Lençóis, Brazil

In the waning daylight, we scrambled to the top of the 3,600-foot sandstone butte named Pai Inacio and looked out on the row of mesas that stretched before us for miles, like giant soufflés. We were thrilled and awestruck by nature's grandeur, millions of years in the making.

My 28-year-old daughter and I were dead tired after five days of hiking here in eastern Brazil's Chapada Diamantina, or Diamond Highlands. The sight of the mesas bathed in the amber light of sundown was the climax of two weeks in the country. We knew our departure the next morning would be a sad one.

Maria Helene and I had come to 600-square-mile Chapada Diamantina National Park in the state of Bahia to hike and to immerse ourselves in Brazil's natural wonders, among the world's most diverse. The exceptionally dramatic landscape is by turns lush and arid, with rocky peaks and Xanadu-like wetlands, picture-postcard waterfalls and eerily lighted underground caverns, all accessible within a park that's about half the size of Yosemite.

One bonus: We could see all of these wild wonders without abandoning creature comforts. Lençóis (pronounced len-SOIZ), the rejuvenated mining town that is the park's hub, is home to small but good hotels and restaurants.

I had been to Brazil and the Chapada many times, but this trip was Maria Helene's introduction. Would she swoon, as I had, at the region's natural beauty? Or would it pale compared with stopovers in Rio de Janeiro, about 750 miles south, and the Bahian capital of Salvador, 250 miles east? Atop Pai Inacio, Maria Helene shot me a wordless glance that said the Chapada had been worth the long trip and that she would be back.

A hub of eco-tourism

Our arrival in Lençóis in June made us bona fide participants in Latin America's eco-tourism boom. Throngs of foreigners have been descending on out-of-the-way preserves to see nature up close and unadulterated and to escape their urban lives. Many perceive Latin America as less risky than Asia, Africa or Europe in this year of SARS, war and terrorism.

Economics also plays a role. The devaluation of the Brazilian real since 1999 means the dollar goes a long way. Flights from L.A. to Rio de Janeiro compare favorably in price with flights to Europe, and once you're in Brazil, accommodations and other travel expenses can be a relative bargain.

All of which explains why Brazil markets 50 eco-tourism destinations. The Chapada Diamantina is the most popular, last year drawing about 40,000 foreign visitors — a number that is growing 15% annually, local officials say.

Despite the rising popularity, crowds rarely are a problem. (Brazilians' prime vacation season starts in December and runs to early March.)

Many of those who do journey here make their home base in Lençóis, a charming, 30-block collection of wildly colored buildings that seems frozen in time — about 1850, to be precise. You'd never know from looking at the town that it had been a world center of diamond mining. For three decades after the first major gemstone discovery, in 1844, Lençóis was a boomtown every bit as wild as those of the California Gold Rush.

The city was a bustling commercial center, its diamond economy fueling imports of French fashions, German and British machinery, and Dutch butter and cheese. Work was started on a cathedral, and the town's leaders even planned to build an opera house, similar to venues in the Amazon port cities of Manaus and Belem, just as the boom turned to bust.

By 1880 huge diamond deposits had been found in South Africa. Lençóis was largely abandoned, and its population had shrunk to a few hundred from a peak of 15,000. It remained a virtual ghost town until the 1970s, when eco-tourism stirred a rebirth.

These days the city has about 7,000 inhabitants, most dependent on tourism for their livelihoods. Lençóis' eclectic, narrow, comfortably scaled buildings still line the cobblestone streets, one reason the town was declared a national historical monument in 1985.

Not to be dismissed as part of Lençóis' appeal are, believe it or not, the culinary attractions. Estalegem Alcino, our little pousada (bed-and-breakfast inn), has been written up in Brazilian food magazines and international guidebooks for its original dishes — cassava pizzas, cheese crepes and tapioca croquettes, among others. Half a dozen exceptional restaurants in town provide welcome and reasonably priced rewards after a day's exertion on the trails.

Our inn had been remodeled by owner Alcino Caetano according to building plans dating to 1890. It was decorated with period photos and antiques that were just as old. Caetano, a former schoolteacher from Rio, opened his hostelry in 1992 as a way of escaping workaday drudgery and as an outlet for creative expression. He always seemed to be on the scene, tending to the next morning's menu or working in his ceramics studio when he wasn't seeing to guests' needs.

Water, water everywhere

But the true draw here, without a doubt, is the land. The highlands were formed as cake-like layers of sediment collected on a primeval ocean floor. Hundreds of millions of years ago, the layers were pushed up by the same forces that ripped apart one landmass to form the continents of Africa and South America.