Tucked away in Bahia state, Brazil's Chapada Diamantina National Park is a true hidden gem – and home of one of the best day walks in the world
A hush fell as we approached the cliff edge. One minute we were chattering about our wonderful walk; the next we topped the escarpment – and fell silent with awe.
Below us stretched the Patí Valley, one of the most beautiful in Brazil: tabletop mountains stretching as far as the eye could see and skeins of swirling mist adding to the ethereal, otherworldly scene.
Chapada Diamantina (‘diamond plateau’) is a rugged land of flat-topped mesa mountains, waterfalls, caves and canyons. It was the centre of Brazil’s diamond industry in the 19th century, but has been a national park – the size of the Masai Mara – since 1985. Today outsiders are drawn here by its unspoiled natural wonders. Like that view.
“This is the adventure capital of Brazil,” Roy Funch, former director of Chapada Diamantina National Park, had stated when I met him. “The mountains are scenic but very accessible. It’s fantastic for trekking and climbing.”
An American, Roy fell in love with this little-known area in Brazil’s Bahia state in the late 1970s. “Walking the hills one day it hit be that if this was the USA or Europe, it would be a national park. So I made it my mission.”
I was exploring the region with a small group, guided by charismatic Tiago, a dreadlocked Rasta. “Smile – you’re in Bahia,” he drawled on meeting us in the pretty colonial town of Lençóis. “Say it slow... By-eeeee-a. That’s why people think we’re lazy!”
Bahia, in eastern Brazil, is known for its beautiful beaches, African-influenced culture, martial-art dance capoeira and vibrant music, including samba. But, here, several hours by road from Salvador, was a Bahia I didn’t know at all.
Just outside Chapada Diamantina’s north-eastern edge, Lençóis is the park’s main gateway and travellers’ centre. Its name means ‘white sheets’, reputedly from its origins as a mining town in the mid-19th century, when it was little more than a collection of makeshift tents. The handsome market building in the square once traded diamonds and slaves. Today, you’re more likely to find a handful of food and handicraft stalls inside its cool interior.
It is hard to believe that, in its heyday, around 20,000 people would have thronged the streets of the little town. However, Lençóis is now having a bit of renaissance thanks to tourism; there are plenty of restaurants and cafés to choose from, and several adventure companies offering enticing trips to the caves and lakes that fringe the park, as well as explorations of the park itself.
One of the most distinctive of the tabletop mountains is the landmark of Pai Inácio, famous for its incredible views of the area and a traditional first evening must-visit. When I was told we’d be going to the top for sunset I had visions of a long, tough climb, but actually you can park part-way up. At the summit a fierce breeze was blowing – all part of the fun for some daring souls, who stood near the edge and let themselves be held by the wind.
Meanwhile Tiago talked us through the legend of the mountain: it was named after a slave who fell in love with his master’s wife. Want to know what happened? You’ll have to visit Pai Inácio to hear for yourself… But whether the tales are true or not, the views of the surrounding escarpments and valleys sent a shiver down my spine.
Back in town we celebrated the scenery in a bar with some caipirinhas (passionfruit flavour, recommended to help us jetlagged folk sleep, so purely medicinal – honest!) while watching Brazil’s famed footballers beat Argentina. The little town was relatively busy with Brazilians; it was a public holiday, so Salvadoreans in particular had come to the area for some R&R.
The next day we headed off early to Gruta Azul e Pratinha – a cave system and lake – before those hordes descended. “Brazilians are not averse to crowds,” Roy Funch had warned me.
It didn’t look too impressive at first: a pretty enough blue-green lake with a small zip-wire skimming over it, a picnic area and pony-rides available nearby. So I was surprised to be offered a mask and snorkel. We swam into the dark waters of a cave: there was little to see – just one or two blind fish – but it was an experience nevertheless.
Then we turned to an exit that led out into the lake, and the monochrome world transformed into one of rainbow brilliance. The water was startlingly clear but thick with fish of all sizes and colours. It was like swimming in an aquarium and, for a few brief minutes, one of the most extraordinary experiences I’ve had.
Back out on the roads that ring the park, it was a different world again; a tough land of semi-arid sertão, Brazilian backcountry, dotted with cacti. In the dry season the hardy plant is used to feed the cattle – and even the humans. Indeed, prickly pear cactus was served in several of my meals – and jolly tasty it was, too.
As we travelled, we passed local football pitches in every settlement. As Tiago explained: “The three things that every village has is a football pitch, a church and a bar!”
