Sunday 1 April 2012

Brasil: Jesus, Beaches & Cairprinhas

As I traversed the border from Argentina into Brazil, reflecting that I wouldn't be crossing any more international boundaries or receiving another exotic passport stamp, the long-niggling knowledge that my trip was nearly at an end finally managed to force itself into full consciousness and the hard facts could no longer be ignored. This was it. The final country. How is that even possible? Could it really be 9 1/2 months since I first touched down in Mexico? Recalling specific details and events from the start of the trip, I had to concede that they felt like a long time ago, but stepping back and musing over the adventure as a whole, I was left with the impression that time had played a sick joke; speeding up matters in Latin America to the extent that 3/4 of a year passed by in the blink of a carefully-shaded eye. Whatever the reason, it had been allowed to happen, and the apparent reality would have to be accepted; all that remained was three short weeks in Brazil before the unfairly linear progression of time dictated that a journey that once seemed like it would last forever, would in fact be over.

Regardless, I still had the delightful company of my three long-term travelling companions - Davy Brown, Loz Baldwin and Hannah Woodface - and we had much to look forward to - long overdue beach action, Rio-bloody-de-Janeiro, and the small matter of Carnaval, to name but three - so I put a brave face on this dire situation and tried my hardest to have fun along the final leg.

Hidden beach
Such a goal was made substantially easier to achieve thanks to our first stop: Ilha de Santa Catarina. An immensely, but deservedly, popular island holiday hangout with over 100km of beach-fringed coastline and a wide interior boasting pristine pine forests, windswept sand dunes, and small but developed inland communities focused around the two placid central lagoons. There are no shortage of adventurous activities on which to spend your hard-earned cash - wind-surfing, diving, sand-boarding, boat trips - but there was only one attraction the four of us were really interested in: Beach time!

I was vaguely aware that it had been a while since I last skipped across a sandy shore or majestically belly-flopped into a frothing, salty soup, but only now did I realise that it had been a full 2 1/2 months and three entire countries since I'd last found sand in strange places (all the way back to Mancora, at the start of my Peru blog, in fact). This is, quite frankly, a disgraceful state of affairs for a traveller. So, the first three days in Brazil were spent rectifying this sorry situation.

The coastline of Santa Catarina is impeccable: fine powdered white-sand beaches caressed by spotless seas, temperatures just the right side of freezing. I usually prefer a secluded beachfront spot, free from the general annoyance that is other human beings, but the majority female patronage on these shores was distracting in a much more agreeable manner. Without wanting to offend the more easily-offendable of my readers, I've never seen quite so many delightful derrieres on display in one place. Myself and Mr.Brown convinced ourselves that if these fine ladies were so willing to reveal their bottoms, then they actually wanted us to stare. With this in mind, we definitely didn't spend those three days being massive perverts.

It wasn't just exposed body parts that kept us on the beach, it was also the fact that doing anything else cost money... lots of money. We'd heard that Brazil was expensive, but making our first stop at a popular, high-class holiday island at the peak of high season was like jumping right into the deep end of Brazilian overpricing. All of us had been travelling for long enough to start having budget concerns, and with the vast upcoming expense of Carnaval just around the corner, we were all happy to keep outgoings to a minimum and resist shelling out for the ridiculous 'cover fees' demanded by most pubs and clubs - $80 entry on a Saturday night!? I think not (even if you halfheartedly claim to be the '5th best club night in South America'). This low-key soberness was probably a wise lifestyle to adopt anyway; in preparation for the imminent alcoholic blowout over carnival week.

Feeling a little lethargic after all the beach-bumming, we decided to embark on a short hike on our last day in town..... a hike to a beach, that is. Taking a bus to the island's southernmost town, we disembarked and began to trek through thick forest; hugging the sharply-inclining contours of a coastside hill, and then descending after an hour of sticky, sweaty stomping to reach a secluded sweep of seaside. Here, we settled down for a final dose of beach action, smug after the physical exertion required to reach this paradisiacal idyll. Then, of course, it started to rain. Rather enthusiastically. Some might call it a storm. So we went home again.

Avenida Paulista
Thus ended our criminally brief rejuvenatory period by the sea. Next on the agenda; a return to city living. But not just any city. Depending on the exact definition you use, this is the biggest city in the world: Sao Paolo, home to 20 million people. None of us were 100% sure about visiting. Brazil's crippling wealth disparity is painfully obvious here as a cocoon of favelas begins to envelop the city from way outside the official limits. Sao Paolo may be the country's economic powerhouse, but poverty cuts deep here. As is to be expected in any dwelling of this size, there is an element of danger that requires acknowledgement too, and, compared to Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paolo also lacks any knockout attractions required to make it a 'must-visit' location on every Brazi travelling itinerary. However, I was very intrigued to experience life within such a huge, skyscraper-filled monster of a city, no matter how brief our rapidly-diminishing time required the visit to be.

