If it hadn’t been for a work meeting on the last day of our journey; we wouldn’t have driven by Pedra da Boca. But looking for something diverting to do on the way to Campina Grande, I noticed a small paragraph in an even smaller booklet about the natural parks of Rio Grande do Norte.
Strictly speaking, the Pedra da Boca state park is in Paraíba but the only access leads down from its northern neighbor state. Like other smaller, state run natural parks, the first challenge is finding it*. Without any prior checking on opening hours or calling; we just drove down to the park.
Luckily for us, there was an employee around, more like a guard than a guide. Still, he deemed it safer to join us on our tour. Two hours later we re-emerged from a mini trekking tour, after climbing through caves, seeing wild monkeys, and witnessing the stunning view over this amazing area.
Even without an entrance fee for the park, we opted for a generous tip for our guide before driving on to our last stop before finally, after many hours on the road, making it home. Though this last stop, as many others, demonstrated that what it takes to discover Brazil are luck, good driving skills and a tiny bit of persistence.
* Considering the average Brazilian tourist, making natural parks hard to find might be a good thing. They usually come in dozens in buses, drive around with buggies and leave their rubbish. But that’s a story for a different post.
Throughout our drive, I saw the same phenomena along rivers and roads: forests, savannah bushes, small patches of farm land… Especially the last two for long, long stretches of the journey.
When seeing forest from the road, it was often obvious that these didn’t reach far into the land. The same it was on the river up to the Lençois: while the forest seemed rich and large from the river, it was not more than a few meters away before it turned into agricultural land.
By legislation, landowners have to leave forests on the river banks for up to 30 meter. The rest can be cut down to make space for growing whatever plant will be resistant enough to do the job. Without going all environmental and pitying – who am I to judge here? – I couldn’t help remembering Potemkin and his make believe mise-en-scene.
If we had known beforehand that visiting the Lençois maranheses would require an additional 400km drive because of an intraverseable bit of 70km sand track, we might very well not have gone. But, luckily for us, we didn’t know that there was not way to reach Tutoia (and then Parnaiba) with the little car of ours and spent a wonderful day on the river, discovering the Lençois.
Taking the boat from Barreirinhas, we spent 40 minutes driving up the river along forest, wetlands and then, suddenly, dunes.
The dunes are amazing. Turning the back to the river, you can imagine being in a desert. Walking a few steps down the sand, you return to a world of water, green and monkeys. The transition between sand and forest is often very sudden, one step you are in lush forests, another step, you out on the sand exposed to bright sunshine.
After a second stop to visit a light house, we spent a good part of the afternoon on an arm of the Lençois, being able to walk from the river over to the seaside in less than 5 minutes. Though effectively, most of our time was devoted to tasting some delicious fish and recovering from our efforts in an hammock before returning to Barreirinhas late in the afternoon.
There is much more to see in these dunes; pools of turquoise water in the middle of the sand, beautiful sunsets, etc. However, with 400km to go the next day, we were happy to have spent this one day out on the river!
On the mouth of the river Mearim lie two cities: São Luiz and Alcântara. São Luiz is famous for being the only Brasilian city founded by the French while Alcântara was completely unknown to me till we were advised to go and visit it for a day.
Easier said then done because the ferry times depend on the tides which nobody could really tell us. Nothing you could expect in a coastal city… Anyway, we took what turned out to be a fair guess and got our place on the ferry. Once in Alcântara, you quickly realize that the nomination ‘city’ is a bit stretched. Wikipedia says it has a population of over 20.000 people. That
may be is probably true but our impression of the place was that of a tranquil little village with pretty houses, pretty ruins and a very few inhabitants.
Next to this tranquil village however is the launch site of the Brazilian Space Agency. While you can’t visit the site itself, it is possible to stroll through a small museum and having the challenges of launching a rocket into space explained to you by a young soldier; if your Portuguese allows. So far, the Brazilian space program hasn’t been characterized by its successfulness. Quite on the contrary.
After an accident in 2003 that killed over 20 people, the launching of Brazilian rockets was suspended. The site has been used ever since by the European, the Ukrainians and even the Chinese to get satellites into space. You can almost imagine the Brazilian engineers peering over the shoulders of their international colleagues, learning as much as they can. And indeed, the Brazilians are planning to take up their program again with a new test launch at the end of this year. Lets wish them luck!
A few impressions from Alcantara, Maranhão.
As mentioned before, traveling in Brazil means first and foremost, to enjoy driving. This trip was no different from the ones before with the exception that the distance covered in two weeks was even longer: almost 6000 km.
From Maceio, we went inland up to São Luiz and then back all along the coast. Besides long strands of straight road, the most interesting was often the company we
had were trying to avoid: Suicidal donkeys, cows, horses, chicken, goats, dogs running on or over the street.
Of course, we could have stayed on the national highways to minimize the risk of driving into animals. Still, these fellows were more agreeable than the trucks whose drivers have often their very own approach to road safety.
Having said this, it was absolutely worth it. The land out there, o Sertão, is very different from the coast: dry, harsh and beautiful at once.
It’s not easy for people to make a living out there, the poor red soil, the lack of rain, the hard work. Driving through does hardly give a sound impression of how it really feels to life there. Still, I found it worth-while to see this other part of Brazil, this part that is not on the post cards and not in the travel guides. Because, after all, it is there.