Getting Off the Beaten Track in Brazil's Park Country
Sandy beaches. Samba. Hot sea breezes. The typical image of Brazil tends to span lazy afternoons on Copacabana beach, overshadowed by the widespread arms of Christ the Redeemer, and not a whole lot else. But venture just a few hours inland from Salvador to the sleepy town of Lencois, and a whole new side to this extraordinary country begins to emerge.
Baked red earth dotted with cactus and tall, whispering grasses. Huge rocky outcrops, startlingly ochre against a searingly blue sky. Caverns and crevasses, the surprising glimmer of a waterfall pouring through the trees, gut churning drops from lofty viewpoints into hot, empty space.
The landscape of Chapada Diamantina National Park is breathtaking in all ways imaginable, from the simple fact of its jaw dropping beauty to the heavy Brazilian heat which wraps itself warmly about your shoulders as you walk. There are not many destinations where the raw, untempered spirit of a place is so abundantly present, and that in itself makes it a must visit for anyone looking to get under Brazil’s skin.
Visiting the Park
The best way to visit Chapada Diamantina is by basing yourself in the nearby town of Lencois, which can be reached by bus or flight from Salvador. This is a sweet town and a perfectly pleasant place to spend a day or two before venturing to the park itself. Cafés, restaurants and the odd adventure clothing store line the main square and provide much of the (somewhat limited) entertainment on offer. There are also some impressive, if crumbling, buildings serving as a reminder of the diamond mining which led to much of the settlement here and which gave the national park its name.
Day trips to specific waterfalls are particularly popular, with a variety of options catering for those who want to hike and those who would rather just admire the landscape. It is possible to swim in most of the waterfalls, although it’s always important to check how much rainfall there has been recently for safety reasons. Similarly, the waterfalls are far less impressive during the dry season, which may influence your choice of tour.
Perhaps one of the standout day trips available is to the Enchanted Pool. Reachable by a short ladder climb into a cavern, the water in this natural swimming hole shines an otherworldly blue as the sunlight strikes it.
The Three Day Hike
Getting deep into the heart of Chapada Diamantina National Park requires more than just a day trip. The most popular multi day excursion is a three day hike into the Pati Valley, a vast canyon which carves its way majestically through the centre of the park. It’s possible to pay more for a private tour, which is ideal if you prefer to move at your own pace, like to stop often to take photographs or simply value a little seclusion!
From wide, open plains to looming rock faces, secluded waterfalls to gloomy caves, this hike has something special around every corner. The heat may be unforgiving, but with crystal clear pools dotting the route there are plenty of opportunities to get in the water and cool off. Filling up your bottle straight from the streams, coloured red by tannins from the tree roots, is certainly an experience you won't forget.
Spending two nights in a home stay keeps you right in the heart of the park. Look forward to waking up early and peering out to the sight of towering cliffs framed by a washed out blue. At this time of morning the air is still light and cool, making it a real pleasure to sit and soak up your surroundings. The communities which live in the park are only allowed to grow food for their own consumption, which has protected the landscape as well as the indigenous flora and fauna. Watch out for hummingbirds flitting busily about and make sure to shake out your boots for creepy crawlies!
Most would agree that the highlight of the trek is a stunning lookout suspended high over the Pati Valley. More adventurous souls can edge their way out onto a ledge overhanging nothingness for a photo opportunity to remember. Regardless, this view certainly makes the hard work worth it.
A reasonable level of fitness is necessary to enjoy this hike and being adequately prepared for the heat is a must. The good news is that all you need to carry are your personal belongings; water, a change of clothes, swimming costume, bug spray and sunscreen being the must brings. Accommodation is provided in comfortable home stays along the route and food is carried in on pack mules, so the weight of your bag is really up to you.
Where to Eat
To avoid the pizza and fast food joints in the main square, turn off onto Rua da Baderna and look for Cozinha Aberta Slow Food. They serve incredible homemade gnocchi as well as a range of more traditional dishes. Hands down the best restaurant in Lencois, you may find yourself coming back here more than once.
Where to Stay
The variation of accommodation in Lencois is fairly limited, but we have hand-selected the best of the bunch. Here are our favourites:
Alcino Guesthouse is a friendly boutique property with tons of character and a truly homely atmosphere. Guests are treated with buckets of hospitality during their stay and most never forget the incredibly delicious breakfasts they are served! Tucked away above the Lencois river yet only 10 minutes’ walk from the bus station, this colonial-style inn is a wonderful reminder of the wealth of the town’s diamond mining years.
Hotel Canto das Aguas
This delightful and centrally located hotel does a brilliant job of showcasing the surrounding beauty and tranquillity of the Chapada Diamantina National Park. Its large grounds feature a swimming pool, waterfall feature, outdoor reading rooms, a popular restaurant, massage room, sauna and games room. Rooms at Canto das Aguas are individually decorated with a mix of rustic and modern style, featuring recycled wooden materials and modern works of art.
Pousada Vila Serrano
A firm favourite with Latin Routes, this charming pousada is a magical oasis away from the hustle and bustle of Lencois town with great views that can make this a wonderfully romantic setting. We recommend sipping on a nice cold cocktail in their private garden, where local monkeys often make an appearance. No room is decorated in the same way, though each one features air-conditioning and a private veranda with hammock.
When to Go
The end of the rainy season, around March, is a good option to combine (mostly) good weather with enough water to make sure you see the waterfalls. Hiking will still be enjoyable in the dry season, though again, there may be fewer watering holes to cool off in. To see the waterfalls at their most powerful and spectacular, it's necessary to visit in rainy season.