BRAZIL. This is where I took my first big overseas trip and got baptized as a traveler. One of the world’s most captivating places, Brazil is South America’s giant, a dazzling country of powdery white-sand beaches, pristine rainforests and wild, rhythm-filled metropolises. Brazil’s attractions extend from enchanting, frozen-in-time colonial towns to dramatic landscapes of red-rock canyons, thundering waterfalls and idyllic tropical islands. Add to that Brazil’s biodiversity. Its diverse ecosystems boast the greatest collection of plant and animal species found anywhere on earth. There’s horseback riding in the Pantanal, kayaking flooded forests in the Amazon basin, ascending rocky cliff tops to breathtaking views, whale-watching off the coast, surfing stellar breaks off palm-fringed beaches and snorkeling crystal-clear rivers. All the above and much more completed my great Brazilian experience.
Everything started in Rio. At once both a cinematic cityscape and a grimy urban front line, Rio de Janeiro, known as the cidade maravilhosa (marvelous city), is exhilarating. Flanked by gorgeous mountains, white-sand beaches and verdant rainforests fronting deep blue sea, Rio occupies one of the most spectacular settings of any metropolis in the world. Tack on one of the sexiest populations on the planet and you have an intoxicating tropical cocktail that leaves visitors punch-drunk on paradise.
With the seductive sounds of samba, Rio’s residents, known as cariocas, have perfected the art of living well. From the world-famous beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema to the tops of scenic outlooks of Corcovado and Pão de Açúcar to the dance halls, bars and open-air cafes that proliferate the city, cariocas live for the moment without a care in the world. This idea of paradise has enchanted visitors for centuries and there are dozens of ways to be seduced. While Rio has its share of serious problems, there are plenty of residents – expats included – who wouldn’t dream of relocating. It’s no coincidence that Christ himself sits arms outstretched across the city. A visit to this vain city is an unforgettable memory.
Arriving in Rio from Europe was quite a shock for Dimitris and me. We found a small hostel right in the middle of Copacabana and we spent ten days of seducing crazy parties and lots of small problems that Rio had in store for us, starting with an almost robbery at the ATM machine and Dimitris’s adventure with some Brazilian girls. Every single day we spent in this city had something unforgettable. Sometimes we put ourselves in danger but that’s still worth remembering. I can say that we matured in Rio after ten days and we were ready to move on.
Every traveler has fantasized about a trip to the Amazon. Just the name evokes images of dense rainforest, indigenous tribes and abundant wildlife. The numbers are certainly mind-boggling: the Amazon basin is twice the size of India and spans across eight countries. At its height, the river can measure 40km across and dump 300 million liters of fresh water into the ocean per second. That’s more than the next eight largest rivers combined. It’s number one destination for every adventurer around the globe.
Yet many travelers leave the Amazon underwhelmed, having come expecting a Discovery Channel–like encounter with jaguars, anacondas and spear-toting Indians. That simply doesn’t happen – surprise, surprise – much less on the schedule or budget of most travelers. Arriving in Manaus, the main city inland, you immediately realize that this is reality and what you hear back home is just stories. Poverty and criminality are the first things you come face to face with. Since we were on vacation we didn’t stay long. Our target was the jungle and that’s where we headed. Canoeing through a flooded forest, dozing in a hammock on a boat, waking up in the jungle to the call of a thousand birds or the otherworldly cry of howler monkeys, that’s what we had in mind.
It’s only in the unreasonable expectations (or too short a visit) that a trip to the Amazon will feel disappointing. The river itself is massive and unrelenting, as much a living thing as the plants and animals that depend on it. Wildlife is hard to see, but that much more special when you do; the rainforest is everywhere and awesome. Indigenous tribes are extremely reclusive, but the Caboclo (mixed Indian and European) communities that populate the riverbanks are vital and compelling. After a ride with one of the legendary Amazon hammock boats, we reached Alter di Sao, a small village on the riverbanks that was actually what we had in mind about the Amazon. We came up close with the Caboclos, especially with Jorge. He was an educated Caboclo Indian that, after a wild life in the cities of Brazil, stayed there for some quality life. I wish you all the best, Jorgito. After a short stay we jumped on the next boat that was heading to Belem. After four days of an odyssey, that I will always remember, we reached Belem. On a river whose size is legendary, it’s actually the little things that make it special. Give it some time, forget your expectations and the Amazon cannot fail to impress you.
We spent two weeks in the Amazon basin before we headed out to Brazil’s Northeastern coast. Year-round warmth, physical beauty and sensual culture rich in folkloric traditions make Northeastern Brazil a true tropical paradise. More than 2000km of coastline is studded with idyllic white-sand beaches, pockets of lush rainforest, sand dunes and coral reefs.
The Portuguese settled these lands first, so they breathe history. The colonial centers of Salvador, Olinda and Sao Luis, are packed with beautifully restored architecture.
