The rest of Brazil…city surprises, cattle show dances and cowboys of the Pantanal.

It’s been a while since my last entry and so a lot to update you on!
After leaving Paraty we then travelled to the small city of Ubatuba to break up the journey to Sao Paulo. We stayed in a lovely homely beach fronted hostel and watched the rain for a day and managed to hire bikes for a lovely cycle ride along the coast there. But a chilled out stop to catch up on some reading and hang out in a hammock!

We were all a little nervous about Sao Paulo as everyone mentions how dangerous it is supposed to be and that there isn’t much to see. But on arriving in the city we hoped in a taxi to our hostel in Vila Madalena (the Soho area of the city). As we drove up to the hostel we passed lots of really lovely bars and restaurants, plus fairy lights in the trees…which I think is always the sign of a nice neighbourhood! I was pleasantly surprised by the city, especially the area of our hostel, where there were organic farm shops and jazz bars to give a really bohemian vibe to the place.
Our hostel was really chilled out. So much so that they had an open plan ‘chilled out’ atmosphere…nice in the summer but with rain showers and winter winds it made breakfast a bit chilly and a definite no go in pyjamas.
A bit fed up that we seemed to have brought the crappy English weather with us since Rio, we were keen to move on to hotter climbs, so our second and last day in Sao Paulo was packed with a whirlwind trip to the awesome food market and free tour around the newer district of the city.
It’s a really cool concept. You find the meeting point online and turn up for a full 3+ hour English speaking tour, totally free (tips were accepted though!) The tour was enlightening and I was really impressed with the city. There was plenty to see including some really cool buildings, museums and art galleries. Also a secret old subway that had be turned into a graffiti art installation and free book exchange. The main thing we learnt from the tour though was the reason the protests were taking place at the time in Brazil. There is pretty much a tax on everything and they pay some of the highest tax in the world but with a low average salary…just to put it into perspective the average monthly salary is 700 Brazilian Reais; If you wanted a new iphone 5 it costs 2,500 Reas or an average new car would set you back about 45,000 Reais. The salaries aren’t increasing, there is a lot of corruption in the government plus everything they export is cheaper in neighbouring countries…so a lot of unhappy people.

Overall I would say that Sao Paulo has more to it than the status of a traveller stopover destination that we were told it was. (although I was to nervous to take my camera with me so no pictures unfortunately!)

Onward from Sao Paulo we travelled north to Bonito in the countryside state of Mato Grosso do Sul. It is a tourist hotspot owed to the limestone earth that filters the rivers there, making them some of the clearest and most transparent in the world.

On the way we met up with a really nice Dutch girl, Lieneke, who we’d met in Ilha Grande and a Brazilan guy, Rodrigo, also travelling through Bonito.

The tour we chose to discover the clear river ecosystems was the ‘Floating River’. We were picked up in a mini bus and after nearly an hour of driving through countryside (which looks really similar to Norfolk countryside apart from the occasional palm tree and termite mound!), we arrived at a ranch where we were given a full cowboy lunch of bbq meat, stew, rice and beans. After lunch we got changed into full wetsuits and headed off into the jungle on a 30 minute walk to the river. An experience in itself, for anyone who has read the hunger games it was very quarter quell-esk!
After sweating off most of our lunch, we made it to the river.
From here we put on our buoyancy aids and snorkels, waded into the river, got into single file behind our guide, floated on our fronts and with minimum sculling effort made our way along the river! It was an amazing experience, swimming past all types fish and wildlife, getting a unique viewpoint. It made you feel like one of the fish!

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That evening in town it was the final of the confederation cup and of course Brazil were in with a chance of victory.
This special experience required us to head to a local bar showing the match on a big screen, ordering some Brazilian bar snacks accompanied with some chilled Brazilian beer to get the total effect.
If you thought Brits were obsessed with football, they’ve got nothing on the Brazilians. Every time a winning goal is scored everyone lets off fireworks, so with the full time whistle came the biggest explosion of fireworks being let off in the street, people driving around cheering out of windows with music blaring, men embracing and a small kid crying (not sure if he was overcome with emotion or it was the fireworks) but it was pretty insane!
With it being a small town everyone seemed to then go on to celebrate later at the local Cattle Show Dance that was going on in a barn just outside town.
On arriving at the barn there were an OK band with quite a few people dancing and a lot of people just standing around the edges of the ‘dance floor’. Apparently they also don’t see many people with the blonde hair/blue eyes combo so people were just full on staring at us.
After a beer and a lurk around the edge of the barn I got asked to dance by an old guy…of course I accepted and he struggled to lead me in a simple two step, once around the floor but gracefully implied I was a good dancer! And like the Cattle Show celebrity I had instantly become due to my hair colour he then made me have a picture with him, which then initiated some other paparazzi-esk incidents. A really surreal evening!

Bonito town was really nice, although with the tours being quite expensive, we couldn’t spend too long there without annihilating the budget, plus the damp conditions were getting us all a bit down, mainly though because our hostel host was the most inept and lazy person ever; leaving our clothes out to dry outside in rainy season a day before check out and then trying to dry them all laid on top of each other meaning everything was soggy and smelt damp…not nice when you’ve only got a very limited clothing selection.

