The Bahian sertão is immense: an area considerably larger than any European country and constituting most of the land area of Bahia state. Much of it is semi-desert, with endless expanses of rock and cactus broiling in the sun. But it can be spectacular, with ranges of hills to the north and broken highlands to the west, rearing up into the tableland of the great Planalto Central, the plateau extending over most of the state of Goiás and parts of Minas Gerais. No part of the Bahian sertão is thickly populated, and most of it is positively hostile to human habitation; in some places, no rain falls for years at a stretch. Its inhabitants suffer more from drought than anywhere else in the region and in parts of the sertão there’s still desperate poverty.
Despite its reputation, not all the sertão is desert. Snaking through it is the Rio São Francisco, which spills out into the huge hydroelectric reservoir of Sobradinho. River and lake support a string of towns, notably Paulo Afonso and Juazeiro. Other possible destinations to the north are Jacobina, in the midst of spectacular hill country, where gold and emeralds have been mined for nearly three centuries, and Canudos, site of a mini–civil war a hundred years ago, and a good place to get a feel for sertão life. By far the most popular route into the sertão, though, is westwards along the BR-242, which eventually hits the Belém–Brasília highway in Goiás: en route you’ll pass the old mining town of Lençóis, gateway to the breathtaking natural wonders of the Chapada Diamantina – one of Brazil’s best and most accessible trekking areas.