It’s a bit of an epic journey from Paraty to Florianopolis: a seven hour bus to Sao Paulo, five hours at the bus station, another overnight bus and a further two local buses. Finally, more than 27 hours after setting off, we were dumped at the end of the line on Santa Catarina island, a stunning harbour town that’s been adopted by weekending Brazilians and surfer hedonists. We are staying at Banana Beach Hostel and manage to bag ourselves the best room, a two room apartment with a balcony overlooking Barra de Lagoa beach. It’s a great hostel in a brilliant location overlooking the bay and we are sharing with a lovely English couple. Just don’t expect much from the staff, as it’s run by a pack of surfers who are more interested in their own free stay in Florianopolis than making yours easier. Still, we arrive in baking sunshine, so we offload our bags and head straight for the beach.
This place is stunning. The beach stretches as far as the eye can see and it only takes a five minute walk to have the sand to yourself. I imagine at the height of the season it could get a little overcrowded but the sheer length of the beach must surely mean you can still get away from the masses. So if you’re a beach bunny or a surfer dude, definitely make your way here if you’re passing.
The second day, the clouds roll in, as well as an evil cold. I feel rotten so we have an easy day and after some amusing miming in the pharmacy, Leah manages to procure some drugs and nurses me. That evening, we even dust off our aprons and attempt to cook a proper meal for the first time in four months.
And that’s it. Our last stop in Brazil. For now. So we leave, a little lighter in the pocket – there’s no getting away from it, Brazil is expensive, regardless of your budget. We certainly don’t want to bypass any of the amazing sights whilst in South America but we need to get out for now before we bankrupt ourselves. Hopefully we return, in ‘Brazil: the sequel’, some time towards the end of the year, when we intend to boat down the Amazon using only local transportation and sleeping overnight in hammocks on the boats. By then we should be hardened travellers and hopefully mosquito repellent.
Time to get busy again, we need to make our way across Brazil, through Argentina and into Chile to Santiago for the following weekend, where we have tickets to the Lollapalooza music festival. So it’s back on the road – next stop Porto Alegre for a budget flight to Rosario, then a quick breather for a few days before an overnight bus to Mendoza followed by another bus over the Andes to Santiago.
In some ways, Paraty is very similar to Ouro Preto. It is another old colonial town, with that same Mediterranean vibe, but where Ouro Preto evokes the Italian countryside, this is more reminiscent of a Greek harbour town. There are the same cobbled streets, but instead of that maze of twisting, turning lanes, here the streets are wide, open, and (thankfully) flat. And similarly, Paraty is not one of those places to come to do or see anything in particular, rather you come to enjoy the town itself. The local bus here provides a slow trip along the coast and even a trip into the private residences of the nuclear power station workforce. Recent events in Japan forced us to look upon the reactor building only a few metres from the road in a different light.
Our hostel, the HI Paraty, was just outside the old town. A great location, and probably, about 10 years ago, a great hostel too, but it was looking a little tired around the edges. Unfortunately the rooms were a little shabby too, the mattress was lumpy and the sheets threadbare, which is a shame, because with a little bit of work it could be a really nice little place.
Wandering into the old town, you soon realise one of the main reasons people come here – the food. There are restaurants on every corner and some of them look pretty good. Unfortunately they are also pretty pricey – not great if you are a backpacker on a budget – but never mind. Luckily, we manage to find a bar with some reasonably priced caipirinhas and opt for a liquid lunch instead. Inside, we bump into two girls that have just checked out of our hostel (they weren’t that impressed either) and soon we are chatting away. Several caipirinhas and a cheeseburger later (it was the cheapest thing on the menu!) we staggered home, eager for our beds (a combination of tiredness from travelling and too much cachaca) only to realise it was not yet 9pm!!!
We spent the next day exploring the town in more depth, picking up a canine friend along the way. The little mutt dutifully followed us all morning (it may have had something to do with the fact that I was feeding him ham sandwiches), following us through the streets, round the harbour and to the beach, although we sadly lost him on the way home when he came across a group of tourists having lunch in a cafe – the prospect of some free food was just to much temptation for him to bear -Judas.
We stopped off for a drink on the way home at a bar called Paraty33 as there was a great little trio playing a mix of Brazilian classics, 60s swing and 80s pop covers. What we didn’t bargain for was a hefty cover charge – our three drinks ended up costing us twice what we had expected. Live music it charged as an extra on bill. One to watch out for.
Back at the hostel we found an email from the girls we had met yesterday inviting us to dinner. Throwing our budget out the window, we accepted – we were getting a little bored of pastels and super noodles. That evening we dined at Margarida Cafe, a restaurant Rich had already been lusting over on the internet.
