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Published: March 2nd 2009
Slowly Does It
The sloth we eventually spotted in the Parque Da Ciencias in Manaus
It is very fitting that in a country obsessed with soccer our adventure in Brasil is a story of two halfs, and, if we may say so ourselves, a game well played.
To kick off we actually have to take you back in time to before our Paraguay trip (see previous blog) when we crossed the border from nothern Uruguay into Brasil (here it is spelt with an S not a Z). With both of us being from island countries we still find it a strange thrill to simply stroll across a road and officially be in another country. For people living in these towns every day is filled with important international shopping decisions such as, which of my available countries has the cheapest petrol today, or where can I gamble or buy a cheap TV without paying any tax?
We had gone this way as we wanted to see a bit of less-visited southern Brasil as an alternative to the tourist heavy sites of Foz do Iguacu and Rio. Our route took us through Porto Alegre and on to the very wealthy and european looking city of Curitiba where we spent a day
Capibarra And Friend
As seen on our Pantanal trip
meandering about agreeing that it was all very pretty and nice but actually a complete waste of time and money. In hindsight we should have travelled northwest out of Uruguay and up through northern Argentina directly to Foz. Instead we spent hundreds of dollars doing two sides of a triangle on buses that are even more expensive than in Argentina... arrrrrrrrrrrrrrgh!!
One small highlight from Curitiba was the discovery of a free zoo right in the middle of the town that had cages full of giant snakes (a preview for the Amazon perhaps?), lots of monkeys and one of Tracey´s favourites, a wonderful and very energetic Pelican.
Has Anyone Got A Waterproof Barrel?
We arrived in Foz do Iguacu full of excitement for the days ahead. The previous week had been pretty dull so it was fantastic to be near one of the World's greatest waterfalls and the surrounding national park.
Iguacu Falls is an attraction shared by Brasil and Argentina. Somewhere in the middle of 275 waterfalls crashing 80 metres into the Iguacu River is the international boundry. We decided against crossing this aquatic border, favouring instead the life-preserving road route into
La Garganta Del Diabolo
Staring down the throat of the beast
Argentina to see the falls from the other side. Both countries offer this as a premier attraction so there is plenty of debate as to which side is best. The Brasil side is further from the main body of the falls, giving you a much grander overall view. The Argentinean side has hundreds of metres of walkways built over the river, upsteam from the falls, and you can walk right up to the edge of the biggest fall of all, the famous "Devils Throat". We visited both sides, once again popping in and out of countries at will, and although both offer different and incredible views we think Argentina´s side was better overall.
In the Argentinean park it is possible to spend the whole day exploring nature trails, swim near the base of some smaller falls and take a cute little railway journey around the park. We did all of these things, spotting plenty of wildlife including a metre long Monitor Lizard that had clearly got up on the wrong side of the nest and decided to attack Dave, who was creeping close to take a picture. Luckily a yellow bellied Couch is quicker than a mildly aggressive lizard
Moments before it lunged at Dave
and both sides agreed to flick tongues, move on and forget the whole nasty incident.
Is it sad and worth noting that although Brasil proudly promotes the size of its national park this is because in this state alone there is now only 3%!o(MISSING)f native forest remaining. All the rest, in an area the size of a small country has been cut down and turned into cities or farmland. This is a recurring theme across all of Brasil - a greedy disregard for their natural resources. Some Brazillian friends we made were surprised to hear that the issue of deforestation of the Amazon and other areas was actually an international issue at all. Their country makes so much money from legal and illegal clearing that it is not something the Government makes much of a fuss about.
Officially Nowhere In The World
After seeing the falls from the Argentinean side we needed to pass back through Brasil to enter Paraguay. As Dave is running short of space in his passport he didn´t fancy getting stamped back into Brasil in order to simply pass through it for a few hours. Locals of both countries
Foz Do Iguacu
The waterfalls from the Brazilian side
don´t need a passport to cross the border so local buses only stop at immigration if you pull the chord. Deciding it was a bit too risky to not stop at all we instead paused at immigration, explained we didn´t want to get stamped back into their country and promised we would be good and head straight to Paraguay. ¨Fair enough...¨they said, or something similiar in Portuguese "... as long as you don´t stop at our other border post near Paraguay or you´ll get in trouble¨. It´s times like this you have to love South America. We can hardly see an offical at Heathrow letting someone pass through the country for a few hours as long as they promise to sneak past the other official at Gatwick! Marvellous. The funny thing is, after promising to get straight onto a bus they then watched us pick up our bags and walk off in the distance. Perhaps it was to hot to care.
