Brazilian Bike Adventure

Atlantic Forest

Atlantic Forest in Serra do Mar.

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.

Descending into the forest.

Descending into the forest.

Magical vistas such as this were around every turn of the road.

Magical vistas such as this awaited us around every turn of the road.

Manacá da Serra (Tibouchina mutabilis) was abundant in the forest.

Manacá da Serra (Tibouchina mutabilis) flowered in abundance in the forest.

Elevated roadways bypass the beauty of the forest below them.

Why did the ‘hellgramite’ (order Megaloptera, family Corydalidae) cross the road? (Thanks to dragonflywoman for the ID.)

The first of many landslides that blocked our path.

The first of many landslides that blocked our path.

The new elevated highway snakes through the Serra do Mar. This portion was closed due to landslides.

The new elevated highway snakes through the Serra do Mar. This portion was closed due to landslides.

Outside of the cicada killer, this digger wasp (family Crabronidae) on the  beach at Guarujá is the largest that I have ever seen.

A large digger wasp (family Crabronidae) greets us on the beach at Guarujá.

My Brazilian colleagues and I enjoy some well-deserved refreshments after our 53-km trek!

My Brazilian colleagues and I enjoy some well-deserved refreshments after our 53-km trek!

I may have looked like a nerd still in my cycling clothes, but the wave experience was unforgettable.

I may have looked like a nerd still in my cycling clothes, but the wave experience was unforgettable.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2013

12 thoughts on “Brazilian Bike Adventure

  1. Wow, these photos are amazing, especially the one with the elevated highways. My husband and I met a couple who were from Sao Paulo, during our travels in Peru, and they were trying to describe what Sao Paulo was like…I never imagined it (and the surrounding areas) looked like this – and I love your description, too. It must’ve been a treat to see everything by bike…thanks for sharing!

    • Thanks, Desiree – yes, São Paulo is a giant metropolis, but its expansion to the coast is blocked by the ruggedness of the Serra do Mar. I’m not much of a big city person, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more beautiful place this close to a large city!

  2. Well, Desiree, I haven’t been there in quite a few years, but my recollection is that São Paulo itself is just a giant city. Among US cities, it reminds me of a gritty version of Los Angeles (architecture) combined with San Francisco (hilliness). But yeah, the countryside around can be really nice.

    My outstanding memory of the farmland in the area is sugarcane on red soil – Is there still a lot of sugar grown in the farmland around there, Ted?

    And entomologically speaking: If the Atlantic Forest beetle diversity is anything like that of the ants, I sure hope you get to do some beetling there, Ted. That giant carabid larva is stunning!

    • Just got back from a visit to one of our experiment stations further to the northwest in the state. Yes, sugarcane still dominates the red clay soils, although I saw a fair bit more corn than I remember from last time and the occasional citrus and eucalyptus groves.

      Endemism is high in the Atlantic Forest because it has long been isolated from the Amazon by the Cerrados grasslands to the north and from the Andean forests by the arid habitats of the hot Chaco depression to the west. I’ve read values of around 40% endemic species. Brazil, however, has become a challenging place to conduct entomological research if it involves any field collecting of specimens, and especially if they are to be exported. I’ve got enough of a backlog of material still to work up that I don’t need the hassle of trying to add to the backlog from here. This day was just about enjoying the experience.

  3. I have no idea how you managed to keep your eyes on the road while riding through there Ted! I agree with James, I certainly hope you got a chance to explore & look at some insects in the area! I would absolutely love to explore the Atlantic forest (or anywhere else in Brazil for that matter) for all kinds of wonderful flies!

    • Yes, quite spectacular scenery – but we had no choice but to watch where we were going with all the landslides, hairpin turns, steep slippery slopes, etc. An adventure to remember for a lifetime.

      I adore wet tropical forests as much as the next person. However, for serious entomological exploration you can’t beat (ha, pun!) an arid thorn woodland with jewel beetles buzzing amongst the acacias!

  4. I lived as a kid in that area in the ’50s.The first beach we visited was in Santos, and we went down what was then the new highway, now apparently the old and closed one. We subsequently found another beach to go to up the coast in Ubatuba. It’s good to see that the Mata Atlantica is still mostly there.


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