The diamonds that were once harvested from the national park of the Chapada Diamantina (or Diamond Highlands) are only the tip of a precious natural resource iceberg in the northeast Brazilian state of Bahia. In fact, until recently, Chapada Diamantina was perhaps Brazil’s best-kept secret, trade from tourism having been on the rise only since it became an official national park in 1985.
The appeal of travel in Chapada Diamantina today is its lush nature. Cascading waterfalls empty into a labyrinthine cave system and draw the adventurous into full exploration of amazing valleys towered over by exceptional red-rock mesas. Back in the early 1800s, though, the small community of Lençóis, lazing in the region’s foothills, developed as the base for a diamond boom that turned Brazil into the world’s first major exporter of these coveted gems; it wasn’t until more lucrative mines were discovered in South Africa that the city and region fell into decline.
Is Eight Enough?
Locals recommend that visitors set aside eight days for a trip to Chapada Diamantina to take in all the sights. With this time in hand, travellers have many options open to them, from organised and self-guided activities like mountain treks and cycling through breathtaking scenery to worriless ease in deluxe accommodations.
For wilderness fans, personalised trips (from one to 10 days in length) into the national park can be arranged. No matter what is planned, though, it is vitally important that everyone be prepared. A hired guide is strongly suggested or very complete information should be procured and studied well in advance since the trails are not well marked. While the land is strikingly beautiful, it can also be unforgiving. Boots with rubber soles are essential, as is lightweight clothing (long pants and sleeves for those allergic to insects and plants), sunscreen, a hat and a lantern with extra batteries. Plastic bags will come in handy too to collect the trash left by others and help conserve this beautiful land.
During a trip to the national park, the gorgeous waterfalls are a definite highlight. The Cachoeira da Fumaça (Waterfall of Smoke) is so high that the water does not have the volume to overcome the drop and evaporates into a mist before reaching the ground. At 380 metres, this waterfall is one of the highest in the world and can be reached by a relatively easy hike of two hours. The falls of Buracão and Sossego are also awesome sights and deserve time in any activity program.
Ghosts of the Past
After Lençóis, the city of Xique of Igatu in the district of Andarai is a must-see. It was one of the world’s greatest diamond centres during the 19th-century glory days of the mining boom. Its population, which has dwindled from a historical high of around 6,000 people to the current count of 400, currently lives in a small village alongside the old, abandoned mining town. The little stone houses in the phantom settlement are worth the effort required to get there – a seven-kilometre drive through the mountains on a rough stone-lined road from Andaraí. Although the town is small, overnighters need not worry; it still comes complete with places to eat and sleep.
Going Local with the People and the Nature
After the mining industry lost momentum, this beautiful place was nearly deserted until tourists and adventure travellers arrived and rediscovered the same trails forged more than a century earlier by gem seekers. This has left the area unspoiled, prime ground for the development of a strong ecotourism trade.
In keeping with this, people from the local town of Remanso, a village of slave descendents, set up an interesting tour that targets responsible travellers. Their Marimbus Chapada Wetland tour, staffed by men from the village as boat guides and paddlers, takes in the off-the-beaten track treasures of the region and brings them to life through the telling of mysterious legends and revealing tales about local culture and history.
The best point of contact for these tours is Marimbus Ecotourism, which has been working with the Remanso community for the last 13 years, helping them develop initiatives and then employing them to make it all happen. Since the community has become more involved in tourism, they have gained access to running water, electricity and brick housing. The hope is that their prosperity will continue to increase as Chapada Diamantina grows in popularity as a tourist destination..