When was the last time you visited a country where an ATM machine wouldn't accept your debit or credit card?
We had just arrived in São Paolo, and the fact that four of five machines in the airport would reject our cards was puzzling. As if Brazil —the largest economy in the Southern Hemisphere and global player— had very little use for travellers from abroad. And why would it? The country is home to a soda drink that only exists in Brazil (Guarana), a cell phone made there (Gradiente), a local cinema industry that attracts over 20 million visitors per year with Brazilian films, the most bubbling music scene and industry with hundreds of composers —not to talk about thousands of musicians, and well beyond Bossa-Nova mind you— and so on and on. Brazil is a powerhouse of energy both culturally and economically, and is totally self sustained. Not that Brazilians would be indifferent to visitors, on the contrary, they are always ready for a chat, perhaps even curious of them, self confident but happy to get to know others. That's how we experienced Bahia, in July of 2010.
The trip took us for a few days to Salvador and then mainly to the Chapada Diamantina National Park, the old epicentre of diamond mining in 19th century Brazil. And with it, we got to learn about the little known treasures hidden in the area, but also about Brazil's dark history of slavery.
Let's start with Lençóis, a little known gem of colonial origin and now a typical chapada town, which became our base for tours and hikes through the rather unbelievably beautiful surroundings.
The probably most stunning views I have ever seen (!) are the two blue lagoons, Poço Encantado and Poço Azul. Both are caves filled with waters of high mineral content, in particular magnesium. The few incoming rays of light that hit the water create a bright blue glow —quite sensational. But, there is more. A climb to the Morro of Pai Inácio offers a great view of the valley, specially at sunset. And, there are of course the various waterfalls, where the iron rich water shines in bright orange.
Lençóis was the centre for diamond trading in the 19th century, a chapter of its history that is strongly connected with slavery. The facts about slavery in Brazil will make your breathing become shallow. By 1888, when slavery was finally abolished in Brazil about four million Africans had been "imported". Considering that typically only half of them would actually survive the treatment and the trip across the Atlantic, some eight million people must have been forced away from their lives over three centuries. Most slaves were occupied as labor in the sugar plantations in Bahia, but many were also used for diamond mining. In fact, one of the main buildings in the central place of Lençóis is the Slave's Market —a wide covered plaza with porticoes as entrance.
With a bit of luck tour operators in Lençóis may be able to organise you a meeting with the last miner in the Chapada, seu Cori who will give you an insight into the life of diamond chasers of a time —an impressive account, considering that the last garimpeiro is in his nineties.
Salvador is a modern metropolitan city, the proud economic and cultural centre of Brazil's north-east that nurtures a healthy rivalry with its sisters Rio and São Paolo. The old city centre is an acknowledge jewel of colonial architecture. And, it is not surprising to find here many traces of African origins, such as the trance rhythms taught in Salvador's samba schools or some dishes of Bahia cuisine. By the way, the Afro-Brazilian museum in Salvador has some beautiful art pieces on display, mostly masks and furniture.
Bahia can also be inspiring. In spite of adverse conditions and the many problems waiting to be solved, there is a visible urge to move forward.