Postcards

Boipeba and Lençóis, Brazil

The site of the first landing of the Portuguese in what is now Brazil, the state of Bahia is historically and culturally significant.

But I’m not ready for that yet: time for a break from all the educational travel! Bahia’s also blessed with stunning nature, from the palm-fringed coast (which includes the namesake Baía de Todos os Santos, Bay of All Saints) to the lush, mountainous interior.

Departing from Salvador and wanting to avoid the increasing crowds of the more-famous Morro de São Paulo, I opted to take a six hour ferry-bus-boat journey to Boipeba, a languid, car-less island village on the bay. While a beach vacation in theory sounds relaxing, I’m not exactly the type to sit around and be lazy while travelling, opting to walk the practically never-ending white sand beaches for hours in one direction and hours back… and get a pretty bad all-over sunburn while doing so. I don’t regret it, but maybe I could’ve used a bit more sunscreen.

Away from the small cluster of tourist-oriented restaurants and lodges lining the beaches, Boipeba remains a quiet village, with neighbours leaning out of windows to chat or people-watch, horse-drawn carts of whatever needs delivering, the occasional local riding by. At night, the center plaza comes alive with stalls, music, capoeira, cheap al fresco dining and plenty of Brazil’s famed caipirinhas (lime + sugar + cachaça, a sugarcane liquor), including the Bahian variant mixed with biribiri and served in a cacao fruit — no, it doesn’t taste like chocolate! Fruits in general here are unique to the region, many unknown to the rest of Brazil let alone the world: from the aforementioned biribiri, cajá, siriguela, umbú, graviola, I tried as many juices as I could, all delicious and completely unique, but never did manage to see what the fruits themselves actually looked like! (Well, except for cashew fruit, which remains my favourite!) I was happy to have Rio residents Tiago and Cecilia keep me company in Boipeba, introducing me to the many uniquely regional things drawing them back as repeat Bahia tourists.

While indeed paradise, I was too antsy and sunburnt to stay long on Boipeba, heading west inland to Lençóis. Arriving at 4:45 am from an overnight bus after a full day’s travel, I was grateful to find a place to sleep immediately… only to be woken up at 5 am by fireworks and a marching band right outside the window, in front of the church. Turns out this is happening all week — it’s the yearly festival honouring the patron saint of Lençóis. Festivities commence early to not conflict with the local military base, but do they really have to start off every morning with earsplitting explosions?!

Aside from the rude awakenings, Lençóis retains a peacefully slow pace of life, a beautiful hillside town with a river running through. At night, restaurants bring out the tables and chairs onto the cobblestone streets (at least until 7:30 pm, when they’re all taken back inside for three minutes while the marching band parades straight through), the food always sublime, the cool air refreshing, under a lovely canopy of fluttering flags. But the town isn’t what I’m here for (nor all the other tourists) — it’s the neighbouring national park, Chapada Diamantina.

Full of rivers, waterfalls, caves, canyons, valleys, and mountains, Chapada Diamantina is an outdoorsman’s paradise. While there are plenty of multiday (or week!) hikes in the area, and tours to some far-flung but spectacular locations, I chose to base myself in Lençóis and see what could be done independently as day trips. Grouping up with a bunch of folks from my hostel, we hiked straight from Lençóis to Cachoeira Sossego and Ribeiro do Meio, stopping frequently along the way to admire the hilltop vistas, the narrow pink canyons with giant improbably-lodged rocks, and of course, to swim in any of the sublime swimming holes we came across. The capper? An alcove, swimming hole, and postcard-perfect waterfall.

The next day, joined by Arturo from Spain, we went out of town to Poço do Diabo, another lovely waterfall/swimming hole, before heading up the steep road to Morro do Pai Inácio for yet another postcard-perfect scene, watching the afternoon light change to a perfect sunset over the tabular mountains. We had some lovely company on the way there and back, hitchhiking with friendly Brazilian tourists immediately willing to pick us up, happy to chat, making for probably one of the easiest, most rewarding, and pleasant travel days I’ve ever had.

My third day…was probably the opposite, but an adventure nonetheless. Against my better judgement, I chose to hike alone directly from town to Gruta do Lapão, the second-largest quartzite cave in Brazil, after my hostel’s owner mentioned it being relatively close by, a mere 1.5 km away. While a supposedly easy hike from Lençóis, the trail peters out with contradictory directional indicators on the ground (faintly drawn arrows, stacked rocks) in an open area with no obvious path, and I quickly got lost on my way there, after a 45 minute hike uphill. I settle for a lovely vista before deciding to give up and return to town.

Hiking all the way back down to the beginning of the trail, I ran into a group of 4, led by a local who… “maybe” knew the way? The group persuades me to join them, despite me being quite tired at this point. We hike up the same way I went, but with a couple extra turns and a few minutes of lost way-finding, we manage to find the cave entrance! Great!

Group leader has the bright idea to traverse through the cave to the other side, despite never having done it before. We proceed with our flashlights, and promptly lose sight of the visual indicators. Finding ourselves in a chamber maybe a 10 minute walk from the entrance but knowing our way back, we choose to pause and take in the setting, sitting down, turning off our lights, sitting in silence for several minutes. It’s a stunning sensation, having open eyes but feeling blind, having your eyes adjust to seeing nothing, having your ears ringing deaf with no stimuli but your own beating heart.

Euphoric and satisfied, group leader decides to continue looking for the traverse, circling the chamber, scrambling up and down rocks, eventually finding a hole to squeeze through. Wanting to leave but outnumbered 4-1 and unwilling to exit alone, I reluctantly follow… and we find ourselves in a second chamber. After another 15 minutes of fruitless searching for the way, the rest of group finally also decides to give up and return the way we came.

… Except we couldn’t find it. Well, for awhile anyway, or I wouldn’t be writing this now. We circled for awhile, long enough for the fear of dying to set in, before I lucked out and found an indicator for the way back.

We all exclaimed in relief when we first saw light again. Group leader wanted to hike over the cave and find the other entrance from the outside. I said no, soon leaving the group altogether to return back the way we came.

Arriving back at my hostel 8 hours after I left, I recounted my story to the owner, Alexandre. Despite recommending the hike to me, he had never done it before himself, and had decided to ask a hiking guide friend about it after I left for the day. Turns out there aren’t even many guides amongst the many tourist agencies who know the way around the cave, let alone the way there. But the room we were stuck in had a rather infamous nickname: the chamber of the lost. He was pretty glad to see me again.

Sunburnt and exhausted, I spent my final morning doing the easiest hike I could find to Cachoeirinha, the closest little waterfall to Lençóis, eating my humble pie.

You’d think I’d learn my lessons after all these years of travelling. Maybe this time I will!

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