3rd August 1999: Salvador to Lencois (Day 13 overall overall)
It was still early when the coach left Brazil’s coastal town of Salvador and headed inland towards Lencois – the gateway for the Chapada Diamantina National Park. We had wanted to explore this region since it was supposed to be quite beautiful – a high plateau heavily sculpted by the rains to leave valleys, caves, rivers and rocky escarpments.
It didn’t look far on the map but it is easy to forget both the vast scale of Brazil and its pitiful road infrastructure. I slept through most of the ~300 miles and 6 hours of scrub land outside the window until we reached the borders of the park. Here the scenery became more interesting as it became more mountainous and there were more plants and trees.
Lencois itself was a beautiful little village with a river running through the middle as it was set in a large, shallow valley. We met an American guy who was helping to run one of the Pousada’s and we agreed to stay there for a few days. Pousada dos Duendes seemed a friendly enough place and we had a small outhouse all to ourselves. The bar was run by an Austrian couple called Uwe and Regina who had a baby boy called Aurel. They were both really sweet and we got on with them very well. There were a few other travellers in the bar who chatted about the area and shared some travel stories.
In the evening, we took a walk with Charlotte and Celia, who were two other English guests, to find a nearby water pool. It took a while to find the path but once we did, the walk took about an hour to get to the pool. The water was very brown but not dirty – it was more a peat bog colour. Apparently, there is a lot of iron in the hills which gives the water this dark brown colour. Above the pool, a stream ran over a long, flat stretch of rock which provided a great slide! Mark, Jono and I took the opportunity to slide down forwards, backwards and in every way possible until we managed to convince the girls to have a go! It was great fun but did end up a bit painful from various knocks and scrapes!
We were still mucking around when we noticed it was beginning to get dark quite quickly, so we decided to start heading back. We had a couple of little torches but didn’t need them since we could see enough from the light of the stars. There was no other source of light as far as we could see (Lencois being in the next valley) and the night sky was quite beautiful. The cloudy thickness of the Milky Way was clear and occasional shooting stars added to the magic.
For the first time since reaching South America, I was really feeling like we were beginning to enjoy ourselves. An American jogger was using the same path and we chatted briefly. He said he had been living in Lencois for 20 years and wasn’t surprised as this was a lovely place to be.
That evening, we wanted to find a pizza place for dinner. After much searching, since most of the places were closed, we found a little upstairs cafe run by a young man which looked good enough. We were right since the pizzas were huge and delicious which was perfect since we’d hardly eaten anything since yesterday. Our bedroom was filled with my pet hate – mosquitoes – and these filled me with terror but at least some large mozzie nets were already set up. Mark and I shared a double futon which was surprisingly comfortable, and we quickly went to sleep.
4th August 1999: Pousada dos Duendes, Lencois (Day 14 overall overall)
Somehow, mozzies still managed to find their way through the netting and I had several bites. Oh well, the sooner they start biting, the quicker my body can get used to it. Uwe and Aurel said that would show us the way to the Sossego waterfall. A guide would have cost about 5 reals per person, wouldn’t be able to speak English and anyway it was much more fun going with the two of them, their baby son and Charlotte and Celia came along too. Uwe had a great sense of humour and we together we all enjoyed a very pleasant walk along a river.
There were beautiful views and we enjoyed scrambling over the rocks as we followed a river back up along its course. Occasionally, we had to get our feet wet, but the stunning scenery of the gorge made it all worthwhile.
At the end was a large waterfall into a deep Above the waterfall, was a cascade of smaller falls stretching as far as we could see up the high cliff. We swam in the pool and could make our way under the waterfall to a cavernous space behind. The high rocky walls of the gorge provided a great perch to jump from into the pool which was deep enough to not be able to touch the bottom! After a couple of hours of enjoying the waterfall, we dried off in the sun and on the warm rocks.
Once again, it was dark by the time we made it home and tonight we enjoyed a dinner in hotel. For 6 reals, we had a tasty Brazilian meal with the company of other traveller guests. There were several Germans who of course spoke very good English and the evening was relaxed and sociable with all the chat about traveling adventures.
