Trip Start Oct 02, 2009
7Trip End Dec 19, 2009
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As we had descended from the Andes over the past few days, we had noticed that the landscape had become a lot flatter, the vegetation greener and the weather more humid. Even the border town felt different to Bolivia and Peru – more people were dressed in modern clothing and there was a big mix of races, as opposed to the mostly indigenous cultures and Spanish descendants we’d encountered in the previous countries.
After getting cash and supplies, it was quite a drive on a small bus to the Pantanal, the world’s largest tropical wetlands
Our lunch stop was at a place that had boardwalks out to the river, and there were all sorts of colourful birds everywhere and a few capybaras running around. I was particularly taken with a Cara Cara, a hawk-like bird with a blue and salmon-coloured beak.
From there we changed to a big open truck and were driven to one of the ranches which would be our accommodation for the next two nights. We arrived mid-afternoon and by this time we were sweltering, it had to be at least 35 degrees and it was quite a shock after being in the Andes for the past month which was sunny but much cooler.
We all went for a walk with Carlos, a naturalist, across the paddocks and into the scrubby vegetation. We saw a coatimundi (which Nath and I had seen a species of in Mexico, like a raccoon), a massive termite nest, a family of orange howler monkeys and the black male howler monkey. Everyone was hot and tired by the time we came back so we spent the rest of the afternoon lazing around in the hammocks set up in a rotunda, talking, reading books, and drinking pisco
We had dinner and Alex, our tour guide, made some Brazilian-style BBQ meat which was marinated with something yummy and cooked in an open fire - it was absolutely melt-in-the-mouth.
The showers were simple and cold water only, which none of us really minded because it was still very hot overnight and it was good to cool off. However the showers and toilets were also very popular with some frogs and a couple of spiders and there was more than one squeal from the girls’ bathroom which amused the rest of us.
The sleeping arrangements were also very basic – they consisted of a big shed-type building with wooden walls and netting for windows to let the breeze in. We all slept on hammocks hung in rows from the support beams – hammocks are comfortable to a point but not as good as a bed, especially after two nights’ sleep sitting upright on public transport. Due to the humidity the Swedish girls and Alex braved the hammocks in the rotunda but got eaten alive by mosquitoes.
The next morning we were up early and set off after breakfast on a guided safari. Along the dirt road we saw numerous birds, including some beautiful green kingfishers.
We stopped near a lake and walked around it to the other side, where we were surprised to see a capybara in the water beside many Espito Caimans
In yet another pond we saw Pink Spoonbills, a Jabiru Stork, iguanas, lizards much like goannas at home, some Southern Screechers (funny turkey-like birds) and finally a Pampas Deer hiding in the bushes.
It was another scorcher, literally 38 degrees in the shade, so after lunch everyone was lethargic and hung out in the hammocks again
When it cooled down slightly, we all went horseriding. Strangely as we entered one of the far paddocks, three rogue horses joined us and tormented a couple of our horses. The riders from the ranch tried to scare them away, but only succeeded in stirring the other horses up which was a little scary - I’m not the most confident horse rider. Finally they just left them alone and they fell into line with the rest of the horses. We saw heaps of birds and the number of butterflies was incredible. Carlos told us that anacondas were often found in the area but (unfortunately or fortunately?) the Pantanal was too dry at the moment.
After dinner we went caiman spotting. The driver spotted a tarantula in the middle of the road and since some of the people on the tour hadn’t been to the jungle they were quite excited to see it. However just as he reversed the truck to go around it, some branches flicked into the truck, scaring two of the English girls, who screamed and ran to the back of the truck
It was Nath’s birthday the next day and we had an early start, as we went piranha fishing in the river! The birthday boy caught two and we checked out their rows of teeth – sharp as razors! Emma caught a Pacu, a larger member of the piranha family. Not long after we saw a line of cute baby capybaras swimming desperately across the river against the current and we were all anxious to make sure they all made it across, which thankfully they did!
From there it was a few good hours on the bus to Bonito, with a stop for lunch at a buffet place with lots of salads, which we were all glad to see. (Brazil has better standards of food hygiene than Peru and Bolivia so we all braved the salads and never looked back.)
Bonito was not much cooler – it was incredibly steamy and humid when we first arrived. While everyone relaxed, I snuck off to buy Nath a delicious gateau-style cake to take to dinner that night at a local restaurant/bar.
