Monday, 23 May 2011


Hello! Following my amazing adventures in Peru, which reached their zenith atop Machu Picchu about 3 weeks ago, I set off to Brazil. Some of you may be we wondering why I did not opt to go South directly across the border from Peru and into Bolivia. Well, turns out it is a country I am already familiar with as I spent the summer of 2006 volunteering there and although a good friend of mine, Kiko, is currently based in La Paz (northern Bolivia), I decided my rather finite time and economic resources could be better deployed in other parts of LatAm... So Brazil. The country which commonly comes to our top-of-mind for cliché attributes such as its refreshing caipirinhas, its phenomenal futebol and its impeccable beaches turns out to also stand out  – more intrinsically than anything though – for a popular (as in, “of the people”) for a very unique yet very diverse type of musical genre. This is MPB, or Musica Popular Brasileira, and is appreciated and enjoyed by all. In essence, the comparison would be far from Country (in the US) or Flamenco (in Spain) – which generally only tend to be in certain people’s music libraries (a minority?) – as I perceived MPB to be at the heart of Brasilian culture, at the heart of people’s social interactions and, most importantly, at the heart of people’s entertainment. In itself, the music style, which spans various shapes and forms, contains some of the attributes which characterise, in my (humble) view, Brasilian society: Passion, Rhythm and Emotion... all of it spiced up with a peculiar joy, a vital desire to enjoy every single beat as if it were the last. For Brazilians are in love with life. And this emotion... well, they aim to transmit it to all those passing through their country, regardless of their origin or provenance. At least this is how I perceived it during my stay and boy was I not deceived.

So I arrived to Sao Paolo, after a c. 5 hour flight from Lima at 5am on a Wednesday morning. The flight was very comfortable (have actually been extremely impressed by LAN, the Chilean / Peruvian national airline) but slightly too short to catch a proper rest – even if the plane was only half full and there was plenty of room to lie down and have a proxy to a horizontal position (even in coach!). The 2-hour time difference worked its magic and the Peruvian 3am turned into Brazilian 5am – gotta love time zones. Before heading over to Brazil, as I tend to do on most occasions, I had spent my last day in Peru thinking about my itinerary in my next destination. From my research (which obviously included a great deal of recommendations from friends, on-the-road acquaintances, etc.) I decided there were some “must-do” places I should aim to visit while others were secondary. Again, blame it on my 2.5 week stay... One could, honestly, spend months in Brazil and still not have enough time to properly get to every corner of the country. The places I was most interested in were Rio de Janeiro, Iguassu Falls and Manaus (in the Amazon). I began in Iguassu... After landing in Sao Paolo I had to endure a c. 4 hour layover before catching my flight to Foz de Iguaçu and which I mostly used to check my email and catch up on a few things. The flight was good and only took about an hour and a half. [Here just a minor explanatory note... As most of you may imagine, Brazil is a huge country. So, distances can get quite large if one intends to only use the bus as a means of transportation. In order to fulfil my planned itinerary, I was thus compelled to jump on a few internal flights which, by the way, weren’t all that expensive.] Wow... it’s been a while since I haven’t used “square brackets” – those investment bankers in the crowd will know what I am referring to. J So after enjoying a short and pleasing flight, I got to Foz. The airport is relatively close to town so the bus journey barely took 25 minutes (and 4 reales – c. 1.5 euros). I got to my hostel at a decent hour but was very tired from not having slept the whole night. I thus decided to take it easy and chill the rest of the afternoon. It was, in any case, too late to go to either side of the falls (Brazilian or Argentinean) and I wasn’t really up for wandering around the town of Foz, which, I am sorry to admit, has very little appeal ex the falls and national park around them. While making use of the free wi-fi in the living / common room, I met a few Brazilians (all university students) who had gone to Foz for a few days to attend a national Geography (their major) conference. So turns out they were from all over the place: Sampa (Sao Paolo); Rio; Manaus, etc. After chatting for a while, they proposed