Friday, November 09, 2018

Recife to Salvador

So apparently my early trip planning wasn't all that great. We rerouted once before and suddenly found ourselves needing to reroute again. This time it was to add places and try to kill time. With talk of meeting up with people along the way but no set plans things were always going to be fluid but with Bre committing to join us in Sao Paulo in early Dec we suddenly had a few extra weeks to kill. Fortunately Brazil is a big country. Unfortunately, Brazil is the country we are least prepared for. I can't say I know all that much about it and the whole Portuguese language thing is throwing us off. I didn't realize we would be so completely off the tourist circuit even still.
I can say that I'm quickly getting a feel for how big Brazil is. We have been moving a lot and the line on the map of Brazil isn't growing very quickly.
There are a lot of domestic flights in Brazil. With the long distances and the price of bus travel, advanced tickets for domestic flights can be a cheaper and certainly more comfortable option. Somehow I managed to find a promo fare from Brasilia to Recife for $90US each (including checked bags, which is a thing here too) only 5 days before the flight. Considering that the bus would take close to 40 hours and cost only marginally less, the new and improved (read: married) Ammon opted for the flight. Is this the time to go off on tangential rant about traveling as a married man? Lets just say Sasha has far, far more power and influence than my former very opinionated and demanding 3 female traveling companions did combined. I understand. Happy wife = happy, well, everything.
So I convinced Sasha that flying to Recife and slowly working our way back to Sao Paulo over the course of the next 5 weeks was our best option (For all I know that might be true, I didn't do much research on half of that route yet anyway. We'll figure something out and let you know what we find.)
To start with we found Olinda. Olinda is basically a northern suburb of Recife now but was once the dominant capital and oldest settlement in the area. Its historic core was declared a Unesco site in 1982 and in some ways it feels like a lot of it hasn't been maintained since shortly after. We stayed in Olinda and bypassed Recife altogether, preferring to spend our time in a smaller more "touristy" area. In some ways this was just common sense. Recife has a bad reputation and our first priority here in Brazil is safety. With that in mind we have been operating under some very conservative rules and strategy:
1. Just take Ubers everywhere within cities. (This actually opens up a ton of accommodation options as we can get all over the place quite easily and cheaply.)
2. Be done for the day at sunset. (We might be missing out on all that great local nightlife, but nah, not our thing anyway. The most amusing thing resulting from this is that we are having dinner at 4pm like a bunch of geriatrics because this far northeast the sunset is currently shortly after 5pm.)
Olinda is pretty, on a hilly section of coastline and the historic centre is quite small and walkable. We stayed in a little guesthouse run by an expat European. The small property had a great garden with mango trees dropping fresh fruit every morning for our breakfast which we could eat while watching marmosets in the branches overhead.  Olinda is touristy with lots of little cafes and artisan shops but over and over again I get the impression that conditions are either not good and a lot of places have closed up shop or, more likely, Sasha and I are existing in those weird hours of the day when nothing happens here.
Like I said before things are pretty run down and I'm also wracking my brain to come up with a country where I have seen more graffiti.  It is everywhere. No surface is sacred. I can't believe how much there is. Not my thing and it certainly doesn't enhance the old colonial heritage effect.
Armed only with our enthusiasm we carefully wandered the old streets, playing hide and seek with the multitude of churches popping up around every corner. We found good street food, something like a crepe made of tapioca and filled with various things savoury or sweet. I think Sasha liked cartola the best. It is simply fried banana, melted cheese and cinnamon/sugar but ours came in a tapioca wrap too. It sounds totally bizarre but it is delicious. It makes a great snack while admiring the views of Recife from the hilltop plazas of Olinda. After being introduced to it in Brasilia, Sasha has also become totally addicted to acai. There are little acai shops everywhere we've been so she hasn't had any problem getting her fix for dessert.

Our guesthouse garden

Colourful buildings of Olinda

Convent of Sao Francisco

Se Cathedral

Church of Our Lady of Conception
Views of Recife

From there it was time to start the long journey south. Most of the landscape was sugarcane plantations or empty land. We went slowly, spending a night in Maceio and then two in Aracaju. Both are smaller provincial capitals, both right on the coast with long beaches. We only stayed in Maceio to break up the journey to Aracaju so we wouldn't be arriving too late. It is roughly 5 hours between all these cities on an express bus. We looked at the beach in Maceio briefly. It was pretty and full of Brazilian holidaymakers during their long weekend. It has a nice curved to it with lots of facilities, a walking/biking path and lots of little sailboats on the beach offering rides.

