If only the weather was grand, eh? Ilha Grande, Brazil

Of all the ways in which I have ever arrived on a beach, Ilha Grande (a small tropical island off the coast of Brazil) was my favourite. Lopez Mendes is glorious of course. The world-famous beach has dazzling white sand backed on one side by thick forest and rolling hills and battered on the other by a clear crashing sea. As is so often the way though, it is the journey that really makes it.

For two hours we had trekked through the rainforest without really knowing where we were going. With no map and no sign-posting apart from some confusing hand-painted wooden boards nailed to trees we were more than a little lost. Still, we trekked on, hiking up narrow paths in what must have been 200% humidity. Up we climbed, panting for breath and sweating profusely and down we slid, grabbing hold of vines, trees and bushes to steady ourselves. Up and down, up and down, up and down until we thought that we must have walked the whole 100km to Rio.

On our way we passed monkeys playing in the trees, a tree snake hanging from a branch and a worm that must have been two metres long. We also passed other, perfectly good beaches. There were a few businesses on the first one – a shop/restaurant/bar/creche where a small child played in the sand with a bucket and an abandonned boat taxi company – and a row of coloured houses with boats parked out front. We stopped for a while, feeling the crunch of broken shells scratch the bottoms of our feet, kicking sand at each other and eventually descending into a fit of childish giggles as Alan tried desperately to shake the sand out of his dreadlocks.

The second beach was quieter, just a clapboard hotel whose shutters banged in the wind and a Brazilian family sitting in red plastic Brahma beer chairs half-sunk into the sand. They were soaking up what little sun the day had to offer, sometimes talking but mostly listening to the sound of the waves and keeping a weary eye on their children.

By the time we had traversed the last hill, crossing a huge hollow bursting with trees and vegetation, it was getting on 5pm. All day we had been passing the most unexpected scenes, always getting the impression that a huge crowd had just passed through and that, after putting on their public faces for an hour or two, the locals and the island were settling back into their natural rhythm. As we emerged from the rainforest, sandals in hand, the last family were packing up their beach blanket and heading home. With the beach stretching on inifinity before us and not a soul in sight we did what any red-blooded person would do…. Buried each other in the sand and practiced our kartwheels.

As seems to be so often the case, the sun did not shine for us in Ilha Grande – land of beaches, rainforests, no roads, idyllic guesthouses and bobbing boats. Our hostel, Che Laguarto was dead and all in all, pretty sub-par (Studio Beach in town is much nicer, friendlier and a hell of a lot cheaper) although it was lovely to be able to sit out on the deck writing, the sea lapping below the boards. I had pictured a few days of relaxing tan top-up before we headed for Rio, our last stop. What we got was a town that always seemed to have been busy and hour before we turned up. Ilha Grande was undeniably beautiful though and if you had the weather and the right crowd, an absolute tropical paradise.

Still, rain isn’t always a bad thing. For as long as I live I will never forget taking off my flip-flops and sprinting 1.5km through a torrential shower with Gary, him cackling hysterically as the lightning cracked overhead. The squidge of mud between my toes, the smack of warm water on my stomach as I landed in another puddle and that fantastic care-free feeling of being so wet that you might as well just dance in the streets. And in Brazil why wouldn’t you?

There are more pictures from Ilha Grande available in the gallery


November 24, 2010 at 9:45 pm Leave a comment

Perfect little Paraty, Brazil

I don’t like to throw the ‘P’ word around but Paraty may be the perfect weekend getaway. Pretend for two minutes that this lovely seaside town in Brazil is not 11 cramped plane hours and the guts of US$1,000 away. Pretend, for example that you live in Sao Paulo, a mere four hours away by bus and probably only three by car. Pretend that you have a spare weekend in which you can just flitter about eating ice-cream, sunbathing and tripping along the cobblestones. Well since you’re here now anyway, you might as well have a look around.

A perfect mix of Colonia del Sacramento and Ilha Grande, Paraty has as much sparkling white sand as you could ask for along with an interesting dash of old world colonialism. As you wander along the cobbled streets navigating your way between the three churches – one for the working slaves, one for the freed slaves and one for the Portuguese – it is not hard imagine the first settlers arriving on the beaches, throwing out their rowboats and paddling to shore.