I tried pacu for dinner, which was nice but bony. The birthday cake was delicious, and the guitar player at the restaurant played and sang Happy Birthday in Portuguese. That night we discovered caipirinhas, sugarcane liqueur-based cocktails with lime, yum!
Unfortunately it poured with rain the following morning so we decided to postpone our river snorkelling until the next day. We all had a late breakfast and were amused by the gorgeous puppy at our hotel which kept trying to play with feet and bite everyone’s sandals. We had a lazy day with a long-awaited sleep in, caught up on our emails, visited quite a few ATMs (before I realised I had mixed up my Canadian card with my Australian one and had been selecting the wrong account), had lunch at a cafe and browsed through some of the shops
That evening we went to Jimboia Proyecto, a snake conservation project started by a guy who had become interested in snakes whilst on a visit to Australia a decade ago. He gave a talk about how Brazilians needed to be educated on which snakes were dangerous and which snakes were actually helping them by keeping the rat population from destroying their crops. The immediate reaction of farmers who see a snake is to kill it. We were all able to hold a Red-Tailed Boa Constrictor, which was obviously tame, but exciting all the same.
The following day most of us opted for the snorkelling trip. As part of the excursion we were taken to a restaurant for an early lunch, then we spent some time waiting around as the number of people able to snorkel on the river is tightly controlled and we had to wait for our group’s scheduled departure. Luckily there were quite a few hammocks to hang around in! Then we were kitted out with wetsuits, booties and snorkel masks. From there we caught a buggy to the start of the trailhead and enjoyed a walk through the bush for about 1km. On the way we saw lots more birds including an endangered Carrasow, like a big scrub turkey. Our local guide also pointed out an endangered tree that has nearly been wiped out by cosmetic companies and is still used in Chanel No
On a more positive note, there were stacks of butterflies, including a small brown and yellow one that landed on my hand and stayed there for about 500m of the walk! We finally reached Rio do Olhos do Agua (River of Water Eyes), a tributary of the Prata River, hot from the walk in our wetsuits and keen to get in. We had to be careful not to disturb the bottom of the river at all, and had to use only our hands to guide us. That was easy though as the river pulled us gently downstream. The water was so clear and there were heaps of fish! Nath and I went last as we were the most confident snorkellers of the group, which actually worked out well as we were able to hang back and look at things more easily than most of the others. We saw lots of different types of fish, including quite a few colourful patterned ones. Above water was interesting too. The river was so peaceful and the birds didn’t really see us as a threat as we floated down the river so we were able to get a good look at a few, and even spotted a monkey darting away in the branches above. We reached a big pool at one point in the river where it was deep and we could play about in the water without disturbing the bottom. It was already being disturbed by some natural springs welling up, making the effect of boiling water which was quite cool to see. We took some silly snaps with an underwater camera and had a lot of fun just swimming around, following fish. We had to get out and walk for a short section and we saw some Capuchin monkeys which were really cute. Apparently there can be caimans in the river but we didn’t see any, although I did keep a bit of an eye out! Later we found out the group who went down the river before us had seen an anaconda! Although I was glad I didn’t come face to face with one in the water, I was still a bit disappointed we didn’t see one
After we got back to the town of Bonito we had a short while to organise ourselves and get some snack supplies before we got on the night bus. It was a long trip but we arrived at Foz de Iguacu, otherwise known as the town of Iguacu Falls. We grabbed some breakfast at a bakery nearby, then took a van to Paraguay for the day (as you do!). Our van crossed the Parana River to Ciudade del Este, Paraguay’s border town. It was Saturday and only three weeks before Christmas, so the place was packed with markets and people shopping. It is cheaper for the Brazilians to buy things in Paraguay and take them back over the border, particularly electronics. Nath and I had a wander around and looked at some watches and electronics but we really didn’t need anything, and we worked out that they weren’t really that cheap anyway. Nath spent most of the time looking for a cheap Brazil soccer shirt but they all looked too dodgy to pass as real ones!
Everyone was tired by the time we got back, with very little sleep the previous night on the bus. I went for a swim in the pool and everyone had time to relax before dinner.
We went as a group to a budget but tasty place which had pizza, including milk and white chocolate pizza. Sounds revolting, but being the chocoholic I am of course I tried it, and it was actually really tasty! Obviously no tomato sauce is used but there is still a bit of cheese on it to counteract the sweetness. I can’t say I’m converted but it was interesting to try it.