We were still debating the pros and cons of passing through when I heard from an old friend who made the decision for us. Rodolfo is a hugely-talented graphic artist ('ave a gander at his work, here) who I lived with in London for a short time back in 2009. He's since moved back to Brazil and is currently based in Sao Paolo. Offering to act as chaperone for an evening - how could we say no? Sao Paolo it was!

Sao Paolo - Theatre
Arriving early in the morning, we had a whole day to entertain ourselves before meeting up with Rod. After refuelling (or overindulging - depending on which way you look at it) at my new favourite bakery, the first destination on our whistlestop tour was Avenida Paulista. Always a privileged part of town - initially thanks to it's location on top of a small, almost unnoticeable knoll; just steep enough to ensure that all waste was washed down to other, less fortunate neighbourhoods - this is now the beating heart of Brazil's high-performing economy. Lined with tall, shiny glass-covered structures and inhabited during business hours by sharp-suited businessmen and stern-faced, high-heeled, high-rollers. We strolled the entire 3km length, ticking off major global bank headquarters along the way, and finishing up at the Museu de Arte de Sao Paolo for an informative exhibition on the empire-obsessed Romans (who obviously weren't that brilliant - having no impact whatsoever over here in South America.... lazy!).

Sao Paolo
From here we made tracks to the old town centre for a little municipal building appreciation, and then jumped in a lift to a 41st floor lookout point. This was where our privileged, Avenida Paulista-strolling lifestyle was taken down a notch or two. Excitedly exiting the lift at the top floor, we were instantly approached by a pensive-looking, impeccably-dressed employee. He enquired whether we were here for the viewing platform, eliciting an affirmative response from us. He delicately explained that, "The viewpoint is actually inside the Piano Bar....". "Yes", we said, smiling like slow children, oblivious to the subtext of his statement. "Where is the Piano Bar?". "Ah", he said, attempting to remain vaguely diplomatic. "There's a dress code, you see. You have to be wearing shoes". We'd obviously been travelling, perpetually hoofed in flip-flops, for far too long: We knew full well that we were going to a Piano Bar at lunchtime, but it hadn't even occurred to us that there are alternative footwear options to sandals. "OK, no problem", I began to say. "We can just go back and put some shoes....", before catching the expensively-suited attendant's eye once again. There was no need to say anything this time, the real insinuation was written all over his worried face; unsuitable footwear wasn't our only problem. Realisation slowly washing over us, we turned to inspect each other: grimy-faced, lank-haired, exposed feet covered in filth, bleary-eyed after one too many night bus journeys, and clad in clothing that was crying out for a good wash, or better still, complete replacement. We'd not been exposed to anything even close to luxury or borderline high-living for such a long time that this just seemed normal. Slightly red-faced, nodding our eventual acknowledgement, we shuffled back towards the lift. What happened next can presumably only be explained by us looking unbearably pathetic, because at this point he took pity on us and we were quickly ushered towards a fire exit leading to a secondary viewing platform. As long as no one saw us and we only stayed for five minutes, we were free to gaze across the vast, skyscraper-scattered Sao Paolo skyline. Result!

Nighttime rolled in, and so did Rodolfo. After an emotional reunion and a short, informative history lesson, we followed our new guide to a cosy backstreet bar. This wasn't just any bar picked at random, though - as the excess of giddy patrons spilling out onto the sidewalk would attest. This was an award-winning establishment. Awards won for serving some of the best Cairprinhas in the city. Brazil's signature beverage, the Cairprinha is a sweet, heady mix of cachaca (sugarcane rum), sugar and lime. I'd had no previous experience of the cocktail for comparison, but can say with certainty that the drinks at this bar tasted pretty damn good! We stayed for a couple of very pleasant hours, swapping stories under the signed Pele shirt framed to the wall, before calling it a night and calling an end to our short time in Sao Paolo. Muito Obrigado, Rod - until next time! :)

