Friday, 25 December 2009

Wildlife spotting in the Pantanal, shopping in Paraguay and getting soaked at Iguazu Falls

Firstly prepare yourselves for a mammoth Christmas blog - lots to update on and I have been awake since 8am (accidentally thought we were still on Brazil time which would have been 9am but don't tell Tom)

The Pantanal which stretches through Brazil to Bolivia and Paraguay is "home to 1000 bird species, 400 fish species, 300 mammalian species, 480 reptile species and over 9000 different subspecies of invertebrates", so we had the camera at the ready! We arrived in Campo Grande, the main town which is a gateway to the wetlands, then set off the following day to our campsite deep in the heart of the Pantanal. Spending two nights sleeping in a hammock sounded like a great idea, however our guide conveniently forgot to mention the number of mosquitoes and consequently we were eaten alive and are still itching! We spent three days exploring the area, fishing for piranha, handling a wild anaconda, getting very close to a lake full of alligators and caimen (literally hundreds of them and not as I initially thought of as a kind of bird or monkey but another type of alligator), a night safari where we saw a giant anteater up in a tree and baby armadillo crossing the road, horse-riding in exhausting heat which was also very funny as Tom ended up with an over-protective mother whose foal caused havoc for the full three hours with Tom the "expert" horse-rider gallopping all over the place, colourful toucans and parrots in the trees and the largest rodents in the world called capybara aka giant guinea pigs! Disappointingly we never managed to see a jaguar but you can't have it all!

Having been torn earlier in the trip between the Amazon and the Pantanal, we definitely made the right choice and loved experiencing the untamable wild after all our beach adventures. As we left the Pantanal we came across a group of locals stood in the road looking puzzled, ahead of them was a wooden bridge which we needed to cross in order to get on the main road but as it happened a farmer had just driven over it in his tractor and it had collapsed! We think he was fine but as thunder rumbled in the distance we were keen to keep moving. Needless to say as things in Brazil only work at two speeds "slow" and "stop" we ended up crossing the brown, murky Rio Paraguay in a metal boat whilst it torrentially rained and we were surrounded by thunder and lightening!

Having only just survived the Pantanal our next stop was a small town called Bonito meaning "pretty" in Portuguese. We had heard that there was some incredible snorkelling on offer so we booked ourselves in for the following morning and spent the day floating downstream in what honestly looked like a natural aquarium with fish darting all around us (and rather unpleasantly nibbling at my mosquito bites!)

We also visited a staligmatic cave filled with bright blue mineral water - unfortunately the guide spoke very little English so we didn't understand everything but we did learn that the fossils of a saber-toothed tiger and giant sloth had been found which is pretty cool.

Leaving Bonito we headed to Foz do Iguacu, a mere 22 hour journey on a bus with no air con and an engine which overheated in the middle of the night, so by the time we arrived at Iguacu our patience had been massively tested but undeterred we set off across a bridge to check out Paraguay... Crossing the border from Brazil to Paraguay it was immediately apparent that we had entered a very different type of S American country. This particular town in Paraguay is well known for its cheap, knock-off electronics and is literally a huge camera, TV, DVD market with everything on offer at cheap prices. Finally convincing Tom that he really didn't need to buy a wide-angle lens for his camera (by reminding him of our tight travelling budget) we returned to Brazil for the night.

We spent the following day on the Argentinian side of Iguazu Falls - 275 waterfalls spread along more than one and a half miles between Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay. The views of the falls are absolutely incredible - as you will see from Tom's handy work! We also decided to get a closer look and boarded a speed boat which proceeded to drive under some of the falls so that everyone onboard was absolutely soaked. The area is also full of gorgeous butterflies of all different colours and the occasional cheeky racoon (again see Tom's photos below)

As I had been getting more and more nervous about travelling to Buenos Aires over the Christmas period (we'd heard the whole city shuts down for celebrations and there is no transport on offer) I'd persuaded Tom to book our tickets the previous day - fortunately getting hold of two of the remaining tickets for the evening bus. So we arrived in the capital at lunchtime on Christmas Eve, checked into a hostel and headed out to taste some world famous Argentinian steak - we weren't disappointed!

