I was the first of our group of six to make it to the precipice overlooking Cachoeira de Fumaca, the highest waterfall in Brazil’s Parque Chapada Diamantina. Carlos beckoned me towards the edge. In three hours we’d developed a good mode of communication: I’d not bother with my broken Spanish, he’d talk a mile a minute in Portugese, and neither of us would understand each other at all. It had worked great while we were hiking. Now I wasn’t so sure.
He beckoned again, then leaned over and grabbed his ankles, then pointed at me. I hesitated; I didn’t know Carlos all that well. He knelt down and mimed looking over the edge, then put his hands on his ankles, then pointed at me.
“Oh, I got it,” I said. I shucked my daypack and crawled on the bare rock, which was hot enough to make my hands hurt. When I got to within a couple of feet of the edge, I flattened to my stomach and started to squirm forward. I curled my hands over the edge and looked down.
Straight down, 1100 feet, nearly a quarter of a mile. To my right, the waterfall spurted out of a slot in the rock, turning to mist on its way down to the tiny blue pond not quite directly below. The sharply cut bluffs of the park spread out in front of me, looking like the backdrop of a strangely green-tinted John Ford movie. There were no peaks, instead an endless series of emerald and gray buttes. I couldn’t see the cliffside below me; the rock on which I lay stuck out too far. The ground seemed so close, as if it was rising towards me, and I felt a strong pair of hands on my feet. I turned my head, and saw that Carlos had locked my ankles to the ground. I could see the tendons in his arms standing out. He grinned, and I turned my head back to the vista. After another minute, I did a pushup and backed away from the end.
“Bueno, si?” said Carlos.
“Muy bien,” I said. We gave each other a thumbs-up. Everyone in our group looked over the side, Carlos providing the anchor for everyone. One of the girls in our little crew, Margot, spoke Portugese; Carlos talked to her for a minute or so, then she turned to us. “Carlos says we should stay up here for a while, experience the place,” she said. “We’ll leave in a little while.”
The six of us fanned out across the top of the butte, joined by a few other travelers and a middle-aged Brazilian couple. The couple beckoned me over, pointing me towards a shaded, mossy overhang, where I ate my lunch of cheese bread, water, and cookies, and took in the view of endless low hills, bluffs, and green peaks. Not the Brazil that everyone sees, but well worth the hike. After an hour or so, the five of us started to walk back. The trail hopped over a limp river and then made its way across the top of the dry butte. The sun was going down, and beat into my face. I pulled my baseball cap as far forward as it could go, fraternity-style, and trudged forward. I was able to track my own footprints in the dust; maybe ten people had come up to the falls that day.
On our way back, we ogled a dusty sunset, took a shortcut on a road so thin it could have been a deer track, and nearly ran over a snake. The road was dark, Carlos was driving with the high beams on, and the rutting of the road jounced the car enough to keep us all awake. Carlos slammed on the brakes, squealed to a stop in a stench of burning pads, and slammed the car backwards.
“Cobra, cobra,” he said.
“Cobra?” I said.
“It’s Portuguese for snake,” said Margot. “I think.”
“So it’s not a cobra?” I said, relieved. The snake was curled in the road, perhaps seven feet long. It wasn’t moving its head, just lying there, twitching.
“Something must have run over it,” said my friend Terry. “I hate snakes.”
Carlos talked, then Margot said. “If this one bites you, you have seven hours. Good thing it’s dead.” The snake moved, slithering towards the shoulder. We all jumped back. Carlos grinned and poked at the snake with his machete. We finally got back in the car, leaving the snake coiled on the warm asphalt. After another hour of driving, Carlos dropped us off at the Hotel Canto das Aguas (Hotel of the Singing Waters) in the tiny town of Lencois.
“Muy bien, obrigado,” I said. He grinned at my thanks and shook my hand, nearly crushing it in his strong brown fingers.
Terry and I were planning to take the bus out at 11:30 that night. The hotel had stored our backpacks and let us shower, use the pool, and hang around for the four hours until departure. We sat on the verandah, sipping small cups of strong coffee, listening to the rustling of the rock-strewn river that divides the town.
“Dude,” he said. “How about staying another night?”
“Okay,” I said, and went up to the counter to arrange it. The hostess laughed at me;it was the second time we’d extended our stay in Lencois. The next day;we swam in an underground lake, saw the sunlight turn cobalt blue as it passed through a natural limestone passage, spent even more time on pothole-strewn roads, and finally left Lencois after four days.
“Not one more?” said our hostess as we left for the night bus.
“No,” I said. “We have to go home now.” She looked sad. We felt the same way.
Lencois is fascinating; a tiny town of cobblestone main streets and dirt roads. You can walk all the way across in about ten minutes. We stayed at the Hotel Canto das Aguas (74 334 1154), a two-minute walk across the river from the main plaza in town. The hotel is perfect. Seriously, perfect. It’s right on the river, with three different verandahs where you can take in the view and listen to the rushing of the water. That, plus a pool table, ping-pong, swimming pool, helpful, friendly staff, and the best breakfast ever, make this one of the greatest values you can find anywhere. Double rooms start at 100 reais, breakfast included. If you’re looking to spend a bit more, try the Portal Lencois at the top of town. Scrimping? Check out the Pousada Dos Duendes (75 334 1229), with a great breakfast, hammocks, and a friendly staff starting at 30 reais per night.
Lencois is a walk-around-and-see-what’s-good type of place. All the hotels serve a serious breakfast, and the main square is dotted with little sandwich shops and juice bars; perfect for lunch on a hot day. There are about fifteen restaurants in town, serving everything from pizza to surprisingly decent Mexican food –ask around for Burritos Y Taquitos if you’re looking for guacamole; the restaurant doesn’t really have an address, but is well worth a little sleuthing.
Lencois is six hours by bus from Salvador, the capital of Bahia state in northeastern Brazil. Varig flies to and from town three times a week, call for the schedule. Busses run to and from Salvador to the city every night at 11:30 pm, and day busses run on odd days. Again, call for the schedule or go to the bus station and take a look; we got three different views from three different people as to what the day bus schedule would actually be.
Hot every month but May, June, and July. Aside from those three, plan for daytime highs in the 90s and lows in the low 80s. In the winter months knock off ten degrees for the high and twenty from the low. Don’t bother with the fleece; you won’t need it.
Several hikes can be done right from town, a few without needing a guide. To get to the national park, either rent a car or arrange a tour with one of the travel agencies in town. Popular options are the hike to the Cachoeira de Fumaca, swimming underground in the Pozo Azul, and a three hour cave hike exploring the massive Lapa Doce cave system, a wonder of stalagmites, stalactites, and elactites (they grow to the side). You can also arrange three-to-five day guided treks with any of the in-town travel agencies. Ask at your hotel; the agencies all offer the same trips, and if one is fully booked another might have space.