did go home with a few decent ones (all lucky shots of course.

Besides the birds, there were a few other animals we had the honor of spotting. There were squirrels, monkeys, butterflies, some crawling creatures like lizards and centipedes, but unfortunately (or luckily, just the way you look at it) we didn’t see a puma.

All in all, the Itatiaia National park is a great place to visit for anyone who wants to get a feel of the atlantic rainforest. It gives you an idea about what most of the south-east and south of Brazil must have been like before the “smartest species on the planet” started to destroy it.

To conclude, here are some more pictures…

Click any picture to see full size 

The lower part of the Itatiaia National Park

Lago Azul, near the visitors Center – Itatiaia – Rio de Janeiro

Find the three monkeys – Itatiaia – Rio de Janeiro

Overly backlit photo of a monkey – Itatiaia – Rio de Janeiro

Woodpecker (Pique a pau) in the colors of the Belgian flag – Itatiaia – Rio de Janeiro

This little guy came sitting right beside me to have his picture taken. It was one of the most colorful birds around there, and is known in Brazil as “Saira de Sete cores” – Do yo see the seven colors?

Humming birds – Itatiaia National Park – Rio de Janeiro

Feeding birds – Itatiaia National Park – Rio de Janeiro

Feeding birds – Itatiaia National Park – Rio de Janeiro

Colibri – Hummingbird – Beija-flor – Itatiaia National Park – Rio de Janeiro

Piscina da Maromba – Itatiaia National Park – Rio de Janeiro

Butterfly having a sip of water – Itatiaia National Park – Rio de Janeiro

Arriving at the Itaporani waterfall – Itatiaia National Park – Rio de Janeiro

Fernanda and Me at the Itaporani waterfall – Itatiaia National Park – Rio de Janeiro

Red Flowers – Itatiaia National Park – Rio de Janeiro

Typical trail in Itatiaia. Rocky and sometimes pretty steep, but well maintained and safe.

A stairway making the climbing easier – Itatiaia National park – Rio de Janeiro

Veu da Noiva Waterfall – Itatiaia National park – Rio de Janeiro

Veu da Noiva (Bride’s Veil) waterfall – Itatiaia National park – Rio de Janeiro

Want to see even more? Check this set on Flickr (27 Photos)

Ibitipoca State Park – Hiking in the south of Minas Gerais – Brazil.

Last Sunday, I took out a day to go visit the Ibitipoca State Park. With its +/- 1500 hectares, it is probably one of the smallest parks in Brazil, but according to the information I found, it is also the one with the best infrastructurein the state… The greater region where the park is located, is called the “serra da Ibitipoca” and is famous for its quartzite caves, which are said to be very rare, but also for its natural pools, waterfalls, special rock formations, great views and typical fauna and flora. There are two options, both of them involving a 25-30 km of unpaved road, to get to Conceição de Ibitipoca, a small town 3 km from the park entrance, and where you will find pousadas, camping areas, restaurants and souvenir shops. The first option is via the city of Olaría, which is the shortest route, coming from São Paulo. The second option is via Lima Duarte. I checked out both options, and find the road from Lima Duarte to Conceição de Ibitipoca in a much better condition than the one from Olaría. So, coming from São Paulo it is worth doing the extra 16 km to Lima Duarte. Make sure you have a GPS, a good map or a driver who knows the area because signalization is very scarce to non-existent. I also suggest to visit the park in the dry season(April – November), because the rain would surely make it very difficult for ordinary cars to make it to Conceição de Ibitipoca, where you will find you’ll have to do some 25 km of unpaved road, leading from Lima Duarte to the small town of Conceição de Ibitipoca,

History of the park:

Rocky path leading up from the Cachoeira dos Macacos. Good shoes and physical condition recommended…

Conceição de Ibitipoca (the name means “house of stone” in the Tupi language) is one of the oldest towns of Minas Gerais, and like so many other places, was discovered and claimed by the “bandeirantes” (first explorers of Brazil) in search for gold around 1692. It became an official village with the construction of the first church (Igreja Nossa Sra de Conceição) in 1726. If you visit Conceição de Ibitipoca today, it is hard to believe that this tiny village was once one of the most important places in the captaincy of Minas Gerais. When the gold ran out, a lot of people moved away, but in the 1970’s the area was rediscovered by biologists and other scientists for its unique geography and natural treasures. One of the characteristics of the park, is the presence of rare plants and animals, some of which are in danger of extinction. Since 1987, the park has been fitted with a good quality infrastructure (some say the best in the state), and receiving visitors from all over Brazil and the world, becoming ever more famous as a ecotourism destination.

