27th Aug 2009 - 21st Sep 2009
Iguacu to Rio, Brazil
You can hear the fierce roar of cascading water before you even catch sight of the mighty Iguacu falls, the excitement of which turns you into a kid again as you almost start running to approach them. After Iguacu, there seems no point in ever seeing a waterfall again...at least without yawning. Water flows and flies almost 360o around you, incessantly spraying you wherever you turn and your eyes dart around trying to take in the huge sensory overload. If I ever get stuck without access to a toilet, I will know NOT to think of here. Interestingly, both Brazil and Argentina have made an attraction out of the falls, as the border lies pretty much in the water separating both countries, although both sides were equally stunning.
Our entry to Brazil at Iguacu was a turning point. Linguistically, we were back at square one, and it soon became apparent to all of us including Rachel who was travelling with us that Spanish wasn´t going to help much here, nor was English! Embarrassing mini-games of charades ensued, with us desperately trying to cling onto our dignity whilst also getting the message across. Let´s hope we made some headway with Portuguese over the coming five months or we could be sick to the back teeth of charades. Culturally, Brazil just jumps at you. Nowhere else in South America (perhaps with the exception of Colombia) exist the passion, ethnic diversity, party spirit and beach lifestyle that give Brazil such an enormous sense of national identity, which comes across in its vivacious people. To say we were excited was an understatement and our experience so far has re-affirmed what we were expecting of Brazil - ridiculously beautiful lanscapes and people.
Florianopolis was our first coastal stop (of oh-so many to come!), gateway to the island of Santa Catarina. We decided to hire a car here and soon realised this was the best way to explore the many beaches, some of which were over 20km long and near deserted bar the odd surfer catching the Atlantic break. We based ourselves in laid-back Lagoa whose lake was dotted with seafood restaurants serving fresh prawns, oysters and fish. Rachel´s favourite sentence soon became ´it´s time for a caipirinha´ usually at around 3pm (sometimes sooner) and we were happy to oblige. The weather was mixed here and we had some cloudy days, but used them to best effect by hiking to wilderness beaches, exploring fishing villages and the local markets, where Rachel seemed to attract the attention of strange men who gave her nuts, shouted loudly and stopped just short of proposing marriage!
Our transit in Sao Paolo did little to change our minds about visiting it, as I took in the sights through the window of tramps fighting in grotty underpasses, a barefoot guy wielding a pair of shears, grey skies stretched over the drab concrete blocks and heavy traffic filling the tangle of motorways. This might be considered bad press and I am sure that with a local guide you would get to appreciate it, but first impressions always count. Luckily it was just a temporary stop for us and as we progressed north the scenery along the Costa Verde gave rise to luscious, green-covered granite boulders weaving around countless bays and white-sand beaches, many of which looked private or near-deserted. It was pretty spectacular. We stopped in Paraty, a small colonial town that used to mark the end of the gold route inland to Minas Gerais. Here perfectly whitewashed buildings were bordered with bright colours and with only the odd horse to 'congest' the historic centre it was almost like going back in a timewarp. The standout highlight here was spending the day on a schooner boat straight out of Pirates of the Caribbean and exploring secluded beaches on tiny private islands, stopping to snorkel with the tropical fish.
Going to Rio de Janeiro for the first time made me feel nervous, the kind of nerves you get as you prepare for a school reunion, as it felt like Dom and I had been waiting for the moment for so long. The first thing that struck us was how enormous the place was and how small Christ the Redeemder seemed at first. We even dismissed it at first as being a decoy to the main event, but a few days later when we were standing at the feet of Mr C open-mouthed at the stunning views over Rio and its glistening bays, we realised we had underestimated the Bearded One.
Our arrival in Rio was perfect. We dropped our bags and headed straight for Ipanema beach on a clear Saturday afternoon and the energy of the place was like no other beach I have seen. Beautiful people posed in their skimpy shorts and bikinis, volleyball matches went on everywhere, guys took in the rays whilst doing chin-ups in the mini-beachfront gyms, friends played ´frescobol´ (think bat and ball on steroids) and the rest tried to find a spare half-metre on the beach to relax! People in Rio are shame-inducingly active and they take care of themselves, so we started to regret those steak and wine binges in Argentina - not for long though. Rio is a great place to be, even just to watch the locals or ´Cariocas´ and their infectious love of outdoor life and knowing how to enjoy their amazing beaches. The world´s most notorious beach, Copacabana, is actually not as clean or appealing as Ipanema, but we still spent a few days based there, snapped ourselves outside the Copacabana Palace Hotel and... well, sank some more caipirinhas!
Away from the beaches and visible as a sprawling mass along the far-reaching hillsides, the favelas of Rio also have a worldwide reputation for a much more sinister reason and the facts speak for themselves, with some of the highest gun crime rates in the world. However, the reality for us was far different from the violent scenes in ´City of God´ and we had seen similar marginalised communities in other parts of Central America like Guatemala and Honduras. Let´s be straight here - there is no way you would ´go for a stroll´ in these places and we were on a guided tour, but what we saw were just normal people going about their business. And the odd dead rat of course. We even visited a local favela school, where a percentage of our tour price was donated directly and the kids were adorable and full of energy. We were told stories of corruption, how the local police would raid the banks in the favela and scapegoat the community, which helped explain why there is tension and control issues between the authorities and the favela folk. It certainly gave us a more rounded view of Rio, seemingly a world away from the middle classes of Ipanema and Leblon, which you could nonetheless see in the distance.
Our last night with Rachel was spent on the streets of Lapa, a once shady district of Rio and off limits until quite recently but now the nocturnal epicentre for the young and party-hardy of the city. It reminded us of Notting Hill carnival, as sound systems pumped out fast and furious samba while people rammed the streets drinking and enjoying the atmosphere. We found it difficult to restrict our alcohol consumption however and after a fun night the next day we were all groaning in separate corners, confined to the guest house. Although we did try and make it to the beach, Rachel´s booze-induced nausea didn´t quite go with the posing crowd of Ipanema, especially when she had to pelt to the water to initiate her finest technicolour yawn! Sadly we said goodbye to Rachel and forgot our hangovers and started packing to head inland to Minas Gerais...although we knew for sure that our one week in Rio was definitely not enough. Save us a space on Ipanema, Rio!