The Teresopolis-Petropolis Travessia
A report on the classic overnight hike between Teresopolis and Petropolis, two mountain cities in the hills surrounding Rio de Janeiro. Originally posted on www.geonautbrasil.com.The Teresopolis-Petropolis Travessia
A few weeks ago, some friends and I finally managed carry out our long-planned hike of the ‘travessia’, a trail in the Serra dos Orgãos national park. The ~35km route runs between the park entrance at Teresópolis and the park entrance at Petrópolis. It usually takes 2-3 days to complete, although legend has it that a band of extreme sports-type dudes completed the trail in 5hrs 20min. The 3 day schedule requires a tent, while the 2 day schedule requires only a day pack and a reservation at a mountain shelter.
We had neither tents, nor warm sleeping bags, so it was decided that we would pack light, rise early, and walk hard to the shelter. This meant in our first day, we were required to walk 18km, plus 1.8km of ascent. The second day would then be a more leisurely 5 hour descent into Teresópolis, in time to take the bus back to Rio.
Precise information on the route was difficult to locate, but through our collective research efforts, we had obtained a traditional OS-style map of the park and created a composite Google Earth / DEM map, using a previous GPS trail. We had also read various written descriptions of the route, and had pieced together an idea of the major waypoints. Something that we discovered in the souvenir shop, just as we were leaving the park, was a detailed guide book, with several detailed maps. If you intend to walk the trail, or spend more than a few days in the park, it is well worth the ~R$40 investment.
So, on a sunny Thursday afternoon, with fine weather forecast for the whole weekend, we set off from Rio towards Petrópolis. The Rio bus arrived into the intercity bus station, which is 20min from the centre of Petrópolis. Instead of heading straight for the Pousada Paraiso Açu, we took the local bus to centre, to find somewhere for dinner, before hiring a taxi to take us to the pousada. From either the bus station, or the city centre, the taxi fare was R$55. It was late when we arrived, so we went straight to sleep, in anticipation of an early start the next day.
The park opens at 7am officially, although if you need to purchase the obligatory permit, you will have to wait until 8am, when the ticket office opens. Supposedly, it is possible to buy your permit in advance, but this was not something that we had been able to do. The permit price is based on the number of days spent in the park, as well as your residence status. If you are a local, the park is very cheap to enter. If you are a Brazilian, you will fall into the middle price bracket, whereas ‘estrangeiros’ need to pay double the regular fee. Our 2 day trip would have cost R$65 each, had we not managed to sneak by as Brazilians.
The initial part of the trail was a shallow ascent, running alongside a river. The path was well-trodden and no navigation was necessary. Ahead of us were the peaks of Açu and Morro do Março. The sky was a deep blue, and visibility was perfect. The sun had yet to rise above the distant peaks, so we remained cool, walking in the shade for a few hours. The trail began to steepen, zig-zagging through lush jungle, with occasional stands of bamboo. After a few kilometres, we reached a junction in the trail, with one path leading to caves and a waterfall, and the other continuing the climb. The climbing was steady, and we left the jungle behind us, walking through lower, scrub and grass.
After a few hours we reached peak on the shoulder of Açu, known as Ajax. There, a small spring crossed the path, but we decided that we were fully stocked with water and kept going. Our strategy was to drink as much as possible before leaving, and carry 2 litres each. We reached Açu just before 12, which was slower than I had hoped. While having a quick lunch break, we met a couple coming in the other direction, who told us that Abrigo 4 was 8 hours walk away, and that we would need to walk in the dark if we were going to sleep at the shelter. This was not a very appealing prospect, so we hastily packed our lunch things away, and rejoined the trail. It turned out that some members of the group were drinking water very fast, and that we needed to find another spring soon. As we walked past the not-quite-finished abrigo 3, located at the top of Castelos do Açu, the workers told us of a small spring nearby. The water looked a little dirty, so we each used a purification tablet, and took an extra litre of water. The trail then continued up to the top of Morro do Março, and our first view of Pedra do Sino.