Once they had shooed away the locals using a combination of gunpower and western diseases, they would have had a rare old time tending to potted plants on their brightly-coloured windowsills, whitewashing their terraced bungalows and chasing passing monkeys down the cobblestones with sweeping brushes. It’s a pity for them that the Italian influence came later because, like so many other spots in Brazil, there are few more enjoyable things to do in Paraty than to buy a kilo of self-serve ice-cream and sit on the beach watching the tide come in.

The centre of town fills a few lopsided blocks along the beach, white houses lining uneven streets. As you walk up and down the doors and window scream at you with their flipbook catalogue of bold blues, reds, yellows and greens painted onto whitewashed walls. Every now and then a monkey leaps from an overhanging tree onto a roof and scarpers along the drain. And inside is no less interesting. The Portuguese are gone now, leaving only their pale, fair-haired genes. Instead the dimly lit houses have been filled with boutiques full of hand-made clothes, hand-made jams and walls and walls of coloured potions with hand-made labels.

Where the real beauty lies in Paraty though, is where the Portuguese didn’t go. Just a half hour out from town is a string of pristine, white-sand beaches backed by forest. The first few have the odd beach shack with plastic furniture laid out for huge families of Brazillians (or families of huge Brazillians) where Mum and Dad sit sipping a Skol beer while the kids bob about the sheltered water in rubber rings or play barefoot football on the huge expanse of clear, flat sand by the washout. As you move further and further away from the town though, trekking over headlands and through the forest, the shrieks of delight fade away and beaches become more and more deserted.

Because the waves are so violent down here there is a constant, dreamy mist clinging to the shoreline. As you look back at where you have walked from and see clumps of towering trees and grey rocks disappearing behind the screen, it’s hard not to feel removed from the rest of the world.

After about 40 minutes of leaving fresh footprints on wet sand, of walking barefoot through mud and over coarse rocks, the forest trail leads back to the beach. Late in the evening this spot is almost empty as most have fled the dusk and its cloak of mosquitoes. This part of the sea is almost completely sheltered, cut off from the crashing waves by a barrier of rocks the size of houses. The water here is calm, the level rising and falling only once every few minutes as the tide advances and retreats. Stripping off, you leave your clothes on a huge rock and crabwalk down the face and into the water. It’s freezing cold but after a humid trek through the jungle there’s no harm in that. As you watch the mist swallow the light for yet another day and listen to the waves batter the shore only metres away, it would be hard not to agree that Paraty is the perfect weekend getaway.

There are more pictures from Paraty available in the gallery

November 11, 2010 at 6:37 pm 3 comments

Chunder-struck by Florianópolis, Brazil

Note: After over a hundred posts, 17 countries and almost 12 months of traveling, I reckon you must all be fed up of hearing (or reading) my voice so I asked Alan – a friend from home who had been traveling with us for a while now – to write a guest post about what it is like to travel with one incredibly lazy photographer and one bossy, overbearing journalist. Let’s just hope he doesn’t show me up. May I introduce, ladies and gentlemen, Alfla.

There’s a particular radio sketch that became a calling card during myself, Gary and Roisin’s trip across South America (or as I like to call it, ThirdWheelFest 2010). It’s an ever-so-slightly exaggerated version of the typical 18-year-old English backpacker, blundering their way across the world on their “gap yaaar”, each visit to an impressive or hallowed vista punctuated by the revelation that they “totally chundered EVERYWHERE!” (see it here)

For seasoned travellers – especially the temple-and-trekking gang – it will ring more than a few bells, and it’s true that it can put a bit of a dampener on sunrise over the Himalayas if Sophie from Chiswick vomits on your digital camera. But as someone who has spent all his adult life visiting busy friends in busy cities for busy weekends, I’m not afraid to admit that the idea of a beachside relaxathon is more than a little appealing.

Florianópolis offers this in buckets and spades, while still retaining an air of South American class. On arrival, your best bet is to hop on a public bus and get yourself out of the busy, smokey city and over to beautiful Ilha de Santa Catarina. It will take you the bones of an hour to get there but as the sand in the air (more on that later) and the topless hotties quotient increases, all your cares will melt away.

