Off-Road in Northeast Brazil (part 1)


The limited validity of our visa didn’t allow us to drive all around the coast of northeast Brazil, where there were too many sites to visit. So, just south of Recife, we opted for another route to Belèm: straight through the Sertão, the interior of northeast Brazil: 1500-2000 kilometers with a couple of spectacular historic sites in between, among which Serra Capivara National Park (I wrote about it here).

To get from Barra de São Miguel to Hotel Fazenda Lajedo de Pai Mateus we had to cover 150 kilometers of dirt road, which would take a large part of the day.

The Sertão & Caatinga

Great puffs of clouds rolled over the undulating landscape. Temperatures were pleasant. The dirt tracks were in reasonable condition even though some stretches were severely rutted. Large parts of vegetation were fenced off with tree branches that were tightly lined up and held into place with long thin sticks attached horizontally along the top and bottom – not even a chicken could get through.

The fences are practical to dry laundry on, but of course they mainly serve to keep cattle inside the fazendas’ boundaries; cattle ranching is the region’s main source of income.

The caatinga is a savannah-type of landscape that during winter sheds all leaves. Since the branches are white, a view from the hilltops will show a ‘white forest’, which is the meaning of the word caatinga.

Palma cultivation.

The vegetation is too poor in nutritional value for the cattle and therefore farmers cultivate palma, plants reminiscent of the Engelmann prickly pear cactus. It has similarly shaped leaves and even flowers but is thornless. Both plants grow here but the flowering time had just ended, only a few yellow blossoms remained.

Thorns dominated the landscape and easily found their way through our flip-flops. Spines of a red-colored bromeliad stuck out to all sides and got caught in my calf; the entire plant moved when I tried to shake my leg loose. That hurt and left a painful bruise for the days to come.

Dominant were the xiquexique cacti, which at a height of about one meter get top-heavy and break off. The cacti branches grew in tangles over the ground, as if I was looking at a pit full of twisting, thorny snakes. Others looked like a tangled ball of fringes of a dress, draped over rocks.

Facheiros can grow as tall as trees and soar high above all other vegetation. The word facheiros is related to fogo: branches of this cactus can be broken off and lit. They will burn for hours, as if the inside is filled with kerosene.

Life in the Sertão

At times there was a road sign, sometimes the GPS pointed the way, at other moments we depended on the instructions of farmers. When we asked for directions they generally answered with a penetrating gaze, as if they needed time to register what we are asking.

“Straight ahead,” one answered.
“Only 26 kilometers to go,” said the next while holding up four fingers.
What should we make of that?

In the Sertão are small, barely self-supporting farms, as well as huge cattle ranches. The owners of these large enterprises often live in cities such as São Paulo and visit their ranch a couple of times a year to discuss the state of affairs with their manager. Most farmers are born on this soil and die here. Few ever travel beyond their everyday surroundings. Inbreeding was visible in some of the facial features of the locals we talk to.

The red, unpaved road meandered on, farther into the interior. At times it was wide, then so narrow that two cars could not pass. We shook and bounced and got a not-unpleasant massage. Left and right, in front of us and behind, and everything in between except the Land Cruiser was green. What would it be like to grow up here as a child?

When we stood on the top of a hill, the only thing we saw was caatinga, as far as our eye could see. It’s green in the rainy season and white during the dry season. If you don’t know any better you would simply assume that the whole world is like this. There is no indication there exists anything else at all.

Local Food and Foró Music

We stopped in São João do Cariri, which according to our guidebook should be home to Hotel Fazenda Lajedo do Pai Mateus. At a roadside restaurant we were doomed to listen to foró, a type of folk music that has its roots in this region and has become incredibly popular in all of Brazil. It blasted from Brazilian sound boxes at ear-damaging volumes.

I have become allergic to Brazilian music. According to Coen I complain just as much about Brazilian music as he does about speed bumps. If that is true, I am pretty far gone!

We were served a humongous meal. A ceramic bowl with boi (boiled meat) in gravy with potatoes, carrots and squash that came with rice, pasta and carne de sol, sun-dried meat. It was a glorious meal for which we only pay 9 reais. The Sertão was the first region in Brazil where we didn’t have the continuous feeling of traveling in an expensive country.

Brazilian Conversations

According to the restaurant’s owner, our fazenda lay about 30 kilometers up the road, near Boa Vista. “Pertinho,” he said, “Close by.”

For Brazilians everything is close by. If a Brazilian says ‘pertinho‘, or ‘rapedinho‘ (‘fast, I’ll do it fast’), we take another breath, because those meanings are light years away from our interpretation. Just look at a map and compare the size of Brazil with the Netherlands and you’ll see why our meaning of these words is so different.

Along the side of the road I bought an ice cream. While the woman scooped it into a cup we chatted.
“Where are you from?”
“Ah, America.”
I nodded something that could be interpreted as a yes or a no.
“Holanda is America, isnt’ it?”
“No, Holanda is Europe.”
Now it was getting complicated, I saw her frowning. “Ah, Europe, huh?”
“Holanda is Europe,” she now confirmed with a smile, as Brazilians have a way of doing. She was curious and eager to learn.
“What is the capital of your country?”
“Ah, Amsterdam. Amsterdam is your capital.” It made her smile.
“Portuguese is very easy to learn, isn’t it?”
“No, in fact it isn’t. For us it’s a complicated language.”
“Ah, Portuguese is difficult. Portuguese is a difficult language to learn.”

We asked about our fazenda.
“At the petrol station, drive straight ahead. Pertinho. In another ten kilometers or so you’ll reach it.”

The Pertinho added up. Thirty kilometers from town to the ice-cream parlor. The next ten into the countryside, which brought us to the fazenda’s entrance. We had another eight to go to reach the house and the site with otherworldly boulders on a hillside, for which we had come.

This is part 1 of a 2-series story about our off-road journey through the interior of Northeast Brazil. Here you can find part 2.

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