An even prettier view from up there!
Our journey with the spirit of adventure continued into Bahia to its geographical center: the Diamantina Tableland (Chapada Diamantina). In order to arrive there, we followed the banks of the river system Rio de Contas in reverse – from its mouth to its spring –, on seemingly never-ending bus trips. We left Itacare some 620km behind us, going over the hills and down the valleys. After camping in a bus terminal car park we carried on the following day, passing through small towns (and more hills), to be finally welcomed at our destination, in the village of Piata.
With 1,200m altitude, Piata is the highest city of Bahia and is located in between two mountain cliffs: Tromba, where the river Rio de Contas is born, and Santana, with its adorable hill-side chapel, Senhor do Bonfim. Piata means fortress in the Indigenous Tupi language, and the place that hosts the oldest populated mountain village in the Diamantina Tableland.
Luckily Brigida, our host, was in town when we arrived and we managed to get a lift with her back to the organic and biodynamic
farm she owns and runs, ‘Fazenda Flor do Café’. The welcoming lady from Minas Gerais justified her strong Bahianian accent through many years working in Salvador. Far from being in a big city, now she lives on her own and receives interns and volunteers to help her with the every-day tasks of the farm.
Like the name suggests, Flor do Café is a coffee farm and the rich smell of that ‘black powder’ was everywhere around us. Before even unpacking our gear that evening, we tried a sip of that special coffee in order to know whether the aroma truly justified the flavor. To our surprise, the taste was even better!
As the region is a haven for snakes, spiders and scorpions, every night before sleeping, we had to check under our beds and make sure that there weren’t any foreign visitors amongst us, pulling our beds from the wall.
Unburying the horns
Our first mission on the following morning was a bit unusual to us – at least on first sight. We helped to unbury two cow’s horns in order to prepare the biodynamic liquid compost ‘horn-manure’ (Preparation 500), to be used later on that day as a natural stimulant in the coffee plantation. The horns had been filled with fresh cow manure and buried six months earlier, about 50cm below the grounds surface, covered with earthen roofing tiles (to mark their placement) next to a rock to help retain humidity within the barren climate.
They were buried in Easter, which coincides with the autumn season in the southern hemisphere. During the next six months the earth was contracting itself due to the variation in climate (winter time) as the fresh manure transformed itself into a natural fertilizer rich in fungi, microorganisms and terrestrial energy.
According to the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), who coined the name ‘biological dynamic’, or biodynamic agriculture, the horns used in this preparation must be exclusively from cows. It is justified by the fact that a cow horn has a series of calving rings at the base and has a solid tip. It also should be originated from a lactating cow, which generates calcium – essential components to ensuring the correct properties and preparation qualities.
Considered by many as the most sustainable farming method, and like other organic approaches, biodynamic agriculture emphasizes the use of manure and compost and excludes the use of artificial chemicals. But besides using an astronomical calendar for sowing and planting, a major component that makes this method unique is the use of herbal and mineral preparations as compost additives.
Preparing and applying the humus
The ‘horn-manure’ in its original form is highly concentrated, and has to be diluted in water. But not just any water. Brigida explained to us that it cannot be ‘treated’ water. If there isn’t pure spring water available, the best alternative is to collect rain water – as long as it is not contaminated or derived from acid rain.
We mixed 100 litres of spring water with a handful of the enriched manure in a barrel. For an hour we churned the water and humus by rotating a wooden staff, allowing the particles to be broken down and evenly dispersed.
One hour later, the ‘Preparation 500’ was ready to be distributed onto the coffee field. With the help of small branches, we dipped the fronds into buckets filled with the liquid compost and spread the moisture in parallel movements pointing towards the ground. This biodynamic process is recommended for the vivification of the soil and strengthening of the plants over dry periods, perfect for the weather and land conditions in Piata.
During the whole process, from unburying the horn to applying its preparation in the ground, we enjoyed the splendor of our neighbor as it overlooked us – the beautiful and inspiring Serra da Tromba, or Trunk Cliff.
We decided to get much closer to our magnificent view by making a 3-day hike towards and then over the cliff, after first climbing the highest peak of Northeast Brazil with our German friend, Christoph.
Toward the highest peak
The 6km cobbled path of the Estrada Real (Royal Road), built by slaves 300 years ago under the command of the Portuguese Crown, guided us to the bottom of Serra do Barbado (Barbado’s Cliff). The colorful colonial houses fused perfectly with the giant blue sky, the towering peak gleaming against the cloudless horizon. From there, we climbed to the highest peak of Northeast – some 2,033m altitude.
Gratefully, the arrival compensated the sacrifice. From on top of the world we could see nature with its gigantic form on display. While the wind blew gently on our faces we admired the most beautiful panoramic view of the local villages and their surroundings.
Night was falling by the time we came down the hill and the locals allowed us to camp at the foot of the mountain in the neighborhood’s common square. We were still finishing putting up our tent when one of our new friends called in and offered us a hot coffee. They were Brigida’s friends and also cultivate organic and biodynamic coffee. We couldn’t resist the aroma and accepted it.
Hmmmm, what a coffee!
Despite drinking the ‘black powder’ before sleeping, we were so tired by then that we slept like angels, waking up early the following morning ready to start hiking towards and then over the mountain range standing between us and Brigida’s farm – the Trunk Cliff.
Each step forward was followed by an exciting discovery. The vegetation alongside the gravel road mixed together different species of trees and cactus from the caatinga dry lands. Thanks to the generosity of locals and to our big sombreros, we could cope with the heat of the sun despite it being over 40 degrees centigrade and with very little shade available.
The cliff was getting closer, but still lay some hours ahead of us. It was about mid-morning when we met a charming couple in their 80’s who showed us their coffee plantation, vegetable garden and ingeniously built chook house. They never used chemicals in their crops and were really proud to share that with us. They made us a stiff coffee, shared some homemade biscuits and then we headed off again.
Back on the track, some few kilometers ahead, we met another local who guided us to the footpath at the base of the cliff that would lead us over the range. Several hours later we arrived at the top of the extremely steep face – it had been hours since we had last seen the footpath. Working from our map, compass and landmarks we had made it to the crest through shear determination even though our bodies were covered with sweat and scratches.
It had been an ascent to remember!
We were speechless… despite the fact that our energy was low we were stunned by the spectacular sunset painted across the horizon. After seeing so many colors, it wasn’t long before a bright full moon took its place in the sky.
It was dry, really dry, and even though we could smell water near us, we decided to set up camp without replenishing our water flasks or cooking any dinner in order to retain the rest of our strength to look for the Rio de Contas’ spring with the light of the next day.
We arose with the first strokes of light across the heavens, cooking ourselves a nutritional meal and thinking how lucky we were to have had the opportunity to be there. Shortly after, we found the spring, drank from it and refilled our bottles with the purest fresh water.
The way back to the farm was a lot easier from there. After having been lost, short of water and walked for three days, we never felt as happier to be taking our shoes off and jumping into the waterfalls by Fazenda Flor do Café again.