Green Brazil: Scouting a New BikingMan Route
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Axel Carion heads to São Paulo, Brazil, to research and scout a future BikingMan event route. Find Axel’s thoughts on riding 1,000km across Brazil for the first time, plus some stunning photos captured along the way…
Where do you even begin when trying to uncover and understand the fifth biggest country in the world? As the biggest piece of land in South America, Brazil almost resembles a continent unto itself when you look at it on the map. Within it are 8,000,000 square meters of fascinating terrain. I’m fortunate enough to know several Brazilians, including one of their most passionate bikepackers, Vinicius Martins, who I met while organizing the IncaDivide race 2019.
After hours of conversations on multiple occasions, Vinicius convinced me to come see Brazil with my gravel bike. And, if possible, to organize a BikingMan event there. When traveling throughout a new country by bicycle, I’ve always found it best to start somewhere close to a larger city. Somewhere that isn’t too remote. In Brazil, that was São Paulo. It’s a sprawling megacity that’s bustling with air-polluting busses, trains, and cars, which doesn’t make it an obvious bikepacking destination. But it’s also bursting with life and all kinds of vibrant people, especially those who are into riding bikes and growing the community of bikepackers and bicycle travelers.
Although I’ve spent months of my life on a bicycle in South America, I’d yet to spend a single day in Brazil when I arrived to meet Vinicius. I felt excitement for learning about the country and its people from the moment I landed. Brazilian Portuguese sounds and feels like almost like music to my ears, and even though I didn’t speak a word of it, I still managed to understand Vinicius and his friends.
The goal of my first ride in Brazil was to design and scout a 1,000-kilometer bikepacking journey, one that I’d complete with Vinicius and another friend in five days. It needed to be close enough to São Paulo and main transportation options (train/bus stations, as well as an international airport), but far enough away from the city to enjoy the true wilderness of the surrounding region around Sāo Paulo. Despite the immensity of the country, I wanted to design a route that would pack in as many highlights of this tiny part of the country as possible.
Vinicius has extensive knowledge of the best routes in Brazil (on both tarmac and gravel) as he has been organizing brevets for many years. He worked on a loop to and from the beautiful village of Taubaté, partway between the hubs of Rio de Janeiro and Sāo Paulo. The goal of the route was clear: feature the highest and most beautiful passes of the country while exploring tarmac and gravel segments that showcase the incredible variety of riding experiences available in Brazil.
We were three riders: Vinicius, Breno and me, all with completely different bike setups. Among us were two gravel bikes with different wheelsets (Vinicius was riding 700C x 40mm WTB Nanos and I was equipped with 650B x 47mm WTB byways), and Breno was the odd man out on his hardtail 29er. The road conditions in Brazil are random at best: you can be riding on perfect tarmac and suddenly end up on a rough gravel track surrounded by eucalyptus, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. And so it was. As soon as we headed northwest from Taubaté to “crying mountain,” named for its nearly constant rainfall, we quickly left the pavement and encountered a sublime and open landscape on superb red dirt tracks. The scenery was already delivering, but the January heat made for slow going. Coming directly from winter weather in Europe, Brazil’s 41°C (105°F) temperatures shocked my system.
Those red trails were exactly what I had in mind before traveling to Brazil. Rolling quickly along the wet tracks, we were all covered in dirt, our clothes and our bikes painted red by the soil. Rain is part of the game in such a green country, and for me it only added to the experience. The area’s powerful rainfall provides for incredible smells of blossoming vegetation along the way, and the numerous waterfalls and rivers we passed served as a reminder of how omnipresent and important water is in Brazil.
For anyone considering a bikepacking trip in this region of Brazil, make sure your legs are ready to crank out some serious watts. The terrain can be ridiculously steep. What it lacks in high-altitude Andes, it makes up for with sharp climbs up countless smaller hills. Thankfully, that means there are endless hilltops from which you’ll have sweeping views of an incredibly lush green landscape like you’ve never seen before.
As part of our journey, Vinicius made sure to include attempts at one of the steepest climbs in the country, Paraty Climb, which peaks at 1,500 meters, as well as the country’s highest pass, Garganta do Registro, which peaks at 2,450 meters above sea level. Both are brutal in their own away and should be on your bucket list if you’re planning a bikepacking journey in Brazil.
Paraty climb is a monster ascent from the UNESCO village of Paraty on the Atlantic coast. I called it the “hubcap climb” as we passed dozens of hubcaps that were abandoned by vehicles in the hairpins of the climb! No one wants to stop in this ascent, neither the few cars nor the cyclists attempting it. The numerous viewpoints on the Atlantic coast during the climb are resting places for your mind and body and are worth every drop of sweat. The “bridges” of vegetation under which we cycled were also a surprise treat. The atmosphere can change rapidly as you get high, given the extraordinary humidity, which adds another layer of challenge.
Garganta do Registro, located further north from Paraty is a one-way, 35.8-kilometer climb on tarmac that finishes on a rocky final stretch to the top, at the entrance of Itatiaia National Park. Once again, the surrounding atmosphere is part of the journey, with weather that plays with your mind. It’s not unusual for it to be fully socked in with fog, interrupted by sudden moments when the sun pierces the clouds and brings intense heat with it. As with most climbs of South America, the typical “neblina” (humid fog) often lingers on stretches above 1,500 meters. Keep going, though, as the gravel grand finale to the top is spectacular as you reach Itatiaia National Park. The vegetation is dense but diverse and the road weaves around the summit as if reaching the top was impossible. Don’t miss the opportunity to grab some old newspapers in local shops to avoid freezing on the way back down.
Food must not be taken lightly, either. One word that every bikepacker needs to learn in Brazilian is “açai.” Get ready for a frozen smoothie with mashed fruit of the açai palm, one of the best cycling fuels I’ve ever tried. It’s not just the flavor that makes it so unique, it’s the addition of the Brazilian riding conditions, the heat, the humidity, and the cold that turns Açai smoothies into a fuel blessed by the gods. Overall, the food is perfect for multi-day bikepacking trips with a lot of options on the roadside, as well as plenty of carry-away foods, such as bread with cheese and bread with eggs. In fact, you’ll find bread with… everything!
And then there’s the Brazilian people. It’s true that I was accompanied by two of the most enthusiastic locals possible on this ride, with Vinicius Martins and Breno Bizinoto both being finishers of IncaDivide 2018, but overall the people who we met on the route displayed rare kindness and shared their infectious good moods. Both are things you can feel often in Brazil. We were kindly hosted by the owners of a small bakery one day as it was pouring rain outside and the mud was a bit too much for our gravel bikes, among countless other acts of generosity. “Prazer que não tem fim” means “pleasure that has no end,” which perfectly sumps up the experience you can expect from Brazil.
Should you find yourself in Sāo Paulo, make sure to get in touch with Vinicius and his friends at Drop Bicycle Shop. They are part of a friendly community of people who love to ride bikes and explore the trails out there. Whatever journey you would like to plan, they’re definitely the right people to discuss your plans with, and they’d love to support you with advice, smiles, and probably more.
You can find the route we followed here:
About Axel Carion
Axel Carion is an explorer based on the French Riviera. He shares his adventures through stories, talks, films, and also with BikingMan: the first exploration cycling series that he founded in 2016 after cycle-crossing the Andes Mountains from Colombia to Argentina. He loves exploring new cultures on his bicycle and has a passion for high-altitude cycling. Find Axel on Instagram @axel_carion.