Vila Velha: Best-kept Secret in All Brazil

        Velha: Best-kept Secret in All Brazil

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.



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."

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.

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.

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.

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

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

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.

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

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.

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

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

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

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.

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.

up," he said.

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!

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

where was the Golden Lake?

we’ll go to the Furnas," said Antônio.

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.

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!

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.

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.

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?"

he said.

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

secret in Paraná?" I asked Antônio rhetorically.

all Brazil.


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

His extensive Brazilian travelogue has been published by Summersdale.
It’s called Brazil: Life, Blood, Soul. Many pictures from
the travelogue appear in

His personal site is in



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