So after a few hours of officially being "nowhere in the World" we entered Paraguay...hence the previous blog. HALF TIME
Is That An Anaconda In Your Trousers?
Mineral Water At Its Source
The birth of the Sucuri River
full of tasty Paraguayan chipa we arrived back in Brasil at the tiny western town of Bonito. What Bonito lacks in size it makes up for with unique natural attractions: rappelling, caving, horse riding and more. We had come to enjoy the best attraction on offer, a snorkel trip down fish and snake laden crystal clear rivers. Bonito is lucky enough to have a number of pure spring-fed rivers originating on the properties of landowners. Most of these properties are covered in thick native forest and it is only by complete accident that these treasure troves were discovered. Now in a brilliant piece of environmental management that puts the rest of Brasil to shame, they are using their rivers very carefully to offer these snorkelling experiences. As an example of this management, you can not get into the river if you are wearing sunscreen or insect repellent as both substances will damage the ecosystem. If only the Amazon region cared half as much.
We choose a river whose name means Anaconda (we would wouldn´t we!) and after a short jeep ride and a nature walk through the jungle we settled in to two hours of floating bliss. The water
Beautiful river water
was incredible. We entered at the source and it is no exageration to say it was as clear underwater as above. We could certainly see about 60 metres without problem. Immediately surrounding us were tropical fish of all shapes and colours and as we lay on our tummies and gently floated down the river it was an experience you could only replacate if you combined the world´s biggest aquarium with a warm isolation tank. Forgetting the fish for a while (and almost forgetting the anacondas that might be lurking in the dark bits) Dave was in such a state of zen that he was floating with his eyes shut...until he crashed into a low tree and almost soiled his wetsuit. At various points it was quite nice to flip onto your back and float past, watching all the birds in the dense native forest above.
Not done with fishy water adventures we spent the next day at a nearby community park and river where there were almost as many fish. This time we had fun with "extreme Fish Feeding". Dave got into the water and Tracey threw in bread crumbs all around him. This sparked a freeding frenzy all
Fish in the Sucuri River in Bonito
around him. He says it was a strange feeling but thinks it might work as the next super expensive massage treatment to go on offer in posh London salons. These fish were so keen for food that we were able to make them jump fully out of the water by sticking a piece of carrot on a stick and waving it above them.
Our day was wrapped up perfectly by our first distant sighting of a toucan. Luckily for us, this glimpse of one of nature's strangest looking birds was not to be our last.
We Can´t See The Woods For The Mosquitoes
Next up we decided to take a 2 night, 3 day trip into the Pantanal. This vast natural paradise is one of Brasil´s major ecological attractions and offers huge amounts of wildlife found nowhere else in Brasil. (Not that hard when they keep chopping all the bloody forests down, grrrrrrrrrrrrr). During the wet season (now) the Pantanal floods, making it easier to find the animals who group together on small patches of remaining dry land. So when we arrived we expected to find the place underwater.
Pantanal Boat Trip
ANimal spotting from the water
poor eastern Brasil which was getting hammered by floods, the Pantanal was in drought and the only animal that everybody was guaranteed to see was a mosquito. When we arrived some tourists who had been there a day or two had over a hundred bites on their bodies. No repellent from anywhere in the world made any difference, these suckers were huge and immunne to everything. On the first day David didn´t take off his t-shirt once and he still got 20 bites on his back. They even bit through jeans!
We had booked the camping option which actually turned out to be sleeping in a hammock in a shared open-air room with 50 others. This room had mosquito netting on the walls but every time the door opened the little blighters flew in and feasted until they burst. Luckily we discovered there was an actual camping option so ended up sleeping in two single tents. This made us masters of our own mossie controlling environment and we both got through two nights with hardly a bite. Unlike during the day. The down side of being in a tent was that it was 45 degrees celsius and when you
They jump to catch the fish you throw them
opened the tent door it was like taking the biscuits out of the oven.
