The giant earthworm

25 04 2008

For its Spanish and Portuguese explorers, the unknown American continents were truly a “New World”. There were cities of pyramids and misty mountaintop forts, rivers that ran black and white salt pans,  canyons, vast swamps and unimaginable waterfalls, and all kinds of strange beasts from electric fish, to lizards that walk on water, to birds with hands.

But one by one, these mysteries have been revealed and explained (or destroyed). Few remain today. But one that does is the legend of the the minhocao. Named after the Portuguese word for “earthworm” – “minhoca”, the minhocao was a huge, worm-like creature that was once frequently sighted in forested areas of Brazil. Claimed to be up to 25 metres long, it would leave long,indented  tracks ( people said) , and burrow underground causing houses and roads to collapse. Occasionally the creature would spring out of the ground or the water (it favored areas with rivers) and drag livestock away to be devoured.

Then, in the late nineteenth century, the sightings just stopped. Was it a myth that had fallen out of favor? An exaggerated account of the (already huge) anaconda that lives along the rivers of the Brazilian interior? A relative of the equally dubious Mongolian Death Worm in the Gobi desert, or some kind of lung fish? Was it just a folkstory, a fairytale, or was it something that we destroyed, even before we had a chance to understand ?


An artist’s impression

Today in Sao Paulo the minhocao lives on, if only in name, in the form of a huge freeway that snakes through the city, sliding through tunnels and flying on overpasses, right through the old heart of the city’s business district.  With a characteristically playful Brazilian sense of humor, locals have dubbed it “the minhocao”.

LIke many other such developments of the 1960s, the Minhocao has come to be hated . To many, it is an eyesore, an obstruction,  a huge concrete barrier that cuts right through the city.  The development has been blamed for accelerating the decline of Sao Paulo’s historic city centre – once home to proud art deco towers and a gleaming New York-in-the-1920s-skyline. Those same towers are still there, but the district – now cut off from normal traffic – has fallen on hard times. Many buildings have been abandoned, and covered in grafitti. Huge camps of homeless nordestinos  (poor immigrants from the country’s Northeast) have sprung up under the elevated freeway, and in the tunnels. The Minhocao had become, much like its namesake, a scary, powerful and unstoppable force.

But perhaps the tide is now turning the other way . The current mayor of Sao Paulo has pulled out all stops on a restoration project to bring back the old Centro district. Policing has been stepped up, and crime (though still high) has fallen. Today, the Minhocao is closed to traffic on Sundays to become a  walkway for city residents – winding at third storey height through newly appreciated 30s apartment blocks, and under gracious nouveau towers. Peddlers sell African charms and remedies under the freeway, grafitti artists paint and spray and gay men cruise.  The minhacao has become a symbol of all that is good and bad about Sao Paulo – the lively streetlife, the charm of its early 20th century buildings left to picturesquely decay. It is dangerous, dodgy, edgy and vibrant. It has even become a tourist attraction, and a popular filming site.  The Minhocao starred in the video for CSS’ breakout tune “Lets Make Love and Listen to Death From Above”, and will appear in the upcoming and hotly-anticipated “Blindness” as the setting for a story above a civilized city that falls onto hard times and chaos.

These picture all borrowed from a very interesting blog on Sao Paulo urban life (and decay) I stumbled onto called A report on the Minhocao is  here.  Check it out!






4 responses

28 08 2011
Sao Paulo freeway flowers « ilbonito blog 2007

[…] it. The Minhocao raised expressway which carves through Central Sao Paulo turned into an urban art […]

13 06 2012
Sao Paulo: Voodoohop « ilbonito blog 2007

[…] apartment blocks and dystopian towers, which has been toying with regeneration recently. The Minhocao Freeway, which carves its way right the through the heart of the city, and is named after a […]

15 09 2012
Voodoohop’s dark rainbow magic « ilbonito blog 2007

[…] city. Its modus operandi is secret-location flash raves and art gatherings on freeways (the Minhocao) and in the slightly scary areas of the old […]

25 08 2016
The Rio Olympics | ilbonito blog 2007

[…] of the Amazonian folklore of the jungle peoples: the bumba meu boi, boto dolphin spirits, the minhacao and mula sem cabeca, as well as tributes to the literature of Machado de Assis, the Theatre of the […]

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