Brazil Backpacking – Finding our Samba Rhythm
If a crash course in Brazilian culture was needed upon our arrival in São Paulo, things couldn’t have worked out better than sharing an AirBnb apartment with a local Paulista who happens to sing for a living, blasts Samba music at any given hour of the day or night and only speaks Portuguese. Welcome to Brazil!
As most English speaking travellers will tell you, the biggest obstacle to overcome in South America is the language barrier. After six months of Portuguese lessons back home in Cape Town and four months of speaking the language while travelling through Mozambique on a previous trip, we thought that at the very least we would have the basics covered to get us through our Brazil backpacking adventure. Imagine our disappointment then when we confidently asked a shop assistant if we could purchase a local SIM card for our phone, only to be rewarded with a blank stare followed by a look that undeniably said “was that supposed to be Portuguese?!”. We found that reverting to simple sentences accompanied by elaborate hand gestures would usually yield results. Only in the most dire of circumstances would we admit defeat and reluctantly start typing into google translate.
As this was our first experience of backpacking, we soon realised that as “foot soldiers” without our own ride, we would need to quickly familiarise ourselves with the public transport system or face pounding the streets with 15kg packs strapped to our backs. Fortunately the cities and coastal towns of southern Brazil have a great network of metro/subway lines and buses. Perhaps a bit complicated, we were at times left wondering how the locals even manage to figure out the bus schedules. Handy Apps like “moovit” tend to save the day by indicating which bus stop to head to and which line will get you to your destination. While local city buses are generally inexpensive, heading to the rodoviaria to book a ticket through one of the private bus companies covering longer distances is an experience akin to being kicked in the gut. These companies have colluded in setting prices that are so ridiculously expensive, it will leave most Brazil backpacking low-budget travellers seriously contemplating hitching a ride on the back of a chicken lorry.
São Paulo – Out and About in the Big City
São Paulo proved to be a great introduction to some of the characteristics shared by most South American cities. Suburbs tend to merge into a mixed patchwork of low and high income areas, each offering up there own uniqueness to wandering travellers. From the pubs and artistic graffiti covering the walls of hipster areas such as Vila Madelena to the hustle and bustle of avenue Paulista, the economic hub of South America. There are however two unfortunate spin-offs arising from high density living that all areas seem to have in common. One challenge is the rather unpleasant sewage smell that has a tendency to sneak up from the drains and punch you on the nose when you least expect it. Another challenge is to remain vigilant when walking along the pavements. The sight of fluffy pooches sporting bedazzled outfits and ribbons in their hair leaves no doubt of the love that Brazilians have for their dogs, unfortunately however, this love does not extend to them picking up their dog’s poop.
An introduction that we had anticipated with much excitement on our Brazil backpacking adventure was to the local Brazilian food on offer. A compulsory culinary experience is to try the traditional dish called Feijoada. The literal translation of this term means “beans” but don’t let this put you off. Black bean stew, rice and veggies accompany the star of the dish, pork. Finished off with a sprinkling of farofa, toasted manioc flour, this dish will have you coming back for seconds and thirds. Deciding not to be too adventurous we moved swiftly past the pig ears and trotters that were on offer but can confidently award the Brazilians the prize for best pork belly and crackling that these two pork lovers have tasted. Just thinking about it leaves us salivating and “aching for the bacon”.
“Kilo” restaurants are also a big hit in Brazil where diners can help themselves to a buffet and then pay according to the weight of their plate which, given how delicious the food is, can become an expensive exercise. Paulistas also tend to rave about their pizza, boasting that it rivals the best that Italy has to offer. We decided that such a bold statement should not be taken lightly and ventured into one of the renown pizza parlours to give it a go. What we soon realised is that the experience is about more than just eating pizza. Chic waiters wearing white gloves would stand like sentinels around the restaurant insisting on plating each slice of pizza for us. Well, needless to say the pizza might have been delicious but as you can imagine it was also bloody expensive.
Given the current political climate of Brazil, weekends in São Paulo are quite eventful as passionate activists dressed proudly in yellow and green rally together in avenue Paulista, shouting at one another via loud speakers that reverberate through the city blocks. Every topic in Brazil seems to have a reference to food and we were amused to find that politics is no exception. The liberal lefties and wealthier classes refer to one another using the derogatory terms of mortadela and coxinha respectively. Mortadela being a common bread loaf and coxinha being an expensive pastry only afforded by the wealthy elite.
A more relaxed weekend atmosphere can be found at the craft and food markets that offer an abundance of artwork, antiques and more reasonably priced culinary gems, although perhaps not all traditionally Brazilian. Sushi, dim sum and noodles can be found in the Chinese and Japanese suburb of Liberdade and if a light snack is in order, you can make your way to a pastel stand where you’ll find light puff pastries with a choice of savory or sweet fillings. We will finish off this food account with the best news of all, there is most definitely no shortage of sorveterias or ice cream parlours in Brazil.
