The Parque Nacional da Serra da Capivara, located in the midst of the caatinga (savannah), is considered one of the sites with the highest number of rock paintings in the world. Various civilizations, up to 12,000 years ago, coloured with iron oxide and other substances its gigantic stone faces. The park received the UNESCO title World Cultural Heritage.
Despite its importance and beauty, it continues to stay unknown not only to foreigners but to most Brazilians as well.
Next time, you plan to visit the Northeast of Brazil, forget for a moment the obvious destinations with its beaches and palm trees. Undeniably, the region has beautiful stretches of sand, but it has not just that. Try to remember that there is a place dominated by the unique caatinga biome, and covered with paintings left by our ancestors 12,000 years ago. Grab the chance to get in touch with Brazil’s origin and its simple and sincere people.
Head to the Parque Nacional da Serra da Capivara in southeastern Piauí, at 517 km from its capital Teresina and 380 from Petrolina, in Pernambuco. It is the largest open-air archaeological site in the world with 1,200 sites listed, of which 172 are open to visitors.
Due to the distance and the condition of the roads, it is best to start your trip in Petrolina. From there it takes almost five hours to reach the town with the best infrastructure for the reserve, São Raimundo Nonato.
A 400 km road trip, crossing a beautiful semiarid landscape. Wattle and daub houses and several forms of cactus: crown-of-eyed, foxtail, xique xique and palm, which serves as food for cattle. In addition to colourful bromeliads and mimosa-tops, mastic, jujube and imburama-de-cheiro. A night in the region shows thousands of stars in the sky and white flowers adorning the cactus. Something you have to see, even if it’s just once in a lifetime.
Although a quiet drive, it requires an adventurous spirit. It is essential to bring water with you, preferably in a cool box, as the sun is strong and there are almost no official points to take a break. Follow the BR-407 to the Fiscal Office, soon after the border between the two states, then take up the PI-465 till the BR-20, which crosses the park. Make sure your vehicle is in good condition and avoid driving at night.
Despite the difficulties, the reward is stunning. You will pass isolated villages with their colourful houses and unique names such as Campo Alegre do Fidalgo, Lagoa do Barro do Piauí, Queimada Nova, Arizona and Afrânio. In the last one, if you can, make a quick pit stop. Run to the gas station at the road side and ask for a cup of sweet milk – the town boasts to have the best in the region. It will cost BRR 1 (0.80 USD) and you will follow your route feeling much happier.
Passing São Raimundo Nonato there is still a 20-kilometer to go before reaching the park, which covers 130,000 hectares with a unique relief, formed about 240 million years ago. There are canyons, stone faces and plateaus dotted with vegetation typical of the caatinga (savannah), where the quantity and variety of cactus seem to triple. From May to October, there is almost no rain, which highlights the unique landscape of large rocks sculpted by the wind. And favours visits to the archaeological sites.
The various civilizations of prehistoric men were very generous in spreading their art using the stone walls. Countless drawings, done mostly with iron oxide, a red substance found in the rocks and which served as ink for these artists. The scenes show hunting scenes, figures of animals such as Galheiro deer, a specie only present in places with plenty of water. This proves the great climate change in the region over many millennia.
The park has an infra-structure for both adventurers and travellers with little physical fitness – it is worth remembering that 30 of these sites are accessible to disabled people. In some regions it is possible to travel by car here and there to see the sites that are closer to the main road of the reservation. But there are other areas which can only be reached after an 8 km walk through the middle of the savannah.
No matter where you go, the tourist needs a registered guide, usually people born and raised in the vicinity of the park. Each guide is responsible for up to ten people and charges BRR 75 per group, that amount does not include the BRR 10 to enter the park.
But the park is not just lavish in natural resources. The Museu do Homem Americano (Museum of the American Man), for example, tells the story of the discoveries made in the Serra da Capivara with technology and modern facilities. There are skulls and skeletons in urns, lithic tools that look more like jewellery and a movie screen that shows cave drawings, underlined by a wonderful soundtrack.
When hunger hits, head to the nearby village of Sítio do Mocó, where you find the Camping da Pedra Furada. You will eat delicious dishes based on dried meat, chicken or lamb for BRR 10. The camping also has tents (BRR 10) and rooms (BRR 20, with breakfast) very simple, but perfect for those who can not resist the temptation to prolong the journey and discover a different Brazil.
When night falls, visitors have a unique opportunity at the Toca do Boqueirão da Pedra Furada. The rock paintings receive special lighting giving the feeling of being in an outdoor cinema. Just walk down the catwalks and discover the painted scenes of 12,000 years ago. It costs BRR 50.
It is hard to stay indifferent to the beauty of the scenes at the Toca da Entrada do Baixão da Vaca. They are characteristic to the Brazil’s Northeast, although they have similar traits as the cave paintings in Europe and Oceania.
Don’t go to bed yet. It is worthwhile to stay up a little longer. Few spectacles are as quaint as the blooming of the white flowers of cactus with the moonlight in the background.
Note: I took the text and all the photos from a beautiful photo-blog. The blog “Olhar sobre o Mundo” (Looking at the World) is a place of photo reports, essays and visual chronicles. Pure photojournalism. The blog is edited by the photo team of the newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo and the pictures are sourced from photojournalists from the Grupo Estado and international agencies. The publishing model is partly inspired by the Big Picture of The Boston Globe, but, of course, the flavouring has many ingredients genuinely Brazilian.
The text, I used as basis for this article, was written by Nilton Fukuda and Tiago Queiroz, from O Estado de S. Paulo. All the photos are by Tiago Queiroz.
The blog “Olhar sobre o Mundo” is certainly worth a frequent visit. They have a lot of beautiful photo reports.