The sun was rising as we crossed the border from the small town of Puerto Iguazu on the Argentinian side to Iguaçu Falls Park on the Brazilian side. After spending the previous day being soaked amidst the raging waters of Iguazu, we now found ourselves across the river valley able to see from a new perspective what we had been walking amongst previously. Most of the falls in fact come down on the Argentinian side but the best view of them, oh man, the most incredible view of them, is from the Brazilian side. A breathtaking panorama of immense falls as far as the eye can see. Gawking up and down the valley at the dozens of falls that make up the greater whole was unbelievable. We spent the morning in renewed awe walking along the valleys edge before heading to the airport in Foz de Iguaçu to hop a quick afternoon flight to our next destination… Rio de Janeiro.
Rio is an unreal city of stark contrasts which is apparent the moment you arrive. On one end of the spectrum you have the beautiful, wealthy, beach communities of Ipanema and Copacabana, full of high-end restaurants, premier shopping, skyrise hotels and condos. However, within a short walking distance and in surprising proximity you have the infamous Rio favelas. Massive, densely packed hillside slums of homemade corrugated steel and cinderblock shacks stacked precipitously up the Rio cliffs. This is where the other side lives. The incredible gap between the haves and have nots is on display in Rio more than any place I’ve ever been and largely because of the unique proximity they have to each other. The bottom edges of the favelas actually butt up against million dollar high rise condos where the wealthy literally look down upon the less financially fortunate. But there are still quite a few things that unite the city across the line. Futball for one, the rhythm of Brazilian drums, the rapid pulse of Samba and above all, a love and passion for their city that is unwavering and unbreakable. Rio was not what we expected at all. Perhaps it is because we ourselves had changed so much as travellers over the previous six months. The usual “Rio” tourist destinations, Ipanema beach, the hilltop Christ the Redeemer statue (the worlds largest art deco sculpture), the nightlife of Copacabana, etc. didn’t have the effect on us we had anticipated and we found ourselves in this world-renowned “dream city” feeling almost deceived from the medias portrayal of it. Then we dug deeper. It was time to leave the artificial seeming “family friendly” postcard Rio behind and try to find the real heart of Rio. It was time to head into the favelas. We hired a guide from the favelas to take us on a walking tour through Rocinha, the largest favela in Brazil housing over 70,000 people. We drove in his car around to the top of the favela as there are no roads through the favelas, only narrow walking paths. After parking at the top we headed onto one of the winding dirt and stone paths that take you into the ragged city. The sun was obstructed by the thousands of crisscrossing, spliced and knotted electrical wires overhead providing illegal power to every shack and building in the favela. “Don’t take pictures of anyone without asking first or we’ll have problems” were the first words out of our guides mouth as we entered the intimidating complex. He then proceeded to tell us about the history of the favelas, their unique independence and the amazing sense of pride favela dwellers have. The tiny structures and plots of land (favela dwellers don’t pay property taxes) are handed down from generation to generation and rarely sold to outsiders. Still, the living conditions seem deplorable by typical western standards but one thing was immediately obvious as we walked deeper and deeper into the city, being introduced to locals by our guide Peter who seemed to know everyone in the whole favela… this was a community in the truest sense of the word and the people who lived in it were quite happy to be there. The deeper we went the darker it got as the sun became completely blocked out by structures and wires above and makeshift street lights began lighting the path. It was a sunny day in Rio but an endless night deep in the favela. The sound of drumming which we had heard in the distance since we had entered Rocinha grew louder and louder until we reached a dark alleyway where local teenagers were playing a frenzied but rhythmic beat on drums and metal boxes while other kids and a few adults danced their incredible Samba on the dirt path in front of them. We had found one of the heartbeats of the Favela. After each of the local boys took Laura for a spin on the dance floor we headed to an amazing daycare facility where local women take care of each others children in groups to give opportunities to the mothers. The sense of community was overwhelming and everyone we met along the way so welcoming and kind. Granted it helped that Peter knew everyone. I think if we had just walked into the favela alone with cameras blazing we may have had a different experience but who knows. We reached the bottom and emerged from the darkness to daylight after about five hours in the favela and took a bus to the top to get our car at sunset. This singular experience gave a better glimpse into real Rio and into the soul of Brazil than anything else could have and we left feeling like better, more aware people having put the common misconceptions about favela life behind us. That night we would hit the dingy graffiti covered streets of the Lapa neighborhood for the weekly Friday night Lapa street party. The local drumming and Samba in the square reinforced our new perception of Rio and reminded us yet again just how important it is to not just see the sights, but to meet the people and experience the local culture wherever we go. Another day of exploration and it was off to our next Brazilian destination.
Ilha Grande (as the name would imply) is a large primarily jungle covered island about 6 hours south of Rio. Arriving on a ferry from the mainland to the small village of Abraao on the island is like arriving at a small barely developed tropical paradise. There are no cars on the island and dirt footpaths connect the restaurants, boat operators and guesthouses of the village. The other 99% of the island is mountainous jungle and wild secluded bays and beaches with the great Parrot Peak looming high over the whole island. We spent a few days walking trails on the island seeing remnants of the islands distant past deteriorating in the jungle. Once a pirates stronghold, then a leper colony, then a penal colony, the 300 year dark past of the island are now only seen in the crumbling structures found throughout the jungle. Avoiding multi-day hikes through the monkey, sloth and snake filled jungle, we hopped on a speedboat from Abraao and spent a day exploring the islands remote beaches and snorkeling in the clear waters of the blue and green lagoons. Ilha Grande’s population is growing though and while there are no resorts yet, it’s only a matter of time before the island gets more touristy and developed. 5 years ago would have been perfect but I’m so glad we got to see it’s still mostly unspoiled natural beauty, wildness and laid back charm now. It really is a gem.
