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Making nature their infrastructure

Remote, diverse tropical area and its historic past bring tourism to Bahia

At top, Chapada Diamantina (Diamond Highlands) in 1844 was the site of a rush on industrial-grade diamonds that ended by the 1870s; also near Lençóis, the distinctive limestone flat tops of the Serra do Sincorá. At top, Chapada Diamantina (Diamond Highlands) in 1844 was the site of a rush on industrial-grade diamonds that ended by the 1870s; also near Lençóis, the distinctive limestone flat tops of the Serra do Sincorá. (Photos By Calil Neto)
By Colin Barraclough
Globe Correspondent / May 30, 2010

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LENÇÓIS, Brazil — The guided day hike had begun tamely enough. Under sunny skies, our group of a dozen had set out from this picturesque town in the heart of Bahia, a northeastern state. We had climbed gently through gulleys colonized by carnivorous sundew plants, admiring orchids and cacti, marveling along the way at the contrast of a bromeliad’s iridescent pinks and purples against the dark limestone.

Yet there we were, atop an exposed plateau, when the temperature plummeted as storm clouds darkened the sky, and jagged forks of lightning reflected off the fast-flowing waters of Rio Capivara. The rain swept like scythes as our guide indicated a narrow promontory of rock that jutted awkwardly above a 1,380-foot precipice. As wind gusted forcefully from below, I lay flat on the rock slab and wriggled toward its lip.

Just yards to my right, the Capivara’s swollen waters gushed out into the abyss. Far below, powerful winds transformed the cascade into a cloud of spray that gusted like smoke along the cliff face. “That’s the Cachoeira da Fumaça,’’ yelled the guide over the water’s roar. “Isn’t it the best thing you’ve ever seen?’’

The “Smoky Falls’’ is the most distinctive natural wonder of Brazil’s Chapada Diamantina, or Diamond Highlands, a little-known but extensive pocket of lush Atlantic rain forest in central Bahia and one of Brazil’s most rewarding recreational areas. Isolated from the well-populated coast by poor roads and 270 miles of sertão scrub, it is a biodiverse playground for in-the-know hikers, outdoors enthusiasts, and nature lovers.

Today, the Chapada’s principal leisure activity — for locals and visitors alike — is walking. You can spend six months in the Chapada and take a different path every day, the tour guides say. Long-distance trails like the five-day Paty Valley circuit attract ambitious hikers, but I found that an hour’s easy stroll from Lençóis took me past dazzling waterfalls, crystal pools edged with colored sand, and racing rivers running red from tannin. Rainbows and scudding clouds kept the sky in a state of constant transformation.

Each afternoon, townspeople wander the trails that radiate out from Lençóis, some to wash clothes on rocky spits or to enjoy a natural massage under a gushing waterfall, others simply to cool off in a rock pool. “Who needs television when you have this on your doorstep?’’ laughed a local lad, after “surfing’’ a 100-foot water slide and somersaulting into the pool at its foot.

The region is surrounded by a ring of peaks, the Serra do Sinco rá, distinctive for their flat tops of jagged limestone. Escarpments fall precipitously to valleys carpeted with hot, humid rain forest, and cut by rivers, creeks, and streams that cascade over limestone strata to form waterfalls of all sizes. Canyon walls are studded with stalactite-rich caves and spectacular geological formations in varying shades of salmon, ochre, and slate.

Within the Lapa Doce cavern, for instance, petrified calcium fountains form an unearthly, gothic world. The magnificent Poço Encantado, a pool at the base of a 130-foot natural shaft, gives off an ethereal blue light when hit by a single shaft of sunlight. There are crystalline wells and enticing pools that invite a dip on a sultry day.

It’s possible to bungee jump within Gruta do Lapão, Brazil’s largest limestone cave, just 90 minutes by foot from Lençóis; canoe through the bird-rich Marimbus wetlands; or climb Pai Inácio, a curious limestone lump that juts roughly above the surrounding lowland. The more adventurous can rappel cliffs, spelunk caves, leap into a waterfall’s spume, or soar on aerial runways lashed across gaping waterholes.

Bird-watchers, too, come to spot rare hummingbirds, parakeets, guan, and several endangered species of eagles and hawks. “Twenty-three species of hummingbird are regularly spotted in the Chapada, more than in the entire United States,’’ said Zé Carlos, a hotel owner and bird-watcher in Lençóis. “That’s not bad for a comparatively small area.’’

The Chapada Diamantina was once a household name in Brazil. In 1844, industrial-grade diamonds were found in its riverbeds, sparking a speculative stampede. Roughnecks and adventurers flooded in to sieve the alluvial deposits, and large landowners marched armies of slaves up from their coastal plantations to scrub the mountainsides free of soil.

The freelance prospectors, or “garimpeiros,’’ threw up makeshift camps, their bivouacs and improvised tents carpeting the river banks so thickly that they appeared from the higher ridges like bedsheets scattered on the land. The densest cluster of tents became known as “lençóis’’ (“sheets’’ in Portuguese).

French engineering companies bought most of the diamonds; they wound up on the tips of the drill bits that gouged out the Panama Canal, the Paris Metro, and London’s Underground. At the height of the boom, the French government opened a vice consulate to facilitate direct trade with Europe. (The two-story house, on Lençóis’s Praça Horácio de Matos, figures in most guided tours of the town.)