Monday, 21 December 2009

Property hunting in Pipa...

By now having spent a good couple of weeks in Brazil - being completely wowed by its tropical scenery, buzzing cities and incredibly friendly locals - we really felt a long way from festive, snowy England. We’d also picked up on how prosperous Brazil was becoming, they had recently won their bid for the 2014 World Cup, to be closely followed by the 2016 Olympics in Rio, had just discovered one of the world’s largest oil fields and are expected to become the world’s 5th largest economy, so it seems Brazil is THE place to be. With all of this in mind, together with discussions we’d had previously with Louis (the hostel hunter), an idea began to form and leaving Rio we flew to Natal, a city on the north-east coast, also soon to have one of the largest airports in Latin America and only 6.5 hours from Europe...
Us trying to look like property moguls!
The view of the ocean from our "would be" Brazilian house
First arriving in Natal and then onto a nearby popular beach town called Praia da Pipa, our initial idea was to check out the area with the potential of looking at available pousadas/guest houses with the romantic notion that we could spend the rest of our days living an easy life with a stunning Brazilian beach as a backdrop. To cut a long story short we spent a week in Pipa, managed to contact an English company specialising in Brazilian property in Pipa and Natal, viewed a number of properties and building plots, alienated ourselves from the hostel where we were staying as the English guy who’d recently opened it became very suspicious of his two new guests, and finally concluded that we really didn’t want to cut our trip short, which would have been necessary if we were serious about buying. Of course during all this property hunting we did make time to try and perfect our surfing (still a long way to go) and were joined in the water by a school of dolphins!

Still smiling after an unsuccessful day surfing

So, instead of investing in Brazilian property we headed back to the airport and after a few short stops to change planes in Brasilia, Sao Paulo (which when landing at the airport looks remarkably similar to arriving at Manchester Airport – lots of green countryside and... rain, but is by far the biggest sprawling city we’ve seen so far and with no sign of a B&Q warehouse!), we landed in Campo Grande – the entrance to the Pantanal, the world’s largest tropical wetlands bordering Bolivia and Paraguay.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

Rio de Janeiro

I’ve realised that since we’re about to finally leave Brazil we are really behind on the blog and Elizabeth keeps shouting at me to write something so it’s time to pick back up where we last left off...

Rio: after everything we had seen and heard about the city we had big expectations - and we weren’t disappointed. We arrived after a 24 hour journey on an oven of a bus – incredibly the bus station thermometer indicated it was 41 degrees outside which felt cooler than being on the bus due to the non-functioning air con. We checked ourselves in to a lively hostel in Copacabana and went out to explore the area in the late afternoon. We went straight to the beach and lazed in the sun, checking out the amazing location (jungle covered hills on either side of the beach with urban high rise behind) and the huge waves that were coming in. We had a few drinks and ate some pizza on the seafront, watching the sun set over Copacabana very impressed with our first impressions!

Feeling festive despite the lack of snow!

I should probably mention that Rio is the first place where we encountered a bit of bad weather so far (on the whole trip I think) and over the five days we were there it rained on and off for a few of them, that said it was still more than hot enough and we managed to squeeze a lot of cool things in. In the hostel we met Jonny and Michelle, a very cool couple from the US also travelling the world. Over the next few days we visited Christ the Redeemer (the big statue of Jesus on a hill above the city and the archetypal symbol of Rio), explored some of the other areas of the City such as Ipanema and spent time on the beach there, had the odd drunken night out and relaxed in the hostel.

In addition to this, the two highlights for me were managing (somehow) to get tickets for the final match of the season for the biggest team in Brazil, Flamengo and surviving the biggest waves I have ever seen on the beach at Copacabana.