Pajucara beach, Maceio


Aracaju has very soft powdery sand but the water didn't look as clear, calm or inviting. Neither city will be popular with foreign tourists any time soon.  We were surprised that even in a place as well known as Olinda, there were many hostels, but no sight of any tourists. One time we got a little hassle from a guy that wanted to be our guide and he gave up almost instantly when he realized we only spoke English. When was the last time even the tourist touts didn't know how to speak English? Not what I was expecting at all in Brazil.

Aracaju's beach


Yummy street food snacks

Along with Recife and Salvador (and what honestly seems like most of the big cities in the northeast of Brazil), they made it into the top 25 cities with the highest murder rates in the world for 2017. Could you tell by just looking at them? No. But then these things are mostly localized to some pretty brutal slum areas and we weren't going anywhere near there. But we definitely spent most of our time NOT wandering around and exploring.
What we did explore, (and the whole point of stopping in Aracaju), was Sao Cristovao, a small town just outside of Aracaju and the 4th oldest settlement in Brazil. It was not as exciting as it sounds, only one small square was actually historically preserved, with a few other little churches nearby. Certainly nothing like Olinda. I am starting to get a sense of the old Portuguese architectural style though. The churches are all starting to look very similar and a bit lopsided with only one bell tower. I think we were there for about an hour before heading back to Aracaju to walk along the beach instead.

Convent of Sao Francisco, Sao Cristovao


Sao Cristovao

And that brings us to Salvador, Brazil's first capital, a large and much-loved city, known for its African heritage, carnival, capoeira, preserved old town and coastline. Conditions in Salvador have not been improving of late. Crime is on the rise and there is a long list of things not to do when visiting. If your intention, like ours, is to simply visit the old town, Pelourinho, then the nearby Santo Antonio neighbourhood, a short and safe walk away, makes a good base.
We took a much needed break in Salvador spending 4 nights and not pushing ourselves too much to see and do everything. We also had a bit of rain which forced us indoors to relax a bit more as well. When we finally got into the historic centre we found all the tourists and touts that we'd been avoiding thus far. Not that it was bad, we were mostly left alone as this is not a busy time for Brazil. Most of the tourists were local as well. The historic Pelourinho area is one of the oldest Portuguese settlements in Brazil and has some great colonial architecture. Nowadays the buildings on the main streets are in relatively good shape and it makes for an interesting stroll along cobblestone streets past churches, and the usual tourism-oriented souvenir shops, art gallerys, restaurants and little museums.
Tourism is a huge thing in Salvador so during the day Pelourinho is fine to visit and there is a large police presence to make sure everyone respects each other, however it is not advised to visit at night or even to wander off down the side streets very far. Unfortunate.  It is pretty but like South Africa, the reputation is such that you spend so much time being aware and cautious that you can't really relax and enjoy it as much as you should. It looks like it could be an old town in Europe, but it definitely doesn't feel like Europe. There is still too obviously a thin layer glossing over the dangers that lurk just out of reach or possibly around the next corner. It is the homeless guy sleeping on the sidewalk in front of a touristy restaurant, the youths loitering on the corner sizing you up, the multitude of cops patrolling or congregating wherever a group of tourists starts to build in anticipation of a street performance or simply in the guarded way visitors conduct themselves. It's not just in Salvador, but here the wave of tourism washes over the gritty reality of life in Brazil, penetrating further, and hoping to not get too muddy. But as I said before, the hassle factor wasn't bad for us. People left you alone after a single "no, thanks" and there were plenty of people wandering about doing what tourists usually do.

Pelourinho




Acai junkie getting her next fix.

Salvador was built on a peninsula on the eastern side of a bay, and Pelourinho was part of the upper city built on an escarpment roughly 300 feet above the port and lower city below. The oldest elevator in Brazil (1873) connects the two and looking out over the bay are some beautiful views though there are also some very sketchy-looking areas immediately below.

Looking down on the lower city

The Lacerda elevator

We will continue south along the coast focusing on some quieter beach time for the next little bit.
Ammon

