Northern Brazil, the long way…
Conveniently, Craig was flying on the same Panamanian based airline and then onto Sao Paulo with us. I was particularly looking forward to our airport meeting. We spoke the night before when he was on his overnight layover in Miami and had arranged to meet at the gate. It was so nice to see a familiar face from home walking off the plane. We used the flight from Panama City to Sao Paulo to catch up. Copa Airline stewards are a lot like Mexican bar tenders, there is no responsible service of alcohol. Craig and I ordered a scotch on the rocks and were served an entire cup size, with ice of course. She poured it like it was juice. One jumbo scotch and we were done. The next day we left our rather nice hotel in Sao Paulo to catch a flight to Salvador da Bahia and meet our Dragoman tour group. It’s always interesting to hear people talk about how they shun pre arranged group tours. I for one, love them. Up until this point on our travels, Joseph and I had done the whole independent travel thing. It’s nice to have the freedom and flexibility to do what you want when you want that come with this style of travel. However, it’s also nice to be told what to see, where to stay and for how long. Arranging everything yourself can sometimes consume you and take away from the whole experience. After ten weeks of going it alone in Central America, we were very excited for our tour. We did a similar style overland tour through southern Africa the year before and loved it. Not only did we travel relatively cheaply seeing Africa, we made some really great friends in the process. We had chosen a Dragoman tour that took us from Salvador to Manaus over the course of about three weeks. Salvador is a massive city that sprawls a long way from the airport. Our hotel was in the old part of town, which is also the most interesting and tourist friendly. The buildings have been restored to their former glory and some filled with restaurants and bars. Our hotel had a pool so we spent the afternoon becoming aquatinted with the people who would be our best friends for the next three weeks. The sun was out and the beers were cool and we met most of the group. It turns out Joseph, Craig and I were three of only five new people. The tour actually started in Cartagena, Columbia and the now seventeen strong group all had met along the way. It was hard not to feel a bit like an outsider, especially in the first few days. The other two new members were Julia and Alexandra from Germany. Maybe it was because we were newbies but the five of us instantly gravitated together. It wasn’t long before we earned the title ‘The Germans and the Gays’ or ‘Team G’. Salvador was a bit of a blur. Our first night we went to a Capoeira show and then hit the town. Capoeira is a kind of martial arts, break dance fighting involving a lot of perfectly timed round house kicks between two people. They never actually make contact and it is actually kind of mesmerising to watch. Hitting the town didn’t really involve a traditional bar as everyone was out on the streets dancing and buying drinks from street vendors. It was a heap of fun but the town is a little dangerous so they have tourist police everywhere. I am sure if you headed out in a different part of town you would have a more authentic experience and probably be robbed of your possessions and a kidney. I was happy with the pretend, safe touristy part of Salvador. The next morning we rose early to go on the beach tour we had arranged the night before. The boat left at 8:15 and the Caipirinhas were already being served. There seemed to be a Brazilian stag party on board so the mood was particularly festive. The boat trip was a surprise and took us to various islands near Salvador. The beaches were beautiful and the water was the perfect temperature. We used the day to get a little sun whilst getting further acquainted with our new friends. It was a full day and as we disembarked, I realised my flip flops had walked off on somebody else’s feet. It was at this point, walking the dirty streets of Salvador, that I truly looked like a dirty barefoot backpacker. All I needed was dreadlocks, a hula hoop and guitar slung across my back to complete the look. On our final day of Salvador, we were introduced to our overland truck, Carmen. She would be responsible for transporting us throughout northern Brazil for the next three weeks. Overland trucks are a dream come true for people with OCD. There is a neat little place for everything and even labels to tell you when things should go. Our bags were loaded into the baggage compartment and we were off. Our first stop was a bush camp at the Tamar Turtle Project on the beach in Pirambu, 460km away from Salvador. An hour into driving we pulled into a supermarket and divided into cooking groups. Each group is given an amount of money and usually has to buy breakfast, lunch and dinner and cook it for the whole group. The budget was tight too. 8 Reais per person per day. That’s about $1 for breakfast, $1 for lunch and $2 for dinner. I quickly tried to remember the Coles ‘Feed a family for under $10’ recipes but realised even that was too expensive. I later learnt, it is actually possible to make a chicken stir fry for seventeen and come under budget. Distances turn out to be deceiving in Brazil too as 460km took us close to 10 hours. We quickly became acquainted with our tents and