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Crossing the Andes ... to the Brazilian beaches Nine months through Ecuador, Peru, Chile, bolivia, Argentina and Brazil

Brazil (the second time)

BRAZIL | Monday, 23 July 2007 | Views [1754]

And so I´m back in Brazil. The obvious place to round up the trip, with thousands of miles of beaches, good food, great parties ... you see I´ve been feeling lately I needed a holiday.

We´re travelling along the coast, South to North, just skipping the Bahia coastline I´ve already ticked off. Winter is biting at our ankles, with its incessant rains and lows of a ´muito frio´ 15 degrees, so we´re planning this part of the trip according to meteorology.


First stop, Florianopolis. To cross the island, the city runs a nausea-enducing bus service. The drivers pull into the stations like racing pits and switch passengers in relay race style. They approach speed bumps like skate park ramps and take corners on two wheels. The locals seem accustomed to this. I don`t recall seeing anyone even bat an eyelid as we passed so close to another bus that the driver had to readjust his wing mirror. Although I was unconscious. So, we try to avoid long bus journeys, walking along rugged, rocky cliffs and through forest trails to reach some of the best beaches. The island is a surfer´s paradise with colossal waves to challenge the best and calmer waters for beginners. A 12 year old kid spins 360º in the air as Etienne achieves the standing position. Climbing over boulders, we land on the nudist beach. Disappointingly, there are no naturalists, only surfers switching from wetsuit to surf short. Not so disappointing.

Ihla do Mel

Ihla do Mel is tiny in comparison and amazingly rustic. People walk everywhere (they don`t have far to go) as there are no cars or motorbikes, and it´s even difficult to get around on bike as trails are in sandy ground. We´re here off-season and it´s very quiet. We´re often the only ones wandering along beaches. Even the crabs seem surprised by our presence, scurrying away as we approach then freezing to check back on us before disappearing down their burrows. The beaches are littered with colourful shells and the delicate bones of starfish that are shaped more like spaceships than stars. Patrolling vultures hobble along the shoreline looking for fresh deliveries from the sea. They´re devouring a dolphin carcass as we approach the fort, which looks out towards the phantom battleships 400 years ago. Now the horizon is only lined with immense cargo ships like high rise cities on a distant shore.


We make a brief stop in the city of Curitiba, the self-proclaimed ´City of the Future´. There´s a so-called 24 hour street signposted from blocks away as one of the key visitor attractions. It reminds me of the Wayfarers Arts shopping arcade in Southport and is closed. The town centre resembles that of many other cities, with modern shops and restaurants surrounding central plazas and men dressed as clowns handing out balloons to crying children. There is a space age transport system which collects passengers in bubble shelters on the street and deposits them in buses that run like the tube. Only they`re punctual and efficient. It`s surprisingly pretty impressive. And as I`m contemplating a career in town planning, we stop for a cold beer in a terrace cafe on an old cobbled street lined with lanterns that cloak everything in an orange glow. Ah, the past, why the need for such change?


Ihlabela is an island for yachting enthusiasts. Rich Paulistas come with their oversized SUVs to stay in summer houses or upmarket pousadas and station themselves on a beach where they sit and drink cocktails all day long. We show up with our backpacks and wander about looking for a cheap place to sleep, feeling a bit like we`re trespassing in someone else`s playground. We´re adopted by a big black mongrel who follows us along the different beaches, chasing and bringing back baby coconuts like he´s been our pet for 10 years. We stop for açai, a sorbet style fruit from the amazon served with banana and granola, and soak up some sun while the waiter waits for us to do a runner. We pay up and move on, leaving the dog with people who are chewing on freshly grilled meat. We see him the next day riding the ferry back and forth. And so concludes the story of the dog that chose chicken.

