Look beyond the flashy nightlife and frenzy of Brazilian city life and head to an unspoilt wilderness.
Tiago's wet skin glistens in the afternoon sun as he scrambles up the slippery rock wall. Long-limbed, wearing tiny swimming shorts that accentuate his muscular figure, and donning the widest smile I've ever seen, he's quite the character – and quite the memorable guide.
"This is the best waterslide in Chapada Diamantina (Diamond Plateau)," he bellows as he reaches the top of the "waterslide".
The waterslide is, in fact, a waterfall cascading down a rock wall in the luscious forested area surrounding Parque Nacional da Chapada Diamantina (Chapada Diamantina national park) in the state of Bahia in Brazil. Called Ribeirao do Meio (Middle River), it's an easy 45-minute hike from the charming town of Lencois where we've based ourselves for a few nights.
Because it's so close to Lencois, locals visit regularly and Tiago explains that skidding down the waterfall is one of the greatest delights of living in the area. He yells again, this time an undecipherable screech of what I can only assume is excitement, and comically glides down, hands in the air, his shriek getting louder as he descends into the pool of water. He re-emerges wearing an even wider grin.
"Best in Brazil, even," he laughs.
Luscious vegetation is slowly reclaiming the rolling hills, rivers, deep pools and caves.
Chapada Diamantina National Park is brimful of natural delights such as this one. There are spectacular waterfalls (including Brazil's highest, the 340-metre Cachoeira da Fumaca, which is so high that the water vaporises before it hits the ground), mysterious caverns, deep canyons, brilliant blue lagoons, red rock formations, expansive ravines and trails that thread their way in and around these wonders. It's a ravishing land that both astounds and inspires.
The national park is big, 1520 square kilometres. That's an area larger than the country of Malta. The Chapada Diamantina region as a whole is 38,000 square kilometres – that's bigger than Belgium or Israel. And the best bit? It's not overrun with tourists … and perhaps, given its magnitude, might never be. Even Lencois, where many visitors base themselves, rarely feels chaotic.
Life is beautiful in Chapada Diamantina and we get right into the groove.
"It's called beleza," beams Tiago. "It means beautiful – everything is good."
Tiago lives and breathes his aphorism – as does the rest of the population. During the days the residents of Lencois convene to chat, graze on beans and rice, and wave to passers-by, always looking blissfully happy.
There aren't too many passers-by during the day. When the sun is up, most who venture to Chapada Diamantina head out to play in the park. Come nightfall, Lencois turns into a buzzing hive of activity.
Clusters of tourists spill out of cutesy bars that thrum with music, singers roam around crooning ballads to diners for a donation, youngsters chatter about whatever it is that teenagers discuss, and the quiet ones sit and survey the passing parade.
Lencois, along with a few other picturesque towns, including Mucuge, Rio de Contas, Andarai and Morro do Chapeu, was once the base for black industrial diamond mining. Diamonds were mined in the region from 1844 until just 20 years ago). At the time of the diamond mining boom, these towns served as gateways to the national park, and the preserved charming buildings offer a glimpse into the area's intriguing history.
Some of the historical towns remain (with much smaller populations), but today the region is receiving recognition for its natural beauty.
Luscious vegetation is slowly reclaiming the rolling hills, rivers, deep pools and caves. And the tourists that come are looking for adventure – they come to hike, swim, rock climb and zip-line.
We spend one day trekking through the bush near Lencois, passing lush grasslands and wild plains, and traversing our way through sometimes dense, sometimes semi-arid forestry. There are beetles and spiders, but I'm more interested in squirrel monkeys. These tiny, peppy creatures have the body of a squirrel (minus the bushy tail) but the face of a monkey. I'm transfixed watching their nimble bodies as they agilely leap from tree to tree.
The distinct rock formations also have me fascinated.
They are red-tinged and rich in iron, and Tiago explains that some of the rocks are very soft and can disintegrate into sand.
"Even a loud noise or a lot of wind can do it," he says. It's a weirdly captivating environment and I settle into a rhythm of walking, watching and listening.
On the second day we explore the region's water and cave attractions, this time travelling by car to be able to cover off the various interesting sights. We stop for a swim at Poco do Diabo (Devil's Pool), so named because it's said that mine slaves were once tortured and drowned in the water hole. No skeletal remains were ever found … however the story remains.