Friday, November 02, 2018

Goias and Brasilia

24 hours after getting back to Cuiaba we were leaving town on a bus heading to Goiania. When your bus is 15 hours long the last thing you really want is to make it longer so there was a lot of groaning when 10 minutes into the ride one of the luggage doors opened on a corner and we dumped barrels of live fish all over the side of the road. For nearly an hour we stood on the side of the road cringing at the sight of hundreds of little fish flopping everywhere and the drivers, unsure what to do, half-heartedly trying to catch them until someone came along to take charge. So, 16 hours later we arrived in Goiania only to turn around and jump on another bus for 3 hours to the small historic city of Goias.
Goias was the first capital of the state of Goias (of which Goiania is now capital) and the historic centre is a Unesco world heritage site for its preserved colonial buildings and churches. It is quite far from any typical foreign tourist circuit in Brazil but is a well known weekend getaway for Brazilian tourists from relatively nearby Goiania and Brasilia. Even though it was the weekend it was quiet. Very quiet. One thing we have struggled with so far in Brazil is weekends.  I don't know where everyone goes but it is empty and dead. Even a big city like Cuiaba was completely shut down on a Sunday.
We had a day and a half in Goias, which was enough. It is small enough to walk around in a couple hours, poking your head into whatever churches are open at the time (for us this was basically none). We ended up doing what pretty much everyone else was doing, sitting in the little central plaza eating ice cream all day. We had been looking forward to trying the local food and the first day had an amazing cheesy lasagna but on the second day (Sunday) the only place open that we found served us a rancid empadao, a local food a bit like a pot pie. But the town was cute and clean and relaxing which is more than can be said about most we've seen so far and we enjoyed it.






We left Goias on a direct bus to Brasilia. Buses in Brazil so far have been really really nice. I know they have a reputation for great sleeper buses but not only that they have been running on time, haven't been too busy and have been quiet. No loud movies and music accompanying crazy driving. They also generally have wifi and toilets on board. They are pricey because of the distances involved but overall are quite good value for such things. These days though more and more people are flying as the domestic flights are similarly priced or even cheaper than the long-haul routes. The countryside out here is mostly green rolling hills of mixed grassland and clumps of trees. Still lots of cattle ranches and agriculture.
5 and a half hours later we were met at the station by our couchsurfing host Diego and another wicked thunderstorm downpour. Prior to arrival in Brasilia the following conversation occurred:

Sasha - "Diego just messaged us to say that we need to wear pants and shoes for the sightseeing today."
Ammon - "I guess I'll change to my clean pants, make a good impression." (If you know me, you know how dirty they were.)

On arrival:

Diego - "Hi guys, we are going to visit the National Congress. We don't have time to go back to my house and I forgot to wear pants even though I sent you that message. Do you have any I can borrow?"
Ammon - "?!?!"
Sasha - "Ngghhpfffttsstt" (The sound one makes when trying not to drop dead laughing as you realize that the only pair of pants to lend are Ammon's dirty ones he was specifically trying to avoid wearing.)
Ammon - "Sure, no problem" (with knowing glance at Sasha, willing her to not lose her crap)
Diego - "Thanks"

He then proceeded to put on filthy pants about 1 foot too long for him so we could do the guided tour of the government building. We were laughing the whole time like little schoolkids because the tour was in Portuguese and we couldn't stay focused.  It was interesting as we got to see the senate and congress rooms (the first I've ever actually been in), though empty, as they had the day off from the elections the previous day.

National Congress

In the senate

Brasilia was purpose-built in the 1950's to become the new capital of Brazil. It was built on a grand scale in a pre-planned manner using the latest architectural styles and utopian ideas of the day.  This original part of the city is quite spread out and well organized with a superblock housing concept for residents with big open spaces between apartment blocks with dedicated commercial streets. There were also separate hotel, transportation, banking and entertainment sectors and an artificial lake. It all feels a little disturbingly communistic now in style and things are a lot more run down that originally planned, but Brasilia is still in better shape than most cities in the country. It is not easy to get around and we were lucky to have someone driving us. Distances are far and transport confusing enough that I doubt I would've enjoyed it much on my own. The layout of the original city has been described as that of an airplane, with a central "fuselage" of museums, monuments, giant plazas and government buildings and the housing in the wings. You wouldn't know this from the ground other than noticing the wide, open monument corridor.

The central corridor

National museum




Over the course of that afternoon and the following day we would spend most of our time in and around this corridor with Diego and his sister Bruna. Diego actually dumped us on his family and went back to Goiania to resume his studies so Bruna picked up the slack and we had an amazing day together. We haven't laughed that hard in a long time, and learned a lot about Brazilian culture too. Most of the museums were closed when we tried but we were able to visit a few cathedrals. Cathedrals built by atheists are strange but amusing architecturally.