As we walked in, we spotted the band – the same trio we had seen playing earlier that day, we hoped they didn’t think we were creepy groupies. It was a really great meal and several bottles of wine interrupted only briefly by a power cut. So backpacker budget firmly out the window we head home to the lumpy mattress and damp pillows.
Paraty is a cool place, but we only saw one side of the town. In peak season, when the sun is shining, the nearby beaches are said to be some of the best in Brazil and boat trips head out to nearby deserted islands. Our next destination is famed for being one of the world’s best surfing locations so we are saving the beach towels for Florianopolis.
Ouro Preto is a small, quaint town, seven hours north of Rio and two hours south of Belo Horizonte, which is now a Unesco World Heritage site. A former mining town (it’s name means black gold), it is one of the prettiest and best preserved colonial towns in Brazil and so, despite it’s small size and sleepy atmosphere, is a popular tourist destination.
As well as being extremely picturesque, it is also incredibly hilly. Luckily, our hostel was a mere 150 metres from the bus station. Unluckily, we took a wrong turning and before long we found ourselves on the wrong side of town, at the bottom of the hill, trying to decipher Portuguese directions to find the fastest and least steep route back to where we needed be. After an epic hike that was akin to climbing Everest, across cobbles so slippery (did I mention it was also raining) that I nearly fell flat on my face more than once, we finally arrived at the hostel.
There’s not a great deal to ‘do’ as such in Ouro Preto. The closest thing you’ll get to a tourist attraction is the old mine which is a little way out of town. People come here more for the rolling hills, the magnificent old churches (there seems to be dozens of them dotted around town) and the many artisan and gem shops. For us, it was a chance to kick back for a few days after the hustle and bustle of Rio.
Luckily, the weather soon cleared up and we spent our afternoons meandering through the cobbled lanes, enjoying cold beers in local bars and soaking up the history. We visited the small museum and one of the churches – although I must confess I found the latter rather amusing thanks to the rather tacky and kitsch mannequins of Jesus adorning the walls, complete with wigs and lipstick. Honestly, some of the poses they were in, more Eminem than Emmanuel.
There’s not a huge amount more to say about Ouro Preto so instead I’ll leave you with a few photos…
Well, no. not really. We found Rio as safe and as welcoming as any city we have visited so far, and as for it’s reputation for the fairer sex, the streets were not paved with buxom beauties in string bikinis (so Leah tells me, I was of course, not looking). So, cliches discarded, on with the tour…
We arrived via Santo Dumont airport as we’d managed to find some cheap flights from Campo Grande. Although South American air travel is on the whole expensive, it is definitely worth double checking – particularly in countries like Brazil, Argentina and Chile where the bus travel doesn’t come cheap either. For us, the airfare was pretty much on par with the cost of travellling by road and, more importantly, 20 hours quicker. True, it meant we’d have to do a bit of doubling back on ourselves as we were going straight to Rio rather than via Ouro Preto (more on this gem of a town in the next post) but it was still the preferable option.
If you’re landing at Santo Dumont, the airport which serves internal flights and short distance carriers, then be sure to pick a seat on the right hand side of the plane if you have the chance – if the wind is in the right direction and the clouds are high you will get a spectacular aerial view of one the world’s most recognisable landmarks – Cristo Redentor – Big Jesus.
We were staying in a great little hostel just off Ipanema beach called The Mango Tree, right next to the world famous Garota de Ipanema restaurant (Girl From Ipanema) where the song was written. It’s a 1930’s renovated colonial style house with lovely, hotel-standard, private rooms. The staff are incredibly friendly and helpful, the breakfast some of the best we’ve tasted so far and there is a great, chilled out vibe to the place – not too many teens running about at all hours of the morning!!
After a quick power nap and a shower, we head off to explore. Rio is one of those cities that fills you with excitement just stepping out the door. As we’re still pretty shattered from the journey (yes we might have flown but it was at 3am in the morning after a 5 hour bus journey from Bonito!) we stay local and roam the streets of Ipanema and nearly Leblon before heading down to the beach to watch the waves. After a few beers and some food the lack of sleep begins to hit and we head off for an early night in preparation for a day of being tourists.
The next morning, we jump on the 570 bus from right outside the hostel door and head towards the Corcovado (literally, humpback), where Cristo Redentor roosts. But by the time we get there the sky has clouded over and not wanting a wasted trip, we decide to head up to Lapa and Santa Teresa instead. Lapa, in central Rio, is famed second for its historic monuments but first for it’s nightlife. Unfortunately, we are in Rio at the beginning of the week so don’t really get a chance to enjoy it at it’s best – if you have the choice you should come at the weekend when things really kick off and you can truly experience Carioca (an inhabitant of Rio) nightlife. We roam through the streets, past the Lapa Arches and the Municipal Cathedral. The latter looks nothing like a cathedral from the outside and is actually quite ugly to be truthful. On the inside though the story is very different and it’s an impressive space, although surprisingly modern for such a traditional Catholic country.
