Itinerary: Rio de Janeiro – Paraty – Sao Paulo – Parque Nacional do Iguaçu – Pantanal – Ouro Preto – Salvador
Rio de Janeiro
After a long day flight, I arrive at Galeão International Airport, the international airport of Rio de Janeiro, around 9:45 p.m. local time. The customs formalities take very little time and despite the tight transfer in Lisbon (whereby the “final call” for my flight was announced during my sprint from one gate to the other), my luggage also came along. Because it is late at night and I don’t have any Brazilian reals yet, I arrange a so-called ‘radio taxi’ in the cantral hall of the airport. These taxis, where you pay a fixed price in advance, seem to be more reliable than ‘normal’ taxis. And you can pay with your credit card, which is handy. The taxi driver drives speeds into the city and twenty minutes later I am standing in front of my hostel in the Botafogo district.
The next morning, after a refreshing shower and a good hostel breakfast, I am ready for my first day in Brazil. Brazil is the fifth largest country in the world and occupies almost half the surface of all of South America. Three quarters of the population lives on the Atlantic coast in the east and southeast of the country. The country has 201 million inhabitants, of whom about half are white, almost 40 percent mixed and the remaining 10 percent black. Three quarters of the population is Catholic. Brazil was colonized by Portugal in the early sixteenth century (which is why people still speak Portuguese here), but the Netherlands has also tried to do that. In 1621, the Dutch from the West India Company settled in the northeast of what is now Brazil. After a war with Portugal, however, the Dutch surrendered in 1654 and the Dutch presence came to an end.
Brazil became independent in 1822, first as an empire and from 1889 as a republic. A few more revolutions and coups were to follow and it was not until the 1980s that Brazil became a democracy. The country is characterized by a multicultural mix of European, African and Amerindian influences. Since the turn of the millennium, Brazil has experienced strong economic growth and is now the seventh largest economy in the world. In 2014, the country was allowed to organize the Football World Cup and in 2016 the Olympic Games will follow, which is a reason for carrying out a lot of overdue maintenance, refurbishing sights and improving the infrastructure.
Rio de Janeiro, the country’s most famous city, is located on the eastern side of Guanabara Bay, which the Portuguese, who were the first Europeans to arrive here in the early 16th century, believed to be a river (rio in Portuguese), hence the name Rio de Janeiro. In 1807, the king of Portugal decided that Rio should become the capital of the colony and immediately moved his entire court there. The Portuguese-Brazilian kingdom thus became the only world empire in history to be governed from a colony.
Until the end of the nineteenth century, Rio was ‘only’ the third largest city in Brazil, but since then the size of the city has increased enormously. In the twentieth century, the resorts along the beaches were built and Rio de Janeiro became the city of glitter and glamour. But the growth also brought social problems: poverty, crime, violence, corruption and ever-expanding favelas (slums). In the first decade of the 21st century, Brazil’s government has tried to address this and the situation in the favelas has improved somewhat, but crime and violence rates are still high.
Rio is wedged between the ocean and lush mountains. This location has earned Rio its nickname: Cidade Maravilhosa (literally: marvelous city), and the best way to get a good idea of this is to see the city from above. I therefore walk from my hostel to the cable car that takes you via the 220 meter high Morro da Urca to the 396 meter high Pão de Açucar (Sugarloaf Mountain). The Pão de Açucar is a somewhat oddly shaped mountain on Guanabara Bay. Once at the top you have a fantastic view over the city. To the right, to the north, are the bay, the high-rises of Centro and the neighborhoods of Lapa, Santa Teresa and Flamengo, right in front of you is Botafogo with Corcovado mountain behind it, topped with the well-known statue of Jesus Christ, and to the left, towards the south, Copacabana Beach. It is an amazing view, where you can see almost the entire city.