set them up in the dark. I didn’t learn my lesson from Africa regarding the need for a head torch so also tasted metal as my torch sat in my mouth lighting the way. I did learn one lesson from that night however. Always set your tent up as far away from the truck as possible if you want a quiet night sleep. The sun quickly heated our tents up to a balmy 40 degrees so sleeping in is not really an option. We packed all our tents and bags away and as this was a bush camp, it meant there was no place to shower or take care of other morning business. There was the Atlantic Ocean on our doorstop so I used that. For a shower, not the other business. We then visited the Turtle Project Visitors Centre and learnt how they protect nests from predators so the hatchlings have the best possible chance for survival as only 1 hatchling in 1000 made it to adult life. The group also learnt the visitors centre had a toilet so the stop was longer than expected. Before long we were back on the road for a cool 430km drive to Olinda. Arriving in Olinda was, in a word, painful. Olinda is a smaller town just north of the enormous city of Recife and is known as an artist town. As expected the 430kms took a while, about 11 hours. For that amount of time, being on the confined space of a bus with a bunch of people who haven showered in days literally takes your breath away. I would like to be able to say more about Olida, it looked like a nice place when we drove in at 8pm, ate dinner, slept and drove out at 8am. We were back on the road again and heading to Cabaceiras to see Lajedo de Pais Matheus with a lunch stop at the Inga Monolith. The monolith is situated in a particularly hot and dry part of Brazil and is a collection of ancient carvings. There was some confusion as to their origin and the guide seemed more interesting in getting rid of us so he could have his lunch. Lajedo de Pais Matheus was much more impressive. It is a rock formation so my use of the word impressive may come as a surprise, but it really was. There are about 30 or so huge boulders, most spherical in shape resting on a sloping rock base. Some look like they could be pushed and rolled down the hill. We spent the afternoon wandering though the rocky giants and taking pictures until the sun went down. On the road again the next morning the trip was beginning to feel like we would be spending our days on the bus driving. We were heading for the Vale dos Dinossauros (Valley of the Dinosaurs) to spend the night and see some dino footprints. We shared our campsite with some very inquisitive cows that tried to trample a few tents. We fended them off with a few cowbells and well placed squeals. The dino footprints were imp
ressive. From a distance they looked like they had been made in a dried muddy riverbed. On closer inspection the dried river bed was actually fossilized mud. There was clearly infrastructure in place to prevent tourists trampling all over them prints, but our guide shimmied us through a hole in the fence and let us wander all over them. There were the footprints of a stegosaurus and velociraptors that were perfectly preserved. There was also two giant square holes where the Americans and the British had dug out prints to take back home for their museums. After the mandatory photo in front of the disintegrating raptor models and a ferret through the gift shop filled with items dinosaur models that appeared to be made by a child, we were back on the truck and driving once more. Our next destination we were particularly excited about as it was on the coast and was called Canoa Quebrada. This literally means ‘broken canoe’ thanks to Josephs Portuguese translation. He has proven very useful on this trip, not only to me, but the entire group. Rudi, the group leader is the only other Portuguese speaker in the group and he is Italian. Joseph helps with the translation on guided tours and at restaurants ordering food. However, I am pretty sure the latter got very old, very quickly when having a group dinner. The small town of Canoa Quebrada is surrounded by sand dunes and was discovered by hippies some time ago. Now, it is still small but surrounded by wind turbines and with just enough modern conveniences to satisfy the picky traveller. Our campsite however was fairly basic, a patch of sand with facilities but it was close to the beach so I was happy. The truck arrived early enough for us to set up our tents, have a wander through town and a well deserved swim in the beautifully warm ocean. It was well deserved because the last campsite also did not have showers. I was beginning to master the technique of showering with baby wipes. It takes about twenty wipes for a full clean. After a real shower and some dinner, we decided to check out the town. The group seemed particularly excited about a Reggae beach party that kicked off about 1am. Two things I didn’t like about this plan, Reggae music and the fact it started at 1am which is about four hours past my bed time. Surprisingly, I made it to the beach party with the help of some very sugary chocolate milk tasting cocktails. It was no surprise however that the next day was a bit of a struggle. Team G spent the day on the beach, relaxing under the shade of an umbrella and taking dips in the ocean. On our final night in Canoa Quebrada we had a little BBQ and an early night with a few voracious mosquitoes. Jericoacoara, nicknamed ‘Jeri-coco-koala’, was