A guide to Brazil's Chapada Diamantina
The Chapada Diamantina is one of our favourite parts of Brazil.
The Chapada Diamantina (pr. sha-Pah-da dja-man-Chee-na) has probably the best hiking in Brazil and is a paradise for swimming in pools and for waterfalls like the stunning Cachoeira Fumaça, which has a 400m vertical drop.
Chapada is a term describing highland plateaus and cliffs and Diamantina refers to the diamonds that were found here and 'mined' extensively from the mid C19th.
The mountains are formed by some of the oldest rocks in the world, mainly sedimentary rocks like cuarcites and agglomerate rocks. They form a landscape of flat top mountains (similar to the Venezuelan Tepis) with sheer cliffs rising high above surrounding flatlands. The rocks have an orange colour that looks wonderful, particularly at sunset.
The area is about 400km inland, west of Salvador in Bahia state in the Northeast region of Brazil in the middle of the dry sertão (back-country plains).
It is an important water source with many rivers starting here. These rivers make incredible waterfalls as they fall off the vertical walls of the mountains. The vegetation is of open grassy fields with isolated trees (similar to the African savannah) with some thicker vegetation along the rivers.
At the top of the flat top hills the vegetation is particularly weird and fantastic. Wildlife is not very easy to spot. Apart from humming birds and vultures you are unlikely to see the anteaters or jaguars which live here.
Walking in the Chapada Diamantina
In the mountains your surroundings are beautiful, serene and other-worldly. You could be forgiven for thinking you'd gone back in time to a prehistoric world in the heart of the mountains.
The walking itself isn't too stretching (though a decent level of fitness is needed for some stretches) and is often on just-there paths so that you don't feel that you're tramping along a well-beaten track.
There are few other visitors, and no roads or motors, so it's beautifully quiet. The only transport in and out of the mountains is on foot or on the back of a mule or horse.
As well as the walking, which would be a pleasure on its own, the spectacular sights (waterfalls, mountain tops etc) make real highlights.
Beyond the walking and sight-seeing, it's just a delightful place to be. The climate is good (warm but with a pleasant breeze), the towns are pleasant (and few and far between) and the people friendly, helpful and laid- back.
With the creation of the National Park, tourism is clearly the biggest industry here, but it doesn't feel it: mostly you get the impression that most people are just getting on with life as normal in rural Bahia.
There's a particularly wonderful walk through the Pati Valley described here.
See our climate guide for tips on when is the best time of year to visit.
Diamonds, Mining and Recent History
The Chapada Diamantina's mineral deposits were formed when it started life as the deposits from rivers washing sand, diamonds, gold, etc down from the volcanic highlands of what is now southern Africa (roughly where Namibia is now) and depositing them in the sea.
The mining occurred on the surface, with water flows diverted and channelled to suitable spots where it would be used to wash away lighter rocks, leaving the denser rocks and diamonds.
Once tonnes of lighter rocks have been washed away, the remaining material was sorted and sifted using ever-finer gauged sieves to reveal, every so often, a precious diamond.
You can see fascinating remains of the water channels, rock workings, graded piles of rocks and the miners' shelters near Andaraí.
The diamond boom in the Chapada Diamantina faded with the emergence of the far more efficient mines of South Africa from about 1871. The very last of the mining ceased with the creation of the National Park in 1985, although to all intents and purposes mining on any commercial scale had finished some years before.
The heritage of the diamond rush period is in the beautiful architecture found in the towns like Lençois or Igatu. Lençois is was once important enough to have a French vice-consulate in the town.
We recommend Roy Funch's book ""A visitor's guide to the Chapada Diamantina mountains"", though you'll probably have to go to Lençois or Salvador to find a copy.
The best sights and experiences will be found on walks into the mountains. These can be short excursions (eg to see the Fumaça waterfall) or longer treks such as a 4-5 day Capão and Pati Valley hike.