No one from the group braves the zip-line and instead we splash around and watch the locals defying gravity. The Brazilians not only exude confidence when it comes to their choice of swimwear (think G-strings and string bikini tops for the girls and micro trunks for the guys), they're also not afraid to scream.
Even if I'm looking the other way, I know when someone is rocketing down the zip-line.
In the afternoon, we head to the dazzlingly turquoise Gruta Azul (Blue Cave). This water hole in a partially opened grotto is well known because of its surreal luminosity. For about an hour each day the afternoon sun spears the calcium carbonate and magnesium-rich water at a certain angle, which results in the bizarre blue effect.
Afterwards I fit in a zip-line experience at the nearby water hole and then head straight into the adjoining cave for a snorkel. Here we use torches to negotiate our way around the dark waters. Although we don't see much in the way of marine life, snorkelling in the warm dark water is a new experience for everyone.
The national park is home to an extensive system of quartzite caves and we visit one of the larger and most popular ones – Gruta de Lapao (Lapa Doce Cave). Guided by torchlight, we wander through, gazing at the incredible stalagmite and stalactite formations. Towards the end of our cave walk, Tiago asks us to sit down and turn off our flashlights. Immersed in utter darkness, we sit silently.
At first my eyes feel some strain, then my ears being to ring. Eventually it becomes somewhat restful and I let myself lapse into the richness of nothingness.
We spend our last afternoon trekking to the top of Pai Inacio (Father Inacio) Hill for an epic sunset, ascending step by step into a visceral experience. The wind lashes around us as we gape at the magnificent panorama of cliffs, spurs and plateaus of endless greens.
It's a fitting end to a few fun-filled days – the spectacular vista confirming that although we've seen numerous awe-inspiring sights, there is so much more to discover.
FIVE FOODIE FINDS IN LENCOIS
BANANA LASAGNE Order the banana lasagna at Todos os Santos Lounge & Food and you'll get the Brazilian remix. Lasagna ''sheets" are thin slices of local banana, the mince is sweet, and the handiwork is topped with plump cherry tomatoes and whatever fresh greens are in season. Rua das Pedras, 200; +55 75 9863 7455.
Most restaurants in Lencois close for lunch as all the tourists head out to explore. O Bode (The Goat) stays open and is consequently full. Plenty of meat varieties (including goat meat), crisp-fried cassava chips and rice and beans are some of the must-eat dishes at the Brazilian pay-per-kilo buffet. Praca Horacio de Matos, 849; +55 75 3334 1600.
REAL GOOD MEAT For fork-tender meat, Lampiao Culinaria Nordestina is the place to go. There's usually at least one creative meaty dish on offer (sun-dried rump with a side of cactus, anyone?) but the highlight here is the beef stew. It's got the Brazilian staples – meat and beans – and the flavours combine fabulously. Rua da Baderna, Centro; +55 3334 1157.
It's a breakfast staple, so ask your hotel if it's included in the morning buffet. These little cheesy dough balls – called Pao de Queijo – are made with cassava or tapioca flour and crammed with gooey cheese. Heaven in a ball.
OK, technically it's not food, but quaffing caipirinhas in between the active stuff is part of the Brazilian experience. The concoction is a mix of cachaca (Brazil's most common distilled alcohol), sugar and lime. You can pretty much find caipirinhas anywhere, any time.
Intrepid Travel's 14-day Northern Brazil tour was launched in June 2015. It starts in Rio de Janeiro and ends in Fortaleza and is priced at $3350 per person (based on twin share) with one departure a month from October. The trip includes accommodation, transportation, some meals and activities, and guidance by an expert local leader. See intrepidtravel.com.
Qantas operates non-stop flights between Sydney and Santiago three times per week while LAN Airlines operates seven one-stop flights each week from Sydney to Santiago. Onward connections to Rio de Janeiro (where the Intrepid Travel tour starts) are available through LAN Airlines. See qantas.com.au and lan.com.
Located about 10 minutes from the centre of town you'll find Pousada Alto do Cajueiro. Comfortable rooms with lovely vistas and hospitable staff all add to the hotel's charm. And yes, they serve Pao de Queijos for breakfast. See altodocajueiro.com.br.
The writer travelled as a guest of Intrepid Travel.