Farewell Brazil …

Saying goodbye to Brazil was going to take a little time. Choosing an island paradise as our final destination in South America really was a no-brainer, but getting from Barreirinhas in the Amazon to the remote, beautiful island of Fernando de Noronha required careful planning and complex transport arrangements. Sometimes the journey and the destination seem to merge. It certainly felt like that for part of our final three weeks in Brazil.

São Loís

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A taxi, a five hour bus ride and another taxi took us to the old quarter of São Loís, 250km in the opposite direction to where we were heading; travelling northern Brazil is like that. With a journey of well over 2,000km to go we intended to stop off, explore and rest up along the way.

We’d booked two nights in São Louís, staying in Casa Frankie where a Danish guy Frank had spent time and care restoring the colonial Portuguese house that had once been a brothel.

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Although São Louís is (another) big Brazilian city, the old quarter of hilly cobbled streets is relatively compact.

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Many of the World Heritage listed buildings show signs of their former regal splendour. In the early nineteenth century, due to slavery and sugar plantations São Louís was one of the wealthiest cities in Brazil, but the majority of these charming structures are now crumbling slowly beneath the weight of neglect and tropical decay.

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We were reminded of how Galle in Sri Lanka (see our blog from January 2017) used to look before it’s its restoration and tourist development.

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Our visit to São Louís coincided with Brazil’s Independence Day (7th September) so many places were closed. We did get to visit the Centro de Cultura Popular Domingos Vieira Filho  and see the fascinating masks costumes and drums that reflect the Afro-Brazilian and indigenous culture of the region.

Exploring São Louís further was curtailed when Anne was struck down with food poisoning. She had barely recovered (a grim 36 hours) before the next stage of our journey – a flight to Fortaleza and a two hour cab ride to Canoa Quebrada.

Canoa Quebrada

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We’d chosen a good spot for some much needed rest and relaxation. Canoa Quebrada is a seaside town, popular with locals and has a relaxed feel with a central pedestrianised street complete with small bars restaurants and shops. We’d also picked a great Pousada with a comfortable spacious room overlooking the sea, a pool and fantastic breakfasts. The owner of Pousada California comes from Liverpool and was super helpful and friendly. Time on the beach, reading in hammocks and by the pool, it was just what we needed. Plus we got to go on a beach buggy trip across the sands.

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Collecting seaweed with a horse and cart
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Water sleeps through the crumbling sand cliffs

I also had a go at paragliding, while Anne watched from solid ground. I ended up doing three trips as the winds kept varying, it was a sublime experience.

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Hold tight
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My hairy knee and Anne below

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Shadows

Feeling relaxed and revitalised we headed back to the airport at Fontaleza for a flight to Recife and from there to our final destination, the island of Fernando de Noronho.

Fernando de Noronho

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Set around 500km off the Northeastern coast of mainland Brazil, Fernando de Noronho holds an almost mythical spot in the minds of many Brazilians. It is a tropical island paradise where pristine beaches meet crystal clear waters, where the natural environment is unspoilt and cooling breezes create a year round summer climate.

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It really is this beautiful …

For a country so famous for its idyllic beaches, three of the top ten are on this tiny island. The water is warm and visibility is 30m plus. A large part of the island and it’s surrounds has been a national and marine park since the 1980s (astonishingly it was once a penal colony and a military base) and rules regulate and restrict development.

But paradise in Fernando de Noronho has a cost, and the majority of Brazilians will never be able to afford to visit. Flights, accommodation, food and drink are at least double that found anywhere else in Brazil and there is an environmental tax when you enter and a park fee to pay (around £240 for us, but cheaper for locals). For those lucky enough to get to Fernando de Noronho, it really is nourishment for the soul.

