Tip 1 for a trip around Brazil is: think small. We thought we were thinking small and not trying to fit too much in, but the time slipped through our fingers and we were always on the move wishing we had all the time in the world to really get to know all the beautiful places we visited. Despite that, we did manage to have a cracking time.
Me and Megan only had a very vague plan in our heads before we met up in Floripa at the end of February. Our first week was dedicated to finding our feet and catching up with uni friends who are spending their year abroad either working or studying in this beautiful country. As I’d been working in tourism in small town Brazil (click here for my story) I was readjusting to being out in the big wide world and Megan was just savouring the joy of having swapped a European winter for a Brazilian summer and so we weren’t in any hurry to get started and only managed to fit Floripa and Curitiba into our first week. I’m all for the unplanned approach but if you’re not lucky enough to have friends in all the right places like us, I would recommend planning your first week well so that you get off to a running start and don’t waste any of your precious month.
Floripa and Curitiba
Florianopalis or Floripa is a beach fringed island on the coast of the state of Santa Catarina, down in the South where I suddenly looked a lot more Brazilian (they actually have blondes down there) and speak with a distinctive accent with a hint of Spanish to it (as if I wasn’t confused enough). We had a glorious beach day at Mole beach and then dared to clamber over the rocks to the neighbouring nudist beach, which called for some determined looking at something interesting out at sea. If you fancy getting your kit off though, I can’t think of a better place to do it. Both the beaches were long sweeping affairs with majestic waves edged by dramatic hills covered in lush forest in a thousand shades of green.
The rest of our time in Floripa was spent visiting a couple of other beaches and taking a walk along the edge of the huge lake in the middle of the island to some sweet little fishing villages before getting the ferry bus back. Our host Charlotte has herself a great place in the suburb of Lagao da Conceicao which was charming and a great place to base yourself, with loads of hostels. We had two evenings out whilst in Floripa, in the same little spot on the lake’s edge, one a rather under supported but fun Forro night and the other a weekly Samba night that was full to the brim. We had planned to get up early the next day for another hike but that quickly went down the drain after we had enjoyed a few caipirinhas and found willing dance partners! Luckily both me and Megan are of the mind that a you’ll regret not making the most of a night dancing samba with a sea breeze than not waking up for the hike the following day!
Next stop Curitiba. We caught ourselves a 5 hour bus north to the city where Laura has been living and working since last summer. Unluckily the weather took a turn for the worse and it started raining and didn’t really stop the whole time we were there. The highlights were the beautiful parks and the Oscar Nieymer museum, both for the architecture of the building itself and the exhibitions. We stayed 2 full days in Curitiba but spent one of them zoned out in Laura’s flat trying to organise the next step of our trip, leaving the safety net of hosts behind. 1 day is enough to see the sights. As a place to live and work it’s clearly brilliant as it’s very European, but as a destination I’m not sure I’d recommend it if you’re short on time! If you do go, take a waterproof , it’s wittily known as Curichuva (‘chuva’ being the Portuguese for ‘rain’, so brace yourself).
Rio de Janeiro
Abandoning the safety net of our wonderful hosts (thanks girls!) we flew to Rio. A lot of people seem to have this weird complex about flying rather than busing whilst backpacking, but to me it makes a hell of a lot of sense and doesn’t make you any less of a ‘real backpacker’, especially when you consider the size of Brazil. I flew Campo Grande/Floripa, Curitiba/Rio, Rio/Salvador and Salvador/Campo Grande. Each set me back an average of about 250 Reais which at the moment with the pound being so strong is only about 50 quid. However I warn you now that Brazilian airline websites seem to be built especially to make it impossible to buy tickets if you’re a foreigner. The airline Azul is the least impossible to deal with and they are extremely punctual and give you loads of yummy free snacks, so if you can go with them, but set aside a good few hours to navigate their website, preferably with a drink in hand. My iPad bears the scars of an encounter with the unbelievably useless Avianca.
We had pre booked the Che Lagarto (a South America wide hostel chain) in Copacabana. The location was cracking, only 2 blocks from the beach, and we met some brilliant people (almost exclusively Argentinians so if you don’t speak Spanish you wouldn’t have much fun) but it was a bit cramped and they messed us around severely room-wise. Luckily they were fully booked for our last two nights in Rio so we booked into LimeTime in Botafogo, right next to the metro between the centre and the beaches. Gorgeous staff, a great communal area, great prices and a free caipirinha on a nightly basis! What more could one want? Highly recommended.
