Monday, October 29, 2007

From Xique Xique to Belem, A lot of Km's and not much to tell.

Sunset over the Sao Francisco, Xique Xique, BA

Once Lençois was behind us the next goal was a place called Xique Xique. When I think back on it, I see that when we left Sao Paulo we had the following goals in mind. First, Diamantina, then Sao Francisco, Lençois, Xique Xique and finally Belem. Not much a very full schedule when we consider that there is at least 5000km between the beginning and the end. But there you have it, we keep our goals fairly moderate. Now you might be asking why Xique Xique, if you ask this question you probably don't find anything unusual about the name. Luckily for you dear reader we weren't of the same opinion. Xique Xique sounded like a very interesting place to visit. What in the world would we find there? The answer is a bustling fishing port on the Sao Francisco river. Getting there was an adventure, the road being more holes than anything else,the whole area some of the driest and windiest that we had yet seen, and if truth be told, it was a pretty boring ride getting there, since the road was straight as an arrow for miles and miles. The town itself was pretty interesting as it was right on the river and serves among other things as a fishing port, and supply center for the farms in the area. During the day the town is pretty much dead, but come night time, everyone comes out on the street to eat, walk, socialize and people watch. The town is separated from the river by a high retaining wall. The river having been dammed and creating a large reservoir which in turn (I assume) created the town. The reservoir is pretty low so the wall is on dry land having nothing to retain. The main thing that interested me was that it seemed like a relative wealthy town, considering the area and the other towns we had gone through getting here. Nevertheless, 1 day here was enough. The following morning we left and headed south along what on the map looked like a road along the reservoir, in actuality turned out to be turned out to be a road miles from any water. The water level was so low and had been so for such a long time that in places there were what looked like palm plantations on ground which looked suspiciously like it should be under water, at least at some time during the year. There is practically nothing but scrub land in all directions here, and I wonder that it supported anything let alone cattle which require lots of water and feed.
From Xique Xique we headed west to Barreiras, a large town in an area which had some huge cattle farms in the vicinity, after the quiet of Lençois, Diamantina, Sao Francisco, not to mention Xique Xique, this was the first large town we had seen in a while. From here we continued west before turning north and pretty much made a beeline for Belem, which we reached after a week or so on the road. There isn't much to tell about this area. We passed cattle farms, followed by more cattle farms (where ever you see everything fenced in you can assume that they raise some type of animal). The area then changed north of Barreiras, to huge grain farms, soya, rice etc. The give away, besides not being fenced in, was the many billboards and the type of hardware being sold and maintained in the towns we passed. A sign which noted that the area was the Soya capital of Brazil also helped. Further north, once we passed into the State of Para, the farms went back to being cattle farms and everything started to get a lot greener, not to mention much more humid. The roads also changed once we got back on the main road 150km south of Xique Xique, the quiet back road feel was gone. This is a main east/west highway and had the traffic to prove it, afterwards we hit the main north/south highway and had more of the same. Nevertheless it was fairly painless and uneventful traveling.
A few kilometers before Imperatrix we ran into a group of local bikers on big bore japanese bikes coming back to Imperatrix after a weekend outing. Due to import costs, these bikes are very expensive and therefore pretty rare. We exchanged plesantries and business cards before riding off. They had recommend that we camp in Beira Rio in Imperatrix when we got there, so that is where we headed. After a few minutes they passed us heading home and one of the guys did a power wheelie at 90km/h in the middle of traffic! No wonder that one of the guys came back from their outing with some serious bruises on his leg and hands, ripped clothes and no bike.

Ito & Aracy, Imperatrix, MA

In Imperatrix, we headed for the area they had recommened. And we were again to find that what the Brazilians consider a suitable camping spot isn't the same as what we would consider suitable. In this case, Beira Rio, is a park and bar/restaurant area along the river. Very nice and scenic, but not suitable for camping (at least not for us). So we retired to a nearby park to have a drink and decide what we wanted to do. While sitting there we were approached by Ito, who offered us a can of Coco water as an ice breaker. It turned out that he and his wife Aracy had seen us arrive and were very curious about us. As the bar had nothing more suitable as a local specialty, he chose Coco water as a way to approach us. We sat and talked with him for a while, his wife joined us, and they then invited us to spend the night at their house. Something which we eventually agreed to. Their house was nearby and we got seattled, before being taken on a tour of the touristic sights of Imperatrix. This included Beira Rio, and the oldest street in town, which goes by the oldest church in town, and that was it. Imperatrix turns out to be a town only devoted to making money, and seems to be doing very good in that area. It is the administrative center of mines, and farms in the general area, but has nothing to offer tourists. Even the hotels, are business hotels and too expensive for the casual traveler, so in the end we were very happy to have this chance to see how the average Brazilian lives. Turns out that Ito is an administrator at a local business and Aracy is works as a accountant for another local company. They share a house with Aracy's mother who was recently widowed. They cooked us a typical dinner of rice and beans with some fried meat. Then we headed for a local restaurant to have a few beers. The following morning we had breakfast at a local bakery before heading out. Very enjoyable encounter, with us sharing a lot of our travel experience with them, and they telling us of their lives, and desire of one day to traveling outside of Brazil.
Belem started for us many km's away as the traffic got heavy and it congestion and the heat became very noticeable. By the time we got near to town, there was a major traffic jam as one of the main roads into town was blocked, the temperature was in the low 40C, and the humidity off the scale, so it was not a pleasant experience. Nevertheless we eventually got into town by following the cars which were moving the most. A few had found some ingenious back roads and we just tailed along, no idea where we were going, other than noting that the GPS was pointing in the generally right direction.