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View of the harbour from the old fort – we wandered around the local town, trails and beach on our first day

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We booked some diving on the second day, but found the process a bit disappointing. The dive outfits are efficient and well organised, with good equipment but it tends to be a ‘one size fits all’ operation. A group of twenty people with varying levels of experience on a dive that lasts for forty minutes just didn’t seem worth the cost. Instead we went snorkeling and over the week saw stingrays, turtles, sharks, in fact more marine life than we’d found on our dives.

We booked a boat trip and an island tour during our week on the island and these really gave us a chance to explore the place.

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The boat trip started on an overcast morning

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But the clouds lifted and we were visited by a large pod of spinner dolphins

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Nurse sharks gather in shallow bays. The wildlife seem largely unconcerned by the presence of humans

And then there are the views, and the beaches

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snorkelling in paradise

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And so our big adventure is coming to an end. After nearly two years on the road, by the beginning of November we will be back in our home in London town. Right now our minds are racing, excited at the prospect of seeing our wonderful daughter, family and friends. Now does not seem the time to reflect on all we have explored and enjoyed together. Nor does it seem the moment to consider what next.

One thing does remain as true now as when we started.

Rust never sleeps.

The Amazon

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We’ve already visited our fair share of rainforests on this trip, notably tropical rainforests in Borneo and Indonesia, with Sub Tropical and Temperate Rainforests in Australia and New Zealand. (see Borneo, briefly … Here be DragonsMore tales from Sulawesi, Tasmanian Devils and other TalesLand of the Long White Cloud … cntd.).

But here is different.

The Amazon Basin

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The Amazon basin is immense – it constitutes half of all the tropical rainforest on earth. 20180909_184033-1167x876It contains the greatest biodiversity of plant species in the world and is home to more than 2.5 million species of insects and thousands of species of birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles.

It’s a truly global ecology, with around 27 million tones of sand from the Sahara desert, carried by winds and dropped on the Amazon each year. This replaces the phosphates taken out of the soil by the staggering amount of plant growth and the rainforest would be unsustainable without it.

So we knew there was no way we could ‘explore the Amazon’, but we did come across some astonishing and unexpected landscapes and environments in our journey 3,000 km north and west from Recife.

Alter do Chão

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A pal in Rio had recommend Alter do Chão in the Amazon basin, on the banks of the Rio Tapajós. It was a good base for exploration.

Having said that we had trouble finding the accommodation we had booked. It was way out of town and up a dirt track that the taxi  driver couldn’t even attempt to drive up. Luckily, and before it got dark, we found an alternative, a Pousada – Coraçāo Verde in town just a two minute walk from the town square. Friendly and helpful people. We signed up for a boat trip early the next day to the Canal do Jari – up the Tapajós and on to the Amazon river itself.

By happy chance the other people from the Pousada who signed up to the trip were two independent, English-speaking, young women travellers, Eloise and Ambra. They both had very different travel experiences and were great company, plus Eloise was fluent in Portuguese and Ambra very capable in Portunhol – the combination of Spanish and Portuguese.

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Time to let go of preconceptions. The Amazon is vast, it’s more like being at sea

The waves picked up as we entered the seemingly boundless Amazon river. Silt and sandbanks are places where trees and humans seem to cling on, with other land points distant on the horizon.

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We stopped at a point on the riverbank where a local biologist/guide took the four of us walking through the forest. Her knowledge and sharp eyesight ensured we saw plants, fruits, butterflies, monkeys, birds and sloths.

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The sloths were wonderful …

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In the gloom and shadow of the rainforest we saw much more than I could photograph adequately or identify; any ‘birders’ out there, feel free to comment!

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A Great Potoo, I think (though not a great photo!) 

On our way back down the river we were lucky enough to come across a pod of pink freshwater dolphins. The boat stopped and for about fifteen minutes they swam in the river around us.

Outside of the dense forest, around the giant lillypads, the birdlife was easier to spot.

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On the way home we stopped to swim in crystal clear fresh water at Lago Preto and then watched our first Amazon sunset at Ponta do Cururu. Magic.

