Saturday, January 21, 2012

Brazil - Chapada Diamantina - Part 3

On my last full day in Chapada Diamantina, we straight-up went to Oz, brick road and all. At least that’s what it felt like. The road that took us up the mountains wasn’t yellow, but it was cobbled, narrow, and had a storybook quality to it.  Our car bumped up and down its stony path, as it climbed ever higher into drizzly, green mountain peaks.  At the top was the small village of Igatu. Like Oz, Igatu felt exotic and mysterious, especially with the bright pockets of light glittering along the wet stone streets.  And when the rain finally began to let up, the people of Igatu came out of hiding like Munchkins.

It was the rain that took us there in the first place. We had planned on spending the day in the wetlands, taking a boat through grassy swamps. But with the constant heavy downpour threatening to make the whole park into wetlands, we opted for less boating and more driving. Igatu is on the opposite end of Chapada Diamantina, to the south. The drive was relaxing. Dida’s playlist was a mixture of ambient electronica and sultry French singers. Even with the steady swiping of the wipers clouding the windshield, the outside landscape was captivating.  

Along the way we stopped at Poço Encantado (Enchanted Well). This was one of those rare places, the likes of which I’ve seen on television or in travel magazines, but for me always felt like a fantasy-element; as if something so strange and alien couldn’t quite exist in our reality. Seeing it in person is awe-inspiring: a perfectly formed underground lake in a vast cavern, crystal-clear.

The water is so transparent that the first explorers of the cave hadn’t noticed it was there until some rocks slipped onto the surface and it rippled. 120 feet deep, rocks and ancient tree trunks are clearly visible at the bottom. Sunlight spills in from an opening high up the cavern wall and certain times of day it gives the water a deep blue hue.  We sat in the cave a long time, staring at the water. It was dark, and I didn’t get my camera settings the way I wanted, so my photos don’t do it justice. Photos on Google Images get it better, but nothing I’ve seen quite captures it.

It was still raining by the time we reached the top of that crazy brick road and Igatu. The streets were empty. Once a town of thousands, the current population is less than 300. I was taken with the charm of Lençois, but Igatu took charm to a whole new level. Such a fantastic little village. We stopped briefly at Dida’s vacation home there, a studio-sized space seemingly carved into the walls of an alley, with a tiny front room, a kitchen, and a loft for sleeping. We would have spent the night there had we more time. Too bad!

We had lunch at an empty Pousada which was ridiculously bright and cozy. I wanted to spend a week there, just enjoying the place. Instead, we headed to the edge of town and hiked down to the ruins. The mountains of Chapada Diamantina used to be choked full of diamonds and diamond mining was big business before supply was depleted and the whole operation shifted to Africa. In its heyday, Igatu was heavily populated with a thriving community. Now, the old part of the city has fallen into ruins going back more than a century. It looked much older. The stone houses and walls are crumbling away, overgrown with vegetation. It all felt almost Paleolithic. I expected scruffy cavemen to come stumbling out, scratching their bellies. 

A friend of Dida’s runs a gallery and museum in a little villa at the edge of the town cemetery. We stopped there to admire the antiques from the ruins in their glass display cases, browsed the art on display, then relaxed in the café with fruit ice cream. The rain had let up, but the smell of it was still thick. I could have sat there for a long time, but we had to go. The day was waning, and there was a long drive back to Lençois.

We spent the evening in darkness. The rain had somehow damaged the electrical grid, and Lençois lost power.  No one was fazed. I guess it’s a regular occurrence. The main street was teeming with people, faces appearing in the dim candlelight the restaurants set on their outside tables.  The mood was festive. A few restaurants down from ours, a tourist plucked at a guitar, and people sang. The lack of power limited our menu options, but the gas ovens still worked, and so, delicious pizza! Later I fell asleep with a book and a flashlight, waking abruptly at 2 a.m. when the fan in the room started noisily spinning. Power was back.

