Posts tagged ‘Brazil’

The backpack diaries – our top ten South American experiences

So this post is a little late – over a year late to be precise – but that’s okay because we still remember every miniscule detail of the trip as if it was yesterday. We’re determined to get back on the blogging horse and we have a few great European posts up our sleeves for you, including (home sweet home) Dublin, so don’t go away yet. To get the ball rolling here is our long overdue Top 10 of South America, it took almost a year of arguing, biting and scratching to compile so you had better enjoy it…

10. Paraty, Brazil
Pretty little Paraty may not make it onto many Top 10 of South America lists but this picturesque gem of a town beat tough competition from Ilha Grande to appear on ours. The reason is its unusual charm, the product of pristine beaches married with a picturesque historical centre. In town you have uneven cobbled streets lined with white-washed cottages, windows and doorframes a flipbook catalogue of bright blues, reds, yellows and greens. Outside of town there are endless perfect beaches backed by rainforest that get quieter and quieter as you trek through the forest, away from parents sipping beers on plastic chairs and kids playing football. Walk far enough and you’re sure to find your own deserted patch of sand.

9. Colca Canyon, Peru
Hidden away from the world by towering canyon walls is a tiny gem of a place. Giant cacti bearing bright red fruit, birds with a three metre wing span, terraced fields, well tended orchards, winding paths sheltered by overhanging fruit trees and little girls chasing stray sheep. This is where the mighty Amazon begins as the gurgling stream we dipped our toes into after the long slide downhill. The only problem? What goes down must come up. It was a hike that for me at least, was more difficult than the three day Lares trek – but we did it in two hours.

8. Wineries in Mendoza, Argentina
Take six wine-loving backpackers, six dodgy bicycles, one hand-drawn map and dozens of world-class vineyards, chocolatiers, olive oil producers and absinthe brewers. Throw in a dash of sunshine, a sprinkling of local characters and you have yourself one hell of a day.

7. Trekking in Tupiza, Bolivia
Who would have thunk it? In the arse end of Bolivia, itself the (lovely) arse end of South America, we found the whirlwind adventure we had been chasing all this time. Our reluctant partners in crime, advertised as Argentinian stallions, turned out to be a bunch of fat, grumpy Bolivian mules. Together we cantered across arid scenes of red-sand cliffs and rocky terrain worthy of John Wayne, we crossed railway tracks, fast-flowing rivers and fields of waist-high grass. When we slept it was metres away from them. When we ate they were tied to the trees under which we sat. We wore cowboy hats, chewed coca leaves and spat a lot. It was breath-takingy beautiful and eventually, bum-numbingly painful and it was our biggest South American adventure.

6. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
You don’t walk in Rio de Janeiro, you dance. You tap your toes as you sit in a restaurant, wiggle your bum on the beach and shake yo’ thang at the Lapa street party. Here salsa is king but caparinhas shaken by large-bottomed women with infectious smiles are a close second. Rio lives up to the hype. We came expecting endless white sand beaches with beautiful people playing volleyball, City of God slum towns where kids wandered alleyways with guns slung over their shoulders, skyscrapers that winked in the sunlight and entire neighbourhoods that spent all night dancing in the streets. It was all of that and more, so why isn’t it better than Buenos Aires? Because we were expecting it.

5. World’s Most Dangerous Road, La Paz, Bolivia
At certain points, if you go over the edge of the World’s Most Dangerous Road you fall 600 metres before there’s anything to grab hold of. So obviously we had to try it. And obviously we were bricking it. The start was a fantastic warm-up – smooth tarmac road, a metal barrier and space enough for everyone – but eventually the road changed into a narrow, gravelly track that wound blindly around corners. Then came the trucks, hurdling towards us at video game speed. They took the inside lane while we spun out to the very edge, our toes teetering over a vast drop where birds circled above a rainforest canopy far below.