Although the statue of Jesus on top of the Corcovado is still partly shrouded in clouds, it is sunny and quite warm at thirty degrees. Located in the middle of the Parque Nacional da Tijuca, the 710-meter high Corcovado is accessible from the Cosmo Velho district, where I am dropped off by a taxi. First I walk past Largo do Boticário, a small square with colorfully painted buildings that date from the nineteenth century. One of the facades appears to have Delft blue tiles with typical Dutch windmills.
Being an atheist, Jesus statues have no meaning for me, but Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) is such an iconic statue that you should not miss it during a visit to Rio de Janeiro. A cogwheel train takes you up in twenty minutes. Tijuca is largely rainforest, which contrasts sharply with the large, bustling city below. On the way up you have no idea that you are in the middle of a city of 6.3 million inhabitants. You only become aware of this again when you are at the top and (after climbing the necessary stairs to the immense statue) you look out over the city. The view here is also amazing. From here you can get a good view of the enormous Rodrigo de Freitas Lake and the world famous beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema. Only downside: everyone who visits Rio goes to the Corcovado, so it is extremey busy.
The next day I take the metro to Centro, the business district of Rio. This part of the city looks like many big cities: lots of high-rise buildings, a lot of traffic, but also old churches, small backstreets with cobblestones, such as the Travessa do Comércio, with old buildings from the colonial era. And squares with historic buildings, such as the Paço Imperial on Praça XV Novembro (named after the Independence Day: November 15, 1822). The Paço Imperial is the building where the Portuguese king took up residence when he moved here. And the Praça Floriano with on the north side the Theatro Municipal from 1905, built in the style of the Paris Opéra.
From Centro I walk to the Lapa district. There are many restaurants, cafes and samba clubs here and especially in the evenings and on weekends it is a lively area where music sounds everywhere. I pass the striking Arcos da Lapa, a mid-eighteenth century aqueduct, consisting of 42 arches and a total of 64 meters high. The adquaduct was once for the water supply in the city, later a tram line was built on top, which are now no longer used. A little further in the neighborhood is the Escaldera Selarón. Lapa is built on hills and therefore stairs sometimes lead from one street to the other. One such staircase has been fitted with tiles in all kinds of colors by the Chilean artist Jorge Selarón. On the 215 steps you will also encounter tiles from all over the world, including Dutch ones, like one with Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring and of course the inevitable windmills.
Like Lapa, the Santa Teresa district is built on hills. Cobbled streets run up in the district, which exudes a village atmosphere. Very different from Centro’s high-rises and busy traffic. Rio turns out to be a city with different faces. After I have eaten outside on the terrace of Santa Scenarium in a car-free street in Lapa in the evening, I go for a drink in Rua Mem de Sá. This part of Lapa is the heart of the nightlife, music from the open cafes is everywhere and it is pleasantly busy. I drink caiperinhas until late at night with an Argentinian lady who is also in Rio by herself.
When you say Rio de Janeiro, of course you say Copacabana. And Ipanema. These are the two neighborhoods on the south side of Rio with the world famous beaches. On my third day in Rio, I take the metro to Ipanema, the neighborhood that sits on a narrow strip of land between the ocean and Lake Rodrigo de Freitas. I stroll down the long shopping street and then walk towards the beach. A boulevard runs along the long, slightly curved beach with a kiosk every few meters where you can have a drink. A perfect place to relax with a ‘coco’ (a green coconut with a straw) and enjoy the view.
Then I walk further along the boulevard. At the end is the Arpoador, a rock that separates Ipanema Beach from Copacabana Beach. From the Arpoador you can overlook the entire beach of Ipanema. After lunch I walk to Avenida Atlantica, the boulevard that runs along the 4.5 kilometer long Copacabana beach. Here too, kiosks where you can have a drink under the palm trees, art deco hotels along the boulevard and on the street and on the beach a mix of tourists and Cariocas, as the inhabitants of Rio are called. And then there is that song that is constantly ringing in my head: “At the Copa, Copa-ca-bá-náá…”
After three days in Rio de Janeiro, I take a taxi on Saturday morning to Rodoviária Novo Rio, the bus station in the north of the city. The bus station is located in a gray-looking area, right next to a traffic junction. It is busy with people and their luggage, taxis and buses come and go. I still have some time to get coffee and a sandwich before at 9 a.m. a bus of the CostaVerde bus company will take me to Paraty. The journey takes 4.5 hours. The coastal strip south of Rio is mountainous. The lushly vegetated mountains end rather abruptly in the sea. Most of the road winds along the coast and for the first time since I’ve been in Brazil it’s cloudy.