Dida drove us to the bus station early the next morning and we said our goodbyes. He had been a fantastic guide and if anyone reading this ever makes it to Chapada Diamantina, look the guy up! Despite everything I saw, there was still so many things I wish I could have seen. Leaving Lençois in many ways felt like leaving unfinished business. I need to get back there one day. 

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Brazil - Chapada Diamantina - Part 2

Dida said we were going to spend Sunday morning “walking around town.”
“That sounds nice and low-key,” I thought. It’s a great little town and I wouldn’t mind the break.
“What should we bring?” Sean and I asked.
“Oh you don’t really need to bring anything,” said Dida.
“What about a swimsuit?” I asked, wanting to be prepared for whatever.
“Well of course you’ll need a swimsuit. You always need a swimsuit with you.”

That should have been my first clue not to trust Dida.

What was described to us as “walking around town” turned into an epic hike in the high places above Lençóis. As we passed the hours pulling ourselves up steep, rocky paths, it occurred to me I should not have brought the extra bag containing a towel and change of clothes, dangling and bouncing against my neck, along with the heavy camera backpack. I felt like a pack mule in flimsy sandals.

“So, Dida,” I said as we scaled a boulder. “In what feasible way can this be described as ‘walking around town?’”
“What?” Dida said. “We are walking around town. This is walking around town.”

Oh, Dida.

The thing is, the hike was incredible. Every part of it was filled with striking scenery. Dida brought along two other tourists, both from Spain: a doctor and a short guy whose occupation I forgot. Together we went first to the area just above town, where water flowed across rock shelves, pocked with small pools. Sunbathers and splashing children were spread thick across the scene.

As we climbed higher, we hit green-water pools and cold waterfalls, stopping to swim or admire the views of Lençóis and the jungle valleys below. We hiked and hiked, passing through shade and hot sun, the colors surrounding us a palette or tan, rust orange, and ever-vibrant green. By the time we made it back to town for lunch, my sandals had come apart. I had first bought them on the island of Hainan (China). It was fitting they’d die in another foreign land.

We swam and slid away the afternoon. A mile or so walk from the opposite side of the town, there are more rocky pools, these ones filled with ominous black water that felt like it could suck you down at any moment. The pools are fed by a thin flow of water across an incline of rock; essentially a giant Slip n’ Slide.  And I loved it, despite the bruises I acquired on my tailbone as I found higher and higher spots to launch myself down.

It rained throughout dinner. It rained all night and all the next morning. I watched it as I gently rocked in the balcony hammock, overlooking rooftops and trees.  I read, I watched, I napped. I thought about what I’d be doing if I was 6,000 miles away, back in California.  Nothing like this. 

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Brazil - Chapada Diamantina - Part 1

Lençóis is Portuguese for linen or sheet. The town of Lençóis, tucked up against the huge national park Chapada Diamantina, gets its name from, well, laundry. Okay, it’s a bit more romantic than that. Surrounding the city there’s a series of rocky shelves where water flows and collects in small pools. To this day, people do laundry upon the rocks, and spread colorful clothing out in the sun to dry. It’s a charming scene that adds charm to an already charming town. There is so much charm up in this place.

We got there by bus, Sean and I, about 8 hours of it. Much of the country can be seen this way. The long-distance buses are air-conditioned, with comfortable chairs that allow room for sleeping. There’s a bathroom with a window in it, where you can even watch the miles of green jungle vegetation stretch on and on, occasionally broken up by small towns and cities, all while you do your business.