Who Blinks First?
For the next few days the schedule of events went: early morning activity, lunch, lie still and hide from the sun all afternoon and then early evening activity. We went on a boat trip through piranha and caiman (a large member of the alligator species) infested waters and saw mostly birds and bush. At all times we were being watched by partially submerged caiman eyes and even though our guide assured us they would not attack humans, everyone in our floating bathtub was a bit nervy. To have a bit of fun our guide had brought some raw meat which he used to fish for piranha, which in turn he used to fish for Caiman. The idea here was almost identical to our patented "Couchies carrot-baiting fish game". The guide dangled the piranha on a string about two feet above the water and the caiman lunged out to grab it. Our guide was doing his best to tease the caimans who were circling our bucket in increasing numbers, enabling us to go eyeball to eyeball. By now our
Face For Radio
Piranha, ready and gnashing
imaginations were expecting the hungry and pissed-off caimans to start leaping into the boat but thankfully this did not happen and we can both still report a full set of digits.
The highlight of this trip was seeing loads of capibarra which look like gerbils but are the size of a golden retriver! We think they are the world´s largest rodent, but feel free to correct us on that one. We watched a mum and three little ones swimming across the river and with all those caiman about we were braced for a survival of the quickest baby slaughter but everybody got to the other side safely.
Tracey Swims With The Flesh Eaters
The next day it was back out on the river with fishing rods and meat. This morning's objective was to catch enough piranha for dinner. We got out at a nice shady spot on the river side that unfortunately the mosquitoes also knew about, received a quick few instructions and then set to it. There were so many piranha in the water that the moment the meat touched the water there would be a brief but agressive tug on the
line and the meat would be gone. The trick to catching them was to have the meat in exactly the right place on the hook and to pull your line just as they started to eat. This is easier said than done. Add in the fact that we were once again surrounded by caiman who would try to eat the fish off your hook and this was adventure fishing at its best.
Once you had caught a piranha you had to be very careful not to touch it or swing it into the face or body of your buddy as these suckers came out still fighting. Our guides did the tricky killing and unhooking bit. In total the 8 of us caught about 30 fish which wasn´t a bad haul. The caimans probably stole 3 and perhaps 5 or so managed to wrestle off the hook and escape. With this kind of fishing it is no great claim to say "they were biting" as that bit is guaranteed!
With the bait all gone and the mosquites at their fiercest the guides asked if we fancied going for a swim. "Sure" we all said, expecting to get back in
Swimming with the Pirhana and Caiman
Tracey takes a dip where we have just been fishing and feeding the crocs!
the boat and navigate through the piranha and caiman infested waters we had just been pillaging. "Well jump in then" came the reply.
You could probably hear our collective gulps from space.
"What are you waiting for?" said another guide as he lept into the water...and much to our relief...lived. And so it was that Tracey found herself in one of those sitation that you never expect will happen in your life and that make the occasional shitty bits of long term travel more than worth it. As she and four other brave souls happily kicked about amongst the various flesh eaters it proved that what our guides had told us earlier was true. If you are totally free of blood or wounds the piranha will not touch you, but scrape your leg on the bottom and open up a little wound and you will be mincemeat. As for the caiman, it seems they couldn´t quite muster up the energy to take on this giggling blonde beast.
That evening we took a long nature walk where we saw loads more toucans including a different, more rare type with a multi coloured beak and managed to avoid being
The mighty beast and his horse
charged at by an overly territorial bull. We then returned for our piranha feast. They were ok. There is not much meat per fish so it is a lot of bone avoiding effort for not much reward.
Hi Ho Silver
For our final Pantanal act we went horse riding. This was wicked. The guides have an agreement with the stables that the horses will only walk. However, as soon as we got far enough away the option was there to really let loose. Well, we say the option was there but these horses are so used to doing this every day that if one horse goes they all go, whether you like it or not. For people not used to horses this was pretty scary but we were loving it.
