What Happens When You Leave the Main Roads?
Part 1 about our slow travel in Southern Brazil: we discover canyons, nature, and theme parks
When we entered Brazil recently, we were travelling with a German couple who have a similar vehicle to our Berta. It is nice to share experiences with other travellers. But we are also honest about the way we like to travel and, after a week together, we realised that our travel speeds were not compatible. Since we have slowed down again, we have found some amazing, out-of-the-way places that we have taken time to get to and spent time enjoying.
That’s not to say that we didn’t come across some interesting sights whilst travelling in tandem. The day we crossed the border into Brazil we drove through land that was often covered in water. It seems that southern Brazil has been having more rain than they need! This led into an amazing wetland that gave us views of Rheas, Storks and other water-loving birds, as well as more Capybaras than you can poke a stick at! We later discovered we had been driving through Estação Ecológico do Taim – a protected nature reserve.
Another interesting, but not so delightful, experience was driving around Porto Alegre a couple of days later. We suddenly realised that we were seeing people in distress due to recent flooding in the area. There were many sheltering in makeshift tent and plastic sheeting accommodation along the roadside, and behind them we could see the water from the river coming right up to, between, and into their houses! Fortunately, we could also see aid being supplied from army trucks and buses along the way.
When we parted from our friends, our goal was to reach the Parque Nacional de Aparados da Serra, which had been recommended to us by some Brazilian travellers we had met earlier this year in La Serena, Chile. We keep in touch on Facebook and when they realised we were near their hometown of Porto Alegre, they told us that we shouldn’t miss the canyon in this park – and they were right!
Since crossing the border with Uruguay we had been basically following the coast of Brazil’s southern-most state, Rio Grande do Sul. To reach the park we had to drive inland from Torres to the small town of Praia Grande. From there it is just over 20Km up into the mountains – the Serra. The day was overcast and, as we ascended, we drove through mist that was very wet. Initially the road surprised us by being paved – except when you came to a hairpin bend where the paving stopped, only to start again on the other side… Juergen thinks it’s to slow people down, and he might be right. After a while the paving stopped altogether.
The road was wet and pot-holed and winding and steep in places. Juergen engaged the 4-wheel drive and we crawled our way up the hill around countless hairpins. As we climbed the mist turned to thick fog which I’m pretty sure is actually low cloud. We were halfway up and it was getting late – we were grateful to find an almost level spot on the side of the road to spend the night. I’m sure there would have been a fabulous view if we hadn’t been surrounded by cloud!
We woke early, still surrounded by cloud. As we drove it seemed to get thicker. With around 7Km to go the fog was so dense that we could hardly see 10m in front of us, and Juergen said that there was probably no point in going to the park – I was still hopeful.
I was right to put my faith in our quest to see the canyon. By the time we arrived at the gate to the park the fog had cleared considerably, and we were feeling positive. The guy at the gate spoke a little English and asked us if we were over 60. When we said yes, he asked us to pay just 10 Reals for the truck parking, and for us it was free – usually it would be 14 Reals per person. A second thing to be grateful for this morning!
When I came into the information centre the guy who greeted me didn’t speak any English and not much Spanish. By the time Juergen arrived and we were ready for some info, there was a group of Brazilians already there. One friendly woman gave us the English version of what she had just been told: There are two trails to see the canyon – Trilha Do Cotovelo, which is 3Km one way and gives you a view of about 70% of the canyon; Trilha Do Vertice which is 1Km and allows a view of only 30%. Since it was around 11.30, we thought to do the short walk, have lunch and then do the longer walk. As we were about to walk off, I went back to the information centre to check we were heading in the right direction. There was another visitor there who spoke perfect English, and he suggested that we should really go to Cotovelo first because the cloud comes down in the afternoons and we might not be able to see anything. We took his advice.
It took us about 40 minutes to reach the first viewpoint over the canyon, and we spent close to an hour along its edge – looking up and down. It was beautiful. At first it was just a bit cloudy, but there was lots of blue sky and some sunshine. By the time we left to walk back at around 1.15 the cloud had started to drop down into the canyon. We were very thankful we had taken that young man’s advice.
