Summer Sun, Island Floods, Rio nightlife and Swimming with the King of the River!
1st and 2nd April
Parati is a beach town located on a tropical slice of the South East coast of Brazil, known as the Green Coast. The green coast is where the Atlantic jungle meets pristine, powdery white beaches, and is spectacularly beautiful (especially the men, but obviously none as handsome as Ben!). Parati has an old, historical colonial town centre that dates back to the 18th century, with romantic cobbled alleyways, and beautiful white washed old homes and cathedrals. It has a vibrant night life, where street performers entertain family crowds and live music pours out of the cafes and restaurants. Ben and I found a great music cafe and spent our 2 nights in Parati listening to local music until the early hours of the morning. We also spent a great day on a boat and snorkel trip around the islands. Parati, and Brazil in general, was exorbitantly expensive and our 2 nights out in Parati cost us more than if we were in Sydney- not good for our backpacker budget! Actually our entire 3 weeks in Brazil cost us almost as much as a month and a half in Chile and Argentina. Ouch!
3rd April – 8th April (6 days)
Ilha Grande is a tropical island 3 hours off the coast of Rio. It was meant to be a quick 2 day island stop for some Brazilian fun and sun, but tropical rains and floods meant we stayed for 6! The beach for the first 2 days was great, although slightly depressing to see all the beautiful tanned bodies in skimpy, g-string style bikinis! I swear I saw people put on their sunglasses when I walked down the beach (cue the song “Blinded by the light”!). Even the men are into the “less is best” approach to swim wear, and seem to have Barbie’s Ken as their aspiration for fashion and fitness! I have never seen such tight, fluro budgie smugglers on men of all shapes and sizes and varying degrees of “hairiness”! Brazilian beaches are where it is OK to let it all hang out. And before you ask – yes, Ben stuck to good old Aussie board shorts!
We had a garishly green beach front hostel room for our first few days on the island, made bearable by the beautiful views over the bay. However by the end of the second day our beach holiday came to a sudden end as torrential rains set in. By the 3rd day the unpaved, dirt laneways of Ilha Grande were flooded with knee-deep, murky brown water, and the seas were too rough to cross meaning that we were stuck on the island. Suddenly we were swimming in the streets and not the ocean. Not quite the tropical holiday we had signed up for!
The rain forced us to have some serious R&R time, and we spent our days eating, watching the European championship soccer (the boredom converted me to a bogan soccer fan, and Ben was endlessly amused with my chants such as “You play like a girl!”, and "You must be blind” – both learnt from my Dad during AFL games, ta Dad!- and my additional personal one..... “Take your shirt off!”!), eating, learning how to play Chess , eating, swinging in hammocks reading, eating, playing cards, eating, and some more eating! At this rate I won’t be walking down the aisle but waddling!!
9th April – 15th April (6 nights / 7 days)
Rio, wow, what a city!! We thought Buenos Aires was the city that never sleeps and then we came to Rio! The colour, energy and vibrancy of the city are contagious. Life is spicier in Rio. However with that comes more danger and a city that is super friendly and entertaining on the outside, but difficult to get to know and feel truly comfortable in. Rio is HUGE, and we called it the jungle city, as there are literally hills and patches of jungle spread throughout the city. Suburbs and “favelas” (poor, slum like areas of towns) are built up into the sides of hills, which is why the recent landslides triggered by the torrential rains were so devastating. The view from Sugarloaf mountain captures the size and beauty of Rio:
We stayed for our first night in the “boho” area of Rio (Santa Theresa and Lapa), although quickly came to the realisation that the word “boho” means grungy, gritty and dangerous at night! Within 5 minutes of arriving to our hill side hostel 2 girls came bursting in through the front door in tears and visibly shaken. They had just been held up at knife point (machetes no less) 5 minutes down the road from the hostel. We heard many other similar stories about the area that night and decided to play it safe and move to the more upmarket and “trendy” Ipanema beach the next morning (Our 10 bed dorm room also smelt of pee which made the decision to move a very easy one!). However before we moved we made sure we enjoyed the cute cobbled stone streets, art houses and cafes of Santa Theresa, as well as the grungy street art and famous stairway of Lapa.
We checked into our new hostel and again ended up in a 10 bed dorm room, the only affordable accommodation in Rio going around! Luckily there were only 2 other guys sharing the room with us, so it wasn’t full of too many smelly backpackers! The hardest part about staying in dorms is getting used to the bunk beds. Ben learnt the hard way to be careful on the top bunk with a magnificent fall backwards off the top bunk onto the single bed below. I watched it happen in slow motion and think that he may have a career in the world of stunt men! Luckily that bed was there as otherwise I would have been picking up pieces of Ben.
Rio for us was a lot of partying with a lot of great people. We caught up with some great Aussie friends we met travelling, Luke and Tori, and had a fantastic night out at a market . The market was in a massive stadium full of bars, restaurants, various stages with live music and Samba dancing, and the usual market stalls of clothes, foods etc. Ben and I mixed together our salsa and tango classes to dance with the locals to the live band. We may have looked a bit special but we danced our feet off and had a lot of fun!
A night out in Rio wouldn’t be complete without guns or a fight, and so there was a bit of adventure as we left the market. As we were heading out we saw a massive crowd of people come running towards us, obviously trying to escape something. Immediately I thought “BULLS! RUN!” (we had been watching a short video about the running of the bulls earlier in the night). However the “bull” turned out to be a crazed man wielding a metal chair trying to bash another man with it. Unfortunately he was lashing out so wildly that he was hitting innocent people as he charged through the crowds, hence the rush of people towards us trying to escape. Instinctually without even knowing what was happening Tori and I dove off the path and took cover, while the boys tried to do the same but didn’t quite make it in time, and copped a side swipe with the chair. They were lucky compared to the poor guy who literally dove out of the way onto a flaming BBQ grill stomach first. As soon as the chair wielding mad man had passed we were out of there and in a taxi straight back to the safety and comfort of our 10 bed dorm!