After dinner Cathy, Becs, Susan, Nath and I decided to walk to the historic end of town in search of some nightlife. We went through a not very well lit area and we were all a bit nervous, but it was fine and we discovered some beautiful old buildings, and a Christmas concert
The next morning we visited the Brazilian side of spectacular Iguacu Falls (also known as Iguassu and Iguazu, depending on if it’s written in Portuguese or Spanish). We all had some happy snaps taken at the start of the trail, from which we could see a great view of most of the falls from an elevated position, and all the way over to the Argentinian side of the falls.
We then walked steadily down the trail, stopping at various lookouts along the way. During the walk we saw another coati darting up the path, more butterflies and some interesting spiders.
Eventually we walked right up to the main part of the falls and along a concrete bridge out into the water. We got quite damp from the spray but it was amazing to see such massive falls close up. We had been to Niagara Falls just before leaving Canada but they had nothing on Iguacu Falls.
Just outside the national park was Parque de Aves, an aviary with lots of Brazilian birds and animals, so most of us visited that
The following day was action-packed as we left early to cross the border into Argentina to visit the other side of Iguazu Falls. We caught a train with many other tourists to the start of the 1km boardwalk out to the Garganta Del Diablo, the Devil’s Throat, which is the steepest and highest part of the falls. It was amazing to experience the raw power of the falls from so close. We had raincoats on but still managed to get drenched! We even saw a caiman, resting on a rock near a small island not far from the falls themselves. I hope it realised it was a long drop!
We caught the train back to one of the visitors’ centres and had a bite of lunch before walking along the upper trail of boardwalks along the top of the waterfalls, stopping to have a look at some capuchin monkeys on the way. There are numerous sets of falls that are individually named to make up the huge Iguazu Falls and the trails have numerous viewpoints, also back to the Brazilian side. Nath and I were on our own admiring one of the many colourful butterflies fluttering about amongst the vegetation, when suddenly a coati ran up from a tree nearby and jumped onto the wooden boardwalk railing
We rejoined some of the group for a trip through the surrounding national park in an overland truck along to the boat launch further down the river. We saw more monkeys, butterflies and birds and a guide gave us a talk about the ecosystem surrounding the falls.
Then we went on a boat ride around San Martin Island up to the falls on either side – I felt a bit like it was a tourist trap but we’d passed it up at Niagara a few months earlier so we thought we’d do it this time.
Despite our rain jackets we got absolutely drenched! I found I couldn’t even see, first my sunglasses misted up, then got wet, then I got sunscreen in my eyes while everyone was screaming and shouting with the volume of spray coming off the falls. It was fun all the same – not every day that you get to see Iguazu Falls that close up.
We were just starting to dry off from the walk back up the trail when we got to the bus and the heavens opened. It was getting late by the time we returned to Brazil, and we only had a short time until we were on another night bus, the final but longest night bus of our trip
The next morning it was still raining although luckily it was easing and everyone decided to go on a boat cruise that took us out of the harbour. We stopped at Praia Santa Rita, a beautiful bay where most of us jumped in for a swim, as it was quite warm despite the rain. Some of us swam to shore and went for a bit of a walk along the beach. By the time we swam back to the boat, the very fit-looking captain made us lime and orange-flavoured caipirinhas which went down very well.
Later we motored to another bay near Ilha da Pescaria, which is owned by the Portuguese Monarchy! We spent a few hours swimming, snorkelling with the fish, jumping off the roof of the boat and drinking caipirinhas
We moved not far away to Praia Vermelha for lunch, where we boarded a bigger boat that had a full kitchen. We had a tasty chicken and rice dish before getting back on our boat for some more swimming and then heading back to Paraty for a shower and a walk around the new town.
Later that evening Nath and I celebrated our nine years together at a more upmarket seafood restaurant – the fish was freshly caught, it was divine and goes down in my memory as one of the best meals we had in South America.
The following morning we had some time to ourselves and enjoyed wandering around the old town and the markets, where Nath bought some Haviana thongs. The buildings are old French style and reminded us of pictures of buildings you see in the Caribbean cities – whitewashed with colourful cornices and flower boxes under all the windows.
We got some icecream from a self-serve icecream bar that some of the girls had recommended, which was novel. They charge you per kilo so you just scoop out how much you want and what flavours and then add nuts or sprinkles. We sat at a little metal table in the old town and people-watched.