Not wanting to just go with the flow both of us decided to show our horse who was boss. Bit by bit we gained control of our steeds, stopping them from changing pace without instruction and making them go around in a circle when they were being stroppy or bad. By the end of the ride we were probably 70%!i(MISSING)n control which was great
as we were able to let the group get ahead and then gallop at full tilt to catch up. Obviously everyone´s horses were a little hot and sweaty at this point so we had to walk them very slowly back to the stables to keep up the subdefuge. Afterwards we were allowed to take the saddle and bridle off, give them a quick wash and then a feed. All in all this was a great few hours and we are both really keen to do some more riding somewhere else in South America.
One Of The World´s Greatest Cities
Satisfied but itchy we traded a real jungle for an urban one as we took an all night bus back across the country to Sao Paulo and on to Rio de Janeiro. For the record, Rio is stunning. Because it is sandwiched between forest covered mountains and white sand beaches the city is actually long and thin and spread out along an endless series of bays. Each world famous bay (Copacabana, Ipanema) has its own proud community and it is almost impossibly beautiful for such a big city. Dotted around the city are small forest covered
People flying in to Rio get an amazing view of the whole city
hills, massive parks, lakes, botanical gardens and more. And of course, standing tall above them all is the enormous statue of Christ. We can see why he is so important to the people of Rio. Religious beliefs aside, Cristo (as he is called locally) is also a landmark you can see from everywhere. At least twice a day we would look to Cristo and the direction he was facing in order to work out where we were.
Our amazing Inca Trail group that had already produced Mabel, our Argentinean friend, had also led to an invitation to stay with Eduardo in Rio. Eduardo was a student and as is the custom in Brasil you live at home until you are married. The culture of flatting with your friends does not really exist unless you have to go away to univeristy. We were a bit nervous about staying with his folks but we need not have been as they couldn't have been more accommodating. All three of their children had lived and studied in various places around the world and they in return had a history of taking in various exchange students, friends of their children and, it seems, the
odd stray and tenuously linked travel friend. David realised how relaxed they were when Paulo (the Dad) asked him casually how long we wanted to stay and didn´t seem that fazed when David joked "Until Christmas".
So with our own bedroom and bathroom in a beautiful house in a wealthy part of Rio we were well set up to explore the sights. For our first act we used some local knowledge from Eduardo (Du Du) to avoid paying for the cable car and instead walk up to the summit of Sugar Loaf Mountain. Along with Cristo the two cable cars that connect the two hills of Sugar Loaf are probably Rio´s other most iconic sight. Our walking trail took us through monkey-filled atlantic rain forest which was far better than taking the cable car and when we emerged hot and sweaty at the top we were rewarded with a stunning view and a cool breeze to enjoy with our sandwiches. A great sight for us, and the passengers, were planes flying in low around Cristo, hanging a tight left past our view point and landing next to the beach at Rio City Airport. If there is a more beautiful
Bola Preta Costumes
Black spots was the theme...we improvised at short notice!
approach path anywhere in the world we will be surprised.
Black And White and Partying All Over
Unfortunately we had a few days of rain which we used to our advantage to organise some travel stuff and shop for fancy dress. All of Rio was gearing up for Carnival, the World´s biggest annual party and although it was more than a week to the offical start the whole city was warming up with various themed street parties. We went to a central city street party (called a Bloco) with a black and white theme. It was interesting, with some people in fancy dress and some great Samba music. Like London´s Notting Hill Carnival we find the best part about these things is always the peripheral food, drink and local oddities that hang about. In this case we very impressed to see that as the party (and us) walked and danced through the streets all the vendors had their delights on wheels so we were never far from bbq meat, sweet cakes or an ice cold beer.
The Frat Pack
As well as catching up with Eduardo we had
More Vodka Gustavo?
We think this look suits you buddy!
also made arrangements to visit another Inca Trail friend Gustavo. As he lives in a reasonably unattractive industrial city he organised for us to meet him in his former university town of Sao Joao del Rei, 6 hours from Rio. While at uni Gustavo had been a member of the Santa Casa fraternity and now, as a graduate, he was a member for life.
This is the first time either of us had encountered anything like this outside of an 1980´s American teen movie. Picture 10 guys living together in a big house doing their best to combine study with one great big non-stop party. Getting the revision notes and getting girls to come to the house were events of almost equal importance and the 5 enormous beer fridges were constantly being re-supplied, sometimes by truck!
