Brazil is a land that will have you gasping for breath every so often. When you make a turn driving and you come across yet another spectacular view. When you stumble into a bar only to discover yet another amazing local band playing all night. When you exit a public toilet, suitably inebriated, late during the carnival and the hoodlum who snuck up on you to rob you from behind gets tasered with a nod and a smile by an undercover police officer. When a man with a bleeding gash in his face is in front of you at the all-night store, pleading in vain to get some condiments as he is short a couple of coins. Or when you pass by too close to a carnival truck, the 2×2 meter speakers robbing your breath with the sheer force of vibrating air, hammering away at a hundred and thirty decibels.
These are by no means isolated examples. They form a pattern, formed by exhilaration and anguish in juxtaposition against the humid, hot air. Rich and poor, lonely and lively, happy and sad coexist in Brazil in a way that is different, and much more poignant, than in Europe.
After our sojourn in the republic of Caraïva, we spent a couple of days in a really cheap hostel near the central boulevard of Itacaré, a popular surfing town on the Bahia coast. As my traveling buddy Victor remarked, these are terrible places to get a nice breakfast, cause most surfers don’t get at it before the afternoon, getting drunk and going to sleep late afterwards, so no shop owners sees sense in opening his store early. On the other hand, this turned out to be a great recipe for jam sessions, so me and Victor adapted to the rhythm of surfing life, seeking out the most amazing jungle beaches during the day and making music during the night.
In this fashion we made our way to the capital, Salvador da Bahia, late on the 15th of February, one day before the advent of carnival. All of Brazil had been building up to the celebrations for weeks, with the excitement and parties reaching a fever pitch on the eve of the fifteenth. As I drove into the old town, looking for a place to park near our Airbnb while navigating the carnival blockades, Victor noticed a man on the sidewalk holding a printed picture of my face. Clever move to find your Airbnb guest! It was his first time renting out the apartment and it showed as there was no filtered water, coffee or even chairs. At least it was cheap and in a good location, meaning the building is on a street where you don’t get robbed immediately.
The next day was one big frenzy of music, dancing and lots of beer. The main boulevard runs for a couple of kilometers along the beach and it is the main route for the huge carnival trucks crawling through the street. They are basically full-size trucks with a full band and dancers on top of them, sporting huge speakers blasting in every direction, slowly passing through the crowd with a hundred meters between them. The music is live and frenetic, as each truck tries to gather revelers in its wake who party and dance along.
Always keep a look out for the military police, who march through the throng in straight line with grim faces. If you are unlucky enough not to see their little parade coming you get whacked out of their path with a baton or an elbow. Alas for the fellow who cannot restrain himself: any provocation is met with beatings and/or arrest. They do not really seem to be on their way to some specific location or managing general safety. I would agree with the analysis of the locals, which is that the military police is mostly comprised of authoritarian assholes who are, in equal measure, motivated by bribes and beating people up.
The next day began with a punishing hangover. Since I kept my first cup of coffee down while Victor’s stomach rejected his I took the first shift driving. For the first time we drove into the vast Brazilian interior, away from the more densely populated coast. As the sun crossed the sky, our surroundings slowly changed from tropical forests to the prairie-like expanses that cover much of the interior: the sertão. This biome offers spectacular views that are most reminiscent of the movie stereotype of Texas or Mexico, but with its own tropical twist. After a good 400 kilometers, we reached the first hills characteristic of the Chapada Diamantina. This rugged hill country (now a natural park) was the scene of a frantic but short-lived diamond rush a century ago, with most towns here showing the telltale signs of economic boom followed by bust. I had heard great things about this area so I was keen to find a suitable multi-day hike.
As we drove into the main town (called Lençóis) it soon became clear that this town mostly draws Brazilian tourists who show little enthusiasm regarding hiking or the natural area. The squares are filled with leisurely dressed families and couples enjoying fancy dinners and gallivanting around town, doing day trips to crowded water holes and scenic spots, so we stood out a little in our hiking clothes. The tour guides welcomed our ambition, eyeing our hiking shoes and European complexion in equal measure. Their tours looked spectacular but paying 300 euros per person just to have a guide tell me some trivia, cook some meals and carry my luggage is really not my thing. Surreptitiously we took a photo of the trail highlights to look up the route ourselves.