The Emerald coast

We arrive in Ubatuba late in the evening. The dingy streets are empty save for a few unsavoury looking characters drinking Skol on the benches around the squares. The bus driver has dropped us off a good few blocks from the centre and with the shutters all down it`s difficult to tell whether this is Quiksilver surfexlusive or Poundland. We find a cheap Chinese hotel and overdose on MSG before crashing out for the night. The daylight transforms the place: shopping streets are bustling and we discover we´re just one block from the beach. And the coastline is stunning, spotted with lush green islands and stretches of beautiful sandy beaches emerging from the Atlantic rainforest. Following local the directions, we scale down a cliff and wade through a river to reach the beach. Bemused tourists who´ve walked an hour from the road try to calculate our path and steal our inside knowledge. Until I´m almost washed out to sea. The following day we take the bus a little further around the coast and are rowed across a saltwater lake to reach the beach. We find ourselves alone with the ocean, like Madonna and Adriano Giannini. We play in the waves but the current is pretty strong and I almost lose my bikini. Not that there`s anyone here to glimpse my Brazilian. Oh yes, I had depilacão before the beach and got more than I bargained for. Or less really. But it was a work of art, best viewed with a mirror of course, which she handed me afterwards.

We take a local bus to our next destination, passing churches on the highway built like factories for the mass processing of catholicism and giant billboards educating about Dengue fever. We arrive in Paraty, a really cute, well preserved colonial town. Our visit coincides with the Divino festival. It´s not a great coincidence - there is usually a festival of some sort going on in Brazil. As if they need an excuse to party. The streets are decorated with colour and there is music and dancing every night. With caiparinha. Or caipiroska. Or caipifruta. During the days our hangover cure is usually out at sea. We kayak around small islands close to shore and relax on a boat tour manned by the biggest seafaring bossanova musician in town. Biggie we salute you! Then the rains start. And don´t stop. For days. And days. We shelter with the mosquitos in the hostel and watch storms unfolding out at sea. Then make a break for it.

The local buses in Brazil have a turnstyle system to prevent fare dodging. You alight at the back (or sometimes front), pay your R$2 to the conductor and pass through to the front of the bus. It´s much like getting on a ride at the fairground - kids ride free if they´re small enough to squeeze under the turnstyle. Lifting over a backpack that is half your body mass is no small feat. Sometimes a sympathetic driver will let you on at the front - where you leave your bag, get off the bus and realight at the back to pass through the turnstyles. Conductors can´t just take the money and turn the turnstyle. Rules are rules. Our bus to the port of Angra dos Reis is packed with school kids. It seems a long time since I was last on a school bus (it is) and it brings back some memories of when the girls were bigger and tougher than the boys and my most pressing decision was which boy to to elevate to number one position in the weekly Top 10. Me and number 1 squeeze into a plastic seat with our bags and watch the kids snatching each others hats and pretending to throw bags out of the window.

At Angra we buy corn on the cob drenched in salty water and dripping butter and board a ferry boat to Isla Grande. It´s another of Brazil´s beautiful islands - beaches, waterfalls and forests were we disturb a group of marmoset monkeys. (They also show up at the beach later. I suspect we were followed). We take a yacht around the island (private charter if you don´t count the 8 other tourists) to snorkel in some of the best spots. It´s almost idyllic. Bar the freezing water and the 30-odd snorkel clad school kids on field research for marine biology.