The following day Anne and I spent the afternoon on the local beach, not something we expected to find in the Amazon. But the sandbar just a quick rowboat trip from Alter do Chão is thought by many to be one of Brazil’s best.

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Certainly swimming in the cool freshwater waves and sitting on the soft white sand was pretty idyllic, as was the sunset.

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I went on another boat trip the following day with Ambra, this time to the Floresta National do Tapajós. It’s a 9km hike from primary to secondary forest and our guide showed us some of the rainforests unique plants. We also spotted what he called a honey monkey and a female tarantula with her egg.

Throughout our walk there was a beautiful, evocative soundtrack of bird calls echoing through the treetops.

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The hike up through the secondary forest was hot and sweaty but the view of the Amazon basin in the distance was spectacular

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After the climb up through the rainforest it was wonderful to be able to swim in a cool clear river.

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We had lunch at the local village before heading back under threatening skies.

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Barreirinhas and Lençois Maranhenses

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The journey to Barreirinhas from Alter do Chão was not easy. The lovely people at our hostel Caraçáo Verde dropped us off at the airport for a night flight to Belem. Arriving at 1.30am, but with a twelve hour stopover, we checked in to a hotel for some sleep, then took another flight to Santarem and finally a four hour minibus ride to Barreirinhas, where we pulled up to our Pousada late at night and pretty worn out.

While Barreirinhas is not a spectacular town it had some nice restaurants and bars and an efficient taxi service in the main square that meant we could negotiate the dark unmade roads back to our hotel at night. In any event, we were there to visit Lençois Maranhenses National Park. It was a stunning other-worldly experience.

Lençois Maranhenses

Four wheel drive trucks take you along a maze of rivers and sand tracks to the national park itself.

The landscape is surreal, it’s wonder is magnified by the feeling of walking barefoot through the purest, softest fine white sand I’ve ever encountered.  Lençois Maranhenses translates as the ‘bedsheets of Maranhão’ and that’s a perfect simile for this undulating white terrain. As you walk this silent landscape you can find yourself sinking up to your knees in soft sand, causing mini avalanches that, like your footprints soon disappear in the constant breeze off the sea.

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Individuals appear simultaneously stark and insignificant in this astonishing landscape

The sand, carried down through the tributaries of the Amazon basin, is picked up by winds and blown inland, forming stunning pure white dunes. When rain falls, it collects amongst the dunes as there is impermeable rock beneath and creates vivid blue lagoons that are great to swim in. By the end of September most of these temporary lagoons have evaporated.

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As the day progressed the sun cast shadows and the sand colour grew warmer.

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Checking for signal …

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The final trip from Barreirinhas was by boat to Caburé, down the Rio Preguiça. This journey felt more like the stereotypical boat through the Amazon, with rainforest and mangroves up to the waters edge, and scarlet ibis in the trees.

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Soon, as we approached the Atlantic Coast, sandunes began to appear once more.

We stopped at the village of Farol Preguiças to see the lighthouse and it’s views of the river, Atíns and the Atlantic.

At one spot on the riverbank there were monkeys amongst the palms, although I don’t know what species.

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And now we are in Canoa Qebrada. To get here from Barreirinhas meant a five hour bus ride to São Luís (in the opposite direction), where we stopped for a couple of nights, then a flight from there to Fortaleza, followed by a two hour cab ride to here. The overland distance is only 1,300km, but the logistics of travel in this part of Brazil are complex, disjointed and expensive. Often on-line booking grinds to a halt if you haven’t got a Brazilian tax ID (!) and flights depart in the middle of the night. These factors, plus our lack of Portuguese and an almost universal absence of English mean even simple things become a challenge. With the exception of our lovely pals in Alter do Chão, we have not come across any European/English-speaking travellers or tourists. Yet we have seen some amazing, breathtaking sights that have made this part of our adventure more than worthwhile.

We’re having a brief rest for a few days here and then we’re heading East and South again. The next post will be the final part of our journey through Brazil.