Lençóis & Chapada da Diamantina National Park
One of Bahia Brazil’s best kept secrets
Lençóis is a small colonial gold and diamond mining town approximately 8 hours inland from historical Salvador, Bahia. It is an absolute gem. With the resident population (about 10,000) living in perfectly constructed terracotta one story houses spread along a gorgeous hillside on either side of a pristine river, it is a sight to behold. Upon arrival on a sunny day one cannot help but smile upon this tiny town looking like it has been picked from a dream. There are no street lights, minimal crime, friendly people, great accommodation, quaint restaurants, available social services (bank, clinic, post office, etc.), and best of all great access to Chapada da Diamantina National Park.
This tiny town is the heart of access to some of the best backcountry hiking in all of Brazil. Chapada da Diamantina is 1520sq km and contains close to 100 cachoeiras (waterfalls) most of which are accessible by a short day hike, others only accessible by two to seven multiday treks. The park’s main attraction is hiking, however there is also some great horseback riding, mountain biking, base jumping, ridge walking, and rock climbing. Lençóis has a ton of tour operators looking to sell you their latest and very best adventure in the Chapada da Diamantina. After some time researching the different opportunities for day trips, I came to the quick realization that most of the tour operators were basically offering the same trips at the same prices. Funny that tends to be the trend with operators no matter where you are in the world. The good thing about Lençóis is the tours are each of great quality and offer some stunning vistas only a short day trip away.
I spent three days here, one visiting the highest waterfall in Brazil (Cachoeira da Famaca, 425m), one visiting the Poco Azul (a cave with crystal clear spring fed water), and another touring the natural pools and waterfalls within walking distance of Lençóis. It was an amazing experience in the interior of Bahia and a great eye opener to the remoteness of some of the colonial mining towns. The people who set up Lençóis back in the 1600’s were definite pioneers and much more adventurous than most travellers are now a days. They were following a dream of riches and of a better life, so much so, that they often left everything behind and risked their lives to set up shop in an incredibly remote and wild country. The Chapada da Diamantina and Lençóis is exactly this.
There are a number of great small pousadas and boutique hotels offered for the weary traveller in Lençóis. I think I saw one nice hotel, but I bet most people reading this are looking for a pousada style anyway. I stayed at the Pousada dos Duendes on the edge of town about a five minute walk to the central square. It is a beautiful small locale with dorm rooms at 40R per bed, some privates at 110R for two (75R for a private solo), and some doubles at 60R per person. There is kitchen access and breakfast included in your stay (which is amazing). It was a great spot and one I would highly suggest, however I also passed a number of other very quaint and good looking hostels, so I guess my point is, the accomm is good and there is selection which is nice. If there in High Season (Nov-April), I would make a reservation in advance. All of the pousadas offer their own guiding services within Chapada da Diamantina and or a contact for a reputable guiding company.
Brazil is relatively expensive and Lençóis is no exception to this fact. The accomm in town is reasonable enough the food however is a little pricey. If you’re eating at restos, you’re looking at 30-60R per meal. My trick to avoid this was to just buy food and cook at the pousada. Luckily for me I ran into a couple of Italian backpackers and they did most of the cooking for me, I just needed to contribute some cash. Nice.
The tours to Chapada da Diamantina National Park are also not the cheapest trips in the world. Most of the day trips range between 110-180R. I think that having the local guide does make the experience better (depending on how talkative they are) no matter where you are. Maybe ask the tour operator in advance who the guide is, if they speak English, etc. The guides around Chapada da Diamantina are generally really good. Here is a guide I worked with while I was there, Luiz Krug (email@example.com), sort of a local legend around town and an incredible wealth of quality information.
If you are looking to cut costs, it is also possible to rent cars in Lençóis and travel to a lot of the tour destinations on your own. It is not necessary to travel with a certified guide within the national park and many of the day trips are possible to do solo. Renting a car is only 100R (at time of writing) for 12 hours. This is a great deal with three to five people and still allows you to see a lot of the highlights, you are only really sacrificing the local guide.
There is a definite high and low season in Brazil. Luckily in Bahia, it doesn’t really exist as the closer you get to the equator the more the temperature stays relatively the same all year round. There is also a rainy and dry season, yet in Lençóis (almost desert) it is generally dry most of the year. This being said it doesn’t really matter what time of year you go! Happy days.
Lençóis is generally safe. There is a very low crime rate due to the small tight knit community. However that being said there is somewhat high tourist traffic due to the accessibility of the national park and unfortunately this traffic attracts the pick pocketers and the people stealing petty theft style. Like anywhere else in South America, use your common sense, lock up your stuff where possible, always be aware, and never carry anything more than what you need at that time.
The only real access to Lençóis is the classic South American bus journey. Most people come in from Salvador, which is apparently a 6 hour trip (took me 8 both ways). You can also come in from the north transferring at Feira de Santana and joining the Salvador highway for the last four – six hour stretch. The bus cost 50R for the one way ticket. There are three leaving daily from Salvador (7am, 13:30, and a 23:30 night bus). Additionally there is a small airport in Lençóis, but the flights are excessively overpriced nationally in Brazil and I never even heard a mention of anybody even thinking about flying the 400km something distance between Lençóis and the coast.
View Where Sidewalks End in a larger map
There is a lot to do around Lençóis and it can be hard to pick which things you want to see with a limited amount of time. It also adds up quickly. If you are on a budget, this is going to take a chunk out of it for sure. Also, if the weather sucks, the tours suck. You really need sunny days to make the most of the area. Some of the vistas are incredible, but if they’re socked in clouds, there’s not much to see. Try and schedule about 4 days for the area and maybe $400USD, no joke.
Have you ever been to a National Park that just took your breath away? Where was it, and what did you do while there? Was it off the beaten path, and if so how did you find yourself there?