About this blog
Thrill of Brazil is a travel blog all about Brazil written by Moon Brazil author Michael Sommers. Michael blogs about Brazil travel, culture, and more. He welcomes questions, comments, and story ideas.
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- Making House Calls in Rio (Part II)
- Making House Calls in Rio (Part I)
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Road Trip to Chapada: Eating Our Way There
Although I’ve never had a car – or a driver’s license for that matter – I love road trips.
That’s why I was psyched when (as I wrote about last week) it was decided that my friends Myra and Edi, their daughter Alice, their friend Barbosa, and I would be traveling from Salvador to the Chapada Diamantina by car (driven exclusively by the valiant Myra – like me, neither Edi nor Barbosa have driver’s licenses. Alice’s excuse is that she’s only 7-years-old).
There are countless reasons I love being on the road: The endlessly changing landscapes streaming by. The scratchy blare of songs from the radio. The easy conversations (and silences), strands of which are whipped away by the wind rushing in through the rolled down windows. The delicious sense of Going Somewhere.
I also love road trips because you get to stop. And eat.
The five of us set off from Salvador pretty early, after a rushed breakfast of watermelon juice, cuzcuz (steamed corn polenta) with melted cheese, and coffee. We took comfort in the fact that, once we cleared the city limits, we’d be on the BR-324 that links Salvador to Feira de Santana, the second largest city in Bahia.
Salvador is perched on the Baía de Todos os Santos, the largest bay in Brazil (the runner-up is Rio’s Baía de Guanabara). The surrounding region of lush, rolling hills is known as the Reconcâvo. It was here that Portugal launched its first colonial endeavor; the planting of Brazil’s first cash crop – sugar. Although the vast plantation houses are long gone or in ruins, shimmering green fields of cane still line portions of the highway on the way to Feira.
In Feira, the BR-324 intersects with a snarl of other highways including the mighty BR-116, Brazil’s longest paved highway (4,385 km), which cuts, north-south, all the way across the country from Ceará’s capital of Fortaleza to Jaguarão at Brazil’s frontier with Uruguay. As a result, the BR-324 is littered with gargantuan trucks making their way from Salvador to Feira, and to the rest of Brazil. Although these thundering monsters can make for unsettling driving, their presence also ensures an abundance of roadside restaurants announcing all-you-can-eat café da manhã (breakfast) buffets.
One of the hottest – and ugliest – Brazilian cities I’ve ever laid eyes upon, Feira’s bewildering nickname is “Princesinha do Sertão” (Little Princess of the Sertão). While the princess part makes no sense, the town is considered the gateway to the desert-like Sertão that covers vast portions of the interior of Bahia and the Northeast. A traditionally poor region, the Sertão is rich in culinary specialties – many of which are served up at these highway eateries.
One of these in particular caught our collective eye and within minutes we had swerved off the highway and entered a cavernous room with giant TVs dangling from the ceiling and wooden shelves glinting with bottles of cachaça. R$2 bought us an entire thermos of coffee and another R$4 an enormous pitcher of freshly pulverized mango juice. But the real fun was piling my plate high with cabrito (stewed goat), farofa com carne de sol (sun-dried beef with toasted manioc flour), two types of beans – andu (pigeons peas) and feijão mulato (pinto beans) – and aipim frito (crunchy fried manioc). Because I’m a selective eater, I didn’t have the guts to follow Barbosa who dove into a helping of mocotó (a stew made of cow’s feet).
Thus fortified, we piled back into the car and continued along our way, which entailed taking the wrong turn-off and wasting half an hour erroneously driving in the direction of Recife. By the time we righted ourselves, we were on the BA-052 – nicknamed the Estrada do Feijão (Bean Route) – and the landscape had all the hallmarks of the Agreste, a transitional zone that is a precursor to the parched Sertão.
Sure enough, within an hour, the sparse patches of forests had vanished, trees had shrunk, and all signs of greenery and lushness had been bleached out of the landscape, leaving a sepia-tinged vista of sculptural thorn trees and cacti, vegetation that is typical of the Caatinga.
Since we were traveling map-less, to ensure we didn’t miss our next turn-off, we pulled up in front of a picturesque last chance gas station in the middle of nowhere where the laconic owner plied Myra with directions, and Edi, Barbosa, and me with icy beer and shots of local cachaça; aside from the fact that it was already 11 am, just looking at the parched landscape out the window made us thirsty .
It may seem unjust that the three of us grown men were passing around frosty beers and a plastic cup overflowing with pinga (popular slang for cachaça, which literally means "drop") while Myra diligently chauffeured us deep into the Bahian interior. However, she made up for lost opportunities when we finally arrived in Palmeiras, an atmospheric old diamond mining town that is one of the key points of entrance into the Parque Nacional da Chapada Diamantina.
From Palmeiras to our final destination of Caeté-Açu, a tiny village nestled in the breathtakingly scenic Vale do Capão, was only a 30-minute drive along a bumpy, red dust road. A fearless albeit unlicensed driver, Edi altruistically volunteered to navigate this final stretch, leaving Myra free to take her own turn at chasing cachaça with ice cold beer.
She did so from the shady sidewalk in front of Dona Nina’s house, which looked out onto a charming cobblestoned square lined with a colonial church and elegant 19th-century mansions, a vista that was completed by the hulking silhouette of a jungle covered mountain.
While we sat, drank, and savored having arrived in the Chapada, Dona Nina was inside her casa built of local red stone, rustling up our lunch. When she called us in to eat, we trouped inside to her dining room and sat down to a multi-plated feast of carne de sol, galinha caipira (a stew of free range chickens), pirão (a mush of manioc flour seasoned with the stew’s juices), feijão, cortada de quiabo e aboborá (diced okra and pumpkin), rice and salad. For dessert, there was doce de leite (a thick creamy caramel made of boiled milk) washed down by cafezinhos, and then reinforced by a quintet of picolés de cajá, popsicles made from the bright yellow-orange cajá fruit grown in abundance in southeast Bahia.
Thus fortified, we happily piled into the car, and completed the last 20 km of our journey.
(Stay tuned for next week’s installment in which I describe what we ate on the drive back home).