Home / Bahia Travel Guide / São Francisco Valley / São Francisco Valley Travel Guide


Sertão, or backlands, is the term used for the vast semi-arid hinterland of the Northeast that extends north from the state of Minas Gerais.

The drought- prone area is heavily symbolic to Brazilians, as it is an immense, inhospitable land far removed from the countries urban, globalized metropolises.

The Bahian backlands bordering the Rio São Francisco and Pernambuco illustrate this contrast: The landscape is rough, the roads precarious, and the villages impoverished.

Plenty of activity exists, however, in the cities of Juazeiro and Paulo Afonso, in the havens of colorful landscape at the west and east ends of the semicircle drawn by the river.

The journey beyond these cities is an arduous one, recommended only for the adventurous. But those willing to face the potholed, deserted roads of the backlands can visit the Parque Estadual de Canudos.

That state park honors the memory of the most tragic uprising in Brazilian history, which Antonio Conselheiro led in the late 19th century.

Euclides da Cunha, a town 70 kilo meters (43 miles) from the park, offers the best accommodation in the area.

Map of São Francisco Valley in Bahia

Map of São Francisco Valley in Bahia


Travel to Juazeiro by boat, or cross the Ponte Eurico Gaspar Dutra bridge from Petrolina, on the north side of the Rio São Francisco, in Pernambuco. Among the city’s main attractions is the Ilha do Fogo, one of the most beautiful islands along the river.

A single 20-meter-high rock rests in the center of the island.

Juazeiro’s nightlife is abundant: A string of bars, restaurants, and nightclubs lines the shore of the river. In addition to serving as a gateway for visitors, the modern airport in nearby Petrolina funnels Juazeiro’s products, such as tropical fruits, to international markets.

Despite modern conveniences, this Bahian city upholds tradition, including the festivities of Bom Jesus dos Navegantes, a river procession dating back to 1750, and Reis de Boi, a local variation of bumba-meu-boi – a street performance that combines theater, music, and dance.

During Semana Santa (Holy Week) celebrations, throngs of penitent worshipers practice self-flagellation along the city’s streets.

The São ]oão festivities in June are among the liveliest in the Northeast. Ten private boats make the 5-minute crossing from Petrolina to Juazeiro daily, starting at 6am and running until 6:30pm.

On weekends, travelers can hire boats to visit islands along the São Francisco River. This service is available beginning at 9:30am at the Orla Hotel (Rua Rui Barbosa, 18, Centro).


Beaches, soccer fields , volleyball courts, and a camping area adorn the 1-kilometer length of Ilha de Rodeadouro, which lies about an hour by boat from Juazeiro. The Nina makes a stop here on Sundays, and the boat also stops at Ilha do Maroto and Ilha do Massangano.

An onboard restaurant and live music provide entertainment during the trip.


The Sobradinho river dam, 60 kilometers (37 miles) west of Juazeiro, oilers a beautiful view of the reservoir, which is the twelfth largest in the world. The Sobradinho Lock allows for passage from the São Francisco River to the port of Petrolina.

The boat Nina usually sails through the lock on the last Sunday of the month. Day trips throughout the week should be arranged in advance.


Euclides da Cunha described the 1960s flood of Canudos village in his book Os Sertões (published in English as Rebellion in the Backlands). The town’s ruins can still be seen in times of drought.

The Canudos of today, with a population of 5,000, shows just a few traces of the past. One of them is the Memorial Antonio Conselheiro (Avenida Juscelino Kubitschek, Centro), a museum filled with remnants of the Canu dos War, from ammunition to combatants‘ skulls.

To trace Antonio Conselheiro’s steps, drive 11 kilometers (7 miles) to Parque Estadual de Canudos (BR-235). Find accommodation in Euclides da Cunha, a 70-kilometer (44-mile) drive across the arid , stunted forest of the caatinga.

Markers indicate where combat occurred. Among the battlefield are the Vale da Morte (Valley of Death), containing the remains of soldiers who died in combat, the Fazenda Velha (Old Farm), previously an army headquarters, and Alto do Mario, a hill offering panoramic views of the area.

Guided tours can be arranged at Memorial Antonio Conselheiro or through the Department of Tourism (Secretaria de Educaҫão e Turismo de Canudos).


In the late 19th century, the village of Cumbe served as headquarters for the government troops who fought in the Canudos War.

Today the renamed Euclides da Cunha boasts a population of 30,000 people and draws the region’s greatest volume of tourist traffic. On Saturdays a century-old fair sets up downtown, offering everything from leather goods to food and clothes.

The central square still exhibits a wartime cannon, which Conselheiro ’s followers nicknamed the matadeira (killing machine).

The 230 kilometers (143-mile) drive to Euclides da Cunha from Juazeiro takes about five hours.

Though the first 50 kilometers (31 miles) along the BR-314 highway towards Salvador are fairly smooth, the road call be treacherous after the intersection at Filadelfia.

There are no rest areas or service stations between that intersection and Monte Santo, about 36 kilometers (22 miles) outside of Euclides da Cunha.


During the first years of the Brazilian Republic, the religious leader Antonio Conselheiro („Antonio the Counselor“) came to political prominence in the sertão.