This is arguably Brazil’s most fascinating and culturally rich region. Lively festivals, music and dance styles, as well as exotic cuisine loaded with seafood, draw crowds. Magical beach villages with beautiful scenery and hip party scenes add to the delight coast of Northeastern Brazil.
Life is simple and slow-paced in the agricultural interior and coastal fishing villages. People here face massive social problems, including poverty caused by underemployment and a decaying education system, housing shortages and an absence of sanitation, which causes high infant mortality rates. Inland people often live in extreme poverty, especially in the more northerly states. Though many leave the region seeking better opportunities, Northeasterners are extremely proud of their land’s beautiful human and physical geography.
One of the great examples of a Brazilian mega city is Fortaleza, a surprisingly large and sprawling place. With 3.3 million people in its metropolitan area, it’s one of Brazil’s biggest cities and an economic magnet for people from all of Ceará and beyond. It’s also a magnet for tourists from Brazil and overseas, who come for the beaches and the party atmosphere.
That’s the place we picked to spend Christmas. Some of the city beaches are reasonably attractive and the nightlife is definitely a lot of fun. After a quick party in the city it was time for us to head to Jericoacoara, more simply known as “Jeri”. It’s a village that magnetizes travelers with its perfect combination of isolated location, stunning coastal scenery, enjoyable activities, good-value pousadas and restaurants, and nightlife. The village’s six sandy streets are wedged between a broad beach, a series of grassy hills and the majestic Pôr do Sol (Sunset) dune. It’s an easy place to make new friends and many people end up staying longer than they had planned. For a place that five years ago had no electricity, Jeri has made it for good into the tourist trail. I hope that it stays as we found it back in 2001.
The trip brought us through a couple of places worth mentioning, like Natal and Recife, before we ended up in Salvador da Bahia. It’s a city that has an energy and unadorned beauty that only few cities can match. Often called simply Bahia by locals, Salvador is the country’s Afro-Brazilian jewel and the once magnificent capital of the New World’s colony. Its brilliant center is a living museum of 17th- and 18th-century architecture and gold-laden churches. More importantly, Salvador is the nexus of an incredible arts movement. Wild festivals happen frequently, with drum corps pounding out powerful rhythms against the backdrop of colonial buildings almost daily. At night, capoeira circles form on plazas and open spaces, while the scent of acarajé (bean and shrimp fritters) and other African delights fills the evening air. Elsewhere in town, a different spirit flows through the crowd, as religious followers celebrate and reconnect with African gods at mystical Candomblé ceremonies. In fact, there’s no other place in the world where descendants of African slaves have preserved their heritage as well as in Salvador – from music and religion to food, dance and martial arts traditions.
Aside from the many attractions within Salvador, a gorgeous coastline lies right outside the city. It’s a suitable introduction to the tropical splendor of Bahia, for us the top province of the entire Northeast. Except for the beach seen around Salvador and the culture that fills up the streets of the capital, you have the interior where gold was discovered in old times. The whole area is called Chapata Diamantina. The main village and our base of exploration was Lençóis.
Lençóis is the prettiest of the old diamond-mining towns in the mountainous wooded oasis in the dusty sertão. While the town itself has charming cobbled streets and brightly painted 19th-century buildings, which are framed against lush green hills, the surrounding areas are the real attraction. Caves, waterfalls, idyllic rivers and panoramic plateaus set the stage for some fantastic adventures, with the town of Lençóis serving as a base for treks into the surrounding Parque Nacional da Chapada Diamantina. Here we met Marko, a native boy that had never travelled outside the area but knew the forest like the palm of his hand. He’s a great guide who I ended up being friends with and who I definitely recommend. Just ask around Lençóis. If you want to see a flip side to surf-and-sand or if you have time for only one excursion into the northeastern interior, this is it.
A trip to Brazil is not completed if you don’t taste the “Carnaval”, Brazilians’ main reason to party from a week in Rio to a whole month in Bahia. Brazil’s most famous celebration storms though the country’s cities and towns with hip-shaking samba and carefree joie de vivre, but Brazilians hardly regulate their passion for revelry to a few weeks of the year. Although we chose to celebrate the “Carnaval” in Puerto Seguro, away from the fancy Rio, Dimitris and I still consider the Brazilian Carnival a lifetime experience.
For Brazilians, except for the “Carnaval”, wherever there’s music, that carefree lust for life tends to appear. It makes absolutely no difference whether it’s dancing with cariocas at Rio’s atmospheric samba clubs or following powerful drumbeats through the streets of Bahia. There’s the dancehall forró of the Northeast, the twirling carimbó of the Amazon, an endless variety of regional sounds that extends from the back-country sertanejo to reggae-loving Maranhão. With so much going for them, it’s no wonder that Brazilians say “Deus e Brasileiro” (God is Brazilian). How else to explain the treasure chest of natural and cultural riches sprinkled all across the country?