Into the Interior: Chapada Diamantina

Contrary to what any map might tell you, the state of Bahia is made up of two parts: the city of Salvador and the “Interior”.  After asking countless cab drivers, college friends, and professors about the origin of their birthplace, I have learned that if you are not from the city of Salvador, then you are from the other “half” of Bahia–the interior.  It doesn’t matter if it’s thirty minutes or three hours from Salvador, everything outside the bustling bounds of Salvador’s metropolis is classified as the “interior”.  If you press for details, then you will hear the names of little towns called “Senhor do Bonfim”, “Santo António de Jesus”, and “Euclides da Cunha” (also the name of a street by my house).  But as most people start and finish their pre-city existence with the one-word answer “interior”, my interest was piqued to discover what really composed the rest of Brazil’s fifth largest state, comparable in size to the country of Kenya.  Thanks to CIEE, my “intercambio” program here, I spent a weekend in Chapada Diamantina, six hours into the interior of Bahia.

“Chapada” refers to the steep cliffs that edge the multitude of plateaus whose wild beauty is what make’s the park’s topography so stunning.  “Diamantina” tells the story of the discovery of diamonds in the hills during the mid-nineteenth century, and the mining legacy that followed.  Created in 1985, I got to meet the man who helped the area receive national park status, which sparked the ecotourism that completely transformed the sleepy town of Lençois, and continues to drive their economy today.  While their fathers were burning down trees and burrowing caves into the cliff-sides in search of diamonds, young men and women learned to care for and protect the creation in the park, becoming guides for hiking to the waterfalls, snorkling in the natural pools, and climbing down into forgotten caves filled with stalactites and stalagmites.  As visitors oooh-ed and ahhh-ed at the breathtaking nature, the chests of locals puffed out a little more, and they walked a little taller down their dirt roads, as they began to see new treasures in the hills surrounding their old town.

Lençois was like stepping back in time, with narrow dirt roads that wound down the hills to the cluster of painted houses in the heart of the little town.  Apart from signs for internet cafes peeking out of doorways, you could catch glimpses of the mining era, a century-and-a-half ago.  Locals claim that there is never any crime, and even at eleven o’clock at night, little children were still darting between the candle-lit tables of late-night diners in the streets.

Unfortunately, I couldn't see much of the interior on the way, as we had to travel at night for safety reasons due to much traffic on the roads during the day

Unfortunately, I couldn’t see much of the interior on the way, as we had to travel at night for safety reasons due to much traffic on the roads during the day

Arriving in Lençois at sunrise

Arriving in Lençois at sunrise

Lençois

Lençois

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Exploring the town

Hiking to Riberão do Meio, a natural rockslide and pool

Hiking to Riberão do Meio, a natural rockslide and pool

I went down the slide twice--it was so fast!

I went down the slide twice–it was so fast!

The water was full of iron and very orange

The water was full of iron and very orange

Squeezing juice out of sugar cane.  The juice was literally sugar in a cup.

Squeezing juice out of sugar cane. The juice was literally sugar in a cup.

Hens and chicks (for Dad)

Hens and chicks (for Dad)

Red dirt

Red dirt

The galera at Rio Mucugezinho

The galera at Rio Mucugezinho

More iron water

More iron water

Poço do Diabo

Poço do Diabo

The cachoiera (waterfall) at Poço do Diabo.  I had fun watching people land in the water at the end of the zip line.

The cachoiera (waterfall) at Poço do Diabo. I had fun watching people land in the water at the end of the zip line.

A cahoiera

A cahoiera

A pretty blue libélula

A pretty blue libélula

The middle child standing exactly in the middle of Bahia!

The middle child standing exactly in the middle of Bahia!

cheesing

cheesing

About to hike Morro do Pai Inácio

About to hike Morro do Pai Inácio

Climbing Morro do Pai Inácio

Climbing Morro do Pai Inácio

The galera reppin Brasil on top of Morro do Pai Inácio

The galera reppin Brasil on top of Morro do Pai Inácio

Views from top of Morro do Pai Inácio

Views from top of Morro do Pai Inácio

More views

More views

Being still

Being still

Gruta Azul: The water in this cave is actually clear, but appears turquoise when the light hits it during a narrow sliver of the afternoon, reacting with the calcium in the sand

Gruta Azul: The water in this cave is actually clear, but appears turquoise when the light hits it during a narrow sliver of the afternoon, reacting with the calcium in the sand

Some vacas

Some vacas

The mouth of the cave "Gruta da Fumaça"

The mouth of the cave “Gruta da Fumaça”

The cave was huge, filled with stalactites and stalagmites

The cave was huge, filled with stalactites and stalagmites

The cieling

The cieling

I think the funniest part was hearing the guide pronounce "stalacteechees" and "stalagmeechees" in Portuguese

I think the funniest part was hearing the guide pronounce “stalacteechees” and “stalagmeechees” in Portuguese

Formations

Formations

Lydia, the cave dweller

Lydia, the cave dweller

Four brave adventurers in a jeep, ready to hike to Cachoeira da Fumaça!

Four brave adventurers in a jeep, ready to hike to Cachoeira da Fumaça!

View of the valley and the town we hiked from

View of the valley and the town we hiked from

Views from the hike

Views from the hike

The canyon of Cahoiera da Fumaça

The canyon of Cahoiera da Fumaça

You can't see me trembling, but the guide's hand on my ankle was all the security I had

You can’t see me trembling, but the guide’s hand on my ankle was all the security I had

Cachoiera da Fumaça, the highest waterfall in Brasil

Cachoiera da Fumaça, the highest waterfall in Brasil

Overlooking the canyon

Overlooking the canyon

A little lagarto that I found

A little lagarto that I found

The waterfall is so high up, that the water evaporates on the way down the canyon

The waterfall is so high up, that the water evaporates on the way down the canyon

Views on the way back down

Views on the way back down

The rocky plateaus that give Chapada its name

The rocky plateaus that give Chapada its name

After surviving the 6-hour hike, where we literally bounded like mountain goats up the rocks of a dry riverbed, we went to a natural pool to cool down.

After surviving the 6-hour hike, where we literally bounded like mountain goats up the rocks of a dry riverbed, we went to a natural pool to cool down.

The coldest pool in which I've ever swam, high in the mountains of Brasil

The coldest pool in which I’ve ever swam, high in the mountains of Brasil

Showering in the waterfall

Showering in the waterfall

This place was my favorite from the whole trip

This place was my favorite from the whole trip

Infinity pool...

Infinity pool…

Chapada Diamantina completely changed my concept of Brasil’s topography, with was previously composed entirely of stereotypical images of beaches and rainforest.  These rocky mountainsides, lonely plateaus, and the dry landscape (think Arizona in the tropics) interspersed with glorious waterfalls splashing into natural pools forever opened up my mind to the vast diversity that is Brasil.  Now I am back living in the salt-water, sea-side city of Salvador, but I definitely want to return one day to the agua doce (fresh water) pools and waterfalls that are the true diamonds of Chapada Diamantina.

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