As a traveler, every now and then you encounter a place that has special meaning to you. A place that feels like home even though it isn’t. For me, Brazil is that place.
My love for Brazil began 8 years ago, when I spent several weeks visiting an American friend who was working in Rio de Janeiro. Though Rio is a beautiful city by any standard, it wasn’t just the city’s natural beauty that captured me – it was the people. After visiting close to 40 countries and hundreds of cities in my life, I’ve concluded that natural beauty is common. What really makes a place special is the people and culture that inhabit it. What makes Brazil special is the warmth, beauty, friendliness, openness, and rhythm of the Brazilians.
There are many different ways to travel. One can travel near or far, in luxury or on a budget, by foot or by car, bus, boat, or plane, alone or with a companion, as a spectator or as a participant. Over the past 6 months I’ve tasted them all, but I wanted to reserve for Brazil the most intimate form of travel. The kind where you may stay in one city for several weeks, where you learn the language, make local friends, and immerse yourself in the culture.
I’ve been in Brazil now for over 3 months – about a month in Rio, another in Florianópolis, and now a month working my way up the northeast coast. I’ve learned enough Portuguese to carry an extended adult conversation, albeit with the vocabulary of a 5 year old. I’ve come to appreciate the subtleties of the language and culture, from their fantastic way of saying “It’s not my thing” (Não é minha praia or literally “It’s not my beach”) to the differences in culture and accent between people from the states of Santa Catarina, Rio Grande do Sul, São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Bahia, Rio Grande do Norte, and Ceará.
When traveling, one has to balance to the desire to see lots of places with that of really getting to know that places that you see. I won’t be able to dive as deeply into other countries as I have Brazil, but I think I picked the right country to dive into.
My first two months here were spent getting to know just two cities, and the next two months will have been spent knowing the rest of the country. Over the past few weeks I’ve been in “rapid fire mode” changing locations every few days. In the interest of brevity I can only devote a couple of paragraphs to each location, although they all deserve much more.
From Florianópolis I left hopped on a bus with two friends to São Paulo, the economic capital of the country. São Paulo is a massive city of almost 30M people, the largest in the entire southern hemisphere. Despite its size the city offers rather little to tourists other than its famed restaurants and nightlife (both of which deserve their fine reputation.) Aesthetically it’s a concrete jungle as far as the eye can see, though surrounded by beautiful green mountains.
Talking with locals, São Paulo seems to be a better city to live in than visit – as long as you have money and preferably a helicopter. Its major downsides are high costs and obscene traffic jams. It’s a very modern and well-developed city though, with a cosmopolitan culture and sophistication rivaling New York.
From São Paulo I went with my ad hoc travel group of three Brits, two French, and one Brazilian to Parati, a colonial beach town located about halfway between Rio and São Paulo. Parati is known mostly for its pretty beaches and charming colonial old town.
The highlight of our 3 days there was a boat trip to Parati’s tiny neighboring islands. They were beautiful and isolated, and it was fun putting around in a floating shack operated by the day-lighting night watchman of our hotel.
Not far from Parati lies Ilha Grande, literally “big island” although for all its supposed size there are no paved roads, no ATM’s, and for the 3 days we were there, no telephone or Internet. The island is dirty and rustic, but that’s part of its charm.
The best thing on Ilha Grande is a beach called Lopes Mendes. To arrive there you can either hike 2 hours through the jungle or take a 20-minute ferry ride – we correctly chose the former. I’ve seen a lot of beaches in my day and Lopes Mendes is one of the finest. It has been rated one of the top 10 in all of Brazil.
From the big island we returned to Rio, my second home, for just a few days to regroup (haircut, shopping, laundry, electronic repairs, etc.) From Rio I flew with my friend and travel companion Ben to Salvador, capital of the state of Bahia, which is a world apart from southern Brazil where I’d spent the previous two months. It has a slow pace of life and heavy African influence, marked by spicy and delicious food, the ever-present sound of drum beats, capoeira in the streets, and the dark complexion of its residents.