We had another colourful night out at a soccer match- always entertaining with the passionate chanting, hysterical cheering and colourful banners, not to mention the home made fireworks going off randomly! We saw up close how the police man-handle people, as a rush of excited fans, Ben included of course, all jumped into the aisles to celebrate the winning goal, and within seconds the police had their batons out and were using them quite forcibly to push people back into their chairs. We had a police escort as we left the stadium to guide us through any post-match fights that may have broken out, however the crowd was relatively peaceful as they left and we reached our tour mini-van without any further excitement.
After the soccer match we had one of those random travel experiences where our guide said that he was going into the favela that night and did we want to come with him. Of course Ben and I were the first to say “YES!”, and we ended up on an “unofficial” tour of South America’s largest favela (poor area), called Rocinha, with 5 other “Gringos” (foreigners). The favela is controlled by the drug lords and their gang of thousands of mostly teenage soldiers, who are armed with the latest AK47 machine guns and bazookas (better equipped than the local police). Our guide asked permission for us to enter the favela and pass through safely (he teaches English at a community school in the favela) however even with the knowledge that we had permission to be there it was hard not to be terrified when I saw the teenage soldiers leaning casually on their AK47’s, or cradling a bazooka in their laps.
Our guide told us that life in the favela is controlled by the drug gang and rules are imposed with the threat of shooting (e.g. If someone in the favela causes trouble for the community they will be shot). We climbed to the top of the hill that Rocinha is built on and enjoyed the night view of Rio, while I jumped each time a motorbike sped past with a teenage soldier on patrol. It was an unforgettable Rio experience that gave us a brief glimpse of life in the favela, and we were struck by the strong sense of community between the people, the constant music blaring out from every street corner (it’s 24/7/365 partying) and how happy and friendly most people were to us as we passed through. However I was relieved when we safely passed through a police check point at the bottom of the hill that marked the border of the drug gang’s power and the entrance back into the police’s area of control.
Other Rio highlights were:
• Samba Class! Ben and I couldn’t miss the opportunity to learn some basic Samba moves. We had a private 1 hour lesson that involved dancing with a fire hydrant! A hard dance style to pick up compared to salsa and tango.
• City walking tour: We spent a day walking around the city centre, stopping for coffee and cake in one of Rio’s famous cafe institutions, and sitting in on a parliamentary debate (random!)
• Ipanema beach and the beach markets: Ipanema beach is beautiful, laid back and trendy, and reminded us a bit of Manly beach back at home; a city beach full of cafes and bars but not as built up as Bondi. It is framed by mountains, and packed with volley ball games and beach vendors selling sarongs, jewellery and coconut juice up and down the beach. It is a great beach for surfing and Ben and Luke gave it a go, although spent more time trying to stay alive in the strong currents than catching waves! The markets were also worth a visit, very colourful and a great spot to pick up some skimpy beach wear to fit in with the locals!
• Copacabana beach and night markets: “I’m at the COPA....copacabannnaaa.....”. It was great being able to walk along this world famous, massive beach, and see it all lit up at night, packed with bars and some great night markets. We couldn’t stop singing “I’m at the copa....copacabana!”. It was more obviously touristy and felt edgier than the laid back Ipanema Beach.
April 16th- April 18th ( 2 nights / 3 days).
After more than a week in shared dorm room accommodation with a shared bathroom we have never been so happy to check into our own private room with our own bathroom! I am so over dorm rooms- been there and done that enough times in previous backpacking trips thank you very much! I also feel like I am over meeting new people, but that will pass as we have more down time and I can re-charge the social butterfly battery.
Bonito is part of the Brazilian Pantanal area- famous for its’ wildlife, and in Bonito’s case its’ underwater life. We spent an incredible day snorkelling down the Rio del Plata, a shallow and crystal clear river that winds through Pantanal farm land. For most of our snorkel trip the river was only 1 metre deep and incredibly you could see 50 metres ahead which meant that we were really up close and personal with a huge range of tropical fish. There were fish of all colours and size, some of them as big as my torso, and I was worried that they might mistake my legs for food! We floated the final 600 metres down the river under a canopy of trees with monkeys playing overhead, in a blissful state of relaxation that stayed with us for our entire stay in Bonito.
The next day we visited the picturesque Blue Lake Cave (see photos), and then rode bikes out to the local river. The river should have been relaxing except that I am dating a man who thought that it would be HILARIOUS if he threw fish food into the river in the exact spot where I was nervously swimming. I was nervously swimming because there were so many fish in the river, and I was scared that they would try to nibble me. So, when Ben threw the fish food into the river it isn’t an exaggeration to say that there where hundreds of medium sized fish who went into a feeding frenzy around me, including nibbling ME!! I became hysterical, and screamed at Ben “GET ME OUT OF HERE” (as well as other stuff that I can’t repeat in the blog!!). Ben’s face quickly turned from that of a practical joker enjoying his laugh, to one of shock as he realised that the joke had backfired. I had to swim out of the swarm of frenzied fish, and had them nibble me and flap their slimy fins against me as I got out of the river. I didn’t talk to Ben for the rest of the day! (Well at least for 30 minutes anyway!)
So amigos, thank you for reading and all your comments! We are actually in Peru now and Ben will write the next update about our incredible month in Bolivia.
Lots of love to all,
Chelle and Ben