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In Portuguese, the word sertão first referred to the vast hinterlands of Asia that Lusitanian explorers encountered.

In Brazil, the geographical term referred to backlands away from the Atlantic coastal regions where the Portuguese first settled in South America in the early sixteenth century. A Brazilian historian once referred to colonial life in Brazil as a „civilization of crabs“, as most settlers clung to the shoreline, with few trying to make inroads into the sertão. In modern terms, „sertão“ usually refers to the semi-arid region in Northeastern Brazil comprising parts of the states of Alagoas, Bahia, Pernambuco, Paraíba, Rio Grande do Norte, Ceará and Piauí. The plural of sertão is sertões. The term „sertanejo“ is similar to the generic use of „cowboy“ in the United States.

Geographically, the sertão consists mainly of low uplands that form part of the Brazilian Highlands. Most parts of the sertão are between 200 and 500 meters above sea level, with higher elevations found on the eastern edge in the Planalto da Borborema, where it merges into a sub-humid region known as agreste, in the Serra da Ibiapaba in western Ceará and in the Serro do Periquito of central Pernambuco. In the north, the sertão extends to the northern coastal plains of Rio Grande do Norte state, whilst in the south it fades out in the northern fringe of Minas Gerais.

Two major rivers cross the sertão, the Rio Jaguaribe and the Rio Piranhas further east. Apart from the Rio São Francisco which originates outside the region, other rivers dry out after the rainy periods end.

Climate and vegetation

Because the sertão lies close to the equator, temperatures remain nearly uniform throughout the year and are typically tropical, often extremely hot in the west.

However, the sertão is distinctive in its low rainfall compared to other areas of Brazil. Because of the relatively cool temperatures in the South Atlantic Ocean, the intertropical convergence zone remains north of the region for most of the year, so that most of the year is very dry.

Although annual rainfall averages between 500 and 800 millimeters over most of the sertão and 1300 millimeters on the northern coast at Fortaleza, it is confined to a short rainy season. This season extends from January to April in the west, but in the eastern sertão it generally occurs from March to June. However, rainfall is extremely erratic and in some years the rains are minimal, leading to catastrophic drought, whilst in others rains are extremely heavy and floods occur. This variability has caused extreme famines among subsistence farmers in the region, exacerbated by the extreme imbalance of land ownership throughout the sertão. The worst of these famines, between 1877 and 1879, was said to have killed over half the region’s population.

In its natural state, the sertão was covered by a distinctive scrubby caatinga vegetation, consisting generally of low thorny bushes adapted to the extreme climate. Several species of tree in the caatinga have become valuable horticultural plants, such as the cashew nut. Most of the sertão vegetation is now substantially degraded as a result of centuries of cattle ranching or clearing for cotton farming.

Parts of the sertão are recognized as a biodiversity hot-spot because of the unique flora.


Juazeiro do Norte, the largest city in the Ceará backlands, was founded in 1911 by Father Cicero Romao Batista, a Christian monk known as „Padim Ciҫo“ (Godfather Ciҫo) who was adored throughout the serfiio. Today many consider him a saint.

The city is home to many woodcut printers, a rich art and crafts scene, good hotels and restaurants, and confusing traffic signs.

There are three great religious pilgrimages to Juazeiro that take place each year: one on September 15th, one between October 30th and November 2nd; and another from January 30th to February 2nd.

In addition to these, the July 20th anniversary of Father Cicero’s death attracts many faithful.

During pilgrimage weeks Juazeiro buzzes with energy. Pilgrims come from all over the Northeast in trucks, buses, cars, and carts, and on donkeys, horses, motorcycles, and bikes. School is out and there are not enough hotels.

Over a quarter million devoted pilgrims sing hymn in honor of Father Cicero, and some even dress as he did in a straw hat and black cassock – in fact, elderly people often dress like this on the 20th of every month, to honor the anniversary of his death. During pilgrimages, Colina do Horto, known locally as Morro do Padre Cicero (Father Cicero Hill), is lit up at night to guide new arrivals; stone steps lead to the top, where there is a church, museum, and a famous statue of the priest.

From the top there is also a spectacular view of Juazeiro and its five churches: the Matriz de Nossa Senhora das Dores, the Santuário do Sagrado Coraҫão de Jesus, the Capela de Nossa Senhora de Perpétuo Socorro, the Basilica de São Francisco, and the Paroquia de Nossa Senhora de Lourdes.

Juazeiro do Norte is 495 kilometers (308 miles) south of Fortaleza on the BR-116 highway. The city is a good base from which to explore the nearby towns of Crato, Nova Olinda, and Santana do Cariri.


The imposing statue of Father Cícero stands on top of Colina do Horto hill, near the Museu Vivo. The monument is 25 meters (82 feet) high and 8 meters (26 feet) wide, and when added to the height of the hill itself, the statue is surpassed in height only by the statue of Cristo Redentor in Rio de Janeiro.

On pilgrimage days see the Casa de Cultura building (a cultural center that hosts workshops and exhibitions) and the Igreja Menino Deus church.

