Costa Verde: Rainforests, Mountains and Beaches

Trip Start Sep 24, 2008
Trip End Jul 21, 2009

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Pousada Cepilho, Trindade, RJ, Brasil
Pousada Praia Serena, Jabaquara Beach, RJ, Brasil

Flag of Brazil  , State of Rio de Janeiro,
Tuesday, June 23, 2009

June 13-23, 2009: Paraty, Trindade and Ilha Grande, RJ Province, Brasil

Colonial Charm in Paraty and Jabaquara Beach
Mary and I left Rio on June 13 to head down to Paraty on the Costa Verde.  South of Rio, the Costa Verde is the appropriately named coastline of small fishing villages, colonial towns and power and energy-related towns that is marked by the rolling and verdant rainforest-covered hills that meet the white sand beaches of the Atlantic Ocean.

After taking the local bus to the Rodoviaria (bus station) in Rio, we took the A/C bus run by the Costa Verde company four hours south to Paraty.  En route, we passed through Mangatariba, Angra dos Reis (which is the liftoff point for Ilha Grande) and a couple of company towns created for the massive nuclear power plant facility run by ElectroNuclear. 

We arrived in Paraty in the late afternoon and set out to find our pousada (guesthouse) that we had booked online.  Paraty is a charming colonial town that is adjacent to the long stretch of sand known as Jabaquara Beach.  Our guesthouse, we would find after a sweaty 30 minute stroll with our bags, was at the very end of Jabaquara, the furthest thing from the town!  The Pousada Praia Serena is a lovely, but overpriced, guesthouse run by Simon, an Englishman, and Helena, his Brasilian wife.  After paying an arm and a leg for hostels in Rio, it was nice to get a private room with private bath, A/C, TV and a fridge. 

That evening, we checked out the Saturday night fesitivities in the old town and grab dinner at a nice Italian restaurant.  The old town took me back 400 years, to the time of roughly cobblestoned streets, horse-drawn carriages and beautiful tropical whitewashed colonial buildings with ornate windows and lamps.  That is, when I avoided looking at the touristy stores and such around the old town.  Another treat of the town (another pun intended), were the myriad sweets carts on the streets.  These entrepreneurs of sugar, basically offer a rolling cart full of bake sale treats, and we were loyal customers. 

The following day, after several days of foul weather in both Rio and Paraty, the sun came out with its warmth and glowing brilliance.  After a wonderful breakfast spread that included fresh mangos and OJ, we parked ourselves by the pool to soak in some rays before hitting the old town by day to check out the little stores and to take pictures of all of the beautiful buildings.  Cachaca, the liquor used to make the deadly caiparinhas, is native to Paraty, so there are several massive cachaca-only liquor stores that are lined floor-to-ceiling with the elixir. 

Helena, though Brasilian, is a very good cook of Indian food.  Simon and her eat Indian food nearly six days a week and this was one of the main reasons why we chose the hotel.  After a 24-hour battle that resulted from eating sushi in Rio, my stomach, Mary and me were ready for some great home cooking.  We both love Indian food and I have been fiending for my parents' great South Indian vegetarian cuisine.  Well, Helena did not disappoint.  We enjoyed a chicken masala curry (that would have been spicier if the Irishman staying at the pousada wasn't eating as well), a great okra dish, channa masala that tasted nearly as good as Mom would make it and were given sides of raita and chapati.  It was heaven.  While their pousada is not centrally located and is on the pricier side, it is a very nice place with great people and great food. 

Nearly One Month and Counting Down
All great things must come to an end.  Well, as we were enjoying our time on Costa Verde, this was at the forefront of my thoughts.  With my acceptance of the NYC Civic Corps position, I now had an end date to my travels and will return to the US on July 21.