The Metropolitan cathedral

Inside the Metropolitan cathedral
Inside the Dom Bosco church

A tiny church

Not that we loved Brasilia but we were having such a good time we were sad to be leaving after only 2 nights but we had a plane to catch...
Ammon

Thursday, November 01, 2018

The Pantanal

With nearly a year to travel around you might wonder why we are acting all rushed and taking weird border crossings. The reason was the Pantanal, the world's largest wetland, located in the tri-border area of Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay. The Pantanal is generally considered to be the best wildlife "safari" destination in South America and one of the only reliable places to see a jaguar in the wild. The dry season is from June to October and we were worried about the coming rains reducing our accessibility into the area and likelihood of seeing anything great.
Brazil is the only country really set up for any tours into the Pantanal and while they run from both the north and south, the north is generally considered to be of better quality. So it was the San Matias border crossing for us to get to Cuiaba where we would start a 4 day/3 night trip into the northern Pantanal with Ecoverde Tours.
The Pantanal is expensive to do, any way you want to slice it. For the better quality of the north, you will pay. A lot. I contacted a few of the well known companies in advance of our arrival and was quoted along the lines of $1400-2000 US per person for the 4 day tour (all-inclusive as they all are). There were cheaper offers but without going all the way to Porto Jofre to see the jaguars specifically. Understatement alert! To me this mostly borders on the lines of insane...
People will pay, but not that many, which is part of the attraction; there aren't huge crowds ruining the atmosphere and scaring off the animals. Most of the foreign visitors are in the Amazon instead. It is possible to visit the Pantanal independently, with a rented vehicle and making lodging and activity arrangements on your own but this was never a realistic option for us. The Transpantaneira road also has a reputation for being a rough dirt road to navigate.  More on that later. We were to learn later that there are more Brazilian visitors to the area than foreign ones but they come for the fishing and fortunately we accidentally timed ourselves to be there a week after the fishing season ended and in that beautiful shoulder season lull of not quite the rainy season, but well past the prime tourist time.
We didn't do it the cheapest way, but we definitely didn't pay the aforementioned prices either. We eventually got a response from Joel at Ecoverde Tours and it was half the best offer of everyone else for the same trip. Scam? No, he's been around longer than most and has a great reputation. So how? I don't know. Probably because he's a bit of a nut and doesn't care about being that greedy. It was still a lot of money, we hemmed and hawed and eventually pulled the trigger and are glad we did. Joel's email just said to show up at his guesthouse and something would get set up as the tours run constantly. So we did. His guesthouse (pousada in Portuguese) is the family home with a couple extra rooms. Super laid back, very friendly. He would chat and invite you out for drinks and buy or make you breakfast in the morning, gave us taxi money when we finally left and didn't bother to charge us to stay both before and after the tour. That definitely sweetened the pot. His son also helped us set up our phone with a local sim card. 10 Reais for a sim card and 10 Reais/week for 1G of data. $3 a week? Um, yes. Once again reminded how disappointing telecom prices in Canada are....
Most tourists to the northern Pantanal these days fly into Cuiaba and start their pre-booked tour on arrival. Joel told us when we arrived that the following day he had a couple flying in and the tour would start the next day. We were halfway to the airport to pick them up the following morning when Joel told us that the other couple postponed and we'd be getting a private tour instead. Sweet! We met a driver who took us 100km to Pocone where the Transpantaneira road starts. After a quick stop to buy water and snacks (things get expensive in the middle of nowhere) we hit the dirt road. It is 140km to the end of the road at Porto Jofre from Pocone. This being a wetland, the road is elevated like a dike and there are well over 100 short one-lane bridges also. The bridges are mostly old and wooden, some looked ready to fall down, and some apparently had because there were crews working on a few and some detour roads going down and around others. Our first day we were driven only about 40km down the road to our first estancia. Despite being a major wildlife area, most of the Pantanal is privately owned and what development exists is primarily cattle ranches. The land is too wet and seasonally extreme for more advanced cultivation. To supplement their income, many of the ranches are dabbling in the ecotourism market and provide the food, lodging and various activities for visitors. It's a win for everyone and probably explains why prices are so high and quality varies so much.
Our first ranch was a couple of km of the main road, surrounded by shrubby fields with dozens of cattle wandering around. They had common eating, hammock, and games areas and a swimming pool. They had a few dozen rooms, but only 2 other guests, a young German pair that were on our tour in reverse. Business must not be that good or the effort not there because maintenance was lacking in many areas with many little broken things like knobs and windows and the ping pong table. We appreciated the tree frogs hanging out in our bathroom though.
We met our actual guide Carlos, had lunch (typical ranch buffet style and yummy) and then the 5 of us went on a horseback trail ride around the property for about 1.5 hrs to see what we could. We saw many different kinds of birds, fox, cattle of course, jaguar footprints and many termite mounds. I can't believe it but I think it was the first time I've been on a horse since Kyrgyzstan, 13 years ago.  My butt after felt like it might take another 13 before I try again... After dark we did a little "night safari" driving to the main road and back with a spotlight with our guide showing us why were advised not to go wandering around too far (as if the jaguar footprints earlier weren't enough). We saw a few marsh deer, but mostly it was lots and lots of caimans. We had seen a bunch on our drive in but in the dark it felt like even the smallest of puddles had at least a baby caiman lying in wait to bite your toes...

