São Paulo’s Rainforest

Pico do Jaraguá
São Paulo from the Pico do Jaraguá

With a population of around 12 million, São Paulo is the biggest city in Brazil and South America as well as the entire southern hemisphere. It’s also the sixth most populous city in the world. It has an absurdly large amount of shopping centres and has the largest fleet of helicopters on the planet. But there’s another superlative that’s not so well-known: on the northen edge of the metropolitan area lies what is allegedly the largest urban forest in the world, the Parque da Cantareira.

Cantareira Reservoir
Cantareira Reservoir

While São Paulo itself is a concrete jungle of five and a half thousand skyscrapers, the Cantareira spreads for 80 million square metres of Atlantic rainforest. There are several areas (or núcleos) which have been developed for tourism. Last weekend I visited the Núcleo do Engordador which has a relatively easy trail past some waterfalls. The Cantareira reservoir provides water to the city, but has been severely depleted this year. It was developed in the 19th century as the city began to grow and this núcleo has a fascinating little museum, the Casa da Bomba, which houses disused pumps, including a steam driven one dating from 1898 and shipped all the way from Lincoln, England.

Cachoeira do Véu
Cachoeira do Véu

There are little bits of the UK all over Brazil. The Estaçao da Luz train station in São Paulo was designed by a British architect and all materials for construction were brought over from England. In the Amazon the Manaus opera house was constructed with steel from Glasgow.

Pump House
Pump House

In another part of the forest, the Núcleo da Pedra Grande has a trail which eventually opens out to give you an incredible view of São Paulo. Near here the Horto Florestal is a small little park which is home to caipibaras, the biggest rodents in the world. Further to the west is the Pico do Jaraguá which at 1,135 metres is the highest point of the city and has similar outstanding viewpoints.

Caipibara
Caipibara

The beaches to the south of São Paulo are an easy weekend getaway, but to escape the crowds a visit to the Parque da Cantareira is highly recommended. Breathing in the oxygen here just feels healthier and as you walk along the trails, observing ancient trees and listening to the birdsong, it’s hard to believe the city is less than a 2-hour bus ride away.

São Paulo seen from the Núcleo da Pedra Grande
São Paulo seen from the Núcleo da Pedra Grande
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Vale do Matutu

Cabeça do Leão
Cabeça do Leão

Tell most Brazilians you’re going to the Vale do Matutu and you’ll draw a blank. It’s not just off the beaten track, it’s pratically unheard of. It’s the kind of idyllic, unspoilt valley that’s difficult to find these days. There are just a handful of places to stay and one family-run restaurant that serves up fabulous food from its own organic garden.

Pico do Papagaio
Pico do Papagaio

A 7-hour bus ride took me from São Paulo to the small spa town of Caxambu in the state of Minas Gerais. From there I took a local bus to Aiuruoca and was the only passenger still left on board when, after an hour, we pulled into the main square. I asked around for a taxi and struck up a deal with a guy to take me the 18 kilometers to the pousada I had booked.  I was about to get in his car, but he stopped me. “I’ll be back in a minute with another vehicle,” he announced.

Five minutes later he was indeed back – with the most ancient, rusted, battered old VW beetle I have ever seen. He was clearly not going to risk damaging his regular car on the dirt track. There’s virtually no traffic on this road as it snakes its way deeper into the valley. Prominent on the right is the majestic Pico do Papagaio (Parrot’s Peak) which I planned to climb.

From the hammock on my terrace at the Pousada Mandala das Aguas I had a perfect view of two waterfalls tumbling down the side of the Pico. A five minute walk down from the hotel takes you to a fast-flowing river with natural swimming pools. I wanted to tackle the Pico the next day, but couldn’t arrange a guide in time. Things move slowly here. Someone at the hotel has to call someone else who has a brother who knows someone else who can usually be found at the bar on a Friday night etc. You get the picture. After the hectic pace of life in São Paulo, it actually came as a pleasant relief. It’s one of the things travel should make us do – slow down.

Araucária Tree
Araucária Tree

So I decided to climb up the opposite side of the valley with Mirna, a fellow guest from the pousada. It’s called the Cabeça do Leão (The Lion’s Head), but, as is always the case, whenever a rock formation is supposed to look like something, I can never see it. The view from the top, however, was magnificent. As was the climb, passing many araucaria trees along the way. After lunch back down in the valley in the local community and the best lemongrass and lime juice I have ever tasted, we were ready to trek to some waterfalls.

The following day I managed to share the costs of hiring a guide with another visitor, Theresa, and we set off to conquer the Pico. It’s an 8 hour hike there and back with an elevation of 800m which tested me as I hadn’t trekked for about a year. It doesn’t appear to be a frequently used trail, since much of it is overgrown and in parts difficult to pick your way through. Clouds swirled around us as we reached the summit, but then cleared to offer us a breath-taking view of the surrounding countryside. I sat and had lunch, while Marcos, our guide, showed off a bit with some impressive yoga positions.

Marcos, our guide
Marcos, our guide

At the end of the day I experienced the wonderful feeling of being physically tired after a day outdoors as opposed to feeling mentally exhausted after a day at work. It was a great place to unwind from the stress of the city and I have a feeling that some day I’ll be back. I shouldn’t shout too loudly about it though, since even the locals prefer to keep it a closely guarded secret. And with good reason.

At the top of the Pico do Papagaio
At the top of the Pico do Papagaio