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.