Hiking:

The Rio do Salto with on one side the rocky wall

When I went to hike in the park, I had only an afternoon, but to see all the park has to offer, it’s best to take out 4 days. Amongst the principal attractions, there are seven caves, various waterfalls and peaks. The most famous spot is the “Janela do Ceu” (window to heaven), which is located at the north side of the park. It is a challenging 8km hike to get there, but it is definitely worth the effort. . The south side, the side that I was able to explore, holds the so-called “circuito das aguas” (water circuit). A trail leading south from the restaurant, follows the Rio do Salto, that flows through a rocky, canyon-like landscape, with on one side a vertical 20m high wall, that looks like it has been pushed upward in a geological event millions of years ago. Following the river downstream, you come to the “Ponte da Pedra” (bridge of stone), where the river, over time, carved out a huge tunnel in the rock wall. From there it is another steep descent to the “Cachoeira dos macacos” (monkeys waterfall) where a natural pool invites to take a swim in the clear, yet brownish colored water. The color is the result of decaying organic material in the river more upstream.

The Cachoeira dos Macacos (Monkey’s waterfall).This is the last place where the river forms a natural pool, fit for swimming, before exiting the park to the south. As this picture was shot in the driest period of the year, The waterfall would certainly be a lot more spectacular in wetter months. Notice the clear but brownish colored water, which is the result of decaying organic material further upstream of the river.

After a visit to the Cachoeira dos Macacos, it’s back north again following a quite challenging rocky path back up, taking you to the top of the vertical wall on the other side of the river, from where you have a whole different perspective of the river as it cascades down. At a certain point, I saw a sign leading to the “Pico do Pião”, and to the “Lago  dos espelhos”, but to my frustration, I didn’t have enough time to visit these attractions… Days are short in these parts. Even in summertime, It gets dark around 8 pm here. The longer days is one thing I kinda miss about Europe. Anyways, I completed a 10km hike in an afternoon, which was not so bad, considering the fact that there are so many places that invite you to stop and take in the view, slowing you down considerably.

Infrastructure:

The park is full of signs like this one, but they are not always logical: “Gruta dos Coelhos” means “Rabbit’s cave”… so why is there a jaguar on the sign 🙂

As I mentioned before, this is one of the parks with the best infrastructure in the state of Minas Gerais, and I believe it would be very difficult to get lost in this park, firstly because it is not big, but also because of the clear signs placed all over the place. With these signs, the rudimentary map you can get at the visitors center and some basic orientation skills, it is easy sailing (or hiking) through the park. However, a word of caution… There are some places where you can make a nasty fall, and warning signs telling you not to get too close to the edge are only in Portuguese. I’m sure that with a little common sense, you should be able to assess the situation and see when it could be dangerous.

Good to know:

  • Opening hours: 7am – 6pm
  • Price: 15 Brl (10 Usd) per person  / an extra 10 Brl ( 7 Usd) if you want to enter with your car.
  • limited number of visitors applies: on week days: Max 300 visitors allowed in the park at any given time. during weekends or holidays the maximum number is 800. Make sure you get there in time or you might not get in (like me the first time I wanted to visit the park)
  • Some of the trails are quite steep and uneven, so put on good quality hiking shoes. I’m always amazed when I see so many people wearing only flip-flops, or poor quality tennis shoes…
  • Pass by the visitor’s center to get a map and take look at the maquette of the park, to get an idea of the layout of the park and decide where you want to go.

