Category Archives: Brazil

Tour do Brasil, Parte 2

When all was said and done I spent 4 full months living and traveling in Brazil, covering the country as far south as Florianópolis, as far north as Jericoacoara, as far east as Fernando de Naronha, and as far west as the heart of the Amazon.  I’ve probably seen more of Brazil than 99% of Brazilians!

The final stretch of my “tour do Brasil” included Canoa Quebrada, Fortaleza, Jericoacoara, Manaus, and the Amazon jungle.  As with the last post, in the interest of time I’ll only devote a couple of paragraphs to each even though they all deserve much more. Since the Amazon jungle was a bit more exotic than the rest I’ll give it special treatment.

Canoa Quebrada

This dry and windy beach town in the northeast of the country was a fisherman village turned hippie commune turned tourist mecca.  One can still see traces of each stage of the town’s history.  It’s a popular spot for backpackers due to its relative remoteness and inexpensive prices, though of all the Brazilian beach towns that I’ve seen (and that’s a lot) it was not one of my favorites.  Though certainly picturesque, Canoa has a barren feel in sharp contrast to its more green and lush neighbors.

That said, I don’t regret the 3 days that we spent there and managed to get in a couple of kitesurfing lessons which alone made the trip worthwhile.

Fishing boats on the beach in Canoa Quebrada

Hippie reggae bar on the beach

Fortaleza

Fortaleza is the capital of the state of Ceará and the 5th largest city in Brazil.  Though it has some decent beaches, I found it rather seedy and generic compared to other spots in the Brazilian northeast.  It was a good reminder never to vacation in beach towns with direct international flights!  Though obviously popular amongst package tourists, Fortaleza doesn’t serve much purpose for backpackers other than as a jumping-off point for other spots up and down the northeast coast.

Jericoacoara

“Jeri” as it’s known locally is a backpacker haven, and rightly so.  It’s one of those rare and special places with just the right mix of natural beauty, smart development, and vibe.  To arrive in Jeri you must endure a 7 hour trek from Fortaleza via bus and 4 x 4, which fortunately keeps out the masses.  There are no paved roads to the town nor within it, only sand ones.  The main form of transport around town is Havaianas.

Jeri is located within a protected national park, surrounded by beautiful sand dunes populated mostly by cows, sheep, and donkeys.  By law, every plot of land must remain 40% undeveloped and no buildings may be more than 2 stories high.  Although rustic, Jeri is very clean, comfortable and inexpensive.  With strong, consistent wind and flat freshwater lagoons, it also offers some of the best kitesurfing in all of Brazil so was essentially heaven for us.  Even after 9 days there it was tough to leave.

Kitesurfing in a freshwater lagoon

After a kitesurfing lesson

Nightly capoeira demonstration on the beach

Manaus and the Amazon

Although it was painful to pull myself away from Brazil’s beaches,  I couldn’t leave the country without first seeing the Amazon. There are few places on Earth that conjure more vivid imagery of remoteness, wildlife, and danger.

Like most who visit the Amazon basin I flew into Manaus, a major city located in the heart of the jungle.  It’s hard to imagine given its location, but Manaus is a well-developed metropolis with a population of over 2M.  It’s an industrial town and not particularly beautiful, but still worth spending a couple of days in.  There is a zoo and opera house to visit, but I found the most interesting things about Manaus to be the subtle quirks that characterize an Amazonian city, like how all the fish served in restaurants comes straight from the river and the distances to neighboring towns are described in kilometers up or downstream.

In Manaus, I booked a 4-day stay at a jungle lodge located about 100km south of the city and accessible only by boat.  The digs were extremely basic but the overall experience was unforgettable.  There we spotted tarantulas, sloths, monkeys, and pink river dolphins, hunted and ate piranhas, and caught cayman barehanded.  In the jungle, our guides showed us how to find and eat grubs right out of palm nuts (delicious… they taste like coconut) and pointed out bullet ants, so poisonous that a single bite feels like getting shot by a bullet and multiple bites can kill.  Despite its many poisonous ants, spiders and snakes, the most dangerous bugs in the jungle are actually the mosquitos, or more specifically the dengue fever and malaria that they carry.  I practically bathed myself in DEET.