Our 5 days in Rio were filled with all the typical tourist activities which were made slightly more complicated by the dodgy weather. Luckily we missed the rain for our photo opportunities with the Christ the Redeemer and on top of the Sugarloaf (don’t forget your student card for discounts). One brilliant discovery was that having been to the top of the Sugarloaf you can get the first cable car back down and instead of hopping on the next one find the path down. It’s rather steep and a bit precarious if it’s been raining (I wouldn’t recommend the walk up unless you’re super fit and agile) but you earn yourself some gorgeous views and will probably be able to get close to the gorgeous fluffy eared monkeys that call the Sugarloaf home. It’s a rather surreal experience to be surrounded by the rainforest whilst in the middle of a huge Brazilian city, but that’s one of the things I loved about Rio. It’s the same when you’re on the funicular railway (same price as and so much more exciting than the minibus) that takes you up the Corcavado or in the magical Botanical gardens, a feeling of peace heightened by the knowledge that the craziness of the urban world is only minutes away.
Other highlights were the steps in Lapa, which make for fantastic photo opportunities, even in the rain, and the cathedral, which may well be the ugliest building in the world on the outside but is completely stunning inside, with four huge panels of stained glass soaring up to the ceiling, meeting in a cross. It was only enhanced by the sound of the raining hitting the glass roof and cascading down the sides. Find yourself a quiet corner behind a pew (unless it’s mass obviously) and lie down on the floor to get the full majesty of it. Just make sure you know when closing time is, they were clocking odd early and we nearly got locked in!
Ilha Grande and Paraty
If you’ve got no time constraints, by all means take the public transport option which will get you from Rio to Ilha Grande or Paraty in the cheapest way possible, but will take a long time about it. A basic grasp of Portuguese helps a lot here as does a sense of humour and adventure and an acceptance of the fact it won’t be a fast process. However on our tight schedule we decided to use EasyTransfer Brazil who pick you up at your hostel door. You just email them your dates and they make getting between these three must-see spots pretty pain free as well as answering your emails at lightning speed, all for about R$280 which by Brazilian standards is very reasonable.
Ilha Grande is a boat trip from the mainland, the largest island in a very picturesque archipelago. No cars and sand covered streets make it the perfect place to turn off the wifi and play castaway, all be it with a few more tourists and caipirinhas. When I was 12 I was lucky enough to spend a week around Rio and we took a boat trip out around the islands and I remember my Mother remarking how you expected one of those mini T-Rex style dinosaurs to coming slinking out of the trees onto the crescents of yellow sand at any moment, it’s all so Jurassic Park. We only had one full day on the island and decided to skip the tourist boats, found some walking companions and headed off through the foresty jungle on a 2 hour walk to a waterfall then down to a beach. It’s hot work and very hilly so the waterfall is a welcome site, and the trail is a delight in itself. The beach was gorgeous but rather spoilt when one of the tourist boats turned up with punters packed on like cattle, and confirmed our suspicions that they should be avoided like the plague. Studio Beach Hostel is metres from the dock so you don’t have to lug your backpack too far, and one of the cheapest places on the island with what can only be described as a banquet for breakfast! Our two evenings were pleasantly passed in some quirky and characterful bars, and sitting out on the pier with take out caipirinhas. Not party Central, but wonderful. As always, I wish we could have stayed longer.
Hot and bothered.
I believe this is known as Paradise.
Paraty is everything it’s cracked up to be. The town centre is paved with slave-laid cobble stones and you explore street upon street of one storey white colonial buildings, home to stylish (and expensive- but it’s great just to window shop clothing that you would actually put on, as opposed to the horrific offerings of most Brazilian markets) little boutiques and restaurants. Our one day here was spent in Trinidade, a short bus ride down the coast. We followed the signs to the natural swimming pools, which took us over two gorgeous beaches and up some rocky paths through the forest and were not disappointed. You don’t have it to yourself, but the crystal clear swimming pools created by the rocks are huge which means you can find yourself a peaceful corner, and when you’re done exploring there are plenty of rocks for sunbathing.
A word of warning- the rocks are extremely sharp. I thought I had it bad scraping my hand, but then Megan showed up having slipped and cut the whole of the sole of her foot open. This resulted in a boat trip back, Megan being carried in a precarious looking plastic chair from the beach to a van in which we shared the front seat, a visit to the local medical post and me giving her a piggy back to the equivalent of accident and emergency once back in Rio, much to the hilarity of the locals. Thank god it was her rather than me as I’m twice her size and don’t think a piggy back wouldn’t have been feasible if our positions were reversed! She spent the rest of the trip with a bandaged foot and off the alcohol due to antibiotics, so I was deprived of my caipirinha buddy and she couldn’t swim in the sea and was unable to dance for a good week. Anyone who has been to Bahia, our next stop, will understand that this was terrible timing, as beaches and parties are what it’s all about, but that’s a story for part 2, adventures in Salvador, Morro de São Paulo and Itacare, aka heaven. Stay tuned!