Having soaked up the architecture of Lapa, we catch the tram up the hill to Santa Teresa, a district of cobbled streets, brightly coloured houses and art studios galore. It’s not what we expected to find in Rio but it’s an oasis of calm and charm after the slightly more brash beach scene. We stop for a beer in a cute cafe and later for lunch in an awesome small family-run joint overlooking the rest of the city.
That evening, back in Ipanema, we enjoy some excellent choppe (draught) Brahma, a metre of Brazilian sausage (insert your own joke) and several (may have been more) delicious caipirinhas. Then it’s off to bed with all the best laid plans to rise early for another shot at Big Jesus.
Of course, the best laid plans and all that…but after a night on the caipirinhas we didn’t make it up and out quite as early as we had hoped and although it was a lovely sunny day, the clouds were threatening to come in. To top it off, when we arrived at the foot of the Corcovado at 10.30am we were told that the next available train wasn’t until 11.40am. Oh. A few quick calculations and we realised there was no way we could make it up and back to the hotel in time for our favela tour at 2pm. Gutted. But just as we were about to admit defeat (and Leah was about to cry), a nice man in a pale green shirt accosted us and told us that he could take us up in a minivan instead. Result!
For 20 reals, the minivan would take us up and back, stopping on the way so we could take photos of Jesus from the distance and we were free to take the minivan back whenever we wanted. Entrance to Christ himself was another 17 reals, bringing the total to 37 – the same price as getting the train. So we hopped in the van, eagerly waited for it to fill with passengers (about 15 minutes) and then we were off.
We’d managed to shave an hour off our wait but time was still looking tight so it was a bit of a speed tour at the top. But the most important thing was that it was a beautifully clear day and we had spectacular views of the city and got some amazing photos. The weather is a bit unpredictable so our advice is if it looks sunny, go up as soon as you can – we heard of one girl who went up three times and only ever saw Jesus’s big toe. Apparently Obama was visiting a few days later but I’m not sure whether he was quite so lucky with the weather!
After filling the camera with photos we raced back down the hill, this time taking the train. I can honestly say it’s not a particularly interesting or scenic journey, so don’t feel you’ve missed anything by taking a minivan, although we did have a rather amusing samba band to keep us company. Back at the bottom, we hopped on a bus with a little over an hour to get home – plenty of time we thought. We hadn’t reckoned on Rio traffic being THAT bad. At Copacabana, we switched to a cab to speed things up and thankfully made it back with 10 minutes to spare (due in part to me telling Leah the pick up was 15 minutes earlier than it actually was because i knows she likes to be “just” on time).
After a quick pit stop for some food, it was off on our next tourist adventure – a tour of the favelas. First it was off to Rocinha, the largest favela in Rio, which is home to more than 100,000 people. (Officially. Unofficially the figure is much higher.) This particular favela is still ruled by the drug cartel the ‘Friends of Friends’ rather than the police and we are instructed by our guide that we are not to take photos unless he says we can otherwise we risk having our cameras taken off us. As we exit the minivan we are ordered to stay close and the guide looks visibly nervous. He tells us we are free to walk the length of the small craft market, an area of about 20 metres, and when someone from the group laughs he says ‘no, I’m serious’.
After 10 minutes, we jump back into minivan and he takes us up onto the roof of one of the buildings deep inside the favela (we walk through what looks like a chop-shop to get there) from where we can look back down over the whole favela. It’s here that you truly appreciate the vastness of it all. The guide is very knowledgeable, and it is interesting to hear his views on the favelas – their history, the way they operate today, the problems with trying to eradicate them, the involvement (and corruption) of the police.
Soon, it is time for us to leave for a second favela, this time a much smaller settlement and not run by drug dealers so much safer too. This is a neighbourhood which the tour company is heavily involved with and 50% of their profits goes towards community projects here. After a tour round, we share a caipirinha and some delicious barbecued pork before heading back to the hostel.
Later that evening, it’s off on another bus to Belo Horizonte, en route to Ouro Preto. Brazil is expensive, even more so if you’re in one of the major cities. So unless you’re one of the many ‘gap yar’ brats travelling on daddy’s plastic, this place will bankrupt even the thriftiest of backpackers. As a result, we’ve decided to spend a relatively short time in Brazil and just cover the major sites and a few small gems before heading off. Unfortunately this means a hectic schedule and lots of long bus journeys – Brazil is a massive country and it’s a bit of a shock after South East Asia. Still, once we get out of Brazil, we hope to slow things down a bit and relax more.
Check out the Brazil photo gallery (link on the right) for loads of other Rio photos.
