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december 29, 2004 -> Chapada Diamantina: brazil  

The Chapada Diamantina (“Diamond Range”) is a multi-tiered tableland of eroded sandstone.  Above steep-sided valleys are wide plateaus that explode upward into flat-topped mountains, or drop into box canyons.  Its rectilinear topography makes for great walking: hard climbs are rewarded by long flat stretches.  Rainwater collects on the highest tiers and falls to the valley floor in hundreds of waterfalls.  The city of Lencois is the trekking center for the region, with numerous hostels, tour agencies, and a wide variety of trekking itineraries, including day hikes to Cachoeira de Fumaca, the second-highest waterfall in the world, at 380 meters. 

We had chosen a tour company featured in our 1997 edition of the Footprint Guide.  So we were a little nervous when all the tourists got out of the bus at Lencois.  A half-hour later, the bus pulled into the grubby little town of Palmeiras.  There, we were met by a young man driving an ancient Land Rover.  For almost two hours, we rattled down a road that could have doubled as a creek bed.  We were already exhausted after the long bus ride from Salvador, and kept praying that the next set of lights would be our destination – the village of Capao – only to rumble past.  When we finally did reach Capao, we sped through it and out into the darkness.  By this time we were both laughing.  Where the hell were we going?  A few minutes later, we arrived at the guest house. 

After a spirit-lifting plate of homemade lasagna, we collapsed into bed.  In the morning, we met Claude, the owner of the trekking company. He was a Frenchman who had been in Brazil since 1990 (there must have been a woman involved.)  We discussed our itinerary with him, and he introduced us to our guide, Nito, a wiry local with long curly hair and a big smile.  Nito didn't speak any English.  We didn't speak any Portuguese.  It didn't really matter.  Nito was friendly and patient, and could understand my Spanish if I kept it simple.  In the end, all we had to do was follow him anyway.

Our goal for the first day was the Pati Valley.  We were driven to the trailhead and spent the next few hours climbing out of the Capao Valley and onto a high, grassy plateau.  It was very hot and dry; the vegetation was much less dense than I had expected.  (Both Nori and I had secretly feared a Kokoda-like jungle death march.)  We had lunch in a dense stand of trees surrounding a waterfall-fed pool, and then climbed up another ridge to an even higher plateau.  All around us, green-crowned mesas rose up like pedestals.  We walked along this plateau for several hours, until we could see the beginning of the Paty Valley, several levels below us.  The Pati was actually two intersecting valleys, with the huge massiff of Morro Branco (“White Mountain”) towering like an island between them. 

Claude told us that we would be staying two nights in a family-run ‘pousada' (“guest house”) in the Pati Valley.  We expected the worst, but were pleasantly surprised.  The simple pousada had comfortable beds, massive feijoada dinners (with delectable homemade potato chips and fresh tropical juices), and a shower with take-your-skin-off water pressure.  The pousada was in a beautiful setting, with high cliffs on each side of the fertile valley.  Fan-tailed hummingbirds (‘beija-flor' in Portuguese, or “flower kisser”) hovered above strange purple flowers that seemed to have been turned inside-out. 

Early the next morning, we hiked down to the river and began slowly working our way upstream.  There were little waterfalls and benign gurgling rapids around every corner.  Fat tadpoles wriggled in stagnant pools, and parakeets chirped overhead.  A half-hour later we arrived at a perfect rock pool beneath a twenty-meter waterfall.  I cannot resist cliff-jumping, so I immediately began looking for a suitable spot.  But Nito beat me to it, and leapt into the water with an ecstatic hoot.  I wasn't far behind.  The water was cold, but invigorating.  We spent the rest of the morning swimming and sunning.  After the exertions of the previous day, it felt wonderful to relax. 

In the early afternoon, we climbed up to a wide saddle between the two towers of Morro Branco.  The views were great, but Nito intimated that the best was yet to come.  After lunch, we put on our headlamps and descended into a huge cave, so rectangular that it looked quarried.  The cavern narrowed after 100 meters, however, forcing us to duck and crawl through.  A few minutes later, we were happy to see light seeping in from above.  A short scramble brought us to a natural balcony on a sheer cliff.  We could see straight down to the river, and had unobstructed views of the canyon: a corridor of red-brown cliffs topped with luxuriant vegetation. 

On our final day, we returned to the Capao Valley, stopping at yet another rock pool for yet another cliff-jump.  It had been a wonderful three days of trekking.  Our “old” guidebook had vindicated itself.  My joy at the prospect of second lasagna dinner was tempered, however, by the loss of one of my favorite T-shirts (a hardy, if malodorous veteran of five continents,) which apparently “fell” off of Nori's backpack.  (I smelled a conspiracy.)