Costa Verde – The Green Coast
Lush green rainforests spill down the mountain slopes to rendezvous with the ocean on discreet beaches while out at sea the horizon is dotted with dozens of islands mirroring the green foliage of the mainland. This is the exquisite Brazilian coastline and one of the best ways to experience the view was by bus as we made our way up to Rio.
Ubatuba – Surf’s Up
Our first coastal stop-off was the small town of Ubatuba snuggled between the mountains. When not catching waves, most inhabitants can be found riding their bikes or walking their much beloved pooches along the mosaic promenade. Deciding that it was time to hit the beach, we followed our map to what we thought would be a less frequented area. Imagine our surprise when we emerged on the beach only to find it overrun with Brazilian families. Given that it was ten o’clock
on a Tuesday morning
, our initial reaction was to ask ourselves why the hell these people weren’t at work. So we would become familiar with an idea embraced by most Brazilians, “why work when you can just live life?”. In fact, Brazilians have perfected the beach experience. Not only is alcohol permitted on the beach, food stalls and bars are set up to provide an endless supply of snacks and beer. This led to the quick dissipation of any anxiety that I may have harboured about being surrounded by bronzed beach goddess’ that resemble the likes of Gisele Bundchen. Brazilian women seem to share a love for two things that certainly don’t pair well together; carbohydrate and sugar rich fast food and the g-string bikini.
Hiking through the indigenous forest in search of a more secluded beach gave us the opportunity to appreciate the conservation efforts that are taking place in this region. Bird life is abundant and often we would see turtles surfacing close to the waters edge. We were joined on our deserted beach by volunteers of a conservation organization called Tamar who work to rescue turtles that have been caught in local fishing nets and release them back into the ocean. During our African travels we were deeply disturbed by the dramatic decrease in ocean life due to locals overfishing and killing everything unfortunate enough to get caught in their nets. Watching a rescued turtle eagerly make his way down the beach and back into the ocean was a beautiful and very welcome experience.
Now officially Brazil backpackers, our time in Ubatuba also introduced us to the idea of budget hostel accommodation, an experience which we unfortunately weren’t able to ease ourselves into. Still somewhat uncomfortable with the idea of sharing a dormitory room with complete strangers, our uneasiness was only heightened when we were abruptly woken up on our first night by a French woman screaming in her sleep. Another night of sleeping near to a heavy snorer and we began to wisen up, donning eye-masks and earplugs to ensure undisturbed slumber. However, I was happy to overlook these negative points when I discovered that all Brazilian hostels serve cake as part of their breakfast. Gary would simply watch on in dismay as his wife smashed an average of two slices of triple chocolate sponge cake each morning, pandering to the high demands of her sweet tooth.
Next on our Brazil backpacking route was the picturesque town of Paraty where a few days can be spent visiting the beaches or strolłing through the historical centre and along the marina and water canals. Once the buzzing port for cargo ships heavy laden with gold mined from the surrounding areas, the history of this quaint town highlights the melting pot of Indigenous Native, Portuguese, Spanish and African ancestry that has created the Brazil of today.
The historical centre is a labyrinth of cobbled streets lined by carefully preserved buildings dating back to the town’s establishment. While all uniformly painted white, each building is accented with a different dash of colour making for a photographers delight. On a free walking tour of the centre we were informed of possible Freemason influence in the area and found ourselves analysing the surrounding architecture looking for signs of the Masonic “pattern of three”. We were also amused to find out that wealth was indicated by incorporating gold, yellow and pineapples into the design of a building. At night this area becomes the centre of festivities as street musicians pluck at their guitars, serenading the diners seated at restaurants lining the walkways. A variety of different cuisines are on offer, the delicious aromas making it difficult to make a selection. However, dinner in the historical centre is not complete without trying the locally produced cachaça, which will leave you gasping for air, as well as making a compulsory stop at one of the mobile dessert stands on your way out. For any traveller with a sweet tooth, you’ll be delighted to know that where ice cream, cakes and pastries are concerned, the Brazilians feel that more is more.
Ilha Grande – It Doesn’t Get Better Than This
As it turned out, our time on the beaches thus far served only as a prelude to what has to be one of the most spectacular locations along this coastline, Ilha Grande. On board the inexpensive public ferry along with a few fellow backpackers, locals and supplies for the island, we left Angra dos Reis and the mainland behind. While this trip takes much longer than chartering a private boat, the two hour journey allowed us to relax and absorb the scenery around us as we sailed past numerous islands. Once in sight, the small town of Vila do Abraão will capture the heart of any traveller who is fortunate enough to set foot here. Set against a mountainous backdrop and fringed by beachfront bungalows, restaurants and bars, the cobbled roads, quaint church and variety of accommodation options makes this location an ideal home away from home.
