Pico da Neblina: A sacred peak off-limits for decades
Nearly 20 years ago, Brazil banned access to its highest mountain. Now, a new initiative could show how ecotourism can protect the Amazon rainforest from environmental threats.
The hekuras (shamans) gathered outside the wooden house where I sat cross-legged on the floor alongside 10 hikers and 20 locals who would accompany them on a climb to the top of Brazil's highest mountain. Wearing nothing but denim shorts and a plume of feathers strapped to their arms, the hekuras were there to perform a ritual that would protect the hikers, porters and guides and ensure they made it back safely.
They sniffed hard, inhaling pariká, a hallucinogenic powder made of Amazonian barks and plants. Minutes later - after retching and gagging - they were bright-eyed and alert, moving among the crowd, waving their arms wildly, deep in conversation with beings that I, for one, was not able to see.
I had travelled with the hikers on a two-day journey via plane, 4X4 and speed boat from the Amazonas state capital of Manaus to Maturacá, a group of seven villages deep in the northern reaches of the Brazilian Amazon that is home to around 3,000 Yanomami indigenous people. I was there to hear firsthand from the Yanomami about an ecotourism project they launched this year to take hikers to the top of Pico da Neblina - a mountain they hold as sacred, and which sits within their federally protected territory (Pico da Neblina is also the name of the national park within which the mountain is located).
The group I was with was anxious to get started after months of preparation. But no-one was allowed to leave Maturacá for the eight-day hike without first being granted the hekuras' protection.
"These mountains are sacred, they're the home of spirits - bad spirits and good spirits," explained José Mario Pereira Goes, president of AYRCA, the Yanomami association set up to run the ecotourism project. "[Those] who practice traditional medicine, they know who the spirits are, and have to protect the people that go there. The spirits can take away the soul of a person and that person dies. You think that [Pico da Neblina] is simply a mountain, but not for them."
The protective ritual I'd witnessed in Maturacá "closes off" the visitors' minds and bodies to any interference from spirits on the mountain, Pereira Goes added.
The opening of Pico da Neblina to tourists marks the end of a nearly 20-year wait for some hikers, after the Brazilian government banned access to the mountain back in 2003 due to the high numbers of visitors, some of whom left rubbish behind. Under the new visitation plan, the Yanomami will be able to generate income from tourism to help resist the lure of damaging yet lucrative gold mining by members of their own community, as well as outside miners. If successful, it will help support local communities and could be an example of how carefully managed ecotourism can help protect the Amazon from outside groups looking to exploit the land.
Pico da Neblina ("misty peak" in Portuguese) - was only "discovered" by the outside world in the 1950s. For the Yanomami, who have lived in the region for more than 1,000 years, the mountain's name is Yaripo ("home of the winds" in Yanomami language). Yaripo sits on the border between Brazil and Venezuela, part of the Serra do Imeri range, and rises up 2,995m to a jagged peak. A tightly woven skirt of equatorial forest clings to the mountain's base, up to around 1,000m, from where the vegetation starts to thin out.
Not only is it the highest mountain in Brazil; it's also known as being one of the most difficult to hike, and it has long been top of the bucket list for many adventurers willing to battle the jungle, rain, bugs and blisters. Until 2003, plenty of people took on that challenge, before the national park closed to visitors.
"Back then, the Yanomami were paid the minimum amount possible. There was no evaluation of tourism's environmental and social impact. Visitors brought alcohol and illicit substances. It got to the point of being exploitation," explained Lana Rosa from Instituto Socioambiental (ISA), an NGO that has helped develop the Yaripo ecotourism project alongside AYRCA and other organisations. Since the Yanomami couldn't control how many visitors hiked up the mountain nor how they behaved, they appealed to Brazil's environmental agency, who ruled that access to the peak would be stopped.
Planning for the new project started in 2015, the year that the Brazilian government began regulating tourism on indigenous lands. Previously, there was no guidance on how to minimise the impact of tourism, nor any guarantee that indigenous guides would be fairly paid.
Nowadays, indigenous communities are required to submit detailed visitation plans for governmental approval. "The Yaripo plan took years to write because it was participative, involving lots of meetings, discussions, finding consensus and consulting the community," said Rosa.
And just when it was ready to launch in 2020, the pandemic set it back two more years.
"I've taken people up this year who have been waiting to do this hike since before 2003," said Joaquim Magno Souza from Roraima Adventures, one of three travel agencies (including Amazon Emotions and Ambiental Turismo) that run the expeditions with Yanomami guides. "It is without a doubt the toughest hike in Brazil. It's demanding, both emotionally and physically."
For Vanessa Marino of Amazon Emotions, it's one of the best ways that visitors can experience the Amazon. "The tourism infrastructure of Yaripo is very basic - this is no highly developed Everest or Kilimanjaro. But the trip is authentic. The Yanomami are excited to share their mountain with foreigners in a respectful way. And whatever difficulties the hikers face on the way are outweighed 100 times over by the experience of getting to know the Yanomami."
The cultural exchange between the visitors and Yanomami is, in fact, one of the project's main objectives. This plays out in the songs and stories the Yanomami tell at night in the forest around the campfire, and the knowledge they share during the hike about the trees and plants that have been their source of food and medicine for more than a millennium.
"The indigenous in Brazil have suffered prejudice for so many years. The youngsters are moving away from their traditions. They're more open to outside influences, so when they see visitors valuing their culture it creates a strong sense of cultural value," said Rosa. "People come down from the mountain in tears, full of emotion and friendship bonds with the Yanomami. They leave with a huge sense of gratitude. It's really transformative."
Tears of joy at the end follow lots of exhaustion, frustration and pain along the way. More assault course than trail, the hike requires intense concentration to navigate streams, knotty roots, swamps and slippery rocks. The climb to the top of Yaripo is only 36km but takes five long days (and three more to retrace the path back down) - a slow pace that hints at the challenge of the terrain.
Dense, hot and humid rainforest for the first three days gives way to marsh-like swamps filled with bromeliads, where boots squelch knee-deep in soggy muck. On higher ground, the vegetation thins out as the temperature drops to single-digit degrees. Cold winds cut through clothes sodden from sweat and rain. The fifth day is a 1,000m ascent to the summit, at one point climbing dozens of metal rungs hammered into a near-vertical rock face. After all that, hikers who reach the summit are among the lucky few if the "misty peak" is not covered in cloud.
None of the hikers that sign up are under the illusion it will be easy. The packing list sets the tone, including rigid leather gaiters (for snake bites), gloves (for holding onto ant-infested tree trunks), a hammock and mosquito net to sleep in, knee supports and a whistle. Plus, a doctor's note to testify sound physical and mental health. "Which is ironic," laughed Souza, "since you need to be a bit crazy to do this hike."
Numbers are limited to one group of 10 hikers per month and cost R$19,000 (£3,200). Hikers are accompanied by Yanomami guides, porters and cooks, who carry almost all the food and equipment. "It generates income for a community fund," said Pereira Goes. "Plus, the guides and porters are earning income to keep their family, which helps to minimise the impacts of gold mining."
While mining remains a tempting source of income for young Yanomami men, hopes are high that the Yaripo project will turn a corner for the community. "This project is important," said Pereira Goes. "People from Brazil and beyond are welcome to come and visit. This project is our dream and it's being accomplished."
Related Protected Areas:
- UC Pico da Neblina
- TI Yanomami
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