So the evening before check out a nice local man came into the kitchen looking for our hostel receptionist. He lurked around and was passing the time asking a few questions and talking about how nice Bonito is. He was asking where were going to next and I just mentioned the Iguazu Falls. Not really in the mood for a chat I asked him a few polite questions, then he started to talk about where he came from, which was near the Pantanal (one of the world’s largest tropical wetland areas- full of wild life, which we’d been told was really good by several other travellers).

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I mentioned how we wanted to go there but the tours were too expensive. He seemed shocked at how much we had been quoted and began talking about a company that did a four day tour at a much lower costs in what seemed like online a legitimate and really lovely hostel with, most importantly at the time a washer and dryer!
So Oscar Junior had us sold on the price and seemed like he was just trying to help us get a good deal. He then went off to call his friend to organise our transfers for the following morning and needed a cash deposit. A few alarm bells rung at this point but it all seemed OK, despite the fact that it was well past midnight by this point. So we paid up and went to sleep with a feeling that we had just been mugged off, hoping our transfer would arrive as promised…
Rushing around in the morning trying to pack my soggy smelly clothes, I heard Oscar outside. So the trip to the Pantanal was on!
Excited and relieved to be on the mini-bus we settled in for the 5 hour journey. The first unexpected development was that we were told the transfer was nearly full with only 4 spaces left, yet here we were on a nearly empty mini-bus with us and a couple who were going to another lodge. Again, we were pleased we were obviously on our way to where we had been sold but starting to get the feeling it may not be all as it seemed…
On arriving at the transfer destination (a lay-by in the middle of nowhere, with a public toilet like the one out of Trainspotting) we waited nervously for our final transfer to the luxury lodge. Luckily at this point several other people had also arrived, waiting for the same ride.
Finally a 4×4 truck pulled up. After some confusion as to who we were as our ‘ticket’ was different to everyone else’s we were loaded into the back. With a dodgy push start we were off down a dirt track which seemed to go onto forever in front of us…which as it turns out is because it did.

Three hours later and passing the sign, as it ended up being the turning off to the lodge we had been sold, about 20 minutes in, we arrived on the river bank. By this point it was dusk with mosquitoes everywhere. We were led with torches precariously into a small motorboat. Alarm bells were definitely ringing loudly this time and all hope of the luxury lodge were vanishing fast. But still we didn’t know what we would find on the opposite river bank. Passing the brighter lights of another dwelling we pulled up at a very creepy looking lodge.

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We were taken into the kitchen and briefly told the schedule…up for breakfast at 6am then out on the river for the “excursions” at 7am. On being given the early start we went to our luxury “4 bed dorm” which of course turned out to be a 12 bed dorm with 1 shower and toilet that I got the bunk with the view straight into it (I’m not even going to give you all the mental image of one guys questionable y-fronts). But with a quick anti mosquito spray it was time for a much needed sleep.

We woke up with the sunrise and were met by some small pigs roaming the grounds! With the quick realisation there was nothing around apart from wetland and that an escape was out of the question we settled into our activities. As it turns out the transfer was our 3 hr dirt track ‘night jeep safari’, but we went on a nice boat ride to spot the Pantanal wildlife (mainly mosquitoes), we went piranha fishing; where I totally failed and managed to feed my bait to them six times and a night time boat ride looking for caimen. caimenThe torchlight from our guide caught the eyes of two caimen but the best part was being out on the river with no light pollution around so the sky was amazing. I’ve never seen stars that clear. It was like being under a dome where the stars seemed oddly close by with the view of the milky way streaking above our heads. A really cool experience and one made better knowing that we got to leave in the morning!

The transfer back should have been simple however they also make this into an activity, a hike and lunch. Doesn’t sound too bad. However, this hike was through the forest filled with more mosquitoes and huge ants with even bigger bites. We then had to wade through the wetland swamps, which was quite cool but no-one really wants to be thigh high in muddy water when you’ve got an overnight bus ride that afternoon…with no prospect of a shower.
So we did also see some wildlife and heard some howler monkeys plus there was a brief glimpse of the elusive anaconda.
Finally we made it to the lunch stop and from there it was only another 2 hour ‘jeep safari’ to civilisation. With my handy deodorant wipes I also managed to wipe most the mud off so I felt slightly more decent when it came to re-entering civilisation and sitting on our next overnight bus journey!
I learnt from this that you should always trust your gut instincts and if it’s too good to be true it usually is; everything I had known before but now actually take it more seriously!
But on the other hand we did actually kind of get what we paid for and at least we weren’t completely mugged off! Plus we met some really nice people who also had similar stories of how they ended up being sold the complete cowboy pant anal experience!

So then it is onto Iguazu Falls, where hopefully I’ll get the mud off and I won’t have all damp smelling clothes anymore!