4. Iguazu Falls, Argentina
At Devil’s Throat it wouldn’t be hard to convince yourself that the waterfall is actually inside your head. With the way it thunders and pounds, sheet after sheet of white noise, it’s hard to think of anything else really – just the waterfall and those suicidal little sparrows that nose dive into huge clouds of spray. Foz Iguazu is actually 275 waterfalls spread over 2.7km in two countries. At it’s highest point it drops 83m, that’s 29m more than Niagara and at one viewpoint, visitors can enjoy 260 degrees of waterfall – a fact that prompted Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to sigh “Poor Niagara!” on her first visit. Poor Niagara indeed. Surrounded by national park, the Argentina side has a fantastic array of wildlife too, from rainbow coloured butterflies to (reportedly) tigers. And no visitor should miss a chance to take a speedboat into the waterfall either – all those screams you hear are happiness at it’s most hysterical. Just leave your clothes on dry land.

3. Buenos Aires, Argentina
Since we’ve been home people have asked us time and time again where did we like best. Now we don’t like to play favourites but if we were to pick just one place where we could stay suspended in time for ever and ever, it would be Buenos Aires. Maybe it was because we had a reunion with a long-missed friend or maybe it was just because Buenos Aires really is just that good. It has tango dancing in the streets, steak you can cut with a spoon, a nightlife that never seems to stop, real life cowboy markets, a cemetery you could easily build a home in and so much to do that you could never get bored here. Buenos Aires is all that and a bag of chips.

2. Lares Trek, Peru
Okay so there was a little bit of altitude sickness but there was also a team that sprinted ahead of us to cook four course meals three times a day in an oven made from stones, a guide that made us giggle, hours of singing The Sound of Music while we skipped down mountain sides, and eye-opening visit to a Quechun village, beautiful scenery, much coca leaf chewing, a night spent drinking macho tea under the stars and of course, the star of the show, Machu Picchu. I defy anyone not to include this beauty on their top ten of South America list.

1. Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
For two days we saw nothing. The sandstorm was so bad it tore the roof off a hostel (the temperature was -20°c), so bad that it blasted all the paint off one side of our jeep, so bad that we couldn’t see to the end of our bonnet. Then we arrived at Salar de Uyuni and it stopped. At first it was just a mirage glimmering on the edge of the desert but as we got closer it sucked all the colour out of the world until all that was left was a bright blue sky and a ground so dazzlingly white, we needed sunglasses. This wonder of nature is one of the few places in the world where you can clearly see the curve of the earth.


There are more pictures from South America available in the gallery


December 21, 2011 at 11:44 am 10 comments

One last knees up. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Note: You might have noticed that it’s been a while since we last updated (almost 6 months actually). We have been home for that whole time and we didn’t want to update until we had this – an edited version of an article I wrote for the travel section of the Irish Independent.

I remember being conscious of the bead of sweat trickling down my nose as I pressed my back against the wall. I was face-to-face, toe-to-toe with a Brazilian drug dealer, his rifle cold against my shoulder as he brushed past. In the stifling heat of Rio de Janeiro’s slums, the cool touch of metal was the only relief from the rising humidity.

A month later I would be watching news reports on a police siege of the slums that left at least 45 dead. But that day I felt safe in the favelas. I believed my tour guide Luiz’s soothing words. “Don’t worry,” he said, “they usually only use their guns to fire in the air to signal that the police are coming.”

As we wound our way down alleyways too tight to accommodate a pram, between the hotchpotch redbrick shacks – one stacked clumsily on top of another – we passed huge mounds of putrefying rubbish stowed in every available space. We backed into walls to let pregnant women, drug dealers and schoolchildren past; the kids happily swinging their backpacks and tearing around corners on their headlong rush home; the dealers chatting lazily to friends, cigarettes dangling from idle fingers.

