South America: Brazil

November 2010, by Tom

Our flight left Heathrow Terminal 5 without delay around 1pm. Four and a half movies and 12 hours later we arrived to a new unknown - Rio de Janeiro, Brazil! South America - tick!

It was after midnight when we reached the town center and hostel Harmonia, a friendly small hostel down a small strip of hostels near Ipanema Beach, Ipanema. We quietly checked in and found our bunks in a dorm room shared with two others who were obviously not expecting us and had used our bed as an underwear clothes rack.

We slept soundly and woke to our roomies packing their bags. Two Danish girls, finishing up after 4 months of travel. They gave us a few tips and further ideas to look into before we parted paths.

Us being fresh off the boat, it was great to start the new journey off at a hostel where everyone is more than happy to pass on tips and tricks discovered from their extensive travels. I learnt a hell of a lot from those first few days - not just from what others had done, but on what we were going to do. I hadn't had much of a chance to think about our long ago booked flights to South America - with Gini doing pretty much all of the pre-flight planning.

Our first day in Rio we decided to walk from one end of town to the other, via a couple of the fantastic beaches - Ipanema and Copcobana. Finally after about three hours of midday sun heat beating down on us, we reached the Sugarloaf Mountain (Po de Acar). Every iconic picture of Rio has the Sugarloaf Mountain in the background. It was an impressive sight. We caught the two chair lifts to the top to admire the views and to finally find a shady spot to rest from the days adventure. The views were rather spectacular with beaches stretching from both sides of the mountain and the blue skies seemingly endless.

Suffering a little from over doing it on day one (for some reason we make a habit of trying to see and do everything on day one), we opted to take a taxi for the return leg back to the hostel and decided on a local salad bar for a healthy meal. So far, the food in Rio was living up to our high expectations.

Day two we took things easier and caught the underground train to the center of town and with the help of a friendly old lady, took off in the direction of the Santa Teresa tram. The tram ride was a quite exhilarating - with locals hanging off the sides and tourists hanging on for dear life, it took us up a steep hill to where we could access the incredible Santa Teresa mosaic steps. The artist responsible for the artwork (who at first I thought was a bum asking for money) was happy to point out several NZ inspired pieces. Neat!

That evening we had a few beers at the hostel with another couple - a Spanish guy and a Norwegian girl who had met working on a cruise ship - and decided to join them for a sushi feast for dinner. Very tasty sushi if I do say so myself. During dinner we told them of our plans for our last day in Rio - hang-gliding! We must have inspired them as they decided to join us in jumping off the cliff the next day!

The following morning, our last in Rio, we packed our bags, forced down a sammie before our ride to the jump off point arrived to take the four of us around the coastline a little. Unfortunately the wind wasn't strong enough to let us jump straight away, so we sat and waited on the landing beach and calmed the nerves with a few beers. I was feeling nervous but I think Gini was a little terrified! Finally our turn had come, so we jumped in the back of a jeep that snaked us up the hill up a windy bumpy path that left us feeling a little nauseous. Not more than a minute after arriving to the top of the hill were we strapped into a harness and strapped next to a Brazilian guy and told to do a quick "practice run" which involved running in a line for about five meters....

That was all the training we needed, and before I knew what was going on, we were running toward the cliff face! With my legs running as fast as they could, we reached the end of the cliff and suddenly my feet were no longer touching land and we were in the air! What a rush! The view from the top was amazing as we slowly made our decent with a few acrobatic maneuvers to churn the stomach, and a final dip to land running on the beach below. Awesome. I'd do it again at the first opportunity.

After we'd all landed safely we were taken back to the hostel where we said adieu to our new friends and took a taxi to the bus terminal on the other side of town.

The next point of call on our South American adventure was to a small island called Ilha do Mel (Island of Honey) down the coastline about halfway between Rio and the Iguacu falls - a pretty sounding place Gini spotted in the Lonely Planet. To get there it was recommended to take the scenic train ride leaving from Curitiba. To get to Curitiba we had a 15 hour night bus from Rio to survive. It was actually pretty comfortable as we opted for mostly reclining seats - imagine a lazy boy on a bus. We managed to snooze through the majority of the 15 hour bus ride (the longest we had ever been on!) and arrived in Curitiba the following day, where we checked ourselves into a cheap hotel near the bus/train terminal and wandered into the town for tea.

The train left the following morning and took us on a relatively scenic train ride via various "aguas" and other sites before finally reaching the small port town of Paranagua where we jumped on a small ferry bound for Ilha do Mel, our final destination. Ilha do Mel was a massive contrast from Rio. It was very quiet, there were no roads (motor vehicles were banned) and the place had an almost deserted feel about it. I guess it was either off season or the poor little island tourism was drying up. It concerned us very little however, as we felt like a few days of relaxation on an island almost to ourselves.

