Eddie Edmundson, then Director of the British Council, Recife, introduces the breathtaking Chapada Diamantina in north-east Brazil.
Carlos said yes. Which took my daughter Olivia by surprise. Carlos the guide said yes, we could leave tomorrow on a four day 70 km trek to the Pati valley.
We had just arrived by bus at Lençóis in the State of Bahia; the most popular hub for exploring the Chapada Diamantina (‘Diamond Plateau’) National Park. Lençóis is 410 kms west of Salvador. The Park covers an area of around 38,000 square kilometres, with the deeply incised plateau lying at an average height of 800 to 1000 metres above sea level.
In a belated effort to get fit for the following day, Olivia and I walked 4 kms to the Riberão do Meio where there is a natural toboggan run - a polished stone surface constantly watered by the river, and long enough and sufficiently inclined to make the slide down tremendously exhilarating. The Riberão River is a good introduction to the natural delights of the Chapada. There are waterfalls and pools tinted in the tea-coloured water characteristic of many of the streams in the park; the coloration results from the leaching of vegetable tannins and organic acids from the soils. There are naturally occurring jacuzzis bored out of the sedimentary rock in the river bed with the action of pebbles and (believe it or not) diamonds over thousands of years. The best jacuzzis, however, are just outside the town of Lençóis in the bed of the River Lençóis at a place known locally as the Serrano.
Day two and a 25 km trek from Lençóis to the valley of the Capão. Like most paths in the Park, the trail follows a well-trodden garimpeiros’ (prospectors) mule-track - the only communication between the countless settlements in the heyday of diamond prospecting. The track is easy to follow, but a guide is essential, mainly because the whole region is criss-crossed by paths, and it’s useful to know where to take shelter in a cave when a sudden downpour comes on.
Diamond prospecting on an industrial scale was banned recently - which is good news for the ecology - but in the river beds you do occasionally meet prospectors still panning and still hoping. Carlos told me that recently a trekker found a diamond by chance, and earned $8,000 when he arrived in Lençóis. The entire region, at least where there was sufficient water, has been turned upside down several times in the search for the precious stone. Starting in 1844, the Diamond Fever attracted many thousands of prospectors, and made many of them very rich, but the chances of making a fortune died away at the turn of the century.
We spent the night at a simple pousada (boarding house) in the Capão Valley. This valley is home to several alternative lifestyles - some hippie, some ex-hippie. One pousada has considerately provided two-metre high benches - the better for seeing UFO’s hovering over the hill tops.
Then a three-day hike out of the Capão valley and into the valley of the river Pati. Once a prosperous agricultural region which supplied prospectors with vegetables and fruit, later a coffee growing valley, the Pati is now practically deserted. The first night we slept at the ‘Gaucho’s cave’, under a rock long used by travellers as shelter for the night - a popular alternative is an abandoned chapel known as the ‘Ruina’. The second night we spent at the ‘Casa da Prefeitura’, - an abandoned school building. The haul out of the Pati valley towards the town of Andarai is demanding, but the spectacular views from the path traversing high to surmount the precipitous valley wall make it really worthwhile.
The rest of our holiday alternated between walks and car tours. One of the walks took us to the Lapão, the largest quartzite cave known in Brazil and just a few kilometres outside Lençóis. A guide is absolutely essential for the scramble through the kilometre long cave. This cave is unusual for the region, since all the others (and there are hundreds) are limestone, with stalactites and stalagmites.
The largest limestone cave open to the public is the Lapa Doce which is an easy amble for a kilometre through an immense cavern. Another cave, and surely one of the wonders of the world, is called the ‘Enchanted Cave’. The water in the cave is naturally blue, and so transparent that the rocks and tree trunks more than 50 metres below are perfectly visible. A gap in the mountain wall lets in sunlight; and between April and September there is a shaft of sunlight around mid-day that is refracted down to the bed of the lake - this literally takes your breath away. Swimming is forbidden in this mountain lake, but nearby there is another blue lagoon embedded into the mountain called the ‘Poço Azul’ (‘Blue Lake’) where you can swim. The effect of looking down from the lake’s surface through the absolutely clear water and feeling that there is no visible support to your body is an incredible experience.
Another popular trip in the region is to the Fumaça Falls; Brazil’s highest waterfall at nearly 400 metres. It takes courage to peep over the edge and look perpendicularly down onto the collecting lake below. I once did the three-day walk from Lençóis which brings you out, suddenly from the forest, at that very lake, and this hike is recommended for the adventurous and the hardy.
Lençóis is always a pleasant place to return to after trekking. Tourism is growing, but the town remains generally unspoilt, and there is as yet a gentle fusion between tourism and the local community. The town is perfectly safe and unthreatening. There are more than 50 registered guides in Lençóis, one of whom is English. There is every type of accommodation available, from a new five star hotel, through simple boarding houses, to camping sites, and excellent, but unpretentious, restaurants. However, the saving grace of the park is that visitors just have to put on boots, carry rucksacks, rough it in caves in the hills - this is the best way of seeing the region.