Days 302 - 321: Brazil Leg - Rio to Buenos Aires

Trip Start May 10, 2013
Trip End May 09, 2014

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Flag of Brazil  , State of Rio de Janeiro,
Sunday, March 9, 2014

The new adventure has begun. Starting a new tour is kind of like the first day of school. We were excited and a little apprehensive as we met our teachers (in our case tour leaders) and class mates (fellow travellers) while sitting in a classroom (a restaurant). The first night is always a meet and greet and a general tour overview followed by dinner to get to know the group. 
Although we booked this trip through Intrepid Travel, the actual overland company taking this tour is Dragoman. More on that later... The truck is larger than the African Intrepid truck and the set up is as impressive. Maybe a bit more so because there are roof seats. This type of travel is called an Overland Tour, meaning it's an across continent adventure. Due to the size of the continent and vast distances that need to be covered, we will always have two truck drivers. Hannah and Sam, for this leg only, are also responsible for the organisational duties as well as driving.

This tour from Rio to Lima is over 60 days, and is broken up into smaller trips that all join together like a patchwork. Some of the passengers will continue with us to Lima, some will join other tours and some will continue past Lima. I met a girl in the lobby on the first morning who started in Alaska and finished in Rio. A 7month patchwork of adventure tours. (Dad- I can see you greening with envy). For us, we leave the truck in Lima while it continues on to Ecuador. I've started preparing myself for that pain of leaving the adventure, to go home.
In this particular leg of the trip, we will drive 45 hours over 18 days, covering 5 towns in Brazil. The following legs will cover countries such as Argentina, Peru, Chile and Bolivia. The 21 travellers on this leg will be with us on a 18 day road trip through to Buenos Aires. A third of the group are British, a third Kiwis and Aussies (as always we are well represented across the travelling scene) and a tiny handful of other random nationalities. Probably the biggest observation is how well travelled these people are. Much of the group has done the likes of Africa extensively. The travel stories on this truck could form a book. I'm in my element! 

The first morning of the tour, the Dragomen truck pulled up in front of the Rio Hotel and halted traffic for 10 minutes while we packed all the luggage into the truck. Rio Traffic mixed with horns brought back fond memories of India. Our first stop was to Paraty, 7 hours south of Rio. Although it sounds like Party, it's actually pronounced Para-chi but made it a perfect place for my birthday. This colonial town is located on the waterfront between mountains and rain forests. We were there for three nights and two days. The truck pulled up next to a hostel on a perfectly situated beach front. Our leaders gave Dave and I and another couple our own rooms with en suite rather than shared dorms. I'd say that won't be a regular occurrence but it was a great gesture. The first day the group headed out on a sail boat big enough for 40. The islands we were sailing around felt very much like Halong Bay in Vietnam. Misty clouds wrapped around the deep green forests. As it's rainy season the heavens let loose on our walk to the boat. By the time we set sail (motoring) the clouds cleared but left a misty feeling as we headed for a day of tinkering around the hundreds of Brazilian Islands on the Brazilian coast, stopping at a few for a swim in the warm and extremely salty sea water. Mixed into the relaxation was an unlimited supply of caipirinhas. A caipirinha is similar to a caprioska but with cachaša. The cachaša or the alcohol, results from fermentation of sugarcane juice that is afterwards distilled. It may sound like a silly idea, 5 hours of unlimited, 'help your self' cocktails, served from a bucket, but it wasn't. Caipirinhas are straight rum and sugar. So strong that the bucket it was served in was mostly full when we left - well, the second bucket anyway! Needless to say after a big day, it was an early night. A stroll around town at night, past the horses and carts on the cobbled streets, led to a street show where Brazilian ladies sang and danced for International Woman's Day. The time difference meant that day was actually my Kiwi birthday. In Brazil, the 9th March was the following day. The weather then was totally different, the sun was shining and made for the ideal day at the beach, sipping chilled coconuts. Dave was on cooking duty with half the group. This meant a three hour shopping trip to find Brazilian ingredients to feed 23 people. Later that evening, as the sun was setting, the lovely bunch of Kiwis we had befriended (Dane, Ashka, Lesley and Dee) surprised me with a few bottles of wine. To my amusement, our tour leaders made a birthday card from the group and cakes with candles were brought out. The Kiwis also cooked me my favourite meal and we drunk $2.5 caprahinas and listened to live jazz on the hostel's deck. I'd say Dave had a fair bit to do with ensuring my birthday abroad was perfect and I'm forever grateful. As I also am to the Kiwis who made such an effort for someone they only met the day before.