Estacion Do Docas, Belem, PA

Belem is spread out quite a bit, but the old part of town is pretty compact and fairly easy to maneuver, nevertheless it took us a good 3 hours to find a hotel we could afford, not to mention finding a decent place to park the bike. This is to be expected in a city, but never a pleasant experience under the best of circumstances. The heat and humidity of Belem didn't make it any better. The only event of note, was that I experienced my first tourist hustle. While Katheryna was off checking the price and availability of hotels, I was guarding the bike, a guy walked up and asked if I spoke German (in German), and then started his pitch. He was a German who was here on vacation and had been robbed, and there was no-one who would help him, would I be willing to help out. I must have given him a real strange look, because he didn't really try very hard and just kind of walked off mumbling something about that I should be careful! This is such an old scam, that I was very surprised that anyone would still try it, and even more that it actually pays off enough that someone would continue to use it. Later at the hostel Katheryna found I noticed a note pinned to the bulletin board, warning of this guy. Apparently he is a German who lives here and tries the scam on tourist, the board noted that the Scottish couple how had been approached actually gave him 90R$ (50$).

Tourist boat, Para river, Belem, PA

Belem wasn't all that interesting, with the saving grace that it is on the Para river. Giving it a very rich history as a port town and gateway to the Amazon. Unfortunately I wasn't really here for jungle tours. The historic part of town was pretty run down, and an afternoon was enough.

Ver-A-Peso Market, Belem, PA

There is a famous marked, Ver-A-Peso where you can get all manner of goods only available here. It had such a touristy feel that I had enough after 20 minutes. It is nevertheless very colorful and aromatic! The most interesting thing I found was the boats unloading the fish, freshly caught, both from the river and from the Ocean 200km away.
While in Belem, I took care of some things for the bike, new tires, replacing the spare steering head bearings (which I had installed in Diamantina), and some other miscellaneous things. We also got a chance to stock up on Pizza hut pizza which we found in a nearby mall!

Jaguar, Belem Zoo, Belem, PA

To see some of the local wild life, we skipped the Jungle tour (always uncertain, and expensive, not to mention strenuous) and headed to the Belem Zoo. Where we managed to catch a glimpse of a number of animals rarely seen in the wild. Yeah, I know, that is cheating, but it was cheap. Also for those who think that Belem is in the middle of the jungle, I have some bad news. The only remnants of the Amazon to be seen here are in a nature park in the middle of the city. Many, many years ago, everything for miles and miles around had been turned into very lush farm and ranch land.

Paradise Beach, Mosqueiro, PA

While here, we had been told that we should go to Mosqueiro island, so we took a ride out to this island just 70km north of Belem, which has some great beaches on the Para river. The island is a major weekend/vacation destination for the 1 million inhabitants of Belem. The day we were there all the beaches were empty, but you could see that they must do a booming business during the "season". We also noticed that there was a campground there, so we decided to come back here after we left Belem. Which we did a few days later.

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The Touristic Center of Brazil Diamantina (MG) / Lençois (BA)

Road to Diamantina, MG

Another entry finds us in Lensçois, Bahia. After our uneventful first camping in Itutinga it was time to head to Diamantina. I had read about Diamantina in various books, and it was billed as an ideal example of the early mining towns on which Brazil flourished during the 18th century. Not only that but I liked the name, so off we went (another draw was the fact that it is a World Heritage site). To get there we rode through what I can only describe as some pretty desolate small towns. Maybe it was the time of day that we rode through, but there certainly wasn't much going on. A dog or two and maybe a stray donkey was all that was to be seen in many of the small out of the way places. When there were people, everything stopped as we rode through, and people gave us their full concentration. (I am skipping getting through Belo Horizonte, which is pretty much the same chaos as any large town anywhere). Once we neared the Serra Do Cipo national park we rode some of the way along the Camino Real, which is a rode built by slaves to bring the riches of the interior to the coast, and as far as I could tell, is in the same condition as it was 200 years ago.
The Park and the nearby towns were totally deserted, and eventually we found an open campground which didn't charge an exorbitant price and stopped for the night. The area is gorgeous, low lying mountains, with some nice forests and rivers nearby. Great area for camping, and hiking, as well as some climbing apparently. No time this time around but it might be worth coming back some day and enjoy the natural wonders (in the low season, as I have a feeling it is over-run in season).
From here it was an awesome ride along the Serra do Cipo to Serro. The road along the mountain was both curvy and in good shape, and to top it off nearly empty of traffic. From Serro, it was a short hop to Diamantina. The first thing that you will notice in Diamantina is that the roads are the same as the ones the Slaves built 200 years ago, literally! Huge stone blocks make up the roads in the town, and make for a very bumpy and slow ride, and to make it more eventful, the town is built on some very steep hills. The second thing is that there are a lot of churches everywhere. We spent a few hours looking for accommodations which fit our budget, this being a tourist town, something that wasn't all that easy. In the end we gave up for the day and headed out of town to try and find a good wild camping spot. Our research had told us that there was a camping spot somewhere near town, but no-one had heard of it. The other camping spot a bit outside of town was closed and deserted, so wild camping was the only option left. We found a nice spot overlooking the town and had a nice evening.
The following day we checked out a couple of other Pousadas and finally found one that was relatively affordable. Then it was off to check out the town.