me to spend the evening with them as they were going to make some “churrasco” (Brazilian BBQ) in the backyard. I was all in... A few groceries and beers later, Venicius (I think that was his name...) began to work his magic by the grill. In the meantime, the rest of us were chatting about, laughing, drinking some Brahma (Brazilian beer) and playing pool. Let me tell you... the food was astonishing: the meet was out of this world... extremely tender and with an unbelievable taste. Following the BBQ, a few of the dudes and dudettes left to go party on the Argentinean side (remember, the Iguazu falls are right on the border between Argentina and Brazil. Paraguay is also along the Triplice Frontera, although it does not detain any territory along the falls geography). I knew that if I joined them, I would not manage to wake up early... During the BBQ, I also met a very nice and interesting French girl, Laetitia, with whom I bonded well and decided to check out the falls from the Argentinean side the next day. So, in spite of the numerous beers, still an early-ish night – at least by my recent standards. Next morning, 9am wake-up, hostel-sponsored breakfast and out we were on the bus towards Argentina. From Foz (i.e. Brazilian side), it’s a bit of a pain in the arse to get to the Argentinean  falls really. One needs to catch two buses, first to Puerto Iguazu (the Argentinean equivalent of Foz) – after crossing the border – and then from there off to the National Park. Only easy part is that one can pay with reais. After arriving to the Parque Nacional Iguazu (c. 1 hour after we had left our hostel), we were very positively impressed by the fact that the ticket  (c. 25usd) could only be exchanged for local currency. No cards accepted and guess what, no ATM either. So, and this the Argentineans had it all figured out, one could pay in foreign currency in the random convenience store right behind the ticket booth and get cash back in Pesos... the trick being that there was a minimum spend for the store to convert your cash. Conclusion being that if one didn’t have pesos beforehand, the ticket  was c. 10%-15% more expensive due to this “technological” cheekiness on behalf of the Argentineans. The park itself is huge but, quite conveniently, an “ecological” (as they put it) train covers most of the main sights. All in all, Laetitia and I spent the entire day there as the park is really huge and there are plenty of walking areas alongside the falls. What typically results more appealing for tourists, the famous Garganta del Diablo, was cool enough but wasn’t the most notable highlight... In turn, I was fascinated by the amazing wildlife present in the National Park and cohabiting with tourists and staff alike. Dozens of different bird species,  monkey, funny little raccoon-look-alikes, etc. provided a great backdrop contrasting with the falls (which is really what most people are there for) and which I am sure my sisters would have loved! The falls themselves are quite impressive. For those who have been to Niagara falls... it’s a whole different level. Not only taller but also extended across a much larger terrain and all this intertwined with vegetation and wildlife – truly stunning. I had been told by a few friends to try out one of the various complimentary activities, such as a zodiac tour along the river right up to the bottom of the falls, but my budget could unfortunately not accommodate such divine pleasures. Upon returning to the hostel, Leatitia and I had a very enjoyable home-made meal in the hostel kitchen and after a few (maybe again too many) beers, we called it a night. I had my flight back to Sampa the next day and if I wanted to check out the Brazilian side of the falls beforehand, I had to wake-up pretty damn early. And so I did. After a rather quick breakfast, Laetitia and I parted ways and I headed to the Brazilian falls. Luckily enough these are extremely close to the airport so I was able to drop my bag off with the airline before beginning my visit. All in all, the Brazilian side felt a lot more organised and with a much greater tourist flair. Similar price though... Although Brazil only occupies c. 25% of the total extension of the Iguazu falls, its appeal lies in the overarching perspective one obtains of the magnitude and natural splendour of Iguazu. The views are spectacular, particularly of the Garganta del Diablo! It probably takes a bit less time to walk along all the pre-established paths (it took me just under two hours), etc. but, in my opinion, the views are a much more stunning. After running back to the airport and boarding my plane, I was on my way back to Sao Paolo.