"Number #1 reason why you get travel vaccinations: believe it or not we got a bit of flak for getting travel vaccinations, due to the potential side effects...(Parents, doesn't this sound like child vaccinations?) If I remember correctly we each had over 20 injections for about 8 diseases- a huge expense. The likes of yellow fever is mandatory for entering back into Australia but others are only optional. 
Yesterday, Dave and a bunch of other guys walked out to an island (the water was so shallow). This German guy reached the island first, sat on a pristine beach and 9 dogs surrounded him. Two pounced on him and bit him a few times. He made it back into the water and got taken to hospital - for rabies shots that he hadn't had. Just makes you think. Dave, (who does have the expensive rabies vaccination) could easily have been the first one to the island. Thankfully for the German, we were in a spot with a hospital near by. He needed 5 shots over a few weeks. Due to the remoteness, not all the hospitals he went to over those few weeks actually had the shots available. In my opinion, that is why the vaccination debate is a no brainier.

A personal journal is a great place to vent. An online blog is probably not but since I'm only doing the blog and neeeeeed to express my frustrations, here's my vent. Plus, there's no point glorifying reality. We booked this trip under the misconception it was an Intrepid Travel trip, only to arrive to find out on day one, it's actually a Dragoman trip. They say it's the same but the only similarity is the truck travels overland. Intrepid prides itself on local interaction and real life experiences. A week in and there isn't any sign of local interaction. The Intrepid Africa overland trip also cooked at campsites but offered activities to interact with locals. Dragoman use foreign leaders, most Brits, so we also don't get a 'home grown' experience and stories shared. The leaders have said time and time again, their job is purely to facilitate and drive. Any information they share is just as 'an extra'. The frustration of this is we have all come a long way to find out about the country we are visiting and its people. There is none of that.The drivers, as lovely as these ladies are, are not guides and they have made that very clear to us. Sadly it is all too late. Had we have known that we wouldn't learn anything about the country we were visiting we wouldn't have booked this trip. 
The other frustration is the fact there isn't a cook. For those who know my views on cooking, I'm actually NOT being funny here. We are actually enjoying cooking a meal every now and again but it puts a hell of a lot of pressure on us as passengers to shop for 23 people in foreign speaking supermarkets, to then cook out of the back of a truck for the group - with no assistance from the leaders. I'm all for group participation but full responsibility for meals is a little unfair. At 5:30am, my cook group started cooking breakfast in the dark. 12 hours on the road so lunch was in a car park petrol station. Dinner was a little more tiring. We arrived at about 7:30pm and a simple bangers and mash with gravy and veggies to feed 23 wasn't finished until 9:30pm. It took so bloody long due to the quantity and the limited gas rings. Once eating and cleaning (flapping dishes in cold water) was complete, it was 11pm. This was my first of many cooking days over the next few months. I would say with each and every one, we will improve. A cook or a tiny bit of guidance would be handy to ensure we are getting fed right, hygiene standards are kept up, there is a variety in the food and there is reasonable food quality. As for the Dragoman tents, they aren't as fast to assemble as Intrepid tents and the mats for those who need one, are flipping yoga mats. If we had been sold a Dragoman trip we wouldn't have booked but on day one they said it is the same as Intrepid. Standardisation is something they need to work on before they sell it as the same company. Our facilitators have said they get these 'issues' every single time them meet someone who has booked an Intrepid trip, in this case, it is a quarter of our group. There - that's my one vent of the trip! Now back to it and the positives!

