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June 2003

Vila Velha: Best-kept Secret in All Brazil

Vila Velha, with its freakish sandstone formations much
like Monument Valley in Arizona, was where an ancient
race kept their treasures and worshipped Tupã, the Tupi god.
A select band of warriors, the apiabas, stood guard and were
not allowed to touch women in case they lost their powers.



"The Tupi name for Vila Velha is Itacueretaba," said my guide Antônio, who was driving me along the Curitiba-Iguaçu highway. "It means the ancient city of stones."

Antônio, despite his name, had a Ukrainian-German background. Brazil's southern colonization was relatively recent—in Paraná only in the last 100 years, and mostly after the Second World War. The red earth around us had been allotted to private coffee-growing homesteaders, more like the westward US expansion than the traditional Portuguese oligarchic landocracy of the previous centuries.

Until the 1960s, German was the second most widely spoken language in Curitiba's university; a whole suburb in the town, Santa Felicidade, advertises itself as little Italy; and there is a Brigadoon Ukrainian village in Upper Paraná. The latter Slavic influence explains why in Curitiba I ate the stodgiest croissant I have ever had the misfortune to buy: it was a croissant that pretended it was a blinis.

Antônio was a busy man. He had just returned from driving a busload of Germans from Iguaçu to Ouro Preto. Tomorrow he was taking a group of Argentineans to Gramado in Rio Grande do Sul. His hands were bandaged.

"My wrists ache from carrying tourists' bags," he complained. "They bring so much and they need to wear so little."

"Probably all their souvenirs," I commented. "Any stone miniatures in Vila Velha?"

He shook his head. "I'm surprised you know about it," he said. "In the office we don't get many requests for the park. It's the best-kept secret in Paraná, and it's only an hour from Curitiba. Do you know the legend?'

I asked to hear it.

Vila Velha, with its freakish sandstone formations created by ancient glaciation and wind erosion (much like Ayers Rock in Australia or Monument Valley in Arizona), was where an ancient race kept their treasures and worshipped Tupã, the Tupi god. A select band of warriors, the apiabas, stood guard and were not allowed to touch women in case they lost their powers.

Their commander Dhuy was seduced by Aracé, a woman of extraordinary beauty, sent by rival tribes to bring down the apiabas. Aracé's secret weapon was a chalice containing palm wine from which Dhuy drank and lost his senses. As the two lovers lay to sleep, an enraged Tupã caused an earthquake, turned the city into pinnacles of stone and buried the treasure in the Golden Lake.

"There's a Golden Lake?" I jumped, thinking of El Dorado.

"You'll see," said Antônio as he parked the car by the park entrance. We started down the trail followed by a lone coati expecting food; if it could read Portuguese, it would have seen the notices from Paraná Turismo—don't fish, hunt, cut trees, vandalize the rocks, leave rubbish or feed the animals—and would have left us sooner on our hike.

The rock formations of Vila Velha—the Arenitos—lie along a short 30-minute circuit devoid of vegetation, for even the ground is smoothed-out undulating rock. They have special names: the Camel, the Coca-Cola bottle, the Indian (complete with crown of feathers), the Boot, the Whale, the Bear; there's a group of round malocas next to a semblance of the Egyptian Sphinx and finally—the Chalice itself.

"There it is," said Antônio. "Aracé's chalice."

I looked at the chalice formation—in fact there are three, with the largest rapidly becoming the symbol of the park. The primitive cultures of yesterday needed an explanation for everything as much as we do today, but never in my life would I have constructed a Samson-like epic tale of betrayed love from this boulder spectacle. It's a Brazilian thing.

Before we returned to the car, Antônio took me on another short trail, shaded and cool. The smooth rocks were damp and slippery; I followed him carefully as we slid into an enclosure.

"Look up," he said.

The walls around us inclined inwards and were crowned by a large stone seemingly suspended in mid-air, but in truth microscopically balanced about 50 feet above us. Now that was quite a sight!

"It's always been there," said Antônio. "It may fall down one day— I just hope I'm not underneath."

So where was the Golden Lake?

"First we'll go to the Furnas," said Antônio.

The Furnas—popularly known as the Devil's Cauldrons—are three kilometers further down the BR-376, but are still part of the state park and the same ticket gets you in. They are four vertical craters filled with water, part of an underground river system, in the manner of the Mexican cenotes naturally occurring in Yukatan. The deepest one, with a diameter of 80 meters, drops 53 meters and has a small rusty elevator which takes you to the water level. Having gone so far, I had to take it, of course, although I had no idea why I should want to. I decided I had made a mistake as the lift creaked, cranked and clanged as it descended. I walked onto the bottom wooden platform, looked up, waved like a stupid tourist to Antônio, said a prayer to Tupã and entered the lift with my eyes closed.

"Do many people come here?" I asked a ranger when the elevator reached the top—or rather hit it head-on. Hey, suspension is for wimps!

"Oh yes," he said. "About one or two a day. More on Saturdays and Sundays." Allowing for Brazilian exaggeration, I must have been the first one to use this lift for weeks.

Antônio and I trekked under the shadow of pine trees, ducking the thick green moss of barba-de-pau (old-man's-beard) serenaded by scores of yellow canaries. Our last stop was the Golden Lake, which is another crater like the Furnas but with a shallow bottom covered with a layer of yellow mica that sparkles golden under the rays of the sun.

"What do you think of Curitiba?" Antônio asked me as we passed fields of green interspersed with yellow and orange highlights, like the wings of a giant Iguaçu butterfly spread on the ground.

I pointed at the fields. "What are those?"

"Feijão," he said.

"In Brazil even fields of humble beans look beautiful," I whispered to myself as my neck strained to follow the expanse of color.

"Best-kept secret in Paraná?" I asked Antônio rhetorically.

In all Brazil.


JohnM is a computer programmer and occasional journalist working in London, England, using his earnings to travel between contracts. A fluent Portuguese speaker, he has traversed the whole of Brazil from Manaus to Porto Alegre and from Recife to the Pantanal sampling the life and history in the course of four separate journeys. The author can be contacted at john@scroll.demon.co.uk  

His extensive Brazilian travelogue has been published by Summersdale. It's called Brazil: Life, Blood, Soul. Many pictures from the travelogue appear in http://www.scroll.demon.co.uk/brazil/index.htm

His personal site is in http://www.scroll.demon.co.uk/spaver.htm



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