Santa Catarina: a Spectacular Mountain Roadtrip
We published this post to encourage people to leave the coast and explore the mountains in the south of Brazil. The mountains are cool, green, and quite beautiful. Many Brazilians know this and the mountains are a popular holiday destination – mainly for people from the sweltering north of Brazil and the surrounding coastal cities. Yet foreigners are a rare sight and not many seem to visit this region, apart from the popular Gramado.
UPDATE: just 5 days before we published this post The Guardian listed the Rio do Rastro road among the 10 great scenic drives around the world (although the article refers to its old number SC-438).
This post covers our third round into the mountains where we are partly retracing routes that we travelled in 2008 . The reason is that we have amazing memories of one particular road: SC-390, which winds its way up from the coast to an altitude of over 1400 metres.
The SC-390 starts outside Tubarão and goes through several small towns with strong German heritage, like Lauro Müller (complete with Umlaut). Up to this town you are driving through a lush green valley with many neat colourful timber houses. Most towns also seem to have some flourishing small industries.
After Lauro Müller the hills get steeper and the vegetation gets denser and greener – if that’s at all possible. Soon the road is only going up, up, and up. To your right you have river valley which is getting deeper and deeper. To Brazilians this road is also known as “Serra do Rio do Rastro”, which is actually the name of the mountain range.
After the first couple of hairpin bends you have a sheer drop of several hundred meters to your right. People who suffer from vertigo might prefer to look up at the forested slopes and the numerous waterfalls instead.
But soon enough you reach the plateau where windpower generators quietly turn on the ridges and a large parking lot invites you to pull off the road and stop. On a clear day, this lookout gives you an excellent view down the valley towards the hazy coast. Spend some time, watch the vehicles zigzag up or down the same route you just followed. From here, at a distance, they resemble nothing but tiny toy cars.
We spent the night there, observed four shy young foxes play on the parking lot and listened to the wind whistle around our camper home. The next morning we decided to retrace part of SC-390 in order to shoot a few more photos for this post. Crazy us!
In 2008 we drove the same road on our way to Gramado, which is probably the most popular destination in the mountains. Since we had revisited that part of Brazil in October 2015 we decided to turn right after the small town of Bom Jardim da Serra and drive a loop, via Urubici and Alfredo Wagner, to Florianópolis. This is a region we had not been to before.
Funnily enough, along the way we fell for the same tourist trap we fell for in 2008! Large signs along the road announce ‘Snow Valley’, some 4 kilometres past the turn-off towards Urubici. So we thought we might as well drive that far and check it out.
As soon as we stopped there we realised we’d been there in 2008 and were slightly disappointed. It’s really nothing but an overpriced restaurant/shop surrounded by some mediocre ‘attractions’ like a zip line. In 2008 we had hoped to overnight there but, apart from the parking lot right by the road, there’s no space for a vehicle as big as Berta (or our then truck camper).
This time we left very quickly and travelled on until we found a place to stop. It was alongside the track going to the Avencal waterfall, where we spent a quiet night before visiting the falls the next day (private property with a small entrance fee of 5 Reals per person). We spent the next day in and around the town of Uribici, visiting the church and searching for another waterfall in a side valley (which we didn’t find).
The large church, made from concrete and bricks (including the roof), is quite an impressive and airy building. We have noticed many times before that you encounter a rather unique style of building contemporary churches in Brazil.
The region is quite pleasant and known for its temperate climate; the lowest recorded temperature in Brazil (-17.8°C) was measured nearby in 1996. The climate is perfect for growing apples. Sometimes, when we drove through orchards, our driver’s cab would fill with the sweet aroma of ripe apples. In spring it must be amazing to drive past the flowering orchards.
The next day we continued our road trip. A sign for a ‘Museum of the History of German Migration’ lured us into the small town of Bom Retiro. It took some asking to find the museum some 4 kilometres, along a bumpy gravel road, outside of town. (GPS waypoint: -27:46.52218 / -49:26.76933) When we arrived it was locked up.
So instead we used the town’s free WiFi to upload our weekly blog update and chatted with some friendly locals in the shady park. That’s when we learned (too late for us) that a family living in one of the neighbouring houses has the key to the museum.
We left mid afternoon and drove as far as Rancho Queimado, another neat town with strong German heritage, nestled into a valley. At the ‘Panificadora Heinz’ we bought some crisp white bread rolls and yummy home-made cake. Then we settled down for a quiet night on an empty lot right in town. The next day we went back for more bread before we continued into the urban clutter of Florianópolis and its satellite towns.
Once more we found that Brazil has so much more to offer than long sandy beaches and highrise towns. The cool rolling hills of the mountains, dotted with Araucaria trees and dense forest, make for a pleasant escape from the heat of the coast and invite you to partake in activities like hiking, bird watching, and exploring waterfalls and river canyons.
Practical Roadtrip Information SC-390
The distance between Lauro Müller and Bom Jardim da Serra is roughly 40 kilometers. The steepest section of road is probably less that 15 kilometers long.
Overall we didn’t find the drive too challenging. Most of the road is in good repair, and the side with the drop is lined with a continuous concrete barrier to keep cars from falling down. There’s also street lighting at night to highlight the most treacherous parts. A good number of pull-outs provide stopping places to let your engine cool down or to get out and take some photos (though: over half of these are too narrow for our truck).
You should drive slowly to enjoy the vista, but also because trucks and buses need the full pavement width to get around some of the sharp hairpin bends. In most cases oncoming traffic slows down early for larger vehicles to pass through such obstacles.
We must say that we found most of the Brazilian drivers on this road to be fairly cautious and courteous. We didn’t witness any of the reckless “me first – out of my way” mentality we often encountered in similar situations in Argentina: no overly dangerous overtaking or excessive cutting of corners.
This time we drove SC-390 on a weekend and there was more excursion traffic than you would be likely to see on weekdays, but probably fewer commercial trucks. There seems to be a length restriction in place for trucks and buses which use this road. We didn’t see any vehicles pulling trailers.
Route Option to Drive to Gramado
This post covers one possible route, coming from the north, to get to Gramado. Please note that the shortest connection from São Joaquim to Gramado is partly unpaved and might be difficult in wet conditions. On the other hand, going this way you bypass several road toll stations.
In October 2015 we drove up from Torres to the absolutely stunning Canyon Itaimbezinho , from where we continued to Gramado. Part of that road is also unpaved but well worth the bumps to get to the National Park. There is only one toll booth, shortly before you reach Canela.
Most towns in the mountains of Santa Catarina and Rio Grande do Sul are fairly small and quiet. All have rather “neat appearance” and feel relaxed and safe. We have written about their strong European heritage before. Most towns offer a wide range of tourist facilities; eg Urubici has over 60 Pousadas (guest houses) surrounding it.
Have we inspired you to visit the mountains of Southern Brazil?
Or have you been already? Please let us know in the ‘comments’ below.