Here, again, I had tried to plan my next stop in Brazil so as to try to coordinate my itinerary (wait... maybe I didn’t say this yet. Turns out I have a v. good friend from uni, Beltran, currently living in Sao Paolo and was obviously aiming to meet up with him. He had informed me that he would be travelling and wouldn’t return to Sao Paolo until May 12th) with my buddy from Spain. We had originally agreed to spend the weekend (13-15 May) in Rio, so I still had a good 5 days to check out another part of Brazil. I decided to head over to the Amazon. Manaus, the capital of the Amazonas province, would be my next destination. I got there on the evening of 6th May (it was actually almost midnight by the time I got there) and was picked up at the airport by some friendly hostel staff. I went to bed straight away... The next morning I had planned to walk over to the agency which was organising the tour around the Amazon I had signed up for. I was due to settle the bill and to get some preparatory info before the planned departure which was scheduled for 8am the next morning. Aside form that, I walked around Manaus, which is a c. 2 million people city and which used to be one of the most prosperous cities of South America (let alone Brazil) 19th and early 20th centuries when rubber, a material which was found in abundance in those days, was living its glorious days. After the 1930’s the industry came into decline and Manaus, and the whole region for that matter, would never recover their splendour and actually fall into a dramatic economic decline until the 1970’s, when the region was declared a “Special Economic Zone” (basically, lower taxes on manufacturing, businesses and consumption). Some gems do remain from the city’s glory days, such as the Teatro Amazonas, built in 1898, and which rivalled with the Paris Opera in those days. I paid 5 reais for a guided tour and was astonished to find that all the materials used in its construction (except the wood for the floors) was entirely imported). From Italy, France, the Far East, etc. And in this guided tour, I was lucky enough to catch a rehearsal of the upcoming opera, Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolda”, which was due to debut a few days later. In all honesty, aside from Teatro Amazonas, the port and other “colonial”-ish areas, the city is, today, very much marked by its status as a “no tax” zone. The next morning (again, I had an early night!), I was picked up at the hostel and taken to the tour operator’s offices. There, I met the other people I would spend the next few days with in the Amazon. The tour I booked was due to last 4 days and 3 nights. We would be taken to a “lodge” about 4 hours from Manaus and in the middle of “Sistema Amazonas”, which would serve as our base camp. From there, we would set out on our camp outs, fishing trips and hikes.  Another Spaniard (39 years of age) and an Aussie (well into her sixties), who were only staying two days, completed the group. Francisco, our guide, was a native of the area and only spoke Portuguese. No English, no Spanish. So, with my very (very!) basic knowledge of Portuniol (Portugues – Espaniol), I not only had to understand him myself but also to translate for my fellow group members. In terms of “activities” we did all sorts of things. In the first couple of days, we went Piranha fishing (although I didn’t catch any! Loser!), cayman + dolphin spotting (cool pic of me holding a baby cayman below) and also walked in the jungle for 3 to 4 hours. The next few days, and after my group mates had left, I camped out (on hammocks) in the jungle with Francisco, went fishing with harpoons and even visited a local native family and made a natural berry juice with them. It was an amazing experience, which I would recommend to anyone ever going to Brazil for an extended period of time and aiming to see/do more than your typical beaches and Christ the Redeemer.  What was most astonishing was the wildlife... Bear in mind that in those 4 days I saw the following: Piranhas, dolphins, caymans, snakes, monkeys, tarantulas, venomous miniature frogs, hundreds of different species of birds and so on (well, there were also tonnes of mosquitoes!). On the last day I travelled back to Manaus in the evening to catch an overnight flight (c. 5 hours) back to Sao Paolo, where this time my buddy was waiting for me.          

The arrival in Sao Paolo was relatively uneventful... I managed to save the 100 reais for a taxi ride into town (c. 40 eur) as I took a complimentary (yeah!) TAM (the local airline I flew on) shuttle from Guarulhos (the international airport) to Congonhas (the domestic airport) which is quite close to my friend’s place. I had found out the previous night, while still in Manaus, that Brazilian airlines offered these services. Obviously, only locals were aware. Needless to say that this service was not very well publicised! In any case, I got to Beltran’s place early enough in the day that I could take a nap and still manage to enjoy some time to myself around the city before he got back to work. I ended up taking an excessively long nap (come on now... I’m on holidays. Can’t blame me!) and had just about enough time to go out on a stroll around Parque Ibirapuera (Central Park-ish?). There I strolled around and watched some locals play some quality futebol... Brazilian skills were firmly on display! In the evening, we went to a Japanese restaurant close to his place where we had a succulent Rodizio meal (Rodizio here meaning “all you can eat”). We could barely move after all the sushi, sashimi, nigiri, temaki and, especially, sake we consumed... We then joined some of his buddies for a beer or two but called it a night (“lo llamamos una noche” – dedicado a Mike!) relatively early. The next morning, I woke up early and went to explore downtown Sao Paolo. Being a c. 15 million people