Monday, December 31, 2018

Iguazu Falls

Consistently ranked as the #1 waterfall in the world, it would be an understatement to say I was excited to finally get to Iguazu Falls. It isn't the tallest or strongest falls, but it is the largest in terms of width and arguably the most beautiful for its setting. I've been to most of the most famous waterfalls in the world now and I'd have to agree that it would be hard to argue against it being the best. Victoria Falls in Africa is the only truly comparable site in my mind. Niagara falls is the most referred to in comparison as it is the only waterfall with a higher average flow rate (though is much shorter). I really need to visit Niagara again as I was too young at the time to make a proper comparison now...
Like the aforementioned Victoria and Niagara falls, Iguazu is on the border of 2 countries, in this case Brazil and Argentina, and both have their own touristic approaches to the falls. We stayed 2 nights in the larger Brazilian city of Foz do Iguacu, and 2 nights in the much more touristic Puerto Iguazu on the Argentine side. The general consensus is that the Argentine side is much better with respect to the falls and the tourist infrastructure. True on both accounts.
Our reason for staying on the Brazil side was 3 fold: we were already in Brazil so it made sense to see the Brazil side first, we wanted to visit the Itaipu Dam, and to get a Paraguayan visa. After rolling off the 19 hour bus from Sao Paulo, we checked into a little airbnb and to the accompaniment of many a groans, we immediately made the short trip over to the Itaipu Dam. Confusingly, the Itaipu Dam is a joint project between Paraguay and Brazil who also have a border in the same area. Completed in the 1980's, the Itaipu Dam was the largest in the world until the completion of the Three Gorges Dam in China. There are multiple visiting options including inside the dam but we opted for the basic panoramic tour which took us over and around the dam by bus and stopped at a couple viewpoints along the way.

There are 20 generators, one for each white tube. 

Itaipu's spillway

The electricity created is split 50-50, with Paraguay selling most of its share back to Brazil (only a fraction of the dam's power can power almost the entire country). The statistics are pretty amazing and worth looking up. The dam is over 7 km long and controversially the creation of the reservoir necessitated the destruction of what was the world's largest waterfall by flow, the now forgotten Guaira Falls. The tour was quick but we were still impressed.
The Brazilian side of the Iguazu Falls provides the best overall view, since most of the water is falling from the other side of the river. Iguazu is a huge collection of falls because the Iguazu river spreads out and curves before making its plunge and although there is a dominant fall, the Devil's Throat, the whole site is a collection of over 200 individual falls spread out over nearly 3km.  At times of flood nearly all of these individual falls can become one. The panoramic view from Brazil is excellent and probably best visited first because realistically it is a shorter visit, there are fewer viewpoints and trails to enjoy and would probably disappoint if coming right after a visit to the Argentine side. There was just one main trail and although you can never truly see the entire length of falls at a single time (without taking one of the frequent helicopter trips) this is the best chance. Unfortunately due to the massive number of tourists, both international and domestic the trails can get pretty bottled up, especially around the viewpoints with everyone taking extra long for the perfect selfie.We were still impressed and loved the Brazilian side. We just didn't realize how much more we'd like our second visit.

Looking into the Devil's Throat

There is another excellent attraction right at the entrance to the falls in Brazil as well. Parque das Aves, is a bird park/sanctuary with over 150 species of birds and a few other species (reptiles, butterflies, etc) in an excellent natural layout. It was similar to the great Belize Zoo and we enjoyed this just as much. There is a well laid out path around the park and several large walk-in enclosures to enjoy, including one with the largest collection of macaws in the world. Wow they are noisy!

The Argentine side took several hours to visit and allows you to get up much closer to the falls, both above and below by means of lower and upper trail loops. There is also a third trail taking you to the top of the Devil's Throat where you will get wet from the spray. We were quite ready for that with the temperature in the high 30s each day. The walkways were much nicer, often elevated over the river with many more viewpoints and as a result, even with more visitors, felt much less crowded and allowed for a more relaxed experience. The land surrounding the falls on either side is national park and offers other activities such as guided nature walks, but just by being observant while walking the trails we saw numerous lizards, fish, a turtle, monkeys, tons of birds and numerous coatis (one of which attacked Sasha trying to get at her cookies).

Baby coatis!