The ruggedness and danger of the Amazon jungle is justified by its beauty.  Watching the sunset over the glassy smooth river is breathtaking, and there are more colorful exotic birds and plants than have been named by scientists.

I also enjoyed chatting with our native guides, many of whom have lived their entire lives in the jungle.  One of them grew up in a tiny village deep in the jungle, living off manioc root, fruits, and monkey meat. He didn’t see a real city until he was 17, and said he’ll never go back because motor exhaust makes him nauseated.  Another spent 5 years in the Brazilian army, patrolling the border with Colombia to keep paramilitaries out of Brazil.  He explained to me how to prepare acaí berries and hunt jaguars at night, and which jungle animals have the tastiest meat. These guys are the real deal.

Deep into a flooded jungle forest via canoe

Sunset on an Amazon tributary

Leaving the jungle lodge with a guide

I’m writing this post from sophisticated Buenos Aires, Argentina, in a modern high-rise apartment that couldn’t feel farther away from the Amazon basin.  Here the locals prefer beef to piranha meat.  I already feel homesick for Brazil but simultaneously look forward to meeting Argentina and her neighbors in the coming months.  Hasta la próxima…

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Tour do Brasil, Parte 1

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.

São Paulo

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.

São Paulo skyline

Parati

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.

Charter boat and captain in Parati

Small island close to Parati

Ilha Grande

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.

Main pier in Ilha Grande

Me on Lopes Mendes beach

Salvador

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.

Bahian woman selling acarajé in the street

Men dancing capoeira

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.

Segunda Praia in Morro de São Paulo

Capoeira on the beach in Morro

Natal

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.

Our dune buggy in Natal

Some acrobatics atop a Natal sand dune

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.

One of Pipa's beautiful beaches

Gearing up for an ill-fated kitesurfing lesson

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.

 

The Dois Irmãos (Two Brothers) rocks for which Naronha is famous

Me on a cliff overlooking Cacimba do Padre

Ben relaxing in 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…

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Florianópolis

One of the oddest effects of extended travel is how it alters your perspective of time.  In my life back home in the States, a day was a long period of time.  A lot happened in a day… 8 hours of work, 3 scheduled meals, 1 workout, and perhaps a couple of hours of socializing with friends.  At the end of the day, I was exhausted.

Now a day is nothing.  A day could be spent just moving from one location to another, just talking with friends on the beach, or just riding a motorcycle around an island.  A lot can be accomplished in a week, but not in a day.

My new perspective of time was epitomized by the 5 weeks I spent living in the Brazilian paradise known as Florianópolis, or “Floripa” as the locals call it.  Those 5 weeks flew by in a flash, and all I have to show for it is a tan, a couple hundred photos, great memories, and dozens of new friends from Brazil and abroad.  It may not sound like much to you, but to me it’s a bounty.

Floripa is general considered the most livable place in all of Brazil.  It has abundant natural beauty, 42 beaches (including some of the best surfing beaches in the country), low crime, beautiful people, delicious seafood, good weather, lively nightlife, and a perfect size of around 400,000 inhabitants.  You know a place is special when even cariocas, people from Rio, get jealous of you for living there.  Five weeks is certainly a long time to devote to one place when taking a traveling sabbatical, but if any place in the world deserves it, it’s Floripa.

Praia Mole

I was transported around this little island paradise by a 125cc black Honda motorcycle that got such good mileage that I only filled the tank every couple of weeks. We became very good friends.

My trusty steed

It didn’t take me long to figure out the best dish to order there… camarão ao óleo e alho (shrimp cooked in olive oil and garlic.) Floripa is known for its fresh shrimp and oysters, and even dive bars there serve it up to perfection.

