Too much temptation: cycling Salvador to Vitoria
From having little to see whilst cycling through Brazil’s interior, we’ve been spoilt for choice riding down the coast from Salvador to Vitoria. Almost every 40km there is a perfect beach that needs exploring and we’ve found the temptation to stop has been too strong. It’s meant that our progress towards Rio de Janeiro has been slow, but we’re too busy enjoying ourselves and testing the local cocktails to worry.
It all started when Paddy discovered that instead of leaving Salvador the same way we’d cycled in we could take a catamaran along the coast to the island of Morro do Sao Paulo, a popular tourist spot known for its beaches and sandy streets. After we’d recovered from the choppy, two-hour crossing we settled into a pousada that it would take several days to drag ourselves away from. The hot, fried cheese sold by vendors pushing improvised wheelbarrows along the sand was too delicious to leave, and it’s never a good idea to cycle the day after drinking a caiparinha or two.
The town was set up for the Sao Joao festival and the nightly concerts were lots of fun, especially, the local children throwing firecrackers at each other. They make a significant bang and a good amount of smoke. We picked some up as we thought they would be fantastic to throw and scare the dogs that chase us, yet pathetically, we can’t work out how to make the things go off.
On accepting that it was time to get back on the road, we caught a fishing boat to the mainland. A rainstorm started just as we left and we watched a local fisherman paddling to avoid a drenching as he arrived with his morning’s catch of a large turtle.
Due to low tides, the boat to Valenca dropped us 22km north of the city. Fortunately it was fairly flat, but after we passed through the town the hills started. A local had told us about these, excited about the fantastic downhills we’d have. What they hadn’t considered were the ups, which saw us crawling along in bottom gear and at times pushing.
After a few days cycling, we felt justified in taking another day off in the surf town of Itacare. The central strip is full of hotels, bars and restaurants where for the first time in Brazil we were able to find some vegetarian options. Here we bumped into a Chilean cyclist heading north through Brazil. He was the first cycle tourist we have met in months and it was great to chat with him over a beer about the route he took up from Rio de Janeiro and offer him advice on the stretch we’d covered.
On leaving at last, we were duly punished for slacking with a rainy climb back into the hills. The next morning we hit the 20,000km for the trip, but it was too wet to stop and celebrate for long. That day we covered 110km to Canavieiras; from the moment we set off in the morning until we arrived in town in the dark it didn’t stop raining. It’s the first day of the trip that we have had such heavy and persistent rain, crazy to believe that so far along that there are still new things to experience.
Pretty, colonial Canavieiras marked the end of the road along the coast. The next town of Belmonte across an estuary could only be reached by heading inland to the BR101. However, we’d heard a rumour that small boats could make the crossing, weaving through the mangrove swamps, and got up early to see if we could find anything.
It turned out it was easy to find somebody to take us. The fare was $20 (BRL) per person and $15 per bike. The boats left at 8am as the passage is only navigable during high tide. It was easy to see why, as passing through narrow passages between mangroves the water was so low in place that we were scraping the sandy bottom.
At other points, we crossed wide stretches of deep water which ran out to the Atlantic. The ninety minute ride was incredible. Every time we slowed down we could see deep into the mangrove forest which looked like something out of a mystical world with the long, nobbly roots of the trees sticking out high above the mud. We couldn’t help but admire the skill of the driver who knew his way through the channels like the back of his hand, knowledge passed on by generation after generation.
From the town of Belmonte, we had a flat, easy ride towards Porto Seguro, a resort popular with Brazilian and Argentinian tourists. The Butlin-style complexes didn’t appeal though, so we took a ferry across the river to the small town of Arrial d’Ajuda.
We weren’t the only cyclists aboard. A cycling club from Itabuna were on a weekend trip. We’d watched them perform a critical mass around Porto Seguro as we sat munching gigantic pastels for our second breakfast, and we got chatting to them on board. They were fascinated by our Rohloff hubs and took endless photographs of our bikes. On the other side they followed us along the cobbled streets in a huge peloton, before we lost them on the climb up to the village.
Arrial d’Ajuda was another lovely spot and with the Euro 2012 final due to take place it would have been rude not to stop off for a day. We stayed clear of the caiparinhas, but discovered instead the local cocktail ‘Capeta’. Made with vodka, condensed milk, honey and cinnamon they are absolutely delicious and made for a perfect second breakfast on the beach.
Unfortunately we couldn’t hang around too long and this meant heading inland as the coastal road ran out. Getting to the town of Eunapolis was fine, although we had to stop twice for punctures on my tyres. We’ve used Marathon Schwalbe tyres for the trip and 20,000km down still have the same set that we left Rio with. It’s a bit too far as the rubber has gotten a little thin, hence why we’re getting more punctures. However, the tread remains pretty good and we’re hoping we can make them last for the final few weeks of the trip.
