When MH Tours reached out and asked if I wanted to explore remote Jalapão Brazil after speaking in São Paulo, Brazil at the International Conference on Diversity in LGBT Tourism. I’m not gonna lie to y’all. I had no idea where Jalapão was or what was going on there but I eagerly accepted when they asked me. An opportunity to avoid the US, land of stress and political turmoil? Where do I sign up?
Turns out Jalapão State Park is a nature reserve in the eastern Tocantins of Brazil. Don’t feel too bad if you don’t know where that is – most of the Brazilians had no idea either. What I can tell you is this: Jalapão is an adventure traveler’s dream. The WiFi is blissfully unreliable and natural springs outnumber foreign visitors.
Generally, when I’m writing a love letter to a destination, this would be the section where I encourage you to go but the humble truth is, Jalapao is not for everyone.
Of the methods to get there, every single one of them is via a long winding road with knee crunching craters the size of potholes, no cell phone service, and a level of patience normally reserved for nuns.
But the benefits of Jalapão outweigh the physical discomfort for me. In my world, there’s something soothing about being in a place so remote that I’m forced to have a moment of introspection. For me, the rewards of Jalapao are mental and spiritual – not just another stamp in a passport.
I find peace in avoiding intangible challenges and picking up real ones with tried and true measurement. If I’m stressed about something obscure like “the future” undoubtedly I’ll be searching for some larger than life goal like climbing a mountain, starting a new business venture or writing a book. It’s no secret that becoming a professional writer in this day and age is basically signing yourself for a life of rejection, professional critics, and financial instability. Right before this trip life was getting particularly stressful but I decided to go because not going would have been worse.
I joined a small group of press folks led by our tour guides from Jalapão100limites. I was joined by Ed Salvato from Man About World, an app based gay travel magazine and Pedro HMC one of the most followed Brazilian Youtubers. Jalapão100limites offers 3 and 5-day tours. We opted for the longer adventure.
How to get to Jalapao
I knew we were up for an adventure when we landed in Palma and were told that the park was about a six-hour drive away and only accessible by a 4×4 vehicle. Jalapão is in the state of Tocantins and the gateway is through its capital, Palmas. From Palmas, it is roughly another 200 miles to reach. In most places, it shouldn’t take 6 hours to drive 200 miles, but Jalapão isn’t most places.
They told us the ride would be rough and they weren’t joking either. It was like driving up your roof if it was on the moon and littered with rocks, trees, mud, roots and the occasional crater. The bright orange roads are unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. They’re made of half mud and half sand and have potholes so big they could swallow a small Volkswagen. There are no buses or public transportation that connect the small towns around Jalapão. And for the love of god – do not try to rent your own car and drive yourself. We passed a rental car that was being pulled out of the mud hours away from cell phone service, who knows how long they waited before someone came along. The landscapes are gorgeous and haunting. It’s like a dystopian future and Jalapão is what happens with the leftovers from the Manhattan project 100 years after the fact.
What to Pack for Jalapao
For a destination as beautiful as Jalapao you have to bring a couple great cameras to document your adventures. While I was there I used my phone in a cheap waterproof sleeve it works well for protecting your phone from waterfall spray and dampness but one of the downsides is that it tends to fog up and can make your pictures blurry. I also bring my GoPro along for great waterproof shots and action shots. I love that you can upload the videos directly to the GoPro app and pull still shots from any videos recorded. Last but definitely not least, I always take along my Nikon D3400. It’s a low-level DSLR and great for beginner photographers looking for something a bit more high quality than your phone.
When you’re on the road to Jalapao keep in mind that you’ll be traveling in a 4×4 vehicle with several other people and will have very limited luggage space. I travel with a 55L pack like this one from Osprey. It’s big enough for me to fit two weeks worth of clothes and all my toiletries and blogging gear. I pack my clothing and accessories into their own packing cubes to make things easier to sort through and organize while on the road. It’s a lot easier to pull out and repack 6 cubes than it is to sort through and repack your entire bag. I always pack a waterproof dry bag to carry my phone and camera in while I’m going to adventurous destinations just to be on the safe side. You never know what could happen and I’m definitely not risking my electronics.
Travel Rain Gear
I always pack a lightweight raincoat when I’m traveling on the cusp of the rainy season. I always hope I won’t have to use it but it really comes in handy when I do need it. I have this one from Patagonia that is great because it folds down super small and hardly takes up any room in my pack.
Travel Hygiene Products
When I’m going to off the beaten path destinations I still like to keep my beauty routine on point. On this trip, I made a few simple swaps. Instead of wearing makeup, I got eyelash extensions before I left. They last for about 3 weeks and make me feel like I’m put together without wearing makeup that’s going to melt down my face everytime I get in the water or sweat. I also swapped my liquid soaps for a bar shampoo and conditioner set and toothpaste tabs to avoid those pesky TSA requirements. I’d also pack some Dramamine for the long bumpy car ride and some Immodium in case you come down with the all too familiar traveler’s belly.