In all we loved it and can understand why it is one of the top tourist destinations in South America. Given the chance, even if you don't like waterfalls that much, it is worth the effort.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Rio to Sao Paulo

From Paraty it was time to finally brave Rio. Not going to lie, Rio is intimidating and has a terrible reputation these days. Crime is a constant concern and the general consensus is that it is still getting worse. It is particularly disturbing when you start meeting Brazilians around the country that say they don't particularly like it or are too afraid to go. But it is still the most famous and beautiful city in the country and there still seems to be more tourists in Rio than elsewhere in Brazil. In the end I'd have to say the setting and landscape are truly spectacular and best viewed from a distance. At street level, it is not very pleasant, poorly maintained and with a lot of sketchy characters. In all honesty we don't have a lot of photos from this next stretch as we were rarely walking around with a camera to take any, preferring to minimize our risk exposure.
Our strategy was to get in and out in a day and a half and to minimize our time on the street. Shortly after our arrival and check-in in the afternoon, we went up Sugarloaf mountain. There are actually two aerial viewpoints in Rio, Sugarloaf (on the coast) and at the base of the Jesus statue. You need to prebook your trip to see Jesus but for Sugarloaf you just have to wait in line for the cable car up the mountain. The view is stunning. Had I really understood how much I'd like it I would've come the next day, packed a lunch and stayed longer. From the top you can see the full layout of the city, it's multitude of bays and beaches and how it is all built in and around the coastal mountains which naturally divide the city into defined neighbourhoods.

Urca and Jesus on the mountain top.

Copacabana beach
Flamengo beach, the centre and Santos Dumont airport


We stayed in the Copacabana area so the following day we walked down to the beach to see what was going on. Not much in all honesty, though it is huge and there were still quite a few people down there. I know it is famous for hosting the biggest beach party in the world and it is impressive as an urban beach, but having come down the coast of Brazil we can honestly say it was nothing special in and of itself.

Copacabana on a tame day.

We also braved a quick visit to the city centre to see the ridiculously ornate monastery of Sao Bento. You'd never know it was hiding in the middle of a bunch of high-rises. It is on top of a little hill and to get there you have to enter a random building on a nondescript street and take an elevator to the top. Never done that before. It was just a quick stop to see the chapel and all it's gilded artwork. We also briefly stopped at the newly discovered and Unesco-listed Valongo wharf. It is currently just a small set of ruins sunk into a random half of a city block but it is all that remains of the site where nearly 1 million slaves entered Brazil during its 20-years in operation from 1811 to 1831, most destined for the mines in Minas Gerais, making it the busiest African slave trafficking site in the western hemisphere. Despite its historical significance, the wharf was later modified for a royal visit and then buried in land reclamation projects. It was only rediscovered in 2011 during renovations for the Olympics. While it remains to be seen what they'll do to preserve and present the site in future, for now it is open and exposed to the public and we took a few moments to pay our respects.

Inside Sao Bento Monastery

Remains of Valongo Wharf

Heading out of Rio. This building just says so much, especially the rent sign on top.

From Rio we took a bus a couple hours west to Resende to spend the weekend with one of grandma's former students, Vinicius and his wife Ana. They were an extremely hospitable couple that were still adjusting to their new town, having just moved there for work. It was strange to think we'd been in Brazil longer than they had been in their apartment. Resende doesn't have much going for it from an international tourism perspective so the focus shifted to eating well, visiting and their beautiful Golden Retriever, Polly. Reaching Resende it started to become obvious how much more money and economic development there is in southern Brazil. Things looked more modern, cleaner and with better roads. We also went for a brief hike in the nearby Itatiaia National Park.


Vinicius and great food :)
Christmas themed village near Resende
Itatiaia NP

Our next stop was another brief one, back on the coast at Ubatuba. While Ubatuba is a touristy beach town known for its surf beaches nearby, we wouldn't have normally gone there except for the connection with Sasha's mom, Claire. She had spent some time there a few years ago and it was kind of cool to take her back in a way, via video chat while walking along the waterfront. The weather wasn't totally cooperative and we had a few showers, unsurprising as Ubatuba is often locally referred to as Ubachuva (chuva meaning rain). The waterfront is nice though the beach in town is nothing special. We didn't have the time or transportation to venture further out of town but what we saw from the bus looked nice. The water is definitely colder though. Instead, we visited the local TAMAR turtle sanctuary. It is an organization dedicated to the protection and rehabilitation of sea turtles nationally and they have multiple sites all along the coast, some of which are open as tourist sites so visitors can learn about and see a few turtles. I think all of the sites are geared more towards kids and we left feeling kind of depressed. There are some nice turtles there but the tanks holding them were way to small and they looked stressed. They have a good cause so I hope the rest of their operations are better run.

