Traveling due west from Salvador, after a few hours the dry and dusty landscape of the northeastern Sertão region begins to change. Mountains and strange rock formations appear, and the vegetation turns surprisingly lush, with an abundance of orchids and bromeliads. The transformation signals the beginning of the Chapada Diamantina (Diamond Plateau), a vast and ancient geological region filled with canyons and gorges and crisscrossed by rivers and waterfalls whose spectacular beauty has made it the number-one ecotourist destination in Brazil. Much of this unique and spectacular area is preserved as a national park. If you find yourself in Salvador with three days or more to spare, visiting the Chapada Diamantina is an adventure you won’t regret.
Parque Nacional da Chapada Diamantina
The Parque Nacional da Chapada Diamantina is bigger than some countries (Holland, for example) and is one of the most drop-dead gorgeous natural regions in Brazil. Within its borders is the Cachoeira da Fumaça, the highest waterfall (380 meters/1,250 feet) in Brazil and the fifth highest in the world, 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 ranges from giant ferns to the rarest of orchids. And there is always the chance of stumbling on a tiny nugget of gold or a diamond in the rough.
Only one paved road cuts through 152-square-kilometer (59-square-mile) park, and there is no official entrance. There are, however, plenty of trails of varying difficulty—best traveled with a guide or on an excursion—many of which were carved out of the landscape by slaves and gold and diamond miners in the 19th century. One of the main bases for exploring the area is Lençóis, a former diamond-mining town, which is now a lively mix of locals and ecotourists. Other equally enticing diamond towns and their surrounding areas are also worth exploring—namely Mucugê, Andaraí, and Vale do Capão—which offer their own access to several of the park’s natural attractions. The Chapada can be visited all year long, but in the summer, though the sun can be scorchingly hot, periods of rain (sometimes lasting for several days) can put a serious damper on hiking plans. A better time to come is during the winter, when cooler temperatures (which can become downright chilly at night) coincide with the “dry season” that lasts March–October. Be aware, though, that during this time, waterfalls can get thin and even dry up.
Lençóis means “sheets” in Portuguese. The name alludes to the town’s early-19th-century origins as an itinerant camp for hundreds of avid diamond and gold miners who slept beneath makeshift tents of white cotton fabric after long days spent combing the region’s river in search of precious stones. Although many struck it rich, by the end of the 19th century most of the big rocks had been found. Over the next 100 years, the former boomtown was abandoned, and its population shrank significantly. Lençóis’s fortunes only revived in 1985; with the creation of the Chapada Diamantina National Park, it quickly became a cultural and touristic hub. Despite its size and relative isolation, Lençóis possesses a surprisingly cosmopolitan flavor due to the collection of nature lovers, adventure-sports enthusiasts, New Age groupies, and Chapada-holics who linger and loiter in its cobblestoned streets.
Tourism has been a catalyst for the still-ongoing renovation of Lençóis’s 19th-century homes and civic buildings, which number over 200. Among the most splendid traces of its former grandeur are the Igreja Nossa Senhora do Rosário, the wealthy home of the Sá family, which later became the Prefeitura (city hall), and the Subconsulado Francês, the former French consulate building. Capela de Santa Luzia (Morro Alto da Tomba, tel. 75/3425-4853, 8 a.m.–noon and 2–5 p.m. Mon.–Sat., 9 a.m.–1 p.m. Sun.) is an innocuous little chapel whose interior became a minor work of contemporary art when internationally renowned São Paulo graffiti artist, Stephan Doitschinoff, decorated the walls with vivid frescos of saints (look for other “interventions” by the artist around town).
The two biggest events in Lençóis take place in the winter. Throughout most of mid–late June, the town gets into the swing of things with the typically northeastern Festas Juninas, the feverish high point of which is the Festa de São João on June 23–24. Expect lots of corn-based delicacies, homemade fruit liqueurs, smoking bonfires, processions, and forró music. In August, the town resembles a latter-day Woodstock when it hosts the Festival de Inverno de Lençóis, a musical festival that lures some of the biggest names in Brazilian popular music.
Lençóis is close to many of the Chapada Diamantina’s most popular draws. One great walk is to follow the Rio Lençóis. After 15 minutes you’ll find yourself at the Poço Serrano, a series of freshwater pools where you can dip your toes or entire body and enjoy a panoramic view of the town. Another 15 minutes brings you to the Salão de Areias Coloridas, an area with caves carpeted in multicolored sands sought after by local artists who layer them in bottles and sell them to tourists. Hire a local youth as a guide (your hotel can reserve one for you) to take you to these attractions and to the nearby Cachoeirinha and Cachoeira da Primavera, two small waterfalls where you can swim.