Ihla Grande is the largest island off the coast of Brazil, but still small enough that it only has one main town, Vila do Abrao, and it doesn’t have any cars.
After checking into our brightly-coloured hotel, we went for a wander around old town. It was raining so we just wandered around the streets and explored the shops full of sarongs and beach wear.
At dinner we caught up with Lee and Caroline again, who had parted from the group back in Bolivia and been to Rio while we had been at Iguazu and Paraty, so we all had a nice catch up before heading to a hostel bar at end of the main beach. There were some locals playing bongos accompanied by a guy on guitar, and then later a female singer joined them and they played and sang some reggae, which was amazing.
The following day we were free to explore the island ourselves. We ended up going on a hike across the island with Alex, Cathy and Susan. We took a trail through the jungle which went via some beautiful viewpoints of the island. We emerged on a beautiful beach and walked along it to rejoin the trail to Lopes Mendes Beach, which took our breath away
The following morning we took a boat back to the mainland and then from the port got a bus to Rio de Janeiro, arriving mid afternoon. The first thing we did is head out for a look at the famous Copacabana Beach, only a few blocks away from the hotel. It was long and sandy and the water looked nice but I can say I’ve seen much nicer beaches. However it was interesting to people-watch – we sat at a cafe on the promenade and had a fresh coconut drink while we watched the peddlers try to sell beachwear, little statues of Jesus and other ridiculous knick knacks.
We walked down the beach, and then cut back to the main street of Copacabana, which is mostly full of shops but proved good for people-watching.
We had just enough time to go up to the roof of the hotel for a swim in the pool – which was only waist-deep and very busy given the hot afternoon. But there was an amazing view of Cristo Rendentor, the famous statue of Jesus with his arms outstretched which overlooks the city
That night we went to a Brazilian barbeque buffet for our last meal together as a group. It was amazing – there was every type of salad you could imagine and the waiters brought around huge skewered chunks of different meats which they would cut straight onto your plate. My favourite was the marinated beef. Afterwards we got a private bus to a samba show, apparently the safest way to do it as they are often in the dodgy parts of town. It wasn’t really what we expected – a giant hall with a stage. Although it was almost 11pm by the time we got there nothing much happened until nearly 12. We sat around talking at some metal tables but once the dancers got going it was absolutely incredible. We couldn’t get over how fast the dancers wiggled their hips with their amazing dancing, all dressed up in elaborate costumes. High in some stands behind the audience the 40+ strong percussion band played bongos, strange bottle-cap boards and other instruments and it sounded fantastic. The show ended up finishing after 3am – no wonder Rio has the reputation to party!
The next day we moved to a private room in a hostel nearby, as the hotel included at the end of the tour was a bit more than we wanted to pay ourselves. A couple of the others did the same thing. Then most of us went on a separate city tour in a minivan. Rio is actually quite big and the sights are spread out, so it made sense in terms of both time and cost
Next we visited Morro do Pao de Acucar, also known as Sugarloaf, and took a cable car up the mountain for views of Rio, its beaches, the botanic gardens and Cristo Redentor. It had been raining and was still foggy up on the mountain but we did manage to see most of the city and get some half-decent photos. A buffet lunch was included in the tour so we went to another of those, putting back on all the weight we lost in Bolivia after being sick and eating non-inspiring food! Next the minivan took us up the long winding road of Corcovado Mountain in the Tijuca Forest National Park to the foot of Cristo Redentor, the largest art deco statue in the world.
Luckily the views were clearer than they had been from Sugarloaf and it was one of those travel moments when I thought “Wow, I made it to Rio!” Unfortunately I marred it by slipping down the wet stairs and injuring my foot, so I had to limp back down to the bus, but it was still worth it!
We had to cross the city past the big lagoon in the middle, Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas, and past the jockey club to the Sambodrome, where the famous Carnivale is held every year
For some reason the tour took us to the hideous concrete Catedral Metropolitana, which reminded me of a wasp’s nest. Apparently it’s quite famous but it failed to impress me until I stepped inside – the stained-glass windows were amazing and definitely rivalled any I’d seen in historic churches in Europe.
Our final stop was The Lapa Steps, which I, admittedly, had never heard of, but they were really interesting. Apparently they even featured on a U2 an album cover. The colourful tiled stairway was created by Chilean painter called Selaron, who moved to Rio over twenty years ago and began working on the steps as a tribute to his adopted country.
