All photos by Kat Vallera
When most people think about traveling to Brazil, the Amazon rainforest and beaches of Rio de Janeiro usually come to mind. While these are both incredible attractions, the reality is that Brazil is a massive country with many unique destinations to offer. One such gem is the municipality of Lencois, a fantastic “off the beaten path” destination for travelers who enjoy culture, nature and adventure. Lencois is the home of the Chiapada Diamantina National Park, which boasts waterfalls, caverns, and unsurpassed scenery.
Lencois is located in the state of Bahia and can be reached from the city of Salvador (one hour by plane or 6.5 hours by bus). Once inhabited by indigenous people, by the late nineteenth century Lencois had emerged as the diamond capital of Brazil. By the mid-20th century, much of the diamond resources had been depleted, so the industry focus shifted to tourism. The town center has a romantic, quaint almost European character complete with cobblestone streets and outdoor cafes. The nightlife is vibrant during the evening hours and it is a safe, pleasant place to take a stroll. On Tuesdays, it’s possible to hear the local Samba School as they practice music in preparation for Carnival.
While visiting Lencois, I recommend staying at the Hotel Canto das Aguas (Av. Sr. dos Passos, 1 - Centro, Lençóis), located across the river within walking distance from the town center. What makes this boutique hotel special is that it is located at a bend in the river where the topography creates gentle rapids and waterfalls. The peaceful white noise of this babbling brook reverberates throughout the entirety of the property, encircling guests with a sense of calm and serenity. The hotel has a swimming pool, small hiking trail, and an outdoor recreation room with board games and billiards. It also boasts an open-air gym as well as an outdoor spa treatment area.
For dining in Lencois, I recommend the Restaurante Garimpo Gourmet (R. Miguel Calmon, 22, Lençóis). We went there for lunch and with delightful presentation, they brought us sizzling steaks served on top of hot stone platters. They also served us Brazilian moqueca, a delicious fish stew simmered with flavorful spices and coconut milk. We ladled the stew onto our plates as the remaining moqueca continued to bubble and cook from inside a large serving pottery made of terra cotta. Bring your camera and an appetite because a meal at Restaurante Garimp Gourmet is both a feast for the eyes as well as the stomach.
Amazing gastronomy and serene accommodations aside, the star attraction of Lencois is the Chapada Diamantina National Park. The remarkable landscape contained within this natural refuge is a product of the region’s geology. Millions of years ago, South America was connected to Africa in the supercontinent known as Pangea. When Africa and South America began to pull apart, volcanoes erupted along the aperture and molten magma surged violently towards the earth’s surface. The resulting lava flows, rich with minerals from deep underground, cooled into a terrain of igneous basalt and metamorphosis rock.
Fast forward a few million years as the tectonic plates spread even further apart and water poured in to fill in the gap, thus creating the Atlantic Ocean. The ocean cooled and carved the previously volatile terrain into breathtaking caverns and sedimentary rock formations. The region spent countless millennia submerged under the ocean before eventually rising from the sea. This upward motion continues as the South American plate moves westward, colliding with other tectonic plates along the Andes Mountains. This may sound complicated if you’re not well versed in geology, but for science nerds like me, it’s absolutely fascinating. Lencois’ geologic history explains the unique characteristic of swirling pigmentations in Lencois’ rock formations. Come for the rocks, but stay for the waterfalls!
One popular trek that leads to a waterfall takes visitors along the Rio Mucugezinho. Our hike along this route took about half an hour each way and, like a lot of the hiking in Lencois, involved a decent amount of bouldering. Along the trail, we encountered brown howler monkeys, and our guide demonstrated how indigenous people made body paint. He mixed the dust with water to form a red paste, which we used to draw designs on our arms.
At the end of the trail, we reached the Poço do Diabo, a waterfall that is popular for swimming. What I found most unique about this river and waterfall is that the water is tinted with a brownish red hue. Red water is not uncommon in parts of Brazil and is a product of the land’s heavy mineral content combined with tannins that seep from native vegetation. The red water is safe for swimming and does not cause discoloration to skin or clothing. On the topic of clothes, bring your swim suit and sportswear when hiking. Sneakers or boots with strong grips are the best for climbing, while a pair of water shoes in your bag might also come in handy.
