Monday, November 25, 2013

Ecotourism in Chapada Diamantina National Park

There are 67 national parks in Brazil. Luiz and I have been to just 7 of them.

The smallest (and most visited) park at about 39 square kilometers (km²) is Tijuca National Park, located entirely within the city borders of Rio de Janeiro. Residents of and visitors to Rio: don’t listen to the scary stories about robberies people banter about to discourage you. It is a great place to hike and it is right in our back yard.

The largest (and currently not open to the public) is Tumucumaque National Park in the Amazon, coming in at nearly 40,000 km² (larger than Belgium). This park covers a huge area of interest to nature lovers. It is supposed to be a testing ground for how to allow the public to visit a sensitive natural area for tremendous enjoyment without tremendous destruction. Scientists and naturalists have been tasked with creating a model plan in this regard. So far I can find no info about a pending grand opening.

Chapada Diamantina National Park, where we just visited, is located in Bahia state in the northeast of Brazil and is among the somewhat larger parks at 1,500 km². The park, created in the 1980s in response to the ever-expanding demand for ecotourism, is named for the steep cliffs that fall off from elevated plateaus throughout the region as well as for the wealth of diamonds discovered in the area during the mid 1800s.

The place is gorgeous as well as diverse. There are rivers and waterfalls, mountains, canyons and plateaus, as well as numerous cave systems. The relatively mild temperatures as well as its long dry season make it a perfect place to go for a hike most of the year.

We traveled with our friends at RJ Adventura. Junior, Margarida and Christiane head up a passionate, friendly and professional ecotourism agency that we trust. On this occasion they were leading two versions of a visit to Capada Diamantina. Half of our group would be heading off into the mountains and onto the plateaus while the other half would stick to the more easily accessed rivers, waterfalls and caves. Luiz and I were eager to do some swimming in the waterfalls and caves.

Everyone met at the airport in Salvador where we boarded a large, comfortable passenger van pulling an equipment trailer. The drive to Lençóis, our jumping off point to adventures beyond, took a lengthy six hours, but we traveled during the evening and night so much of that time was spent sleeping. Once at our destination we settled into the pousada that would be home for the next several days, caught a few more hours of sleep, and then awoke to an early breakfast. Bellies full, our group broke into its two sub-groups and we set off.

At a rest stop on our way to Lençóis. You know the hot sauce is hot when it is called, essentially, "Burn the Butt Hole."

This is pretty much a photo-dense post. Why chat about the view when you can just see it?

The town of Lençóis is the most popular town in the park serving as a jumping off point. It is stocked with pousadas, guide agencies, restaurants and supplies stores. It is an old town established originally to serve diamond prospectors in the mid 1800s. The buildings are historic in nature and generally architecturally interesting and charming. Luiz was quick to point out upon our arrival that the beautiful stone paved streets, central plaza and arched stone bridges came into being by the hands/blood of slaves. It's an important reminder. Nearly all of the beautiful colonial towns you visit in Brazil were built with slave labor.

On our first full day in the park, heading out to Poço Azul (Blue Well), I commented to the driver that it was a good sign that the road was so whack. That way fewer people would be headed this way. He laughed and assured me that this was a recently improved road and that it was used daily by tour buses.

While the houses in the area were quite modest there was apparently a government program providing improved cisterns and water collection. Note the white drum on the left of the house above and the new rain gutters rimming the roof.

At one point along the road, thinking we had been traveling for just too long to be going in the right direction, the driver asked a boy walking along the side of the road if the cave was ahead. The boy said it was "a little long distance" up the road. After a good 15 more minutes we finally arrived at the cave.

Descending into the cave for a swim.
Using snorkels we could see amazing rock formations under the surface.
After a tasty lunch of local foods, including a green papaya salad and some kind of cactus side dish that tasted like crunchy green beans, we headed off to another cave famous for its blue water pool, Poço Encantado.

Between April and September the sun in the sky lines up just right with the entrance to the cave to shine directly into the deep pool within. The light, shining through the water rich with magnesium, sets the cave aglow from the brilliant blue water. As we would have it - we were visiting in November. We saw a really cool cave, but had to rely on photos to see the choice images.

