We were surprised to learn that Brazil’s full name is the United States of Brazil and that like in their North American counterpart, the USA, the states can almost be considered countries themselves. Using that analogy, our latest section took place in Piaui, the Brazilian equivalent of Nevada, with incredible heat, impressive rock formations and cacti.
Piaui’s capital city, Teresina, is the hottest state capital in Brazil. Fortunately, there was very little to see there, aside from a scenic lookout on a new bridge, so we were able to use the time to relax, do bike maintenance and wash our salt-ingrained clothes.
After being subjected to speed-obsessed drivers since Belem, we were keen to get off the main interstate roads that criss-cross Brazil and opted to take a more southerly route on Piaui’s state roads. This would allow us to visit the Capivara National Park 550 kilometres away, as well as giving my middle finger a rest from cursing at truck drivers.
At first, we thought it might have been a mistake as potholes dominated on the way out of the city, but 10km later we were rewarded with a recently laid, asphalt road which would take us all the way to Sao Raimundo Nonato.
The traffic was blissfully lighter, until a village after 35km where a long queue of trucks and cars appeared as we reached the brow of a hill. Initially we thought it was a road accident, but soon realised it was a protest, a situation we’d experienced in Bolivia and Chile where miners and fishermen protestors respectively had blocked the road.
We weren’t sure what the issue was this time but that’s didn’t stop us adopting the approach that we had used so effectively before. Avoiding eye contact, we wheeled our bikes past the vehicles to the front, whilst frustrated drivers and protestors stopped their conversations to stare in disbelief as we lifted our bikes over the tree branches and started pedalling off again.
A few hundred metres further on, we pulled into a petrol station for a salgado (a popular form of Cornish pasty here). My heart sank when two military policemen pulled up on their motorbikes. Worried that our overconfidence had caught up with us, the men were actually there for a drink themselves and wanted a photo with Laura and the bikes.
If the good road condition and quiet traffic were the proverbial cake, then the icing was the scenery we passed through. The road followed a river valley gently climbing to jaw-dropping views before descending into canopies of palm trees which helped keep shelter us from the heat. The river wound its way through a landscape littered with table top hills – similar, albeit smaller, versions of the ‘tepuis’ we had marvelled at in southern Venezuela’s Gran Sabana.
Another bonus for getting off the beaten track was that, after a good 125km day, we reached the sleepy town of Palmeirais where the accommodation was by far the cheapest we’ve found in Brazil at only £3 each. The downside was that there were only single rooms left, but with walls so thin we could easily chat without shouting.
After the first day, when we made such good progress, we expected more of the same and calculated that we could complete the route to Sao Raimundo Nonato in four days. This was overly optimistic, and in the end we were six days on the road. Whilst the scenery remained stunning, the palm trees shelter disappeared meaning both exposure to a headwind and the sun’s fierce rays.
The fresh, low-humidity air and shadows cast across the roads mean that until nine in the morning, cycling is an absolute joy and we wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. By midday, though, we are suffering with the heat as the temperatures regularly reach 39 Celsius (102 Fahrenheit). Locals point at the sun, ask us how we cope and it’s hard enough to describe in English how we actually deal with it let alone cycle through the hottest part of the day.
Sunhats doused in water and long sleeve shirts do their part, as do cold drinks from roadside stalls when we can get them and finding shade when we stop is a necessity. One lunch stop, we cooked our noodles on the hard shoulder of the road as the only shade we could find was a skinny tree listing over. Not the most glamorous picnic spot, but it meant that we didn’t have to brave the cactus bushes in the scrubland.
The phrase “only mad dogs and Englishmen” has perhaps never been more appropriate. In fact, the dogs here are sensible enough to just bark from their shade and they only chase us if it’s downhill. As I cycle behind Laura, I normally get the second round of barking, but in this heat if the dogs have any energy to chase they have definitely exerted it by the time I arrive.
On our third day on the road, we had a target of 100km to reach the next town. In this heat, we consume a lot of water, but as the route was pretty well populated we’d been able to find water at least every 30km or so. This day, we’d assumed the same but nevertheless loaded up with a contingency of four litres in a water bladder. It turned out though, that aside from a scary looking prison after 20km, there was nothing, not even a building, on the route at all for 70km.
Rationing what we had left to cover the final 40km, my mouth became so parched that I just wanted to gulp down the rest despite it being the temperature of a warm bath. Amazingly, a truckers’ restaurant appeared out of nowhere at the base of a couple of telecoms pylons. I’m not sure why it was there, they certainly weren’t used to seeing cyclists, but I am incredibly glad it was.
By this stage, I was very dehydrated, starting to see coloured shapes and unable to control my hand from shaking as I held the glass of cold water to my mouth. It was a worrying feeling and, in my confusion, I was abrupt to some of the drivers asking questions about our trip.
I needed time to recuperate before answeringthe usual questions that people have about two tall foreigners on loaded bikes appearing out from the midday heat. After a litre of coca-cola and several jugs of ice-cold water I felt back to normal though and got out our map of South America to show them our route.
Feeling so terrible wasn’t fun, but it served a good lesson for us as we enter the final couple of months of the trip. We won’t always be so lucky to find something on the road and we must carry more supplies.
It took us six days to cycle down the state of Piaui to Sao Raimundo Nonato. The inflated prices for pousadas in the town indicated that we’d arrived in a tourist area, as it is the entrance point for the Capivara National Park, which we took a day off to explore.
A designated UNESCO world heritage site, the park has evidence of human life 50,000 years ago, the earliest known in South America. We saw rock paintings from 12,000 years ago that had been perfectly preserved by the solid overhangs that provided shelter at the time and remain today.There were even fossils from the prehistoric period, including the dagger-like fangs of a sabre tooth tiger.
Despite our limited command of Portuguese, our enthusiastic guide managed to get the gist of the history across. It was a beautiful setting and there were many endangered species of birds and animals protected in the park boundaries. An armadillo and monkeys feeding on corn kernels were, along with the turtles in French Guyana and sloth in Venezuela, up there in terms of the wildlife highlights of our trip.
This stretch totally restored our enjoyment of cycling in Brazil. Rather than being a bypass on our way to the coast, the central region has thrown up some fantastic scenery, beautiful roads and welcome surprises. Still, it will be a relief to reach Salvador and dive into the Atlantic to finally cool down a little.