Morro do Pai Inacio is part of Chapada Diamantina National Park. // © 2017 Kelley Ferro
Feature image (above): Swimming is allowed at the national park’s Poco Azul. // © 2017 Kelley Ferro
Chapada Diamantina, the “Diamond Plateau,” is an expansive national park located about 250 miles west of Salvador, the Brazilian state of Bahia’s capital. Named for its world-renowned diamond mines that were in operation from the mid-1800s up through the latter half of the 1900s, this protected park now focuses on a different kind of jewel: natural wonders. Chapada Diamantina National Park is not for travelers who prefer a relaxing, laid-back vacation, however — this is a place for adventure. Native bird calls are more frequent than the sound of samba beats, and late nights spent dancing are traded in for pre-dawn mornings on the trail. So, if your clients are eager to explore caves, hike mountains and swim in subterranean pools, Chapada Diamantina is paradise.
Chapada Diamantina appealed to me for its blend of traditional culture, outdoor pursuits and mind-blowing nature. Luckily, my Intrepid Travel guide was up for the challenge of exploring as much as possible in three nights and four days. Below are tips I gathered from my trip.
How to Get There
Getting to Chapada Diamantina is part of the adventure. Visitors can take a five- to six-hour car or bus ride from Salvador or save time with a one-hour direct flight to Lencois.
As backpackers already know, Lencois is a prime home base for exploring the park. Not only is this former mining town well-positioned to have easy access to the best day trips of Chapada Diamantina, but its colonial architecture and Bohemian vibe also make it a destination unto itself. In the evenings, the streets buzz with locals and visitors winding down with a beer and carne-de-sol (sundried beef) as they rest their weary legs. A variety of charming hotels and family-run pousadas (inns) offer clients a range of accommodation options from luxurious to budget-friendly.
Chapada Diamantina is certainly isolated, but this remoteness only adds to its charm. All its visitors have worked hard to arrive here, but these efforts don’t end upon arrival; travel within the national park’s 400,000 acres is a big part of the experience. A sturdy four-wheel drive vehicle and a tough attitude are required as bouncing around on rocky dirt roads — which are laden with potholes — is inevitable.
Poco do Diabo
Hardly as foreboding as it sounds, Poco do Diabo (Devil’s Pool) is one of the park’s most accessible hikes, and features mild terrain. Bonus: It is only 30 minutes by car from Lencois. The entrance, marked by a cafe and gift shop, leads visitors on a well-marked trail along the ridge of a mountain. About 25 minutes of walking later, guests will arrive at the main viewpoint, which features a bird's-eye vista of the waterfall. Then, they can carefully navigate down to the cold Poco do Diabo for a refreshing yet brisk swim. The whole experience can take under an hour, but budget in some more time to take photos, play in the mineral-rich waters or enjoy a cliffside picnic.
Poco Encantado, the cave pool of Chapada Diamantina, might be the major highlight of the entire national park. It will take around two hours to reach via a dusty, potholed road, and the rigorous descent into the darkness of the cave calls for hard hats and headlamps, as well as careful footing. But the payoff is huge: My first glimpse of this deep-blue pool was literally breathtaking. The still, crystalline waters reflects the rest of the cave so flawlessly, it almost seems like there is no water in it all. Plus, the quiet beauty of Poco Encantado can be fully appreciated because swimming is not allowed.
The best time to visit is during April to September, the only months where sunlight filters through a narrow shaft in the cave and illuminates the famous pool.
Clients will head back in the 4x4 to reach the second famous subterranean grotto: Poco Azul. Instead of hard hats, a canoe was required to ferry us across a stream and then bring us to the cave’s entrance. Because this pool is more accessible, crowds tend to be thicker.
The 75-degree Poco Azul allows swimming in its glittering, cyan water, and, at certain times of the day, filtered light reacts to the magnesium levels in the pool and turns the water into an almost electric shade of turquoise. Also, when swimming, be sure to look down — with water this clear, the pool’s bottom located 60 feet deep appears almost within grasp.
Morro do Pai Inacio
Change up the elevation with a summit climb at Morro do Pai Inacio (Mount of Pai Inacio), a jewel of the national park that should not be skipped. Visitors should time the experience to occur before sunset, which will allow for a leisurely ascent and plenty of time to marvel at the 360-degree view at the top. With only one main trail, and a steady flow of fellow sunset-seekers, the way up might feel a little slow. On the bright side, the trail is well-maintained, making it manageable for all levels.
Like many of the mountains in this region, Morro do Pai Inacio has a flat top, allowing visitors to wander freely across its wide expanse. With seemingly endless views of the other flat-topped mountains, the hardest part is determining how to capture this magnificent experience on camera. My suggestion would be to put the camera down and just bask in its beauty firsthand — you’ve earned it.
Owned by the same family for generations, this natural amusement park of sorts earns the label as the most commercialized of all the sites within Chapada Diamantina National Park. However, if you put the crowds and inflated prices aside, there are a few unique activities that make Fazenda Pratinha worth a pit stop.
A cliffside zipline that plummets into the water definitely pumps up the adrenaline for thrill-seekers. However, I preferred the snorkeling experience inside a pitch-black, underwater cave. Lit only by my headlamp, we silently glided through the clear waters, maneuvering around corners and tight spaces, and trying not to jump when surprised by schools of silvery fish.