Jungle Beach is exactly what I’d hoped for when I noticed the poster on the wall back in Rio and suggested we give it a shot. An isolated little lodge in the middle of the Atlantic Rainforest, with a gorgeous waterfall just a few minutes’ walk from the front door, a babbling brook right outside our window, puppies and kittens running around, horses grazing on the front lawn, just a few other guests wandering about, and an altogether very authentic and pleasant feel. It’s owned by an American environmentalist (who went to UCSD!) and his Brazilian wife, and lived in by just a few others: the owner’s three sons (two of whom have mohawks), a cook, and a Filipino yoga instructor. The place reminded me tremendously of the Oso Peninsula in Costa Rica, except that it’s not coastal – the beach of Jungle Beach is actually a sandy freshwater beach on the lodge’s own little river.
It really was perfect.
When Peder and I finally arrived around 7 or 8pm we were pretty worn out from the effort of finding the place – not to mention that I still hadn’t slept the night before, thanks to the weirdo sitting behind me on the bus from Ouro Preto. We checked into our room, enjoyed a nice hot shower for the first time in a day and a half, and joined the other guests on the patio for dinner.
It was a fantastic vegetarian assortment, prepared by the in-house cook. I was starving and managed to put away three heaping platefulls. Unfortunately, since we’d arrived after everyone else had already finished eating, most of the good stuff was nearly gone – one and a half of my three plates ended up consisting primarily of rice and beans. Mmmmm! 🙂
We asked our host how we should pay for the room and meals. “Just keep track of whatever you have brotha, and let me know whenever it’s convenient – it’s all honor system here, I’ll trust you.”
What a nice vibe.
We sit on the balcony chatting with the four other backpackers – a Hawaiian couple on a six-month round-the-world trip (blog here), a Swedish girl, and a Finnish girl (…right?). Then we fall asleep around 10pm, perhaps the earliest on this whole trip, to the sound of a rushing waterfall right outside our window. On the wall a small gecko rushes back and forth cleaning the room of any lingering insects.
The next morning the rain had stopped and we headed out early for a quick tour of the “slave cave,” as our host called it. This is where we learned all about the very interesting history of Jungle Beach. There were a lot of details, and I didn’t make my blog notes until a few days later so some of them may be wrong/spotty. Skimming over them now they do seem to be pretty incomplete. But I’ll do my best to reconstruct what I do remember (already almost three weeks ago), and just copy the rest for you here:
The trail we’re walking on here became at one point a crucial part of the “underground railroad” for African slaves in the area. Escapees would use this route to access a secret cave hidden behind a waterfall where they would hide and await nightfall before making their way over the next ridge and to one of several nearby runaway slavecamps. As you can see the cave is still here, but the waterfall has long since dried up.
(…now inside the cave…)
This big rock here was actually once used as a door. When the slaves’ captors found out about this hiding place, they eventually started coming to check for runaways. The slaves would thus hide their children deeper in the caves and barricade the entrance with this rock, allowing only themselves to be captured. Friends and relatives would then come the next day to save the children. Can you imagine how desperate they must have been, to trap their children in a tiny cave hidden behind a waterfall, knowing they’d never see them again? But it was still a better option than allowing them to be re-captured and worked to death.
(“So how did you come to own all of this magnificent/historical land?”)
The Jungle Beach land (and building) itself was originally owned by (Pedro-something), a horrible dictator who had a habit of torturing and murdering college students for fun. When Pedro’s reign of terror ended, all of this was left to his wife, who years later decided to sell. That’s when I came along. For years I’d been traveling South America trying to find the perfect place to settle down and continue my environmental work. So one day I showed up in a Brazilian realtor’s office who, seeing a gringo, assumed I was rich and brought me here. I could tell right away that this place was way out of my budget. But I did meet the woman who owned the place and we became friends. We kept in touch, and I told her of my dreams of protecting and restoring the rainforest, of setting up a little organization to educate the locals and of working to stop the patterns of slash-and-burn that are destroying our planet and its precious resources. (He got into a lot of global warming stuff here which I didn’t note in detail).
She was so touched by my ideals that she decided she wanted me to have the land. To protect it. She forfeited a multimillion dollar offer from a famous Braziian actress who planned to turn it into a waterpark, and gave it to me. I told her I could never accept. But she insisted. I gave her what little money I had.
However, due to an overlooked technicality in the property transfer from her husband, the land had actually never officially become hers. When her husband found out that she was planning to give the place away instead of sell it for millions, he suddenly demanded it back – and began threatening her harshly. Keep in mind that this man is a notorious dictator who tortured for fun. She wouldn’t tell me exactly what was going on, but it became fairly obvious by how her moods and communication had changed. She was afraid. I offered her the land back, telling her that her safety was obviously more important than any deal she and I may or may not have made.
“You know what? Screw my husband, you’re the exact type of person I want to leave this place to.” She called her husband and threatened him right back. She said she’d reveal all of the yet unknown atrocities he’d committed while in power. He signed over the deed.
About a year later she disappeared and I haven’t heard from her since. I’d like to think that her husband bought her a mansion in Miami and bribed her to completely isolate herself from Brazil, but nobody really knows. Nevertheless I’ve been working hard to stay true to my word, to restore and protect the rainforest, to hold lectures and educate local Favela kids, and to bring youths from around the world to educate them as well. By just staying here and paying for your rooms and meals you’re helping too. We’re continuing to move forwards every day. Everything I use here is eco-friendly; at the top of the hill I’m building a small classroom made entirely out of recycled material. The roof is made of used toothpaste containers, and all of the water comes directly from the waterfall. The water down at the lodge, too.
And you know what? I really think it’s starting to make a difference, even if it’s just in this small local community for now. When I first arrived the local farmers were threatening me viciously, despising the fact that I was trying to change their age-old traditions of slash-and-burn. That was only two years ago. But I’ve educated their kids, taught them how they can co-exist with their surroundings, and of the huge impact that people can have on their environments. They’re learning, going home and telling their parents “No dad, you have to stop, he isn’t a bad man!” And the threats have stopped. And people are starting to change. Slowly.
He’s incredibly passionate, even eccentric at times, but his heart is really in the right place and I think what he’s trying to do is amazing. It’s a shame that Jungle Beach is so hard to find and so unknown – Even after bussing all the way to Casamiro de Abreu Peder and I almost gave up and headed back. As it turned out, every single backpacker there had found out about it by noticing the same poster I had at Stone of a Beach Hostel in Rio.
I spent some time trying to give our host pointers on how he could work on his publicity, but it was clear that he’s not as interested in advertising as putting time towards his environmental work. He’s an environmentalist. And at this point, he doesn’t have the kind of cash he’d need to advertise and put together fancy websites. Still, with more customers and thus more funding I really think this place could take off. And I know that this guy would really put every dollar to good use. People just need a way to find out about it. Educating five more favela kids about the planet’s crisis may not make much of a dent in the big picture, but still, you’ve got to start somewhere.
Rory: Have you any corrections or anything to add? I’m going to send him this article, and with his approval, forward it to the authors of Lonely Planet. Unfortunately they just published a new Brazil edition last month, but maybe a few years from now we can get him in there 🙂