The dusty interior of the northeast is known as the Sertao, or backlands. The Bahian Sertao is immense: an area considerably larger than any European country and comprising about a third of the total land area of the northeast.
Much of it is semi-desert, 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 that extends over most of the state of Goias and parts of Minas Gerais. It is often hit by droughts which sometimes last for years and it makes it impossible to farm crops. In the Sertao the economy is based around cattle ranching which was established to feed the workers on the giant sugar plantations.
Life in the Sertao is often characterized as bleak and sometimes brutal with much poverty and farming relying on old fashioned manual methods. Although cattle ranching have become an important industry, this is still one of the poorest parts of the northeast. It's hard for the people of the Sertao to avoid starvation and extreme poverty, and the people are tough and adept to survival. But this is still Brazil, where festivals and celebrations are a way of life and given the importance of cattle, it's hardly surprising that they have their own festival.
Not all of the Sertao is desert. Winding through it, like an enormous snake, is the Rio São Francisco, sprawling 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 3 centuries, and Canudos, site of a mini civil war 100 years ago, and a good place to get a feel for Sertao life. By far the most popular route into the Sertao, though, is westwards, where you'll pass the old mining town of Lencois, gateway to the breathtaking natural wonders of the Chapada Diamantina; one of Brazil's best and most accessible trekking areas.