We got our bus to the end of the line which dropped us at the door of Backpackers Share Hostel, a cosy beach-side hostel where the whole team, with the help of the family dog Benji, made us feel incredibly at home. And the best bit? You can almost dip your toe in the sea without having to step away from the barbeque. Breakfasts are generous, you can enjoy a caipirinha (local cocktail) while watching the beach stretch into infinity, and there are more events and free surfboards than you can shake a stick at.

But most of all Backpacker’s Sharehouse provides the social aspect of traveling that, for me, has always been more of an attraction than even the most glorious of temple treks. I’m not advocating chundering everywhere but travel is as much an exchange of ideas as it is a chance to see the world. On arrival in the hostel I learned how to play Chinese chess from a pair of Australians and within two days we’d shaved the head of a regretfully enthusiastic, wonderfully naive American student. How unfortunate that the word ‘shave’ rhymes so well with ‘Dave’.

Basically, no man is an island. And besides, with the beaches that Florianópolis has to offer, any such man-island (shaved or otherwise) would be put to shame. Aware of my short time south of the Equator and Gary and Roisin’s desperate attempts to out-brown their friends when they got home, we hit the beaches of Florianópolis hard. And, to be fair to them, the beaches hit back.

The first thing you’ll notice as you stroll through Florianópolis is the high number of Brazilian tourists which – like seeing locals in a restaurant – is always a good sign. The second thing, for us at least, was the sand in our teeth. It is a testament to the beaches of Flori that even under some very testing wind conditions we stuck it out, and despite the fact that I suspect I’ll be finding grit in my crevices from now until Christmas it was definitely worth it. Because there is so much beach to go around, a ten-minute walk should nab you a fairly isolated area. And if the sand does get a little much, grab a rocky outcrop and sunbathe like you’re in some over-priced perfume ad.

When not tanning yourself silly, the waves are big enough to get your surf on, but not so intimidating that you can’t enjoy a kayak or just a dip in the water. And as the public buses drive right up to the beach, you can easily make your way to the various waterfalls, quaint fishing villages and the beautiful coast on the south of the island. Closer to home there’s a lighthouse overlooking the bay that offers a stunning panoramic view, though if the trek up to it is attempted under hungover conditions it can rip even the most solid of friendships to shreds.

If your throat is hoarse from raving about the dignified people of Whadyamakawlit or the stunning temples of Djelibebi and you’d just like to drink, tan, read, write, laugh and relax yourself silly come to Florianópolis (and tell Benji we say hello).

Just try not to chunder everywhere.

There are more photos from Florianópolis available in the gallery

November 4, 2010 at 8:31 pm 3 comments

Chasing waterfalls. Iguazu Falls, Argentina

If you have never seen ‘Iguazu face’ you have been sorely missing out. Difficult to describe, it is a little like a cross between pure, wide-eyed, childish glee and the expression that bad actors make when faced with a slimy monster in a low-budget horror film. But under a waterfall. The problem is that the subject is so deliriously giddy that his/her face is about to crack from smiling. He/she wants to drink in the scene but Iguazu Falls is thundering down on top of him/her filling his/her mouth with water and forcing his/her eyes closed. In response he/she uses his/her fingers to prise his/her eyes open but what are four fingers against the might of Iguazu?

Iguazu face is the face you make when you sign up for the speedboat ride that drives you right under the falls. Four times. It is the face you make when you are wringing wet in the only clothes you brought along for the day. The face you make just before you say “Hey guys, remember that time we were IN Iguazu Falls?” Iguazu face is the happiest, most carefree face in the world.

For those that have never seen the mighty giant here are the stats. Iguazu Falls is actually 275 waterfalls spread over a distance of 2.7km. The highest point drops a full 82 metres – 29m more than Niagara at its highest point. At one point, visitors are surrounded by 260 degrees of cataracts. On the Argentina side of the falls there are three different paths which get up close to different sections of the waterfall. It is also possible to visit the island beside the falls from here, kayak, trek and, as I mentioned before, to take a boat trip into the waterfalls.