Camarão ao óleo e alho

Floripa is known as a haven for outdoor adventure sport enthusiasts.  They have just about every warm-weather adventure sport imaginable:  hang gliding, paragliding, sand boarding, surfing, kite surfing, windsurfing, and more.  I had a few kite surfing lessons there but fortunately there are no photos to document my epic wipe outs.

Paraglider landing on the beach

And then there are the parties…  Floripa has a very distinct high season during the Brazilian summer, starting in mid-December and ending after Carnival in March, during which time the population swells 3x to around 1.2M people.  Brazilians flood in from São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais, Rio Grande do Sul, etc. and are joined by gringos from Australia, the US, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Germany, and elsewhere.  The high-end clubs make most of their profits for the year during this period and there is definitely a South Beach-like vibe.  During the week of New Years, the top clubs charge up to R$600 (around $350 USD) just to get through the door.  You can imagine the kind of cars that are parked outside.

Day party at P12 in Jurerê

After spending so long in Floripa, I got a flavor for not only what it’s like to visit, but to live there as well. I arrived in late November before the high season began and spoke with lots of locals about their lives there, so I also have a good idea what it’s like during the rest of the year.  Other than the difficulty in finding work there and a short but somewhat chilly winter, it really does seem like paradise.  Floripa is one of those special places that will always hold a piece of my heart.

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Rio de Janeiro

Greetings from Florianopolis, a charming, laid back island in the south of Brazil.  I arrived here just yesterday after spending nearly 4 weeks in Rio de Janeiro, or “a cidade maravilhosa” (“the marvelous city”) as its known here in Brazil. After living there for nearly a month, I understand how Rio earned its title.

I originally visited Rio in 2002 and have dreamed of going back ever since.  There was something about the city that captivated my imagination.  I got an itch that I knew only living there for a month or so would scratch. On this trip, my life in Rio wasn’t that of a tourist but a local. I intentionally didn’t see a single tourist attraction while I was there, unless you count Ipanema beach.  This time I didn’t want to just see the city, I wanted to feel it.

I typical day for me in Rio consisted of sleeping late, enjoying a midday acai, going for a run by the beach, eating a lunch of arroz, fejao, and picanha (rice, black beans, and steak), taking a nap, and then meeting some friends out for dinner and drinks. I made an effort to meet as many Brazilians as possible, although I often found myself spending more time with the foreigners that I met at the shared Ipanema apartment that I rented.

Me and my flatmates in Ipanema

When the wind was cooperative I’d take a kitesurfing lesson in Barra, a suburban beach neighborhood.

For those who haven’t visited Rio I’ll try to put it into words, but to paraphrase Elvis Costello, writing about a city’s vibe is like dancing about architecture.

Aesthetically, Rio is as beautiful as the people who inhabit it.  I would argue there’s no major city in the world situated in as beautiful a location.  The city is wrapped around several beaches, the most famous of which is Copacabana, a 4km crescent-shaped stretch of sand that symbolizes the city.   Behind the city lies several jagged, uninhabitable green mountains.  Because it’s so beautiful and has such scarce inhabitable land, real estate in Rio is the most expensive in South America.

Rio as seen from the corcovado

But that’s just aesthetics.  What really drew me back to Rio is the city’s vibe.  Cariocas, or Rio residents, really know how to live.  They look for any excuse to eat, drink, socialize, and have a good time.  They don’t just go to the beach, they worship it.

Cariocas on the beach

I’ve visited over 40 countries and hundred cities, and I’d have to say that cariocas are the warmest and most affectionate people I’ve ever encountered. You see it a thousand different ways, from how a total stranger will gently squeeze your hand to get your attention, to how closely cariocas stand when they talk to each other, to how every email is signed either beijos (kisses) or abraços (hugs).  Even the guy I bought an electronic accessory from on MercadoLivre, their eBay, sent me a hug.