Just before half past one the bus arrives in Paraty and half an hour later I check in at my hostel, at the best location you can think of: right on Praia do Pontal, a small beach on the Bahía de Paraty. The hostel has a beach bar on the beach (where breakfast is also served in the morning) and I intend to relax there for the rest of the afternoon with a book and a drink. I don’t get to read much, however, instead I drink caiperinhas with a Russian lady who is also in Paraty by herself.
The next day, after breakfast on the beach and still a bit groggy from the caiperinhas, we walk into the old center of Paraty. The entire center of Paraty is a historical heritage site and consists of old white-painted houses with brightly colored windows and doors, situated on cobbled cobblestone streets. Very photogenic. You only need a few hours to see the whole town. Back at Praia do Pontal the sky gets cloudy and a little later the rain poors from the sky. We were lucky that the weather was nice this morning, when we walked in the historic center. I spend the rest of the afternoon doing what I planned to do yesterday: with a book on the beach. The beach bar has to wait until tonight.
After another breakfast on the beach, I leave for the bus station for the six-hour drive from Paraty to Sao Paulo. The bus stops a few times on the way and the picture is always the same: green mountains on the right, bays and beaches on the left. Around 4 p.m. we arrive at the bus station in Sao Paulo. From there I take the metro into the city. My hotel is near Praça da República in the center of the city. It’s a bit depressing hotel; no beach here and no caiperinhas.
Sao Paulo is a huge city, the total metropolis has 19 million inhabitants, much larger than Rio de Janeiro. I have learned that Sao Paulo is mainly known for culture, nightlife and restaurants, in any case I don’t think it is a beautiful city: many gray high-rises, busy, many homeless people on the street. I’m only here for a short time (I’m going straight to Iguaçu the next morning) and walk through the center for an hour before it gets dark.
From the Praça da República, a square that has been arranged as a park, I walk past the Patéo do Colégio, the place where Sao Paulo was founded and where there is a replica of the monastery that stood there at the time. The Praça da Sé is also a green square and at the end of a kind of gallery of palm trees is the cathedral from which the square takes its name (se means cathedral). Funny detail: the pedestrian lights around Praça da Sé are shaped like the towers of the cathedral. On the way back I pass the Theatro Municipal, which, like the one in Rio, was built in the style of the Paris Opéra.
Parque Nacional do Iguaçu
For me Sao Paulo is no more than a stopover on the way to Iguaçu. The next morning I take the metro and then a bus to Congonhas Airport, the airport for domestic flights to and from Sao Paulo. Congonhas is located in the middle of the city, completely surrounded by houses and other buildings where I don’t think it is very pleasant to stay, so close to the airport. It is an hour and a half flight to the airport of Iguaçu, where the owner of the hostel where I spend the night picks me up. Once checked in, I let the girl behind the counter tell me all about the possibilities to visit the waterfalls of Iguaçu and then I go sit outside with a drink and a book.
The next morning the sun is high in the sky, it is a pleasant 25 degrees, and yet I will not keep it dry today. A visit to the waterfalls of Iguaçu means getting wet guaranteed. But how impressive they are! The Iguaçu River forms the border between Brazil and Argentina. The Indian tribe that used to live here called the river ‘y guaçu’, which means big river or big water. The falls are 150 million years old and are often mentioned together with the Victoria Falls in Africa and the Niagara Falls in North America. The Iguaçu Falls, included on the Unesco World Heritage List since 1986, consist of no fewer than 275 large and small waterfalls with an average height of eighty meters and together they cover an area of three kilometers wide. On average, more than 1,400 cubic meters of water per second (!) fall down. I can hardly comprehend such a thing.