The best things to do in Salvador are roam around the colonial center and taste the local specialties like moqueca de camarão (a stew made with shrimp, onion, garlic, peppers, coconut milk, dende oil and lots of spices) and acarajé (a sandwich-like food make with dende-fried white beans, dried shrimp paste, onions, and a fish-flavored sauce.) We wanted to take capoeira lessons but unfortunately time didn’t allow it.
Morro de Sao Paulo
About 2 hours from Salvador by boat lays a touristy island called Morro de Sao Paulo. Morro is somewhat like Ilha Grande in its lack of paved roads, but I found it to be cleaner and more charming. The local culture in Morro is similar to Salvador, though even slower and more laid-back if you can imagine. Instead of performing capoeira in the streets, they do it on the beach.
In Morro we were surprised to hear more Spanish spoken than Portuguese, as we inadvertently arrived on the island during a holiday weekend for Argentineans. This actually presented a bit of culture shock. I didn’t realize how accustomed I had become to Brazilians until I was surrounded by 95% Argentineans.
After a few days in Morro we caught a flight from Salvador to Natal, farther up the coast in the state of Rio Grande do Norte. Natal is the capital of its state, but still a beach town through and through. Tourists flock to its high-rise hotels and condominiums year-round, especially those dotting the white sands and turquoise water of Ponta Negra beach. It’s also a popular jumping off point for the smaller beach towns to its north and south.
Natal is famous for its massive sand dunes. The highlight of our three days there was an all-day dune buggy ride to explore them along, with the beaches to Natal’s north. Our guidebook said that your buggy driver will offer a ride com emocão (with excitement) or sem emocão (without excitement.) Our driver never asked but clearly chose the former. Fortunately he was a pro with over 30 years experience driving the dunes. The scenery was as breathtaking as the ride and our cameras were snapping non-stop.
Praia da Pipa
The best way to know where to travel next is to listen to the locals, and just about every Brazilian that we met said that we have to visit Praia da Pipa, a small beach town about an hour from Natal. They were right. Pipa has the best of all worlds – postcard-perfect beaches, good nightlife, laid-back vibe, good restaurants, and just the right level of development (paved roads but no high-rise buildings.) In terms of total package, it’s probably my favorite spot in Brazil thus far.
We stayed in Pipa for a full week, which is a lot for this mode of travel. Both the best and worst day of it was when we took a 20-minute dune buggy ride to Barra da Cunhau for a kitesurfing lesson. Barra was a perfect spot for kitesurfing, a shallow saltwater lagoon with good wind and flat water. However, about halfway into my lesson I injured my right foot badly, ending the lesson early and giving me a limp for next several days.
Fernando de Naronha
After a brief stopover in Natal to extend my visa, we flew to a ridiculously gorgeous volcanic island called Fernando de Naronha, about 350 kilometers off the northeast coast of Brazil. Noronha is so beautiful that it’s difficult to put into words. It was easily the most visually stunning island that I’ve seen in my life, and I’ve seen a lot.
The island is touted as an eco-destination and its natureza is protected carefully by the Brazilian government. No more than 460 visitors are allowed there at a time, and each pays a substantial daily “nature preservation” tax for the privilege. It’s also expensive to fly there and once you arrive everything costs 50-100% more than on the mainland, but if you can afford a few days in Naronha it’s not to be missed.
The highlights for us were 1) a scuba dive around the tiny uninhabited islands surrounding Naronha, and 2) a self-guided bicycle tour to some of its many beaches. Choosing your favorite beach in Naronha is like choosing your favorite supermodel, but I give a special nod to Baia do Sancho and Baia dos Porcos.
Well dear readers, that should catch you up on things to date. Right now I’m on an over air-conditioned bus to yet another beach town, this one called Canoa Quebrada in the state of Cerará, a couple hours south of Fortaleza. It came highly recommended by several Brazilans that I’ve met for its sand dunes, kitesurfing and nightlife, so we’ll see what it’s got. Until next time, beijos e abraços para tudos…