Heading out of town to the southwest (follow the signs), a marked 4-kilometer (2.5-mile) trail leads to the Escorregadeira, a natural rock waterslide that sends you careening down into swimming pools (wear shorts to avoid scraping the skin off your bottom). If you keep going (with a guide, since access is tricky), the trail gets more difficult and involves serious rock climbing. After 8 kilometers (5 miles), however, you’ll reach the impressive Cachoeira do Sossego waterfall, with rock ledges from which you can dive into a deep pool. Another challenging 5-kilometer (3-mile) trek (guide recommended) north from Lençóis brings you to the fantastic Gruta do Lapão, considered to be the largest sandstone cave in South America.
Having a car or being part of an organized excursion is necessary to discover some of the more far-flung and dramatic natural highlights of the Chapada. The Poço do Diabo (Devil’s Well), 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) from Lençóis, consists of a series of swimming pools crowned by a majestic 25-meter (82-foot) waterfall. Only 30 kilometers (19 miles) away is Morro do Pai Inácio, a 300-meter-high (980-foot-high) mesa formation that is truly striking. From its cacti-covered summit, you are treated to amazing 360-degree views of the countryside. According to local legend, Inácio was a fugitive slave who scaled the great rock in search of refuge. When cornered by his pursuers, he jumped from the top. Miraculously, he was saved from a fatal fall by the umbrella he opened in midflight. If you can, make the trip in the late afternoon—the sunset viewed from the top is a sight to behold.
Near the town of Iraquara, 80 kilometers (50 miles) from Lençóis, are a number of caverns, including Gruta da Torrinha (Estrada da Bandeira Km 64, 1–2-hour guided tour R$20 pp), Gruta Azul (Estrada da Bandeira Km 75, R$10 pp), Lapa Doce (Estrada da Bandeira Km 68, 45-minute guided tour R$14 pp), and Gruta da Pratinha (Estrada da Bandeira Km 75, R$10 pp), all clustered fairly close together. Torrinha and Lapa Doce boast a stunning collection of stalactites and stalagmites. The Gruta Azul (Blue Cavern) more than lives up to its name: When lit up directly by the sun (2:30–3:30 p.m. daily Apr.–Sept.), its waters turn to an unearthly azure. At adjacent Gruta da Pratinha, you can rent gear and flashlights and go snorkeling (R$15) in an underwater lagoon in the company of 24 varieties of fish.
Smaller and less touristy than Lençóis, Mucugê (named after a native fruit that’s used to make a knockout local liqueur) is another pretty colonial diamond-mining town with its share of nearby natural attractions.
Aside from pretty 19th-century buildings such as the Prefeitura (city hall) and the Igreja de Santa Isabel, Mucugê possesses the extremely unusual Cimitério Bizantino. Built in 1855, following an outbreak of cholera, the Byzantine style of the snow-white gravestones and monuments of this windswept hillside cemetery is explained by the presence of Turkish diamond traders who lived here. The ensemble is particularly haunting when illuminated at night.
Situated in the heart of the Chapada, Mucugê is at close proximity to numerous natural attractions. Only 5 kilometers (3 miles) away is the Parque Municipal do Mucugê (access via BA-142 toward Andaraí, tel. 75/3338-2156, 8:30 a.m.–6 p.m. daily, R$3), a research and cultivation center that doubles as a wildlife reserve. One of the park’s main activities is the Projeto Sempre-Viva. The sempre-viva (“forever alive”) is a delicate local f lower that became a cash cow for locals after the gold rush. Threatened with extinction, commercialization of this delicate blossom was prohibited in 1985; you’ll see many growing in the park along with a Museu Vivo do Garimpo, which traces the history of diamond mining in the region. Within the park, short and easy trails lead to the waterfalls of Piabinhas, Tiburtino, and Andorinhas (the furthest away at one hour), all with natural pools for bathing. Also within 15 kilometers (9 miles) of Mucugê are more waterfalls—Cardoso, Córrego de Pedra (which only flows during the rainy season), Sibéria, and Martinha—all worthy of whiling away a few hours.
Festivals and Events
Mucugê is reputed for its vibrant Festa de São João (June 23–24) festivities, which include smoky bonfires in the streets, neighbors serving homemade fruit liqueurs from their homes, lots of forró music, and dancing from dusk till dawn. Book accommodations in advance, and bundle up, since the longest night of the year can get chilly.
Between Lençóis and Mucugê, pastel-hued Andaraí is scruffier and more dilapidated than the other two diamond towns, but it is surrounded by its share of fantastic natural sights and is the easiest way to get to Igatu, a formerly grandiose diamond mining town now reduced to a tiny but terribly charming mountain village, only 5 kilometers (3 miles) away.