At this point, some concerns started to form in my mind. The maps we had obtained did not seem to fully represent the sheer verticality of our surroundings, and the peaks between us and our goal seemed a lot more dramatic than I had expected. With experience of walking in the UK, I am also not used to tall vegetation at altitude. The path was buried amongst the roots and trunks of tall shrubs, or winding through clumps of razor sharp glass. It was not difficult to follow, but often your feet were treading where your eyes couldn’t see. This can be a disconcerting experience when your mind is on snakes and spiders. The trail did become difficult to follow when it crossed large granite exposures. Sometimes small cairns marked the way, or red arrows appeared scratched into the rock.
Although exciting, and not too difficult, the sheer effort of this type of walking was slowing us down, and we were still a few kilometres from abrigo 4 when the sun began to set. A growing sense of trepidation overtook us. At 6pm, as the sun dipped below the horizon, we reached a former campsite known as Vale das Antas. With 1.5km and 1 peak still between us and the abrigo, we had to decide whether to stay at the campsite, or walk in the dark. Tiredness was really starting to set in, and we realised that a water source would be critical if we were going to stay out. However, without tents, the prospect of a night in single figure temperatures was not a popular one, so we decided to walk in the dark for a few hours. Staying close together, and with torches to hand, we started the last climb.
The initial trail was easily followed, and the darkness made us focus our efforts on the trail markers. In the gloom, the flickering fireflies looked to me like distant torches, which momentarily made me think we were not alone on the trail. One member confessed he thought he had been suffering from hallucinations for the past half an hour, but was glad to find out the flashes of light were real. We came to a complicated piece of navigation that required a scramble down into a small valley. The trail then snaked up the side of Pedra do Sino, eventually reaching what seemed like an impassable overhang, wedged in a crease in the sheer rock face. After considering our options for a moment, we realised that this was the real path, and we were expected to climb the overhang. It seemed insane that this could be considered a trail, and my opinion was that the scramble warranted ropes and harnesses. Nevertheless, I tentatively shinned up to the ledge and peered over the exposed side of the overhang. The drop was vertical for further than my torch could shine. The map indicated only 500m to go before the abrigo, which was tantalisingly close. We decided it was safer to proceed than backtrack so, on tired legs, and with a careful control of my rucksack, I hoisted myself over the overhang. Actually, the hand and foot holds were more secure than they first appeared, but it was still an incredibly dangerous manoeuvre. The others took their turn to scramble up onto the ledge. The view from below the overhang was partially obscured, which made the drop look less dramatic than it was in reality. I remained to one side of the ledge, grabbing rucksacks, hauling bodies and assuring myself that we would all make it through the next 20m alive. There were a few more scrambles in store, and after 11 hours of walking, we each had to dip into our last reserves of energy to haul ourselves over the huge lumps of granite between us and sleep.
After 30 minutes, on the verge of exhaustion, the path began to flatten, and we knew that the abrigo 4 lay in the saddle below us. Elated, and shaking with adrenalin, we stumbled down the last few zig-zags, and finally reached abrigo 4 at 8:30pm, 12hrs 30 minutes after leaving the Teresópolis gate. There was no electricity in the shelter, so we clumsily bundled some food into a pan, and waited our turn on the busy gas burner. The camping area was full and all the other bunks were already occupied by sleeping hikers. We climbed into our own rickety bunks, trying not to disturb the other lodgers. Not even the cold temperatures and torturous mattresses could keep us from falling asleep.
We woke at 9 and stretched-out sore limbs in the warm morning light. With last night’s adventures behind us, we were in high spirits as we topped up water bottles, and started our descent. The path on the Teresópolis side was even more heavily used than the Petrópolis side, and the trail was full of weekend walkers heading uphill to Pedra do Sino. We finally left the jungle path after 4 hours, and had a few final kilometres to walk along a tarmac road to the main gate. The Rio bus passed in front of the main gate a short while later, and we were back in Rio by 6.
On reflection, the trail would have been much more pleasant on the 3 day schedule. Although climbing would have been more challenging with the added weight of tents and cooking equipment, the trail would break nicely into 3, 6 hour days. The situation will be improved further when abrigo 3 opens soon, and hikers can stay both nights in the mountain shelters.
Jas is a guest blogger here, and also happens to be a great cook.