Try the Stairway to Heaven: The 16km hike to “Janela do Céu” (Window of the Sky), in Ibitipoca, Brazil.
Most people who think of booking a trip to Brazil immediately imagine themselves sunbathing in the beaches of Rio de Janeiro, or hitting the clubs at São Paulo’s lively nightlife. However, the fifth biggest country in the world has so much more to it than these two cities.
Where is the Stairway to Heaven?
Not too far from the states of both Rio and São Paulo, there’s the state of Minas Gerais. This inner land state is known for its cheese, Brazilian-style country music and beautiful mountains. The literal translation for Minas Gerais means “Broad Mines”, or “General Mines”. The state earned its name during the time of Brazil’s gold rush, when it was found that the state was rich in gold and diamond mines. Now, although it’s unlikely anyone will find precious metals laying around, this is a place with grandiose mountains and vast nature – perfect for some hiking. And this is what we did in the tiny city of Ibitipoca, where we made our way to Janela do Céu (Window of the Sky).
This minuscule mountainous town has no more than 1000 inhabitants. That’s considerably less than what you’d find in a concert or sporting event. Matheus, my boyfriend, suggested that we go there and take on the hike to Janela do Céu – one of the most unique waterfalls in the country which is located in the Ibitipoca State Park. After his research, he told me that the hike was 16km long roundtrip. I thought to myself, “Well, I work in fitness and a 10km jog is a typical day so this is going to be a chilled out walk – piece of cake”. I was so wrong! So here are a few tips I wish someone told me before I went to Ibitipoca and took on this hike – which I believe should be in everyone’s bucket list, as although it was one of the hardest hikes I have done, it brought me to the most beautiful view I have ever seen.
Be Prepared for Stairway to Heaven
In the world of technology where even street vendors carry card machines, Matheus and I never thought that getting cash would be a problem. But guess what? The town has no ATM machines at all! The closest town to Ibitipoca is Lima Duarte, which is a 53km drive away through a tiny dirt road, taking over an hour to get there. So although the adorable Bed and Breakfast we stayed in accepted card payment and a few of the restaurants did too, Matheus and I had to count every coin we had to make sure we’d make it to the end of the trip. Oh, and a massive shout out to the restaurant owner who took pity on us and gave us a free lunch on the last day, since his card machine wouldn’t work and we had absolutely no way to pay him.
This also applies for gas – come with a full tank of gas! There are no petrol stations anywhere in town and although we managed to make it back to Lima Duarte with just enough gas, we saw several abandoned cars in town. I can only imagine they ran out of gas and just gave up – that’s what I would do anyway.
The same applies for the hike – remember to bring snacks, good workout gear, sunscreen (this one was a problem for me, I ended my day looking like a lobster), swimsuits and anything else you think you’ll need for the hike. This is a state park which has absolutely nothing along the trail but nature – don’t expect to be able to buy snacks there.
Where to Stay for the Stairway to Heaven
The town has several adorable B&Bs and well as camping sites for those more adventurous. People can even camp inside of the actual state park! We opted for a B&B that took the name of the attraction we were there to see, Janela do Céu. It was rustic, small and oh so adorable! Plus, it came with a delicious breakfast filled with traditional foods, which was essential before an intense hike. Finding a place to stay is crazy easy as the town is mostly focused on the active tourism the park brings, so there are hostels, camping sites and B&Bs in every street. Also, so many delicious restaurants!
Up Your Fitness Game Before climbing Stairway to Heaven
I struggled a bit with the hike – not because of its distance but due to the incline. The peak of the mountain where Janela do Cėu is 1784m high and it takes a lot of sweat to get up there. Additionally, the trail we took consisted us an incline until the peak, and then a decline until Janela do Céu – which ultimately means that we faced hills on the way there and back, making the return just as difficult as the trail there.
I work in fitness, doing anything from boxing to yoga and although I did face a few difficulties, it was nothing out of the usual for this type of adventurous fitness activity. A few breaks along the way and I was ready for more. However, Matheus pretty much wanted to kill himself so that he wouldn’t have to finish the trail. To him, “working out” consists of a 30 minute jog on the treadmill twice a week, so this hike truly kicked his butt. Hence being physically prepared is a crucial aspect of taking on this challenge.
Pick the Right Company
I was lucky enough to take on this hike with my favorite person in the world. Seriously, the heat, hunger and exhaustion would have made me bite anyone else’s head off. I did see some people hiking alone, but I truly believe that could be dangerous. After all, if any sort of injury happens, you’re in the middle of nowhere with no assistance at all. I would suggest to always go with someone, and preferably some whose company you enjoy through and through. This will help keep motivated and also – someone to take pictures!
Arrive Early to climb Stairway to Heaven
The State Park of Ibitipoca opens from 7AM to 6PM – tickets to get in are limited so you should arrive early to guarantee yours. Additionally, there’s just so much to see in this park that 11 hours doesn’t seem like enough. In the trail to Janela do Céu, there are several caverns and smaller waterfalls to check out, we tried to see all of them. Additionally, we spent as much time in Janela do Céu as possible. We didn’t go on the weekend, which was great as the spot was almost empty and we could get great pictures as well as space to chill. During weekend and holidays, the wait to take a picture in the postcard spot can take over an hour!
By the time we were returning, we realized we had almost no time until the park closed. So we had to take on the kickass trail again, but this time rushing and stressed out. I thought I’d have to carry Matheus on my back, honestly.
We did return to the park the next day to check out some of the other shorter trails, which took us to beautiful waterfalls and rocky mountains. So making it a two day trip is totally worth it!
The View at top of Stairway to Heaven
By taking our time, we saw a lot of beautiful spots along the way. The nature around changed every few hundred meters – varying from bromeliads to cacti. The caverns where something else! The eerie feel and sound of slow pouring water made us want to sit down talk and even forget that we still had the rest of the hike to finish – but nothing compared to Janela do Céu.
What’s unique about this waterfall is that the trail takes you to the top of it. So you don’t get to bathe in the pouring water, as the spot where the water lands it much to rocky for human access. The view truly looks like the window, where trees and water perfectly frame the baby blue skies of this Brazilian town. You feel like you’re on top of the world, bathing in clear pools of water and wondering how nature is able to create something so singular and magnificent. We had a little picnic while there and finally got to swim and wash off some of the sweat. I wished I never had to leave.
Overall, this has become my favorite spot in Brazil. I am originally from Rio, and I never thought another Brazilian city could steal my heart, but Ibitipoca did. I was blessed to meet some of the friendliest people I’ve ever come across in my life. Most of the residents are not actually from Ibitipoca, but people who were over their lives in bigger cities and decided to leave everything behind, finding refuge in this tiny town. Everyone is so happy that for a second I wanted to follow in their footsteps and run away to Ibitipoca. There’s clearly something in the air that there that makes people at bliss.
For anyone visiting Brazil with a little more time to spare – take on this hike. The physical challenge is awesome, the view is striking and this will be different than the traditional Brazilian vacation. But be warned – you may never want to leave!