The GPS is clueless; we trust the instructions of farmers. We have swapped the white beaches of the Atlantic Ocean lined with palm trees for the little-explored Sertão, as the interior is called. The coming 25 days and 3200 km we will explore some traces of Brazil’s ancient inhabitants: Amerindians, dinosaurs, and of what may have been the first inhabitants of the Americas.
I step out of the car to ask for more directions. A thorn finds its way through my flip-flop. It hurts. Branches of the xiquexique cacti grow in a tangle over the ground like twisting, thorny snakes. Others look like a tangled ball of fringes of a dress, draped over rocks.
1. Amerindian Heritage at O Lajedo de Pai Mateus
Hotel Fazenda Lajedo de Pai Mateus, near Boa Vista (Paraíba State), lies about 200 km inland. It is a large cattle ranch with tourist facilities. We watch the sunset at the ‘Place of Many Stones’ (O 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 a bland landscape to stimulate the senses.
What would it be like to grow up here? From the top of a hill I see caatinga vegetation 360 degrees around me. Green in the rainy season and white during the dry season, softly tinged under a setting sun. If you don’t know any better you would assume that the whole world is like this; there is no indication anything else exists at all.
The boulders have been eroded to form hollows; one is aptly called Pedra de Capacete – Helmet Stone. In the 18th century a curandero (healer) lived under one of these hollow boulders to receive visitors who sought healings. After ten or fifteen years he left just as unexpectedly as he had come, but his name is kept alive in the name of the site: Pai Mateus (Father Matthew).
Before this odd character, the Cariri Indians inhabited the area for centuries, until the Portuguese wiped them out. Our guide indicates eroded rock paintings that testify to the Cariri’s traditions.
Nowadays, O Lajedo de Pai Mateus has been the setting of numerous Brazilian movies (among which Bye Bye Brazil) and the highly popular Brazilian mini series O Alto da Comparecida.
- Hotel Pai Mateus daily organizes tours to the boulder site. Other activities include visits to sites with Amerindian carvings and paintings, and outdoor trips such as horseback riding.
- Payment is in Brazilian reais. They are working on the option of payment by credit card.
- There are buses from Recife to João Pessoa and then on to Boa Vista. The hotel can arrange transport to the fazenda (18 km south). Renting a vehicle (in João Pessoa or Recife) is another way of getting there.
Rutted tracks cut through plantations of palma, a plant reminiscent of the Engelmann prickly pear cactus in size and form, but thornless. 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 their ranch a couple of times a year to discuss the state of affairs with their manager. Other farmers live on small, barely self-supporting farms. Most are born on this soil and die here. Few ever travel beyond their everyday surroundings. Inbreeding is visible in some of the facial features of Sertanejos we talk to.
2. Dinosaur Valley at Sousa
My guidebook raises expectations of the dinosaur footprints in Parque dos Dinossauros, in Sousa (Paraíba State). The text is peppered with superlatives such as ‘the best site of dinosaur prints’ and ‘the best-preserved sets’.
Of the hundreds of dinosaur prints found in this region, only 52 have been preserved. From the catwalks constructed 2 meters above the prints we stare at 110 million-year-old marks. Scientists estimate that the creatures weighed between 3 and 4 tons.
We spend more time checking out tufted Capuchin monkeys that run over thin branches to challenge us in a game of who can stare at the other longest. They win.
The dinosaur site is impressive enough but the question is how much longer the prints will last. We see the destruction caused by human hands. ‘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 we turn away at the sight of the sorrow state of the displays and texts; they have become unreadable.
- Vale dos Dinosaurs (Estrada para Uiraúna; tel: 3522 3055) lies 6km northwest of Sousa and can be reached by taxi.
- The park is daily open from 7am-5pm.
- Sousa has bus connections to main towns in the area and a couple of guesthouses
3. Serra Capivara National Park: the Cradle of the Americas?
Serra Capivara National Park (Piauí State) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A staggering 800 sites are home to numerous rock carvings and more than 30,000 generally well-preserved paintings, claimed to be the largest concentration in the world.
I am totally fascinated by the images of men hunting armadillos, a woman giving birth, a man harvesting honey, people playing, fish and emus. Fortunately, our guide Cida has worked here for twenty years, is passionate about her work and this area and doesn’t seem to tire of my never-ending flow of questions.