He preached of better days for the backlands and advocated the eradication of poverty. A supporter of the Monarchy, Conselheiro brought together 8,000 people in the village of Canudos to create his own religious enclave, known as the „Belo Monte Empire“.

In 1896, the federal government sent a small task force to suppress what to them seemed a minor uprising of religious fanatics and monarchists.

To the government’s surprise, the rebels defeated the military force, as well as two subsequent government expeditionary forces of 600 and 1,300 men, respectively.

The final strike by government troops came in October 1897 , when 6,000 soldiers arrived in Canudos; 4,000 of the troops died in combat before their forces overwhelmed Amonio’s defenders.

After the bloody battle, the Republican troops finally burned down the village; 800 captured backlanders were cruelly beheaded in retaliation for what the government saw as humiliating defeats, and Conselheiro also perished.

Euclides da Cunha brilliantly describes this massacre in one of the masterpieces of Brazilian literature: Os Sertões (Rebellion in the Backlands). In the 1980s, Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa revisited the morbid episode in The War of the End of the World.


An exuberant green city full of gardens, Paulo Afonso comes as a surprise in the arid landscape of the sertão. Even more surprising is the city’s main attraction, a hydroelectric power station that lives in perfect aesthetic harmony with the surrounding rock formations, canyons, and 80-meter (262-foot) waterfalls of the São Francisco River.

A popular destination for ecotourism and adventure-sports enthusiasts, Paulo Afonso is on Bahia’s borders with Pernambuco, Sergipe, and Alagoas.

Though it lies 460 kilometers (286 miles) north from Salvador, it has decent tourist services. The major obstacle to enjoying a visit is the difficulty of access: The roads to Paulo Afonso are precarious, and flights to the airport are infrequent.


The city of Paulo Afonso arose around the Companhia Hidreletrica de São Francisco (Chesf, a complex of four power plants that supplies electricity to the entire Northeast.

The basic tour of the plant lasts four hours. Cars take visitors to three powerplants, where elevators lead to views of the machinery at work inside the enormous rocks, and then to Angiquinhos, the first powerplant in the Northeast, which was built in 1913.

The tour ends with a cable-car ride over the São Francisco River. From the cable car you can see such sights as: the Furna dos Morcegos (bat cave) , the purported hideout of Lampião and his bandit gang; the Cachoeira de Paulo Monso waterfall; and the spectacular São Francisco River canyon.

An alternate tour begins at the church by the entrance to Chesf and continues to plant 4, with side visits to the subterranean galleries and turbines.

After this is a stop at the Anfiteatro de Pedra (Stone Amphitheater), which is set in the rock walls of the canyon. From there visitors can walk to the Furna dos Morcegos cave.

This is the route favored by hikers, though it is more demanding due to the extreme heat and slippery rocks. Contact: Rua do Triunfo, 170, Alves de Souza.


The craft fair held by the Associaҫão Paulo Afonsina de Artesãos, in the center of Paulo Afonso, offers the region’s best handicrafts. Embroidery, lace, needlework locally known as fuxico: flower appliques made from left over scraps of material, rag dolls, wood sculpting, fine marquetry, and many others crafts sell for prices that are much more attractive than those found in larger cities. Avenida Getúlio Vargas, 60, Centro.


The Estaҫão Ecológica Raso da Catarina covers approximately 100,000 hectares (250,000 acres), encompassing the municipalities of Canudos, Glória, Macucure, and Paulo Afonso. This region is one of the driest areas on the planet, though some small, hearty bushes cling tenaciously to the parched soil.

Catarina is the world ’s only caatinga reserve, and it contains unusual vegetation such as shrubs, bromeliads, and cacti like the xiquexique and mandacaru. The major attraction on the reserve is the 12-kilometer-Iong Baixa do Chico, a canyon with huge sandstone walls and impressive rock formations. One formation, which resembles a statue of a saint, draws throngs of the faithful every year.

Twelve Pancararé Indian families live in a village on the reserve; visitors to the village require a permit from Funai, the Brazilian Indian Protection Agency (Rua Floriano Peixoto, 855, Centro.

Visitors are also asked to donate basic provisions to the community. Tour operators usually supply the necessary documentation, and it takes no more than a week to obtain the necessary permit. To get to the indigenous reserve, drive to Juá village, which is 40 kilometers (25 miles) from Paulo Monso, and then continue 30 kilometers along a track that leads to the native reservation.

From this point, if you wish, you must continue on foot for about 8 hours, a trip recommended only for experienced hikers.


Near the village of Riacho, 50 kilometers (31 miles) from Paulo Afonso via the BR-110 highway, sits the Serra do Umbuzeiro mountain range, with its cliff walls rising up to 400 meters (1,300 feet).

The range features rock paintings and typical caatinga vegetation, and is a very popular destination for rappelling and rock climbing. Hawks and reptiles populate the area, and the top of the hills affords a panoramic view of the region – one can see as far as Juazeiro.

São Francisco Valley travel Guide and tourism information such as accommodation, festivals, transport, maps, activities and attractions in Bahia – Brazil Travel Guide

Share this page

Leave a Reply

Deine E-Mail-Adresse wird nicht veröffentlicht. Erforderliche Felder sind mit * markiert.