Rio de Janeiro

We find ourselves a little gem of a hostel on the internet - cheap (for Rio), brand new with sauna and indoor pool and available for our two-week stay. We arrive at reception of Crab hostel, passing through the electronic ID entry system and electric fencing, and provide all our personal details. They take copies of our passports and photograph us for their records (Welcome to US immigration control). We pay for the first night then take a quick guided tour - the tiny square pool, a kitchen where we´re not allowed to use the freezer or oven, and our bedroom which since partitioning has space for only one bed. And then the breakfast ... we move out the next day an find ourselves an apartment in the heart of Ipanema.
Ipanema, the land of vegetarian restaurants, sushi bars and upmarket churrascarias, where ladies dress for the gym or the catwalk and walk with designer pooches dressed in coats and booties. We walk along the beach and pass into Copacobana. The beaches are almost indistinguishable but the centre is a real contrast, built up and polluted with pavements lined with hawkers and traffic bumper to bumper along the streets. We stick to the beach and watch the fitness junkies playing volleyball, football, footvolley etc. This is a city where the body beautiful comes as standard (with some work).
Not to be outdone, I get in touch with my inner goddess at Blyss yoga school and Etienne attends the gayest Brazilian Jiu Jitsu club in Rio. I don`t think he planned it. In a sport where an official wrestling postion involves having another man´s groin in your face - ´the north / south position´ - the signs are perhaps not immdiately obvious. Yes darling, your hair is a lovely shade of brown, and the way the florescent tubing catches your eyes ... In the evening we check out the nightlife in the trendy bars of Leblon, the studenty street bars in Gavea (where we´re almost struck by a falling tree during strong winds) and the grungy Lapa which has a feel of Hackney about it. We dance samba and drink cachaça and dance samba and drink cachaça and dance samba and fall asleep in big leather armchairs. Rock and Roll.
We take a couple of days out of the city to visit the clean and beautiful beaches of Arraial do Cabo. Etienne learns to dive. I do nothing. It´s lovely. Back on tourist duty, we take a sky tram into the arty district of Santa Teresa, a cable car up sugar loaf mountain and a train to the top of Corcovado to see Christ the Redeemer and his amazing panoramic view of the city. We stroll around the botanic gardens spotting monkeys in the atlantic rainforest that encroaches on the city all around.
We also visit Rocinha, Rio´s biggest favela, as part of an organised tour. My expectation is poor people living in shanty towns with few if any basic amenities and limited contact with the bigger city. I hop on the back of a motorbike taxi and hold down my skirt as he zooms up the hillside to one of the highest points in the whole city. As we begin the tour, a man passes us wearing a silver machine gun across his chest, his hand resting on it inconsequentially. He´s the favela´s answer to police control (the real police stay out of the area, although are always stationed at the boundary). Apparently it is completely safe for us to be here as they´re simply maintaining order and watching out for ´trespassers´. Although many other people also carry guns, and it´s not clear what their role is. We start at a gallery of graffiti art from where we can look across the rooftops of residents to the city boundaries below. The houses are solid concrete, cubes of colour and as homeowners can sell their roofspace, people simply build upwards without any though to structural damage. The highest, unstable vertical streets are often lost in landslides. The people who live here generally work in tourism in the city; in hotels, restaurants and bars. Although the kids have bigger aspirations: girls dream omarrying a rich man or becoming a top model, an pose for tourist photos like they´re adding to a portfoli; boys dream or being famous footballers or drugdealers, inspired by the 24 year old multimillionaire drugdealer who presides over Rocinha. As we weave down through the houses it becomes dirtier with the rubbish from the prime real estate being washed downstream to those less fortunate. Oh, and it ultimately ends up in the cities beaches. No swimming here then.


In Brazil, the budget airlines tend to be cheaper than buses for long distances, so to save a couple of days of wasted lives we fly north to Recife. It´s an old city that famously comes alive for carnival, the streets packed with movement and colour. The rains are coming down heavy now so we tick off the principal attractions as quick as possible, wading through puddles in our flipflops under the shelter of an oversized umbrella. Decaying churches and once white walls of buildings past their glory years, where no sooner has the rain fallen on the hot streets than the damp is rising again as a black mould that tarnishes the paint and eats away at the brick underneath. We stop at the old fort and play with guns (unloaded) and coax mannequins in historical costumes back to life.
We´re sleeping in Olinda down the road. It is a picturesque version of the bigger city - a colonial movie set with artist studios and old churches two-a-penny, opening onto the undulating cobbled streets. Raphael arrives from Paris to hang out with the savages for a week; my overgrown curly hair and Etienne´s 5-day shadow. We take him to lunch to fuel up and work through the jetlag. For yesterday's Brazilian valentines day, we dined in one of the best restaurants - a delicious lobster in coconut sauce served in a large pupkin. Today it´s back to budget - friend fish, rice and feijão. Hafa is obviously delighted. But then, he´s not come for the food, he´s here for ...