Another charming quirk of Rio is how the city is fueled by sunshine.  Last Thursday was the first sunny day all week, so even though it was a weekday the beach was packed.  The city shuts down when it rains. People don’t even know what to do…  everyone just wanders around in a confused stupor, seriously.  But when the sun shines again the city jumps back to life.  Surfers once again carry their boards through the streets, joggers run by the beach, and sunbathers dot the sand once more (or rather, scarce spots of open sand dot the spaces between them.)

They have a free outdoor gym in Ipanema called Muscle Beach, modeled after the one in Venice Beach, California.  Although the one in California is dominated by body builders, the one in Rio is just full of regular tan Brazilians wearing just enough active wear to cover what’s legally required.  There are also several “jungle gyms for adults” up and down the beach where one can do pull-ups, push-ups, and dips.  As you can imagine, the carioca body is a fit one.

Guys practicing capoira in the street

Rio is like Los Angeles, California, in the sense that it’s all about the beach, sunshine, and living for the moment.  The carioca would much rather sit at a beachside bar drinking a suco (fresh fruit juice) or caipirinha (cocktail made with cachaça, sugar and lime) than see an opera.  It’s fair to say that they aren’t the most cultured people in the world, but cariocas are amongst the happiest.

Despite its many charms, Rio is far from a paradise.  The city is burdened with some serious social problems. The gap between rich and poor in Rio is staggering, and the latter out-number the former by a very wide margin.  Many of Rio’s lower class life in the favelas, or shanty towns, that dot the green hills overlooking Rio’s famous beaches.  Ironically, the favela dwellers enjoy the best views in the city.

In poor neighborhoods in the US, law enforcement may be stretched thin.  In the favelas, law enforcement literally doesn’t even exist.  The government offers no public services in the favelas, although this is just now starting to change.  There is no police presence save for a few corrupt cops in the pockets of the drug lords.  There are no hospitals, no mail service, no fire stations… nothing. These entire massive neighborhoods are essentially just written-off by the rest of Rio’s society, which is astonishing considering that only a few meters separate Rio’s poorest favelas from its richest neighborhoods.  The streets in the favelas don’t even show up on maps.

Google Map screenshot of Copacabana, Ipanena, and favelas (in green)

I visited a favela one afternoon with a Brazilian friend and it was an eye-opening experience.  What struck me wasn’t the poverty as much as the anarchy. A mess of poorly cables strung cables bring illegal electricity and cable TV to homes, which range from a dirt-floor-and-tin-roof-huts to comfortable two-bedroom concrete apartments.  The only restaurants are small open areas at the bottom of someone’s home with a few plastic tables and chairs.  Name brand stores don’t exist. Sixteen-year-old boys working for the drug lords ride around on old Honda motorcycles with assault rifles strapped across their backs.  Most adult men carry a handgun.  Unfortunately I don’t have any photos from the favela because I was strongly advised to leave my camera, and wallet, at home.

Without any real government, the power vacuum in the favelas is filled by the drug lords, who act as tax collector, police, judge, jury, executioner, and occasional benefactor.  There is a continual tension between the drug lords and the police, or at least those cops who aren’t paid off by them.  The tensions reached a high point toward my last week in Rio, evidenced by a wave of violence that was pretty bad even by Rio’s standards.  The media called it guerra civil, or civil war, which I think was a bit of an exaggeration.  That said, dozens of cars and buses were burnt in the street, several dozen innocents were killed, and there was a palpable sense of fear in the city.

If you talk with a carioca they will readily admit that their city has many problems, but if you ask them if they’d live anywhere else they look at you like you’re crazy.  By the way, ask a Brazilian if they know how to samba and they’ll give you a similar look… as if you’d asked them if they knew how to walk.

Rio’s charms far outweigh its problems though, and no matter where the rest of my travels take me, I know that I’ll always feel a degree of saudade, or deep longing, for a cidade maravilhosa.

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