You can visit the falls on the Brazilian side of the border as well as on the Argentine side and it is definitely worth doing both sides. I visit the Brazilian side on my own. That means with a rattling local bus in about an hour to the entrance of the Parque Nacional do Iguaçu. After purchasing a ticket, a bus will drop you off at the start of the Trilha das Cataratas (literally: waterfall trail). This one-and-a-half-mile trail follows the river, offering a different view of the falls along the way. At first they are still relatively far away, but you get closer and closer. Along the way you will encounter coatis everywhere, small raccoon-like animals with a long nose and tail, which are very curious. The trail ends at Garganta do Diablo (literally: Devil’s Throat), where a wooden path leads to the middle of the river. Here you are in the middle of the waterfalls: in front of you, next to you, below you… In the middle of the noise of the enormous amounts of water that plunge down. A huge water mist ensures that you get wet from all sides. Because of the combination of sun and water, beautiful rainbows can be seen everywhere. Very impressive!
I can hardly imagine that the Argentinian side of the falls is any more beautiful, but since everyone I talk to recommends to visit that side as well, I go there the next day. This time not with a local bus, but together with three others with a driver arranged by the hostel. The driver handles the customs formalities at the border and then we drive over the Ponte Presidente Tancredo Neves to the other side of the Iguaçu River, which on the Argentine side is called Iguazú. From the entrance of the Parque Nacional del Iguazú a train goes to Garganta del Diablo, the same place I was yesterday on the Brazilian side (albeit spelled differently). On the Brazilian side you are at the bottom of the falls, on the Argentine side you are at the top. A mile-long trail over the Iguazu River takes you right up to the very top of the falls. Here too you are very close to the thundering water. So close that you are guaranteed to get wet here, too.
After lunch, I walk two more routes in the park: the Paseo Inferior runs through the jungle below some of the falls and the Paseo Superior runs above a number of waterfalls. The first one is especially worthwhile, where you have beautiful views and also come very close to a number of waterfalls. Rainbows are also visible from this side through the water mist. I find the route at the top a little less worthwhile; I think waterfalls are more impressive from below. But it’s true what they say: visit both sides, it’s really worth it!
The next morning (it’s already Friday) I don’t see the sun for a change, but the moon when I’m in a taxi to the airport. It is 4:30 a.m. and my flight leaves at seven. However, at the scheduled departure time, I am still in line with a number of others at the luggage drop-off. The flight is delayed half an hour. Brazil is so big that two of my four domestic flights have a stopover. I am on my way from Iguaçu to Campo Grande, but have to change planes in Brasiliá, the capital of Brazil. At a 11:45 a.m. local time (there is an hour time difference between the west and east of Brazil) I arrive in Campo Grande. I am picked up from the airport by a driver from the tour operator with whom I have booked a tour to the Pantanal. He will take me to the farm where I will stay for the next few nights. To get there, we have to drive another 5.5 hours…
The drive is long and boring. The area is vast, grass, trees and here some cows, there is not much more to see. Halfway through we stop for lunch. I order an açai (fruit juice made from an Amazonian berry) and something resembling a mix between a hamburger and a sandwich. There is only one main road across the Pantanal and this road goes on endlessly, hour after hour, there seems to be no end to it. After four hours the asphalt ends and we continue on a dirt road. After fourteen kilometers of bumping, the driver turns right. Here the road becomes a dirt track with deep ruts and water pools. The path narrows and the pools become more treacherous, and at some point the trail also ends. Just when I start to wonder if this is the right way, Poudada Xaraés finally appears. Finally!