Main Plaza, Diamantina, MG

Diamantina turned out to be a charming if a bit soul less town. Maybe because half the town was closed (low season), and there was a deserted feel to it. Nevertheless the architecture was interesting, the area around the town was also pretty interesting. Of particular note was the "shanty" town on the Camino Real out of town, somehow it seemed completely out of place with the tourist center a few hundred meters away, where tourist pay to get into see the churches. While here we also went out and had a look at one of the caves nearby. This was a near total waste of time, a small hole at the end of a hundred meter walk was all that we found. Guess they have to try and find something to keep the tourist around and entertained?
The one thing that the area was good for was rock climbing. I clambered around some rocks and to my surprise found some climbing routes. I miss not having my climbing gear with me. The rock being very porous it was possible to do some simple climbing without gear.

A view across the valley, Diamantina, MG

All in all we found it to be worth the ride there, and gave us a good impression of what the towns of the period were like. I could do without the strenuous climb to get my daily Pizza though, it seems to me that no matter where I wanted to walk I had to climb a 30° hill, and on my way back the whole town would rotate so that I had to do the same climb again!! Does wonders for your condition though.
From Diamantina we headed for Sao Francisco, which we had picked out on a map as being an interesting place to visit. The ride there was long and strenuous as the road in places was pretty bad, but we eventually arrived.

Sao Francisco river, Sao Francisco, MG

The Sao Francisco river is the third largest in Brazil, and the town must be among the smallest. There isn't much there, apparently people come here on their vacations and weekends to fish. After riding around town and not finding any interesting accommodations we headed to a fish camp outside of town where they let us camp on their volleyball court (what do you think the kids are going to be occupied while daddy is out on the river fishing?).

Dinner, Pousada Do Peixes, Sao Francisco, MG

The person in charge was incredibly friendly, first he refused to take money for the camping, second he insisted on feeding us dinner (twice), and breakfast, all at no charge. I love Brazil! The views over the river at sunset and sunrise were incredible, well worth the ride here.

The road out of Sao Francisco, MG

From Sao Francisco, we headed along the river on some of the nasties roads yet, bar none (between Sao Francisco and Januaria, and then again between Itacarambi and Manga). Dust, sand, rocks, the only thing missing was mud, which would have made it impassable for us. So we had to take it very slow and easy and eventually reached Manga where we re-crossed the river and got back onto some decent roads.

The towns and region we passed through were mainly cattle ranches and small towns associated with these activities, with no touristic activity other than seeing the true Brazil. There isn't much mention of these areas in the tourist literature, making it a true adventure and a paradise for individual tourists (at least my kind). One thing that was universal was the friendliness and openness of the Brazilians everywhere we went, which was really enjoyable.
Once we left the river region the area turned drier and drier, as we neared Lençois it was a virtual scrub desert.

Near Lençois, BA

Then we hit the mountains. Everything turned green again, and there were rivers and forests along these low lying hills (sorry guys there are no "Mountains" in Brazil..) In one place we hit rain, and were freezing for a while until we came down again and the rain stopped. Two days after leaving Sao Francisco we made it to Lençois.

Main plaza, Lençois, BA

Lençois was recommend to us by Dom (the owner of the Pousada Dos Frances in Sao Paulo), as being a place he had visited years earlier and found very nice. Noting that people didn't even have locks on their doors. Well, times change, there are no door without locks in Lençois any more, and today it is the center of all tourists activities in the national park next door. Rightly so, the area is gorgeous, and the town is a cozy little place (if a bit packed on the weekends). In many respects it is very similar to Diamantina, but lacks the obvious shanty town and is a smaller and more touristy.

The atmosphere is very laid back, and since it had a camping we could afford to spend a few days, which we then did. Not really being in the mood for hiking or trekking or any of the other tourist activities we spent time checking out the town, honing out camp cooking skills and doing some tours around the area on the bike. Before heading north to Xique Xique...

Just outside Lençois, BA

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