Pre 2011 if you asked me to tell you about Brazil I would have had the knowledge to say that it was a big South American country, home to the world famous Rio Carnival, home to the even more famous Amazon river and I would have told you that I wanted to visit there one day. But, if you asked me now to tell you about Brazil, a smile would spread across my face and I would enthusiastically tell you to pull up a chair…
To set the scene… In 2011 an amazing opportunity presented itself giving me the chance to live in Brazil. Sao Paulo was my base for approximately five months, with weekends spent exploring exciting destinations across the country. The final, and sixth month in Brazil was spent solely for travel, to explore the country in greater depth.
In Brazil my Portuguese pocket dictionary and Google Translate became my best friends, for the number of Brazilian’s I met that spoke English was very, very limited, which made the whole travel experience quite challenging. I wonder if this changed post Olympics? For a girl who had only ever been on “holidays”, I was suddenly exposed to a whole different type of travel and learnt quite quickly that things don’t always go without a hitch; from credit cards getting stopped, to taxis breaking down, to getting off a bus at midnight and being deserted, to sleeping in a car and waking up with a puncture and a couple of near death experiences thrown in for good measure. Brazil strengthened me from my core and made me want to see more of the World.
Within the state of Sao Paulo and all by coach, I visited Santos, the Island of Illhabela, Brotas, Eldorada and Ubatuba; none of which I imagine had probably seen a lot of gringos.
Brotas is an amazing little adventure town, offering rafting, rappelling, horse riding and quad biking. Reachable by bus from Sao Paulo, this is the place that on departing from the bus at midnight on the edge of the town, I was within minutes completely deserted. The short story is Brazilians are very friendly people and an hour later with no idea where my Pousada (B&B) was I walked into the hospital and attempted to ask for help. The result being I was given a lift in the back of their ambulance (very old van) to my Pousada! In Brotas I had an epic white water rafting experience with Vaca Nautica along the Rio Pepera Alligator, and although no English was spoken I soon learnt the Portuguese for right, left, front and back; apparently this was all I needed to successfully survive the mission ahead and keep the raft upright. Rafting through the jungle was a pretty awesome experience seeing toucans over head and howler monkeys swinging through the canopy. I had a second rescue experience in Brotas when on my way back from a 4-hour hike the heavens opened, I already resembled a drained rat when a rickety old pick-up truck approached from behind, unable to communicate, it was clear I was being offered a lift back to town; thankful for the offer I jumped in deciding now was not a good time to question whether this stranger was trustworthy or not!
In Eldorado I stayed in a very rustic Pousada and was treated like a member of the family. I was lucky enough to source an English-speaking translator for the few days. I was given an extensive hike through the jungle and shown some majestic waterfalls and then headed to the Parque Estadual Caverna do Diabo (The Devil’s Cave). The Devil’s Cave is a very impressive caves network in the middle of the jungle and my first experience of such extensive caves. The second day in Eldorado I went on a tour of a large banana plantation, which was a very educational experience; apart from thinking I was going to drown in the process of getting there when we had to cross a very fast flowing river in torrential rain. In my humble opinion when there is only an inch of boat sticking up between you and the surface of the rapid water there may just be one too many people in the boat!
Ubatuba is a very cool coastal location well worth visiting. It’s fair to say that Ubatuba offered a lot; from having an insightful tour of the TAMAR project (Sea turtles), to straddling the Tropic of Capricorn, having a jungle tour, to playing in waterfalls, relaxing on white sand beaches, kayaking in the ocean alongside sea turtles and having a boat trip to Ilha Anchieta where I explored an abandoned prison and took photos of very cute marmosets. I really could have spent a few more days in paradise. Ubatuba did however give me a near death experience when some rather large waves flipped me from my kayak, I genuinely thought I was going to drown, but once again the lovely Brazilians came to my rescue.
A flight south to Port Alegre and then a drive north further into the Rio Grande do Sul region introduced me to sand dunes near the coast, where I found my inner child and practised cartwheels, and then headed inland to explore the vast vine yard region. I also unexpectedly happened upon a rodeo, which gave me hours of enjoyment. I was definitely the only gringo at that party! The highlight of the Rio Grande do Sul had to be the impressive canyons of Itaimbezinho. Walking the rim of the canyon was hard work in the heat, with little shelter to shade you from the baking sun but it was a very rewarding experience. If time had allowed I would have spent longer exploring this inspiring canyon region.