Rio - Botanical Gardens
Ideally, we would have stayed for a few more days; soaking up the big city vibe and visiting at least a couple more of Sao Paolo's 15,000 bars, but time was running out before Carnaval and there was still one more city that required our attention: Rio de Janeiro. I'm aware that such a place needs little introduction. I'm sure you've all seen the enchanting photographic panoramas, snapped from behind the outstretched arms of Cristo, perched 700 metres above the city and surveying the beguiling mix of life below: vividly contrasting neighbourhoods separated by tall, tree-covered hills - abruptly shooting up from ground level and decorated with precariously-balanced favelas - and a boundary of long beachfronts occupied by posing locals and moneyed tourists. Throw in a couple of deep-blue lagoons, rich botanical gardens, and a tangible air of excitement in the week before Carnaval, and you've got an irresistibly buzzing, cosmopolitan city. We gave ourselves a week to explore, and that was barely enough time to scratch the surface.

Basecamp for the first half of our visit was a lively hostel in the downtown Botafago district, while for the final few days we were housed in Santa Teresa - a more secluded area based alongside a shanty town on the side of a hill overlooking the city. Just considering the polar differences in our accommodations, two of Rio's many faces were already apparent - this is a city that refuses to be pigeon-holed.

Dave @ Ipanema Beach
Rio can claim some of the best-known beaches in the business: Just hearing the names Copacabana and Ipanema conjures up images of seaside perfection; irresistible emerald waves lapping against whitewashed shorefronts, lined with beautiful bodies and framed by a backdrop of high-rise success. Copacabana Beach itself is rather lovely but, in all honesty, the rest fails to live up to the reputation: the bronzed beach bums that we previously appreciated to excess on Ilha de Santa Catarina are outnumbered here by a whiter, lardier, overseas contingent, and the sea is surprisingly filthy (or perhaps, unsurprisingly, considering this is a big city seafront). It was worth a visit, though, if only to give me another of my numerous daily opportunities to annoy David - this time with a seemingly neverending rendition of the chorus to the Barry Manilow classic '(At the Copa) Copacabana' (probably made even more irritating by the fact that the lyrics refer to a New York nightclub, rather than the Brazilian beach).

Escadaria Selaron
Hopping back inland, one of Rio's lesser-known low-key attractions can be found at the foot of the Santa Teresa hillside. Jorge Selaron is a Chilean artist who has spent the last 22 years working an ongoing, extensive art project. The Escadaria Selaron is a multi-coloured mosaic covering 215 steps and descending from Santa Teresa to the happening nightlife hub of Lapa. Selaron has dedicated his life to this neverending, everchanging personal crusade - constantly replacing the tiles on display with alternatives donated by admirers from around the globe. The result is an eccentric, entrancing stairway - alive with colour and international flavour - emotions heightened by the melancholy story that acted as a catalyst for this project: In every painting by the artist himself, the figure of a pregnant African lady can be found. Although Jorge never talks candidly about this himself, the generally accepted story is that his pregnant partner died in the late 1980's, leaving him heartbroken and grasping for something to provide direction and meaning. Hence the dedication of his life to the Selaron Steps (Selaron claims the project will only be finished on the day he dies). There are many 'bigger' attractions in Rio, but this comparatively small-scale curio proved to be the most touching and memorable.

Two of the more 'blockbuster' sights in the city can be found atop opposing hills: Official 'Wonder of the World' Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer), looking out to sea from the centre of town, and Pao de Acucar (Sugarloaf Mountain), situated on the coastline with views back across the city. The Christ statue, standing 40m tall (and perched on the summit of 710m high Corcovado mountain) with outstretched arms beckoning towards the citizens of Rio, is an iconic image, secured in global collective consciousness and often the first thing people think off when Rio de Janeiro is mentioned. It is a structure beautiful in it's straight-lined simplicity, but, perhaps due to a lack of religious connection, I personally wasn't struck with the sense of wonder that one assumedly should be when visiting a wonder of the world. The other two official 'wonders' that I've witnessed on this trip - Chichen Itza in Mexico and Machu Picchu in Peru - are simply awesome in terms of scale, age, intricacy and impact; astonishment and disbelief triggered instantly when you try to imagine the intelligence, vision, dedication and craftsmanship of the long-gone ancient civilisations who created these genuine 'wonders'. Sadly, for me, Cristo fails to deliver quite the same clout - an impressive and important icon for many, yes, but it doesn't belong in the same category as Machu Picchu and Chichen Itza.

