serrario-1280A photograph much like the one at the top of this post is largely responsible for us changing the route we’d sketched out in advance. We’d planned to ride east from the city of Curitiba to Foz do Iguaçu, then head more or less south to Buenos Aires. But in a Curitiba bike shop about five weeks ago, Gesten, the owner, beckoned us over to his computer, and a new route soon began falling into place.

The picture is of the extraordinary road that runs through the Serra do Rio do Rastro, in the southeastern corner of Santa Catarina state. The platform from which the photograph was taken, about 12km east of the town of Bom Jardim da Serra, is 1,424m above sea level. Lauro Müller, the tidy little town at the bottom, is 24km down the road and 1,200m lower.

serrario2-1280Photography can’t capture it, at least not when we’re taking the pictures. Directly below the platform are a series of fearsome switchbacks necessary to neutralise the steepening gradient at the top; the rendering on the screen of our GPS device looked little better than a child’s scribble. Way in the distance, on the other hand, the road trails away like a stray hair, barely visible as the sun bounces off it. The panorama is breathtaking.

We approached it from the top of the ridge. Baggage left at the hotel on a glorious morning, Will rode down about 6.5km, losing 650m of altitude in the process, just to ride back up the steepest and most spectacular stretch. The next day, this time with our bags, we headed the whole way down, gingerly at first around the blind corners and then gleefully when the road levelled out to gradients nearer 4-5%.

morro-1280Gesten had the image on his monitor because he’d organised a weekend’s riding in the region for his customers (but mostly, we suspect, for himself). On day one, they tackled the Serra do Rio do Rastro from top to bottom to top, while day two took them to the Morro da Igreja, a spectacular 1,812m peak that’s a crow’s flight of 50km from the Serra do Rio do Rastro viewing platform and is widely regarded as the coldest place in Brazil. (Will rode it a couple of days earlier, with the road almost completely empty. One of many spectacular views from the top is pictured above this paragraph.) In Europe, climbs this awe-inspiring would draw cyclists by the dozen, both for the scenery and the sport. In Brazil, where cycling is much less popular, we’ve been the only riders on the road.

 


 

itaim3-1280The Serra do Rio do Rastro is found within the Serra Geral, a serious slab of geology that rears up behind the beaches of southern Brazil. ‘Serra’ means ‘mountain range’, while ‘Geral’ translates as ‘general’. Neither is appropriate. This is a cliff, a big, dense basalt cliff that rises a sheer kilometre from the coastal plain and follows it for 350km; and it is not general but entirely singular. It’s one half of a canyon quite as grand as the Grand. It might not be as deep, but it’s far, far wider – the other half is 4,000 miles away on Namibia’s Skeleton Coast. Look at a map of the world and you’ll see that the coastlines of South America and west Africa jigsaw together, the Nigerian gulf cupping Brazil’s northern shoulder. The two continents were once one – part of Earth’s single, original land mass, Gondwanaland.

Our sense of wonder as we discovered this giant shelf was all the greater because it’s little heralded. It’s not mentioned in most guidebooks, and merits barely 100 words on Wikipedia. It contains three national parks, but their function appears solely to be to preserve: jealously, and to hell with access (no buildings, no camping, hardly any trails and guides compulsory in the backcountry). Only four roads climb the cliff, two of them dirt – mercifully, the Serra do Rio do Rastro is entirely asphalt – and all of them acrobatic. Communities five miles apart as the crow flies have little communication.

bomhorse-1280We explored the top, the ‘altiplano’ (‘high plain’, though hills rise a further 800m), by bike and horse from Bom Jardim da Serra. It’s the eastern frontier of Gaucho country, on which more soon: range land, second-growth araucaria forest and commercial apple orchards. It’s not easy to make a living up here, but residents have made a virtue of a necessity by fostering snow tourism – in a largely tropical country, it has a bankable novelty value – and cold-climate wines.

itaim2-800We explored the bottom by staying at a vineyard in the soft hills of the coast among industrious, pretty towns founded by Italians, their origins flagged by the style of their churches. And we explored the cliffs themselves by walking the Rio do Boi trail into the short but fierce Itaimbezinho canyon, one of several gouging the rockface within the space of a few miles. Six hours of balancing on boulders, crossing and re-crossing the river thigh-deep and cooling off in clear, deep pools in permanent shade. Scientists argue about Gondwanaland, but it feels all too possible in here.

from Porto Alegre, Brazil