31 days in Brazil
  • Day30

    Days 30 & 31: Rio de Janeiro

    September 12, 2018 in Brazil ⋅ ⛅ 25 °C

    The bus back to Rio gets me smoothly to the Rodoviaria and by now I am well trained for the tram to Cinelandia in the city centre and the metro from there to Botafogo. This time at the Injoy they put me in the Buenos Aires room, with fond memories of my visit there in 2016 and hopes for a return some day. A quiet night of typical armchair travelling with a Rough Guide, reading about many places in Brazil not included on this trip but on a possible future one.

    On my final morning I return to the city centre and walk into a Mass at the baroque Santa Lucia church. It's remarkable to see perhaps 50 people taking time out from their busy office for higher things. Continuing north to Praca Maua, I wander into an area vamped up for the 2016 Olympics, with warehouses converted into studios and plastered with giant murals. This street art, so popular in Latin America, never fails to fascinate me and shows how a more creative approach could fill the London streets with colour by changing the mindset from "graffiti" to "art".

    Apart from photos, my best souvenirs from a trip are musical and despite the worldwide taste for streaming, it's still possible to find a few music shops clinging on to tradition. I pick up CDs by Ceu, a singer-songwriter in her thirties who combines traditional samba sounds with elements of European pop and a modern electronic treatment. My other purchase is a traditional and mainly acoustic bossa nova work by Maria Rita, daughter of the late lamented Elis Regina who was a big star in the 1970s and worked with the great Tom Jobim. With Brazil taking up half a continent, its diverse musical styles would take months to explore.

    The girl who drove me into Rio all those nights ago takes me back . It's evening rush hour and the journey takes twice as long as the inward run. On the multi-carriageway there is vendor after vendor trying to sell the same snacks to commuters. It looks like a desperate business and shows that beneath the gloss of Ipanema there is a huge underside of hard graft.

    Mixed with the anticipation of getting back to old friends at home, there is as usual the strong regret about the closing of this trip. It's not been without its challenges but there's no doubt that the experiences have been good. The sight of the jaguar feasting on the alligator was nearly worth the cost of the whole trip. As for Brazil, it is facing testing times with a controversial election coming up and I wish its people all the best.
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  • Day28

    Days 28 & 29: Arraial do Cabo

    September 10, 2018 in Brazil ⋅ ⛅ 25 °C

    After another 5-star breakfast, Barbara kindly saves me a trip to the rodoviaria and drives me to the stop for local buses and for a princely US$7 I get a ride to the town of Cabo Frio, 70 km. eastwards. Once again I'm grateful for travelling only with a small backpack, making it easy to jump off wherever required. From Cabo Frio it's a shorter hop south to the resort town of Arraial do Cabo, passing along a causeway.

    Arraial is a superior beach town to Saquarema, so it's more Bournemouth than Blackpool. However the weather is unseasonably grey so maybe it's more Blackpool after all. Apart from the 10-foot cacti, which flourish in this usually dry microclimate. Having missed out on these in the interior, I am delighted to find here this classic vegetation normally associated with deserts.

    Nationally, Bolsonaro is slowly recovering from his assault but Lula, the man who might have been his most formidable opponent, is serving a 12-year jail sentence. It makes our Brexit neuroses seem like the Vicar's tea party.
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  • Day26

    Days 26 & 27: Saquarema

    September 8, 2018 in Brazil ⋅ ⛅ 25 °C

    In mid-morning I'm back at Rio's rodoviaria for the short 2 hour trip eastwards to Saquarema. And another RTBC: at the bus station I buy a replacement camera bag for less than a tenner, and it's arguably better than the specialist ones five times as expensive at camera shops. Saquarema is a beach resort popular with surfers and there is a lively weekend crowd. The guest house, a block away from the ocean front, is very nice. Another guest sees that I get checked in and compliments me on my Portuguese. I have to laugh.

    Brazilian food can be spectacular with giant churrascos (steaks) and feijoadas (bean stews). Here it's all burgers and pizzas but this time my local restaurant excels itself and the pizza would feed a small village.

    At the pousada, Barbara is determined to see that I don't waste away. Having had a self-service breakfast in the kitchen, I sit down to a much nicer one that she prepares with fresh bread, a multitude of cheeses, hams and jams, tropical fruit juices and fresh coffee. Not surprisingly I have an idle morning before walking into town. The weekend market is bustling and raucous with hundreds of souvenir sellers, making it a sort of tropical Blackpool. But the 18th century church, Nossa Senhora do Nazare, rises above all that on the above, simple and whitewashed in the imitable Portuguese Colonial way.

