La Carretera Alta, Part 10 – Full Brazilian

Photo by Jose Luiz Hartmann

Brazil had been left off our original itinerary for no other reason than mere geography. Most of our South American destinations follow an inherently logical path, like links in a chain strung roughly along the length of the Andes. Not only is Brazil on the other side of the continent, it’s ridiculously massive – the fifth largest nation in the world, according to reputable cartographers. Any visit we might make would be cursory at best, we imagined.

But we were lured eastward by the promise of excellent climbing and stellar beer – easily my two most favourite things, and by quite a substantial margin. Lindsay, our friend from Brisbane, had recently decided to move permanently to Curitiba to live with her newly betrothed, Jose Luiz. Her reports made Brazil sound like The Land of Milk and Honey, so we decided a detour was in order.

In mid-August, with the fickle alpine season in its death throes and our enthusiasm for continued punishment flagging, we left Peru a little earlier than planned. The early departure, we thought, would give us a little more time to hoof it over to the other side of the continent and enjoy some minor climbing destinations along the way. As it turned out, this spare time was chewed up entirely by an insurance debacle and mechanical dramas (see La Carretera Alta Part 9 for all the gratuitous details) and we arrived perhaps 2 weeks later than planned – hashtag vanlife, hashtag overlanding.

But arrive we did, crossing from Northern Argentina to Southern Brazil at Sao Borja where the occasion was marked by a sudden and spectacular deterioration of the road surface. Over the next couple of days, we dodged potholes as the pleasant but unremarkable rural scenery slid by. Little from that segment of the journey proved particularly memorable but for one notable exception: the delightfully named hamlet of Residência Fuck.

Eventually, the rolling green farmland gave way to more rugged terrain – the steep hills, dense jungle and sluggish brown rivers that probably spring to mind when you think of South America, but which we’d seen surprisingly little of. Finally, we arrived at Morro Anhangava, a granite dome that separates the outskirts of Curitiba from the vast tracts of Atlantic rainforest that march toward the coast. At the base of this small but storied peak, the abode of one Jose Luiz Hartmann can be found, along with the headquarters of his climbing equipment business, Alto Estilo.

Better known as “Chiquinho”, Jose Luiz is essentially Brazilian climbing royalty. Fittingly, his home is a bonafide climber’s palace – a simple but comfortable timber split-level, decorated with prayer flags and generously endowed with vast stockpiles of climbing gear and homebrewed IPA. As if that weren’t enough, the place essentially has its own crag, with the property backing onto the western slopes of the aforementioned Morro Anhangava. We were instantly enamoured.

The day after arriving, we scrambled up the hill in marginal weather to sneak in a few climbs. A small storm was slowly approaching, but we were able to make the most of the brief window thanks to the benefit of local experience. We climbed three classics in quick succession – a glorious handcrack, a lovely jug/slab combo, and even one of the 50 Classic Climbs of Brazil, a route called Solanjaca which is easily one of the best single-pitch sport routes I’ve ever climbed. Our short but productive session ended when the wind climbed to fever pitch and the vicious gusts carried stinging droplets of rain.

Morro Anhangava

Morro Anhangava (Source: 5.13 Refugio)

For this and other sessions, local knowledge was our trump card. Normally, the lack of available climbing information in South America makes route selection a bit of a crapshoot, and quite often we waste significant portions of time simply finding the crag. In Brazil, there was no need for trial and error – over the course of some 40 years, Jose Luiz had done the research for us, and was therefore able to point us toward the best routes without fail.

The benefits of local experience didn’t end with the climbing, but extended to cuisine also. Given that we generally cook for ourselves, we’ve rarely sampled the local fare of any given country, the occasional empanada notwithstanding. Here, we dined heartily on gigantic mounds of blackbeans, fried pasteles with palmito, the ubiquitous and versatile mandioca, and a generous (some would say excessive) serving of protein at the local churasscaria. My usual MO is to treat food as little more than a fuel source for the next climbing mission, so in purely culinary terms, Brazil was particularly outstanding.

Marumbi, Brazil

In addition to his normal abode, Jose Luiz owns a cabin in the nearby climbing and trekking destination, Marumbi. Being a National Park, further development is now banned, so the existing properties are quite the commodity. The village (for lack of a better word) is a small collection of huts in very real peril of being swallowed alive by the verdant rainforest. They can only be reached by foot, and despite being located quite close to a busy rail line, there is a sense of wildness, remoteness and seclusion. A recent purchase, the hut is still a work in progress, with renovations and repairs occurring with each visit. Even so, it is a hospitable and comfortable refuge from which to explore the rugged terrain at its doorstep.

