Prickly Heat

The Sertao is Brazil's desert land, where donkeys and cacti proliferate. But it is also home to the continent's finest prehistoric treasures. Sarah Barrell goes exploring
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The Independent Travel

There is a place in Brazil, it is said, where nothing grows but sorrow and cacti. A place of donkeys and drought where the scalding sky shows little mercy for the creatures below. In this place, potholes are more common than people and distances between towns are measured in days rather than miles. As travel destinations go, the Sertao, Brazil's north–east hinterland, is one of the world's less obvious. It is also one of its most spectacular.

There is a place in Brazil, it is said, where nothing grows but sorrow and cacti. A place of donkeys and drought where the scalding sky shows little mercy for the creatures below. In this place, potholes are more common than people and distances between towns are measured in days rather than miles. As travel destinations go, the Sertao, Brazil's north–east hinterland, is one of the world's less obvious. It is also one of its most spectacular.

Heading inland from Natal, the sand– dune–crowned city at Brazil's north–easterly tip, the population thins with the vegetation until ours is the only car on a long, apparently endless road to the interior. If the Mato Grosso, thousands of miles to the south, is Brazil's Lost World then the Sertao is its Forgotten Land. We pass a disused cotton storehouse, today as characteristic of the Sertao as dust and donkeys. "Up until the Sixties this was one of the most important cotton–producing regions in the world," explains my guide, Eduardo Bagnoli, owner of Manary Ecotours. "And that," he says, pointing to an enormous abandoned mine, "was the biggest Tungsten mine in existence during the Second World War."

But there are less tenuous reasons for visiting the Sertao than the melancholic detritus of the industrial era. The northeast is home to South America's largest known assortment of dinosaur fossils and pre–Colombian rock art. Formerly a geologist with a Brazilian oil company, Bagnoli spent years exploring the coastline and interior of the North–east, inadvertently discovering some of the continent's prime prehistoric treasures as he went. "It is here that American history is being re–drawn," he says, simultaneously driving and thrusting glossy archaeology books into my lap. "Discoveries made here are calling into question the very theory of the origin of man in the Americas."

Grand statements indeed, but as we pull into Acari, a typical one–horse Sertao town with buildings begging Butch Cassidy as an occupant, you would be forgiven for thinking that this is an unlikely place for breaking news. Eduardo disappears to chase up a key to the town's museum. (It is closed, the manager last seen heading out of town on a wilderness–bound bus.) I wait in a roadside caf}, hiding from the searing heat in a molten plastic chair under the sparse shade of a spindly tree.

If "Nordestinos" are considered the friendliest people in Brazil, the people of the north–eastern interior are friendlier still. In a nanosecond the lady from the caf} is over, enquiring after my abandoned status. Not that I can understand much. Unlike the singsong–slow Portuguese of the coast, the language of the Sertao is characterised by a galloping ancient dialect, a medieval mix of Spanish and Portuguese: the linguistic equivalent of having a conversation with a Brazilian Shakespeare and often just as lyrical. It is a point of regional pride that a disproportionate number of Brazil's poets, artists and musicians have their origins in the north–eastern interior.

Finally inside the museum, I face a moustachioed gallery of ex–mayors, their European features markedly

different from those of the Indian workers pictured dairy farming and cotton–picking. This is frontier land: a land of colonists, cowboys and cactus. Settled by the Portuguese in the 17th century, it is one of the oldest frontiers in the Americas, surrounded by scrub so dense and forests of cactus so thick that vaquieros (cowboys) and their quick–trot mules have to wear leather armour as protection. This museum of Sertanejo life has plenty of their kit on display, including exquisitely handcrafted side–saddles for women. Other than on ranches, mopeds are usurping mules, though the machines are still mounted side–saddle by mini–skirt–wearing Sertanejas.

Back on the road we enter the Caatinga ("white forest"), a tropical–prone sub–desert zone, which for eight months a year sees little or no rain; despite this, humidity hovers around 65 per cent. This year, however, there has been a "seca verde" (dry green), a rare and sudden deluge rendering the eager shrubbery with a false green bloom that will disappear as quickly as it has come. "Being here now, it's easy to imagine how the world looked when time began," Bagnoli says, as we drive through vast green valleys, once home to giant mastodons and armadillos the size of a car.

Some 120 million years ago, numerous species of dinosaur left their tracks in the sedimentary basin of the Rio Peixe. Thirteen sites have since been discovered around the town of Sousa and, unlike many fossilised remains, these are striking and demand little interpretation. The most remarkable is a 55m trail of footprints crossing an arid river bed; each print the size of a hubcap, complete with claw indents, making it one of the longest dinosaur tracks in the world. Although only "discovered" in the early 19th century (when part of it hot–footed back to the British Museum, where it remains) the track has been a local legend for far longer. Pre–Colombian cave drawings found in the valley depict the footprint trail, once considered a sacred site. "Like the dinosaur footprints, the most impressive thing about the cave drawings of this region is that they're so accessible to contemporary man," Bagnoli says. "You don't need an expert to interpret them. They tell little stories like a cartoon strip."

