Brazil – Gold fever, church fever

After the craziness of Carnival in Rio, I escaped for a few days to a more relaxed setting: Ouro Preto (“black gold”) and Mariana, in the state of Minas Gerais, which are two of the best-preserved colonial villages in Latin America.

Main square in Ouro Preto

Villa Rica de Ouro Preto is the quintessential gold fever boom town. In the 18th century, gold production in Minas Gerais reached memorable proportions, surpassing that of all the Spanish colonies in the two centuries before. Fortune-seekers rushed to Ouro Preto, alongside thousands of slaves to provide labour in the mines. While making a fortune from gold, the rich enjoyed luxurious and ostentatious living standards. The economic centre of Brazil shifted from the North (sugar barons) to the South, and so remains until today.

From the second half of the 18th century gold production in Ouro Preto declined, and fortune-seekers moved elsewhere. Today, Ouro Preto and Mariana are two small, laid-back towns, preserved as if frozen in time.

Bridge in Ouro Preto

The main tourist drag in Ouro Preto are the 23 churches spread along the village, also owing to the gold fever. It is quite impressive that in such a small village there are that many churches, and all of them are architecturally beautiful. There was certain competition between religious orders that made them strive to build more and better churches. Blacks weren’t allowed to attend mass with whites, so they built their own temple with what they could pilfer from the mines. The style is known as Barroco Mineiro, a variation of the European style whose most acclaimed representative is Aleijadinho, an Ouro Preto native.

Two of the churches in Mariana

Ouro Preto and Mariana are both small laid-back towns, good for wandering about and admire colonial architecture or try traditional food from Minas Gerais. After that, there’s not much else to do, and after a couple of days, I headed back to Rio.

Mariana

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Brazil – Samba…de Janeiro!!

After some days studying hard, there’s nothing better to unwind than a good party: Carnival in Rio. The first thing you should know is that it’s very expensive and you need to book months in advance. All the accommodation options are jam-packed, and they force you to book a “pacote” or Carnival package for a minimum of 5-7 nights at a price which is 4 times the usual rate. That’s before mentioning tickets to the Sambodromo or what you’re likely to spend in alcohol while partying non-stop for a week. Nevertheless, it makes an unforgettable experience, one of the best parties ever.

This van took me from Sao Paulo to Rio

My Carnival experience started with a fright. As soon as I finished the last exam on Friday morning, I went to the bus station and asked for a ticket for Rio. I should’ve bought it in advance, but with the exams I didn’t find the time. I was told that until Saturday night (arriving Sunday), all the buses were full. In such case, I’d lose two prepaid (and crazily expensive) hostel nights. Thank goodness I finally found some people who were making a killing out of this: they transported people in their vans for slightly more than the bus ticket. After a few hours in the van, another incident: an accident occurred in the highway, added to all the traffic jam to get into Rio the day the Carnival started. We spent several hours stopped in the middle of the highway, with everybody out of their cars.

Finally, I arrived at the hostel at 2:30 am. There was nobody in the dorm, but just a moment later, Diego (a Brazilian from upstate Rio) showed up. He asked me if I was going out that night and 10 minutes later we were in Lapa, the heart of Rio’s party on Fridays.  We saw the great party atmosphere, ordered a few caipirinhas and partied for the next 5 days.

Party atmosphere in Santa Teresa

The atmosphere in Rio is great. There are parties spread all over the city all day long, and at the same time people just living their normal lives. Walking down the street, you are equally likely to see a group of youngsters dressed as a butterfly and drinking beer or a woman walking her dog. There are dedicated areas where you can find music and drinking, like this one in Santa Teresa.

Banda de Ipanema

Every neighbourhood has its own activities, particularly blocos and bandas. In the blocos, people and music go down the street, or just stay at some fixed point in the neighbourhood. Some of them have thousands of followers and some others are small parties oriented towards families. The bandas have more musicians who play the trumpet and other instruments. The most popular is Banda de Ipanema, which parades along the beachfront.

Spontaneous street dancing

As Brazilians are very spontaneous, there was also improvised dancing in the street, with people coming and going.

Float of one of the Escolas de samba

But the most characteristic are the  escolas de samba. They prepare their floats and their performances months in advance.

