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.

SC-390: the view from the lookout platform on top of the plateau. You can see nicely how the road disappears into the distance towards the coast. Though you don’t see many of the hairpin bends from here – for that vista you have to stop at a small viewing platform further down the mountain.

SC-390: the view from the lookout platform on top of the plateau. You can see nicely how the road disappears into the distance towards the coast. Though you don’t see many of the hairpin bends from here – for that vista you have to stop at a small viewing platform further down the mountain.

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.

SC-390: the incline on the lower section is more gentle = fun to drive through these magnificent green mountains.

SC-390: the incline on the lower section is more gentle = fun to drive through these magnificent green mountains.

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.

SC-390: some of the hairpins winding down the hill - as seen from the passenger window.

SC-390: some of the hairpins winding down the hill – as seen from the passenger window.

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!

We want to encourage you to leave the coast and explore the mountains in the south of Brazil. The SC-390 is a stunning road, which winds its way from the coast up to over 1400 meters on a plateau. Here you will find cooler clean air, many colourful old European settlements, apple orchards, and interesting hikes under Araucaria trees to the many waterfalls.

Pin this for later!

The Rio do Rastro Falls right next to the road. There are more impressive waterfalls visible on the other side of the valley.

The Rio do Rastro Falls right next to the road. There are more impressive waterfalls visible on the other side of the valley.

 

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.

The tourist attraction of 'Snow Valley' - in our opinion not really worth a stop. You can find better zip-lines at other places, like the one crossing the Avencal waterfall.

The tourist attraction of ‘Snow Valley’ – in our opinion not really worth a stop. You can find better zip-lines at other places, like the one crossing the Avencal waterfall.

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).

The upper section of the Avencal waterfall near Urubici.

The upper section of the Avencal waterfall near Urubici.

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 Igreja Matriz in Urubici: an interesting church design. Almost all is made from concrete, including the roof.

The Igreja Matriz in Urubici: an interesting church design. Almost all is made from concrete, including the roof. The walls are broken up with large coloured glass panes.

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 mountains of Santa Catarina and Rio Grande are Araucaria country. The Brazilian Araucaria species is different to the one found in Argentina and Chile, though from far they look very much the same.

The mountains of Santa Catarina and Rio Grande are Araucaria country. The Brazilian Araucaria species is different to the one found in Argentina and Chile, though from far they look very much the same.

We went searching for another waterfall (which we didn't find). But the drive was lovely, except for the potholes, and we passed many rich looking farms.

We went searching for another waterfall (which we didn’t find). But the drive was lovely, except for the potholes, and we passed many rich looking farms.

One of the well-kept old timber houses. They are all painted very brightly and add colour to the landscape. This one complete with a collection of garden gnomes.

One of the well-kept old timber houses. They are all painted very brightly and add colour to the landscape. This one complete with a collection of garden gnomes.

Another rich looking farm along the gravel road where we searched for another waterfall.

Another rich looking farm along the gravel road where we searched for another waterfall.

 

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.

The Museum of German Immigration outside Bom Retiro. Unfortunately closed when we wanted to visit...

The Museum of German Immigration outside Bom Retiro. Unfortunately closed when we wanted to visit…

A stunningly situated and renovated old German settlers' house near Bom Retiro (near the German museum). Apparently these houses were designed by a German architect and built in the 50s and 60s.

A stunningly situated and renovated old German settlers’ house near Bom Retiro (near the German museum). Apparently these houses were designed by a German architect and built in the 50s and 60s.

 

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.

The road from Florianópolis into the mountains is called the "European Valley". Here the turn-off to Alfredo Wagner (another German name).

The road from Florianópolis into the mountains is called the “European Valley”. Here the turn-off to Alfredo Wagner (another German name).

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.

SC-390: it can get tight in bends with oncoming trucks. But most drivers are courteous.

SC-390: it can get tight in bends with oncoming trucks. But most drivers are courteous.

SC-390: zoomed into one of the tight situations around the hairpin bends. So drive slowly and be prepared to stop.