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Another popular waterfall hike in Lencois is to the Cachoeira do Mosquito. Do not be deceived, this waterfall is NOT named after insects! Mosquito is a word that means “tiny diamonds.” To reach this waterfall, visitors must embark on a 2.3-mile hike that includes plenty of stairs. Unlike the Poço do Diabo, the pools of this almost 200-foot waterfall are incredibly shallow. For this reason, the Cachoeira do Mosquito is a wonderful place for everyone, even non-swimmers and children, to experience the wondrous cascades of Lencois. I stood beneath the tumbling waters like it were a shower while others in my group relaxed in the pools. With rocks to climb and ledges to explore, the Cachoeira do Mosquito offers great photo ops and even the occasional rainbow. In my option, it’s one of the most beautiful and unique waterfalls in the entire world.
Visitors to Lencois can take the aquatic adventure underground with cave snorkeling at the Poço Azul. This cavern is brilliantly illuminated by sunlight, which enters at the top through a natural skylight. This produces a spectacular effect as the fresh water glows with a stunning bright turquoise iridescence. There is no hiking required to reach the Poço Azul, and the aquamarine waters are cool and refreshing. In an effort to protect the cave’s natural ecosystem, guests are required to shower before descending into the cavern. Guests are also required to wear life vests, regardless of their swimming capabilities. I suspect that this rule is intended to prevent daredevils like me from going off too far to explore the crevices. Meanwhile, the life vests provided make the Poço Azul a welcome attraction for everyone.
While there’s no swimming involved to visit the Lapa Doce, another great cave in Lencois to explore, there is a decent amount of hiking. Only recently discovered in 1986, the expanse of this cave covers more than twelve miles and it’s thought to be the largest in Brazil. Just the mouth of this gargantuan cave is almost two hundred feet high. Once inside, a certified guide led us through the cave’s extensive network of caverns, which boast a spectacular series of stalactites and stalagmites. The sandy floor serves as evidence it was once under water. Journeying deep into the heart of the cave, we arrived at a place where no trace of sunlight remained. That’s when our guide had us sit down and turn off our flashlights. I’m not sure how long we stayed in that place, experiencing a sensation depravation of absolute silence and darkness. It felt eerie yet surreal and peaceful all at once, an incredible awe existing within Brazil’s massive hollow.
For more hiking above ground, no trip to the Chapada Diamantina National Park is complete without trekking the legendary Pai Inácio. The climb can be rather steep, but the view from the top is beyond spectacular. Try not to faint as the most fearless visitors sit on the edge and hang their legs off the precipice. The mountain’s plateau stands at almost 3,700 feet above sea level, with a 360-degree panorama of the park’s remarkable landscape. Pai Inácio offers a picturesque scene of natural wonder carved by millions of years of geological phenomena, decorated by the shrubbery and cacti that thrive in Lencois’ semi-arid climate.
Following all this hiking and adventure, I felt like I needed to replenish my strength. To accomplish this, I had some authentic Brazilian acai, a berry that is native to the Amazon rainforest. In fact, Acai is often referred to as a “superfood” because it’s loaded with so many antioxidants. Acai berries offer a multitude of health benefits including improved immunity, heart health and digestive health while enhancing physical vitality and mental function.
I recommend a café in Lencois called Acai na Tigela, which is located across the road from the Restaurante Garimp Gourmet and sells cups of acai for just five Brazilian Reals (approx $1.50 USD). Acai has a naturally bitter taste, but it is mixed with other ingredients so the flavor is sweet with a consistency similar to frozen yogurt. I enjoyed my acai topped with slices of banana and crushed granola, but there are a variety of toppings at Acai na Tigela.
The tour I participated in was organized by a company called Aniyami. Their guides were both knowledgeable and friendly with fantastic language and leadership skills. They were impeccably punctual, setting a reasonable pace for every excursion. We were always on schedule and never felt rushed. During the hikes, Aniyami’s guides were patient and supportive. They managed the group with such prowess, catering to our varying skill levels. I’d go so far to say that Aniyami is one of the most reliable destination management companies I’ve ever encountered. According to the company’s website, developing experiences in Brazil is Aniyami’s true passion. I can’t emphasis enough how much this passion is evident by the quality of their service.
Aniyami offers tours and excursions not just in Lencois but all over Brazil. Looking for more hidden gems in this country? Keep an eye out for a follow up article where I’ll feature one of Brazil’s laid back beach towns for travelers who like to journey off the beaten path.