Over the last 7 days I haven't really written anything about where we have been. This is because it has been about 5 days of 8-12 hour drives. Driving, petrol station toilet stops and campsites on the side of the road. It makes for a boring blog and boring days. That is the reality of driving across a large continent. Finally we arrived at the Pantanal with 2 days of back to back activities planned. The Pantenal is an area of wetlands about the size of the United Kingdom. As it is the biggest wetland in the world, I was expecting it to look like the Okavango Delta in Botswana - wet swampy areas that only a canoe could get through. To avoid disappointment - Travel Lesson 101: DO NOT COMPARE PLACES AND EXPERIENCES OR HAVE EXPECTATIONS. We were in the Southern Pantanal which is like a large green farm with rice fields, rivers and the odd forest. 
After a hearty lunch included in the accommodation package (all food is included for 2 days - no cooking - yippee) we went on a safari drive though the Pantanal wetlands. Later that evening we took a night safari. It was mighty difficult not to compare the African safaris with those here. Most people fell asleep but were awoken to the sight of the endangered Giant Anteater. A strange looking fellow with a long snout for digging in termite mounds and Labrador-like tall for hiding during the day. 5-6 thousand jaguars are in the Pantanal but as they prefer the dry season, we didn't see any. This month is the worst in the year for mosquitoes, fortunately dengy fever isn't around at the moment. Thank goodness because not one of us had seen swarms of mossies like that before. It wasn't uncommon for 80 mossies to have bitten one leg. They took a chomp from inside this guy's mouth. They chomped their way through our pants and knickers and they even tolerated 80% Deet, used as hand and face moisturiser. As the park's biologist informed us, it was just another flavour for them. 
Two activities were included for the full day on the Pantanel. In the morning we took Canadian canoes down the river with the aim of experiencing the Pantanel from another perspective. The Pantanal is famous for birdlife, with over 450 species to be seen. The river is a great place to see many kinds right up close.
After lunch we swapped the paddles for reins and jumped on our horses and went riding through the reeds, tall grasses and farms. It was the first time horse riding for Dave. Thankfully his horse and mine, Little Frog, were perfectly behaved. So much so we broke the rules and took them on a bit of a trot. Horse riding was a lot of fun and an excellent way to see the land. To continue the cowboy theme, after dinner the actual cowboys and cowgirls put on a proper cowboy show. I put my hand up for a dance with one of the three cowboys. Fortunately, my cowboy taught me a few moves before we started the dance in front of our group. It was a lot of fun, so much so I got another cowboy dance in before bed. The morning before we left, the farm's biologist took us out on the riverboat for some piranha fishing. Those piranhas have some mighty fine canines. I accidentally caught a poisonous catfish that we ended up putting back. It was only the piranhas that we fed to the caimans (a breed of crocodile) and the eagles. There was a lot squeezed into those fews days and I feel we have well and truly experienced the Pantanal from all perspectives.

With our bellies full of free Pantanel cuisine we set off for Bonito, the ecological capital of South America. A five hour drive once seemed like a long drive, now, in comparison, that was a short one. 
The award winning snorkelling tour in Bonito wasn't an included activity but our leader, rightly, said it was a must do optional extra. There aren't many places left in the world that a mandatory shower is required before snorkelling to ensure all chemicals are removed. That says a lot, even before entering the water. There are a number of reasons why we would say that snorkelling in Bonito was one of the best snorkelling locations we'd ever been to. Firstly it's so popular, yet so private. Our group was tentatively booked on this tour 6 weeks ago to ensure we got a spot. Only 9 people can be in each section of the river at any one time. Controlling the number of tourists ensures the area is preserved. From a tourist's perspective, it was also a very tranquil experience. Tourists flock to this destination due to the clarity in the water and unique surroundings. Owing to the enormous quantity of limestone in the ground, the water of the Rio De Plata river passes through natural filters where impurities are deposited at the bottom of the river bed, leaving the rivers some of of the clearest in the world. To ensure the rivers stay this way, the 9 of us in each group had a snorkelling guide with us to ensure we weren't standing on the river bed, except in designated areas. No kicking of any sort was allowed. This was possible because we just floated down the river in buoyancy wetsuits, kilometre after kilometre moving only with the current. At times the current was extremely fast, almost rapid like. It is a river not the ocean so the spring water was extremely cold in parts. Sometimes spring water made the sand bubble like an underwater volcano. The river was surrounded by forests that offered a completely different feel. Tree branches overhung the water. Floating leaves glistened. Some of the underwater plant life looked like green grass and black dog hair. Plant species and interesting fish life have adapted to the high calcium environment. The fish were huge, weighing up to 12kg. Gold ones, black ones and ones with big lips swam closer than I was ever used to. To know that, while snorkelling, jaguars, crocs, monkeys and anacondas roamed the vicinity was a thought provoking concept. Words and photos cannot do this experience justice but the memory of this unique day will be with us forever.