5th August 1999: Pousada dos Duendes, Lencois (Day 15 overall overall)
Yesterday, we had booked to be on a driving tour to see some local sites. We arranged with a tour agent called Cutour which was one of only three places in town. They were all much the same in terms of options and pricing and with Cutour, I’d managed to negotiate the price from R20 to R15 pp.
The breakfast at the Pousada was a wonderful feast – cheese oregano rolls, banana doughnuts, marble cake, fresh juice, coffee and lots of interesting bits and pieces. It kept coming as long as you ate it so we stocked up our bellies for lunch.
The minibus arrived at 8:30 and there were ten passengers in total. The other six were a mixture of Germans and Swiss all from our Pousada. We all piled in and the little bus pulled away. The driver didn’t speak any English but one of the Germans spoke Portuguese and ended up being a translator for the rest of our group.
However, the bus had only been driving a few kilometres before it stopped, and we all got out at a rather tacky looking roadside restaurant. I had sudden doubts about the trip wondering if this was a ruse to get us to buy something from his mate’s restaurant but instead, we walked through the shack to an exit in the back and out onto the rocks behind. We scrambled over the rocks and down to a river which wasn’t particularly special but had a pretty waterfall which I’d recognised from one of the tour agent’s photos. The guide led us further up the river for about a kilometre to a place called the Devil’s Well. It was another waterfall and a waterhole and all of us immediately stripped off and jumped in for a swim. We tried to climb up the rocks beside the waterfall, but we’d only get so far before the power of the water washed us back into the pool each time.
After drying off in the sun and then headed back to the bus for the next item on the agenda. This was a short drive away where we could get great views of the surrounding countryside. The remains of the high plateau appeared as huge table shaped mountains standing like stone sentinels over the valleys between them. It is difficult to think they are natural and with the day having become quite overcast, it was an impressive sight.
The next stop was long drive away and it was a large limestone cave. It was very big – about 20-30 meters in diameter in the main section and we were able to walk for about a kilometre all the way though the cave to the other side. There was only one route through, yet we still had to pay a ‘cave guide’ R2 to show us the way but at least he pointed out a few of the rock structures as well as the many stalagmites and tites. On the walls, strange patterns were formed by the different colours of clay and minerals that seeped out. At one point somewhere in the middle, we turned off the torches and sat in complete darkness. Outside the cave, we saw large ten-inch lizards doing their press-up like dance on the rocks as well as several small rabbit and pig like creatures.
The guide had told us to leave everything in the bus so by the time we got back, we were very thirsty. As we walked past a house, an old man climbed out of his chair and started crawling towards us asking for money. We ignored him as we do with all the many beggars, but he was a stark reminder in this beautiful country of the extreme poverty. The guide took us into a little shelter which had a few slices of fruit laid out for purchase. It was tempting but we declined knowing the prices were a thirsty-tourist rip off. Sipping from our own water bottles back in the bus, we drove on to another set of caves.
The first cave had a deep pool of water which was so extremely clear water that the fish seemed to appear as if they were hovering in mid-air. The water had a rich blue colour which was a result of magnesium in the rocks. I had a packet of nuts on me, so I fed the fish who went made for every crumb! I wondered if they had been put in the pool by someone since it was hard to see how otherwise they could have got there. There was the option to hire some snorkelling gear from a nearby shop and I thought this might be interesting to explore the waterway further into the cave. In the water, the hundreds of little fish swarmed around me giving little nips which tickled. We had waterproof flashlights and swam quite deep into the cave. When we turned the lights off, we were swimming in the pitch black with deep water below and the low jagged ceiling of the cave within touching distance just above. It was an interesting experience but there wasn’t much to actually see except for the rocks of the cave falling away to the sandy bottom of the water pool. Apart from the fish we did get excited to find a small bat clinging to part of the roof but otherwise, we just mucked around trying to dive down to reach the bottom.
The final excursion of the tour was to see the sunset from the top of one of the rocky sentinels. There was a path leading about 200m to a slightly raise spot and a man was asking us for R5 to use it. All the group declined his offer and instead watched the sunset from the side of the road which was almost exactly the same. Unfortunately, it was pretty cloudy so there wasn’t much to see anyway.