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Rio Street Parties and comets on tranquil islands

So I’ve finally got some time for my first blog entry. Since the flight last Wednesday it’s all been fairly busy, which it was always going to be when we decided to start in Rio!
After an emotional goodbye at the airport we had a brief “celebrity” encounter to keep us occupied; Craig David was on a flight to Miami which was near our boarding area, sadly not that exciting to report though as he only went to boots and star bucks (nothing to glamorous!)
The flight was fairly non-eventful, although I did manage to watch six films during the eleven and half hour flight which was a personal best and the flight food was pretty decent as well.
On arrival to Rio we were picked up by our Hostel transfer company and our first taste of Rio driving, which is going as quickly as you can for as long as you can, but with the heavy traffic people end up just going quickly for 10 meters then braking hard. On top of that you’ve also got people weaving in and out, cutting in and using the hard shoulder to beat the jam…a great first impression!
We arrived at the Hostel, paid up and were shown to our 12 bed dorm, dumped our stuff, climbed to our top bunks on a triple bunk and had our first sleep in the southern hemisphere.

We stayed in Rio for 6 nights so we could really see all the sights and also have a few beach days. We did the Sugar Loaf mountain which is a cable car up a mountain on the coast of Rio from which you have one of the best views of the city, plus some really cute monkeys! We had a little explore of the city another day and ended up at the steps in Santa Tereza, which are tiled steps by an artist which was started in 1990 and has been an ongoing project since the artist committed suicide on the steps in January this year. Although a tragic story the steps themselves were pretty amazing, especially as the tiles had been handmade and sent from around the world.

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Christ the Redeemer was next on the list. We went on a tranquil tram ride up through jungle to the top of the mountain where the statue is placed. The statue itself is really impressive however the views of the city surpassed it and after having the classic picture beneath it we made our way back to the hostel.

The other days we explored more of the city by foot and bus and of course the beaches. Copacabana where were staying isn’t as glamorous as we thought, mainly down to the classic Barry Manilow song, it didn’t really live up to the description. But there are plenty more beaches and after a short walk we arrived at Ipenema beach. This was a big surfer beach so we tried to find a surf lesson. After a lot of confusing conversations with locals with limited English and me just speaking English very slowly and trying to act words out we finally found a guy with a friend who was actually a pro surfer, sponsored by Nike! He brought an interpreter with him but even after all that the conditions weren’t great for a surf lesson and they didn’t want to take our money for a bad lesson and we’d run out of days so we had to leave it. But if anyone wants a lesson with a pro we can tell you where to go!

Another highlight was the Favela Tour. I went to one of the biggest in Rio, called Rochino, with a population of about 200,000 people. Our guide was a local and also runs projects in the favela so gave a really insightful tour. We started by climbing to the top of the favela where you could see the whole district. On our way down through the small streets around the three to four storey buildings we stopped of at a local art studio and were shown some amazing paintings done by locals from the favela and where they were teaching skills to local kids. We then stopped off at the bakery where we sampled some of freshly baked goods, which were amazing! The favela was completely different to what I thought it would be like. There were so many shops, hairdressers and businesses and most people now would say they were middle class as they have jobs in the city earning a steady wage and all the kids are entitled to free education along with free transport if they have to travel to school.

Our evenings in Rio we spent either getting dinner or in the Hostel chilling out. One night we did sample the famous Rio night life. We went the party district of Lapa. Here they have huge street party’s at the weekend with people setting up stands where you can get any kind of drink in large quantities along with plenty of normal bars and live music. A great night out although a few sore heads the next morning!

Our overall experience was a really good one, we felt really safe the whole time and everyone we met went out of there was to help us and never asked for money!

After a hectic few days in Rio we decided on the recommendation of a few people we had met to stay on an island 3 hours south of Rio called ilha Grande. The island is fairly big but doesn’t have roads so no cars or transport, also no atms and limited internet. We arrived on the island in the evening after a lovely ferry journey in the sun where we met a few fellow travellers. We got set up in our hostel where we treated ourselves to a private room and set out to explore. Our hostel was a 2 minute walk from the beach and 5 mins from the main street. We managed to meet up with the people we’d met on the ferry and chose a restaurant on the beach where there were lanterns in the trees and tea lights everywhere, making a really nice place to chill out. Such a nice experience having dinner while having you feet in the sand! We then all went to local bar.

We were sat outside when suddenly everyone was looking up at the sky and pointing…on looking up I saw the biggest comet I‘ve ever seen. ImageThis wasn’t just a shooting star as you could actually see something burning up in the atmosphere, breaking up and leaving a trail. It must have been in the sky for at least 5 minutes. It was like something out of Deep Impact! I‘m still convinced it was a satellite falling to earth. The atmosphere after was amazing with everyone running out the bar to see and people cheering and hugging each other!
So after the excitement of the first night we decided to have a nice chilled out day on one of the beaches. The best beach though just happened to be a 2 hour hike across the island through jungle. But we made it and the beach was well worth it.

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The following day we went on a speed boat tour of the island and were taken to several lagoons to snorkel in along the way. The water was so clear and we saw plenty of fish, coral and even a star fish!
Our last evening was spent on the beach having a few beers and listening to music which was the perfect end to a perfect stay on this amazing island.

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We’ve now just had a relaxing weekend in Paraty, another hour down the coast before heading on to Sao Paulo.