It begins

A little down time for writing in the journal



The next morning we went for a guided nature walk before breakfast. We saw a coatimundi and a river otter, but mostly fed the mosquitoes.  Between breakfast and lunch we paddled along a small river to get a closer look at the birds and were lucky to see a few marmosets as well. In this part of the Pantanal we were mostly seeing water birds including herons, ibis, kingfishers, hawks and the huge jabiru stork, the symbol of the Pantanal. The jabiru is the tallest flying bird in south america standing up to 5ft tall and has the 2nd largest wingspan on the continent after the Andean condor (which we hope to see later). Speaking of large birds there were tons of rhea running around as well. As cousins of the emu and ostrich they are the largest birds in the Americas.

Jabiru stork and nest

Rheas

After lunch we split from the Germans and continued our private tour by open safari truck (benches on the back of a pickup) the rest of the way down the Transpantaneira to Porto Jofre. It took another 3 hours or so of bumping down the dirt road but the views were amazing. We enjoyed seeing all the different birds and nests along the way, lots of marsh deer and tons of capybaras, the largest rodent in the world. The road itself was much better than I expected, wide, flat and with little washboarding. As mentioned above there are lots of bridges but most were in pretty good shape. I don't think it would have been all that hard to drive on your own if you were that type of person. 

One of over 100 bridges

Jabiru stork in flight
Capybara

Porto Jofre is a slightly more condensed cluster of simple lodges on the banks of a much larger river but there were only 3 others staying where we were so we could hardly call it crowded. Power is by generator so has limited hours. This deep in we started to get more exotic birds like the hyacinth macaw, toucans and parrots which could be found in the trees outside our room. There are cheaper, non-Jaguar tours of the Pantanal and those from the south rarely see them. Having been, I now realize how foolish that would be to do. Unless you are crazy about birds, it is overpriced. Lets face it, they say there are giant anteaters, anaconda and tapirs and all sorts of other cool animals living there but the odds of seeing them are slim to none on a regular tour. But for the jaguars, at the right time of year, it is incredible.

Hyacinth macaws

Parakeet colony nest
Arrival in Porto Jofre, our truck on the right.

A full day is invested in viewing the jaguar. After breakfast you jump in a little motorboat and zoom up river and into the smaller tributaries to where the jaguars are known to live and hunt along the shore quite regularly. Like with whale watching or any number of other similar activities, as soon as a guide spots a jaguar, they send the word out and all the boats come running. Sounds like a bit of a mess but the numbers there are still quite small (we saw up to 12 boats at one time) and it is surprisingly organized and civilized with the boats respecting each other's sight lines quite well. They try to keep a sensible distance from the jaguars too but with the narrow width of some of the channels we got surprisingly close, much closer than I expected.  The animals are fearless and completely ignore you as they groom, hunt, swim, etc. The result is that the odds of seeing one are very good though you always hope to be one of the first boats on the scene and that the jaguar is going to be active. With a boat to ourselves and 5 hours in the morning and 3 in the afternoon split by a return for lunch, we were able to see 3 different jaguars on 5 different occasions. We were really disappointed to have to leave the next day because we wanted so much more. Even getting drenched in an hour or so of rain wasn't enough to put us off wanting more.

Let's go!

Searching, searching everywhere.

"Wow" - Sasha

So close


Here come the others...


The look of satisfaction

Of the 3 other visitors at our lodge, one was an American professor writing a book on jaguars while on sabbatical. He was there for a week. The other 2 were Belgian guys who had been there for a month to get as much footage as possible. We felt like imposters and totally out of place among the other boats. We must've been the only group without thousands of dollars worth of camera equipment and super zoom lenses trying to take that National Geographic shot. We also saw caimans everywhere, including as a jaguar lunch, numerous capybaras lazing about (which seems like a bad idea to me), some wild buffalo and the cutest trio of river otters playing in the shallows. Cruising around in the boat you could see the high water line several feet above and in places well over the banks of the "rivers" we were in. The land floods tremendously in the wet season and I can't imagine enjoying or even being able to do many of the activities in constant rain, mud or floods. The mosquitoes weren't too bad yet but.... just don't. Most of the people there run away for the season too so we were happy to get in before it all but shut down.
The last day was the long drive back to Cuiaba where we were met with a strong thunderstorm and flooding in the streets from the heavy rains. Amazing how quickly it can all dry off though. The temperature has been consistently in the low 30's and not much cooler at night.
Ammon