By the time we had reached the centre of the favela (slum) a whole other world had revealed itself. While gun-toting boys selling cocaine patrolled the edge of the neighborhood, the centre was a refuge for thousands of families. Here teenagers banged out samba rhythms on empty buckets, women hummed as they draped their washing on lines, dogs stretched out in isolated cracks of sunlight yawning widely and shopkeepers sat out on their stoops tapping their toes. From the staff at the local juice bar to joggers on the beach, everyone in Rio de Janeiro was moving to their own beat and in the favela I was learning that that beat was surprisingly uplifting. Slowly I started to lower my guard, letting out a deep breath I hadn’t realised I was holding.

With Luiz leading the way, we climbed four floors up a cramped staircase, sidestepping crumpled steps briefly illuminated by flickering neon lights. At the top we shoved through a splintered door and gazed upon one of Rio’s most memorable sights. On the roof of the city, far away from tourist board images of Carnival, volleyball games on the beach and Christ the Redeemer, we were presented with a view of Rio not usually printed on postcards.

Dripping from every hill and valley was a sea of houses. In the early afternoon it was strangely mundane. Mothers collecting their kids from school or folding coloured sheets that flapped in a rare breeze, old men fanning themselves on their stoops and teachers keeping a close eye on their lunching wards at a nearby playschool.

“Life here,” said Luiz as he stepped out onto the roof, motioning to the scene in front of us, “is not as bad as people say. Many people live here and work in the city. For many families this has been home for generations. Their parents lived here, as did their grandparents and in the future their children and grandchildren will be raised here. There is community here. Life in the favelas isn’t perfect of course, but what neighbourhood is?”

Listening to the rhythm of life in the favela it wasn’t hard to see it as the birthplace of samba. Between the towering houses, suffocating alleyways and looming shadows came dizzying cracks of light. The screeching sound of little girls reciting a skipping chant rose from the streets below and mingled with the sultry tones of Amy Winehouse drifting from a nearby window. Leaves rustled. Luiz drummed his fingers. Doors slammed. A mother called out to her children. Electricity lines fizzed. A gunshot cracked through the sticky air.

Of course there was much more to Rio than just the favelas. We spent a lot of time people-watching on the beach, we climbed up to see Christ the Redeemer and we partied hard. One major highlight was our night at the street party in Lapa – a weekly occurrence for those lucky enough to live in this magical city.

In a word, it was immense. Samba bands filled the night with music and hoards of tourists and locals of every age filled several blocks. People lounged on the colourful Lapa steps chatting to friends and strangers; restaurants spilled out onto pedestrianised streets; laughing vendors sold homemade caipirinhas and street food from rickety tables; and some incredibly friendly locals showed us how to shake our (completely insufficient) hips to the beat of a drum. As a wise woman once said, I could have danced all night.

Rio was the perfect end to a perfect trip. The Cariocas really have it sussed – rollerblading to work, spending lunchtime on the beach, eating out on weekdays and dancing until dawn. We made two new Kiwi friends, laughed a lot and then, when it was time to leave Fla, cried a lot (well I did anyway.) How could it be time to go home already? In ways it felt like only yesterday that we had left, shaking with excitement and fear. But in other ways it felt like a lifetime. We had done so much in only 12 months. We had climbed the Great Wall of China, dived the Great Barrier Reef and hiked to Machu Picchu. I’d lost half my face to a Vietnamese Road, we were chased off a desert island by monkeys and we were poisoned by a yak stew near Tibet. We had also made more friends than we could count – friends that hopefully, we would keep forever – and perhaps most notably, we had survived an entire year together with little or no drama. And no breakups! Year long breakup indeed, I guess this thing is going to go on longer than we had expected.

There are more pictures from Rio de Janeiro available in the gallery

May 10, 2011 at 10:46 am 2 comments

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


Thanks for coming to visit us – stay tuned to watch us argue, punch, kick, pinch and scream our way around some of the most beautiful parts of the world.

Over the next year we will be fighting in Asia, Australia, New Zealand and South America.

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