As one of the more succesful graduates Gustavo is now more like a fun uncle who still drinks and parties but also encourages them to study and to do well. Since the frat began in 1993 only 10 people had graduated (their pictures are on the wall) so the odds are a bit against them. One of the guys in the house
Outside Respublica Santa Casa
The frat boys, post vodka game, still sporting fake moustaches
was into his 9th year of a 5 year degree.
Having said all that, the house had some strangely unexpected order to the chaos. There was clearly a hierarchy from the president of the house down to the freshman, who as tradition dictates, had to have his hair shaved into a cross during his first year and do all the menial tasks. The guys pay for a lady to come 6 days a week to clean up, do the laundy and cook them lunch. Every day they would all eat together and the meal was started with a prayer and quiet reflection.
Despite staying with students we hardly spent a cent in the days we were there as the guys repeatedly refused money for beer and food. The best room in the house had been made available for us and loads of ice cold beer and bbq just kept on coming! Some of the guys spoke English and over the course of three days we had a lot of fun as well as seeing yet another side of Brazillian life.
To try to slightly repay their generosity and in the spirit of the house, we bought a
huge bottle of vodka and orchestrated a drinking game that they all had to play. This game was complimented by everyone wearing false moustaches we had brought from Rio. These were of no significance at all to the game but everyone found it halarious to see each other in various styled moustaches. After the game it became quickly apparent that not many spirits are drunk in the house, only beer, as various members were either disappearing for a siesta or looking a little woozy. All in all it was a roaring success and we definitely earned some ´cred for bringing a little more anarchy to the Casa.
On the second day we also visited the really lovely little colonial town of Tiradentes which was full of restored colonial buildings and cobbled streets and has a working steam train. Gustavo told us that this town is often used when filming Brazillian period dramas as the whole town is subject to a heritage order. Really kindly Gustavo treated us to a huge meal of the local speciality, a kind of chicken in a pot meal called Frango Com Quioba.
Solace In The Shade
Rio we finally made it up the hill to Cristo which at 710 metres high really gave us an amazing view. We briefly contemplated walking up to the top of the hill but the day was a scorcher and the little train up the hill was far to enticing. The blurb about the statue said that the challenge was to create something that large that also looked serene. They succeeded. Given we were wilting from the heat we took refuge in the big mn's shadow to eat our packed lunch and enjoy watching people take funny perspective photos so it looked like they are holding Christ in their hands or licking him in the ear. This staute was actually blessed by Pope John Paul II when he visited Rio so it has extra ompf over your bog standard Jesus-on-a-hill that many other South American cities have.
Everything You Could Want Without Leaving Your Lump
On our last full day in Rio we finally made it to the beach. After a 9 km walk to Ipanema we settled in for some quality beach time. Although the sand and surf is nice, the real attraction of the beach
Icy Drinks To Hand On The Beach
Dave tries an iced tea with lemon. Very Tasty
is people watching. Aside from the fat white gringos sleeping off their hangovers, the men are all buffed and in little speedos and the girls are in the smallest bikinis possible. In Brasil the bum is king so the bikini bottom is little more than a string of floss held up by a tiny rope belt.
For every 10 people on the beach (and there were thousands) there is at least 1 vendor selling something from the basic pre-made sandwich to guys who carry a fold up BBQ and cook fresh prawns right in front of you. You can also get clothes, hats, shoes, jewellery, ice tea, beer, cocktails, drugs, toys, surfboards and just about every type of snack you wish for. We went for freshly BBQ´d cheese and ice tea with lemon which was served freezing cold out of two metal barrels strapped to a vendor's chest. In one barrel is tea and in the other, lemon, so you can order it mixed to your liking. Tracey was VERY happy about this, especially as we had both dug ourselves excellent sand chairs and we were able to enjoy all of this and barely lift a finger. It may
Don't knock it until you've tried it!
not always be like this but we found the vendors here much more polite than in places like Greece or Turkey. Here, if you said no they simply walked right by without any hassle.
