Nature’s Finest

Our Last Day in Rio

As carnaval craziness died down and the city of Rio returned to a more littered but quieter (VERY relative) state of existence, we had one last day left. Jo and I took a boat out to Ilha de Paquéta, a tiny island in the bay next to Rio. With most of the island covered in rainforest, we hired rusty old bicycles to explore the ‘town’ and few beaches. Our thorough exploration of the whole island, including climbing up a large rock which served as a viewpoint, attempting to cycle on the sand on one of the beaches, and walking around a large public garden, took two whole hours, after which we occupied ourselves with strong coffee and rain avoidance; the storm which had been brewing for a good week had eventually caught up with us.

The Pantanal

The four of us left a cloudy Rio and headed west. After a twenty-four hour, overnight journey, we staggered off a coach in the city of Campo Grande, the starting point for our three day wildlife tour into the Pantanal, a tropical wetland area. The next morning we were driven five hours into the region, the last section on a large 4×4 jeep safari vehicle, until we arrived at a riverside lodge.

A friend i made at the lodge

A friend I made at the lodge

Boat Safaris, by Day and by Night

Our excellent local guide, Pipinho, had an amazing knack for spotting animals in the merest of seconds, whilst we cruised along the waterways in a small motor boat. In the treetops we saw Howler Monkeys, usually in pairs with a black male and brown female, sometimes with a small clinging baby, as well as Toucans, Macaws, and various birds of prey. We spotted many Black Alligators and Yellow Paraguayan Caiman, ranging from tiny young ‘uns only half a metre long, to huge individuals over two metres, which sat unmoving on the banks soaking in the warmth of the sun, or slid into the water as we approached. Periodically a heron would glide past us, standing in a clump of reeds floating downstream so that it could fish. We once rounded a bend just in time to see a family of capybara, large rodents related to guinea pigs but the size of actual pigs, climb out of the water and begin grazing on the bank.

One evening we stayed out on the boat until darkness descended. Bats flitted around and fireflies winked brightly along the banks, and Pipinho held up a torchlight so that the eyes of alligators and caimans glowed red.

Canoeing, Flotation and Piranha Fishing

Interspersed between our boat safaris were various other activities. The first morning, we paired up and canoed along a section of river for an hour, then decided to race Deetz and Carl back downstream for no good reason.

The ‘flotation’ activity entailed the three bravest of our tour group of eight jumping into the river armed with a number of woggles and floating along, at which point it started raining heavily, which was perfect timing for once.

The activity of Piranha Fishing divided the veggies among us. The meat at the end of my line kept mysteriously disappearing and my fish somehow got away. Deetz had a knack and pulled a couple, flapping wildly, out of the water, to add to the bucket for the evening meal. Jo also caught a couple, learnt how to gut one, throwing its entrails to birds of prey lurking nearby, and became a pescetarian for the evening, once they had been fried and dribbled with lime.

Jeep Safari and Ecological Walk

Our last morning, the safari took place on land from the jeep, which was noisier and confined to dirt tracks, so we didn’t spot as much as from the boat. We had the joy of a 90 minute ‘ecological’ walk, which meant weaving through the undergrowth surrounded by a swarm of mosquitoes which everyone attempted to keep away with a cloud of DEET-heavy insect repellent spray. My fascination with ants also let me down; pausing for two seconds to stare at a nest I was shortly after rewarded with sharp stabs of pain as some cheeky buggers which had made it up the inside of my trousers began biting me. I was particularly offended by one which made it into my butt crack.

Accompanied by an extremely heavy downpour which utterly soaked us, in our final clean set of clothes, and all our belongings, we were driven out of the Pantanal and boarded another overnight bus to Foz do Iguaҫu.

Laundry Day and Itaipu Dam

We arrived at our next hostel damp and smelly. With no clean clothes left whatsoever we spent the whole day lounging around in our dorm wearing only underwear, sarongs, or in Carl’s desperate case, simply a towel, as we hung out three loads of washing throughout the day and stayed out of sight of the outside world.

In our laundry outfits with our huge sack of washing

In our laundry outfits with our huge sack of washing

The next day we enjoyed the special tour of Itaipu Dam. Only fully completed in 2007, this hydroelectric structure supplies 75% of Paraguay’s power and 17% of Brazil’s. A bus took us to the edge of the river to look across the 8km structure, then drove along the top so that we could see the vast reservoir which feeds into the turbines. We then all donned bright yellow hard hats, and entered the structure, beginning with the ‘cathedral’, the large space inside the dam over which the water of flows, although we could only see down into the rock pit below us. We also went deeper and visited a rotating section of the turbine.

Both sides of Iguaҫu/Iguazú Falls

On our final day in Brazil we visited Iguaҫu falls, a return trip for me, but still an enjoyable one. The Brazilian side offers a more panoramic view of the whole site, so we started right next to the falls and worked backwards along the various viewpoints, so that the waterfalls began thunderous and drenched us in mist, and slowly strung out to offer a wider view of the whole structure, including glimpses of the Argentinian side.

That evening we crossed the border into Argentina, and the next day Jo and I split from Deetz and Carl and visited the Argentinian side of the falls. With a greater proportion of the falls on this side, we were hard pushed to see everything in five hours. We began with a wooden walkway which crossed over the top of a long section of falls, so that we could watch the water tumbling away at our feet into a misty valley below. A boat ride took us extremely close to two sections, so that we were utterly drenched. The final walkway was one kilometre across the water, until we came to the top of the valley named Garganta del Diablo, or the Devil’s Throat, across which we could spot tourists on the Brazilian side. This was definitely the climax of the whole phenomenal structure, with the water crashing over the wide curve so heavily that mist entirely obscured the valley below.