I tried to think back on being 1-1.5 months into the trip and to what my mind was thinking.  Towards the end of my time in India and in China, I was thinking about all the countries ahead of me.  How anxious I was to see SE Asia.  How excited I was to see Angkor, Borobodur, go SCUBA diving, visit Brasil for Carneval and do the Ciudad Perdida trek in Colombia.  Well, I did all of those things (except for Carneval; plans are meant to be changed) and so much more.  At that time, South America seemed to far off in the distance as though it wasn't to be reality.  Now, I have been in South America for three months and even being in Argentina and Bolivia seem like quite some time ago.  Asia seems like years ago and the crucial summer of 2008, when all my big decisions were made and executed, seems like a lifetime ago.  The perception of time, while traveling, is an interesting concept as it simultaneously flies by as well as seems to slow down and take forever.  In total, I will have traveled for 10 months.  In experiences, I have traveled for a decade or a lifetime.

Needless to say, while enjoying the beaches of the Costa Verde, I was equal parts thinking about every little detail of returning home, my emotions upon arrival and upon living in NYC again and was, to a certain extent, detached from my travels.  Since our arrival in Brasil, I have felt like I was now on a vacation/holiday rather than in long-term travel mode.  I want to spend as much time relaxing, processing my thoughts and getting recharged and ready to go back, as I do experiencing things.  At the beginning of the trip, there was no sense of going back.     

Trindade:  Where the Mata Atlantica Meets the Sea
After a couple of days in the colonial-town of Paraty, we hopped on a local bus headed towards the nearby fishing village, hippie town and beach escape of Trindade.  As we entered the town, we saw a sign that said (in Portugese) "Trindade: Where the Mountains Meet the Sea".  This sign captures the area perfectly.  The verdant green Mata Atlantica (coastal mountain rainforest) tumbles down in a jumbled mass of vines, branches and leaves onto the white sand beaches of Trindade.  The sea is rougher down here than in Paraty, so there is a wonderful natural soundtrack of the cadence of waves crashing on the shore.  This was my kind of beach town and was exactly what we were looking for.

Reminding me of some of the sleepy SE Asian-beach towns, there was basically one street that ran through town, parallel to the shore, that was lined with tons of pousadas, small restaurants, some craft stores and mini-markets.  Everywhere we walked through town, we could hear the ocean breakers.  We stayed at a nice pousada that was only R$60 (USD15) per night with our own bathroom, fridge, balcony and was a two-minute stroll to the beach.  Finally, we found something relatively cheap in Brasil. 

With dwindling sunshine on June 15, we quickly scampered down to the perfect sandy crescent known as Praia Rancho and basked in the sun's glory and the refreshing and cool Atlantic water.  We were completely alone.  There are a few kioskos towards the end of the crescent, but we felt the wonderful euphoria that arises from being on a deserted tropical beach. 

That evening, we had dinner at a pizzaria called "Crazy Madmen" while being serenaded by Whitney Houston.  The guy who worked at the restaurant was an extremely nice dude (we ate there a couple of nights) and he loved his diva hits.  After dinner, I went for a walk through the small town and observed a couple of things.  Firstly, we were in a safe place.  By this point, I had been conditioned to be overly cautious everywhere in Brasil, but in Trindade, walking around the dimly-lit streets and along the beach at night, I never felt uncomfortable.  The second thing I noticed was the relative affluence of a seemingly sleepy beach tourist town.  Most of the restaurants, pousadas and homes in town had flat-panel TVs.  The food in all of the restaurants, including the beach kioskos, was really quite expensive.  Clearly the Costa Verde in Brasil is not nearly the same as a comparable looking tropical beach town in SE Asia. 

We began the next day much the same way as when we arrived the day before, relaxing on Praia Rancho.  As the sunshine turned into a cloudy sky - it was winter after all - we decided to hike over to the Caixa Dassou natural pool.  Our hike took us around the point at one end of Praia Rancho to two other pristine white sand beaches: Praia do Meio and Praia Caixa Dassou.  Separating Meio from Caixa Dassou is a steep rainforest trail over rocks and tree roots.  We went from The Beach to an Indiana Jones film in a matter of minutes.  What a spectacular place.  After crossing the long and flat white sand beach of Caixa Dassou, with the jungle rising to the right and the ocean crashing to the left, we disappeared into the jungle foliage.  We followed a trail through the dense jungle, where day turned almost to night from the cover of the canopy, and eventually came out at the natural pool.  Protected by a ring of rocks from the ocean, we went swimming in a calm jungle oasis that is right in the ocean.  I put my mask on and saw a few fish as I snorkeled around the pool.  I live for moments like this. 