The Pantanal is the largest wetland in the world, a kind of Everglades but twenty times larger. It is a huge area of about 210,000 square kilometers, where few people live and which is mostly under water for half of the year (during the rainy season). The Pantanal is surrounded by mountains. The water that flows from there fills the rivers in the Pantanal. They overflow their banks during the rainy season. As a result, the soil in the area is very fertile and many wild animals live here. A 4×4 is therefore indispensable here and in the rainy season large parts are only accessible by boat or plane. So you really are in the middle of nowhere here. (But of course there is wifi…) Luckily I’m not the only guest (it’s still early in the season), which is nice during dinner and excursions. After dinner, the guide explains about the Pantanal, the animals that live here and the pousada, which, as we see on aerial photos, is indeed almost completely surrounded by water during the rainy season.
The next morning at 7:30 a.m. I’m already in a boat on the Abobral River. After all, wild animals are most active in the early morning and late afternoon, because it is too hot in the middle of the day (during my stay it gets around 35 degrees during the day). We make a two-hour trip and on the way we see capybaras (a kind of mix between a dog and a guinea pig), caimans lying on the shore in the sun and various birds. Here and there a monkey sits high in the trees. It is a nice, relaxed boat trip. After a few hours of relaxing in a hammock on the veranda and lunch, we leave in the afternoon for a three-hour jeep safari. One of the birds we encounter along the way is a huge Jabiru (or Tuiuiú). Adult Jabiru’s, white birds with a black head and red neck, grow to a height of one and a half meters and this one certainly is. We also see hyacinth macaws, a bright blue parrot species and foxes. After we have walked in the jungle for a while and it is slowly but surely getting dark, we continue with a large searchlight. We actually hope to see a jaguar, but unfortunately we are not that lucky. Nevertheless, it is a nice excursion and we see quite a lot of animals.
The next morning we leave early again for a boat trip, this time on a different part of the river. In 3.5 hours we see capybaras, caimans and many birds, including many kingfishers and beautiful red macaws. During a jungle walk, our guide does discover the footprints of a jaguar, but the animal itself does not show itself. The mosquitoes, on the other hand, do… I spend the afternoon relaxing and reading again in a hammock. There is an occasional shower, but at this temperature and under the roof of the veranda you will not be bothered by it.
Belo Horizonte and Ouro Preto
I would initially fly from Campo Grande via Brasiliá to Belo Horizonte and then immediately by bus to the colonial town of Ouro Preto. Instead, I decide to stay overnight in Belo Horizonte and make Ouro Preto a day trip. The journey from the Pantanal to Belo Horizonte is already long enough. Anyway, Monday morning at 5 a.m. I am ready for the long drive from pousada Xaraés to the airport of Campo Grande. When I arrive at the airport, it turns out that the flight to Brasiliá is delayed, causing me to miss my connecting flight. That problem is solved decisively: I will be booked on the next flight and will arrive two hours later than planned. Good thing I changed my plan earlier! And for that two hour delay I also get a voucher for free food. From the airport of Belo Horizonte it is another fifty minutes by bus to the bus station in the center of the city. There I immediately get bus tickets for the day trip to Ouro Preto. After that it is only a 500 meter walk to my hotel. It has been a long travel day.
The next morning, after the breakfast buffet, I walk to the bus station to take a PassaroVerde bus to Ouro Preto, a journey that takes more than two hours. It is 25 degrees, but cloudy. Ouro Preto is an old colonial town in a mountainous area called Serra do Espinhago. The center of the town consists almost entirely of houses and buildings from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Plus no fewer than thirteen churches. These are built on bumpy cobbled streets, around the central square Praça Tiradentes. In some places the streets are so steep that the sidewalk consists of steps. On the higher spots you have a beautiful view over the roofs and the hills beyond.
In the mid-eighteenth century, Ouro Preto was a relatively large city with 110,000 inhabitants; Rio de Janeiro then had only 20,000 inhabitants and New York 50,000. There was a reason for this: in 1711 gold was found in the vicinity of Ouro Preto and it soon turned out to be the largest gold reserve in the world. Today, all of Ouro Preto is on the Unesco World Heritage List. It’s a photogenic town, although the traffic and the many (tourist) shops take a bit away from its charm, but it’s nice to walk down the streets for a few hours.