Rio de Janerio was sadly a little bit of a disappointment, the rain came to play, which definitely dampened my spirit and the poor weather only allowed me a short glimpse of the famous Christ The Redeemer upon my second hike up there. Sugar Loaf Mountain didn’t disappoint though and I was surprised at just how much is up there to discover! Rio didn’t let me down on the food front and I had some of the best seafood there, so it wasn’t all an anti-climax even if I couldn’t enjoy Rio’s famous beaches as much as I had hoped!
The Iguassu Falls are amazing; please don’t rob yourself of enough time here! I urge anyone visiting to go by foot and boat on both the Argentinian and the Brazilian side and if funds allow, you really should treat yourself to a helicopter ride (available on the Brazilian side) to get the full experience. Standing looking at the devils throat is a pretty hairy experience, hold on to your hat, and be prepared to get a little wet and a tad deafened by the sheer noise of the crushing and plummeting water. Around the falls you are completely immersed in nature, surrounded by exotic birdlife, butterflies and slightly harassed by the cheeky coatis. The whole Iguassu experience is truly unforgettable, especially if you are lucky enough to be staying at the Belmond Hotel das Cataratas, which is within the grounds of the park. My photo below is my favourite shot and view of the falls and will be my lasting memory of my experience.
I took a flight to Brasilia, but before exploring the capital I headed further north to explore the Chapada dos Veadeiros National Park accessible via the town of Sao Jorge. The heat here was brutal and it was the first time I felt I was too unfit or ill prepared to cope with the conditions. Never the less I trekked the rough and rugged terrain with the small group of Brazilians, guided by the park ranger and I was rewarded with a stunning and diverse landscape of rock formations. The park is littered with waterfalls, of which a handful I was lucky enough to see and swim in. A day later back in Brasilia and what a stark contrast; concrete, concrete and more concrete, a city built specifically for the purpose to have a more central capital city, which looked even more bleak against a grey sky and rain. The city, to my surprise is a World Heritage site due to its contemporary architecture and unique creative urban design. The distinctive Brasilia Cathedral was the only subject I liked here, somewhat unusual and strangely attractive on the exterior but exceptionally stunning on the interior with the imaginative stain glass window design.
The Pantanal was probably my favourite place for it had an abundance of wildlife and hardly any people. But getting here was not easy; a good few hours flight from Sao Paulo, and then a six hour coach ride where I was deposited in the middle of nowhere at nearly midnight. But after only a few minutes my ride turned up and took me into the Pantanal down a long dirt track. One hour later I reached my lodgings, The Lontra Pantanal Hotel. I spent five incredible days in the Pantanal during the dry season and apart from the brutal heat I could have stayed here for ages. I trekked on foot on the dried up wetlands and I saw marsh deer and wild pigs, I witnessed gauchos rounding up their cattle, when on horseback I followed a flock of blue macaw, an absolutely stunning sight and one I doubt I’ll ever see again in the wild. The bird life in the Pantanal was something else, I saw toucans, I saw rheas, parakeets by the dozen, Egrets and Ibis, Kingfishers, Hawks, Kestrels, Vultures and the proud Southern-crested Caracara. Most of all I enjoyed seeing the long legged Jabiru bird normally found searching for fish with their long beaks amongst the Caimans’ in the now small, remaining dried up areas of water. By small boat I explored the Paraguay River, there are a scary number of caiman inhabiting the river and surrounding areas, but supposedly they are no threat to mankind, some of my group even swam in the river, but I wasn’t so brave and stayed in the boat harvesting mangos along the edge of the river. Capybaras, the world’s largest rodent, are everywhere you look, in the river and on the banks. On one boat trip I was lucky enough to see giant otters. Daily I would see howler monkeys hanging out high up in the canopy and on another day I stood on the riverbank fishing for piranha (our dinner), whilst surrounded by caiman whom were inching ever closer. Sadly, I never saw the elusive jaguar, hopefully one day I will return and be lucky enough to see one.