Fernando do Noronha

A tiny island so far out from the Brazilian coast that we fly into a different time zone. It is one of the most beautiful places in the world. The beaches are so immaculate it's hard to believe a human being has ever laid foot here. The sand is golden and the sea is a clear, bright turquoise-blue. We hire a buggy and spend every day driving across the green, barren island to discover a different beach, largely deserted thanks to the restrictions on visitor numbers and the variety of options of places to visit. The snorkelling is amazing. Crystal clear bays are filled with reefs and visited by dragon fish, barracuda, rays and hundreds of other species. At the shipwreck near the port I watch a turtle bend her neck to allow fish to clean her skin, then rise to the surface to take a breath before disappearing into the depths. It´s equally busy with life around the underwater trails where we dive. We have a close encounter with a shark. Then giant spotted rays. And every hole seems to be filled with crabs or eels or lobsters. Back on the surface the sun is scorching hot and the sand is too hot to just lie around and tan. Life can be so tough.

Porto de Gallinas

We fly back into Recife and head to the resort town of Porto de Gallinas. Despite the fowl name, it's a nice little town with boutique shopping and good restaurants. We wander miles along the beach and out onto the sand bar that juts into the ocean, then swim to the tide pools that form in rocks just off the shore to snorkel with the stripey fish. Tourist feed bread to the blur of grey and yellow swirling in the water around them. We have no bread. The fish nibble me.


Next stop, Natal, reached in a bus filled with exhaust fumes. A defective AC system which the driver refused to turn off as it's too warm outside. We drive for 5 hours into the cold night with scarves over our mouths. When we arrive we blow the black soot from our noses and take a taxi to Ponta Negra. The driver is drunk. We drive down the highway at about 30km/h listening to his tour of the local attractions - a shop, a big house, the sea - and then arrive to find the hostel is full. Instead we have to stay in a hotel room with a seaview and a balcony overlooking the pool, cable television and all-you-can-eat breakfasts for the same price. And did I mention there's a Jacuzzi on the roof? We spend a lot of time in the hotel.
A buggy tour of the northcoast gives us access to the beaches and national park. The driver flies over dunes, eliciting hysterical shrieking from the up until now mute girl behind me. It's like being figurines in a remote control car, with hug expanses of sand all around us. For more thrills, we throw ourselves off a dune and zipline into a freshwater lake. As many of the Brazilian population don't know how to swim, rafts pluck people out of the water and take them back to dry land. We swim around happy in the knowledge that we're probably the only ones peeing in the water.

Sao Luis

It is the Sao Joao (bumba mei boi) festival in Sao Luis. Every night there are street shows of samba and other traditional dance, with dancers dressed in short skirts and feathers. Or in sequined cowboy costumes. And then there's the cow theme. And the drag queens ... really just another Brazilian festival.
From here we travel to Barrenhenses and the Lencois maranhenses national park. It is one of the most stunning sights I have ever seen. Neverending lines of white sandy dunes, with rainwater lakes filling the dips between them. The water is perfect for swimming in and drinking from - bright blue or green and spectacularly clear. We take a speedboat to the beach and imagine we're still amongst the dunes.