We raced back to our hostel to pick up our large bags, then boarded a coach for Buenos Aires. Twenty hours later we arrived, and we are now safely ensconced in an awesome hostel (think free Spanish and tango lessons). Much needed down-time yesterday, after all it was Sunday and not much can be done on a Sunday on this entire continent, but today we are primed and ready to get going once again!

The Greatest Show on Earth

The Start

Due to a strange but convenient arrangement of semesters in the German academic calendar, Jo is able to join me for my first month of travelling. We marched into Heathrow airport, a pair of keen sisters ready to go.

The journey with which I began my travels threw up several obstacles of various difficulty. The airline wouldn’t allow me on until I had proof of a travel means out of Brazil so I had to buy a refundable flight. I fell asleep on the plane and woke up to an awkward bout of pins and needles in both legs. The driver of the bus we took from the airport in Rio to get to our hostel forgot to let us know which was our stop, so we had to loop back round for a second tour of the city, spending more than 4 hours on the bus. And finally, the street our hostel is on continues both sides of a square which even locals and tourist information did not know, so a local woman adopted us and walked around trying to help us find it for more than an hour in the 30°C+ heat  of the day.

But, after more than 27 hours of travelling, we did eventually find our hostel, and after checking in promptly fell asleep.

Rio Take Two

Round two of sightseeing Rio de Janeiro, having visited nearly 4 years ago now, has proved just as fantastic, full-on and exuberant.

Jo and I began with a tour which transported us to various points around the sprawling city. We did a short hike through the Floresta de Tijuca, the rainforest which makes up 8% of the city and helps to balance the climate and prevent landslides, and came to a waterfall with black-and-blue butterflies the size of small birds swooping around. We also stopped by a certain beach to watch the landings of hangliders and paragliders, who launch off the forested mountains of the city.

We climbed down the Escadaria Selarón, the tiled steps of Lapa made by artist Jorge Selarón, who over the course of more than 20 years covered the set of 250 steps in fragments of red, blue and green tiles, and then began incorporating tiles sent to him from countries all over the world. At the bottom we ate traditional Brazilian food at the oldest Portuguese restaurant in the city.

We visited Christ the Redeemer, and this time rather than scaffolding and a picture of the monument hung across the actual monument, I saw him properly in all his soapstone glory, tall and outstretched, his fingertips already fixed from his flirtation with lightening a couple of months ago.

The day ended with the two of us riding the two sets of cablecars up to the summit of Sugarloaf mountain, where we quickly claimed a bench and sat for a good two hours watching the sun set over the city. As darkness descended, Christ the Redeemer was lit up so that he glowed, a white cross seemingly floating in the sky above the flickering lights of the favelas, which sprawled down and around the base of the mountains and merged with the lights of the city and the curves of the beaches.

Deetz and Carl, school friends, joined us over the next couple of days and we had relaxing sessions on the famous Copacabana and Ipanema beaches, visited the cultural centre for an exhibition on the 1960-85 dictatorship of Brazil, and wandered around the Copacabana fort, admiring cannons and the view. We were also taken on a tour of Rocinha, the largest favela by population in South America, by a resident, who answered all our questions about the electricity, water, police presence, took us to the best Brazilian per-kilo buffet we’ve had so far, and showed us a DJ school, one of the social projects which the tours fund.

Carnaval

And so to the greatest show on Earth, as the carnaval in Rio is advertised, and blimey it doesn’t disappoint.

The first two nights we joined in with crowds in the main square of Lapa and under the arches of the large, white Lapa aquaduct, both right outside our hostel. The crowds gathered around groups of drums or bands which set up in the streets. Fancy dress ranged from full pirate, native Indian, or film character outfits, to men dressed as women, to ridiculous additions to normal clothes such as masks, feathers, bunny ears, horns, bows. Blocos, or streets parties, happened throughout the day across the city, we joined in the shuffling parade of one and I ended up being given a drumstick and joining in with the marching band in the heart of the party for a bit. The blocos made its way along a couple of streets and into an empty mechanics garage where everyone paired off and began samba dancing, fluidly weaving and spinning around each other. A local offered himself up as my teacher and showed me a few basics steps, the only one of which I was any good at being the somewhat basic twirling.

The climax of the whole mad party was the parade of the 12 samba schools through the Sambadrome. It was split across two nights, starting at 9 in the evening and going on until way past 5 in the morning on both nights. Each samba school has 64-82 minutes to get from one end of the Sambadrome to the other, and the thousands of dancers and multiple floats which comprise each school are marked by judges on 10 different categories such as costume, theme, floats, harmony, flow and spirit, percussion and their samba song which they sung the whole time. The competition is taken so seriously that once the judges cast their ballot, the votes are transported by the police. Each Samba school chooses a theme, which this year ranged from childhood toys and games, to the diversity of Brazil, to outer space, and each was utterly spectacular, an overload of colour, sparkle, noise, shuffling and gyrating hips, each float a feat of engineering and imagination, each costume so detailed that it was impossible to take it all in. At this points words are definitely not the medium which works in my favour, and the photos can hardly do this spectacle justice either. We purchased sequined, very mini hat headpieces to look a little ridiculous as you should during carnaval, and sat in the touristy section for the first night and got to grips with the whole event, then the second night we were in among the locals who each supported a specific Samba school and showed it with their singing and dancing.

Which brings me up to the present, and a somewhat dazed, over-tired, but happy state of existence. More to come at some point next week!