    By nightfall it's all quiet down below as well; the weekenders have left and the beach is nearly deserted.
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  • Day24

    Days 24 & 25: back to Rio

    September 6, 2018 in Brazil ⋅ ⛅ 22 °C

    It's time to leave the interior and return to the coast. I take a taxi to Rondon airport at Cuiaba and check in without fuss. There is a connection at my old stamping ground of Brasilia and from there to the "cidade maravilhosa". Santos Dumont, the domestic airport, is only 2 stops on the tram to the central stop of Cinelandia and a short Metro run from there to Botafogo. I am indoors at the Injoy an hour after sunset.

    But the national news has not been good. At the National Museum in Rio, 500 years---not counting the pre-Columbian remains---of artefacts have been totally wiped out by a fire. It's an epic tragedy and shows how money shortages can lead to the destruction of priceless collections at a stroke. Another significant event is the stabbing of Presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro and while he may not be many people's idea of the perfect leader, it's disturbing that an impostor can get so close to an important politician and potentially change the course of history.

    7th September, "o sete de setembro", celebrates Brazil's independence from Portugal in 1821 and gives its name to streets and avenues in cities all around the country. But when I ask at the Injoy where there are likely to be parades, no one seems to know. Probably most people choose to celebrate this bank holiday on Copacabana and Ipanema; being a Friday, it's a long weekend as well. On spec I take the Metro to Cinelandia and around---yes, you've guessed it---Rua Sete de Setembro---there are parades, processions and marching bands galore. A man is waving a large Brazilian flag and a few knots of families are cheering lustily but due to the stunning indifference of the general public, I find a kerb-side stand and get shooting.

    But later this is to be my downfall. City centre streets in Brazilian cities are known for being dodgy when the shops are closed at weekends and there is little footfall. Although I take care by following in the steps of a small group, my luck runs out at the Arcos de Lapa, the former aqueduct carrying the "bonde" tram up to Santa Teresa. While I am in the shadow of the arches looking for the perfect picture, two men in backwards baseball caps step out and grab the camera case slung over my left shoulder. There are people around but too far away to spot anything or to offer help. Knowing that it's useless to resist, I hand the case to them. Walking away, I realise that the camera is still hanging over my shoulder but the thieves see this too and come back for it.

    It's deeply depressing but there are RTBC. 1. I changed the memory card after leaving the parade so the record of that lies in one of my hidden pockets. 2. They also fail to locate the cash in my outside shirt pocket. 3. I have a spare camera. 4. I will be travelling lighter now. 5. Last but certainly not least, I am not injured.
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  • Day22

    Days 22 & 23: the Pantanal

    September 4, 2018 in Brazil

    I normally hate getting up early but this is a must. Our guide for the day, Domingas, is waiting at 4 a.m. in her 4 x 4 and we set off on the same round south as on Sunday. This time it's a 3 1/2 hour drive, easily passing Rio Claro and finishing at Porto Jofre, with the essential inky black coffee as the morning fix.

    This wetland is not Amazonia but part of the Parana system, which ultimately drains into the River Plate at Buenos Aires. But the land of tango feels very distant as we cruise these swampy rivers. We spot families of capybara hooting nervously to warn of the jacares which patrol these waters, only their eyes showing above their surface.

    But the king of the predators awaits in the bushes. After an hour of searching. Domingas locates a spot where jaguars are likely to roam ans sure enough, we see one lurking on the river bank. It's a thrilling sight. I'm not sure who is the more cautious, ourselves in the canoe or the big feline; anyway after 10 minutes, it jumps into the water and we follow its course as it swims briskly. The jaguar finally halts at a clump of bushes and emerges with a jacare, lying face upwards and very dead. It seems that the crocodilian has been killed earlier and none of the other local creatures has dared to deny the jaguar of its prey. Domingas, having been the first to spot this, helpfully calls over two other boat parties to witness the scene. Meanwhile the jaguar tries to haul the jacare up the bank from the water's edge but it's too much for him alone and he starts to lunch on it, before perhaps getting help from his mate. It's an unforgettable sight. The thought that anybody would want to poach them for body parts or any other reason is appalling.

    Nothing much can top this but the drive back to Pocone is enjoyable as the sun sets, leaving increasingly lengthy shadows. The termite mounds rise like hillocks amongst the browsing white cattle. Domingas (pictured above) has been an excellent guide---she has, after all, had to stay focused from 4 a.m. to 7 p.m.---and I wish her every success.