Ubatuba beach

Ubatuba has a nice waterfront park

TAMAR turtles

And finally Sao Paulo. Although there are multiple definitions of "city", by any of those definitions Sao Paulo still ranks as one of the most populous in the world. It is the economic and cultural heart and soul of Brazil and for the first time, we felt like we were in a modern, international city, albeit a very crowded one. We stayed at a hostel in the trendy Pinheiros neighbourhood. If there is such a thing as a Brazilian hipster culture you might find it there. It is also a land of little shops and restaurants; the big brand names lay low. Not that that is why we were there (heaven forbid) but we were still looking for somewhere safe and accessible. We were only in Sao Paulo for only 2 nights with 2 specific goals, meet Marcus and pick up Bre.
Marcus is a Canadian friend I first met when we were both living in the same hostel in Brisbane. I met him again later in Holland but that was 5 years ago and it was time for another encounter. He has been living in Sao Paulo for the last 2 years so got to play tour guide. With him leading us we were brave enough to venture into the centre, visit the Se Cathedral and wander around a bit. There is a heavy police presence in the area and a lot of homeless people but the area is not without its architectural charms. This was the original banking centre of Brazil with the fortress-style banking skyscrapers dominating the landscape. The bank headquarters have since moved further out of the city to more modern pastures as the city rapidly grew in only the last few decades. Marcus and his girlfriend also took us out to a traditional Brazilian dinner to start Bre's trip off right.

Se cathedral

Sao Paulo centre

Pedestrianized centre, Sao Paulo
City snacks with Marcus

We'd have liked to stay longer but with Bre's arrival we were now on an even quicker schedule to get stuff done and had to leave the next day on a bus for the 19 hour ride to Foz do Iguacu.

Monday, December 03, 2018

Minas Gerais

Heading inland we entered the state of Minas Gerais. In my initial planning for Brazil this state interested me the most as it has a rich colonial history as the mining center producing the gold and diamonds that funded the Portuguese empire. Due to their inconvenient and remote mountain locations, the beautiful colonial centers of wealth and prosperity of the 1700's were later surpassed in size and glory by later new comers (like Rio) and in some cases remain preserved in their own little historic time bubble. By the mid 1800's most of the mines were done and life moved on. In the end we were not able to see all that I had my eye on, but what we saw did not disappoint.
Our first stop was in Diamantina, the most remote and northern of the mining towns. It was the start (or end) of the old Estrada Real or royal road that was used to bring the gold down to the coast (originally at Paraty and later Rio) for shipment back to Europe. As its name suggests it also had many diamonds. It's a small town with a great little historic core with colonial plazas, mansions and more ornate churches than necessary. For the first time in Brazil it felt like we had found a place that was consciously making an effort to be tourist friendly and enjoyable to visit. It was restored and clean and actually had good signage. Honestly it reminded us of a typical small unesco-listed town in Europe. We only had half a day to visit but that was enough time to wander from church to church on the hilly cobblestone streets.


After Diamantina we went to Belo Horizonte, current capital of Minas Gerais and one of the largest cities in Brazil. As such, it has the standard big city traffic, skyscrapers, sprawl, slums and smells, but we couchsurfed with an awesome couple who were a lot of fun. We stayed with them for 4 nights and spent 2 days doing activities together. One day we made a field trip to Inhotim, a botanical garden/contemporary art museum spread out over 5000 acres. It's an up-and-coming thing as it has only been around for about 10 years and is still adding to its collection of larger-than-life artworks. There are a handful of galleries scattered about the grounds and beautiful paths connecting them. Even in the rain it was a nice stroll, periodically interrupted by our laughter at trying to figure out the next thing we were looking at. I won't lie and say I liked it. I think this kind of art is terrible and the more I see the less I think governments should fund it, but we were all of a similar mind and made the most of the day not taking it too seriously. The gardens and setting were beautiful and the park boasts over 1000 different types of palm trees. We lost count quickly...

