Secrets of the Gaucho Highlands

Good wine, ecotourism, and tradition make this a unique destination, a two-hour drive trip from Porto Alegre’s airport

by Manu Sombra  |  photos Andre Dib

We are at the Aparados da Serra National Park, in Cambará do Sul, the so-called “canyon land” (“terra dos cânions”). A beaten dirt road about 18 km long plus a 3 km walk surrounded by century-old Araucaria trees takes us to the Itaimbezinho Canyon, a geological section sculpted by volcanic lava about 6 km wide, where the thick and wet foliage draws one of the most breathtaking landscapes of the Gaucho Highlands. 

It’s not unusual to hear people say that if a rock rolls down from Itaimbezinho it will only stop after falling over Santa Catarina. That is because the upper part of the plateau sets the boundaries between the state of Rio Grande do Sul and the neighboring state, where the Boi River winds through the 750 meters deep valley. Throughout the trails, we spot the Véu de Noiva Falls and Andorinhas Falls when the day is not shrouded by fog. Driving 40 km further down the road we reach the also imponent Fortaleza Canyon, which just like Itaimbezinho was added to the select list of world geological parks by UNESCO in April. 

Leaving Cambará do Sul, a little more than 100 km separates us from two literally brand-new sights of the Gaucho Highlands, this time in Canela. Since December of 2020, it is possible to advance 35 meters over the Ferradura Valley on Skyglass, a steel and glass hanging platform that allows you to tread over the rapids of the Caí River, which runs beneath its see-through floor or to “float” on one of the 10 seats of its hanging monorail. 

But it’s at the Lageana Valley that we take a deep dive into the Atlantic Forest and its araucaria trees, which are symbols of the region. Since June 2021, a new angle of the Caracol Falls, a delightful sight that may traditionally be seen from the top of a belvedere, may be enjoyed from the “Pé da Cascata” (Falls’ Feet), as the tour’s original name may suggest. The trail of 1.4 km of dense vegetation, where the rays of sunlight break through the thick veil of the treetops and highlight native plants such as the “samambaia-açu”, starts and ends at the same point, partially outlining the Arroio Caracol river.

The path to the waterfalls crosses land that is private property, so the tour must be scheduled with Brocker Turismo. We hint you to finish off with a brunch at the century-old “Casa da Vó Ivonne”, where the original architecture of the Wasem family residence is still preserved, one of the first families of immigrants to settle in Lageana.

Italians and Germans

The history of the Wasem family resembles the history of thousands of Germans immigrants who disembarked in Brazil in 1824, drawn to the country hoping that they would be granted land and prosperity due to the migratory settlement policy for the country’s southern region. The Italians began arriving in 1875 – some of them reached their final destination in the cities of Canela and neighboring Gramado.

To travel the rural roads “Linha Bonita” and “Linha Nova” now in Gramado is to learn a little of this history. The ancient architecture and grapevines date back to the time when families sowed the first seeds and gathered in the basement to drink the house wine. Visit the Olivas de Gramado Park at dusk and catch a unique and privileged glimpse of this landscape. 

And how about trying a traditional colonial breakfast? Caffe Della Nonna is served inside the colony, just like the immigrants would call their pieces of land, and it was a pioneer investor in agrotourism in the region. Since 1999, the Foss family has kept alive their roots in the countryside, where the fruit for the jams comes from, served to the sound of the songs that Nonna Zumira used to hear from her grandparents, who arrived in Brazil in 1875. “To this day we sing ‘La Bella Polenta’, which they taught me,” as she grins and talks about a popular song that pays homage to the typical dish served along with pizzas, sweets, artisan bread, sausages, wine, and “graspa”, a kind of grape “cachaça”. 

At Cantina Linha Bella, not too far from there, magic happens on the side-by-side tables that make anyone lose their shyness and be transported to the Old World to the sound of Italian classics sung by a tenor and a soprano. On such a delightful Italian night, pasta and a traditional cappelletti soup are prepared on the woodstove. 

One quick reminder: we are in Gramado, the land of good gastronomy, which has found in the gaucho barbecue the typical Brazilian touch. Famous for the “Natal Luz” and for its good artisan chocolate which gets transformed into giant chocolate eggs in the urban decoration for Easter, Gramado is also the home of “Kikito”, the much-coveted statue award of the Gramado Film Festival that takes place in August.  