    After a final breakfast in Pocone, we board the bus back to Cuiaba. This is sadly where Doree and I are to go separate ways but I am grateful for our very enjoyable week. Cuiaba is pleasant enough but as a state capital seems undistinguished. The cracks in the pavements are more like chasms and could easily cause an accident to the unwary; there is a general shabbiness about the buildings that I wouldn't expect to find in a Spanish-speaking city of the same size (about a million). Oh well, the little restaurant across from my hotel does a bargain prato executivo (business person's dish) for about US$3 and beers at US$1 each.
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  • Day20

    Days 20 & 21: the Pantanal

    September 2, 2018 in Brazil

    Although we have a 6 o'clock start, the hotel staff kindly lay on breakfast for us. "Go to work on Brazilian coffee" was never more appropriate. And cakes, and pastries, and scrambled eggs. Our driver takes us southwards and the tarmac rapidly fades to a road of characteristic reddish earth. The heat has temporarily left us, with a misty rain and chilly breeze which perhaps is blowing down from the Andes.

    The Pantanal is an extraordinary wetland, mostly in Mato Grosso state but some of it spills over into Bolivia and Paraguay. It becomes almost a lake up to the end of March but in early September the swamps have drained and it becomes a dryland. This is the best time of year to see the wildlife, and better than Amazonia as well because there is less vegetation. The National Park covers about 1,350 sq. km. (520 sq. mi.) but is threatened by cattle ranching, commercial fishing, poaching and road kill among other things. We are glad to get there while there is still time.

    At the Pousada Rio Claro we pick up a boat for our first taste of river life. And taste there is, for the jacare (a.k.a. caiman or alligator) snapping up a dead piranha which our boatman dangles out from the gunwale. Jacares are believed to number 10 million, which makes them as populous here as humans are in Rio de Janeiro. Other abundant creatures include the jabiru stork whose distinctive red collar makes it the official emblem of the Pantanal, and the capybara, famously the world's largest rodent about the size of pigs. Unlike the jabiru but like pigs, they don't fly.

    It's worth noting that I am not the first member of my family to pass this way. My great-uncle Cyril was once in the Mato Grosso, gathering butterflies for a private collector. This practice would be frowned on now but back in 1927 it provided him with a living and much interest. At the time, the great news topic was Colonel Fawcett whose expedition had vanished just 2 years before and people clung to the hope that he would be found.

    No trace of Fawcett but we have had a satisfying day.

    The following day is a rest day which we use going to the rodoviaria for tickets for our return journey in 2 days time. As we walk there, a couple of women warn us that this is a dodgy area and kindly give us a lift there and back. We celebrate a safe return with a kilo lunch and ice creams at the Italianissima. We also get our photos taken; my Brazil-coloured shirt actually represents the SPBW (Society for Preservation of Beers from the Wood) and a suspicious bulge underneath which is my shoulder pouch (in some quarters called a "bra"). Is that a passport inside or am I just pleased to see them?

    In the evening we find that piranha is a diet not just for jacares but for people, apparently with the added bonus that it's an aphrodisiac.

    Chaste thoughts however await us back at the hotel, where the manageress encourages us "dorme com Deus" (sleep with God).
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  • Day18

    Days 18 & 19: C de G and Pocone

    August 31, 2018 in Brazil ⋅ 🌬 32 °C

    Another excursion with Guierreiro, who drives us to a different part of the national park, along a rough track to some scenic views over the landscape. Later he takes us to a waterfall which despite it being the dry season, is still in flow. It's called the Vea da Novia (bridal veil) which while not a unique name in South America, is appropriate.

    Looking ahead to the Pantanal where we are destined next, we find that the jungle lodge which had been recommended to us cost US$300 a night and was full anyway so we make other plans. The following day we take a bus to the state capital of Cuiaba and connect to the bus to Pocone, a 2 hour journey on which curiously, although my ticket is booked for seat number 4, there is no such place on the bus. Luckily the bus is far from full!

    Pocone (accent on the e, hence poc-on-AY) is a small town about the size of C de G and while not yet in the Pantanal, is the northern gateway to it. We've been told that there is a tourist office and tour guide service just opposite the rodoviaria but when we pull in, there is no sign of them or indeed of anything much. Just lots of heat and an unshaven man in a battered car who offers trips to the Pantanal, but we have no idea of his reliability and so give him a miss. I feel like the Sundance Kid when he and Butch Cassidy turn up at a godforsaken railway halt in the back country of Bolivia.

    We check into a friendly motel-style guest house south of the town centre. They don't arrange tours themselves but gives us some phone numbers and Doree negotiates two day trips in her fluent Portuguese. Let the Pantanal begin!
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  • Day16

    Days 16 & 17: Chapada dos Guimaraes

    August 29, 2018 in Brazil ⋅ ☀️ 32 °C

    The overnight bus rolls into the city of Cuiaba and I roll out on to a local bus to the town of Chapada dos Guimaraes, located near the national park of the same name. At the C de G rodoviaria I meet Doree, my American friend with whom I will be travelling for a week. She is a truly intrepid travaller and has already spent a month in various parts of Brazil, with several weeks in Mexico before that.