It’s the Teatro São João theater (Praҫa São João, Centro), however, that dominates the square. The theater’s late 19th century neo- classical faҫade is beautifully reflected in the lake of its well-tended gardens. Guided visits are available on Thursdays, though not necessarily in English, and should be arranged in advance with the Secretaria da Cultura (Avenida Dom José, 881, Centro).


Museu Dom José, the first museum of sacred art in Ceará, was founded in 1951 by Bishop Dom José Tupinambá da Frota, who is responsible for obtaining most of the collection’s 30,000 pieces. In addition to religious items, the museum houses a vast collection of 18th and 19th century house wares, furniture, weapons, and clothes. The neo-classical building, built in 1844, is well maintained but lacks air-conditioning (Avenida Dom José, 878, Centro).


Surrounded by Atlantic forest, Ubajara sits atop the Serra da Ibiapaba mountain range at an altitude of 847 meters (2,780 feet).

The town is 324 kilometers (201 miles) southwest of Fortaleza on the BR-222. In July, the best month to visit, the small, peaceful town is covered in the early hours by a beautiful early morning mist.

Ubajara’s main attraction is nearby Parque Nacional de Ubajara, a national park only 4 kilo meters (2.5 miIes) from the town center.


The Parque Nacional de Ubajara was created in 1959 and encompasses 6,288 hectares (15,538 acres) of Atlantic forest, mountain plateaus, and strips of cerrado and caatinga vegetation at lower elevations, where cacti are abundant. Waterfalls slice through the intense green of the landscape.

Trees like the jatoba, trumpet, copaíbas, and babassu palm thrive here. Native fauna include rock cavies, capuchins, marmosets, armadillos, snakes, lizards, agoutis, and anteaters.

The park’s trails and lookout points can be explored in one day; and several limestone caves are open to the more adventurous. Hikers should take insect repellent, snacks, and plenty of water. Estrada do teleférico, km 4.


Portuguese prospectors in search of silver are said to have discovered Gruta de Ubajara cave in the 18th century.

According to legend, it was inhabited by an old Indian who wandered the region’s rivers in his canoe – the name „Ubajara“ comes from the native Tupi Guarani words uba („canoe“) and jara („mister“).

At the beginning of the 20th century, the cave attracted pilgrims devoted to Nossa Senhora de Lourdes (Our Lady of Lourdes), whose statue stands at the entrance. Gruta de Ubajara extends 1,120 meters (0.7 mile) into the mountain, but only 420 meters (1,380 feet) of this length are accessible.

Visitors come here to admire the magnificent, delicate limestone formations, which include stalactites, stalagmites, columns, stone cascades, and curtains.

The majestic Sala da Imagem (Statue Room) and the Corredor das Maravilhas (Corridor of Wonders) are particularly good places to see stalactites and stalagnutes, while the Sala dos Brilhantes (Diamond Room) is full of shiny crystals.

The cave entrance is accessed on foot by the Ubajara Araticum trail, which takes three hours one-way, or by cable car, which takes only three minutes. The cable car is often closed for maintenance, so it’s a good idea to call in advance to see if it’s running on any given day.

TRAILS AND WATERFALLSThe popular Ubajara-Araticum trail connects the visitors‘ center to the mouth of Gruta de Ubajara cave. Starting at the center, the trail is a three hour downhill walk that passes through area around the statue is crowded with pilgrims, souvenir sellers, and boys who tell stories of the „padim“ in exchange for a few coppers.


The house where Father Cicero lived has been turned into a museum. Visitors can view his kitchen, bedroom, bed, desk, clothes (including his vestments), and crockery. The memorial is also full of objects left behind by supplicants as thanks for blessings received – everything from soccer team banners and wedding photos to stuffed animals and plaques. Praҫa do Socorro


Though it is the smallest and simplest of the churches in Juazeiro do Norte, the Capela de Nossa Senhora do Perpetuo Socorro has the honor of housing Father Cicero’s tomb.

During pilgrimages, the chapel is crowded with faithful who process from here to Matriz de Nossa Senhora das Dores church or Colina do Horto hill. Praҫa do Cinquentenário, Socorro.


A religious atmosphere dominates the Museu Vivo do Padre Cicero, an enormous house turned museum now full of votive offerings and plaster replicas of Father Cicero that have been left behind by thousands of his devotees. Notice all the books dedicated to him at the entrance. Colina do Horto Hill, 8 km (5 miles) from the city center.


The Centro de Cultura Popular Mestre Noza, a large shed with a thatched roof housing dozens of
artisans at work, is the main handicraft outlet in Juazeiro. Here you’ll find innumerable wooden and plaster sculptures of the legendary bandit Lampião, forró musician Luis Gonzaga, and Father Cicero, as well as sculpted animals and dolls. Rua São Luís, Centro.


The print works consists of a large room for printing (old typesetters and other machinery) and another room that houses a collection of cordel literature. Avenida Castelo Branco, 150, Rumerão.

