Nestled on the slopes of several hills with panoramic views over the Serra da Jacobina, the old mining town of JACOBINA was one of the first parts of the sertão the Portuguese settled in strength. The clue to what attracted them is the name of one of the two fast-flowing rivers that bisect the town – the Rio de Ouro, or “Gold River”. Gold was first found here in the early seventeenth century, and several bandeirante (Brazilian conquistador) expeditions made the trip north from São Paulo to settle.
The town itself is notably friendly – they don’t see many tourists and people are curious – while the altitude takes the edge off the temperature most days, which makes it a good place to walk. It’s a typical example of an interior town, quiet at night save for the squares and the riverbanks, where the young congregate, especially around the Zululândia bar in the centre, while their parents pull chairs into the streets and gossip until the TV soaps start. Paths lead out of town into the surrounding hills – where there are spectacular views – in all directions, but it still gets hot during the day and some of the slopes are steep, so it’s best to take water along.
Although cattle and farming are now more important than the gold that originally brought the Portuguese, mining continues: there are emerald mines at nearby Pindobaçu, two large gold mines at Canavieiras and Itapicuru, and the diamonds that gave the Chapada Diamantina its name. The last big rush was in 1948, but miners still come down from the hills every now and then to sell gold and precious stones to traders in the town – you’ll notice many of them have precision scales on their counters. The Hotel Serra do Ouro runs trips (around R$50 per person) out to the mines of Pindobaçu, around 60km to the north, and to the mines of Canavieiras and Itapicuru. These trips can be a bit disappointing though – to the untrained eye uncut emeralds look like bits of gravel.