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.
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.