But I spotted another regular feature: several mini ‘race tracks’ alongside the road. “It’s to practise a horse game called argolinha,” said Tiago. “It’s very popular. Maybe we’ll be lucky and see it played.”
One afternoon as we drove along we spotted a small funfair and a bunch of stalls alongside a road junction, although there were few people around. Country and pop music was blasting from a sound system, and several vaqueiros (cowboys) were making their way on horseback along the roadside, away from the fair.
“It’s a vaquejada! A cowboy party!” said Tiago. “Let’s take a look.”
We parked and followed the riders down to a recreation ground, where a couple of hundred people were watching a corrida de argolinha.
Some were on foot; some hung around on horseback. The odd macho type would put in a short gallop, or encourage their horse to prance, stirring up the dusty ground. There were a few girls riding, too, while others perched behind their boyfriends, their stiletto heels and makeup quite a contrast to the rough-and- ready horsemen.
The vaqueiros raced, two or three at a time, trying to spear a ring with a pole in their hands. The game was taken extremely seriously, and disputes with the ‘referee’ were as passionate as any in the World Cup.
A commentary was provided by a cowboy standing on a makeshift stage atop a truck. Upon spotting us, he announced our presence and made us welcome. The crowd was friendly but more interested in the action on the pitch than in us. “They’ll party into the night,” said Tiago as he dragged me, reluctantly, away.
The fringes of the park are interesting – we’d snorkelled again in a cave, in waters of incredible sapphire-blue. But to really appreciate the Chapada you have to get into its heart – and on foot. Sadly I hadn’t time for the four- to six-day Patí Valley trek, on which the few locals not removed when the national park was created have opened their homes to hikers.
Instead we spent a night in the lovely Capão Valley, a bit of a hub for folk of all nationalities who live alternative lifestyles, and the next day tackled a 15km walk to the village of Guiné. I’d been promised that it was Brazil’s best one-day walk but the overcast morning, with low clouds hanging heavily in the sky, wasn’t auspicious.
After a few stretches to warm up, we took a steep path to high-altitude pastures, where cattle once grazed and coffee was grown. Now the original vegetation has returned, and it was hard to imagine it being any different. It was beautiful, but it was the solitude that struck me most. The only other people we saw all day were a small group hiking in the opposite direction; they were as disappointed as us to have their isolation interrupted, so we tactfully ignored each other as we passed.
A sharp trail up a rock-strewn path known as Bumbreaker Hill took us to another high plateau and a view of tabletop mountains. We took a well-deserved rest at a viewpoint overlooking the stunning Patí Valley, often lauded as one of the most beautiful spots in Brazil. The grandeur of the scenery had already put us all in a contemplative mood, so we readily agreed with Tiago’s suggestion to “just sit, close your eyes and meditate for a moment”.
On our way again, we crossed the pretty Rio Preto using stepping stones; its fast-flowing waters were icily cold. The sun had finally made an appearance and we longed to while away some time by the river, reluctant for the walk to finish. “This is probably the best trek I’ve ever done,” ventured a companion, and I had to concur: it was up there with the world’s best one-day walks.
Within an hour we reached Beco Mountain, and what was known as ‘the alleyway’ – rock steps leading down to Guiné, and to some well-deserved beers.
However, our day wasn’t over yet. Following our walk we drove for over an hour to the atmospheric village of Igatu, a former mining town on the edge of the park. “This is our ‘Igatu Picchu’,” joked Tiago as we took a quick look at the crumbling ruins of long-abandoned stone houses, vultures circling overhead and parakeets chattering in the trees. At its peak in the 19th century, around 10,000 people lived and mined here; 15 years ago the population was down to 150.
We’d been joined on the trek by an extra guide, Sassi. On the walk he’d entertained us with his capoeira moves. Now he told us of his grandfather, aged 81, who had been a miner. The tops of the mountains would be mined first for the diamonds, but over time shafts would be dug into the hillsides. In Igatu they even mined under some of the houses.
In the 1990s mining stopped completely and became illegal, but some old-timers still pan for diamonds in the traditional way.
Today Igatu is a charming little spot, trying to rebuild itself through low-impact ecotourism. There are plans for an open-air museum, and the road in is to be upgraded. There’s a little tourist information office, a café and a couple of places to stay, and it was with relief and a glow of accomplishment that we checked into the town’s simple pousada.
We were all on a high after an inspirational day. We ate, we drank; we laughed, sang and danced. And all the while my mind kept flitting back to a moment of perfect peace, overlooking a perfect view while on a perfect walk.
The author flew with TAM Airlines and travelled with Pure Brasil