Unfortunately, the sun went on a holiday the next day, and if there was no sun, there wasn't much point being on the beach, so we left the beach, packed our bags and left Trindade in the morning.  After a couple of local buses on Colitur (the cheapest way to travel the Costa Verde, R$10 or USD5) via Paraty, we arrived at Angra dos Reis.  Angra is an insignificant town except that it is the port city to get to the paradisical rainforest-covered island of Ilha Grande. 

Ilha Grande:  Hiking, Diving and Swimming on an Island Paradise

Hiking up Pico de Papagaio
We took the 3:30pm ferry (R$6.50 or USD3.25) from Angra and arrived a couple of hours later at the main town of Abraao on Ilha Grande.  Ilha Grande is the third largest island in Brasil and has about 5,000 inhabitants, slightly more than half which live in Abraao.  The large and mountainous island is covered by rainforest, just as all of the Costa Verde, and there are gorgeous white-sand beaches in front of turqoise-blue waters around the island.  The island, only a two-hour bus and two-hour ferry from Rio, is a place where cariocas and tourists come to hike, dive, surf, swim, relax and party.   

Given it was low season, at least when we arrived, the town and island were very quiet.  The millions of pousadas, bars and restaurants were all mostly empty.  As a result, we could negotiate a discount at our pousada since we were staying for nearly a week and the place was empty (Pousada Ilha Grande, R$50 or USD25 per night).  However, we found out that there was a music festival coming for the weekend, in a couple of days.  One of the biggest events on the island, the festival is meant to encourage music and ecology, but in reality is an alcohol-fueled three-day party, with a poor lineup this year, that was started by the local businesses to create a revenue spike during the low season and has little to do with preserving the environment and more to do with resembling a US spring break party.  The festival also brings a shady element to the island, turning it into a city-atmosphere more than the safe and trustworthy island atmosphere.  We did our best to avoid most of the festivities and enjoy the natural attributes of this lovely island.

We walked around the town on our first night, checking out a few of the artisan stores, hearing reggae playing from nearly every establishment, and pigging out at a R$16 (USD8) churrascaria, where the meat just kept coming until we had to be rolled out of the restaurant.  That evening, we made the error of signing up for a guided hike the following day to Pico de Papagaio, the highest reachable point on the island at 982m (3,200ft).

We were supposed to meet our guide for the hike at 9:30am on July 18.  However, we were jerked awake promptly at 7am to the shrieks of children playing hide and seek.  Like a grumpy old man, I returned from the street, where I went to gather some intelligence, muttering "there's a preschool next door".  I swear I love kids.

The hike up to the Pico was beautiful.  Despite a sunny day, we were bushwalking through dense jungle - trapsing through mud, over huge stones, logs, through thick and wet brush, and completely in the shade of the canopy until we ascended to the top.  It was a sweaty, steep and challenging walk.  Such green color was everywhere, which is truly impossible to capture in any lens except for the human eye.  The vibrant greens of the rainforest are only captured by nature.  I thought of nature's palette; it is impossible to replicate the colors of nature (blues of water, greens of the forest, all the colors of flowers), which is why the age-old technology of natural dyes are still the best.  There were many birds on the walk, a few flowers (though the many orchids were out of season and not flowered), but we saw few animals.  However, we could hear many of them, including a howler monkey that sounded like a terrifying and menacing creature with its deep and booming yell.

We reached the peak in about two hours and were gifted with the low-lying clouds clearing just as we arrived at the summit.  The actual summit ascent was a near vertical climb up some rocks and there was a very precarious massive boulder on the summit.  It was beautiful to watch the fast moving clouds clear the sky as if it were the fog rolling back over the hills of San Francisco.  From high above, we had perfect views down on the rainforests, of several white sand beaches and their calm and blue coves they protected and of Abraao far below.  It was quite a climb! 