metropolis, one can imagine how massive the city is. Downtown didn’t really have much to offer. After 2/3 hours worth of walking on one of these “lonely-planet-recommended” tours, I headed back to Paque Ibirapuera, this time to check out the Bienal, an art showroom where exhibits of all sorts come and go. When I was there, the space was covered by tonnes of min showrooms by independent contemporary art galleries. Had a blast and spent at least 3 hours. Later on, I went back to Beltran’s place to pack ahead of our week-end in Rio de Janeiro. The best was yet to come! After getting screwed over by TAM and landing at the Rio International Airport (we were due to land at the domestic one – much closer to our hostel!), the three of us (Beltran, Alfonso – a friend and co-worker of his –, and myself) got to our “meant-to-be” hotel (Che Lagarto). But... Turned out we were meant to confirm our reservation (as we were arriving at 11pm) and, as, you can expect, we hadn’t done so, our slots had been allocated to other random people. Rather unheard of this “booking confirmation” system but there we were close to midnight and without a place to crash for the night (thanks for organising it Beltran! hehe). Nonetheless, the Che Lagarto staff were “kind” enough to direct us to a nearby hostel which ended up being cheaper and not to bad at all. From there, no shower, no change of clothes... Direct to Lapa, the lively and packed area of Rio where the most genuine and “local” nightlife gathers. For those of you (probably those from Spain) familiar with the term, it was like a M-A-S-S-I-V-E botellon around 10 blocks, with everyone drinking, dancing and singing on the street. In the meantime, bars and their terraces blended in seamlessly with the crows gathered on the street. Fun stuff. After a few hours there, we went over to a night club right by the entrance to the Pao de Azucar funicular (called Zozo, I think), where we finished off the night way past anyone’s decent bed time. No time to sleep in the next morning as we were up by 10am. We had a busy agenda ahead of us and had to get rolling as early as possible. First stop, following a stroll on Ipanema beach, was Christ the Redeemer. We took the Corcovado train all the way to the top and just when we were expecting the view to be all covered up by clouds and fog... it all cleared and were able to get a glimpse of some truly unbelievable views. The landscapes and views are amazing. Only downside is that there are way too many tourists atop Corcovado mountain (i.e. where the Christ is). After that, we went over to the botanical garden which was quite cool but we barely had any time to see as it was due to close 30 minutes after we arrived and it started to pour like mad. Some other time we’ll be able to get a better perspective. At about 6pm we returned to the hostel. Alfonso opted for a nap while Beltran and I went over to Ipanema beach to catch the sunset. Magnificent setting. The evening, we had dinner in Leblon at trendy restaurant that had been recommended by a friend of theirs. Leblon was packed that night because the annual Jazz Festival was taking place that weekend. Again, loads of people drinking, singing and partying on the streets. Couldn’t have felt more at home! J Later that night we attempted to get into various trendy clubs but to no avail... we ended up crashing the same nightclub as the previous night. Again, as can’t be any different with Spaniards, we stayed there until dawn and were, literally, kicked out of the place as it was closing. Fun and eventful night. The details will remain among the attendees, of course. After a mere 2-hour sleep, we got up as we had booked a Favela tour the next morning. I was due to last c. 3 hours and from there we would most certainly need to head directly to the airport (after grabbing a bite at a burger place right by the beach (oh, Ipanema I miss you!!). The tour was quite cool. The guide took us to Rocinha (wich is the biggest Favela in Rio) and to Vila Canaos, which is slightly smaller but more manageable and where one can more easily interact with the locals. Actually, the agency which organised our tour contributed c. 50% of the revenues it obtained from tours to a local NGO based in Vila Canoas. Kuddos. Rocinha was quite wild. Not in the bad sense of course, as the threat of violence contains violence in most Favelas (that was one of the standards by which they lived apparently), but more due to the incredible chaos one found there. Thousands, even millions, of people living in a tiny strip of land spreading from the coast up into the mountainous terrain of Rio. Incessant noises, smells and crowds of all types were also an essential part of that scenery. The photographic representations of Rocinha are scarce because our guide recommended us only to take photos in certain places as he didn’t want people staring at us. Could we have gotten into trouble? Don’t know, but with these things it’s always best to trust the locals. After the tour, we went back to the hostel, took our bags and went to a burger place on the beach to enjoy the final moments of our epic week-end in Rio. The flight back to Sampa went by quite quickly, considering it’s only a 50 minute journey and that we were so dead from the previous night that we passed out before take-off. After a much-needed rest upon returning to Sao Paolo, that night we went to a typical Brazilian restaurant to have some Picanha (or the traditional meat cut in Brazil), just to top off the week-end with a treat. The next morning I was due to leave Brazil, on to my next destination. The three of us thus parted ways after a great few days in SP and Rio.

Until my next tale, here are some pictures for the curious ones. Hopefully, these can inspire you, if only just a little bit, to explore this amazing country! “Ordem y Progresso” as is stated on the Brazilian flag. So long y’all.