SC-390: zoomed into one of the tight situations around the hairpin bends. So drive slowly and be prepared to stop.

 

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.

Possible route, via SC-390 and São Joaquim, to Gramado. NOTE: part is unpaved!

Possible route, via SC-390 and São Joaquim, to Gramado. NOTE: part is unpaved!

An artist's impression of the SC-390 going up the steep embankment.

An artist’s impression of the SC-390 going up the steep embankment.

 

The Towns

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.

Did we tell you that all small towns look neat and tidy? This old, but lovingly renovated German house in Rancho Queimado is a typical example...

Did we tell you that all small towns look neat and tidy? This old, but lovingly renovated German house in Rancho Queimado is a typical example…

The São Joaquim district is apple country - which is repeated in the pattern of their footpath paving.

The São Joaquim district is apple country – which is repeated in the pattern of their footpath paving.

 

Have we inspired you to visit the mountains of Southern Brazil?
Or have you been already? Please let us know in the ‘comments’ below.


 
If this post inspires you somehow to visit Brazil, we recommend Michael Palin: BRAZIL
Michael Palin‘s book ‘Brazil’
. This beautiful book will convince you to go! BRAZIL is an almost timeless book, with brilliant full-page photographs, which was produced alongside a multi-part BBC television series. Michael Palin describes personal impressions from several trips to Brazil, in his typically light and humorous style…
Find Michael Palin‘s ‘Brazil’ on AMAZON !
[ Affiliate link – but you won’t pay a Cent more. Thank you for your support! ]
 
 

Juergen

webmaster, main photographer & driver, second cook and only husband at dare2go.com. Freelance web designer with nearly 20 years of experience at webbeetle.com.au

You may also like...

12 Responses

  1. Sue Slaght says:

    Juergen when I saw the lead photo I actually gasped out loud. Wow! Now this looks like an amazing road trip. Love the way you are traveling and taking your time to really explore.

    • Juergen says:

      No wonder it made it onto the list of The Guardian. We didn’t know about it when I wrote our blog post (or wanted to go back).

  2. Marcia says:

    Spectacular. Breathtakingly beautiful. If I ever make it to Brazil, I’ll have to check it out

  3. Linda Bibb says:

    Interesting. Thanks for sharing your story on #TheWeeklyPostcard, Juergen. With the exception of a few photos of Rio, Brazil is pretty much a complete unknown to me and it is nice to read your road trip account. It’s even prettier than I had imagined and I’m thinking that I’d like to explore the south.

    I have a funny question though: What varieties of apples grow in Brazil, are they just the usual kinds or do some special ones grow there as well?

    • Juergen says:

      Almost all apples in Brazil are sold as ‘Fuji’; they are similar in taste to the ‘Fuji’ we know from Australia but a lot bigger in size with a thicker skin, a little more greenish in colour with dark red skin. If you get fresh ones (we did in the mountains – at one tourist information office even for free!) they taste very good. In supermarkets you have to watch out for bruised fruit.

  4. I’d never thought of a road trip in Brazil before I read your post, now I’m hooked. The SC-390 looks like my kind of road! #wkendtravelinspiration

    • Juergen says:

      Glad that you enjoyed the post. I guess there is a good reason why the Guardian included it in its list (see post update under first photo).

  5. Good to know that Brazil is not all about beaches and the Pantanal. It looks very nice up in the mountains. #TheWeeklyPostcard

    • Juergen says:

      Brazil has certainly a lot more to offer! You just need some time in this big country to discover all the other treasures.

  6. Ruth says:

    That is one impressive road! Brazil being so big is full of treasures. When I visited Rio, we ventured to the mountains and to Parati (and did a waterfall excursion). We had a wonderful time and were in awe at all the natural beauty.

    • Juergen says:

      The regions north of Florianópolis are still on our route. We’ve read good things about Parati and will certainly visit it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

 

There will be more great content like this! On our Facebook Page you can also keep up with where we are and see the latest photos from our journey.
So why not follow us?

Send this to a friend