Water pools around rocks that are red with minerals in a small river.

In the mountains of Vale do Capao. Photo © Michael Sommers.

Sometimes the best things in life are last-minute. Like the way I ended up ringing in the New Year in Bahia’s Chapada Diamantina.

Two days before Christmas, close friends of mine, Edi and Myra, informed me they were going to the Chapada and insisted I come along. They were going to be camping out on the property of friends of theirs who had a house on a mountainside in the Vale do Capão. When I called around to check for availability in pousadas, as I had expected everything was booked up. Moreover, the accommodations that were available were being sold as pacotes de Reveillon (New Year’s packages); based on double occupancy, the rates were characteristically sky-high.

I was ready to surrender when Edi’s friend came through with the name of a local Rasta beekeeper who knew of a house for rent, close to the small village of Vila Capão. The rent was a bit steep for me, but fortunately Edi and Myra had a friend, Barbosa, who had just arrived in Salvador for the holidays from Minas Gerais. On a veranda, on a whim, me and Barbosa decided to split the rent and the house, and on December 27th off we went, heading due west from Salvador, to the Chapada Diamantina.

Rising up out of the parched and dusty landscape of the Sertão, the Chapada Diamantina (Diamond Plateau) is an ancient geological region rife with surreal rock formations, soaring cliffs and plunging valleys whose spectacular beauty has made it the Number One eco-tourist destination in Brazil. Much of this unique area is preserved within the confines of the Parque Nacional da Chapada Diamantina, a national park the size of Holland. Within its borders is the Cachoeira da Fumaça, Brazil’s highest waterfall (380 meters/1,250 feet) as well as Pico dos Barbados (2,000 meters/6,560 feet), the highest peak in Bahia. Grottoes hide lagoons whose waters turn to piercing blue when touched by the sun’s fingers. The striking vegetation – a captivating mixture of Cerrado, Caatinga, and Mata Atlântica– ranges from cacti and giant ferns to delicate wild orchids.

Adjectives such as “idyllic”, “bucolic”, and “Edenic” get bandied around a lot, especially in the context of travel writing, but the Vale do Capão is the real deal.Exploring the park is done by hiking over trails, many of which were originally carved out of the landscape by slaves and diamond miners. Indeed, in keeping with its name, the Chapada Diamantina was once chock full of diamonds; in the mid-1800s, the region was the world’s biggest producer of these precious rocks (its heyday came to an abrupt closure in 1867 when vast mines discovered in South Africa ended Brazil’s diamond hegemony).

Testifying to the Chapada’s diamond days are a handful of colonial mining towns – Lençois, Andaraí, Mucugê, Palmeiras, Caeté-Açu – whose former grandeur has faded to dusty charm. Strategically sprinkled around the limits of the Parque Nacional, these towns are ideal departure points for exploring the park’s natural attractions.

We were headed for the village of Caeté-Açu (Tupi for “great forest”), more commonly known as Vila do Capão, or merely Capão, due to its location in the Vale do Capão, a lush valley ringed by fantastically-shaped mountain. All of the Chapada towns attract a healthy share of eco-wanderers, but Capão has serious cred as an outpost for alternativos. It originally became a hippie haven back in the ‘70s, when its Edenic trappings provided respite from the dark days of Brazil’s military dictatorship. Since then, it has organically morphed into a mecca for a New Age, back-to-nature crowd intent on living off the land and soaking up the region’s positive energies, while dabbling in yoga, Zen Buddhism, and geothermal therapies.

Stroll around town – whose picturesque main square features a pavilion known as the Mandala – and you’re surrounded by long-haired, dreaded young men and women who could easily audition for a Hair revival (albeit one in which the cast were to go hiking in the mountains instead of prancing through Central Park). What’s nice about the Vila, however, is that amidst the crystals, hemp, and line-ups for organic pizza (topped with pimenta-infused local honey – sublime), you have 1,500 locals going about their daily business; hawking fresh produce in the square, zooming by on moto-taxis (or clip-clopping by on mules), opening their homes for home-cooked meals of carne de sol (sun-dried meat) and godó (a stew made of green bananas).

In keeping with the Capão vibe, the mingling of tribos is harmonious; for all the eco-hype surrounding Capão, there is an impressive lack of “touristy”-ness. Of course, relatively difficult access –the nearest town, Palmeiras, can only be reached by car along a very bumpy, very red, dirt road – and the (blessed) lack of sophisticated infrastructure (not to mention cell phone coverage) keeps the hordes away even at New Year’s.

It was interesting to witness the effects a week in the Capão had upon me and my friends as delighted children emerged from beneath our stressed and weary adult veneers. I wouldn’t call any of us alternativos, but by the end of our stay we were blissed out beyond belief.

And who wouldn’t be after ambling down red roads, stopping to pick jewel-hued pitangas and acerolas from fruit trees. Downing shots of locally-made, herb-infused, cachaça beneath the shade of a jackfruit tree. Walking barefoot along winding forest trails, fragrant with the scent of rivers and wild thyme. Allowing waterfalls to pummel our bodies as we gazed up at vast cerulean skies. Scaling mountains of pinkish rock studded with furry cacti and wild orchids in astonishing shades of purple. Floating in Coca-Cola colored rivers. Dozing off on smooth rocks whose worn sun-soaked surfaces proved as comfortable as 300-thread count sheets.

Adjectives such as “idyllic”, “bucolic”, and “Edenic” get bandied around a lot, especially in the context of travel writing, but the Vale do Capão is the real deal. It was all so timeless that we barely felt the passing of one year into the next. The new year only became a reality on January 3 when, with great reluctance, we climbed into Myra’s car and drove the 400km back to Salvador, the boas energias slowly seeping out of our bodies and consciousness with each kilometer that brought us closer to “civilization” and squarely into 2012.