The island has approximately one hundred and two beaches, from secluded hideaways to the popular beaches of Lopes Mendes and Dois Rios. Most beaches can be reached by boat or by hiking for a few hours over the mountains and through the dense forest vegetation. Far from being over populated, we often had the trails to ourselves, stopping to cool off in the mountain streams or to watch a troop of monkeys go about their daily routine. Once an agricultural community, the only evidence left of the sugar cane plantations are the local villages dotted around the island. Seemingly transfixed in a different era, the old street lamps, broken roads and absolute silence that surrounds the old houses creates an eerie atmosphere that often had us moving through at quite a pace. Fortunately the locals could always be found at the nearest beach and perhaps even more fortunately, they always had beer available.
Rio, the Party Animal
Despite being a large commercial city, Rio emanates the energy of a local population that seem to be permanently in holiday mode. Seeing as though people can be found drumming, dancing and drinking at any time of the day, we could only imagine what carnival season must be like. It came as no surprise to us to learn that the iconic Christ the Redeemer monument was actually built by administrators to serve as a constant reminder to the debaucherous locals that their actions were being observed from the heavens and that they best take time off between their sins to offer up repentance.
Like most of the tourists and locals making the most of the party scene that this city has to offer, Rio also wakes up looking a bit rough around the edges. As such, most people tend to gravitate towards the beaches during the day where they nurse a hangover by snoozing in the sun and sinking a few caipirinhas. Our recommended route is to start at Lebanon beach and make your way along to Ipanema, the legendary Copacabana and finally Botofogo, stopping along the way to enjoy a few celebratory cocktails. However, this excursion needs to be exercised with caution as the Rio version of a caipirinha contains enough alcohol to take down even the most hardened drinkers. Before leaving for our trip, a friend of ours reluctantly told us a story which, aside from providing hours of uncontrollable laughter, offered a few wise words of advice. After drinking a few caipirinhas with an attractive woman whom he now concedes may have actually been a transgender man, he woke up the next morning face down on Copacabana beach stripped of his wallet, phone and watch, left with nothing but a vague memory of the events of the previous evening.
If you are looking for a more tame version of Rio, we recommend making your way to the suburb of Urca in the evenings. Located next to Sugerloaf Mountain, this suburb offers a more relaxed vibe and beautiful views of the sun setting behind Christ the Redeemer. Away from the tourist traps, you can mingle with the locals gathering for a beer along the promenade, from groups of old men singing and reminiscing about their glory days to young families taking the kids and dog for a walk.
Rio is no exception to the weekend market tradition. On Sundays the suburb of Ipanema hosts the feira hippie de Ipanema that offers up everything from exquisite jewelry, handbags and clothes to hammocks and dream catchers. In the centre of the square you’ll find a fantastic exhibition of local artwork, most paintings depicting the rich colours of the favelas lining the mountain slopes of Rio or the rhythm of beautiful women dancing the Samba. Of course no Brazilian gathering would be complete without sumptuous cakes and pastries on offer to sweeten the day even further.
Hiking Your Way to Redemption – Christo Redentor
Your experience of Rio isn’t complete unless you’ve achieved the three C’s; Copacabana, caipirinha and Christ. There are three options available to travellers who want to make their way up to the Christ the Redeemer monument. Most tourists choose one of the first two options which involve parting with a large sum of money and being herded like cattle up the mountain by either the shuttle or the tram. We chose to catch a bus to the botanical gardens and hike up through the nature reserve to summit Mount Corcovado at the monument. This allowed us to spend a few blissful hours in the tranquil rainforests surrounding the city as we made our way up the mountain catching glimpses of Christ through the tree top canopy. Having seen him featured in so many films as one of the new seven wonders of the world, it was somewhat surreal to stand at his feet and gaze up at him. The views out over Rio are spectacular but if you can eventually tear yourself away, you’re in for a lot of fun as you trail run back down through the forest.
Florianópolis – Surf Capital of Brazil
Our last stop in Brazil was the buzzing coastal metropolis of Florianópolis, the surf capital of Brazil. Unfortunately on our first day here we were welcomed by dark, heavy clouds moving in quickly, not exactly what you would call ideal beach weather. Deciding that we would still venture out for a quiet stroll we emerged on the windy beachfront only to find the place packed with locals. It was a work day in the middle of the week, the weather was terrible and yet the caipirinha stands were operating in full swing. Between the distraction of pork and halloumi sizzling on the grill and the temptation of numerous donut and gelato vendors, we could just make out the low throb of drums echoing in the distance.
The beat growing louder and louder, a Samba band spontaneously appeared on the beach stirring the women into action who jumped up and began dancing. Yes, this is Brazil where no matter what the weather, life is good and the party continues.