The Brazil No-one Knows
6 October 2015
Northern Brazil is not yet swarming with tourists and nature still reigns supreme. Tatyana Leonov. discovers a paradise crammed with luscious forests, crystal-clear lagoons and plunging sand dunes that seem to sweep on forever.
Within a minute of taking our seats, peppy waiters make a beeline to the table. First there’s lamb – little medallions of tender meat enticingly lined up along a skewer the length of a man’s arm. Then the prime rib chunks come out, followed by juicy flank steak slabs...and like rookies always do, we all say, “yes please” to it all. As time passes (and bellies are filled), my fellow diners and I take a more tactical approach, choosing specific cuts of meat and ignoring the cassava and rice altogether.
Brazilian churrascarias are characteristically lively eateries where barbequed skewered meats are the star of the show. At the most popular type of churrascaria, waiters weave between tables, offering different types of skewered meats, slicing portions onto plates like Brazilian samurais. Although it’s a meat-eaters mecca, vegetarians usually have a salad bar selection and a side dishes menu (often local delicacies are offered, such as plantain, yucca, black beans, cassava and farofa).
Exploring the best of northern Brazil with Intrepid Travel means investigating the food along with the beautiful natural surrounds. Our itinerary is fairly active and eating, consequently, is a highlight for everyone in the group. We elect to dine at local restaurants where chefs specialise in regional cuisine (the Intrepid Travel Northern Brazil tour includes breakfasts and a couple of lunches, leaving the rest of the meal choices up to us), guided by our leader Pedro’s recommendations. Starting with a churrascaria in Rio de Janiero before heading north is a wonderful way to begin our adventure.
Our first stop is Brazil’s first capital, Salvador. Located in the northeastern state of Bahia, Salvador was founded in the 16th century and is recognised as the happiest place in Brazil. It’s easy to see why when exploring the UNESCO World Heritage Listed old town. Colourful old Portuguese-style terrace houses f lank windy cobblestone streets that twist and turn in a multitude of directions. There’s a sight around every corner – more often than not it’s a square or a church and Pedro tells us the city is home to 365 churches!
The mix of African, Indigenous and Portuguese influence is evident across many of Salvador’s facets – the people, the buildings and, of course, the food. We eat dinner at a restaurant housed in a beautiful historic building before heading back to our rooms to pack for the escapade that awaits.
One of the big attractions of northern Brazil is the wild and untouched landscape. As we make our getaway from the frenzy of city life, the scenery around us quickly changes from urban to natural.
Approximately 410 kilometres west of Salvador, Parque Nacional da Chapada Diamantina (Chapada Diamantina National Park) is one of Brazil’s most fascinating national parks – 1520 square kilomtres of diverse ecosystems – emerald- green rolling valleys, vast wetlands, luscious rainforest, huge cascading waterfalls that carve out natural pools, deep canyons, limestone caves, and near vertical cliffs that punch up out of the canopy like a ladder to the heavens.
We base ourselves in the picturesque village of Lençóis and spend a couple of days experiencing the region by soaking up everything the park has to offer. We hike, swim and rockclimb our way through the jungle, exploring underwater caves, traversing beautiful scrubland, and bathing in almost every waterhole we pass.
My favourite experience is visiting the stupendously bright blue Gruta Azul (Blue Cave). The waterhole is one of the most-visited sites in the region, celebrated for its dreamlike glow noticeable for just an hour each day when the sun’s rays pierce the water surface, creating the surreal effect.
Back on the road we head north to the coastal tip of Brazil. Here lies a dream destination that, until recently, only the in-the-know drifters knew about. Jericoacoara, or ‘Jeri’ as it’s affectionately known, is a pocket of paradise positioned approximately 300 kilometres northwest of Fortaleza in the Brazilian state of Ceará. What makes it even more attractive is how difficult it is to reach this utopia. From Fortaleza (Pinto Martins Airport in Fortaleza is the closest international airport) we take a bus, then for the last hour we swap the bus for 4x4s and attack the undulating sand dunes.
As we navigate the shifting sand in our modern ships of the desert, it’s hard to imagine a town amid the beautiful nothingness. Our driver promises us stunning sunsets, endless caipirinhas, fresh-caught fish served in pineapples, coconut water straight out of the coconut, and even lagoons where people supposedly laze in hammocks partially submerged in turquoise water. It all sounds both absurd and electrifying. Can such a place exist?
Everything the driver promised is accurate and I vow to return. We leave our shoes behind and stroll along the sandy streets barefoot, peeping into surf shops and acai smoothie bars, working out which one to do/eat first. We feast on fish curry served in a fresh pineapple (truth #1), downing caipirinhas as quickly as they are refilled (truth #2). The sunset on our first day is truly stunning (truth #3) – fiery orange and candy-pink rays bouncing between the sand and sea. Pôr do Sol (Sunset) Dune is where most people go for sunset. Here, jovial vendors sell drinks and snacks to travellers who know they’ve found where heaven and earth collide.
The lagoon we visit the following day is my heaven on earth. We travel by 4x4 to Lagoa do Paraiso (Paradise Lagoon), a large freshwater lake located about 30 kilometres from Jericoacoara. Here we find a sparkling lagoon encircled by white sand as fine as talcum powder. There’s a restaurant and bar on site, so we order cassava chips to nibble on and rehydrate ourselves with coconut water (truth #4). Then I join the smartest people, who are chilling out on the hammocks in the water. Truth #5 is the best one of them all.
3 MUST-EAT FOODS IN BRAZIL
1 Churrasco: In the early 1800s, European cowboy immigrants had no way of preserving food, so after slaying a cow they would gather and slow-cook the whole animal over a wood-burning fire. Fast-forward to today and Brazil is chockers with churrascarias, where diners have the bees’ knees of picks when it comes to meat varieties and cuts. Our advice? Wear stretchy pants and skip lunch (most are all-you-can-eat affairs).
2 Feijoada: This Brazilian favourite is considered to be the national dish of Brazil. Black beans stewed with meat (usually beef or pork; although the Brazilians aren’t afraid of offal, so ears, tongues and feet could be part of the mix) and served with a variety of side dishes, such as cassava and rice.
3 Moqueca: In the northern states of Bahia and Ceará, locals prepare plenty of fish dishes (thanks to the abundance of freshwater rivers and the proximity of the sea). Although seafood dishes vary from region to region, the moqueca is probably the most-loved seafood dish. The fish (usually grouper, mahi mahi, salmon or snapper) is stewed with seasonal vegetables, lime, coriander, paprika and coconut milk.