Inside the “Ponte de Pedra”, a natural tunnel carved out by the water over millions of years.

It took me two years and 8 months to finally get to visit this small but beautiful and very valuable piece of Brazilian eco heaven and I will certainly go back there to explore the rest of it.

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

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

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

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

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

Why Visit Morretes?

One of the green squares in the historical center of Morretes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

View of some houses near the Nhundiaquara river

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

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

How to get there?

1. BY CAR, MOTORCYCLE, BUS

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

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

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

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

2. BY TRAIN:

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

View from the train from Morretes to Curitiba

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

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

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

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

Also check out this great video by @canalbrazil

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

Hope you enjoyed this.Any comments welcome

Santa Rita de Jacutinga – Hidden eco-paradise in south Minas Gerais – Brazil

It was on one of my first motorcycle road trips, exploring the dirt roads of the “Vale do Cafe” after arriving in Brazil in early 2009, that I missed a right turn and ended up crossing the state border between Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais, that I got to know a hidden little gem of a village called Santa Rita de Jacutinga, or short: Santa Rita.

The village only recently started to discover and develop its touristic potential so it has nothing of a typical touristic place, like for instance Tiradentes, one of the most famous historical villages, which gets its income almost only out of tourism.

When I arrived there the first time in 2009, access to the village was only via dirt road. Today this has changed: two asphalt roads, one to the south and one to the north, make the village more accessible for visitors.

Santa Rita, also known as “a cidade das cachoeiras” or “city of waterfalls”, as the name implies, is famous for its more than 70 waterfalls scattered across an area of almost 500 km².

A great way to discover the most important ones is on horseback, but it can also be done by car (preferably a 4×4) or during a mountain bike or hiking trip, during which you will be blown away by the beautiful sights around each curve in the road, or the flocks of colorful birds you will encounter.

Besides birds, there are a lots of other forest animals you could run into here: monkeys, Coatis and various kinds of reptiles like lizards and snakes… the latter potentially dangerous, so better stick to the trails when you’re hiking.

Fazenda Santa Clara… During the 18th century its main activity was the production of slaves.

As you probably figured out by now, this is a place for people who are looking for rural or adventure tourism… the local “centro de aventuras” offers rappelling, rafting, cascading, canyoning and trekking. The organization could be a little more professional, but they are doing their best…

Authentic antique equipment of the former “slave factory”…

Unlike the more touristic places in the region, and again, due to the fact that tourism is a fairly new phenomenon here, Santa Rita doesn’t have a lot of accommodation (yet). there are 6 pousadas in the center, and 6 more outside of the village (max 8km from the center) Here is a link to a map showing the points of interest and places to stay in the wide area.

A long board with holes for feet and hands… This is where slaves had to spend the night after they had behaved badly…

One of the most important historical attractions in the region is the 18th century “Fazenda Santa Clara”, about 20 km of – sometimes precarious – dirt road from Santa Rita.

This gigantic farm was built on top of a hill and almost resembles a medieval castle. It has 90 rooms, 12 of which are salons, and 365 windows, lots of them just painted on the white walls.

Another view of the slave quarters at fazenda Santa Clara

Sinister detail: this farm’s primary activity was not growing coffee or raising cattle, but the production of slaves… After the abolition of transatlantic slave trading in 1836, fazendas like these were providing the huge coffee fazendas in the area with new slaves, until slavery was finally abolished in Brazil in 1888.

Visiting the fazenda, and seeing the places where the slaves were kept, and sometimes tortured, compared to the luxurious quarters of the owners, leaves a very strong impression.

Pousada “Pouso de Minas”, one of the 6 pousadas in the rural area around Santa Rita… great places to stay with kids…

The many rivers in the region make great playground in a lush green environment… again, a paradise for kids.

Whenever I feel like taking a break from the city, I find myself on the road leading to Santa Rita and the Serra da Beleza that surrounds it. For me it is the place where I find peace and tranquility, a good, homemade meal and an authentic, unspoilt atmosphere of the Brazilian rural interior as it must have been like many years before tourism even existed…

Hope you enjoyed the read.