After our ‘near death experience’ on the drive to Bonito, we settle into the HI Ecological Hostel for some much needed sleep. I’m not sure what exactly is ecological about it except that they separate their recycle but it’s a nice enough place with some good communal areas and a pool, although the rooms are a little dingy. Still, since there is little to do in Bonito itself and the hostel is located a little out of town it makes for a friendly place and everyone is swapping experiences of the various tours on offer.
The tours are not cheap mind, so we opt for just the one, the reason we have come to Bonito in the first place – Rio da Prata.
To be honest, we hadn’t even heard about Bonito before we came but had a recommendation from one of Rich’s mates via Facebook. The river is situated over a natural spring, with the minerals from the spring making the water incredibly clear and very buoyant. Starting at the top of the river, you snorkel downstream, allowing the river’s natural flow to carry you. Of course, there are plenty of fish to see along the way.
We can’t get a tour for the first day that we are there as they are already fully booked so we put our names down for the day after and decide what to do with our free time. There are plenty of other tours on offer, including alternative snorkelling trips, a cave tour and for the really adventurous some abseiling into a cave (VERY expensive and requires a few days of training) but we opt for some chill out time in the hostel instead, catch up on blogs, get some washing done and have a dip in the pool.
If you are looking to explore town, the best way to do it is by hiring a bike. There’s not much in Bonito itself but the Municipal Pool is supposed to be lovely. Unfortunately it was closed the day we were there as there had been heavy rains but we certainly heard some good things from others at the hostel. It’s not a pool as you might imagine – rather a clear stretch of river full of fish and lined with grass and a few restaurants.
The next morning and it’s up bright and early to head off on the 55km journey to Rio da Prata. We arrive at around 10.30am and although we are originally told our group will be starting at 11.30am, they then change it to 1.30pm. No big deal for us as the sun is shining and there are plenty of hammocks to relax in but it certainly infuriates some of our companions. Still, it’s not so bad as a huge buffet lunch is served at 12pm followed by a selection of incredibly sweet desserts which all seem to consist of pure sugar. And then, when the heavens open and it starts to pour with rain, all of a sudden everybody seems glad that we got the late spot after all!!!
By the time we set off, the weather has cleared up again and we are all, summoned to put on our wetsuits (very fetching indeed). Despite the hot weather the water is pretty chilly so you definitely need one. Snorkels and lifejackets are also provided and we’ve rented a waterproof camera from the hostel, quite pricey at 35R (around £15) but definitely worth it – if you can arrange to share the cost with someone else then I’d recommend it – most of the photos will be of fish anyway!
We start with a practice run at the top of the river – we are instructed to make the minimum disruption possible so are not allowed to stand on the bottom or splash our feet. To be honest, because the water is so buoyant, and we are wearing lifejackets, it takes very little effort at all, we just let the water carry us and use our arms to steer ourselves. Even some of the less confident swimmers in our group manage with no trouble at all so there’s no need to be a strong swimmer – as long as you are not a complete novice you will be fine.
As we put our faces into the water we see we are surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of fish – big, small, blue, silver – tons of them! Of course, this is a freshwater river so they are not as colourful as you might get when snorkelling in ocean reefs but they are stunning nonetheless. And as we drift downstream we catch sight of a very special visitor – an otter – which definitely causes a lot of excitement amongst the group.
We continue to float downstream, watching the fish and playing with the camera until we reach a point where you can clearly see the spring bubbling up from under the sand at the bottom of the river – it’s like seeing a mini underwater volcano. We stop for pictures and for people to dive down and touch the spring, although the water is so buoyant it’s quite a challenge and only a few people manage it!!! Then it’s off snorkelling again until we reach the bottom of the stream where it meets a much wider river. Sometimes you can snorkel down this part too but when we are there the water is too cloudy and the current too fast so we walk back through the forest to meet our waiting truck which will drive us back to the lodge.
A great day was had by all and seeing the otter was definitely a highlight. On the drive back to the hostel we saw some more wildlife – this time an anteater snuffling his way through the fields. Another one to check of the list!
Back at the hostel we managed to find ourselves a cheap flight from Campo Granda to Rio to save ourselves a 22 hour bus ride. It’s definitely worth checking flights as the buses aren’t that cheap here in Brazil and sometimes you pay pretty much the same price to take a plane. The only downside was that we’d have to double back on ourselves if we wanted to go to Ouro Preto but that was still only 14 hours on a bus in two separate journeys compared with 22 hours in a single stretch!! Brazil is a big old country and you don’t realise how long it takes to get everywhere and how much it costs before you get here.
Anyway, after another lazy day at the hostel it was off to the airport, there is loads to do here but not on a budget. We picked the best of the bunch so it’s Rio – here we come!!!!