Chapada Diamantina means 'plateau of diamonds' or 'diamond highlands'. Diamonds were discovered here in 1844 and the rush of prospectors and miners founded many of the small towns and hamlets that skirt the area.
The scenery is magnificent. The mountain plateaus of the Chapada Diamantina rise quickly in a long and impressive line, marking a first great barrier to the flat plains of the sertao that stretch away to the Atlantic ocean. Formed of ancient sandstones that date back to the time when South America and Africa were joined, the high plateaus are riven with deep valleys between sheer escarpments.
The views are spectacular and always changing. Long ridges, isolated peaks, high plains and hidden canyons, bubbling rivers and quiet pools, spectacular waterfalls and surreal rock formations, open grasslands, pockets of shrub alive with cacti orchids and bromeliads, make this a walkers' paradise.
The area around the mountains is interesting too, with lively rivers cascading over waterfalls and impressive limestone and quartz caves and underground caverns, several in systems that stretch for kilometres deep into the rock. The limestone makes for crystal clear rivers, which are good for swimming and snorkelling, and quiet natural pools for a refreshing dip. (There is a similar limestone landscape around Bonito in the southern Pantanal.)
As this is Brazil, the scale of things is pretty impressive. The main range is about 100 miles long and 20 miles wide, and the main escarpment facing the sertao is 300m high and runs for 50 miles. The most dramatic part of the highlands is protected by the Chapada Diamantina national park, which covers 600 square miles. The average altitude is 800-1000m, with peaks up to 1,700m.
The Chapada Diamantina highlands are part of a long ridge which connects to the mountains in Minais Gerais state, including the old gold mining towns of Ouro Preto and its neighbours, and can be traced southwards right through Brazil and into Uruguay.
We are great fans of the Gran Sabana in Venezuela, the home of Mount Roraima (Conan Doyle's 'Lost World') and Angel Falls (the tallest waterfall in the world). Chapada Diamantina has similar origins and echoes the table mountain scenery of the Gran Sabana in many ways.
Chapada Diamantina for walkers
Chapada Diamantina is one of the best areas in Brazil for walking. The scenery is great, temperatures are modest thanks to the altitude (20C is typical on the plateaus), and there is always something interesting to see.
There is a good network of trails, many of which reach the tops quite quickly; thereafter you can stride out on the flat. There are some challenging trails involving several days trekking, and others that ascend the highest peaks for fabulous views.
Brazilian urbanites have been escaping here for years from Sao Paulo, Belo Horizonte or Salvador so the area is geared up for hikers, ramblers, walkers and trekkers of all kinds. There are some high quality country inn hotels, plenty of mid-range guest houses and lodges, and a smattering of alt-hotels with meditation, yoga, spa and other body and spirit offerings.
If you like to bird as you walk, lists for the Chapada Diamantina number around 350 species.
Best times to visit the Chapada Diamantina
Chapada Diamantina's rains usually arrive at some time in November in the form of hard rain showers, interspersed with reasonably good weather. These remain a feature until February or March. It becomes progressively drier through April to July. There is usually a dry season from August to October.
The months of March to October are the best for walking, though the other times are by no means bad. Luck with the weather comes into play at any time of year.
Chapada Diamantina's towns and villages
The main town for the Chapada Diamantina is Lencois, a colonial mining town set astride a tumbling river on the eastern flank of the highlands. At its height, this little town was the centre of the world's most productive diamond mines.
A handful of narrow cobbled streets lead between the town's small squares. Lencois has a relaxed atmosphere and is a charming place to explore and stay.
You might even settle here, as did Jimmy Page and his Brazilian partner Jimena Gómez-Paratcha. They founded the Avante Lençóis community centre in Lencois as part of the ABC 'Action for Brazilian Children' project.
Mucuge is a pleasant little town that dates back to the very beginnings of the diamond rush.
These days, Mucuge is notable for two things: growing everlasting flowers, and its extraordinary 'byzantine' cemetery perched on a rocky ledge on the edge of town. Dating from an outbreak of plague, each grave is marked with a miniature church complete with spires and domes, all painted sparkling white - an idea inspired by Turkish diamond buyers in the 19th century. It's an arresting sight silhouetted against the dark rock of the hills behind.