Getting up a bit late the next day (turns out they celebrate carnival here as well, and who are we to disagree..), we packed up the tent, bought supplies and started hiking around noon. Maps.me (that faithful enabler of questionable hikes all over the world) indicated the first camp sight was a mere 8km to our south, so although the mercury had risen well past 30, we did not expect a strenuous first day on the trail. We should have known better, of course. During the first steep clamber on the volcanic hillside we never saw the trail at all as we followed its GPS-pegged ghost on my smartphone. It wasn’t until the late afternoon that we spotted the first tentative path through the increasingly thick underbrush, appearing and disappearing at will, almost too faint to be spotted (let alone followed) without an experienced guide. At some point, the trail just vanished at the edge of a bog, with the GPS insisting we should cut straight across. After some deliberation, we grabbed a stick and went ahead through the mire barefoot, testing the ground in front of us to check whether it was safe to stand. Fortunately, we spotted the trail again some fifty meters ahead, which narrowly pre-empted our discussion of whether this is a good idea and maybe we should turn back.
As the terrain became steeper and more wooded, progress slowed down until the setting sun made it clear we would not make it to the first campsite before dusk. We reached the mountain top in the reddish shower of the passing golden hour, with only one kilometer to go to camp, according to the GPS. Disregarding my intuition and all my previous hiking experience, I decided to attempt a last push towards the campsite, as flat ground to pitch a tent was non-existent here. Which failed horribly, of course. Within minutes the path, which was hard to find at best of times, left us fumbling in the dark, often literally, as we stopped every ten meters to reevaluate our progress with flashlights and the GPS. It soon became clear defeat had to be accepted as we had progressed no more than 150 meters in half an hour. We ended up sleeping below an overhanging escarpment just below the top of the mountain, which offered little protection from insects but made up for it with the view.
Day two started at sunrise, and we soon concluded we would never have made it down the previous night as we didn’t even manage to find the path in the daylight. As we clambered down the cliff, pushing through the tough jungle bushes, I found a big machete which had probably been lost by some previous party, which is now looking at me from a bookshelf in my apartment back home. For the next ten hours we hiked, down the cliff, up towards a waterfall where we washed ourselves and filled our water bottles with suspicious looking reddish water (which was just the high iron content, and we purified it with tablets but it still takes some force of will to brave the first sip), following the riverbed jumping from stone to stone, up an impossibly steep hillside and through a mountain meadow. As we walked into the high valley close to where our campsite was supposed to be, ominous clouds starting drifting in, gathering pace and enveloping us as we sped towards our goal. We set up the tent in record time as the drizzle began, and no earlier than we finished the rain started pouring down. At 15:30 we stuffed our gear and ourselves inside, just in time. The downpour continued for a good ten hours, so we had some light food in the tent and caught up on sleep.
The next day turned out to be easier than expected. Around eight in the morning we reached the zenith of this hike: the Cachoeira da Fumaça, the second highest waterfall in Brazil, with a drop of more than 340 meters. As the spray was rather intense, we stopped just long enough to celebrate, and walked towards the nearest town in about two hours. This was an easy trail, as this waterfall is a famous tourist destination, and we passed scores of day trippers on the way down. After a daredevil ride with a local followed by a local bus, we were back in Lençóis, and we celebrated with a big dinner, lots of beer and a last carnival party. I had a great time playing with a local guitarist and singer in the street, drinking beer and playing to the crowd.
Three days later, we arrived back in Rio de Janeiro, after some 24 hours driving back from Bahia. It was amazing seeing much of the country by car, enjoying the great views, the seedy motels, the outrageous products people sell at gas stations and the crazy driving. One gas station had an integrated “lunchroom” which held the Guinness Book of World Records title for the longest time of continuous operation. The staff did look a bit grumpy.
Back in Casa São Conrado, preparations for our concert were in full swing, so we helped setting up the music equipment and making lots of food and cocktails. The concert itself was great. We played with a full local band, combining Brazilian music with some of our own material, often to the amusement of the crowd who often know little music from outside the Americas. We spent the next two days relaxing, doing some shopping and doing a last jungle hike up to a mountain viewpoint. I can’t stress enough how astonishing it is to be in a metropolis, yet on the beach, yet with the option of hiking some beautiful jungle path up a mountain. I have never seen anything like it. The cariocas are a lucky bunch.
We landed in Amsterdam on the first of March with spring in the air, our energy drained but our memories full, and I walked out of the airport wondering where my next journey will take me. Adeus!