On our descent, I was mired in reflection on returning home to the US.  I am excited, but it is going to be very unreal, being home after nearly a year away and a world away in terms of lifestyle.  This reflection consumed my thoughts and I knew that these thoughts would only get more intense and frequent, reaching a climax when I board that plane from Bogota bound for Miami at the end of July.  Once we arrived back in Abraao, we grabbed our suits and enjoyed the dwindling sunlight at Praia Preto as I was in need of an ocean swim after a sweaty hike.

Splash, Getting Back Underwater 
With the hike complete, it was time to get underwater again.  Ilha Grande offers some of the best diving in central and southern Brasil and it had been far too long since we had breathed compressed air.  We signed on with Dive & CIA, which was the cheapest dive shop on the island (R$135 or USD65 for two dives) and also had some really nice divemasters (DMs) who spoke good English (Luiz and Cuye). 

Our gear was loaded up on the small dive boat and we set off on the morning of June 19 for our first dives.  Instead, we got a gorgeous boat tour around the northern part of the island, with tremendous views of the peaks, rainforest and beaches, as our boat died in the middle of the water.  There was massive engine failure and we were literally in the middle of the open ocean.  Nonetheless, we had stopped next to Laguna Azul, it was a beautiful and sunny day and I was able to swim in the ocean, so we didn't complain.  Ultimately, the boat needed a new part, so we were towed all the way back to the harbor by the owner's much older and smaller boat.  With essentially an entire day shot, Luiz offered us a free dive that day and we would return for our original planned dive sites the following morning.  Three dives for the price of two! 

With sea birds all around us in hunting mode, swooping in and out of the water with their prey in their mouths, we splashed next to Ilha de Meio for our first dive since March.  There were some Discovery Divers (uncertified) aboard, so the DMs kept referring to us as "Divers", which was very official and expert sounding.  We had previously only dove in the warm SE Asian and Australian tropical waters.  The Atlantic Ocean is quite a bit cooler - 22 degrees Celsius (72 Fahrenheit) - so we had to wear full 5mm wetsuits with hoods.  It was like wearing a suit of armor back in the Middle Ages, motion was incredibly difficult and the suits were really heavy.  We looked like Frogmen with our hoods on.  The visibility was terrible on the first dive as were spoiled by the diving we had done in Thailand.  However, it was interesting seeing marine life amongst mostly rocks and not coral reefs and we saw some really interesting life: sea spiders, fake flyer fish (that reminded us of the Dilophosaurus that killed Newman in Jurassic Park because of its splayed pectoral fins), a freely swimming white morey eel and gigantic boxed starfish.  It was also good to practice, I was a little rusty with my breathing and buoyancy, and we had a nice hour-long dive.  That evening, we relaxed in our room and Mary watched Scarface for the first time.

On June 20, we went diving for real.  The boat worked, the sun was out for most of the day, and we would dive our first shipwreck.  The wreck was the Pinguino, which was a commercial ship carrying flammable palm wax from Panama to Buenos Aires that sank in 1967 with no casualties.  A massive explosion in the starboard hull was triggered from a fire in the engine room that was fueled by the wax.  The ship is 68m (210ft) long with a 10m (30ft) beam.  The ship lay on its port side, with the bottom at 18m (60ft) depth and the starboard side, with the gaping hole in the hull, at a depth of 7m (20ft).  While not a particularly interesting ship as compared with a sunken warship, it was so awesome to be amongst a wreck.  I felt like one of the Shadow Divers.  We followed an anchor line down to the ship and first circumvented the vessel at the bottom in order to orient ourselves.  Despite the good visibility at the shallower depths, the sediment kicked up by fins and the rust flakes in the water created a near zero-viz environment on the bottom.  I was at the back of the four of us (Luiz, Mary, Steve and me) and could barely see anything.  Much like pass-throughs, I had to constantly monitor in all directions - not just 360 degrees - as there was rusted steel parts everywhere.  It was eerie seeing the mast disappear into the blue waters. 

