23 May 2016
From bright lights to starry nights, discover the hidden gems of northern Brazil, writes Tatyana Leonov.
I’ve always wanted to go to Brazil – the home of soccer, Carnival and the Olympics this year. The South American hotspot is the life of the party. If every country in the world was invited to the party, Brazil would be the last one on the dance floor at 6am.
There’s a lot more to Brazil. Sure, the revelry is there if you want it, but there are also magnificent vistas that leave you gobsmacked, huge showering waterfalls bouncing over cliffs so tall you can’t see the top, azure blue waterholes buried in mysterious caves, rock-strewn hiking trails that weave their way through woodlands that Adam and Eve would be jealous of... and that’s just Chapada Diamantina National Park, one of the stops on our two-week exploration of Northern Brazil with Intrepid.
The tour is designed to take in Brazil’s best bits, which the rest of the world hasn’t quite discovered yet. A mix of nature (Chapada Diamantina National Park in the state of Bahia and beach nirvana Jericoacoara in the state of Ceará) and charming cities (the tour starts in Rio de Janeiro and stops in Salvador, Lençóis and Fortaleza), it’s the perfect Northern Brazil sampler that demonstrates just how diverse a holiday here can be.
I meet my fellow travellers in Afro- Brazilian Salvador and the first thing I notice is how colourful the colonial homes are. In the old centre the zigzagging cobblestone lanes are lined with brightly coloured terrace houses – indigo blues, emerald greens, canary yellows and candy pinks. There are no pastels here, but pastels and Brazil don’t really mix.
Trying hard to memorise each other’s names, our motley group of eight roam the picturesque alleyways, stopping frequently to snap pictures, window shop, and simply watch life go by. Almost every street leads to a square with a beautiful old Catholic church, and come nightfall these squares turn into gathering places.
We find one that’s a hive of activity and join the locals watching two fit men rehearse an energetic capoeira routine – a captivating experience and one that’s synonymous with Brazil. The spectators clap their hands in time with the drummers, who beat their bongos harder and faster as the sweat-drenched performers execute the most artful dance- and-fight fusion I’ve ever seen.
The next day (after a six-hour bus journey) we find ourselves in Lençóis, a sleepy town with a completely different vibe. It’s our base for exploring ravishing Chapada Diamantina National Park and we easily get into the chilled-out Lençóis groove, chatting to the locals over beans and rice, lounging around in hammocks thoughtfully set up outside our hotel rooms, and walking a little slower in general.
Our Intrepid guide Pedro has to really amp up the pace on our first bushwalk. Lençóis is for lingering, but Chapada Diamantina is for adventures and Pedro wants to show us as much as he can.
We trek our way through lush grasslands and wild plains, stop to study iron-rich, red-tinged rock formations, and float in dazzling blue lagoons – so blue photos don’t do them justice. The bluest of them all is Gruta Azul (Blue Cave). The waterhole in this half-concealed grotto transforms into an incredibly blue brilliance for just one hour each day, when the afternoon sun hits the magnesium-rich water at a certain angle. Pedro times our visit well and we spend the whole hour here admiring this unique phenomenon.
Although the water is not as stupendously blue here, Jericoacoara is my trip (and quite possibly life) highlight. This slice of heaven, located on the very northern tip of Brazil, is one of those places you hope will remain undiscovered for as long as possible.
Over the last few decades it has popped up on travellers’ radars, and Jeri, as it’s affectionately known, is no longer a tiny sleeping fishing village visited by very few.
That said, it hasn’t undergone extreme change and that’s a big part of the attraction. The only way to reach Jericoacoara from any other land point is through the sand dunes in a 4WD; the roads are still made of sand tracks, and streetlights still don’t exist. But you can get Wi-Fi on your phone, eat pretty much whatever you want (I probably overdid the acai bowls, convincing myself triple breakfasts are okay because acai is good for you), windsurf (Jeri is a mecca for windsports) or simply enjoy doing absolutely nothing at all.
Pedro raves that Lagoa do Paraíso (Paradise Lagoon) is the place for a dose of blissful nothing. The lagoon is a large freshwater lake where – wait for it – you can lounge in a hammock that’s partially submerged in the calm water.
Pedro and our crew hop back in the 4WD and in just 20 minutes we are transported to paradise. We sprawl ourselves out in the hammocks, sip fresh coconut juice straight out of the coconut, and do nothing for a long time. Life has never felt so good.
We eventually pull ourselves away to get to Por do Sol (Sunset Dune) back in Jeri in time for sunset – we’ve been told it’s epic. It is! An escalating series of pinks, yellows and oranges take over the sky; horse-riders gallop along the beach; the rolling waves and chalky sand merge in the distance. I want to tell the world about this faraway paradise... but I also really don’t want to tell the world and share this secret. Either way, I’m already planning to come back and I hope that Jeri stays exactly the same.