Photo by Jose Luiz Hartmann

Step outside, and the adventure begins. Lizards, toucans and monkeys populate the jungle, a thick but not impenetrable mass of fecundity that rises steeply to exposed granite spires. Approaches take an hour at the very least and often require the use of fixed ropes and steel rungs driven into the living rock. Again, local knowledge comes highly recommended, and even after successfully navigating the rough, winding trail, locating the routes is no mean feat.

Once clear of the jungle canopy, get ready to use every trick in the book. Marumbi is hardcore, anything-goes adventure climbing, ranging from friction slab to overhanging cracks. The protection is a sensible mix of bolts and gear, not often significantly runout but not always easy to protect either. The rock is solid, but is incredibly hostile toward skin and often mossy, wet, dirty or significantly vegetated – in fact, Marumbi even has its own unique grade, the M rating, which describes the relative difficulty of vertical bushbashing. Forget any notions of purity, because it doesn’t live here. If you’re not prepared to pull on greenery or engage in some light aid, you’d better be prepared to fail spectacularly.

Whilst the girls mosied off to climb moderates, I followed Jose Luiz up long, difficult testpieces. Joe-Man has a few trademark slogans, and from these I could usually infer the character of the next pitch. “Training for FitzRoy!” invariably meant that conditions were wet, windy, chossy, vegetated, or a combination thereof. Worse still, the dreaded “It’s super nice!!” meant that the moves were fun and exciting for him, which meant that those same moves would shortly destroy both my tendons and my soul.

Jose Luiz Hartmann, Los Encardidos

Joe-Man at our highpoint on Los Encardidos

After a few mixed single-pitch routes, we had a crack at the iconic Los Encardidos. This is an old-school jungle mountaineering classic with a little bit of everything – moss-covered slab, technical face climbing, intermittent cracks, hanging gardens and a roof crack finale that can be aided by mortals or freed by mutants. We didn’t make it as far as the roof though, calling it a day after 8 pitches when we ran out of water and the blistering sun became too much to bear.

The next route was climatically inverse, the scorching heat replaced by venturi-driven winds and dense banks of fog. The first pitch of Macacao é outro bicho was dripping wet (Training for FitzRoy!) but would be a classic in its own right – a rope stretcher that demands both delicacy and power in almost equal measure. But really, it was a mere access pitch for the remainder of the route, soaring some 300m from the depths of a dark, primordial canyon to the crest of a proud granite tower. The climbing was varied and consistently engaging (It’s super nice!!) and rappelling some 10 pitches into the swirling mists was a strange, otherworldly experience.

At night, we would retreat to the hut as the nocturnal critters stirred and the profound darkness of the jungle descended on the village. Other climbers would come by, bringing food, beer and conversation. We couldn’t understand a goddamn word they said, but it was impossible not to be carried along with the enthusiasm behind the bouncy Portuguese dialogue. Occasionally, beer in hand, we would wander along the cobbled paths to the only clear area in the village, a neatly manicured field that functions as the helicopter landing pad. Here, you can glimpse the moon above the granite peaks, watch the fireflies blink in rhythmic morse, and reflect that Marumbi is a truly magical place.

Pirai do Sul

Luan Leony Krug jamming cracks at Pirai do Sul

The final station on our whistlestop tour of Brazil was Pirai do Sul, a single-pitch sandstone crag with mixture of trad and sport routes and picturesque rural scenery. I really enjoyed climbing there, probably because it felt more familiar to me than anything we’d climbed thus far, not just in Brazil but probably in the entire continent. Being comfortable with the climbing style meant I felt able to push my grade a little higher and I claimed some modest prizes for my ticklist. Best of all, the massive roofs which cap the cliff mean you can climb even in a horrific downpour, which happened more than once!

But after a few days at Pirai, it was time to move on. With the siren song of the road calling us and the season marching on, our stay in Brazil had come to an end. Despite the brevity of our visit, it turned out to be one of our favourite destinations. Marumbi in particular was an excellent experience for me. It offered memorable, adventurous routes which would normally be well above my paygrade, as well as a great opportunity to become familiar with that strange beast they call granite (a substance that nearly eclipses Rocking Horse Shit for rarity in Australia).

But an even greater pleasure was the social and cultural aspect of our visit, and in addition to being indebted to Lindsay and Jose Luiz for hosting us, we were shown great hospitality and warmth by the entire community. Whether they were climbers or Regular Joes, we were made to feel truly welcome by everyone we met, and it is for this reason more than any other that we’re bound to return to Brazil someday. It’s super nice!! 

Ryan Siacci, Esq.
January 2018

Thoughts? Opinions? Cries of dissent?