Rowing the rivers of São Paulo

Onofre Sabino has hand-washed cars from the same street corner for over twenty years. He begins each day by collecting fresh water from the source of the river Saracura, conveniently located a stone's throw from his perch, before engineering a rudimentary filtering system made up of five plastic buckets connected by a single hose.

In each pot collect the sediments from the Saracura - sand, pebbles and leaves - until, eventually, the water is pure enough to be doused over the delicate steel and aluminium shells of customers' automobiles. He charges R$5 (US$1.26) per vehicle. He works alone. He does not advertise.

Onofre Sabino

Yet this is no ordinary location for a fresh Atlantic-rainforest-water carwash. Mr. Sabino's sleepy forecourt, consisting of a sun-bleached red plastic chair stolen from the local boteco (diner) and emblazoned with the ubiquitous branding of local beer brand ‘Brahma', lies just two blocks walk away from bustling Avenida Paulista - São Paulo’s equivalent of New York’s Fifth Avenue - and hidden in the shadow of the luxury Maksoud Plaza Hotel, a brutal 1970s edifice more famous for Axel Rose’s furniture throwing antics than for a bubbling natural fountain of sweet water.

Rio Sararuca

But, amongst the towering skyscrapers and gridlocked streets, the river Saracura proper is conspicuous only in its absence. In fact, it is buried in concrete canals deep underneath this swollen metropolis of over 20 million souls.

Hidden in a vacant lot behind where Onofre’s weathered hands ply their trade, it is only the presence of handsome taioba plants, once a spinach-flavoured staple of the Brazilian diet and a species that only flourishes near water, that belies the hidden presence of a river.

The scattered explosions of verdant green flora through the concrete pavements and shimmering tarmac surrounding the carwash start to make sense. Nature, it seems, is still determined to make its presence felt. 


Unknown to most is that São Paulo’s most famous avenue, by virtue of its position along the city’s highest ridge, is the cradle of almost all of the area's creeks and streams. Those that rise on the southern ‘Jardins’ slope flow towards the river Pinheiros and those on the northern 'Bela Vista' side cascade towards the river Tietê. Avenida Paulista, it turns out, is the city’s very own water faucet.

São Paulo is a city constructed upon over 300 rivers, creeks and streams and, much like London and other global cities, these were gradually canalised and buried deep underground to accommodate the rapid expansion of what would become South America’s largest city. 

Rio Tietê

Oddly, São Paulo’s main river, the Tietê, doesn’t flow towards the ocean as common logic would suggest. The steep escarpment of the Serra do Mar, which gives much of Brazil its dramatic coastline, is the source of the river and at a point only 22km from the Atlantic Ocean but 96km from São Paulo city itself. The Tietê then flows inland, crossing the northern part of the city, and continues on towards the river Paraná over a thousand kilometres away.

Rowing Rio Tietê

The river was, historically, the northern boundary of the city and became a popular bucolic destination for Paulista pleasure seekers towards the end of the 19th Century. It's waters, particularly the area around the modern day bridge of Ponte das Bandeiras, became the birthplace of various athletic societies - particularly 'rowing' clubs - during the early 20th Century.

Rio Tietê
Rowing Rio Tietê

Before, rowing competitions would take place along the Atlantic shores near the port of Santos but the difficulty in transporting the boats and athletes to the coast led to the formation of new regattas on the local rio Tietê with the first competition taking place in 1903.

Rowing Rio Tietê

These uniquely Paulista rowing clubs grew and went on to produce a variety of athletic stars - including tennis champion Maria Esther Bueno, who went on to win Wimbledon three times (1959, 1960 & 1964) and renowned open water swimmer Abilio Couto, who became the first South American to swim the English Channel in 1958.

Abilio Couto

Maria Lenk, the de facto mother of Brazilian swimming, even learnt to swim in the cool waters of the Tietê before, at the age of just 17, becoming the first South American woman to compete in an Olympics at the 1932 Los Angeles games. Maria would go on to become the first Brazilian to set a world record in swimming. 

Maria Lenk & Getulio Vargas

The river remained the northern boundary of the city until the 1920s, when, as the city boomed, the new neighbourhood of Santana sprang up on the northern bank. But urban planners and engineers began to turn their attentions towards the troublesome river.

Rowing Rio Tietê

It was a winding river system that fluctuated from a width of 60 metres during dry periods to over 1km wide during the rainy season. But it was what happened after these deluges that spelt its demise - the river never returned to its previous course and would carve an entirely new path, causing chaos for Paulistas and urban planners alike. Furthermore, the regular flooding became a major sanitation concern for the poor communities who often lived near its edges.

Flooded São Paulo

Various plans were proposed to find a solution for the uncooperative river but it was only decades later in 1940 when work actually began.

A decade earlier, two of the Tietê's tributaries had been straightened and canalised, including the daring project to entirely reverse the flow of the Pinheiros river and towards a new reservoir that would cascade down the steep Serra do Mar and through an electricity generating turbine - one of the first hydropower facilities of its kind. 

Rio Tietê
Rio Tietê

By the 1960s, the Tietê, and most of the city’s rivers, creeks & brooks, had been encased in concrete tombs never to see the light of day again.

The Tietê, reversed Pinheiros and Tamanduateí, the three main city rivers, became open sewers as the smaller systems pumped their polluted effluent into the concreted open-air drain. 

Polluted river Tietê

Swimming and water sports quickly ceased and the old 'rowing' clubs closed with only a handful soldiering on in more modern guises as land-based private members clubs. Not much has changed since then. At a handful of spots across the city, one can still hear the gargling rapids of flowing water deep below the concrete.

Back in the old Italian district of Bela Vista, Onofre Sabino stoops down to start siphoning off the clear waters of the Saracura. A dusty old Volkswagen Beetle has just pulled up - his first client of the day. 

Rowing Rio Tietê