That night Du Du took us to a local samba club. Like us, you might have a picture in your head of a samba club being in a dark and smokey nightclub with a stage and a dancefloor. Oh no, this club met every week in a vacant multi-story car park. There went our perceptions right out the window. The musicans were either sitting around a trestle table playing, or up on a small stage while all around them people were either talking, dancing or both. Temporary beer stalls and BBQ´s were keeping the crowd fed and watered and it was a really relaxed and friendly environment. This was yet another slice of every day real life that we might not otherwise have experienced if we stayed on our own in a hostel.
A Note About the Favelas
We can not leave Rio without mentioning the Favelas. These are the slum neighbourhoods that are dotted around Rio, usually in
The view from the beautiful house in a lovely area where we were staying. The Favelas are everywhere
with shacks or concrete boxes stacked on top of each other on the hillsides. Most of the Favelas are controlled by drug lords who pay the police to stay away. In some of the worst favelas the police never enter and during the day people from the favelas go to the city and the beaches to commit many of the robberies and crimes.
The strange thing about Rio is that these favelas sit alongside the poshest neighbourhoods. To get from one place to another you sometimes have to pass right by one or two favelas. Much like the residents of Jo´Berg in South Africa, the people of Rio are simply used to living with an acceptable level of risk and it is normal to not stop at red lights at night time, never take anything valuable to the beach and to get in the habit of carrying a big wad of small bills seperate to your main wallet in order to hand over when you are mugged.
An interesting thing is, and we are using local opinion here, the police and the army could completely remove the drug gangs and their armies from the favelas if they wanted,
Our airport bed
but the drug industry and the money it generates for Brasil is ENORMOUS and there are thousands of police and government officials making a tasty living from all these pay offs. Although the Govt of Brasil makes some effort to show they want to end the drug trade, in reality the contribution it makes to the ecomony is without measure, so while the cash is flowing freely it will probably never change.
Deep In The Amazon Jungle
From the glitz and glamour of Rio we made our final stop in Brasil in the seedy Amazon city of Manaus. Apparently this place was once known as "The Paris of the tropics" which is either a serious insult to Paris or a writer suffering from an ocular spider bite. We flew in at 3am and decided to sleep in the airport until the buses started running. This is the less glamorous side of travel, huddled together on a concrete floor with just our sleeping bags as padding and our packpacks as cushions. As it was, the airport was quite empty and we got a few hours of exhausted sleep before grabbing a big coffee and a bus
Encuentro Das Aguas
The Rio Negro meets the Rio Solimoes to become the mighty Amazon
As a city Manus serves two purposes. For locals who work up and down the river (in either legal or illegal industries) it is the major point for shopping, partying, prostitues and river traffic. For tourists it is the starting point for trips into the Amazon or for heading overland to Venezuela. We had come for the latter having passed on an Amazon trip in favour of the Pantanal. For all its seedy, grimy undercurrent there was something quite alluring about this big city deep in the mythical Amazon rainforest and it was great to finally see the mighty river in all her big, brown, dirty, polluted glory.
Two Become One
For general knowledge fans Manaus is actually the place where the Amazon offically becomes the Amazon. Up until that point it is known by different names as it flows all the way from Peru. It is at Manaus that two rivers, the light brown coloured Rio Solimoes and the dark Rio Negro meet and flow side by side without mingling for several kilometres due to differences in speed, density and temperature. To see this famous meeting of the waters we
David goes ´swimming' with a manatee
walked onto the car ferry that goes back and forth every hour. From high up on the deck we got a great view of this, as hopefully the photos will show.
Having left Rio the day before carnival started we went to carnival in Manaus instead. For the stories and pictures from this see our Manaus Carnival Special Blog!
For our very last thing in Brasil we went to a nearby animal reserve. This was mostly disappointing due to our habit of being in places where the animals are not, but then, just as we were leaving we spotted a giant sloth up in a tree. He was fanastic and we sat and watched him (or her) for twenty minutes as he hung upside down giving himself a very slow (one could say "sloth-like" ) scratch all over. Around here sloths are in danger of extinction so it was a real treat to see one.
So now we´re off to Venezuela and it´s time for us to get into sloth mode for yet another bus journey.
Farewell Brasil, you were awesome.
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