Sugarloaf Mountain
With this in mind, you might expect an even greater negative response to Sugarloaf Mountain - after all, it's 300m smaller than Cristo's hill, and this time there isn't even anything of note straddling the summit. However, Sugarloaf is all about the vista back over town. We were lucky enough to visit just before sunset, allowing us to appreciate the varied Rio cityscape - beaches lining the outskirts, hulking mountaintops fighting for space with tall city structures and overspilling favelas in the centre - first under the bright setting sun, then bathed in an eerie dusky hue of deep blues and subtle purples, before darkness settled and the city twinkled like the night sky, backlit by intermittent lightning forks from a storm that kept threatening to roll in, but never fully committed to the act. Natural 'wonders' are often superior to the man-made attempts....

All that was left for us now was to sample the legendary Rio nightlife. The nocturnal action at this point of the year was even livelier than usual as Carnaval warm-up was well underway (the official carnival might only last a week, but celebrations begin long before and last pretty much until everyone involved really needs a rest). First-off, we stumbled across a traditional samba band plying their trade down an alleyway and outside a branch of a well-known international bank. Despite the strange setting, an excitable crowd had gathered - energetically bopping along to the beat - along with opportunistic vendors selling cans of beer at a dollar a pop. "So, this is Carnaval?", we thought. A little low key with no more than a couple of hundred people, but great fun and a nice introduction.

However, after a considerable amount of time spent aimlessly wandering the streets and trying to find the next party location, we finally gave in and asked a couple of locals where was good to go. "Follow us", they replied, confidently. Another ten minutes later and we found ourselves in the midst of a seething mass of half-naked bodies - at least a few thousand people had descended onto the wide avenues under the Roman-esque aqueduct arches in the centre of Lapa. Thumping music, cheap booze, widespread debauchery and general decadence; an atmosphere buzzing with anticipation of the festivities ahead. This was Carnaval!!

Rio skyline at dusk
We stuck around long enough to witness some of the more unsavoury elements of the celebration too - namely the piss-takingly-persistent pickpockets and the almost laughable rapeyness of the menfolk. The four of us had been joined by another couple for the evening - charming Northern Monkeys, James and Chris - and there were many times their relationship had to be strenuously reiterated as Chris found herself on the receiving end of unwanted attention. Fake relationships also had to be created between myself or Dave and Lauren or Hannah in a futile attempt to stem the tide of male groins thrust in their direction too. The most amusing horndog of the evening was a shirtless fellow who suddenly appeared over one of the girls' shoulders; a fixed grin attached to his gormless face, poking his finger in her general direction and then gesturing back towards himself before finishing with the flourish of a thumbs up, a widening of his stupid smile and an expectant twinkle in his eyes. When the first of our fine ladies had finally managed to make her non-interest sufficiently clear, he simply moved his head the slightest of angles, adjusted his gaze to fix the next-nearest female, and repeated the same hand-signalling procedure. Surprisingly, this technique failed to make any of the chicas go weak at the knees, and he eventually moved onto another nearby group of XX chromosome carriers.

Lessons learnt and stricter rejection faces practiced by Lauren and Hannah, we began our final journey as a travelling foursome. As if this fact wasn't depressing enough, this would also be our longest single journey of the trip so far. But, 32 hours after boarding, we finally rolled into Salvador, ready for Carnaval to begin.....

I'm aware that the word count is piling up here, and there is still a lot to spill (and just as much to remain untold) regarding the ridiculous goings-on during Carnival week. As such, I will bring this entry to a close, but the FINAL blog has already been written and will appear in a couple of weeks. Until then, here's some Brazilian snaps to keep you entertained (click any photo to enlarge):

Ilha de Santa Catarina

Ilha de Santa Catarina Lagoon

Sao Paolo

Sao Paolo

Sao Paolo

Sao Paolo Skyline

Rio Lagoon

Kids playing in Rio Lagoon

Diving into Rio Lagoon

Rio Botanical Gardens

Rio Botanical Gardens

Rio Botanical Gardens

Jorge Selaron cleaning his steps

The Selaron Steps

Selaron Steps - English tile

Selaron Steps

Selaron Steps

Selaron Steps

Jorge Selaron



View from Cristo's hill

View of Sugarloaf Mountain from Cristo's hill

Cristo Redentor

View from Sugarloaf Mountain

Dusk from Sugarloaf Mountain

Sunset over Rio from Sugarloaf Mountain

Rio dusk

Rio dusk

View of an Illuminated Cristo from Sugarloaf Mountain

Goodnight Rio (from Sugarloaf Mountain)


  1. Awesome. I love the tiled steps, and Sugarloaf looks fantastic xx

  2. ooooo love the teeny tiny helicopter next to Christo! How long did you hang around for that shot?! Hmmm? X