We walked back, had lunch and then headed out to Trilha Do Vertice. It was a pretty much a wasted trip because by then the canyon was totally filled with cloud and there was nothing to be seen. There were a lot of things that made our visit to the canyon even more enjoyable and we are very grateful to the people along the way who were responsible for some of them – and of course to the cloud gods who gave us enough clear weather to enjoy the magnificent Canyon Itaimbezinho, as it is known locally.
The next day we arrived in the area of Canela and Gramado. We had already visited this area on our last trip in December 2008 , and were really just passing through this time. But I had read of a waterfall near Canela which we hadn’t seen, and I don’t like to miss a waterfall. I pictured a gravel road with a quiet parking lot and not too many people around. The road is clearly marked from Canela and is nothing like I had expected. The whole thing is paved, in very good condition for a Brazilian road, and it seems to be one theme park after another: Mundo Gelado – Frozen World – where you can experience below zero temperatures; a dinosaur park with what is supposed to look like a living, roaring specimen to draw in the crowds; a German village with half-timbered cottages and a centre-piece that looks a bit like a miniature castle. By the time we reached the waterfall, we were no longer surprised that it also presented a huge front gate, a large sign – Parque Estadual do Caracol – and a queue! It was Sunday, after all.
We stopped for lunch in the parking lot, and when we were about to drive down again we decided to turn right instead – there was a road there which was labelled with Estrada Caracol-Ferradura on our GPS. The sign on the road said, Caminho das Graҫas, literally the Path of Grace. This pilgrims walk is connected to the Caminho de Santiago de Compostela in Spain through a group called ACASARGS – Associaҫão dos Amigos do Caminho de Santiago do Rio Grande do Sul – friends of the Caminho de Santiago in this southernmost state of Brazil. There are many images of saints along this road (which are to be a source of reflection and prayer for the visitors) and a very beautiful chapel built of stone, Capela Santa Cecília.
We kept driving along the road and found a sign to Parque Fazenda Mirante e Trilhas Vista 180 Graus 600MTS Profundidade A 1800MTS – we took it to mean that there was some sort of park 1800m ahead which had a lookout with 180 degree views to a depth of 600m, in other words, another canyon. After our previous experience, our interest was sparked.
We arrived at a strange looking gate with an equally unusual looking older man hanging about, dressed in an almost complete traditional Gaucho outfit. He spoke Brazilian very quickly and didn’t understand much of our Spanish, but he eventually made it clear where we should go. As we walked up the hill where he had pointed us, we noticed these yellow plastic posts in the ground, which guided us up and across to a stone-edged pathway that eventually led us to a boardwalk.
At the end of the boardwalk there is a large viewing platform that hangs out towards an enormous canyon. This man is perhaps piggy-backing off the nearby national park, but he has put some work into it, and we happily paid him 15 Reals for the pleasure of the experience. A great find! There was nobody else around and the views were stunning.
We spent a little time around Gramado and Canela – just enough to remind ourselves that these tourist-oriented towns are not really our thing! The streets of Gramado were full of activity, erecting the elaborate Christmas decorations that the city is famous for – it was the last week in October!
Then we drove on to Nova Petropólis and our third canyon for that week was just a few kilometres outside the town. We took at least a 12Km detour to Ninho das Águias (a place set up for hang gliding) for a big view over the valleys between Vale Real Feliz and Nova Petropolis, including Bento Conҫalves, Farroupihla, Vale do Cai, and Caxias do Sul – places we had been or were on our way to. It was interesting but didn’t have the WOW factor of the previous two!
Brazil has been very interesting, so far: we joined up with fellow travellers, and discovered that slow travel is our priority. This allowed us to take a fellow traveller’s advice about his home, and discover a beautiful location with wonderful views of an enormous canyon. We were looking for a waterfall and a quiet location, but we found theme parks. To avoid the theme parks we discovered a pilgrim’s walk, and an old man’s view of a canyon.
This is why we travel as we do.
Apparantly entry is free to all Brazilian National Parks and Reserves if you are 60 years old or older. We have experienced this several times, but the final test will come at Iguazu Falls.
The official website (in Portuguese) of the Parque Nacional Aparados da Serra, use main menu for other sites!
Tip: we recommend doing the longer walk, Trilha Do Cotovelo, before lunchtime whenever there is low cloud expected in Aparados da Serra, .