Hopefully, winter will bring snow, but there is no lack of attractions even when the city seems to hibernate in the off-season. In the colorful autumn, when the sycamore leaves start to fall from their branches, the best thing to do is to stroll down the streets where the Bavarian and Norman architecture resemble a European atmosphere. If you prefer, take the “Bustour” to Canela and stop at the sumptuous “Catedral de Pedra” (Stone Cathedral), built in the English neo-Gothic style. The distance between the two cities is only 7 km, so you can visit the sights in both cities with just one ticket, then get on and off the tourist bus and check the tour schedule using an app. 

Another bus takes you to the realm of artisanal beer: the Bus Bier Night takes you on a trip to three breweries, and you can have a tasting in all of the three. For those who like musicals, one can get into the belle époque mood at Gatzz Gramado, a dinner show inspired by French cabarets. Kids also don’t waste their time around here: there are dozens of theme parks, from snow skiing to a whole world built of chocolate. Let yourself go along with them through Santa Clauss’ Village at the Dreamland Wax Museum, Mundo a Vapor, or at the amazing scale models of Mini Mundo.   

If you have the time, go visit Nova Petrópolis, a city originally formed by German pioneers and where German is still spoken at home, and children learn the language of their ancestors at school. Be sure to try a good apfelstrudel, an Austrian dessert made with apples, and also make a toast to the local beers. 

From the grape to the wine

Next stop is Vale dos Vinhedos. In summer, Bento Gonçalves, Garibaldi, and Pinto Bandeira get in the mood for Vindima, an Italian celebration of the harvest that features the stomping of the grapes to extract their juice the same way immigrants used to do – nowadays wineries choose the industrial method.

In many of them it’s possible to watch each step of the transformation of the grapes into wine, be it red, white, sparkling, or brandy, which is made from the distilled wine and is similar to cognac – like the champagne, it is a product with a denomination of origin. At Casa Valduga, the experience takes you through the aromas of the oak barrels where the brew is aged and the dark cellars where they are stored in bottles, in a process that can take years. 

After wine tasting is complete, it is highly possible that compliments will be made to the Brazilian wine. “People criticize demijohn wine, but it was the basis for all the history that began to be built in the region,” says Amanda Reschke, Casa Valduga’s oenologist ambassador, who as of today has 60% of production focused on sparkling wines such as the rosé Maria Valduga, which takes 60 months of autolysis in cellars. It is in part thanks to sparkling wines that the Gaucho Highlands have been earning international recognition. With the Garibaldi Prosecco, for instance, the Garibaldi Vineyard was awarded a gold medal on Challenge International Du Vin in France, in 2021. 

At Miolo and Aurora vineyards, two of the country’s biggest vineyards, tradition reaches an industrial scale and gives you a lesson on different types of grapes, such as the Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Malbec. At Peterlongo, founded in 1915 and the only one in Brazil authorized to call themselves “champagne”, a timeline composed of old machinery tells the story of its tech evolution. At Don Giovanni, it is a good suggestion to taste the Dona Bita sparkling wine, which ages for at least 70 months, then check in at the winery’s inn, overlooking the vineyards. 

Do you want to understand how storage and time could affect the quality of a wine? At the Pizzato Vineyard, which is known as the house of Merlot, the experience is complete when you take home the so-called “vertical kit” containing bottles of the same label but from a different harvest and years.  

Tour tips

Sculpture Park Silent Stones

Sandstone sculpted characters that recreate the history of Germanic immigration in Nova Petrópolis. There are over 80 sculptures made by local artists in an open-sky garden surrounded by native vegetation.

Ervateira Marcon

Get to know the artisanal process of making mate tea, the raw material for a good “chimarrão”. Try the drink and also taste the candied sweets produced by the herbalist located in Linha Bonita, in Gramado.

Epopeia Italiana Show

In Bento Gonçalves, get to know the real story of Lázaro and Rosa, immigrants who endured countless hardships until they reached Brazil. Throughout the show, you will be guided by one of the characters through nine scenes.

Casa Sander

Learn about the farming of fruit such as strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries, which are then turned into delicious jams in a rural property in Nova Petrópolis. You can stay in the chalets and, in summer, pick fresh fruit from the tree. 

Cervejaria Edelbrau

Test your senses by getting to know the textures, aromas, and flavors of the various styles of beverage produced in Nova Petrópolis. During Edelbrau Experience (Experiência Edelbrau) it is possible to have a taste of five different labels.  

Do you want to visit Serra Gaúcha? Purchase your flight tickets on Azul’s website or book a complete experience (tickets + hotel + tours) at Azul Viagens.