    After lunch at a self-service restaurant we travel back to Cuiaba for the evening to meet her friend Jota, who lives on a fazenda (ranch) outside the city. He is a fellow musician of hers and has invited us to a Vivaldi concert at the university. I am no classical music expert but enjoy the concert and so do they and hey, it's free!

    As elsewhere in up-country Brazil, the Sao Jose where we are staying, is a friendly family-run pousada with its in-house tour guide. His nom de plume is Guerreiro and although he looks big and tough, is more of a gentle giant. He drives us into the national park and the state of the dirt road, even in the dry season in late August, shows that only an experienced driver such as he in a 4 x 4 can handle this. He takes us to a mountain view distantly reminiscent of Utah but with more vegetation and just as many infuriating little flies (yes, the critters around Moab are unforgettable). The view however is an impressive taster of more to come tomorrow.

    C de G is a pleasant little town of about 15,000. It's a surprise to find that so far away from the coast (it's equidistant from the Atlantic and the Pacific and is the geodesic centre of South America), the Portuguese had colonised it in the search for gold. There is a simple but attractive Colonial church dating from the mid-1700s. And like many other Brazilian towns with a history, there is a small 21st century colony of hippies. The couple that we meet are from Chile (he) and Argentina (she) and make their living selling handmade crafts. They have been on the road for 5 (yes, five) years!
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  • Day14

    Days 14 & 15: Brasilia and the night bus

    August 27, 2018 in Brazil ⋅ 🌬 27 °C

    The 4-hour return trip to Brasilia. Originally the bearded wonder at the general store was going to sell tickets but when the bus turns up, he won't do it so the bus conductor has to sell them to the 20 or so people getting on board. Oh well, we are in Brasilia at nightfall and I get the Metro into the city centre followed by a short taxi ride. The Hotel Diplomat is low-rise and no-nonsense. It has a cheaper lower ground floor but Room 101, despite the name, is perfectly comfortable.

    The next morning, a good buffet breakfast and time to spare for the onward trip. There’s time to walk to the northern arm of the residential area. All the street addresses in Brasilia use letters for districts; while I have been staying in is SHN (Setor Hoteleiro Norte) and I am headed for the SQN (Superquadra Norte). More logical than a Moroccan medieval city---just about---and I like the 60s look. The quiet apartment blocks remind me of nothing so much as a tropical East Berlin.

    To the Rodoviaria for the final time for the 21-hour overnight journey to Cuiaba. Lots of stops in some forgettable towns and a 1- hour detour in and out of Goiania, the state capital. And the man next to me is snoring for Brazil. Roll on the Mato Grosso!
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  • Day11

    Days 11 to 13: Alto Paraiso

    August 24, 2018 in Brazil

    After a couple of nights in Brasilia, I am back at the Rodoviaria. The bus company have the last laugh by not telling me about the embarcation tax, and the security guard won't let me through the turnstile. (Turnstiles are an inevitable part of Brazilian life, like drum n bass and cockroaches). She sends me back to the ticket office to get the additional ticket. Once on the road, the 200 km. journey lasts 4 hours, including a lunch stop.

    Alto Paraiso is, to me, an unremarkable town of about 10,000 people and the starting point for tours to the Chapada de Veadeiros National Park. Not having a car, I need a tour operator and finding one is not the usual process of walking into a tour shop with a polite agent at the desk and pretty photos plastered on the walls. My guest house give me an address in the town which several local people, let alone myself, can't locate.

    I finally find a lead at one of the bigger hotels (thanks to the helpful Andreia) and Henrique arrives with a description of what access can be offered to the park. Having no idea if he is an accredited guide, I have strong doubts about this "man with a van" approach. What is also strange is that although a weekend is approaching, he offers trips for multiple customers only on weekdays, so I would be unable to share the cost with anyone else. It's only when he reappears in a fully liveried 4 x 4 and his assistant Edson, that I am convinced. It turns out this is common practice in parts of Brazil and should be an RTBC that Alto Paraiso is not yet overrun with organised tours.

    And because it's a weekend (Friday night) a car with shattering drum n base speeds past my window at 4 a.m. I wanted an early start but this is ridiculous!

    Edson takes me on a 6 km. round trip to the Vale da Luna (Valley of the Moon) with a landscape of smooth, bare rocks. The temperature climbs to 31C and he says my shoes aren't suitable for hiking but I continue regardless, grateful for his helping hand. The best part of the day is the return drive back when the late afternoon sunlight bathes the palm-studded plain in a warm glow. And he plays the Doors' "Strange Days" in his car!

    The following day I head out alone on a dirt track leading to some waterfalls. The passing vehicles clothe me in a coating of fine red dust. With it being the dry season, the cascades themselves have dried up but there is an attractive group of squirrel-sized monkeys tempted with morsels offered by another visitor.
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