Local attractions around the Chapada Diamantina
The 'Serrano' of Lencois and the Salao de Areias sand caves
Above the town, the Lencois river tumbles down sheets of flat rock pocked with swimming holes and exposed sun-traps. Known locally as the Serrano, Lencois comes here to bathe, picnic and do some laundry. The river and the surrounding area are a geologists' delight. The swimming holes are cauldron formations made by sand erosion at the bottom of whirlpools. Look for blocks of conglomerate rock containing rounded pebbles smoothed by rivers 500 million years ago: this is the marker for diamonds which once broken out of their mother rock settle in the bottom of the cauldrons and can still be found here (it is illegal to remove them).
A short way beyond the park are the sand caves of the Salao de Areias, where coloured sands are found in the rock strata. Locals collect them for traditional souvenirs of glass bottles containing pictures "painted" in these coloured sands. The area where miners worked can still be seen and you can explore the narrow defiles and impossible overhangs left by their labours. A trail leads to a couple of small waterfalls for a quick paddle or plunge before reaching a high viewpoint with a panoramic view across the now distant town.
Pai Inacio is the best known peak in the Chapada Diamantina, a table mountain or mesa with majestic views from the summit. It is a 20 min steep uphill clamber to reach the windy summit at 1,240m which towers 250m above the surrounding landscape and offers a 360 degree succession of beautiful panoramas across the Sincora cordillera to two other mesas, the Castle of Morrao and the camel-shaped Morro do Camelo, and more besides. It is great for photography at any time, but towards dusk the light effects are at their best. If you have been good, your guide may sit you down on the summit and recount the legend of Pai Inacio ('Father Ignatius').
Poco do Diablo (Devil's Well)
Not far from Lencois, a short path descends to a river where a cascade slides into into a broad pool - a popular spot for picnics. A further 30 minute boulder-hop along the side of the river downstream leads to the top of the Devil's Well, where a 25m waterfall plunges into a deep pool banked with layers of slate-like rock. Foolhardy folk can be persuaded to zip-line from the top into the waters below, while the rest of us take the rocky path down. It's a pretty spot, but can be a little busy at week-ends and holidays.
Fumaca ('smoke') Falls is the tallest waterfall in Brazil, variously reported to be around 400m high, with a 340m free-fall*.
It is another of Chapada Diamantina's many spectacular sights, but not easy to reach. It involves an hour's rather tough uphill climb, followed by a further hour flat on the plateau.
The reward is lifelong memories of really stunning views. Standing above the falls you watch the water gush out from a hole in the cliff face, turning into mist as it plummets a giddyingly immense distance to the base. Watch your step: there are no handrails or other safety measures.
You can trek a further 6km to a spot where you can see the falls face on.
*It may lose this title when proper measurements can be made of Cachoiera do Pilao, deep in the Amazon north of Manaus, which has been claimed at over 600m. Venezuela's Angel Falls are 979m.
Buracao waterfall tumbles about 100m into a large sinkhole which connects with a narrow canyon. The entire walls of both the sinkhole and the canyon are of heavily striated rock.
It's a 2 hour trek to the falls, rewarded by great view from the top. With a local guide you can get right down to the foot of the falls by an awkward descent (involving scramblings and ladders), and then edging along the rock beside the stream at the base of the canyon. It's an Indiana Jones experience - be careful and be prepared to get wet! You can swim (wearing a life-jacket) below the falls.
Lapa Doce (Sweet Cave)
Lapa Doce is a huge cave system formed by a subterranean river and accessed via an immense sink-hole. The cave extends for 850m into the hills, in a succession of with vast sand-floored galleries. Each is strewn with an impressive number of stalagmites and stalactites in every shape; curiously some are red and white in colour. The guides delight in pointing out the most anthropomorphic. It is generally considered the most beautiful cave system in Chapada Diamantina, and is well worth seeing.
Gruta da Pratinha
In Gruta da Pratinha is the mouth of an underground river which emerges into a crystal clear shallow lake with water so clear it is like a giant outdoor aquarium.
Here it is possible to swim and snorkel inside the cave, accompanied by one of the permanent guides here who know the current conditions. Schools of small fish inhabit the mouth of the cave, but inside it is dark, cool and slightly scary.
Gruta Azul (Blue Grotto)
A small pool tucked beneath a rock wall which turns an electric blue when sunlight strikes it in the mid-afternoon.
All the rivers from the main part of the Chapada Diamantina (the Serra de Sincora) drain into a single area to form a massive wetland not far south of Lencois. It is a maze of slowly seeping water, criss-crossed with channels between stands of papyrus - a complete contrast to the rugged landscapes of the mountains.
Marimbus is good place for birding and for general contemplation. Depending on the time of day you can hope to see a number of water-birds. There are some lovely photo opportunities for reflections of vegetation and mountains in the glassy water and at some times of year the water-lilies are in bloom.