Date of stay: Southern Summer 2006/7
Where you stayed: Backpackers/Cheap Hotels/Friends
Tour or pre planned: Pre-planned
Often described as a country of contrasts, Brazil really is a place with so much to offer. A country steeped in a rich history of different peoples coming together to make what a melting pot of culture it is today.
Having lived in Brazil in 2003 I had experienced a big part of Brazilian culture but because of the sheer size of the place (larger than continental USA) there were large parts yet to be explored and so I set out to explore the coastal Brazil from the South to Northeast over the southern summer 2006/2007. I cannot stress how much more there is to Brazil than meets the eye, little is known about Brazil’s African influence which is greatest in the Northeast, its German and Italian influences in the South and its Japanese minority in the south and Southeast. These greatly different cultures have ingrained themselves in the South American nation and make the general culture and cuisine an interesting mix of Japanese/European fusion to Afro-Portuguese coconut infused dishes and everything in between.
I entered Brazil through the Argentine border at Iguazu falls. Iguazu falls is a place not to be missed; its tropical setting attracts an abundance of flora and fauna that is simply amazing. I would highly recommend giving yourself plenty of time to explore the area and, unless your Portuguese or Spanish language is up to scratch, take a tour to save yourself the hassle of public transport. From the steamy tropics to the temperate South I ended up in Ilha do Mel, a quaint island off most International traveller’s paths it’s a place that attracts those seeking a quieter holiday and those chasing a little of the Portuguese history and stories of its forts and strongholds. This island can be reached via ferry and picturesque train or bus trip from Curitiba.
Next destination was the old German settlement of Blumenau further down country. The town boasts a main street reminiscent of those you could find anywhere in Germany with a twist of the new Brazil added into the mix. A couple of days checking out the area should suffice unless you’re there around Ocktoberfest which could require another day or two recovery. Staying in the state of Santa Catarina I headed to Barra da Lagoa on the island of the state’s namesake and a short bus or taxi trip from Florianopolis. This place would have to have been one of the highlights of my trip. Nestled in between hills, a lagoon and the sea this old fishing town was quiet at the time but with its good waves, food and relaxed way of life I’d be surprised if it hasn’t picked up considerably with hordes of tourists since then. A place not to be missed.
Heading up the coast, and avoiding the Metropolis of Sao Paulo, the towns of Ubatuba and Carangatuba are worth a stopover to get some rays and relax on the beach before a bit of exertion checking out Ilha Grande. Ilha Grande (literally large island in Portuguese) is off Angra dos Reis and can be reached by boat of which there are many going over. A tour of 1-2 days would be enough to have a good explore of the old prison, the small settlements and the beautiful waterfalls and pools scattered around. Alternatively it’s easy enough to organise yourself some supplies and do it yourself but booking accommodation in advance is advisable.
From the natural splendours of Ilha Grande it was off to the colonial town of Parati in the state of Rio de Janeiro. This place is a historian and artists dream, the place has an interesting history of colonisation by the Portuguese and the African slaves of whom the different races had their own churches so there was one for the Africans, one for the mixed and one for the Portuguese. Teeming with works of art and buskers this old cobblestone street town has a lot to offer both in the town and its coastal surrounds. A day trip by boat is a must do and don’t forget your snorkel. I can highly recommend Paraty Hostel Casa do Rio as a good place to stay while there.
Staying in the state, the next destination was its capital Rio de Janeiro or affectionately known as Rio. Arguably the most photogenic major city in the world, this city takes quite some beating for its natural beauty. Set on the back drop of the bays around and on the sides of its steep hills the city is alive all year around but peaks at Carnaval. There are numerous places to stay but it is best to book well in advance to avoid being disappointed and, as the cost of a bed can be up there with the highest cost per night in the world, save yourself a few pennies. I would recommend a favela tour (could be closer to extinction as the Brazilian government aims to move favelas out of the leering eyes of foreigners) which will give you a good insight into how the other half live in Brazil with their hierarchical systems of house positions (the more power your family has within the slum the higher up the hill you are) and the poverty that remains today. Other must do trips include: ‘christ the redeemer’, ‘sugar loaf mountain’, the surrounding beaches, a dance club where you’ll see latino magic on the d-floor and if your budget can stretch try a hang glide over the city.
Porto Seguro and neighbouring settlements in the North-Eastern state of Bahia is a popular destination for Brazilian city dwellers’ holidays and home to retirees and hippy types; the sweeping beaches are breathtaking and are best explored by hiring a car or scooter/motorbike. I would tend to go with the former and if need be pay the extra for a dune buggy, this will give you the flexibility to go off-road and peace of mind you have far less chance of getting stuck. During the peak season Dec-March I would advise to book accommodation in advance and be prepared to bump into other on your evening strolls on the beach. Bahia’s capital Salvador is perhaps best known for its Carnaval and rightly so. Traditionalists would argue that its show tops that of Rio and they sure do put on a good show. The city of over 3 Million has some fascinating history most notable its Afro-Brazilian. It was the first colonial capital of Brazil and a main Portuguese trading centre during the 17th,18th and 19th centuries. A great place to discover history, to see amazing acts of Capoeira and try out some exciting new foods Salvador is worth stopping by.
The further north-east you go in Brazil the more arid it becomes and the Nordestinos or “north-easterners’ are a hardy bunch. No more so than the Pernambucan cities of Olinda and Recife. These cities have an interesting colonial history of fighting and negotiating between Portuguese, French and Dutch. Sometimes called Brazil’s Venice Recife is a city with canals running through it but unfortunately these were mostly polluted and smelly. The surrounding Porto das Galinhas is a nice place to relax and hang out by the beach but with Recife’s crime and pollution I wouldn’t be dying to get back anytime soon.
The end of the trip and absolute highlight for me was returning to Fortaleza after 3 years some 16 or so hours north of Recife. The beaches, cuisine, culture (including the north east dance of Forro) and country life that has made its way into the city are very cool for want of a better word. While there you can’t miss checking out the night clubs along the main beaches where you’ll find something for every taste and every day and be sure to head down to Praia do Futuro to sit on a beach chair get a drink and order a fresh crab or any other local dishes served up by some of Brazil’s friendliest hosts. If you’re after some adventure head out of the city and visit the water park ‘beach park’ or head up or down the coast to a little fishing village to mingle with the locals who will try tell you stories of cowboys and fishing tales.
With the Soccer world cup and Olympics set to engulf Brazil it will have more buzz than usual and I’m looking forward to getting back soon.
Points to highlight: Book flights and accommodation in the main centres in advance. Brazil’s crime rate is sure to improve with its rise in economic riches but be sure to travel safe and avoid touts where possible.
Would you recommend this destination: Yes
Would you recommend your tour: N/A Pre-planned and self-guided
Would you recommend your hotel: Yes – Paraty Hostel Casa do Rio
Overall rating destination: 5 out of 5