Manaus is the gateway to the Amazon, and what was once a very rich city during the rubber trade era is now a pretty poor city. The only resemblance of wealth is the attractive Opera House with its stunning tiled roof. Apart from that Manaus (in 2011) was not a place you wanted to stay in for long, it was incredibly hot and dirty, the stench of pollution in the streets was so strong I found myself retching in the gutters more than once. To access the Amazon I left the port in Manaus by boat, crossing the huge mass of water where the almost black Rio Negro meets the light brown coloured Amazon River, you’re allowed a quick photo moment here to experience this amazing act of nature. Once across the other side of the river it’s a bit of a balancing act to disembark from the boat along wooden planks and reach dry land. There is a serious hive of activity here of native people in brightly coloured clothes, a small market area and even a few shops; my last chance to get supplies. There was a number of old VW vans ready to take the tourists deeper into the Amazon. After an hour’s ride along dirt roads you are back down by the river boarding a small wooden boat big enough for about six people but it does have a small engine. Over an hour later I reached Lake Juma the area I would be staying. My time in the Amazon was amazing, but I didn’t see anywhere near as much wildlife as I saw in the Pantanal. The pink nosed dolphins playing in the water at sunset was something special, and is a memory that will last a lifetime. A boat trip at night in search of caiman was a scary and exciting experience when your torch caught the eyes of one lurking near by, by day the caiman where much more mysterious than their cousins down in the Pantanal, as were the piranahas who didn’t want to take the bait. Visiting the small communities that live within the Amazon was an insightful experience, especially when visiting a small subsistence farming family who live of the land. On Christmas Eve I camped out in the jungle, cocooned in my hammock, hoping the fire stayed alight to keep the predators away. I think a mix of apprehension and excitement prevented me from sleeping that night, not to mention the deafening sound of the mighty jungle itself.
After jungle life in the Amazon I was looking forward to exploring the north of Brazil. I had just over a week and after flying into Fortaleza my plan was to head to Teresina to see Parque de Sete Cidades, then up to the coast to Parnaiba, Alazao, Mandacaru, Cabure, NP Lencois Maranhenes and finish with a few relaxing days in Jericaocaora. Armed with a map and a car, but no accommodation booked, I set off on my last adventure. Northern Brazil is very arid and in some ways very third world, it appeared that not many tourists had ventured here, hotels were hard to find except in Jericaocaora and the distances between destinations were vast. One night was spent sleeping in the car after giving up on finding somewhere to spend the night, when I did find a hotel the next day I stole a few hours sleep in the afternoon before continuing my journey. The drives where fascinating, heading through desert scrubland, past rustic villages where washing was done in the rivers and children played naked in the streets. In one hotel I woke up the next morning to see dozens of fat mosquitos lining the walls, I shuddered knowing that I had been eaten alive and had a frenzied attack on them! Apologies to any one who stayed in the room afterwards…. blood splats everywhere!!! Driving late one night, the car in front of me veered across the road in an uncontrollable manner, it was only then did I see its headlights bouncing off some stray cattle that were lazily crossing the road, quick reactions saved me from a nasty accident.
These experiences aside, the north showered me with exciting mangrove swamp boat rides and lazy days on sand dunes. Lencois Maranhenes, even in the dry season was a fabulous experience. Lencois is a vast area of sand dunes and seasonal rainwater lagoons. When I visited, there was still one lagoon full of water where I was able to swim and laze around in the sun.
Jericaocaora wasn’t the easiest place to reach, and to start with I was told I wouldn’t be able to access it in my normal car, the reason for this being that there is no road to Jeri. Jeri is built purely on sand and you have to journey across 45mins of sand and dunes to get there. But with the help of a guide who let some air out of my tyres and navigated the way, I eventually reached this little spot of paradise. Backpackers heaven and surfers retreat, I finally found where the cool place to hang out was. With a choice of great pousadas to choose from to suit all budgets, and fantastic restaurants to dine in, (The Blue Mosquito being my favourite) Jeri was the perfect spot to chill out. On the long stretch of beach you could see the fishermen’s catch when they drag in their colourful wooden boats, watch with awe at the skilled surfers and smile at the donkeys who wander freely up the beach and into the bars. Walk along the beach to the Pedra Furada, an attractive arch shaped rock formation that juts out into the ocean and head back inland past the cacti and grazing goats. At sunset I followed the crowd, and gathered upon Sunset Dune to watch the sun sink into the ocean. The perfect ending to every day in Jeri. The one lesson I did quite harshly learn in Jeri, was not to go wandering about without shoes or at least flip flops on, for the sand may be cool at 8am, but an hour or two later it will be so hot you can’t walk barefoot on it and you’ll be jumping back to your pousada in any shadow you can possibly find!
Would I return to Brazil? In a heartbeat! You could give me another 6 months in Brazil and it probably still wouldn’t be enough time to explore this magical country. I’d head back in the wet season and start with the Pantanal and Lencois Maranhenes to see them in a very different light, I’d be armed with especially strong mosquito repellent and an extra zoom lens for my camera, I’d seek out the best freshly squeezed orange juice and pineapple juice and order a plate of pao de queijo’s. At the end of my 6 months I would head to Fernando de Noronha, although if I reached that paradise I don’t think I’d ever want to leave.