By Ashley Riley Lopes
While trips to Brazil usually conjure up ideas of samba, beaches and scantily clad tanned bodies, next Carnival season, you might want to act like a local and head to one of the most popular inland destinations-Serra da Canastra, a purely breathtaking Brazilian inland alternative.
These days, many Brazilians are choosing to avoid the madness of the beach and head for other forms of paradise inland. Nestled in the hills of Minas Gerias, Serra da Canastra offers visitors an abundance of natural wonders. I ventured there this past Carnival, along with my husband (a native Brazilian and avid rock climber and motorbiker) and some of his college buddies. While some visitors are enticed by the area’s vast motorbike trails and large canyon walls perfect for climbing, I was lured there by tales of amazing waterfall-created lagoons. Though I had originally hoped to spend Carnival on the famous beaches of Florianopolis, I was persuaded to forgo the traditional Carnival experience for promises of hidden paradise.
Luckily one of our companions had a truck with 4-wheel drive, so we made the 6-hour journey from our apartment in São Carlos, São Paulo with ease. Our driver had visited Serra da Canastra over five times and had arranged for us to camp near Pousada Mata do Engenho, a lodge in the area. The lodge provided three large meals a day and the use of their showers and bathrooms for a mere 20 reais (around $7). When we reached the lodge we were greeted with hugs, glasses of pinga (sugarcane liquor) and a traditional Minas Geriasian meal. Eager to see our first waterfall, we set up camp by a nearby stream and set out.
We decided to head for Maria Augusta, a pristine waterfall, towering over 100 ft. It flowed down and created a large pool-like lagoon surrounded by a small sandy-beach. I felt as though I had stepped into a hidden paradise. We all dove in; enjoy the refreshing, pure water. We were able to swim under the waterfall and enter a small cavern behind-the roar of the water was exhilarating. We spent all afternoon there.
In the evening we ventured back to the lodge to enjoy another Minas Geriasian meal and a couple beers. Other visitors crowded there to sing Carnival songs, drink pinga and recount stories of the waterfalls they had visited that day. We built a bon-fire and slept well.
Our second day in Serra da Canastra, we decided to drive to Paraiso Selvagem, another waterfall in the area. After driving for almost an hour through rocky roads, we parked and began the 2 km hike to the waterfall. The hike was through fairly dense jungle and across a wide stream (Hiking shoes or balance recommended). After about 20 minutes, Paraiso Selvagem came into view. Hidden by walls of rock, the waterfall pooled over into a foliage-surrounded lagoon. The brave could climb the rock walls and jump into the deep pool, while the less-brave could swim to the pool’s center and enjoy the view from a large rock there. Since the pool was hidden from the sun by large walls, it turned cold quickly and us females in Brazilian bikinis chose to leave after an hour or so. We hiked back and reached our trucks, just before the rain began to fall. We spent the evening in the same manner as the night before.
The next morning, my husband and I and another couple decided to borrow horses from our lodge and head across the countryside to Vale do Ceu. We obtained three horses and one mulinha (mule), and set out. As we rode higher and higher into the landscape, we passed through beautiful green hills and blue streams. When we reached Vale do Ceu, we tethered our horses, stripped down to our bathing suits, and began the climb into the cavernous waterfall. While our companions decided not to descend farther, my husband and I jumped into the refreshing water and let it carry us into its lagoon. The water pounded on our bodies like a massage and rehydrated us after the long ride. When satisfied, we climbed back up the waterfall, dressed and collected our horses. Knowing we were returning home, our horses’ energy was renewed, and we galloped across the breathtaking landscape.
After our midday meal, my husband and I collected our horses and decided to return to the first waterfall, Maria Augusta that had so captured our interest the first day. Although a little more crowded than desirable, we enjoyed the beach and water, warmed by the sun. Other visitors were busy gearing up to repel the waterfall. We decided to ride to the waterfall’s summit, in order to capture a different view. At the summit, the waterfall took on a totally different ambiance; we bathed in its many pools and then returned with our horses to the lodge. We spent that night the same as the last, thoroughly enjoying our campfire and creek bed camping spot.
Already the Tuesday of Carnival, we planned to make this day an important one. We still had to visit Quilombo, an amazing three-tiered waterfall about 7km from our campsite. While some of our companions decided to hike, we opted for a bumpy ride through the hills in our 4X4 truck. We reached the base of the waterfall after about a 45-minute drive. Parking the truck under a tree, we began our trek up the base to the first lagoon. It was beautiful! The waterfall cascaded down, creating a large pool. We swam out to large rocks in the center of the lagoon and sunned our selves. Others climbed the surrounding cliffs and jumped into the refreshing waters. I borrowed an intertube from a local Indian and paddled my way around from side to side.
Though very content here, we decided to venture further and discover the waterfalls second tier. We climbed a steep path, aided by a local guide. The second tier was beautiful as well- the waterfall fell down creating a pool surrounded by stair casing rocks. We rested there, enjoying the view.
Tired, but determined, we ventured to the summit. The heat poured down on our bodies and we looked forward to relaxing in the pools of the summit-we were not disappointed. From the summit, we received an entirely new view. It was enormous. The waterfall created several large pools here, and we each picked one for ourselves, enjoying the sun now in the cool water. The current was stronger here, too, so the pools flowed into each other, creating smaller waterfalls. I rested against the current, feeling the water massage my tired body. It was beautiful, and we stayed there for several hours.
That night we enjoyed our last meal at Pousada Mata do Engenho, and said our goodbyes to the other guests and some of our companions. Those who still remained enjoyed one last bonfire, drinking pinga and recounting the beauty of the past couple days.
We left the next morning to return to São Paulo state. Although Carnival was over, and I felt as though I had missed some of the traditional festivities, my adventure in Serra da Canastra seemed to transcend samba, beaches, and naked chicks. I had experienced Carnival on the sandy beaches of Maria Augusta, heard the music in the waters of Quilombo, and been awed by the naked beauty of Serra da Canastra.