Standing back as Tom takes his life into his own hands
On the first of the two - we had been desperate to watch some football in South America and thought Brazil would be a great place to see some so when we found out the final match of the season was happening on our third day in Rio and it was Flamengo at home at the Maracana (the world’s largest stadium with a ‘restricted’ capacity of 110,000) we did our best to get tickets. To cut a long story short we managed to get tickets and were excited to learn that the final match of the season would decide who won their main league. The top three teams were all tied, if Flamengo won their game they would win the league for the first time since 1992. If they drew or lost, one of two other teams would win on goal difference if they won their games. It was a three way tie at the top of their premier league, football is massive in Brazil, the whole country was watching the games and we had front row tickets!!!

The world famous Maracana

The atmosphere at the game was unbelievable, everybody cheering, singing, shouting, jumping around all over the place. People were setting of extremely loud fireworks (in the stadium) and red flares kept getting lit. Some guys were dressed in costumes and no one seemed to care about seats, rather it was like a concert where you can make your way through the crowd to the front and nobody sat down for 90 minutes. We managed to get right to the pitch side shortly after kick off and after Flamengo had gone 1-0 down! The mood in the stadium had gone very tense and the people around us looked stressed to say the least. Shortly before half time however, Flamengo scored and the stadium erupted. Everybody was jumping all over the place and the fireworks and chanting started again. That said, things were still tense in the second half and everybody kept looking to screen showing Flamengo as third in the league. When Flamengo scored late in the second half the crowd went absolutely crazy again, more fireworks, more flares. When the ref finally blew for fulltime things went insane and the celebrations began. It was an amazing experience and the best football match I’ve ever been at. I watched the news that night and saw that at the match of the team finishing second riots had broken out with whole rows of seats being ripped out and thrown onto the pitch. Riot police were there and I think a few people were seriously injured so I was doubly grateful our team had won!

The other highlight came when in a moment of defiance against the rain Elizabeth and I went to the beach with Jonny and Michelle to see that the waves had become absolutely huge and the water very choppy (presumably due to the storm). The waves were literally 3-4 stories high (no exaggeration) and even the smaller ones were still bigger than any I’ve seen before. Jonny and I decided it would be a good idea to run in and face the waves head on and had great fun getting thrown around all over the place and washing-machined under the water.

Man vs Nature

We had a great time in Rio and thoroughly enjoyed the city and both decided we wouldn’t leave it too long to make a return!

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Even more Brazilian beaches and some motorbike fun

Having left the crazily hot city of Salvador we continued down the coast on an overnight bus to Trancoso, a stunning coastal village where Madonna, Naomi Campbell and other celebrities/fashion types apparently come to get away from it all. We checked into an amazing pousada (Brazilian guesthouse) where we met an English couple Louis and Lucy.

We spent the first day lazing and sleeping on the beach deciding we'd be "more productive" the following day. Later, back at the hostel we got chatting to Louis and Lucy and found out that they were actually in Brazil to look at properties with the idea of converting one of them into a hostel and relocate to Brazil. They were planning to go out and look at properties the following day and rent a motorbike to get around which gave me an idea (actually it gave me two ideas but more about that in a later blog)..! We'd read that there was an amazing beach tucked away 20-30km down the coast but was almost inaccessible (no buses, taxis etc went there) so the next day Louis and I went and found some local motorbike owners and haggled a rate with them for two bikes for the day.

It turned out that they were heading in the same direction so we set off down the coast with Elizabeth and Lucy on the back. As we turned off the main road tarmac quickly changed to sand, the track narrowed considerably and we started going through jungle. The road was constantly going steeply up and down and it took all concentration and effort to keep the bike upright and not fall off - we were effectively off-roading. I was glad I’d changed out of flip-flops... I was also glad Luis hadn’t injured himself and Lucy by this point – as we were getting the bikes he’d asked me “Riding a motorbike is just the same as driving a car right?”!