It is Wednesday morning when I take the bus to the airport and in just under two hours I fly from Belo Horizonte to Salvador. Salvador (officially called São Salvador da Bahia de Todos os Santos) is my last stop on this trip. Here too you have to take a bus to get from the airport into the city and in this case it takes another hour and a half. In the afternoon I arrive at my hostel. I’m staying in the heart of the historic center of Salvador, the Pelourinho district, on perhaps the most beautiful square in the entire city: the Largo do Pelourinho.
The next two mornings are identical: I have my breakfast with coffee and fresh fruit, while three meters away the rain is pouring down from the sky. All that water is accompanied by heavy thunderstorms. When it rains here in Brazil, it rains hard. The advantage of such tropical showers is that they never last all day (and the temperature is no less pleasant); it will be dry the rest of the day.
Salvador was the capital of colonial Brazil until 1763. It is now the capital of the state of Bahia and has 2.7 million inhabitants. The city was founded by the Portuguese in 1549 on the site of today’s Barra district, on a cliff with strategic views of the sea and the Bahía de Todos os Santos. Due to the large amount of slaves brought here in the sixteenth century, the Portuguese/Latin American culture in Salvador has strong African influences. These influences can be found everywhere: in the people, the music, the food, the religion. For example, Salvador is the center of Capoeira, an ancient African-Brazilian dance and combat practice.
As mentioned, the historic center of Salvador is the Pelourinho district, which is on the Unseco World Heritage List and is full of seventeenth and eighteenth century buildings whose facades are painted in all kinds of colors. Such as the Largo do Pelourinho, a triangular square that slopes quite steeply and that was once the place where the slaves were traded. The old town has three more squares: the Tercero de Jesus, where religious events used to take place, the Largo do Cruzeiro do São Francisco, named after the large herb in the center of the square, and the Praça Municipal. Here is the Elevador Lacerda, an Art Deco-style elevator built in the 1920s that takes passengers to Cidade Baixa (literally: lower town) 72 meters below in thirty seconds. From above you have a beautiful view over the bay and the harbor. At the bottom of the Cidade Baixa is the Mercado Modelo. This was once the customs office where slaves from Africa were brought ashore. Now it houses a tourist market.
The weather will remain changeable for the last two days in Salvador. There are regular showers and in between it is dry again for a while. If the weather had been nice I would have gone to Barra beach, but it’s not really beach weather. Instead I will stay in Pelourinho. Look around a bit, drink coffee, read, have an extensive lunch and of course drink caiperinhas.
The old center of Salvador is simply beautiful and very photogenic. At the same time, you also have here what you see everywhere in Brazil (and South America): the beautiful places are surrounded by a lot of ugly, gray high-rise buildings, poorly maintained houses and roads, dilapidated buildings that nobody cares about, other buildings that have never been completed. That is the difference with Western Europe, where everything is ‘finished’ and neatly raked. The difference between rich and poor is also clearly visible. A stone’s throw from the modern shopping malls and the brand-new football stadiums, there are neighborhoods of cramped houses that I wouldn’t like to go to. Despite the economic growth and development that Brazil has experienced as a result of that growth, the country still struggles with social problems such as poverty, corruption and crime. That said, I think a visit to Brazil is definitely worth it.
To end with: all over Salvador there are drum schools where lessons are given in the rhythmic percussion that is so characteristic of this city. That music sounds everywhere from the open windows and with some regularity groups practice on the street (which is a combination of practice and performance, at least a tip basket is put down). This also goes for my last afternoon in Brazil: sitting in the open window of my hostel I can enjoy a kind of open-air concert at the Largo do Pelourinho. It is a swinging musical conclusion to my journey in Brazil.