The biggest, most memorable cataract is Devil’s Throat, a deep U-shape hollow where water thunders over the edge and visitors standing on the viewing platform at the top are deafened by the noise, soaked by the spray and utterly entranced by the power of nature. As it hurls over the precipice, the river looks more like a mountain-top avalance than a waterfall and the resulting spray makes it hard to see anything more than a thick white mist and the occasional fearless sparrow that swoops in and out of the cloud. All in all I think the First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt summed it up best when she made her first visit and exclaimed “Poor Niagara!”

Iguazu Falls was full of surprises too. We had expected it to be beautiful, mesmorising and eardrum-bursting. What we hadn’t expected was the themepark excitement, the animals and the extreme drenching. The most surprising thing about our trip though, was that the most memorable part wasn’t even related to falling water.

Foresaking the free train that shuttles tourists from viewpoint to viewpoint we decided to walk out to Devil’s Throat via a narrow little path that is squeezed in beside the river and the train tracks. As it turns out, this wasn’t a popular choice so we had the place to ourselves. Well, kind of. Around 300m into our 2km walk we realised that we had company when a huge yellow cloud fluttered towards us. Hundreds and hundreds of butterflies – mostly yellow but also red, black, orange and blue – formed a thick stream in the air, engulfing us. As they passed they carelessly bumped into us, beating gently against our faces, arms and chest before continuing on their route. For the next 40 minutes we met waves and waves of them and by the time we reached Devil’s Throat we were well and truly tousled – butterflies entwined in our hair, clinging onto our clothes and leaving tiny wet patches between our fingers.

Butterflies weren’t the only wildlife we spotted in Iguazu though. There were also huge iguanas, snakes, monkeys and South American coatis – funny little animals who look like a cross between a racoon, a possum and an anteater with a long nose and an even longer ringed tail. Not in the least bit shy the animals zig-zagged their way across the busy trails, monkeys chattering and coatis fishing half-finished packets of biscuits out of bins before staff members shooed them away. Strange and possibly cruel as it all was, having so much wildlife present reminded us that we were actually in a National Park – a park that is home to Jaguars no less. Best stick to the trails then.

Much like Niagara the Iguazu Falls is on a frontier. In this case it stradles three borders – Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay although the latter’s claim is negligible. To get the best out of a trip it is best to visit both sides. The Brazil side gives the best views of Devil’s Throat because it is far away enough that visitors can see more than mist and white crashing water. Thus it is the Brazil side that appears on all the postcards. That said, the Brazil side is currently just one viewing platform whereas Argentina is so much more. Or so I hear. In truth the day we wanted to do the Brazil side of the falls it was overcast and the admission price felt extortionate after the big day out we had bought for the same price only yesterday so we gave it a miss, a decision we have since regretted. So I guess it will have to be up to you to figure out which you prefer – Brazil or Argentina, who wins? You decide.

There are more pictures from Iguazu Falls available in the gallery

October 22, 2010 at 10:19 pm 3 comments

Raising the steaks. Buenos Aires, Argentina

It’s 2pm on a Sunday afternoon and Buenos Aires is waking up to room-spins and a killer hangover. The kind of hangover that most people only ever dream about. The kind of hangover you get from staying out until 10am in the morning and watching the sunrise from inside the world-famous nightclub Pacha. Upstairs the VIPs tip their diamond-encrusted sunglasses onto their noses and studiously ignore each other as the morning sunlight bounces off their bleached hair. Downstairs there is no room for studied indifference. Hell, there is hardly enough room to raise a glass to your mouth. Barely enough space to dance as if no-one in the world is watching you – although it will take a lot more than an elbow in the ribs to stop the hundreds of patrons from trying.

Or maybe its a quieter sort of hangover. The sort that comes after a long night of moving from one painfully trendy bar in the Palermo neighbourhood to another and another and another. Watching a new indie band perform in a gutted bar and lifting jugs of beer off huge concrete tables.

It was a good night for sure but now there is serious business to be dealt with. After all, what is a night out if you don’t follow it up with breakfast and a long gossip the next day? Cue the hardest part of being a porteňo (person from Buenos Aires) – deciding what to do on a Sunday afternoon.

