February 24, 2013 12 Comments
Yesterday I joined my Brazilian colleagues on a bicycling tour from the outskirts of São Paulo to the beaches of the Atlantic Coast. To say that the tour was an ‘adventure’ is an understatement—it was epic! For those not familiar with São Paulo, its 20 million inhabitants make it not only the largest city in Brazil, but also one of the five largest cities in the world. Yet, despite the explosive growth it has seen during the past century, it remains isolated from the Atlantic Coast of southeastern Brazil by the Serra do Mar, a 40-kilometer wide swath of rugged, mountainous terrain and part of the Great Escarpment that runs along much of the eastern coast of Brazil. It is here where some of the last tracts of Atlantic Forest, the second largest forest ecotype in South America after the Amazon, remain. Atlantic Forest once stretched along much of Brazil’s Atlantic coast, turning inland in its southern reaches to Paraguay and the northern tip of Argentina. However, much of the forest, especially in populous southeastern Brazil, has fallen victim to the axe. Only the ruggedness of the Serra do Mar has allowed the Atlantic Forest to survive in such close proximity to one of the world’s most populous cities. Understandably, travel between São Paulo and the coast has been difficult. In former years, vehicles had to snake their way through the mountains along a treacherous 2-lane highway with steep grades and hairpin turns. That highway has since been circumvented by an elevated, double, 4-lane highway of alternating spans and tunnels, and the old highway, now closed to vehicles, is instead used by maintenance crews for the new highway and cyclists who yearn to experience the Atlantic Forest up close and personal.
Our van dropped us off in the outskirts of São Paulo, from where we rode along the main highway a short bit before accessing the old highway. Dropping into the Atlantic Forest was like being magically transported into virgin wilderness. The pavement was so encroached by the forest, steep and slippery in places, that it was hard to imagine it ever served as a link between Brazil’s largest city and its largest port. Heavy rains the previous night made the forest moist and gave it an earthy aroma, and moisture-laden air hung heavy with fog and intermittent drizzle. For a time it seemed we would have an uninterrupted, 40-km downhill freeride; however, just a few kilometers into the ride we encountered the first of what would be many landslides blocking the route. I can honestly say that I’ve never portaged a bike through as rough and tumble a pile of trees, rocks, and mud as I did on this day. Still, perhaps encouraged by the fresh bike tracks that lay before us, we soldiered on. After picking our way through a half-dozen such landslides we came upon a work crew who said there were another 30–40 landslides further down along the route. We were at a tunnel that connected with the main highway, so we decided to play it safe and take the main highway the rest of the way down. That, too, was an adventure, made feasible only by the fact that traffic was crawling at a snail’s pace due to the popularity of the Atlantic beaches with the citizenry of São Paulo. It was enjoyable to swish past the cars as they idled their engines, but we had to navigate about seven kilometers worth of shoulderless tunnels. That would have been impossible in normal traffic, but the congestion made finding room to squeeze by large trucks and buses the biggest problem (and I guess breathing exhaust!). Eventually we made it down into Santos, the largest port city in Brazil, and after picking our way through the center of the city, took a ferry to the beach city of Guarujá. Rain, landslides and traffic had thrown everything they had at us, but we persevered the 53-km trek and watched the sun break through while enjoying our just rewards in a beachside restaurant.
Following are a few more of my favorite photos from the day, and you can see all of them in my Facebook album Brazilian Bike Adventure.
Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2013