We fly into Belem at the mouth of the Amazon, where it gushes its brown waters into the Atlantic Ocean. It's a bustling city built up around the port. Boats arrive with tons of fish destined for sale at local markets, or to be transported onwards to other parts of the country (many of the fish I've never heard of so I guess it doesn't make it much further). Other boats leave the port full of live cattle or cargos of onions, garlic and carrots.
And then there are the passenger boats. We take one to the Island of Marajo, where water buffalo outnumber people - although there are still sufficient numbers to compete in the XIII Annual Quadrilha Festival (hundreds of costumed children dressed in a complicatedly choreographed line dance). We visit a local fazenda and follow a trail, walking through the forests with anteaters, monkeys and beautiful birds passing us by, then along the tidal rivers filled with fish that swim partly out of the water like frogs, in a tree hollowed out to form a canoe. The trail takes us to a beach where confused palm trees rise out of the sand, watched by others at the borders of the forest sitting high on their stilt roots awaiting the tide to come in and splash their toes.
Another day, another boat. We book ourselves a tiny cabin with bunkbeds and AC, opting not to sleep in a hammock for 3 nights tied up hip-to-hip with hundreds of other people. The AC breaks down. To begin with it's like being in a meat cooler. The workers on the boat can't alter the temperature so it gets switched off. An airtight container, with no air. A bottle of water leaks on the top bunk so we spend the night sharing the bottom bunk with the door open, dreaming of being in a hammock.
For the next two days, we sit on top deck and watch the banks of the amazon river pass by. Wide stretches where it's difficult to make out the banks, almost like being at sea, to narrow channels where we pass close to the small wooden houses built on stilts in small clearings. People row out to us in wooden canoes, collecting charity parcels thrown from the boat or tying themselves on for a free ride down the river. After meals, the scraps are thrown overboard and we watch them disappear in a splash, devoured by quick fish. Dolphins play around the boat, presumably devouring the not quick enough fish. And just as we feel we might go a little crazy, we arrive in Santarem.
Just out of the bigger city, the town of Alter do Chão is surrounded by jungle on three sides and the sandy beaches of the Rio Tapajos on the fourth (a tributary of the Amazon). Pink blossoms carpet the tiny plaza and parrots fly overhead. With a local guy and his wheelchair-bound friend, we hire some kayaks and go out into the flooded forest. It's incredibly beautiful although difficult to manoevre around huge spider webs hanging from the branches and fallen trees blocking the 'marked' trail. We make a stop at the manatee breeding area and one rises to the surface and lets me stroke his nose. Oh my god, he is just gorgeous. Manatees are my new favourite thing.
The next day we go with Ronaldinho (it's all about the teeth) and his tiny motorboat further down the river to a tiny village where we meet the local people. We're the only tourists and a little boy starts to cry when he sees us. The president take us for a walk through the jungle, guiding us through medicinal plants and pointing out nests of bees, wasps and ants we should avoid. To be honest, most of it was lost in the translation. Oh, that's right, there was no translation. I think I caught a few words about snakes and hospitals, then stopped trying to understand. We share a fish dinner with a family of 20 then start our river trip back in the dark. The sun goes down early here and by 6pm the only light is from the moon and the stars. And from our torch which I make the mistake of shining into the water at the bank and attracting candiru fish (also known as the deadly parasitic orifice fish).
We take a flight into the heart of the Amazon and the town of Manaus, so built up that it's hard to imagine this was once dense jungle. We spend 4 days at a lodge further down the river from where we fish for piranha, catch (and release) baby aligators and boa constrictors, watch the dolphins pass by, canoe through the flooded forest, walk through the jungle, swim in the river... the usual jungle stuff. We visit local people and I try my hand at rubber production, extracting liquid from the trees and sculpting it using wooden moulds and hot stream. I make a condom with the help of a little girl. It's thick, like the finger of a rubber glove. She adds more rubber until it's about the same thickness as the rubber boots. Which I guess explains why people have so many babies. We try out local delicacies like the firefly larvae, which apparently tastes like coconut, and the minty branches of one of the trees, which can be smoked only once the liquid is removed so not to leave lesions on the lips. It's amazing how people have learnt to use the forest, to live in harmony with it and respect the delicate balance, and sad to know that due to logging for timber and cattle and soya production, the jungle is being lost at an alarming rate. I take one last deep breath and fly out of the lungs of the world to begin my journey home.

Tags: On the Road


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