4:30am and we were already on the road. The 15 hour drive to the Foz de Iguazo campsite was one mammoth drive. Thankfully it wasn't either of our cook groups responsible for feeding the masses.

We've been to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe /Zambia (World #11 fall) and we've been to Niagara Falls in United States / Canada (#15). We can now say we've completed another of world's most inpressive falls. The Iguazu waterfall Brazil / Argentina (#5) system makes up 1.7 miles of the Iguzu River, divided by islands along its edge, and consists of 275 waterfalls. These falls range from 197 to 269 feet high. The average height of most of the falls is 210 feet. 
The name Iguaz˙ (also known as Iguašu or Iguassu) originates from two words that mean ‘water' and ‘big'. These words don't quite capture the magnificence of this natural wonder but it is in fact one of the New Seven Wonders of Nature. Iguazu Falls is taller than, and twice as wide as Niagara Falls. There are approximately 2,000 plant species in the rain forests around Iguazu Falls. I actually think that the gigantic Amazonian like trees squeezed between the hundreds of falls makes these falls so spectacular.
These facts are curtesy of Google and not our leaders. Either way the facts provide further evidence as to why these are our favourite water falls. I was blown away from the Brazilian side but many of the people on our tour felt Victoria Falls are more impressive. That was until the following day, when we spent the day on the Argentinian side where 80% of the falls are located. The first viewing point, Devils Throat, is a viewing platform perched right over the top of the falls, looking down the gauge. Breathtaking. Splashes and mist as high as 20 metres. Two other walking and train tracks took us around the top of the falls and down the bottom for a view upwards. A few of the group expressed interest in taking a jet boat under the falls so I went with them as Dave wasn't really interested in that activity. I've jet boated before but this was so different as the jet boat literally took us underneath the fast flowing falls. The pressure was so powerful that you couldn't look upwards and no photos could really be taken. It was a freak'n awesome shower!
The truck was at the Iguazu Falls, Foz campsite for 4 nights. Other than the falls we did two other cheapish activities; a day trip to Paraguay and to a bird park. The town of Foz in Brazil is located next to two other country borders, Argentina and Paraguay. The common acknowledgement within our group is the lack of major cultural difference between our home countries and Brazil. Yes, this is disappointing and are hoping the rest of South America isn't going to be this western. Our first sign of change we had been looking for was about 30 seconds into the country of Paraguay. It's safer to catch the bus straight over the border than to walk it, although that equates to no stamp in the passport. I'd say the Brazil and Paraguay governments are ridiculously casual about the border crossing due to the high volume of people who pop over to buy cheap electronics. Metres from the border is what looks like: Asia. Power lines look like birds nests, street stalls, hagglers, markets and dodgy shops line the wobbly streets. Brazilians speak Portuguese and the folks in Paraguay speak Spanish. Thankfully we had three Spanish speakers on the tour so their translation skills really came in handy and will continue to for the rest of South America.
We couldn't resist visiting a Brazilian Bird Park, the largest in Latin America, even though we are both strongly apposed to anything in cages, especially zoos. It was the best opportunity to see the South American birds, some of the most exotic and colourful in the world. We were able to get inside the large enclosures with some of the 1,020 birds, 150 different species. The Bird Park has the largest flock of toucans and aracaris in the world and is dedicated to the care and conservation of these species. 16.5 acres of lush Atlantic Forest is kept to form the best habitat for the wild life. Species included beautiful pink flamingos and endangered parrots. The highlight was surrounding ourselves with toucans. That distinct over proportionate orange beck, blue eye lids and penguin like body colour make this my favourite bird of all time. There are 37 different varieties of toucans but the original orange beaked specimen is the number 1 beauty. We also watched a mummy and a daddy turtle have happy-humpy time, held a macaw and saw an anaconda slowly eat a rabbit. (I've attached that video to this blog). That in itself was amazing as it happened quite quickly, but only happens every 10-15 days. I reckon if the snake had arms he would ration his food. The whole arvo at the bird park brought back fond memories of my Grandad and his aviary and his squawky parrot.