our next stop as we rose to the routine of packing up tents and boarding the truck. Jeri is another isolated beach town that has become popular with tourists and consequently jazzed up. The sand streets weave between numerous restaurants and boutiques selling skimpy Brazilian swimwear, clothes and jewellery. The beach is dotted with restaurants, portable cocktail carts and flanked to the west by an enormous sand dune, popular at sunset. The restaurants are a little pricey but the food we ate each night was delicious. Our first full day was spent at the beach, under an umbrella with the occasional dip in the ocean. On the second day most of the group piled into three dune buggies and set off to explore the surrounding area. After a short walk to a few interesting rock formations the buggies dropped us off at the first of three lagoons. The freshwater pools of water were a welcome surprise as it was boiling hot sitting in full sun on the back of the tiny cars. Joseph and I headed up to the top of a dune that fell into the water the try our hand at sand boarding. It is surprisingly similar to snowboarding and just as much fun. The second lagoon was where we stopped for lunch. This one had hammocks hung over the water and was paradise. Our final stop required a quick sailing boat trip to an island where instead of hammocks they had plastic tables and chairs half submerged in the water. There is something refreshing about having your bum in the water whilst sipping on a caipirinha. Jeri was over before we knew it. I definitely could have spent some more time there. Our next stop was a place called Parnaiba and was really just a stepping off point for our few days of 4×4 and boat trip to explore the delta region of Maranhense. The group was driven to a dock and boarded a boat to travel for four hours through the delta. After a very bumpy 4×4 trip and an extended game of ‘Name a celebrity whose first name begins with the first letter of the previous celebrities last name’ we had arrived at Cabure. This rustic ‘hotel’ was built in an extremely remote area in between a beach and the river. This was a fun night that started with an intense session of beach Olympics and finished with a pool championship on an extremely small table built for pygmies. The following day we were loaded onto a boat and travelled further down the river. There was a mandatory stop at a somewhat questionable lighthouse and cachaca brewery. By brewery, I mean a wooden shack containing a guy who home brewed the spirit in used 1.25L bottles of coke. The second stop was to a bar built at the base of a sand dune. It was here I saw my first domesticated coati, complete with harness. A coati is a mammal with a long snout and tail about the size of a dog. This one was particularly cute until it started scratching and bighting the guests. There were also a bunch of cheeky monkeys who seemed fixated on stealing everyone’s beverages served in coconuts. I had a feeling the bar staff had cleverly trained them to increase overall coconut profits. Just as we were about to leave a little baby goat strolled in for pats and to complete the petting zoo bar. Our accommodation for that night was in a town called Barreirinhas. The place was nice in comparison to previous and dinner on the jetty over the water was all very romantic, albeit with 15 other people from the group. Sao Luis was the next stop and one that Craig was particularly excited about. It was Saturday night the city was large enough to have a gay bar. We stayed in the old part of town, filled with Portuguese colonial architecture. The power went out a few times in the city so the ‘big gay night out’ was touch and go for a while. After dinner we hit the town. Brazilians either go out later or I go out way too early because we arrived at the first place at 11pm and it was empty. All in all it was a fun night, but not being able to speak Portuguese got fairly frustrating so I called it a night. The next day the group went on a tour of the city. On our final stop we went into another home brew cachaca place. The little shop looked like a crazy bottle loving hoarder lived there and the hand written labels added to the affect. He served up every flavour imaginable, cinnamon, lemon, honey, lime, apple, ginger and tamarind were just a few. Getting everyone a little tipsy obviously worked in his favour as everyone bought a bottle of something. I was both a little drunk and the proud owner of a bottle of grape cashaca. After the tour we drove the truck onto a ferry and crossed over to Almarate. The hotel was built high on a hill and in addition to having an Arabian nights theme, the pool overlooked the ocean far below. At 570km, the drive to Belem was the longest one yet. Belem is the city where we would board the ferry that would take us down the Amazon. The whole reason Joseph and I decided to do the organised tour was to see the mighty river. Belem as a town reminded me a lot of Suva. The climate is obviously hot and humid and the mouldy buildings don’t fair too well. The city looks like it was built and nobody cared to maintain it. It is also a ghost town after 8pm. We went on the search for dinner and found nothing but a little hamburger stand on the street. At 3 Reais, it was the cheapest and tastiest burger I have had in Brazil so far. Joseph opted out of the burgers