Those who struck it rich erected miniature palaces in the Venetian or Manueline style. Lençóis’s ornate City Hall, built in 1860 by a scion of the land-owning Sá family to please his future wife, is typical. Its diminutive size is more than compensated by sumptuous Gothic ornamentation, its pillars, pinnacles, and portals emboldened with ornate tracery and intricate carving.

The frenzy soon burned itself out. Within two decades, the Chapada’s reserves were almost depleted, the remaining stones harder to find. In 1871, when vast diamond deposits were discovered in South Africa, the Chapada was emptied of residents virtually overnight. The forest encroached on outlying settlements and Lençóis was left frozen in time, its population reduced to a handful of holdouts who still hoped to get lucky, but declined ever deeper into poverty.

It took nearly a century before outsiders once more became aware of the Chapada and its natural treasures. George Glass, an Anglo-Brazilian bush pilot contracted to a Presbyterian mission hospital, spent much of the late 1950s flying over Bahia’s forest and scrub, ferrying doctors and teachers among the mission’s remote schools and clinics. One day, in 1960, he took a new route back to base from the neighboring state of Minas Gerais, and “discovered’’ Smoky Falls.

“I found I was flying over a ravine that was hidden by slabs of rock projecting from its sides. It was completely invisible from ground level,’’ recalled Glass, now 93. “At the head of the ravine, I saw what appeared to be smoke, and realized I had found the falls. The local people knew they existed, but no one from outside the area had ever seen them before, so I was credited with their discovery.’’

By the mid-1970s, backpackers, artists, and musicians had formed a loose community in Lençóis, where they began to lobby for a national park as the best means of protecting Chapada Diamantina’s beauty and biodiversity.

In 1986, the government unveiled the 586-square-mile Chapada Diamantina National Park, appointing Roy Funch, a US-born geologist, as its first director. “The declaration of the national park changed the local mentality in one generation,’’ said Funch, now Lençóis’s tourism and environment secretary. “Before, everyone was taking things from the hills, as miners, woodcutters, and hunters. Now the young people of Lençóis protect the hills, working as ecologists, guides, or firemen. The creation of the park marked the beginning of that new era. It gave it a face.’’

The Chapada’s historic towns are as compelling as the lush forests. Lençóis’s cobbled streets are lined with quaint, one-story miners’ cottages, painted in shades of mustard, peach, and lime, the vibrant colors undampened by the moss that clings to every wall. Churches, palaces, and municipal offices, too, are brightened from the same color palette.

Much of the local population traces its roots to Africa. On any given day, side streets reverberate with a drum’s beat, a trumpet’s carillon, or the rhythmic clapping that accompanies a spontaneous dance. On festa days, stately womenfolk in frocks of lemon and magenta swirl into a Sufi-like trance as they celebrate a “candomblé’’ religious ceremony. In the evenings, performers and spectators pack the public squares for litanies, samba shows, and performances of Brazil’s ritual “capoeira’’ dance-cum-martial art.

Since the creation of the national park, Chapada Diamantina has become modestly prosperous on the back of small-scale tourism. Many of Lençóis’s colonial-era houses have been converted into high-end “pousada’’ guesthouses, and the population has grown steadily as successive waves of outsiders come in search of peace amid blooming nature.

Some worry that large-scale tourism projects could spoil the region; for now, that threat appears distant. “It’s difficult to see mass tourism working here,’’ said Sandra Maldonado, who quit her work as a São Paulo-based biologist in 1997 to build a pousada in Lençóis. “The distance from Brazil’s big cities protects us, and the lack of roads nearby. You have to walk to the waterfalls, so there’s still an element of challenge. And that’s the way we like it.’’

Colin Barraclough can be reached at colinbarra@hotmail.com.

If You Go

How to get there

American Airlines (www.aa.com) connects Boston with Salvador, Bahia. Trip Linhas Aéreas (www.voetrip.com.br) flies from Salvador to Lençóis every Saturday; Real Expresso (www.realex presso.com.br) operates four buses a day over the same route.

Where to stay

Hotel Pousada Canto das Águas

Av. Senhor dos Passos 01

011-55-75-3334-1154

www.lencois.com.br

Set by Rio Lençóis, this breathtaking property is widely considered the best hotel in town. Doubles $155-$530.

Hotel de Lençóis

Rua Altina Alves 747

011-55-75-3334-1102

www.hoteldelencois.com

Oozing tropical elegance, this 50-room hotel has a pool, restaurant, and eight acres of lush gardens. Doubles $140-$245.

Pousada Vila Serrano

Rua Alto do Bomfin 08

011-55-75-3334-1486

www.vilaserrano.com.br

Offering warm service and dozens of day trips, this delightful guesthouse is set in a garden of heliconia, jackfruit, sugar apple, and guava. $95-$110.

Where to eat

Cozinha Aberta

Av. Rui Barbosa 42

011-55-75-3334-1321

www.cozinhaaberta.com.br

Disciples of the slow food movement, the kitchen staff updates traditional Bahian dishes with modern culinary technique. For a romantic evening, book a table on the stylish terrace overlooking the garden, $14-$28.

Etnia Restaurante

Rua da Baderna 111

011-55-75-3334-1066

A broad mix of Asian dishes, expertly prepared and served in an elegant, candlelit setting, $11-$18.

Information

www.guialencois.com.br