Our efforts were rewarded when we finally arrived and were greeted with an amazing cove surrounding a picturesque lagoon and beach. We chilled by the lagoon for a few hours, made friends with a couple of black dogs that seemed to live there and swam about the lagoon.


On the drive back Louis' key somehow bounced out of the ignition and fell into the sand (never to be seen again) and amazingly the engine kept running all the way back to our village!

On our final day Elizabeth and I went to one of the quieter beaches. It has to have been one of the nicest beaches I have ever seen in my life. The sea was bright blue, with small fishing boats bobbing by the shore, a wide sandy beach lined with coconut palms etc get the idea. It looked incredible. We drank our coconut milks on the beach and admired the view for the rest of the afternoon and reminiscing on all the different beaches we’ve seen so far in Brazil until we eventually had to leave for the bus station bound for our next stop in Brazil – Rio de Janeiro!

Friday, 4 December 2009


Arriving late into Salvador it became very apparent that so far in Brazil we hadn’t experienced anything like this. Salvador as a city looks very colonial, with lots of Portuguese Baroque-style churches, little cobbled streets and plazas where slaves were whipped and auctioned. The people and feel of the city however couldn’t be more different. As the guide book says Salvador is the darkest city of Brazil in terms of skin colour and by far the loudest. The African presence is still very strong here, basically stemming from the Portuguese bringing Angolan slaves to this part of the coast. There is music being played 24/7, the food is African-inspired and even the religion comes from Africa which is pretty unusual considering how Catholic a country Brazil is.

We went to see an impressive Capoeiro show performed at one of the theatres in the Pelo district – a combination of martial art and dance which is thought to have been performed by the slaves for a variety of reasons - from worshipping their gods of nature, to celebrating the end of the sugar-cane harvest and as a form of self-defence again their owners because it can look very aggressive. With the men literally flinging their bodies into the air and “fighting” one another with such power and speed backed by the female performers singing their hearts out, it was really entertaining and was easy to see how the slaves would have felt some power from performing Capoeiro. At one point one of the men spent a good 20 minutes rubbing fire onto his bare skin and standing in a huge bowl of flaming coals – unfortunately no photos were allowed but “Ow!”

We spent three days in Salvador, exploring more of the city including the affluent beachside neighbourhood of the Barra and the oldest lighthouse in Brazil, before boarding an 11 hour bus journey to Porto Seguro – the place where the Portuguese first landed.

More Brazilian beaches...

Leaving Praia de Frances early the next morning we jumped on a local bus to the next beach town further down the coast. With the help of the friendly locals (always conveniently positioned at the front of the bus to act as translators between us and the driver) we found ourselves in Praia de Barra, another picture-perfect beach setting. We’d read that there was one particular beach that we shouldn’t miss so after managing to find a local who spoke pretty good English we came to realise that the locals on the bus had in fact meant that we needed to get a water taxi. After being totally ripped off by the gringo prices we jumped onto a motorised pedlow and sped off through the stunningly clear water towards a beach fringed by a field of coconut trees.

Arriving on Praia de Gunga we were speechless. It was absolutely beautiful and definitely worth the expensive boat ride. We walked around the tip of the beach to a totally deserted part of the coast facing the ocean with coconut trees behind us and spent the day relaxing (again) soaking up the Brazilian sun (again!) with a whole beach to ourselves.

With our return journey booked for 4pm we made our way back to the main beach and whilst waiting for the bus back to our village I spotted something rather peculiar. On first glimpse I actually jumped out of my skin, mistaking the creature for a large rat. However as I took a closer look and as the animal licked its lips, I realised it was some kind of small monkey – obviously a local’s pet. It was actually pretty cute and I suppose just one of those random encounters made by travelling (Tom also made “friends” with a local mangy goat).

Leaving the beaches wasn’t something either of us wanted to do but if we are to make Buenos Aires in time for Christmas we’ve got to keep moving so the next day we boarded a bus (9 hours) to Salvador further down the coast.