The sign reminds us to take care to preserve things as they are for the benefit of all.
Our guides Christiane and Margo. The pool behind them is 40 meters deep.
After Poço Encantado we returned to town for a cup of coffee and then to visit the local cemetery famous for its Byzantine style and for being lit up at night. 

Photo credit:
The town where you can find this cemetery is Mucugê. I loved this town. I thought it was way cuter than Lençóis. But to be fair, Mucugê is smaller than Lençóis and thus less developed for the tourist crowd. Both towns are wonderfully preserved historic towns with stone paved streets and 100 year old buildings. But for the cuteness factor - I liked Mucugê.

We had coffee at a SUPER CUTE coffee shop. They took themselves VERY seriously on the coffee front. Each coffee drink was served with a tiny cup of mineral water to cleanse your tongue before tasting the coffee. The ambiance was over the moon cute with fresh flowers, art, photographs and everything else. If you visit Mucugê  be sure to stop by Piriquita Café.

On the wall of the café Luiz found proof of global warming.

The next day we set off for another cave and another swim. But first we stopped at a waterfall swimming hole, Poço do Diablo. It was a short hike from the roadway.

Luiz found a shortcut down the cliff to the swimming hole.
ZIP! Splash.
Luiz MUST enter all waterfalls.
On to Gruta Pratinha. There we broke into groups and were outfitted with a flotation vest, mask and snorkel, and an underwater flashlight. A guide took us into a cave where the water was quite deep below us, but the ceiling of the cave was only a couple feet or so above the surface of the water. It was pitch black, but as a group we could light up the walls of the cave and some features below the water.

After the dark area of the cave we shed our equipment and took some photos in the mouth of the cave where there was much more light. Overall it was an amazing experience.


Once back in Lençóis we showered, napped and then went to dinner to celebrate our guide Junior's 38th birthday. He knew we were going to dinner, but was surprised to see the decorating we did and the delicious passion fruit birthday cake.

The birthday boy is in the center.

Oh, I almost forgot. We also climbed to the top of a plateau to get a glimpse of a sunset.

After the sunset we turned around and saw a full moon rising!
Finally, the next day, after a good long sleep, we walked to a very fun swimming hole near Lençóis.

Halfway to the waterfall there was a snack bar made of locally sourced building materials. The proprietors were selling fruit, chips, nuts, sodas, coconut water, regular water and beer. The guys had the perfect location to catch all the traffic. It was a great example of Brazilian make-it-work ingenuity. 

This swimming hole was great because you could slide down the waterfall and splash into the pool below. It was a little bumpy on the butt, but you had to do it all the same. It was a great way to relax away most of our last day before setting off to Salvador much later that evening.

I need to give a shout out to some of the other folks in our group whose photos which we all shared on Face Book  found their way over into this post. For the most part, the really good shots are by either Adilson Rezende or Renato Oliveira. Thanks guys, for helping us capture how beautiful this trip was.

It is worth mentioning as well that this post references the waterfalls and caves group while there was another group that took to the longer, overnight trails with spectacular views. Some of those photos are at the top of this post.

Luiz and I really want to appreciate everyone at RJ Adventura for their passion for nature, commitment to safety, love of people as well as the outdoors, and their totally professional operation that never misses a beat. I have mentioned them before. We have gone with them on day trips in Rio, weekend trips around Rio and Luiz even walked through the clouds from Teresopolis to Petropolis in their company. They are great. We feel totally at home with Junior, Christiane and Margarida. We truly share their enthusiasm and values when it comes to ecotourism and our time under their leadership is never disappointing. Check them out at their Face Book page. (Margarita speaks English very well so English-only guests do not miss out on any information.) If you connect with them - tell them Luiz and Jim sent you.

Here's Luiz waking up above the clouds on the RJ Adventura trek from Teresopolis to Petropolis.

More to come. I'll save photos and tales of our time in Salvador right after this part of our trip for another post. Stay tuned.