If you're going to Brazil, make sure to head to the south of the country, where you can see stunning canyons and beautiful waterfalls and experience the life of the local gauchos
It's as if a massive crack has suddenly opened on the flat-topped green highlands of this little explored region of Brazil. Around the fracture, big trees seem made of matches and water springs break through the rocky cliffs to slowly drop all way down or simply dissipate in the air.
Aparados da Serra and Serra Geral National Parks are located in the southernmost state of Rio Grande do Sul, near the border with Argentina and Uruguay. Here, winter temperatures can often be close to zero and locals proudly call themselves gaúchos and have in their history a bloody movement that tried to create an independent nation.
Approaching any one of the 60 canyons that form the adjoined parks is almost a surreal experience. Most don’t have any protective fences and are surrounded by ancient araucárias, a monkey-puzzle-like tree, often covered in lichens and Spanish moss. Itaimbezinho (which in the indigenous Guarani language means 'cut rock') is the best-known of the canyons and also the easiest to reach. However, Fortaleza Canyon is not only bigger in depth (3,000 feet) and length (5 miles) but is also the most impressive, a place of untamed nature that captivates all, and the perfect reward after 13 miles on a rather hard dirt track. When Aparados da Serra was created in 1959 as one of the first Brazilian national parks, few araucária trees had survived the greed of nine local loggers. Fortunately, with the help of new environmental laws, the wood has had an impressive recovery within the park’s area.
The canyons attract those who like adventure or tranquillity, from families to adrenaline junkies, and are home to animals including the armadillo, the elusive mountain lion, the maned wolf, the brown howler monkey, the pampas deer and the capybara, the largest living rodent in the world. Amongst 150 species of birds, the bright blue and black azure jay and the noisy southern lapwing, which fiercely protects its nest made on the ground, are there to be spotted.
Where to stay
Cambará do Sul is the closest village, where simple but comfortable accommodation can be found and guided tours arranged to the tracks that crisscross the canyons. Cafundó Guest House is only four miles from the Fortaleza Canyon, and for £190 you have the comforts of an ensuite double room with Jacuzzi, breakfast and dinner, in the middle of the woods. Parador Casa da Montanha rents private 'thermal tents', which is not a joke if you decide to visit the place during the winter.
If you want to know about the gaúchos’ simple way of life, Corucacas guest house and camping is the ideal option. You will have an ensuite double room, breakfast, dinner and two hours of horse riding for only £70, or pay as little as £3 per person if you decide to stay on the campsite.
Like the rest of Brazil, Cambará do Sul has a rich folklore. Some locals, especially the elderly, still fear the mysterious call of the Gritador, who wanders in the pitch-dark night of the canyons, screaming and frightening people and animals alike. People believe that the Gritador is the ghost of a violent man, who lived in the area and used to mistreat his mother. For those who hear the call, the advice is never to answer it, because the Gritador will come and capture their souls forever.
Don’t forget to try the traditional tea-like drink, chimarrão. A brief chat with the locals (if you don’t speak Portuguese, Spanish may help) will give you an idea of the importance this bitter drink has in their lives. Chimarrão is drunk through a metal straw (bomba), sometimes richly decorated, which is naturally shared between friends. So don’t make a fool of yourself wincing or trying to clean the bomba before putting it into your mouth.
What to do
Horse ride: most lodges in Cambará do Sul organise activities to explore the area with quad bikes and horses, which are definitely the best way of reaching Fortaleza Canyon. Still used by the locals, the horses are suitable for inexperienced riders and are ideal for a perfect interaction with the parks’ wild nature.
Venâncio’s waterfalls: these beautiful falls, only 14 miles from Cambará do Sul, are better than a spa treatment. Just stand under them and feel the reinvigorating power of a thousand-hands water massage.
Abseiling: local agencies take groups to Fazenda Capão da Erva, a place with astonishing views and waterfalls, where it's safe to abseil.
How to get there
The closest airport is 118 miles away, in Porto Alegre. From there, the best way to reach Cambará do Sul is by hiring a car.