All in all, the tour was interesting, but I think I preferred just the freedom to explore ourselves and we all shared that this was something we’d try and do more of in the future. It was late by the time we got back to the Pousada and we opted for the group meal again. Tonight, it was a tasty beef stew but I wasn’t so sure about the Manioc root served on the side.
Charlotte and Celia were leaving early in the morning, so we said goodbye before all retiring to. We were sorry to see them leave for they were good company and our few days with them had given us a fresh confidence in our trip. For the first two weeks before Lencois, we had been feeling very unconfident in what we were doing, feeling very out of our depth and not really enjoying it as much as we had expected. But listening to many similar travel stories from them (they had been travelling for four months so far) made us feel a lot better about everything!
Over dinner, Uwe and Regina made us promise to STOP saying thank you to their Brazilian cooks. It seemed a very odd request and not easy for us Brits to stop doing instinctively. They explained that they have had problems with the cooks not doing their jobs on the occasions when they just don’t feel like it. Apparently, if you say ‘thank you’ then the cooks would feel that they were obviously doing more than is required and therefore have less inclination to do the same next time. We chatted with them both about the cultural differences and the problems they have had to handle whilst managing the Pousada. Uwe said the staff steal stuff all the time and then make up lies even it is obviously a lie. They would often find local people sleeping in the bedrooms (without paying) and then leaving with their bags stuffed with everything they could take from the room. Uwe went on to say he’d once stopped a little girl in the process of stealing who then attacked him with a knife; and stopped another boy trying to steal a gas cylinder who ended up pissing on him! The local authorities never do or can’t do anything because they don’t have the facilities to hold anyone and they can hardly fine them. Uwe said you just have to lock everything up and play the staff at their own game. When cooks mope around complaining of being over worked (Uwe pays them double the normal rate) – Uwe said he would just make silly faces at them! It was all very different from what we were used to, and we would have to ensure we didn’t judge anyone or anything by the norms of what we might be used to at home.
6th August 1999: Pousada dos Duendes, Lencois (Day 16 overall overall)
The girls had left by the time we surfaced and after breakfast, Uwe suggested we take a walk to a nearby cave – apparently one of the biggest in South America. We walked across rocky hill tops for 2 hours until we came across some diamond hunters working in a small quarry. Diamond mining is supposed to be illegal in the national park, but they were quite friendly and showed us how they did it as well as a small diamond they had recently found. It was roughly spherical and about half a centimetre in diameter. It was smooth and covered in what looked like black glass. It looked dirty, but the minder thought he might get the equivalent of about £1,200 for it. Uwe seemed to disagree. However much it was worth, this was apparently the only thing they had found in three months of mining. The small river ran brown from the mud they were stirring up but otherwise the mining didn’t look too disruptive. Apparently, there are lots of them around but police don’t try to do anything about it.
We moved on through the green country until suddenly we came upon a large hole leading steeply down and into a cave. We had our torches and proceeded carefully since it was rocky, and the roof of the cave was only about 5 feet. The entrance was wide and low with lots of crevices and passages running deeper into the hillside. Uwe said he hadn’t been in a long time but thought he would recognise the right tunnel when he saw it which finally he did, and we climbed inside.
As we walked deep into the cave, he shared that two months back, 38 men had been lost for several days in this very set of caves which was not reassuring. We had been walking and climbing for about 2 hours when the cave opened up into a large chamber. Mark and I found a small side tunnel just wide enough to fit through with sufficient twisting and wriggling. 30 meters along this passage it opened up into room sized chamber. I had been keeping a lookout for quartz and was exploring the room, but Mark put a stop to that by pissing up the wall, the smell forcing us to vacate much faster then we’d arrived!
In another section, I found another small passage at the bottom of a deep crack. I called the others over and we climbed down and followed it a long way. The passage was small and narrow with a thick covering of dust but at the end was a small cavern with a mountain stream running through the middle. The stream was fast flowing, but we could only follow it a few yards before it disappeared into a crack in the wall. In our little cavern, the light from our torches reflected off several patches of quartz crystals. They were perfectly transparent and grew in small towers which I thought looked like miniature models of Canary Wharf tower with their pyramid shaped tops.