As we arrived into Eunapolis we saw a road sign to Rio de Janeiro. It’s the first time on the trip and we weren’t expecting it quite so soon. Our emotions were mixed. My first response was to suggest following the directions back to Salvador to avoid the inevitable end. Yet, at the same time I felt rather impressed that we’d managed to navigate our way around South America and end up back at the right point – obviously credit goes to Paddy for this as the map-reader and he did point out that it wasn’t so hard with the road network and all, but still.
Arriving back in Rio de Janeiro, although it marks the end of our trip, is actually exciting. The idea of completing the circuit around South America seems totally mad and we will be overwhelmed to make it back to the very spot that we started from. So, although the idea of returning to the real world terrifies us, we’re looking forward to hitting Ipanema Beach.
If seeing the Rio sign gave us mixed feelings, our first sight of the BR101 merely terrified us. The interstate road runs parallel with the coast from the border with Uruguay in the far south of the country right up to Natal in the north-east. It’s a road made for trucks not for cyclists. We met one lady who refused to drive along it as it’s so dangerous. She said that many of the truck drivers are on tight schedules and take pills to keep awake, which inevitably causes accidents.
With little other option, we thought we would give it a go and judge what it was like and set off dressed in our luminous and helmets. The 95km from Eunapolis to Itamaraju was actually alright. The traffic wasn’t too heavy and there was a good hard shoulder with plenty of room to cycle. It meant we had time to admire the beautiful scenery as we wound our way through hills reminiscent of Colombia and past pointy rock formations. That night we were confident of making it down to Linhares , where we would be able to turn off back onto the coastal road.
We spoke too soon. The 65km to Teixeira de Freitas was one of the scariest days of cycling we’d ever done, worse even than cycling out of Lima. I knew it was bad when I turned round in the ditch after being forced off the road yet again, to see Paddy banging his handlebars in rage and despair, something that never happens.
The hard shoulder had disappeared. It seemed there had once been one, but poor drainage had meant the tarmac had disintegrated allowing sand and thick grass to take over. There was absolutely no space for us to cycle and we were forced to wobble along the white line as trucks up to 30m long zoomed past us. If there was nothing coming in the opposite direction they would pull out to pass, but if there wasn’t space they carried on regardless without slowing down. Just as scary were cars heading towards us who would overtake and head straight at us.
By the time we reached the town at the end of the day we were nervous-wrecks and agreed there was no way we were getting back on that road. Frustratingly, we had very few other options. We could try to wiggle our way through minor roads further inland, but there was no direct route other than the BR101, and there was no guarantee that these other roads would be quiet. We were so shaken up that we decided not to take any risks and instead took a bus to Linhares, where we could get back on the minor roads along the coast. Looking out the window as we sped along we were confident we’d made the right decision.
We left Linhares on a Sunday and met a group of local cyclists as we exited the town. One, a doctor called Alessadro, decided to cycle with us as we made our way to Regencia. His shiny, light racing bike looked a treat to ride compared to our heavy machines, but he had to turn back halfway when the tarmac ended as his tyres wouldn’t take it and we were left to bump along on our own after a nice morning chatting to him as we pedalled along.
Just before the village of Regencia we stopped off at a turtle sanctuary, eager to meet more of these stunning creatures that we’d gotten so close to in French Guyana. It turned out to be rather a sad experience, as we watched these beautiful animals swimming around in tiny pools.
From Regencia we had a flat and windy ride towards Vitoria, the capital of Espirito Santo a state with a population of just 2.6 million people. As we approached the city the traffic got heavy again, but we managed to avoid meeting up with the BR101 and stuck to the coast, finding ourselves cycling along a dedicated cycle lane along Vitoria’s beachfront.
Never fans of cycling in big cities we decided to head to Vila Velha, the town on the opposite side of the river from Vitoria, to get the busy riding over and done with in one go. The towns are linked by three bridges numbered one, two and three. The first we came to was the Third Bridge, a huge, 3.3km long structure that crosses close to where the sea and river meet. Although this would drop us off exactly where we wanted to stay there was no chance we could cycle across it, so instead had a 10km detour over one of the smaller bridges upstream.
At last though we settled in to a hotel and set out to explore, wandering along the long, sandy beach before sitting down to enjoy a few caiparinhas. Obviously, we can’t cycle after indulging in these, so it’s time for a day off again.
When we set off next it will be on the very final leg to Rio de Janeiro. We have just over 600km to cover from here, but fortunately there are many more nice beaches to discover on route so we won’t be there anytime too soon.