Sights and Recreation
Andaraí is a great point of departure for many of the Chapada Diamantina’s star attractions. On the eastern edge of the Sincorá mountain chain, it is perfectly situated for those who want to go trekking through the Vale do Paty. It is also less than 10 kilometers (6 miles) from Marimbus, a swamp-like ecosystem created by the Rio Santo Antônio, brimming with exotic birds and wildlife such as anteaters, pacas, and giant sucuri snakes that measure up to 10 meters (33 feet). The best way to get around the area is by hiring a guide with a canoe and then gliding through the waters adorned with oversized Victoria amazonica lily pads and giant water ferns. A few kilometers outside of town is the Cachoeira de Ramalho, a medium-to-difficult trek along an ancient miners trail, surrounded by natural pools. Farther afield (20 kilometers/12.5 miles) is the Cachoeira do Roncador, featuring pools sculpted out of rose quartz, reached after an easy hike. Those with a penchant for the color blue should visit Poço Encantado. When illuminated by sunlight (11 a.m.–noon daily Apr.–Aug.), this subterranean lake, 40 kilometers (25 miles) from Andaraí, lives up to its name; the intense cobalt hue of its waters are truly “enchanting.” The added advantage of Poço Azul (R$5)—whose waters turn dazzling blue when hit by the sun’s rays (1:30–2:30 p.m. daily Apr.–Aug.)—is that you can swim or snorkel (R$10) in it. Before you take the plunge, make sure to reserve a delicious home-cooked meal prepared by Dona Alice (tel. 75/8163-8292), whose home lies at the entrance to the property. Poço Azul is around 90 kilometers (56 miles) From Andaraí.
During the height of its 19th-century diamond rush, thriving Igatu had a population of 3,000. These days it’s a small village of 350 where Flintstones-like stone houses alternate with pretty pastel villas, all of which are surrounded by the lush fruit and vegetable gardens that supply much of the local produce. As for the splendor of its past, it has been reduced to a bewitchingly haunted area of ruined stone mansions overgrown with mango trees and wild orchids, where, from time to time, an uncovered shard of fine European porcelain evokes the grandeur that was Igatu in its heyday.
Amid Igatu’s ruins, the Galeria Arte & Memória (Rua Luís dos Santos, tel. 75/3335-2510, 9 a.m.–6 p.m. daily) exhibits found objects and equipment used by the diamond miners as well as contemporary artwork by regional artists inside a beautiful space, built on the ruins of a stone house and surrounded by a garden that shelters local flora, contemporary sculptures, and an enticing café where you can linger over crepes and cappuccino. For more insight into the town’s diamond legacy, tour the nearby Mina Brejo-Verruga (7 a.m.–5 p.m. daily, R$3), the biggest mine in the region, where, helmeted and armed with a flashlight, you can snake your way through a hand-dug tunnel stretching 400 meters (1,300 feet) into the side of a mountain. In the main chamber, 20 clay markers, each with a candle, pays homage to the miners who died here. The return to daylight will be a shock, which you can alleviate with a swim in the Poço do Brejo. Back in town, visit Ponto do Amarildo (Rua Sete de Setembro, tel. 75/3335-7017, 9 a.m.–5 p.m. daily), an eccentric emporium that local character Amarildo dos Santos has created in the living room of his house. The shelves are crammed with everything from homemade doces and licores to odd bits of local memorabilia and Amarildo’s own hand-painted books recounting tales of Igatu.
Hugging the northwest edge of the Parque Nactional da Chapada Diamantina, Caeté-Açu (commonly refered to merely as Capão after the valley in which it sits) is a tranquil village plunged into the midst of nature that in recent years has attracted a mellow expat community of New Agers, esoterics, artists, hippies, and gringos who live in harmony with the spectacular surroundings. Aside from its bucolic air, it’s a starting point for treks to some of the park’s most impressive natural attractions, including the Cachoeira da Fumaça.
Sights and Recreation
One of the indisputable highlights of the Chapada, the Cachoeira da Fumaça is a waterfall so high that most of its water evaporates to mist before hitting the ground (hence its name, “Smoke Waterfall”). Looking down on the cascading water from above involves a long but scenic 6-kilometer (3.7-mile) hike from Capão. Getting right beneath it is even more arduous, involving a three-day trek (with a guide, supplies, and camping gear) through the breathtakingly beautiful Vale do Capão. An easier outing is to Poço Angélica, a natural pool surrounded by lush vegetation that’s only a 15-minute walk from Vila do Bomba, a village 8 kilometers (5 miles) from Capão (whose narrow road can be difficult to navigate). Closer to town is the Cachoeira do Rio Preto, a small cascade with a pool, located 4 kilometers (1.5 miles) from the center of town.
Excerpted from the Third Edition of Moon Brazil.