In Recoleta the cafés are calling. Over tiny coffees in tiny porcelain cups gossiping Argentines will be only vaguely aware of the stream of notes coming from a nearby band who – using a cello, violin and a drum – are giving classical music an entirely new, entirely unclassical face. As the crescendo rises and the violinist starts to sweat profusely from overexertion and the strong afternoon sun, they will drop their cups back in their saucers, leave a generous tip for the waiter and head to Recoleta cemetery.

Recoleta is a pretty exlusive neighbourhood – full of designer boutiques, sculptures, sprawling parks and the most spectacular theatre-cum-bookshop. The area smacks of privelege so why should the cemetery be any different? A casual wander reveals the crypts of Buenos Aires’s most elite families including the much loved Eva (Evita) Peron. Some are old and uncared for – doors squeaking open to reveal cracked tiles, smashed dome windows and stacks of weathered coffins. Some are brand new, built from the finest granite and fitted with heavy steel doors that will never bang in the breeze. The best are a mix of the two – old and cut out of white stone but as grand as any church with their wrought iron doors, stained glass windows and guardian angel statues. Although visitors are in good company it is hard not to be mildly terrified when a door suddenly swings open, a glimpse through a window reveals a morbid pile of boxes or something rustles a little too loudly nearby. Still, the sheer size and unusual nature of the place makes for one of Buenos Aires’s most popular and memorable afternoon strolls.

Across town a much more colourful afternoon is in full swing. Lining a few of La Boca’s cobbled alleys are corrugated iron houses, once home to Argentina’s artists. Stacked in the most precarious manner in the most unusual lines, they are a testament to their owners’ creativity. Each wall is a different shade of aquamarine, ruby, mustard and mango – a colour chart even Dulux wouldn’t touch. How could a place like this not be lively?

Two of the streets meet at a 45 degree angle – one is lined with painters and photographers flogging their wares and the other with restaurants. In front of every coloured restaurant there is a small stage where experienced tango dancers strut their stuff. The crowd gasps appreciatively when the man tilts his partner back dramatically. As her long hair brushes the floor she lifts her leg slowly and deliberately so that it points over his ear, the split in her tight pencil skirt exposing long slim legs. The camera shutters snap and diners look up from their chorripans with critical eyes. The tourists will lap up any half-hearted tango but they have seen a thousand tangos and a thousand smooth legs. Still the right dancers never fail to raise a grudging smile and a twinkle in the men’s eyes. Such incredible elegance, poise and skill. And such strong legs…

Then there are the Sunday markets. San Telmo is home to the weekly antiques market many of whose wares are antiques only in the loosest sense of the word. In a big warehouse dusty records, mottled fur coats, ancient stamps, vintage sunglasses, porcelain dolls with only one leering eye and tarnished antique telephones that once took calls from Bell himself jockey for attention. For any afficionado there is a long day’s work to be done picking through the debris to find unlikely treasures.

For those more interested in a market’s atmosphere than its products, Feria de Mataderos (The Cowboy Market) holds the trump card. And since the sun is shining today the recovering porteňos are out in force. After swallowing down a reviving meal of fresh chicken empanadas and barbequed sausage sandwiches they head for the square where a band are playing some lively traditional tunes. In front of the stage a dozen partners appear to be performing some kind of traditional set dance – stepping in wooden circles around each other, waving coloured hankys (blue for one, white for the other) and laughing gamely. Elderly couples gaze at each other with humour and tenderness while the twenty-somethings beside them feign rigid formality before collapsing in giggles.

And its not just the average folk that are out. It’s not called The Cowboy Market for nothing afterall. In stalls draped with blue tarpaulin real life cowboys display leather lasoos, whips, saddles and handcrafted satchels. They are decked out to the nines in boots, trousers that balloon at the thighs, shirts, red cravats and flat caps. Towards the evening they gather in huddles over a Spanish guitar and croon, at least one person breaking into dance. Nearby, comedians thrill crowds on the grass area as kids run around with candied apples, popcorn, candyfloss and grass-stained knees. Shoppers clambour for the freshly churned artisan cheese and all manner of delicate trinkets. Everyone is smiling, stopping to chat to a neighbour or stranger or bending over to pet a dog. At times like this how could  porteňos not be head-over-heels in love with their city?