It was approaching midnight when we finally rolled up into the cobblestone streets of Lençóis.  Our guide, Dida, was waiting there with a sign. He had been recommended by Sean’s art institute and turned out to be a fun, friendly fellow, fluent in French, Portuguese, Spanish, and (most importantly) quite adept in English from the time he spent as an exchange student in Montana. We had booked a Pousada in town (Pousada dos Duendes, or "the Two Gnomes") and decided to stay there despite Dida’s offer to stay at his house. It sounded quaint, Dida's house, up on a hill overlooking the city, but it wasn’t yet hooked up to the electrical grid and, call my crazy, I prefer electricity. As it would turn out, power is a fickle creature in Lençóis, and not always available following anything more intense than, say, a light rain. But our Pousada was comfortable, packed full of other friendly international tourists, and the rooms had hammocks on the balcony. I could see why the internet reviewers were so fond of it.

The next day I was awoken by so many cocks. I thought maybe since we had come in the dead of night I hadn’t noticed that Lençóis contains no actual people but is populated entirely by roosters. And each of those roosters has its own pet rooster who in turn owns several rooster farms, and all of them together are so enraged by the morning sun that they must simultaneously voice their displeasure. It’s that energizing morning punch-in-the-face that gets you ready for an exciting day. It was appropriate.

Dida collected us after breakfast and had planned a strict regimen of amazingness for the day. Chapada Diamantina (translation: Diamond Plateau) is 1,500 kilometers of beautiful landscapes. It is semi-arid, so there are many drier, deserty parts that don’t resemble much of Brazil, but there is also plenty of wetlands and jungle. Lençóis, which acts as a basecamp, subsists largely on ecotourism, and many visitors spend upwards of a month exploring the park. We had 4 days, but we made them count.

We got our feet wet, figuratively and literally, on a hike along a river that first morning. The river, surrounded by rocky canyon walls reminded me a bit of Zion National Park, if you replaced the vegetation and changed the color of the stone. I was in my element. There are few things I love more about America than its national park system. Ken Burns rightly called it “America’s best idea” and I was pleased to learn that Brazil has 67 protected parks of its own.

Mid-hike we came upon a rock cliff where you can take a zip line down into the water, so of course I had to do this. Fun: check. (Note: that's me splashing down in the picture below. Sorry about the guy with the back hair). 

Next up was a cave, where we put on hard hats and listened to the familiar definitions of stalactites and stalagmites and the explanations of thousand-year-old formations. The cave guides were a family that own a small restaurant and garden just outside, where passion fruit and fragrant herbs grow in abundance. Our lunch was served family-style, with a healthy variety of rice, beans, spiced cactus, fried banana, grains, and beets. Everything was delicious.

I took another zip line, later in the afternoon, down into a lake being fed by the water flowing out of another cave.  The water there is turquoise in the sunlight and clear with hundreds of tiny minnows that schooled around my legs each time I waded in. It was hot, but the lake was cool, and floating in it was a delight. We chatted with a few guys from our Pousada, two from Italy and one from Switzerland. We seemed to bump into a lot of our fellow travelers wherever we went, as everyone, regardless of their guide, seemed to end up at the same places on the circuit. Dida knew everyone, and everyone knew him, no matter where we seemed to go. Saw another cave on the way out. This place be cavey. 

Later, we drove through the park to the high, flat cliffs that give Chapada Diamantina the nickname, “Grand Canyon of Brazil.” It was a steep hike to the top, but it was quite a view. Up there, the flora was made up of spiky cactus and other succulents growing right out of the rock. Still, flowers seemed to cover everything. It’s funny how with only a short drive the landscape of the park would change dramatically. It was like visiting several parks in one.

By the time it was dark, we were back in Lençóis.  A couple narrow streets are all that make up the downtown but, due to all the tourism, there’s a large variety of restaurants.  I was surprised how good everything was. Every place we ate at was so ridiculously delicious. Lençóis is pretty much in the middle of nowhere with few permanent residents, but even in the heavily-populated, urban Salvador I never ate half so good. That first evening we tried the town’s one vegetarian restaurant. Okay, Restaurant, how did you make my soy burger taste that amazing? What kind of sorcery is this? Or maybe it was the pleasant exhaustion one feels after a long, active day that somehow enhanced the taste of everything like a magic MSG. Whatever. Food was grub.