Originally, the 215 steps were covered in blue, green and yellow tiles, the colours of the Brazilian flag, but now people from all over the world send Selaron colourful tiles to incorporate and he claims he will never stop working on it. He was actually out on the steps when we were there and our guide gave us a translation of his comments about the steps. Unfortunately like everything else it’s turned into a commercial enterprise and you can now buy posters and postcards of the steps from the little doorway adjacent
There were still eight of us about from the tour so we went to a cafe and had light meals for dinner followed by some quiet drinks at the hostel –we were all worn out from the tour and the two previous nights out in the party city.
The following day Nath and I walked along Copacabana and along the promenade to Ipanema Beach. Luckily my swollen foot had gone down enough for me to put my shoe on and surprisingly it felt better after walking on it for a while. Some would argue Ipanema Beach is nicer than Copacabana, with less dodgy characters around, at least in the daytime and with lovely views of Sugarloaf. We had read about an amazing crepe restaurant which we discovered in the back streets, then we had a brief wander up the main street of Ipanema, not actually on the beach but a few blocks behind it. We caught a bus back to Copacabana, watching our belongings, but in fact it was fine – a friendly local woman even asked us if we needed help to know where to get off the bus.
In the afternoon Nath and I joined a tour through the favelas – it’s not recommended that you go up there as a tourist without a guide. The favelas are like slums or shanty towns, and there’s an unbelievable 1,000 favelas in and around Rio
At the top of the favela, the guide gave us a talk on life in a favela. Many people who live there are ordinary workers. The favelas don’t have very good sewerage systems and infrastructure as they are basically a conglomeration of concrete boxes built on top of one another, and seeing the tangle of electricity wires it was evident that blackouts are a common problem. Yet many of the people we saw were tidily dressed and wearing shoes and apparently quite a lot of people have cable television. The drug dealers run the favelas and sadly people respect them and are even proud to say they come from their particular favela. We saw quite a few young guys with peroxide blonde hair which is sort of a badge of honour for the Rocinho favela. Tourists in a group are safe because everyone knows that a portion of our tour ticket price goes to help an education and day care centre for their kids
The first place we went to was an art studio, where the artists had created amazing colourful paintings of Rio, the favelas, and some more sombre ones of the violent clashes with police.
Ordinary police are not safe in the favelas as the drug dealers are armed and will kill them. They have even shot down a police helicopter in the past. Specially-trained elite police are the only squads that will go in there, and even then, it has to be a major incident. Occasionally someone innocent gets in the way of these clashes between the elite police and drug dealers. The inhabitants of the favelas blame the police when someone innocent dies, and have commonly set buses on fire in the city in protest. The whole situation is such a big mess, made worse by the corruption rife amongst the police force.
But on the day we visited nothing like this was going down. We visited a bakery where we all bought some delicious pastries for 1 real (50 cents) and listened to some percussion music by some young kids. On the way through the favela people were friendly and lots of kids came up to us – they all knew our guide. I had taken some stickers to give out to the kids, which again proved popular. Finally we visited the day care/education centre where our money was going
That evening most of the GAP group went to a nice Italian restaurant for our last dinner as a group, as a number of people were leaving the next day. Afterwards we went to a street party in Gavea, an upmarket suburb where a group of Easter Islanders were playing traditional music outside a bar. We had caipirinhas and met some locals, including one guy who had been living in Newcastle and was just back in Brazil for a holiday to visit his family! Small world.
Nath and I still had most of the next day to explore and we hadn’t been into the city centre yet, so we used the Metro train system. When we emerged from the metro station we were met the sight of the spectacular Theatre Municipal on the square, flanked by the equally impressive Palácio Pedro Ernesto.
We took ourselves on a self-guided walking tour based on our Lonely Planet guide and saw the main sights of the city, including Convento Santo Antonio, the national library, and Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Candelária
Then we hit the shops for some Christmas presents, as we would arrive home only a few days before Christmas. It was so busy and crowded, and we were starting to get hot and cranky when we realised we’d walked about six blocks through the mayhem on the right street, but in the wrong direction! Eventually we found the metro station we wanted and returned to Copacabana for a very late lunch, grabbed a few more presents for people then raced back to the hostel.
Then it was time to head for Argentina! We said goodbye to Cathy and set off for the airport. The taxi ride was a little scary – the traffic was horrendous leaving Copacabana, so the taxi driver went quite fast to make up time! Luckily we made our flight without problems, and it ended up being delayed anyway.