The only non-negotiable ingredient of any perfect Sunday afternoon in Buenos Aires is the steak. The best steak in the city changes depending on who you are asking. For us, Miranda’s in Palermo Viejo was the hands-down winner. In fact, Miranda’s is so good that it rendered us all speechless for a full ten minutes. At one point I glanced at Alan who was sitting opposite me in complete silence with his eyes closed, a goofy look on his face and his fork hovering dreamily around his mouth.

With as much headspace as floorspace, the small restaurant is a lively, cavernous place at the centre of which ridiculously attractive staff members shake cocktails and decant wine at the bar. All exposed brickwork and chisled jaws, Miranda’s looks almost as good as it tastes.

There are more photos from Buenos Aires available in the gallery

October 18, 2010 at 6:14 pm 2 comments

Technically brilliant, ultimately not. Montevideo, Uruaguay

For everything that the rain and subsequent tranquility added to Colonia del Sacramento, it took something away from Montevideo. Technically Uruguay’s capital city has a lot of attractions. There is the buzzing nightlife, the beautiful beaches, the lovely buildings – one of which was once South America’s tallest buildings at a towering 26 storeys. Technically Uruguay is fun. Technically. When the clouds blow in and the backpackers move out towards sunny Rio however, a lot of the shine wears off.

Our hostel in Montevideo was completely dead. We couldn’t find an open pub, just a dodgy lapdancing club. And although we were chomping at the bit to get out of the city and onto the beach (in one spot on the city limits you can swim to an deserted tropical island only 800m offshore) the heavy rain was a little discouraging. Instead we wandered around and took snaps of buildings. The theatre was beautiful, the palaces charming and the skyscraper had old world charm by the bucketload. Since Montevideo is such a tidy little package though, all of the above could fill no more than two hours regardless of how slow we walked and how many pictures Gary and our fantastic new friend Adam took.

Home instead to the hostel for a few drinking games which ended painfully when Alan who was carrying me on his back crashed into Adam who just happened at the time, to have a Gary on top of him. Well there was nothing else to do!

There are more pictures from Montevideo available in the gallery

October 11, 2010 at 1:02 am 2 comments

I can see clearly now… Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay

You know how sometimes after a heavy rain the whole world looks new? New grass, freshly tarmaced roads, straight-from-the-box cars? Well Colonia del Sacramento is not like that. Even after the heaviest spring fall Colonia is old old old.

What is new is the tranquility. Once the old town has been washed clean of the constant stream of tourists the cobbled lanes – cracked, uneven and sprouting an array of untamed weeds – offer a strange sense of peace. It’s like the old port town has been deserted by its sailors and smuggler inhabitants and left to fall deeper and deeper into disrepair.

Colonia in the sun must be marvellous. Cafés spewing forth crowds of chattering day-trippers. Children with ice-cream covered faces. Boats bobbing in the delta. Bodies sprawled out on nearby beaches. It must also be all elbows and flashing cameras. Tantrums towards the evening and queues to use the one free public toilet. Colonia after the rain on the other hand, with its heavy grey skies and slippery stones, was all ours.

While everyone else sipped cortados in cafés and converted Volkswagons we rushed the drawbridge. We climbed over the original bastion walls. We stared silently at the simplicity of Uruguay’s oldest church. We watched a marvellous sunset reflected in a hundred puddles. We rounded up a band of half a dozen dogs and skipped stones across the shore. After our hour and a half of exploration (it really is that small) we devoured the freshest seafood and some surprisingly good Uruguayan wine.

Founded in 1680 by Portuguese settlers as a base from which to smuggle goods into nearby Buenos Aires, tiny Colonia was coveted by other western powers and was for hundreds of years a prize over which the Spanish and Portuguese fought. Eventually the Spanish won and added it to their giant, towering pile of South American conquests.

While it wasn’t the sunny, hand-holding trip we had hoped for Colonia del Sacramento – for all its wet, grey, flaking glory – was the perfect setting in which to toast our fourth anniversary. Fourty-eight months down and only one left to go!

There are more pictures from Colonia del Sacramento available in the gallery

October 4, 2010 at 3:38 am 1 comment

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