The final in the Sambodromo (purpose-built stadium) is the high point. The parade sometimes goes on until 6 am, with the spectators standing and dancing for hours. I didn’t buy a ticket for the Sambodromo, because I’d already spent so much money, but went to the entrance to see the floats parading towards the Sambodromo. There were probably more people watching from outside than inside the stadium. However, from what I saw, being inside must be great. It is also popular among tourists to sign up with one of the escolas de samba and parade through the Sambodromo. If you do that, you need to buy the escola’s costume.

Guess who’s going to the Sambodromo

After 5 days in Rio, I travelled to Ouro Preto for a couple of days (see next post), but I was back in Rio on Saturday for the grand finale: the monobloco. Although it is no longer Carnival officially, the monobloco is in fact the end of the Carnival, next Sunday, before many Brazilians return to work on Monday. It starts at 8 am and keeps going all morning at Rio’s centre, attracting about half a million people.

It’s Carnival!

PS: no, I’m not gonna add pictures of me in Carnival costume, so don’t ask, LOL.

Brazil – Ilha do Amor

My second boat trip took me to Santarem. Some boats do the entire journey between Manaus and Belém, but it’s better to stop for some days in Santarem to break up this long journey.

Santarem is a medium-sized city. It has a couple of small museums, an airport and lots of trade. At night, I could notice a few Brazilian tourists having an ice cream while strolling along the waterfront. Their white skin doesn’t allow for confusion with locals. Santarem is also a good base to explore the jungle, in particular the Floresta Nacional de Tapajos.

Main square in Alter do Chao

What really attracts backpackers to this area is the nearby village of Alter do Chão, 33 km from Santarem, by the Tapajos river. Alter do Chão is nice, small, and has a square with views to the river.  The white sand river beach is 500 metres from the square, so everything here is within walking distance. The small former fishing boats here now offer “paseios“, or excursions for visitors to nearby lakes or other attractions. However, it continues to be a very nice village with a laid-back feel, unspoilt by the growing development of tourism.

Ilha do Amor

In the shore opposite the village lies Ilha do Amor, an island with white-sand beaches and, inland, places to get lost. It was the rainy season so beaches were somewhat reduced; however, the views were still pretty.

Alter do Chão has been a backpacker paradise for years. Quite isolated in the Amazon, it is a small, extremely laid-back town that features both beach and nature. The perfect place to spend some time. And many people stay here for quite a while. It seems that time doesn’t go by in Alter do Chão, one of those relaxed places where people don’t wear a watch. If you ask a traveller how long he’s been here, he keeps thinking and finally answers: “2 or 3 months, I believe…” and “it feels like I arrived just yesterday”.

Before falling into the slow pace of this little village, I remembered that my exams were approaching and I needed to get to São Paulo in time to take them. I got back to Santarem by bus and went to the port with the aim to buy a ticket for the next boat for Belem. I was informed that the next boat wouldn’t depart until Friday, so, oops! I was “forced” to stay 3 extra days in this beautiful town (how bad!! :-)).

Posada da Floresta

The backpackers who get there are a different species from those you find in cities like Buenos Aires or Paris. Young people about 18-23 years old on a gap year skip this kind of places, on a rush towards the next highlight. Those who stay in places like this are usually older, value peace and quiet, nature and travelling at a slow pace; many of them have had -or still have- their hippy years.

Beach behind Posada da Floresta

Where do they stay? One of the most popular spots is Posada da Floresta. It’s a hostel with a very, very laid-back atmosphere. Each one sleeps in his or her own hammock and cooks his or her own food. Sleeping in hammocks, self-catering and with a slow lifestyle, just cooking and going to the beach, reading and not doing much else, one can spend quite a long spell on very little money. At the back of the hostel there is a small beach which was always empty, just a few steps away. This is one of the places where internet hasn’t arrived yet, so people actually meet and talk instead of being each one connected to home, surfing facebook or writing this blog :-). Internet has certainly transformed the experience of travelling. This place is so relaxed that when I left I was looking for a member of the staff for over half an hour, to pay for my hammock spot. I finally found them, in an out-of-the-way room, smoking a few joints. If I’d gone without paying, probably nobody would’ve noticed and they’d have been just as happy!

After Santarem, the third boat took me to Belém. From there, I went to Fortaleza and after that São Paulo, where I took two exams in a Spanish school. Switching from North to South in Brazil is like travelling to a different country. The South has nothing to do with the Amazon region. I won’t blog about these 3 places, so in the next post, we’ll travel to Rio for a very special festival: Carnival!!!

