I am getting a shiatsu massage while listening to the soothing sounds of a waterfall and the songs of tropical birds. Except this time, the sound effects are not on a CD. I am lying, blissfully, in a tree house at Hotel Canto das Águas (Song of the Water) in Lençóis, Brazil, and the only thing that separates me from the parrots, monkeys, and ripe mangoes is a billowing curtain of white parachute silk.
With my trapizeus muscles the consistency of Jello, I am ready to tour Chapada Diamentina (Diamond Highlands), a 15,000-sq.-mi. national park named for the diamond and gold mines that created Brazil’s wealth in the 18th century.
In the sleepy town square, just a short walk from my hotel, a dozen tour operators compete for my attention, offering hiking, biking, horseback riding, kayaking, and something called “cave jumping.” Each store-front office is staffed by an earnest, young, English-speaking tour operator sitting behind a laptop. I walk past the lean, muscular staff at Extreme Trekking and choose Nas Alturas Travel Agency, where Vanessa Almeida assures me that I don’t have to be a “Survivor” contestant to enjoy all that Chapada Diamentina has to offer.
Being the kind of person who can get injured in a beginner yoga class, I choose a half-day van tour with minimal hiking. Our group includes a veterinarian from France and his wife, a couple from Brasilia, and a woman from Holland. Our guide nimbly switches from Portuguese to Spanish, English, and French.
Just a mile and a half from town, we stop at the Ribeirao do Meio rock-slide and the Sossego Waterfall, then it’s on to the small fishing village of Remanso for a boat ride through the maze of the Marimbus wetlands.
The topography of Chapada Diamantina is mesmerizing in its variety, combining arid rock formations reminiscent of the Grand Canyon with lush, tropical rainforests. One-and-a-half billion years ago, the ocean covered the region and the present topography is the result geologists call “landscape inversion.” Areas that had been underwater are now arid. Lands that had been dry now lie under rivers, waterfalls, and wetlands. Ancient rocks have been sculpted into curious shapes.
The region is extremely rich in its biodiversity and many conservation areas have been created to protect the water resources and the natural beauty of the area. There are literally hundreds of waterfalls in the Chapada, including the Fumaça Waterfall, one of the highest in all of Brazil. Over 50 types of orchids are in bloom in the Chapada from April to August and, if you’re a bird lover, you”ll be delighted by the 150 species of brightly colored herons, hummingbirds, and other residents of the Atlantic Rain Forest.
For those seeking an adrenaline rush, the Chapada offers bungee jumping inside the largest quartzite cave in Brazil, trekking the old diamond miners” trails, mountain biking, hang gliding, and off-road adventures. Just thinking about all that exertion puts me in the mood for dinner. Azul, the restaurant at Canto das Aguas, is excellent, and has stunning views of a waterfall, but I’ve got gastronomic wanderlust and stroll around the village, peering into its many eateries. My nose leads me to Cozinha Aberta (Open Kitchen). Inside, I find chef Deborah Doitschinoff, originally of Sal Paulo, at her stove. It smells divine. Doitschinoff is a member of the “slow food” movement, meaning she only uses local, seasonal ingredients. There’s no menu, just a blackboard announcing the evening’s specialty: “Salmon with Moroccan Couscous,” for 29 Realies ($14). There are just half a dozen tables on a terrace overlooking the river. I’ve struck gold!
While lingering over dessert, an ethereal Crème Caramel, I hear music in the distance. Lençois, like all Brazilian towns, is in a constant state of fiesta. This one is called Festa do Senhor Bom Jesus dos Passos. While these festivals usually have a religious overtone, they are basically about community—an opportunity for children to indulge in cotton candy, costumes, and games, and for adults to sing, dance, and celebrate their culture. In Lençoise, that culture is a mix of indigenous Indian, African, and Portuguese. Musicians wearing straw hats festooned with multi-colored satin ribbons play music that, to my ears, sounds Peruvian, and cavort in animal masks and costumes. Fire crackers explode throughout the night and, yet, the overall feeling is one of serenity and calm.
If you go to Hotel Canto Das Águas, ask for a room over the waterfall or, if you want to go for the ultimate luxury, book their elegant Superior Suite, Number 308, which features a very sexy, open-floor plan with a Jaccuzi and an open glass shower. At 860.00 Realies, about $400 US, it’s a steal.
Plan to spend three to five nights to take in the full beauty of Chapada Diamentina. Also plan to buy yourself “a piece of the rock” at Pietra Rara, a jewelry shop adjacent to the hotel that features the one-of-a-kind artistry of jewelry designers Roberto Diaz and Yara Fernandes. Using precious and semi-precious stones of the region, they create necklaces, bracelets, and earrings unlike anything you”ll find in the States.
Remember Fantasy Island, the TV show that began each episode with shouts of “Dee plane! Dee plane”? Well, don’t expect to be greeted by Ricardo Montelban, but there really is a tropical island where your most exotic dreams come true. Brazilians call it Kiaroa Eco Luxury Resort. Located south of Salvador, Kiaroa is an exclusive hideaway nestled amid the Marau eco-santuary peninsula. There is only one way to arrive, by private plane. With only 29 thatched roofed rooms and bungalows, many with private pools and whirlpools, you won’t be bumping into the Joneses here. More likely, the “Brangelinas.” You”ll sleep on Egyptian cotton sheets, dine on haute cuisine, and surrender to the pleasures of a world-class spa. Depending on your preference, rooms offer views of the jungle, forest, or ocean.
Want to go where the wild things are? Kiaroa will arrange adventure tours and eco-excursions led by expert guides. Me? I”m heading to a hammock in the shade with a pineapple capirhina, a Brazilian cocktail made from casacha (sugar cane liquor) and crushed fresh fruit. Plan to spend at least five days here.
Salvador, the capital of Bahia and the first capital of Brazil, will be your gate of entry to northeast Brazil. There are direct flights from Miami daily. The city is divided into two levels, the upper level containing the Pelourinho, the city’s colonial district and a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the lower level or bay area. You”ll be most comfortable at the oceanfront Pestana Bahia Hotel or the Salvador Sofitel at Itapoa Beach.
There’s no shortage of fine dining in Salvador. The local cuisine has a strong African influence with lots of palm oil and coconut milk. Try acareje, a fired bean cake street food sold by Bahianas, women in ornate traditional costume. For seafood, go to Yemanja Restaurant and try the Bo Bo Camarao, a creamy shrimp stew, or Moqueca. One of Brazil’s top 10 chefs, Beto Pimentel, can be found at Paraiso Tropical, and for sophisticated dining on the bay, make reservations at Amada. Ask your hotel concierge to arrange transportation and reservations for one of Salvador’s outstanding folklore shows or attend a performance of Ballet Folklorico of Bahia. For souvenirs, head over to Mercado Modelo, the marketplace with a vast second-floor restaurant featuring local cuisine, cold beer, and outdoor seating with great views of the city and bay.