Back up in the main section of the cave, we carried on for another hour. Colonies of bats clung to the ceiling in groups of ~50 to 100 in one area. They were easy to find by looking at the huge amounts of bat shit which covered the floor beneath the colonies!
Finally, up ahead we saw daylight. The exit of the cave was huge – like a massive concert hall looking out over miles and miles of countryside for we were quite high up. Huge rocks littered our path as they had fallen from the roof. Parts of the roof, like upward crevasses, had given way to show daylight and through one, we saw a small group of people rappelling the 100 feet or so down to where we stood. I recognised one girl – Rosana – who we’d first met in Salvador who said had checked into the same Pousada as us just this morning. Jono and I climbed up the edge of the cave mouth and looked down the crevasse from above. As Uwe wasn’t really sure which way to head home, we just followed Rosana’s group.
The trail was rocky and followed a stream which had emerged from the hillside – perhaps the same one as from our ‘crystal cavern’. It headed down the hill and into a forest for several kilometres. We came out a while later with a good view of Lencois close to where we had started – a great day’s trek!
The little bus station sold us some tickets for tomorrow night back to Salvador. We had thought it would be good to try and limit our travelling to night times as much as possible to save accommodation fees and not waste the days. There was plenty more we would have loved to do in the park including some of the longer walks with overnight camping required. But we weren’t equipped to do that and there is plenty more we are now looking forward to on out journey ahead.
7th August 1999: Lencois (Day 17 overall overall)
Our bus wasn’t until 11:30pm so we still had a whole day left to explore. By now we had become good friends with Uwe and today we headed out for a favourite walk of his beside a river.
Everywhere Uwe went, he son Aurel came with him. Aurel seemed to love watching everything from his perch on Uwe’s back. He hardly ever cried – even yesterday throughout the darkness of the caves. Uwe was also very sure-footed and even when climbing tricky routes – had never slipped or fallen.
The walk took us along the main part of the river. The rocks were pink and green with many little holes and streams where children were playing whilst their mothers did the washing. Most children didn’t attend school even during the week but as today was a Saturday – it was busier than normal. We carried on further upstream. It wasn’t really a proper path, but it was more fun just hopping between the rocks. Surprised giant grasshoppers would launch into the air, unfurling red wings and emitting a low-pitched chattering. We stopped occasionally to enjoy the sun but otherwise kept heading up the valley at a leisurely pace.
The boulders began to get bigger and we had to climb between or under them. Sometimes, the hole or crevice we were navigating became impassable and we’d need to back track to find a different route. At some points, we had to squeeze through holes pushing our rucksacks, and Aurel out ahead of us! We came upon a waterfall and stripped down to our trunks and stood under it. The power of the refreshing water felt like a massage on my back. A low overhang nearby provided Mark and I with a game of free climbing before we carried on up to yet another waterfall. Here, the chute of the water flow was carved into the rock and it was possible to lie in the stream – braced against the rocks letting the water rush over you and fall away beneath.
Finally, the walk ended up on top of a plateau where we could see all around the valley of Lencois before we finally made our way back down to the river via a circular route. By the time we reached the river again, we were hot and sticky and so finished the day in the rock water-slide where bumped into Rosana again and another girl Lucy. It was busy at the water hole with many locals enjoying themselves and it was fun watching them all muck around. One Brazilian guy even managed to go down the water-slide standing up which was very funny!
That evening, we were all very tired and getting ready to leave. Even Regina was leaving since she was heading back to Austria for a week. After dinner, we said our goodbyes and headed off to the bus station. It was a full bus and for most of the journey I had some strange bloke standing next to me and leaning fully on my chair. His shirt tails kept falling on my face as I slept, waking me up. There wasn’t much I could really do, and my tiredness quickly sent me back to sleep each time. The bus stopped at several stations along the way, but I slept through them all.
I felt that we were once again alone – having to face Brazil without the comfort of English speakers. However, we felt so much more confident from our time in Lencois and the people we had met, and we were looking forward to the next adventure.