After checking ourselves into the Hostel Zorro, a short stroll along the beach, and getting the lowdown on the islands activities from the Swedish hostel manager, we went in search of dinner. The restaurants that were open were few and far between and all seemed to offer the same sort of fare. Fried seafood and other meat meals or burgers. We decided on the seafood meal which consisted of crunchy over cooked fried fish, a tasty creamy bowl of rice, a bowl of salad and fries. It was average to say the least, but the price was right so we couldn't complain too much. We also washed the meal down with freshly squeezed pineapple juice - a drink we made a habit of having as often as we could!

Over the next few days we explored the island on foot. You could walk from one end of the island to the other in 3-4 hours - but you had to keep an eye on the tides as in one section, if you miss low tide, you miss out completely. Unfortunately this happened on our first day attempt at reaching the other side of the island so we sat on the beach eating our packed lunch and returned back the way we came to relax in the afternoon sun.

Day two, we managed the low tides (no sleep in on this morning!) and continued on to the lighthouse, where we had magnificent views of both sides of the island. From the lighthouse, we continued along the long "beach of flying bugs" where there were these damn annoying flying things that like to sit on the backs of your legs and nibble you. The only way to shoo them away was to physically flick them, which made this leg of the walk a little frustrating to say the least ... We thought that perhaps it was only us the bugs were attacking, but when passing locals using the beach as their walking path, they were having the same problem with constant swatting, flicking, smacking and the occasional sprint to try and get ahead of the little blighters ...

At the end of bug beach there was the magnificent Nossa Senhora dos Prazeres Fortress, built from 1767 to 1769 by the Portuguese settlers to fend off the hordes (and maybe to protect them from the flies). Feeling like we had done the island justice, we returned to the halfway point, trying to avoid the bug beach by taking the inland route. Unfortunately to no avail as the insects had also taken control of the bush track. We finally made it to the half-way point and stopped for a nice chicken burger lunch before jumping on the ferry to take us the rest of the way back to our Hostel.

That evening all hell broke loose and a massive electrical storm kicked into gear with massive downpours and lightning strikes in every corner. It was quite exciting! The only downside was that it continued into the night and into the following morning when we were booked into the 2 hour ferry ride back to the mainland .... Being the only two people crazy enough to take the journey, it was a rough ride. But we made it back to Paranagua in one piece with enough time to book a bus trip back to Curitba where we changed buses onto a night bus for a further 12 hours to complete the journey to Foz do Iguacu on the Argentinian border. Talk about a lot of travel time! We did feel at this point that half of the trip had been consumed by buses, trains and ferries ... We were trying to cover a great deal of distance however, and it did save us a few nights of accommodation.

We arrived at Foz do Iguacu the following morning. After getting off the bus we immediately noticed a rise in temperature - it had gone from hot to very hot. We were a sticky mess by the time we reached Hostel Rosa. A cute little house converted into a hostel run by a very eccentric old lady by the name of Rosa. Upon arrival she forced breakfast upon us - some stale bread, hard cake and coffee - for which we were only allowed hot milk in - no hot water! It was an odd arrival but we were too jaded from the long journey to care much at this point. Finally, Rosa showed us to our room so we could shower and prepare ourselves for the day ahead.

There were two reasons for coming to Foz do Iguacu - the incredible Iguacu falls and the bird park. Both were highly recommended by Lauren and Paul and they didn't disappoint.

The bird park was amazing. There were so many different multi-coloured birds - most of which we had never seen before. The enclosures were very spacious and you were allowed to wander through, in amongst the birds. Our favourites were the naughty toucans (hence the many photos) - their beaks are preposterously long and they are very cheeky. Happy to pose for as many photos as you care to take.

After a quick chicken burger lunch (chicken burgers were one of our staples in out-of-town Brazil), we ventured to the entrance to the falls, bought our tickets and jumped onto the 15 minute bus ride to take us to the entrance of the waterfall walk. The walk was action packed. It started with an overview outlook of some of the falls as you meandered along past naughty raccoons, oversized insects, reptiles and tourists, and ended up opposite "Garganta do Diabo" - the largest mouth of the waterfall - a u-shaped, 82 meter high, 150 meter wide and 700 meter long cataract (thank-you Wikipedia) expanse of flowing water. The sound alone was deafening and the site of which was incredible. We were told that the Brazilian side of the waterfall gave a good overview without getting too close - but we managed to get pretty wet and get very close to the tumbling torrents. Most impressive.

With the two sites ticked off, there wasn't much left to do but to return to town and to jump on the next bus out of there in search of Argentina to see the falls from another perspective and to see how our non-existent Spanish fared!

T
Gini on Ipanema Beach

Gini on Ipanema Beach

Us on top of Sugarloaf Mountain

Us on top of Sugarloaf Mountain

At the Havaiana store

At the Havaiana store

Trekking across the island

Trekking across the island

Tom get's to hold a parakeet

Tom get's to hold a parakeet

Diablo from the top

Diablo from the top