Brazil – Exploring the jungle

Our expedition departed Hostel Manaus at 6 am for a jungle lodge in a tributary of the Amazon River: a couple from Hong Kong, 2 Germans, a Chinese and a Brazilian who lives in China, an Austrian guy, a Brazilian from the South, another from the Southwest and me.

I don’t usually engage in organised tours, but to get into the jungle this is a must. So I signed up with Amazon Antonio, a company that has an office inside Hostel Manaus. For you to get an idea if you’re planning a trip there, the cost is 160 R$/day, 3 days minimum. Not cheap but without a doubt, it’s worth it.

From the observation tower in the lodge, you can see a beautiful landscape. Since this was the rainy season, some areas were flooded, with the trees partially under water. This is good for exploring the area in canoe, which was our first activity.

View from the camp’s observation deck

Canoe

Going slowly in the canoe, one could hear animal’s sounds and the water flowing slowly. Every once in a while we saw a bird on the branch of a tree. We could spot the two most popular species: the toucan and the parrot.

The guide fished many piranha

We stopped our canoe trip for some minutes to fish for piranha. You should know that I’m hopeless, useless for piranha fishing :-(. Not only did I not catch anyone, but they didn’t even bite my hook, XD. As for the guide, on the contrary, it was just throwing the bait and catching a piranha. (not fair! :-)). Soooo, despite my ineptitude, we had enough piranha for dinner 🙂

Little cayman

After dinner, we went out on the conoes again. The jungle and the river feel different at night-time. More animals go out at night, and the fact of not seeing much makes the experience more misterious. From the distance, the guide could distinguish two small bright lights, unnoticeable to anybody else. They were the eyes of a baby cayman, we could later spot several in the flooded area. They were so small and soooo cute!! If you massage their belly, they fall asleep, and deeply! After that, we returned to the lodge and spent the night there.

Drinking water local style

On the second day, we woke up early and went into the jungle before sunrise. It was very interesting to learn from the guide’s explanations. He was born in a village in the jungle, and knows really well the fauna and flora, as well as the tricks of the jungle. Of course, we tried them all! For instance, putting your arm in an ant’s nest and rubbing your arm with ants exudes an odour that is a natural insect repellent. Another tip: if you’re thirsty, you just have to cut a vine and pour the water from inside. He also cut a branch with his machete and made a wicker basket in no more than 5 minutes. Well, Amazonian natives don’t need much to survive in the jungle! That night, we sprung up our hammocks between two trees and lit a fire to cook some chicken.

A little spider

The next day, we trekked deeper into the jungle at sunrise. As we got farther from the river, the rainforest got thicker. It takes at least 7 days to reach the thickest Amazonian ecosystem. Of course we didn’t get that far, but we got an idea. We continued to spot different animals: birds, insects like this spider (nice but I’d better not come across her again!).

The third day, the group split up. Some stayed for a forth day with some other activities, and the rest of us left for Manaus.

To conclude, I really enjoyed those days. In the middle of the jungle, there are no distractions and you can enjoy nature to the fullest: amazing landscapes, animals, the sound of the jungle, etc. It is certainly touristy, but this time I think you have to go for it. Exploring the jungle is a must, if you ever happen to be in the Amazon Rainforest.

View from the river

Brazil – Manaus: gateway to the jungle

After 3 days sailing down the Amazon, we arrived at Manaus.

At first sight, Manaus is quite shocking. During the 3-day trip, we had only seen wild nature and just a few small settlements or houses scattered along the river bank. Now, the view was completely different. Amid a lush rainforest stood a big city with several ports, heavy boat traffic, skyscrapers, traffic jam and almost two million souls.

Teatro Amazonas

After checking in at hostel Manaus (good place to meet people), in the afternoon I strolled through the historic centre of the city. The main tourist drag here is Teatro Amazonas, a late 19th century theatre. The most luxurious materials were used for its construction, all imported from Europe. They spared no effort or money to build a world-class theatre in the middle of the jungle.

Teatro Amazonas

Wondering where they got all that money from? At that time, there was a “rubber boom” in the area. Rubber was increasingly used in Europe and North America, while the Amazonian Rainforest was the only region in the world that could supply the stuff. Prices skyrocketed, and Manaus became one of the wealthiest cities in the world. However, such prosperity would be short-lived. Around 1910, the British took rubber seeds to their colonies in Malaysia, where they grew rapidly. Oversupply caused world rubber prices to plummet. Manaus’ golden age had ended (although Teatro Amazonas remains).