as, in his words, it looked like a week on the toilet. Our final day on solid ground was spent prepping for our epic boat journey. With freshly laundered clothes and bags of supplies, we were driven to the port. We had been told weeks ago our accommodation on board would be hammocks hung undercover on an open air deck. There was one cabin to be shared between the group that was to be used for stowing bags and showering. Craig, Joseph and I had discussed earlier that we should, depending on price, just pay for a cabin for sanity’s sake over the next five days. It was called operation wheel and deal and was to be executed once onboard. Joseph was to use his Portuguese and we would play good Portuguese cop (Joseph) and bad Portuguese cop (me) to negotiate a deal. The ship was called Nelio Correa and she was a three level beast. It looked like an old Mississippi paddle steamer, minus the giant water wheels on the side. We saw the hammocks and Joseph jumped straight into enquiring about a cabin. There were cabins free and the price was about $350 USD for the entire journey. I almost agreed on the spot but decided to wait and see the cabin before forking out the cash. Thankfully I did. The cabins were tiny and extremely hot (I later found out they had aircon). One of the drawcards of a cabin however was a private bathroom. The bathroom in these solitary confinement cells was covered in fifteen different types of mould and I can safely say the toilet had NEVER been cleaned. The shower was an over the toilet situation and maybe I am being precious, but there is something rather unsanitary about shower and ******** in the same spot. The hammocks were surprisingly comfortable and there was an outdoor shower on the back of the boat. Who wouldn’t want to shower whilst watching the Amazon flow by? So the decision was made to stop being princesses and sleep in the hammocks with nature. We left Belem under the cover of darkness and watched as the city lights faded away. The first morning waking up on the Amazon was unbelievable. From the back of the boat I could see both sides of the river far off in the distance and for the first time, the sheer vastness of the giant river. There is an island in the delta of the river that has a larger land mass than Switzerland. As we were travelling upstream, the ship hugged the shoreline giving us an extreme close up of the surrounding forest. We saw a little pod of pink dolphins playing alongside us which was nice. The pink dolphin is only native to the Amazon and the Yangzee River in China. They are nearly extinct in China so it was nice to see the little poppets still frolicking about here. Another surprising thing was seeing just how isolated people live. We would travel for a long time through thick jungle with nothing around and there would be a little wooden shack with a jetty and a family going about their day. People on the boat threw gifts off and the residents paddle out to retrieve them. Days on the boat were spent laying in our hammocks and watching the river pass by. Occasionally canoes would paddle into the path of our oncoming ship. At first I thought the locals had had enough of river life and wanted it all to be over. Not the case as at the last minute, they would paddle quickly to the side as the ship passed and haul ropes onboard. After docking with the mothership, the canoe people (who turned out to be vendors), would walk around selling different things, mostly food, but I did manage to pick up a few DVDs from one guy. Occasionally we would dock at small towns to load and unload passengers and cargo, but mostly we were chugging our way up the river. It would be nice to say this was how things progressed for the five days. Unfortunately, on the third day it was my turn to be struck down with ‘illness’. After more than three months of travelling to some fairly hygienically questionable places in perfect health, I got the *****. It was bound to happen so it did not come as a surprise, it was more when it happened that was the problem. I guess there is never a good time but there sure are better places than being trapped on an ageing ship in a hammock. I have previously described the cabin toilet situation and not surprisingly the public ones are much, much worse. Combined with toilets that don’t flush due to an intermittent water supply and I was all but re-enacting a scene from the movie Dumb and Dumber. The ship stopped in Santarem for what was supposed to be five hours but, due to some sloppy unloading of the cargo of tomatoes, turned out to be much, much longer. This had a knock on effect, instead of being a five night ‘cruise’ down the Amazon, we were to be onboard for six nights. This new development combined with my ‘condition’ almost made me breakdown and cry. But before we knew it, the ship pulled in to Manaus and we were on track to regaining our land legs. After a farewell dinner with the group and one hour of sleep Craig, Joseph and I headed to the airport to catch our flight to Punta Cana, Dominican Republic. The flight departed at the very sensible time of 3:58am. But it was worth it, for the next four days we are shedding our backpacker ways and staying at the all inclusive Iberostar Punta Cana! Stay tuned for the next post where we’ll be a little browner and 10kgs heavier. UPDATE: Hi guys, Joel here. We’ve created an informative travel website designed to inspire your next destination. For another perspective on Jericoacoara, check it out.