From Ilha Grande we made our way to what would become one of our top two favorite places in Brazil. The charming colonial beach village of Paraty. With cobblestone streets, docks covered with brightly painted traditional wooden boats and an addictive, enchanting vibe that is indescribable, Paraty had us hooked. What started off as a two day stopover en route to Sao Paolo turned into an amazing week enjoying the many natural wonders of the area. With more than 300 islands off the coast of Paraty we spent one day island and beach hopping aboard a large traditional Brazillian wooden schooner. Another day taking a jeep tour through the jungle to various waterfalls, natural waterslides, river rope swings and various cliffs to jump off of into frigid freshwater. Stopping of course between each natural spot at various small, family owned, Cachaça distilleries to taste the local Brazilian liquor. It was quite a day and the group of young English friends we spent the day with were a riot. Finally on our last day we made our way to Trindade beach and hiked down the next three beaches (along narrow jungle trails between each one) to one of the most beautiful places in Brazil. The Piscina Natural Do Cachadaço. The Piscina (meaning “swimming pool”) is a collection of beautiful giant boulders which trap seawater along the jungles edge in a shallow sand floored natural swimming pool unlike anything we’d ever seen. We spent the afternoon swimming in the idyllic pool before making our way back to Paraty to pack up to leave for Sao Paulo. Saying goodbye to Paraty and its beautiful natural surroundings was hard, but I hope we’ll go back there some day.
Departing our beautiful, small, beach village, we headed by bus to Sao Paulo. With a staggering population of 20 million people, Sao Paulo is the third largest city in the world and a sprawling congested metropolis. With prices exceeding even New York City, the $30 medium pizza we ate our first night was an immediate indicator that we needed to leave and leave quick or our tight budget would be obliterated. Finding a cheap, local, flight online we left Sao Paulo after only one extremely expensive day and flew north to the Afro-Brazilian & Capoera capital of the world. The ocean side city of Salvador. Marching to the beat of its own drum, literally, Salvador has a deep rooted history and it’s residents and culture are largely descended from the African slaves who were brought there by the Portuguese. The dance of Capoera itself originated as a dance created by slaves intended to keep the men prepared and fit and is itself a veiled martial art. Though Portuguese churches and cobblestone streets give central Salvador a beautiful and classical Latin American look, at night the town comes alive with raging Afro-Brazillian drumming that literally rock the town. It is an incredible sight to see and especially to hear and feel. With very few tourists in the city (Salvador is considered the least safe city in Brazil) we found ourselves amidst hordes of local Salvadoreans dancing and moving to the rhythms of the thunderous drumlines. It was a one of a kind experience and I still hear and feel those drums in my dreams sometimes. After a few days in the city and while still in the northern state of Bahia (of which Salvador is the capital) we decided to do some local exploring.
Our next destination would be the tiny village of Lencois, some 500km inland. Lencois serves one purpose and one purpose alone. It is the jumping off point into the Parque Chapada Diamantina. One of the most beautiful national parks in Brazil and one of the most spectacular natural landscapes I’ve ever experienced. This was tied for my favorite place in Brazil with Paraty. For our first stop in Chapada we visited the Devils Pool, a beautiful freshwater lagoon at the base of a 20 meter waterfall. The name itself comes from the pools history as the final resting place of any slave that misbehaved when the Portuguese ran diamond mines in the area. Supposedly their feet were tied to large boulders and then they were shoved off the surrounding cliffs into the deep pool. As I swam in the cold waters I couldn’t help but imagine what had been (or could still be!) below my feet in those dark waters and got out after about 2 minutes. A chilling experience in more ways than one. Our next stop led us deep into a local cave filled with stalagmites and stalactites. Wandering through its chambers guided by our headlamps we stopped at one point, turned off our lights and sat in the darkness and silence. It’s hard to find that kind of silence in the world but we could all use a dose of it sometimes. As the day came to a close we hiked to the top of one of Chapadas famous plateaus. The view through the valley over the green forest at sunset was breathtaking. We sat for an hour stupified by the grandness of it.
The next day we visited various other beautiful natural pools and caves before ending our day at the amazing Poco Azul. The Poco Azul is a large cave deep in the woods that is half filled with mineral rich waters. At a certain time of day the sun beams through a hole in the caves roof and illuminates the water making it glow a fantastic vibrant blue color. That is exactly the time of day we arrived. It was unbelievable. Donning our snorkel gear we slipped gently into the glowing waters and for 45 minutes swam in one of the most beautiful places on Earth. The water below our chins lighting up our faces blue as beams of sunlight glimmered through the water and reflected off the caves floor 20 meters below us. It was an experience we’ll never forget.
Chapada Diamantina was a collection of natural wonders one could explore for weeks but our time in Brazil was running out. Africa was less than a week away so we headed to the small beach hamlet of Praia de Forte to relax along stunning beaches and plan the first leg of our Africa journey. While there we visited the amazing Project Tamar and saw all 5 species of sea turtle on Earth which all spawn in the area. Finally we headed to Salvador, jumping a flight to Sao Paulo in time to catch our flight to Johannesburg. We learned a lot about Brazil in our month there but most surprisingly was how incredibly expensive it is. More expensive than the United States even and most of the activities we did were in nature and were therefore free. Was it worth it? In hindsight possibly no, it was a beautiful and diverse country with a unique culture but so was Colombia and yet basic food and lodging were less than a quarter of the price there. Our month in Brazil meant we would likely have to eliminate many things from our future journey but it’s at these points that we try just to think of the positive things. Like any adventure of this magnitude there are ups and downs, winners and losers and how we face these new challenges moving forward is part of the great learning process.