How did man come to the Americas, and when? In the informative museum Do Homem Americano we read that a thermoluminescence sample or charcoal taken in 1984 is proof of the dating of 100,000 years ago, which a complementary study in 1991 confirmed.
It is a revolutionary claim compared to the generally accepted theory that the first nomads came to the Americas via the Bering Street 12,000 years ago. It shouldn’t come as a total surprise that the 100,000-year theory is not supported worldwide.
Cida can’t answer all my questions though. We’d like to know how the paint was concocted, what the significance is of some of the images (why are emus always drawn in groups of 4?) and why the inhabitants left the region. So would she, as would many scientists. There are still many mysteries to be solved.
The park is home to the so-called Einstein monkeys that taught themselves to take stones from the river to cashew nut trees. They put a cashew on a flat stone and crunch the nut with another stone. We see the stones and shells but no monkeys. To see them (they’re not shy, our guide says) you have to visit in the cashew-harvesting season: September.
- The nearby town of São Raimundo Nonato has bus connections to surrounding cities. Hotel Serra da Capivara offers comfortable rooms and has a restaurant.
- A guide is mandatory to visit the park. You can find one via the reception at the above-mentioned hotel or at the tourist information office annex souvenir shop Loje de Artesão downtown. Here you can also obtain a brochure and map of the park.
- Tours take all day with a lunch break in the park’s adjacent village.
- 30 sites are accessible by wheelchair; others require some climbing. Bring a hat, water and sun lotion.
- The Museum Do Homem Americano: Rua Abdias Neves 551; Tue-Sun 9am-5pm; entrance fee R$6.
Women are the guardians of roadside restaurants, which on average consist of three tables and six rickety chairs. We are daily served a set meal, which is Brazil’s quintessential almoço of rice, beans, manioc and a piece of beef, which costs the equivalent of 6-10 US dollar. 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. When a Brazilian says ‘pertinho’ we take another breath, because their meaning is lightyears away from our (Dutch) interpretation. Compare the size of Brazil with the Netherlands and you’ll understand why.
4. Golden grass at Jalapão State Park
In Parque Estadual do Jalapão (Tocantins State) we climb dark-orange, Sahara-type dunes surrounded by crystalline waters that form an island in forested hills. We dive in waterfalls, bathe in springs surrounded by Buriti palm trees, and stare at dark red rock formations with apt names like Cathedral Hill. The area is popular with off-roaders, mountain bikers and hikers.
Amid this odd collection of landscapes lies Mumbaca, a quilombo: once a hiding place for runaway slaves. Today Mumbaca is one of Jalapão’s centers where women make handicrafts of capim dourado. Two young women are working on tablemats. We watch how strings of golden grass deftly pass through their hands and are tied with the fibers of palm leaves.
This grass, which colors golden as the season progresses, grows only in Brazil, in three places to be exact (Bahia, Piauí and Maranhão). The species can’t be cultivated. The women are organized in a cooperation and work according to severe guidelines to prevent the extinction of this naturally growing gold, which is just as well because the attractive handicrafts are conquering the Brazilian artisan markets.
- The area is best visited during the dry season (Jun-Sep). From Sep 20 – Nov 30, the golden grass is harvested. These exact dates are enforced by IBAMA (Brazil’s organization in charge of protected flora and fauna).
- To properly visit the region you may want to rent a vehicle in the nearby city of Palmas, or go on a guided tour. The public bus only passes through this area and it will be hard, if not impossible, to reach the phenomenal landscapes and villages such as Mumbaca.
- For a tour, check out Jalapão Adventure. Prices depend on the number of people, number of days, type of transport and accommodation.
- There are few campsites (often near waterfalls or springs). São Felix do Tocantins is a hole in the wall but has a guesthouse: Pousada Hotel Capim Dourada, where meals are served as well. The tourist center of Jalapão is the town of Mateiros, which has facilities in terms of accommodation and food.
We leave Brazil’s history behind us and return to modern times in Palmas, the 20-year old capital of Tocantins (which, by the way, is a good base to explore Jalapão).
This article was first published on Matador Network.