On the road again and through the Brazil / Argentina border, again, but this time it was for the last time. When reflecting back on the last three weeks in Brazil, we will remember how bright the green forests and grasses are, how little English is spoken, how friendly the locals are, how modern it is, how the wine taste like grapetise and how weird the cake breakfasts are. It was only in week two we found a local who corrected our Portuguese manners, the masculine and feminine versions of thank you. You would think that would be, at the very least, something our Dragomen leaders would teach us... any-who, to the  few the Brazilian Folk we have met along the way ObragadA from me, and ObragadO from Dave. 

Ola Argentina! Only one sightseeing activity was left on this leg of the trip and it was to the Jesuit Ruins. Once one of the awesome guys on our trip explained the significance of the former Jesuit religious ruins to South American religion today, it made so much more sense to everyone as to why we were there and what we were looking at. The Jesuits are one of the largest sectors in the Catholic religion. Jesuits from Spain and Portugal, relocated to Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay in the 1600s. Today, these countries have a strong Jesuit /Catholic influence including the current Pope, Pope Francis who is also a Jesuit Catholic from Buenos Aires. 
After a long 12 hour drive we arrived into a random little village located on the side of the Uruguay river. It did have a pub of sorts that sold $4 litre bottles of Argentinean wine and $2 litre beers. Two little old codgers rocked the place until the jukebox replaced them with some tunes that kept the travellers dancing until we were kicked out at 11pm. Stuck in a truck for so long really makes the bones want to rock when released from the cage. Following an extremely cold night in tents with a shared sleeping bag (we left one locked in the truck), we hit the road for the last 12 hour journey to the Argentinean capital of Buenos Aires. There has been a fair few long driving days over the last few weeks. At first it was rather tedious and boring but we got used to it. Card games and trivia kept Dave amused while I, finally, learnt to French plait my own hair, another thing off the 'to do' list I wrote when I was 10. (I still need to own a husky and eat with the Queen....) The two French girls on this trip said in France it's called an African or Indian plait. They also said that the French word for French Toast, translates to 'old toast'. This is because this dish is made when using up old toast.

Over 18 days the 21 of us have travelled  **4,375 KM, driven for 75 hours** and visited 5 major sights or towns. Each of our cook groups cooked twice. I can now master a 'fancy version' of bangers and mash and a Moroccan tagine! My cook group, Emma, Alex and India were so kind helpful and patient with the 'cooking novice'. Shopping and cooking for 23 took a bit of getting used to but became easier with time. Like anything, patience, perseverance, and a positive attitude can make all the difference to a smooth day. It's actually been a smooth 18 days - considering there are 23 of us living together, sleeping together, driving together and eating together. It's taken me a little longer than I had hoped to find my place but I think if I learn to relax and go with it more, i'll get more out of the next leg.

