Walk of faith: 500km of sugar, storms and blisters


The Caminho da Fe is one of the longest Catholic pilgrimage routes in the world, stretching 500km (310 miles) across south-eastern Brazil - it's also one of the newest. Bob Walker joined the faithful on their trek to Aparecida.

There are many places you'd rather not be when a storm of biblical proportions breaks above your head. At the top of a tall building. Underneath a big tree. Or hopelessly lost in the middle of a gigantic sugar cane plantation.

Things on the Caminho da Fe were not going to plan. The painted yellow arrows that are supposed to guide you 500km had disappeared. Then it began to rain. And rain. The red earth track that cuts through the sugar cane turned into an strength-sapping quagmire. Then the lightning began, striking the ground all around me. For hours I plodded on through the tall sugar cane which blocked any view of the horizon.

I stumbled across two plantation workers taking shelter in a hut. They invited me in, gave me coffee and indicated that the rain was set for the day. I had to push on despite their warnings. They each gave me a gift which did little to lift my spirits. A torch and a silver space blanket - the kind you use to prevent hypothermia.

Then a small miracle on the Path of Faith. A pickup truck driven by Alan and his pal Marcio. What they were doing in that confusing vastness of interconnected tracks I never found out. But they drove me to a workers' bar hidden deep in the plantation and bought me beer and sausages. Then they drove me even further, bouncing and skidding into the crops before suddenly flying on to a concrete road which led to civilisation and a hot shower. They refused any payment.

The Caminho da Fe was set up in 2003 by Almiro Grings after he twice walked the Camino de Santiago in Spain.

Inspired, he set about establishing a network of hostels and hotels leading to Aparecida - the holiest site in the world's largest Catholic country.

Three hundred years ago local fishermen dredged up a tiny clay statue of the Madonna and down the centuries it's been credited with numerous miracles. It's now in the huge basilica of Aparecida which was built in the 1950s to house this object of national veneration.

Last year 12 million pilgrims came to visit. It's thought that more than 30,000 have walked or cycled there along the Camino da Fe, crossing those endless sugar cane and coffee plantations and slogging up the beautiful but challenging climbs of the Mantiqueira mountains.

It's a strange time to set up what is probably the newest Catholic pilgrimage trail in the world. The Church in Brazil is fast losing members to the charismatic and increasingly powerful evangelical churches. Thousands attend their televised services and evangelical leaders have become politically influential.

"Many people don't understand the complicated rituals and liturgy of the Catholic Church," one fellow trekker told me as we chatted over a beer. "The evangelicals speak to the poor and they promise everything. But they also ask for a tenth of your wages."

I've walked the Camino de Santiago and most people I met were not doing it for religious reasons. But in Brazil it was different. I saw macho lycra-clad cyclists gather in a circle to say morning prayers. And a recently retired policeman from Sao Paulo told me he was making the pilgrimage to thank God he ended his career without getting shot.

image captionCyclist-pilgrims join together for morning prayers

Back at the start I'd asked Almiro which was harder - Santiago or his Caminho. He sat back in his chair and laughed. "The Caminho de Santiago is longer," he said, "but the Caminho de Fe is much harder - many mountains."

I walked 965km (600 miles) across Spain without a blister. But the hard-packed earth track in Brazil took its toll. On the fifth day I'd planned to hitchhike but not one driver stopped.

image captionStill no sign of Aparecida...

At one point a bus halted in the middle of a clearing. I yelled and began limping towards salvation. The driver merely looked at me, closed the door and drove off - leaving me jumping up and down on the spot in a fit of incoherent rage. But I can honestly say that was the only person who refused to help me during my three weeks on the trail. Most people seemed amazed to see a hapless Englishman walking alone, and I lost count of the number of free drinks I was given.

I did make it to Aparecida - despite the hills, blisters, and tarantula spiders. Apparently I was now a minor celebrity and was interviewed by a religious TV channel.

"And what did you like most about the Brazil pilgrimage Bobby?" I was asked. I thought of the mountains, the stunning night skies and the Caipirinha cocktails. "The people I met," I said. It's always the people.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionThe pilgrimage's final destination - the basilica in Aparecida...
image copyrightGetty Images
image caption... and the shrine of Our Lady of Aparecida

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