Overripe star fruits and guavas stuck to the soles of my boots in a sweet, fermenting mess as I strolled out of the sleepy town of Peabiru. I had travelled to Brazil’s Paraná state, not too far from the Paraguay border, in search of the remains of the Caminho de Peabiru – a 4,000km network of pathways connecting the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans, made over millennia by South America’s indigenous people.
The Caminho de Peabiru was a spiritual path for native Guarani people in search of a mythological paradise. It also became a route to riches for European invaders looking to access the interior of the continent. However, most of the original paths have disappeared, consumed by nature or transformed over the centuries into highways. It’s only in the past few years that this intriguing route has begun to reveal its mysteries to a wider public, thanks to a growing network of new tourist trails.
It’s easy to understand why the cross-continental trail is so quick to capture people’s imaginations, and that’s due to the story of the first European known to have walked its length: Portuguese sailor Aleixo Garcia. Shipwrecked in 1516 on the shores of southern Brazil after a failed Spanish mission to navigate the River Plate, Garcia and half a dozen other sailors were taken in by the amenable Guaranis. Eight years later, after hearing Guarani tales of a path that led all the way to an empire in the mountains rich in gold and silver, Garcia travelled with 2,000 Guarani warriors all the way to the Andes, nearly 3,000km away. According to Brazilian researcher Rosana Bond in her e-book The Saga of Aleixo Garcia, he became the first European known to have visited the Incan empire, in 1524, nearly a decade before the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro who is widely believed to have made that “discovery”.
While it connected to the highly engineered and widely visited Incan and Pre-Incan road network across the Andes, the Caminho de Peabiru itself has few visible remains. This lack of physical evidence has not only led to diverging theories in academic circles about who created it and when, but also wild speculation about it being created by Vikings or Sumerians – or even Thomas the Apostle on an evangelising mission from India.