After those 75 long hours on the road and a backpack full of Brazillian memories, we finally arrived at the finish point of the first leg, Argentina's capital, Buenos Aires. Three nights, two days to enjoy the finer things in life: a bed, a private room, no tents down at 4am, a laundry, showers and toilet paper. Buenos Aires is famous for steak and wine so the first stop for the group was to a steak restaurant. Steak up to 900grams was between $7-$14 and a bottle of wine only $8. One thing is for sure, anything cheaper than expensive Brazil, has got to be a town worth exploring. The city, more specifically the Pink House, was where Madonna sung that famous song 'Don't Cry For Me Argentina' written by Andrew Lyod Webber for the musical Evita. I'd heard the song before but learnt about the history behind Evita and Eva Peron, was very fascinating. Eva Peron was the president's wife, an actress, beauty, ambassador for labour and woman's rights and Argentina's golden girl. Eva was so well loved that the Argentines, now days, don't like the movie Evita as they don't feel Madonna portrays Eva accurately.
After Eva died at the age of 33, her body was moved, hidden and stolen from Argentina, Italy, Spain then back to Argentina - by the government.  
This is a coincidence but that famous 'Don't Cry For Me Argentina' song was released in 1976, the year the United States of America was celebrating 200 years of freedom, and Argentina wasn't. The year the song came out, Argentina was in the throes of an undeclared civil war which would result in thousands of brutal murders, mutilations, rapes and disappearances in a conflict whose seeds had been planted by the aforementioned dead fascist and his cronies. Basically it was the government who was responsible. The day we learnt this information was a public holiday. Buenos Aires was full of  protests remembering those that were murdered as well as reminding the government that it can never happen again. 

Buenos Aires really can't be accurately portrayed here in only a few paragraphs or even a few days of exploring. It's a beautiful but odd city. The Argentine leader from the Free Walking Tour explained it by saying: 
"Argentines are Spanish decendants, who think like Italians, believe they are British and feel they live like Parisians". As always there's two sides to a city but in Buenos Aires there are far more. Firstly in many parts of the city it feels like Paris (they even call it "The Paris of the South"). The architecture is European alongside modern. Really odd. I've never seen anything like it. The other suburb worth visiting was La Boca. A place never to go at night but safe (ish) during the day. Although the police officer, we asked for directions, said not to walk there otherwise "you will be shot" we opted for taking a taxi. Inside La Boca is a semi safe area, the Caminito, for tourists to visit. It was amazing. Atmosphere like you have no idea. Colourful houses, side cafes, market stalls and pedestrian only streets, and where tango artists perform and tango-related memorabilia is sold. Tourists come to Buenos Aires to see tango dancing.There are 200 tango shows available in town. It's funny though, it's a "for the tourists" thing. Locals don't actually tango. In the 70s the president killed thousands of Latin Americans so there isn't actually a "true, genuine" colourful latino culture as we'd expected. 
Argentines may not tango but they sure do party. We went to a live drumming show held in an open air warehouse. It was epic. The $7 entrance fee paid by the thousand-odd people who attended, paid for the 4 hours of live music. Hippies, free sprit dancing mixed in with us, uncoordinated dancers having the time of our lives. Unbelievable. What 'complemented' the evening was the $7 LITRE, half and half, red bull vodka drinks! 

As mentioned above the Pope is from Buenos Aires. The Argentine guide advised us that the Argentines aren't as religious as we first thought. Or maybe it would be more accurate saying that one second after the new Argentinian Pope was announced, catholic or Vatican flags were raised in Buenos Aires, Argentines became patriotic, and Mass became very popular in the new Catholic nation. Of course this is just the opinion of one guide. I had never attended a church service or Mass before. I think it's important to go once in my life to experience something so important to so many. What better place to go than to the Pope's former church in Buenos Aires. It was a huge cathedral event that went for about 1.5 hours. Dave and I had one of my favourite travelling companions with me. Kris who is teaching me all about religion. I particularly enjoyed talking to him as he is extremely knowledgable about a range of regions, the Darwin theory and science. The service was even held by a cardinal. I think for a first time experience, we were very lucky even if it was in Spanish, and the communion- wafer- head touching - arms crossed thing confused me. It was an interesting experience that I'm glad I attended. 

To end, I have one last random fact. Argentines have their own "he who must not be named" , their former corrupt president who is the same guy responsible for covering up the killings of thousands of locals in 1976. If they mention his name, they feel jinxed and the same goes for seeing red heads on the street. To overcome this and remove the omen or bad luck, ladies touch their left boob and males their left nut! No, I'm not kidding. 

It's only been 18 days but by golly we fitted a lot into the last 18 days, from Rio to Buenos Aires. Leg 1 of 4 is complete. With that, we bid the 7 new friends travelling south on another truck a sad farewell and begin our journey north, towards La Paz in Bolivia.

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