An Inhotim gallery

Outdoor art?

The next day we visited spots around town but unfortunately both Pampulha, the Niemeyer-created neighbourhood (you may recall he was the guy who later designed Brasilia), and the central Plaza da Liberdade downtown were both undergoing restoration work and large sections (the most interesting bits) were closed off to visitors. We finished the day at the stadium cheering on the local football team, Cruzeiro. Brazilian football fans are crazy as everyone knows, but it was relatively subdued as we quickly fell behind and lost 0-2. We had a good time though and were pretty much front row in the middle as well.

With our awesome hosts Luciana and Ricardo

Go Cruizeiro!

From Belo Horizonte, Sasha and I also made our own little field trip to Congonhas about 1.5 hours away. As far the old mining towns go, Congonhas is not the one you'd take home to meet your mom. Most of it is modern and dull, but surrounds a beautiful church, the Sanctuary of Bom Jesus de Matosinhos, famous for its sculptures of 12 prophets outside. Now this is art. I'm not normally a huge enthusiast of religious art but these life-like characters have impressive detail and a beautiful arrangement around the front staircase to the church. Even more impressive is that they are supposed to have been carved by Aleijandinho, one of Brazil's most famous artists, who at the time was a 70 year old leper working with his tools strapped to the stumps of his arms as he had lost both hands and feet. The approach to the church is an uphill slope with 6 small chapels alongside and the staircase with prophets towering above. It is a great effect.

The approach to the church in Congonhas

Great detail

Our last stop in Minas Gerais was at Ouro Preto. Though there are so many other places nearby to visit as well, this is the one "can't miss" spot. It was the former state capital and the hub of all the mining activity. At one point in the 1700's Ouro Preto was the largest city in Brazil and one of the largest in the western hemisphere. During it's heyday some of the wealth was used to build ornate churches (this was Aleijandinho's hometown and he worked on a few) and colonial mansions which remain today. The mountain setting is beautiful, giving some great views and vantage points for photos, but it also means some very steep cobblestone streets to walk up. There may have been some groaning involved... These people must be in great shape, or nearly dead. This was even more of a misplaced European town, pleasant because despite being a major tourist attraction was not as busy as I expected. It was how I had imagined more of the historical colonial areas would look such as those in Olinda and Salvador.
The unfortunate or dark side to the beauty of these mining towns is that it was all built on the backs of slaves. Like the sugarcane industry in the northeast of Brazil before it, mining was a major driver of what was to become the biggest African slave destination in history with over 4 million slaves brought to Brazil by the end. Nearly half of all African slaves crossing the Atlantic ended up in Brazil, most of those originating from what is now Angola. Brazil was also the last country in the western hemisphere to abolish slavery. Today, Brazil has the second largest population of African-descended people in the world, including all African nations! As in the USA, the economic, social and political effects and issues of this past are very prominent and complicated to this day.

Ouro Preto

Aleijandinho designed church of Sao Francisco de Assisi

Plaza Tiradentes

Attempted artistic shot

It would have been nice to spend more time but we had a beautiful day and spent it making a big lap of town. On Mondays, when we visited, most of the museums and churches are closed so we didn't get to see all the detail on offer. If and when I return to Brazil I'd definitely like to return and explore more of Minas Gerais.
We left Ouro Preto on an overnight bus and made our way to Paraty. No longer in Minas Gerais, Paraty was the terminus of the Estrada Real for the gold on its long way back to Portugal. Steep, heavily vegetated mountains prevented easy access inland so it was a long time before a faster overland route directly to Rio was established, effectively ending Paraty's importance.  It was never a huge place but there is still a small neighbourhood of well-preserved colonial buildings (mostly single story, unlike Ouro Preto). As a colonial site it can't compare to the beauty and grandeur of Ouro Preto or even Diamantina but it is arguably more well known and visited because of its location on the coast between Sao Paulo and Rio. We still found it to be quiet, but for the first time in Brazil we had other foreign tourists on the same bus as us. 5 weeks in and now we've hit the gringo trail here. We spent a pleasant day wandering the streets and taking it easy, but didn't have time to explore the coast further.

Paraty old town.