A tour of overlooked natural and cultural sites in the Sertão, an arid backcountry region of northeastern Brazil.
1. Lajedo do Pai Mateus, Paraíba

The GPS is clueless. We trust the instructions of farmers to get us to Hotel Fazenda Pai Mateus, a large cattle ranch near Boa Vista, about 200km inland of João Pessoa.

We watch the sunset nearby at the “Place of Many Stones” (Lajedo), where dozens of smoothly polished granite boulders lie scattered over a bowl-shaped elevation above an artificial lake, as if the gods have sprinkled peppercorns over the landscape.

From the top of a hill, caatinga vegetation covers 360 degrees of view — green in the rainy season, white during the dry season, softly tinged under a setting sun.

The boulders have been eroded to form hollows; one is aptly called Pedra de Capacete — Helmet Stone. In the 18th century, a curandero lived in one of the hollows. He received patients here for 10 or 15 years and then vanished, his memory kept alive in the name of the site: Pai Mateus (Father Matthew).

Lajedo do Pai Mateus

Before him, the Cariri Indians inhabited the area for centuries until the Portuguese wiped them out. Our guide indicates their eroded rock paintings.

More recently, the Lajedo do Pai Mateus has been the setting of numerous Brazilian movies (Bye Bye Brasil) and the highly popular Brazilian mini-series O Alto da Compadecida.

Practicalities

  • The hotel organizes daily tours to the boulder site. Other activities include visits to sites with Amerindian carvings and paintings, and outdoors trips such as horseback riding.
  • Cabins cost around R$240 (~$135US) for 1, R$420 for 4 people, which includes all guided tours. Day excursions without accommodation are ~R$20 pp.
  • Payment is in Brazilian reais. They’re working on a credit card option.
  • There are buses from Recife to João Pessoa and then on to Boa Vista. The hotel (18km farther south) can arrange transport from there. Renting a vehicle (in João Pessoa or Recife) is another option.
  • To join an organized tour in the area, check out Aventura Turismo.

Life in the Sertão
Rutted tracks cut through plantations of thornless palma. The Sertão suffers from droughts and does not have sufficient grass for all the cattle. Palma is fed to cows during the dry season.

Owners of extensive cattle ranches often live in cities like São Paulo and visit a couple times a year to oversee operations. Others live full-time on small, barely self-sufficient farms. Those who do rarely travel beyond their everyday surroundings. Inbreeding is visible in some of the facial features of Sertanejos we talk to.

2. Dinosaur Valley, Paraíba

Guidebook text on the dinosaur footprints of Vale dos Dinossauros, in Sousa, is peppered with superlatives: “best site,” “best preserved prints.”

But of the hundreds of dinosaur prints found in this region, only 52 have been preserved. We stare at the 110-million-year-old fossilized tracks from the catwalks constructed two meters above. Scientists estimate the creatures weighed between three and four tons.

Capuchin monkeys

To be honest, we spend more time checking out the tufted capuchin monkeys that skitter through the surrounding trees, challenging us to a staring contest. They win.

The site is cool enough, but the question is how much longer the prints will last — human-caused deterioration is plainly obvious. “Lack of funds to properly protect them,” the caretaker explains. Yet he allows us to camp in the parking lot even though there is no guard.

In the museum, the displays and explanatory texts have become unreadable.

Practicalities

  • Vale dos Dinosaurs (Estrada para Uiraúna; tel: 3522 3055) lies 6km northwest of Sousa and can be reached by taxi (~R$30).
  • The park is open daily, 7am-5pm; no entrance fee.
  • Sousa has bus connections to the main towns in the region and a couple of guesthouses.
3. Serra da Capivara National Park, Piauí

The UNESCO-listed Serra da Capivara National Park contains some 800 prehistoric rock carvings and more than 30,000 generally well-preserved paintings, claimed to be the largest concentration in the world.

There are images of men hunting armadillos, a woman giving birth, a man harvesting honey, people playing, fish, emus. Fortunately, our guide Cida has worked here for 20 years, is passionate about her work, and doesn’t seem to tire of my never-ending flow of questions.

Serra da Capivara National Park

We learn that human-produced charcoal found at the site has been dated to 100,000 years ago. This is a revolutionary discovery, as the generally accepted anthropological theory is that the first humans came to the Americas via the Bering Strait just 12,000 years ago. The 100,000-year theory espoused here at Serra da Capivara is not widely supported.

The park is also home to the so-called Einstein monkeys, who use tools to gather food. They transport flat stones from the river to nearby groves of cashew trees, place cashews on one stone, and crush the nut with another.

We see the stones and shells but no monkeys. They’re not shy — you just have to visit in cashew-harvesting season (September).

Practicalities

  • The nearby town of São Raimundo Nonato has bus connections to surrounding cities. Hotel Serra da Capivara offers comfortable rooms and has a restaurant. More area information.
  • A guide is mandatory. Arrange one via the reception at the above-mentioned hotel or at the tourist information office annex / souvenir shop (Loja de Artesão) downtown. Here, you can also obtain a brochure and map of the park.
  • Expect to pay around R$100 (~$57US) for a guide (for up to 6 people). Tours take all day, with a lunch break in the park’s adjacent village (set meal, ~$7US). Entrance fee to the park is R$10 pp.
  • 30 sites are accessible by wheelchair; others require some climbing. Bring a hat, water, and sunscreen.
  • The nearby Museu do Homem Americano is worth a visit: Rua Abdias Neves 551; Tue-Sun, 9am-5pm; entrance fee R$6.

Typical Brazilian food and distances
Women are the proprietors of roadside restaurants, which on average consist of three tables and six rickety chairs. We are served set meals — Brazil’s quintessential almoço of rice, beans, manioc, and a piece of beef, costing $6-10US. The plates are large enough to share.

“Pertinho” (close by), the farmer responds when I ask how much farther Jalapão is. For Brazilians everything is close by, much different from what our (Dutch) interpretation of “pertinho” would be.

4. Jalapão State Park, Tocantins

In Parque Estadual do Jalapão, we climb dark-orange, Sahara-style dunes, dive in waterfalls, bathe in springs surrounded by Buriti palms, and stare at dark red rock formations with names like Cathedral Hill. The area is popular with off-roaders, mountain bikers, and hikers.

Capim dourado

Amid this odd collection of landscapes lies Mumbaca, a quilombo — once a refuge for runaway slaves. Today, Mumbaca is home to women’s cooperatives that produce handicrafts of capim dourado. We watch how two young women weave strands of the golden grass to create a table mat.

This grass, which turns gold as the season progresses, grows only wild and only in Brazil — in just three places, to be exact: Bahia, Piauí, and Maranhão. The women artisans who work with it adhere to strict guidelines to prevent overuse. Still, their attractive handicrafts dominate many Brazilian markets.

Practicalities

  • The area is best visited during the dry season (Jun-Sep). From Sep 20 to Nov 30, the golden grass is harvested. These are exact dates enforced by IBAMA (the national organization charged with species preservation).
  • We recommend renting a vehicle in the nearby city of Palmas, or going on a guided tour. Public buses don’t usually stop here, making it hard, if not impossible, to get to Mumbaca without your own wheels.
  • For a tour, check out Jalapão Adventure. Prices depend on number of people, number of days, type of transport, and accommodation.
  • There are a few area campsites (often near waterfalls or springs). São Felix do Tocantins is a tiny town but has a guesthouse — Pousada Hotel Capim Dourada — where meals are served. The tourist center of Jalapão is the town of Mateiros, which has accommodation and food.