Once we had circumvented the vessel, we entered through the aft superstructure to explore the inside of the ship.  This was incredible - seeing the portholes, the cargo area, the steel beams and the inner skeleton of the old ship.  I could clearly picture what the vessel must have been like when it was in service.  There was even an extremely toxic air pocket inside of the cargo hold, so we were able to "surface" about 40ft underwater!  We spent the rest of the dive exploring around the starboard side and top of the boat, where the visibility was near perfect and where there were some fish swimming around.  I hovered for a while in the blasthole and just pictured what actually occurred on that fateful day in 1967.  I love diving wrecks and look forward to seeing some more interesting vessels, like old warships in the future.

Our second dive was a long, beautiful and relaxed one in shallower waters.  Our bottom time was an astounding 70 minutes!  Prior to diving the Atlantic, my longest dive had been 53 minutes.  We swam around the rocks in a relatively small dive site that allowed us to explore virtually every nook and cranny.  We saw tons of the fake flyer fish, one of my favorites, an extremely puffed up pufferfish (reminded me of Finding Nemo), a translucent blue trumpetfish and a couple of soles (sand dollar types of fish that camouflage with the sandy bottom).  Although it wasn't the Similan Islands (little is), it was still a great day of diving.  We had another great pizza dinner and tried to relax that night, but were kept up from the thumping club music playing across the street until 9am!  As I said earlier, the chill island atmosphere is destroyed by the music festival.

Ferried by Boat to Lopes Mendes
After a few days of hiking and diving, it was time to relax on the beach.  We took the R$15 (USD7) roundtrip ferries that run frequently over to Lopes Mendes.  The boat ride took an hour, we thought it was a much quicker ferry, but it was a beautiful day and nice ride that provided us with views of a different part of the island.  Once we docked, we had a 20 minute hike over a steep hill through the rainforest to arrive at the perfect long crescent white sand of Praia Lopes Mendes.  En route, Mary saw a snake.  The island is wonderful and it would clearly be amazing in the heat of summer, but I would be so terrified hiking these rainforest trails during the warm season!  The beach is the surf spot on the island and there were many surfers, boogie boarders and bodysurfers out in the water (I was one of those bodysurfers).  The waves are created from a shore break as there is an extremely long sand bar that creates shallow waters far into the ocean.  At one end of the beach are tons of rocks to scramble over, where I took many OCR photos.  The beach is framed by palms and fruit trees upto the sand's edge and with the towering rainforest-covered peaks on both sides.  It is absolute paradise and greatly reminded me of some of the wonderful beaches in Thailand. 

We spent our time at Lopes Mendes playing paddleball, swimming and bodysurfing and going for walks and runs along the long stretch of sand.  From the eastern-most point of the beach, I looked up and saw Pico de Papagaio.  The water was that perfect azul color and calm on this end of the beach.  While there were several other beaches we could have hiked to (minimum 4-6hr roundtrip), we liked the luxury of the cheap ferries and spent two full days at Lopes Mendes.  The old fogues we are, we spent our evenings curled up in bed watching movies (Invincable, The Bear, Good Night and Good Luck were the good ones) as the festival came to a close in town with trash absolutely everywhere.  They shouldn't even pretend that the festival is in the promotion of ecology and conservation.  It is such BS. 

While I could have spent another week or longer hiking the trails, diving and exploring beaches, it was time for us to return to Rio as we had several more things to check out in the city and we intended to take another sidetrip before leaving Brasil in about a week.  So, on June 23, we packed our bags, played paddleball on the beach at the harbor as we waited for the ferry, took the 10am return ferry to Angra, walked a long and sweaty way through the heat to the bus terminal and boarded a Costa Verde bus back to Rio. 

After connecting via a local bus, we were back in Ipanema at Franklin's place.  He was so happy to see us and showed us the new set of pots he had bought for us to use in the kitchen (we were the only ones who cooked basically every night).  All of our old friends had moved on in the last 10 days, so the place was much quieter, but there were new people there who would become new friends in the coming days.  Fiending for a home cooked meal as we didn't have access to a kitchen while on the Costa Verde, Mary cooked up another delicious Mexican fajita feast and we relaxed back at home, which is how Franklin's place felt like to us.  It was good to be back in Rio.       

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