The following day, several hundred miles south, in the notoriously harsh Cariri region, I get to see what he means. Here the seca verde has barely awakened the spiky shrubbery. Aside from cactus and the odd jurema tree (the root of which contains a powerful narcotic used during rock painting ceremonies), the land is barren. Based at a lone ranch established by Pai Mateus, an 18th– century shaman, we trek out to what 10,000 years ago would have been one of the most sacred sites in the North–east. On top of a rounded outcrop of rock lies Sitio do Bravo, a series of small lakes dotted with 70 perfectly spherical granite boulders – Brazil's equivalent of Australia's Devil's Marbles.

The harsh Sertao wind has dug caves out the most prominent boulders, providing natural shelters. We enter the mouth of one which resembles an oversized Flintstone–esque crash helmet. On the interior walls is a prehistoric frieze in which tiny okra figures go about daily life, eating, fighting, having sex; a life much less distant than its thousands of years would suggest. At the cave's entrance fist–sized fossils and bits of discarded flint tools can be found scattered among the octopus arms of the xiquexique cactus.

"I used to come up here to play," says Ribermar, a wiry 18–year–old guide who lives at the ranch. "No one had studied the drawings then but we knew this place was special." A simple statement of local loyalty, perhaps, but over ensuing days, discovering countless ancient stone sites around the ranch, going for starlit walks among night–flowering cactus and falling asleep with a canopy of dense constellations dancing above my hammock, I couldn't disagree. Several hundred miles from the coastline that defines this country, I had never felt more a part of it.

But we finally have to take the route that so many poverty–stricken Sertanejos have taken before us: the road to the coast. "We have to leave before dark to avoid the donkeys," Eduardo urges. Increasingly abandoned in favour of tractors, donkeys are a common cause of road accidents in the Sertao, the preferred method of after–dark travel being a bike, with a burning branch from the candelabra–like facheiro cactus tied to the handlebars as a torch. But even in daylight traffic is minimal. We pass the odd collective taxi, known as pau–de–arara (macaw's perch). These rust buckets exhibit the road–worthiness of a three–wheel rollerskate and display the ubiquitous "Jesus" bumper sticker. As with many places that the world seems to have forgotten, God is big in the Sertao. Pilgrimage sites crop up more frequently than petrol stations. Miracles, it seems, are the only thing to flourish in this barren land. Eduardo gives the trucks a wide berth. "They might think road safety is in the hands of fate but I don't."

We are leaving Cariri, the desert landscape of the Brazilian badlands, birthplace of cangaceiros (bandit) legends such as Lampiao (the Brazilian Robin Hood). This is a place of pop–up frontier towns where farriers still outnumber mechanics. Depopulation has all but decimated many settlements; as we make the journey, like thousands before us, towards the monster cities of the coast, I remember the words of a Brazilian folk song told to me by a homesick Sertanejo, living in London. "So deixo o meu Cariri, No ultimo pau–de–arara" – I'll only leave my Cariri on the very last pau–de–arara. Yes, life is tough here, but leaving is tougher still.

Getting there

Sarah Barrell travelled to Brazil as a guest of the Brazilian tourist office, Varig Airlines and Manary Ecotours. Varig (0845 603 7601, flies daily from London to Recife and Natal, via Sao Paolo, with current return fares from £678. Domestic flights in Brazil are expensive and travellers making more than one stopover should consider buying an air pass, which costs $530 (£353) and gives you five internal flights within a 21–day period (available to those booking their international flight with Varig).

For significantly shorter flying and transfer times, Tap Air Portugal (0845 601 0932, www.tap– flies daily from London to Recife, via Lisbon, with return fares from £647.

Being there

Various tours of the Sertao and north–east coast, ranging from two to eight days, are available from Manary Ecotours (00 55 084 219 2900; A three–day tour of the Cariri region costs $392 (£261) per person, based on two sharing, including full–board hotel and ranch accommodation, 4WD transport and an English speaking guide. Manary's hotel base is on the beach, in Natal. Tours start and end at either Natal or Olinda.

Latin America Travel (020 8948 4000, ) offers the above tours of the Sertao. Twelve days, starting in the colonial beach town of Olinda, and ending in Natal with three nights touring the Sertao and three on the beach at either end, costs from £1,890, per person, based on two sharing, including return flights, transfers, hotel accommodation with breakfast, selected lunches and dinners, transport and English–speaking guides.

Further information

Brazilian Tourist Office (020 7629 6909,