I remember a few months ago when I was in the Botanical Gardens in Kew, London, seeing a group of tree trunks covered in extra plants and enormous bromeliads which sprouted colourful flowers from the top.
They came with labels like, “Found in Brazil’s Mata Atlântica“. But I didn’t think I would be seeing them in real life that soon.
This weekend a group of intrepid explorers – well, two Brazilians, two Frenchies and a Brit (me) – went to the Serra do Mar mountain range, to the north of Curitiba in Paraná state. Our goal: to climb to the summit of Pico (Peak) Caratuva, the second highest mountain in South Brazil at 1860m – in Brazil’s top 10 highest peaks.
The trails also serves South Brazil’s highest mountain – Pico Paraná (or PP as the locals call it) – which at 1877m also isn’t massively high.
However, these mountains are not like the mountains or hills we are used to climbing on holiday in the UK or continental Europe – they are relatively tough and require a good deal of physical energy.
The mountain range stretches the length of south Brazil – running inland parallel to the Atlantic coast and makes up part of the Mata Atlântica – which although translates as “Atlantic Forest”, at the point where we were climbing was a mix of jungle and dense woodland.
First things first as we arrive at the farm hut where you register yourself for the climb (in case you get lost): whistle – check, torch – check. Without these you will not be allowed to climb – most accidents on the mountain are caused by straying from the group and not having these.
I was (un-)reliably informed I would be the first Brit to attempt Caratuva. (I doubt it – and I forgot my flag, anyway…)
EDIT: OK, I misheard the guy. He said I was the first Brit that week. I’m still proud(!)
To conquer these peaks you need to trek through thick forest and jungle, knowing that poisonous snakes and spiders are in the vicinity.
The journey to the top of Caratuva would take us about 3-4 hours, and divided roughly into three stages. Once we’d got through the initial ascent, through mangled woodland and some swampier areas, you reach a small plateau which has stunning low-level views of the surrounding jungle. This gives some respite before the final leg – main climb to the summit.
Urubus – local vultures – circle around on the thermals with their long finger-like primary feathers splayed out, gliding eerily around each other. The noise of the different animals and birds doesn’t leave you in any doubt where you are.
Meeting only a few fellow mountain climbers on the way who gave varying estimates on how long this last leg to the top would take, we knew we had just two hours to complete the final, arduous ascent before we would have to turn back.
Passing a sign (Left to Caratuva, Right to Pico Paraná – which takes a 12-hour hike to scale, with many camping overnight up on the mountain), we knew we’d passed the point of no-return.
First twisting and turning through the mangled vegetation of enormous trees with equally enormous roots, bamboo stalks and exotic flowers – the first, less steep part of the jungle ascent was a chance to get used to mental challenge of having to think about every single place you put your foot, and which branch you will next grasp to maintain your balance or to pull yourself up.
In parts you have to clamber over vast boulders to get to the next part of the trail, which runs parallel to a mountain stream which we took water from to drink.
But this also means that the trail can be wet, and of course jungle areas are lush and green for a reason: being at cloud level means the area is used to a lot of rain.
We were lucky on our day and the sun was punching through the canopy: temperatures of 27°C meant the trail – which is not overly well-trodden – was not overrun with water or too muddy (but your hiking boots will need a clean afterwards!).
As you continue through the jungle ascent, there are parts where your arms become as important, if not more so, than your legs. Looking ahead for two suitably-located branches to grab onto was the name of the game – literally pulling or swinging yourself up in places.
When you reach easier parts, you can feel your heartbeat reducing from pounding thumps to a more relaxed rhythm.
After the bulk of the long, sweaty climb is behind you, suddenly you start catching glimpses of how high you are – the sunlight breaks more and more frequently through the jungle canopy and then all of a sudden, you reach the final few metres of the trek – the open, low-lying vegetation of the summit.
A few more metres clambering up through the rocky outcrops and a communications mast signals you have reach the top.
The view, over neighbouring Pico Paraná and the surrounding Serra do Mar peaks mean the climb has been worth it.
Now we had just a little time to take in the stunning views, grab a bite to eat and swig some water, before the descent back to base camp began.