PADRE CÍCEROCícero Romão Batista was born in Crato on March 24th, 1844. In 1872, two years after his ordination, he is said to have had a dream in which Jesus Christ asked him to look after the poor backlands people of the settlement that would become Juazeiro. Cícero soon settled in there. The first miracle attributed to him was the transformation of wine into blood at the communion of a parishioner.

News of the feat spread throughout the sertão. Soon after, Monsignor Francisco Monteiro, rector of Crato Seminary, publicly announced that Cicero could perform miracles and organized a pilgrimage of 3,000 faithful to Juazeiro. The Catholic Church reacted; back at the Vatican, the Holy Office wanted to excommunicate Cicero, but feared repercussions – the priest was popular among the people and connected to powerful landowners known as coronéis. Instead, Rome prevented him from saying mass.

The priest eventually became mayor of Juazeiro do Norte, and the settlement grew as his devotees took up residence there. He died in 1934 at the age of ninety, but his mystic presence, and the city that thrives on it, survive to this day.


Juazeiro do Norte’s neighbor – only 10 kilometers (6 miles) to the west – sits near the Araripe Plateau and forest, and is full of hot springs. The woods and springs ensure agreeable temperatures year round, even though the climate is semi-arid. Crato (founded 1853) offers a variety of hotels, restaurants, and bars, making it a good alternative when Juazeiro do Norte is full (a frequent occurrence between September and February).

Considered the cultural capital of Ceara’s sertão, Crato is home to folklore groups, woodcut printers, literature clubs, and cordel (found at the Academia do Cordelista). The town also hosts dramatic dance performances, such as the reisado, and lively June festivities.

The pleasant streets of Crato are lined with trees, and impressively large houses cluster along the paths that lead to the hills around the plateau. Hiking enthusiasts may want to take advantage of the local trail system. The path known as Subida do Belmonte climbs from 460 to 1,000 meters (1,500 to 3,300 feet) in just 50 minutes of walking. A more challenging possibility is the lovely 27 kilometer (17 mile) trail that connects the Mirante da Cruz and Mirante da Coruja lookout points.

From Fortaleza, Crato is a 533 kilometer (331 mile) drive southwest. Take the BR- 116 lughway south to Icó, then, to avoid potholes, take the BR-230, which passes through the towns of Iguatu, Várzea Alegre, and Farias Brito on the way to Crato.



Since 1999, tiny Assaré has preserved the memory of its most illustrious son, the folk poet Antonio Gonҫalves da Silva, also known as Patativa do Assaré (1909-2002). Born into a family of small farmers, Patativa published six books in which he described the hardships of the Northeast and told vivid stories of backlands life.

He became famous throughout the country after Luis Gonzaga set his poem, A Triste Partida (The Sad Departure), to music. The Fundaҫão Memorial Patativa do Assaré exhibits manuscripts, personal objects, books by the writer, books of regional poetry, and various essays. In the audio-visual room you can view the poet reciting his verses and performing alongside the forró musician Luis Gonzaga.

Assaré is 60 kilometers (37 miles) northwest of Crato and 70 kilometers (43 miles) from Juazeiro do Norte on the CE-292 highway. Rua Coronel Francisco Gomes, 82, Centro.


The Museu Paleontológico de Santana do Cariri sits in the center of the so called Santana Formation , the most important fossil site in Brazil and the largest collection of fish fossils in the world.

The museum belongs to the Regional University of Cariri, and it is a must-see for anyone staying in neighboring Crato, 50 kilometers (31 miles) to the east, or in Juazeiro do Norte, 65 kilometers (40 miles) to the west.

The museum exhibits display more than 750 fossils and fossil fragments from excavations, including a fossil of a pterosaur. The ground floor houses a model of the region, fossil replicas, and explanatory panels; upstairs, fossils are grouped by type and include dragonflies, fish, and plants. The ease with which great archaeological finds are made here has made it the target of international smugglers. Today, Santana do Cariri’s policy is to encourage the manufacture of replicas, such as those sold in the museum.

Guided tours can be arranged in advance. Cariri sits on the edge of an immense valley skirting the Chapada do Araripe plateau , and it’s worth taking a break from fossils to admire the view and the town’s old houses. Rua Doutor José Augusto, 326, Santana do Cariri.


The Fundaҫão Casa Grande foundation works to promote indigenous culture.

The foundation is located in the town of Nova Olinda, 41 kilometers (25 miles) northwest of Crato and 51 kilometers (32 miles) northwest of Juazeiro do Norte via the CE-292 highway.

The modest Memorial do Homem Kariri museum is also run by the foundation, and their collection includes utensils, polished stones, and ceramics that help illustrate the culture and traditions of the indigenous Cariris people.

The foundation also houses the Escola de Comunicaҫão da Meninada do Sertão, where local children receive schooling and make programs that are broadcast on local radio and TV. Avenida Jeremias Pereira, 444, Centro, Nova Olinda.

Sertão of Ceará travel guide and tourism information such as accommodation, festivals, transport, maps, activities and attractions in Ceará, Brazil – Brazil Travel Guide

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