Teatro Amazonas’ Ball room

Knowing the history, this building reminded me of others in Dubai and Abu Dhabi: luxurious, even ostentatious undertakings in the middle of nowhere, underpinned by a boom in the price of local commodities. They leave the  visitor a feeling of nouveau riche. And all this is largely ephemeral. As any boom and bust cycle, it lasts until the bubble bursts… although in the Middle East it still goes on.

After that, I visited a small museum dedicated to indigenous tribes. It was interesting to learn what life was like here before colonization, and how some continue to live, for there are still some tribes that live isolated, without any contact with civilisation.

La Skina dos Sucos  is an excellent place to taste Amazonian juices: guaraná and açai

Another pleasure of visiting the Amazonia is to try delicious sucos (juice). Two local varieties are the most praised: guaraná and açai, delicious!!

Despite all this, what really attracts tourists to Manaus isn’t the Teatro Amazonas or the sucos. Manaus is the main gateway to visit the Amazon Rainforest. Many travel agencies offer tours of different duration and price. I’ll tell you about this in my next post.

Brazil – Sailing down the Amazon (2)

The next day, the boat kept sailing between Tabatinga and Manaus.

Food in these boats is basic but acceptable. They serve the Brazilian staples: rice, beans, farofa (manioc flour), salad and some meat. Guidebook warnings about food exhaustion, almost certain diarrhoea, and so on, were exaggerated, as usual. The first boat I took had all meals included, whereas in the next two it was charged separately. Buying from hackers who jumped in the boat as soon as it arrived to a port was just slightly cheaper.

In the very long queue to have lunch, I had an odd encounter.

The family I met queuing for lunch

There was a woman with her little girl just behind me. I had already noticed this family the first day, they had an unmistakable look: women and girls wore a long veil, and the man very long hair and beard; all of them were quite short and with a weather-beaten face. I was curious about why they had such a weird look, and if it was for religious reasons. I knew they couldn’t be Muslims. I later took a photo of mother and daughter going to the toilet.

Without being aware of my nationality, the woman started talking to me in Spanish (which almost nobody onboard could speak). I then learnt they were Peruvians. I asked her if it was common in her town to wear a veil. She answered: “If women don’t wear a veil, God doesn’t listen to them. The Bible states that” (and she mentioned some quote from the Old Testament). She explained to me that they are members of the “Israeli” religion. I asked her if they are Jews like those of Israel (obviously not, just to prompt her to explain further). «NO!! THEY HAVE DENIED OUR LORD!!!» As she talked more about her religion, she sounded more confident, raising her voice ever more, it was clear that this was her favourite subject. It seems that her “Lord”, Jehovah of the Armies, had seen that Israelis don’t listen and had preferred to become incarnate in Peru instead. This man, according to the woman, ascended to heaven and brought back the 10 commandments. Those were the same of Moses, but unlike Moses, to whom the 10 commandments descended from heaven, Jehovah of the Armies ascended to pick them up.

However surreal this was, the most striking point the woman made wasn’t about religion but about hair. “The Incas had log hair, and that’s why they were strong”. I was about to laugh, but I asked her: Like Samson? “Yeah, sure, of course, I see you also know about this. That’s why everybody’s weak nowadays, because they cut their hair. We are not at the image of God”. We then got into the dinning hall, but I didn’t sit alongside the woman, I thought the conversation had been surreal enough.

That night, the landscape was just amazing. The Amazon River was getting bigger and bigger, ever more majestic.

Sunset over the Amazon

The next two trips were less of a novelty. The boats were full but not as overcrowded as the first one. There were no Haitians, only locals and, in the last one, a few Europeans. Instead of the excitement of emigrating to a new country and a new life, for these locals it was just another trip within their region. Nevertheless, there was plenty of opportunity to meet people and gaze at amazing landscapes.

To conclude, I recommend everyone who travels to the Amazonia to take at least one of these trips. It’s a unique experience, you get the chance to see all the course of the river and interact easily with people who stay away from the tourist circuit. And, of course, this is the cheapest way to move around the region.

