Responsible Travel in Jalapão, Brazil: Guest Writer Thiago Cuyabano

We wanted to know a new place. Explore the great outdoors. Most of all, we wanted to spend quality time away from our fast-paced, everyday routine and enjoy some peace amidst natural landscapes. The idea of travelling into the heart of Brazil came along with the preparations for yet another big move in our lives – so, first, why not take some time off to refresh ideas and also score another item in our bucket list?

The selected place was Jalapão (“jah-lah-paum”), an arid region that covers areas in the states of Bahia, Piauí, Maranhão and mostly Tocantins. So what was actually there to see? Apart from being an emerging ecotourism destination, we knew little about it, but expectations were becoming higher after doing some research and finding out about the hiking trails, rivers, crystal-clear springs and dramatic sunsets. Alright, decision made, we called a local travel agency that had good online reviews and set up a four-day trip. They arranged for pick-up at the hotel on day one, all accomodations along the way and the drop-off back to Tocantins’ capital city, Palmas, on the last day.

Just before the tour guide came to pick us up at the hotel on the first morning in Palmas, we were having a delightful breakfast and a slight case of butterflies in the stomach, as we were headed to the deep hinterlands of Tocantins. How far would we actually drive? Would the lodging be too rustic? What kind of people would we meet? As these thoughts still raced in our heads, the guide arrived. Time to leave, August 17th 2017.

It was a private trip for only two couples and the tour guide, who was driving a four-wheel-drive SUV and would be with us the whole time. Wonderful, off we go! While on our way to the very first stop at a waterfall hidden a couple of kilometers away from the (still) paved highway, he told us a little bit about himself and the areas we were going to visit over the upcoming days. He had higher education in biology, and prior to guiding tourists in the area he worked for the government as a general administrator of the State Park of Jalapão. Therefore he knew the area, the people and the local environment quite well: the next four days turned out to be one of the most awesome lessons about that region that one could have.As we drove further on the now gravel road, outside the window things seemed somewhat desolate: dry looking and dusty landscapes, low vegetation in pale shades of beige and yellow, hardly any green. We started to wonder where the rivers and springs were, and the guide explained that this biome – called Cerrado – lacks rain for most of the year, being almost zero between May and September. Most of the rainfall comes in December and January. The water, however, remained there mostly underground.

At this point we stopped on the roadside to discover a small canyon that an unsuspecting traveller would never notice. A quick walk through a few bushes and then down a rough stairway led us to the inside of the canyon that was no more than 15 m deep, where we could see for ourselves the water constantly dripping down from the walls and from the roots of the vegetation that grew up above. The groundwater percolating through the sandy soil kept feeding the stream running along the bottom of the canyon. At the end of the canyon the stream flowed into a sinkhole and simply disappeared in the ground, and we were only a day away from seeing interesting results of this effect.

Later that afternoon we drove to a tall rock formation in the middle of the plain that was just perfect to watch the sunset. The reddish sun rays combined with the warm colors of the rock made for a perfect scenery and pictures. It was then time to go to our inn in a small farm, to enjoy homemade supper and the stars above us.

The next day was spent driving about two and a half hours to a larger river, Rio Novo. Over there, in the stretch of about two kilometers we could enjoy water falls, rapids and a sandy beach area where the water flowed slowly, perfect for swimming. The rapids were explored in a rubber raft.

The most emblematic attractions of the whole area, however, were yet to come. Any internet search of the term Jalapão will bring up pictures of stunning green water pools. These are all located in private land, mostly farms that started to open their gates to the tours organized by the local travel agencies. Some of them have a restaurant and a few also provide lodging, for those willing to stay longer.

Visiting and swimming in those pools is a must during any trip to Jalapão. One of them is located at Rio Formiga, just downstream from a small waterfall, where the clear waters create a gentle whirling effect that is just perfect for the swimmers. The other musts are the so-called Fervedouros, natural spring pools with sandy bottoms in which the groundwater surfaces with such a strength that one stays afloat with no effort at all. Feels like you’re in a huge pan with boiling water and is really relaxing.

In between visits to the swimming places, our guide stopped in a local village where craftswomen displayed and sold articles made from Capim Dourado (“golden grass”), ranging from wall ornaments, cup holders, coasters, bowls, hats, bags and many more. We were also able to taste sorbets made from native fruits – which was quite timely to refresh us at that hot time of the day.

Our last day of the trip started at 3:30 am. We were part of the group headed to the top of a nearby mountain, early enough to catch the sunrise around 5:45 am. The drive to the base of the mountain took approximately one hour, and from there we hiked our way up to the plateau for another hour, 1000 metres above. Sounds exhausting, and it was indeed. But totally worth the effort. From there, we stopped at yet another fervedouro for a swim near noon, then headed back to Palmas after having lunch and a catnap in a hammock.

Overall, this was quite a positive and unique experience. Jalapão is an amazing place to visit for its natural wonders and somehow the lack of modern infrastructure actually plays in favour of the region and the locals. The limited capacity to receive tourists prevents a heavy inrush of people that helps to maintain the attractions in pristine conditions.

There are still details that the local business owners could improve upon. In particular the interactions between travel agencies, tour guides, lodges, restaurants and landowners could be enhanced to make the most of the tourism activities. Greater cohesion among tourism services would provide greater economic benefit for the local community, as well as the visiting tourists. Jalapão should not, for sure, be overexploited. Optimizing the local tourism economy without developing over tourism will determine its survival, the preservation of the region’s environment and its charm.

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