When to Visit Jalapao
We went in late April and caught the very beginning of the rainy season. While it barely rained when we were there, the roads were pretty muddy in some areas and the waterfalls were very full. May through September is the dry season, so expect those months to have hot days and cold nights. The early fall is the time where you’ll see the most golden grass. Locals use the golden grass to regional handicraft of the region.
Things to do in Jalapao
The middle of Brazil has very little infrastructure and development. Many places like Jalapao remain relatively unexplored by foreigners because of the time and difficulty it takes to get there. The difficulty in accessing the region is actually a good thing though because it helps to preserve the region and the fragile ecosystem from over tourism that happens in many areas of natural beauty. In Jalapao you’ll find dunes, waterfalls, natural springs, trails, crystal clear rivers and mountains
White Water Rafting in Jalapao
Jalapão is filled with adventures for every level of traveler. One of the biggest adventure sports in the region is rafting on the Rio Novo rapids. You don’t have to be experienced or even able to swim to enjoy rafting. The river ebbs and flows between heavy turbulent rapids and calm waters. With the safety equipment supplied by the tour agencies and a brief introduction to rafting the whole squad can enjoy rafting. There are two different options for Jalapao rafting adventures. The first is the long distance adventure that can take up to four days. On the four day tour, you get to experience advanced waterfalls and make camps for the night on small beaches of white sand that build upon the banks of the river. The second option is a three-hour tour which is much faster and the first choice for many visitors. The best season to plan a rafting trip is from May to September, the dry season in the Tocantins because the roads are more accessible to Jalapão and the rapids are lighter.
Floating in Jalapão’s Fervedouros
Fervendoros are natural cool springs created from the heavy water pressure of underground rivers. I’ve visited a lot of natural wonders around the world but I’ve never experienced anything like the Fervendoros. In its center is a large pool of transparent blue water, from the outside of the pool it doesn’t look any different than any other spring but – in reality, the spring of an underground river is creating gentle water pressure that swells up under the water. It makes it nearly impossible to touch the bottom of the shallow pools. Even the best swimmer won’t be able to fight against the gentle pressure to touch the bottom. The pressure makes it super easy to float. Most of us sat upright in a cross leg position and floated around the gentle pools. They are usually surrounded by closed in jungle vegetation, banana trees, swamps and streams, There are lots of fervedouros in the region of Mateiros but the most well-known fervedouro is near Cachoeira da Formiga.
Exploring the Waterfalls and Cascatas of Jalapão
Fed by the Rio Novo River, the Cacheira da Velha waterfall is the largest of Jalapão and one of the region’s main attractions. It’s got Niagara Falls vibes with the water falling into two separate falls in the shape of a horseshoe with each one of more than 70 feet wide. Right next to the waterfall there is a small beach, of calm freshwater and surrounded by gallery forest. The trail to reach the small beach is an attraction in itself, easy to walk through, with stops on the way for sightseeing and resting. There are hundreds of other waterfalls in the region. Some small and some large but most of them can only be accessed with a guide.
Watching the Sunset in Jalapão’s Sand Dunes
The sand dunes of Jalapão are in constant motion because the sand is constantly being redirected by winds. Over the years the wind have formed the quartz sand into a 100-foot tall plateau. We hiked to the top of the dune and watched the sunset over the mountains.
Hike the Sussuapara canyon
The Sussuapara canyon is a green and humid natural sandstone cavern created by water running over the rocks. Over the years the water has etched and eroded the stone into gorgeous natural barriers running 200 feet long and 50 feet high. Inside the canyon, you’ll find beautiful waterfalls, cool streams, moss and hundreds of ferns grow along the steep slopes.
Have Lunch at Cachieira Da Arara
Cachieira da Arara has a gorgeous waterfall with a restaurant on site. It was by far the best food of the trip. They served a mixture of local and international favorites in a buffet style. Try the pumpkin cheese stroganoff – it’s delicious. They also had a wide selection of drinks including domestic and imported beer and several different types of soft drinks that we did not see anywhere else along the road.
What to Expect in Jalapao
Jalapao has a very low population density, most people will only speak Portuguese with a small few speaking Spanish. The low population has helped to preserve the natural state of wilderness but also means you must pack and carry everything you’ll need with you because there are very few places to purchase goods. The lack of access has preserved some of the world’s only examples of truly untouched wilderness. The Rio Novo, for example, is one of the last drinking water rivers in the world. While Jalapao isn’t for the faint of heart, the few that do make the journey will remember it for the rest of their lives.
Want to read more about travel in Brazil? Check out this Brazillian Lesbian Surf Camp or our Guide to Sao Paulo