Brazil – Sailing down the Amazon (1)

Travelling in one of the slow boats that sail along the Amazon River is an unforgettable experience. If you go to the Amazonia, don’t miss taking at least one of these trips by any means!! These aren’t tourist nor nice boats, but rather a practical transport option, both for passengers and cargo, in a region with no roads or railways. Each passenger is expected to carry his/her own hammock, and tie it to the ceiling with two ropes. Luggage simply rests on the floor.

I took the following boats:

– Tabatinga – Manaus 3.5 days 170 R$
– Manaus – Santarem 1.5 days 100 R$
– Santarem – Belém 2 days 120 R$
If you take the opposite route (upstream), it takes about 50% longer and it is more expensive.

The crew loading the cargo

Without a doubt, the first of the 3 trips I took was the one I had the most fun, partly because it was my first time in such a boat and partly because the trip itself was kind of original. I’ll focus of this one.

As I was telling you, I went to buy the ticket the day before, and carried my hammock in order to secure a good spot. The crew were loading the boat with all sorts of cargoes, ranging from food to motorbikes and cars. The first passengers to arrive were hanging their hammocks, in an otherwise empty deck. After tying my hammock, I headed back to Leticia.

The next day, I went back to the boat with the ticket and my stuff.  I was astounded to see how the deck had been transformed. Not only were all the hammock spots taken but also the aisles and everywhere. The lower deck, where the cargo was loaded, was full of hammocks as well. This lower deck is incredibly noisy as it is close to the engine room. If you travel in any of these boats, avoid the lowest deck if at all possible. There could be about 400 people onboard, I guess. I thought nobody else could fit in, but yes…when the boat stopped at subsequent ports more people came in and strung their hammocks between two others. No room to swing your hammock and relax, of course. 🙂

Deck’s appearance once the hammocks were sprung up

Haitians dancing in the bar

To my surprise, most of the passengers weren’t Brazilian. About 70% of the people onboard were from Haiti. Locals were astonished about this as well and told me that’s not at all common (and in my next 2 boat trips virtually all were locals). It seems that after the earthquake in Haiti, the Brazilian government has allowed many Haitians into the country. A migratory route has sprung up through Panama and Peru, and then they get into Brazil by the Triple Frontier and continue towards the interior in this boat. My initial fears about being the only one in the boat who didn’t speak Portuguese were nonsense: French turned out to be much more useful this time.

Here I am with my hammock and Lonely Planet.

I was sleeping in the central area of the middle deck. It was a good place to sleep, away from the corridors, but finding my way to the hammock was a pretty difficult task, an exercise of body contortion. My neighbours… no surprise, Haitians! Since these boat trips take days, there is so little personal space and people get so bored (I was one of the very few who had such a thing as a book), there’s a lot of opportunity for social interaction. I also noticed many people were curious about meeting the 5-10 “gringos” onboard. Right upon my arrival, I met Javier, a Colombian from Bogotá who has been living in Brazil for years, and his 15-year-old son Jonathan. Jonathan told me that he didn’t speak Spanish very well, but I soon noticed he was just being modest, his Spanish sounded native. We had some language exchange. He taught me my first Portuguese words and (as his Spanish was so good) I taught him the numbers in English. His father, Javier, has a curious profession: he makes animal-shaped balloons and sells them to families with children in a park in Manaus, for 1 R$. He didn’t miss the chance to offer balloons to families onboard, and I believe he even sold a few. His hobby is just as odd as his job: racy chatting with Latin American women, and according to him, he is sometimes successful. He has a whole list of websites used in every South American country, and he asked for my help to translate to French to find out which ones are used in Haiti. The response we got (facebook) didn’t satisfy him 🙂

With these and other pastimes, the 6 hour delay to leave went by quickly. Finally, the boat weighed anchor and set sail. At that very moment, the Haitians started singing in unison, what they later explained me to be a popular farewell song. Immediately after, the national anthem of Haiti. Later, the singing faded away until the usual racket prevailed, along with Michel Teló’s omnipresent “ai si eu te pego”.

Views from the boat

The rest of the afternoon/evening: staring at amazing landscapes and an awesome sunset, practicing my first words in “Portuñol” with Jonathan, listening to sad stories about the earthquake in Haiti. I thought I’d find it difficult to sleep in a hammock in such an overcrowded boat; however, I felt asleep really quickly after an exhausting day, both physically and emotionally.

I’ll tell you some anecdotes of the second and third day in my next post. But remember: this is a fascinating experience, not to be missed.