Chapada Diamantina National Park: Brazil's "Lost World"

A grotto in Chapada Diamantina National Park.
  Priscila Zambotto / Getty Images

Take a landscape of mesas, weird and fantastic rock formations aboveground, a system of quartzite caves with crystal clear lakes and underground rivers, and you have the setting for some of the wildest eco-adventures in Brazil.

Add in a historical diamond boom, prospectors, natural monuments and you have the 152,000-hectare Chapada Diamantina national park in the northeast state of Bahia. 

At the beginning of the 19th century, two German prospectors discovered a huge vein of diamonds in a region of unusual rock formations, tablelands, subterranean rivers, waterfalls, valleys, and mountains called morros. When word got out, the ensuing diamond rush brought a rush of prospectors, called garimpeiros, who formed the town of Lençóis as a base for explorations into what is now known as the Chapada Diamantina, or Brazil’s Lost World.

Now the Chapada Diamantina National Park, created in 1985, is a region of mixed terrain: verdant slopes and red-rock mesas fed by the underground water system contrasting with the nearby drought-ridden semi-arid Sertão. This topography is the cake-like layers of sediment once collected on a primeval ocean floor and pushed up to be carved by wind and water into mesas, canyons, and caverns.

Getting To Chapada Diamantina National Park

By air, via international or domestic airlines fly to Rio de Janeiro or São Paulo, then connect to Salvador, then connect again to Lençóis. Use the 'Travel Reservations' feature from Kayak to check on flights from your area to Rio de Janeiro or São Paulo.

By road, from Salvador: take one of two daily buses operated by the Real Expresso line. It's about a six-hour trip and approximately 267 miles.

About Lençóis

The climate of the Chapada Diamantina makes it an all-season destination, but evening storms provide the almost seven feet of rainfall a year.

Once the third largest town in the northeast state of Bahia, Lençóis is now much smaller and is mainly a tourist-oriented town. You can arrange tours yourself or ask your hotel for help with planning tours with groups of six to 10 people. English-speaking guides are available.

Lençóis is easily toured, and its cobblestoned streets, pastel-colored colonial buildings, and little churches are a reminder of its wild past. As the gateway to the Chapada Diamantina National Park, it has a good selection of lodgings and plentiful restaurants and cantinas where you can sip Brazilian beer and trade stories with the locals and learn about the best climbing spots, swimming holes, and cave diving.

Things to Do and See

The area was off-limits and secret for many years to prevent diamond smuggling, but the spectacular scenery opened the region to tourism.

Aboveground, you can arrange a tour of the park by bike, off-road, canoe and by foot, as well as by mule and horses. Combine these activities with a swim in a cool waterhole, and you can experience the park in many forms.

Some of the favored swimming holes:

  • Ribeirao do Meio rock slide, a half-hour's walk west of Lençóis, with a 100-foot natural cascade
  • Sossego waterfall
  • Fumaça waterfall, named that for the water tumbling down 1100 ft creating a misty “smoke” as the water evaporates. This was considered Brazil’s highest waterfall until a longer one was discovered in the Amazon.

What brings many visitors to the area are the fabulous underground caves and diving spots. Access to some of these is granted to special groups by the environmental protection agencies and some are open only to highly qualified divers and spelunkers.

Some of the best dive spots:

  • Gruta da Pratinha - approximately 390 feet wide and from 4.5 to 7.5 feet deep. Descend by natural stairs into a crystal clear lake.
  • Os Impossíveis – called the Impossibles for a difficult entrance but once in the crater shaped area at the bottom of a 100-foot pit with vertical walls, you’ll be rewarded with white stalagmites and access to various tunnels. The main Northwestern passage offers an unforgettable snorkeling experience.
  • Poço de Milú – called the Enchanted Well, this pool is similar to the Poço Encantado but less restricted. Underwater passageways abound.
  • Poço Encantado – this giant sunken pool is 120 feet deep but the water is so transparent the rocks and ancient tree trunks are visible on the bottom. When the sun is just right, light comes through a crevice and creates a blue reflection on the water. Access to this pond is highly controlled for environmental protection of its rare and delicate ecosystem.
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