Hey Hey, My My ….

Endings can often be more difficult than beginnings. Despite the trepidation we felt, heading out into the blue back in 2016, there was an imperative that drove us forward. We’d packed our belongings into a lock-up in Essex, our flight was booked to Trivandrum in India, we’d had countless ‘goodbye’ celebrations. We were off!

And now we are back. Back home in London town, with all the comforts you forget, hot P8170048-1000x1334water, cooking for yourself, knowing where light switches are in the dark – the little things. And the big things too – family and friends, smiles and hugs, the embrace of a city we’ve called home for over 30 years. So there is no doubt the ‘Big Adventure’ has ended – we have no flights, hostels or buses booked, no research needed, no visa applications or packing required. We are home.

But of course it’s never that simple. We are readjusting, settling in, and re-discovering our home. Walks around Alexandra Palace or Hampstead Heath, with the golden Autumn leaves and clear blue wintry skies – such a contrast to tropical rainforests. We are seeing our old place in new ways. We don’t have a plan for the future yet – we’re still coming to terms with our new present. It’s still a journey.

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London from Alexandra Palace
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Hampstead Heath in Autumn glory

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So this is an attempt to draw a line at the end of the blog. I’d originally planned to leave it with Farewell Brazil, but as the end of 2018 approached I thought it best that it came full circle.

And with all the images, smells, sights, joy and adventure we’ve experienced over these last two years, the most wonderful thing about travelling is the way your lives coincide with people you would never otherwise meet, doing things you never thought you’d be doing in places that you only dreamed of going to.

So thank you to all of those people we have met along the way for enriching our experiences and our lives. We are lucky indeed to now call so many of you friends.

Look by for a beer if you get the chance!

As it says in the introduction to our blog,

‘Here are the thoughts and pictures from two people in their sixties who have left London to travel and explore. The blog is intended as a personal reflection, a scrapbook and a way of keeping in touch with family and friends. If you are a visitor from elsewhere in this wonderful world, hello and enjoy.’

Now two years later, we’re astonished its been seen over 12,000 times with visitors from more than 60 countries.

Wherever you are from, whoever you are, if you are thinking of going travelling – do it, you will never regret it.

Not everyone who wanders is lost.

Niall & Anne x

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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.

Salvador and Olinda

Salvador – the beating heart of Brazil

The journey from beautiful Itacaré to Salvador worked well – despite the five hour bus ride, the ferry and the taxi, we travelled to Bahia’s capital Salvador without any major hassle.

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The ferry from Bom Despacho in the south is the best way to cross the Todos os Santos Bay to Salvador

We’d chosen to stay in the old quarter of Pelourinho, which proved to be a wise move. Salvador is large city with glinting shopping malls, wealthy high-rises, poor favelas and a population of around four million people. Travelling around this sprawling city is hard work. Our lodging was in an attic room with a tiny little roof terrace and views over the streets and church towers of Pelourinho.

 

Pelourinho

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The Elvador Lacerda links Pelourinho with the rest of Salvador

Salvador. Brazil’s original capital under the Portuguese, the first slave port in the Americas with its historical centre, Pelourinho. Named after the pillory or whipping post where slaves were punished, the streets in the old quarter are alive with history. And, as the centre of Afro-Brazilian culture in Bahia music, art, religion and dance are everywhere.

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Capoeira display

 

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At any time of the day or night the streets echo to the rhythm of drums

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As with other large cities in Brazil, alongside the joy and celebration of culture, there exists poverty and crime. The World Heritage streets of Pelourinho are guarded by armed police, tourist police and military police. Locals warned us not to walk down quiet streets, and conscious of our experience in Rio, we took their advice.

 

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The campaign to release Lula seemed popular

A huge part of Bahian life centres around religion, not only the colonial Catholicism brought by the Portuguese, but the beliefs and traditions that came with the huge numbers of African slaves. The medieval religious orders, Franciscans, Carmelites and Dominicans all built churches, monasteries and convents, but alongside these grew ‘brotherhoods’ organised around class and race as support organisations for this widely diverse society. There appears to be a church on every street.

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Most of these grand colonial structures were built with slave labour and their baroque interiors are dripping with wealth and spectacle.

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Portuguese Azulego tiles are everywhere, often glorifying the colonial conquest.

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The Church of Sao Francisco is drenched with gold.

 

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A slave Brotherhood built the aptly named Church of Our Lady of the Rosary of Black Men. They were banned from entering other Catholic churches (that they themselves had built) and could only work on this building in their ‘spare time’. It took around 100 years to complete.

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The Church of Our Lady of the Rosary of Black Men has very different iconography and hosts services accompanied by spectacular drumming

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The highlight of our stay in Pelourinho was a visit to see the Folklore Ballet of Bahia with its exhilarating dance and music bringing together the cultures of Africa, Europe and the Indigenous peoples. The displays of Capoeira were astonishing in their grace and athleticism, the music was intoxicating and the packed audience responded with a roar of approval at the end.

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image from the web

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We left the beating heart of Brazil with fond memories and headed north to Recife and Olinda.

Olinda

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We loved our time in Olinda. It’s hilly cobbled streets have charm, and it has a common passion with Salvador – carnival. Although dwarfed by it’s neighbour Recife, artistic Olinda with its restaurants bars and music is a perfect place to explore both.

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The quaint streets of Olinda, with Recife in the distance

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Our accommodation in Olinda was an excellent choice. Not only did we have a beautiful room in the heart of Olinda, but our hosts at Cama e Café Olinda were wonderfully kind and helpful – they are fluent in four European languages and provide the best breakfast we’ve had in Brazil.

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Great shops restaurants and bars as you wander around the colourful streets

 

 

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There are some fantastic, often impromptu, music venues, with all sorts of bands practising for carnival. As the only European tourists around we felt welcome everywhere. These events usually spill on to the streets where beer vendors and foodstalls fuel the revellers. Any night of the week seems to be party night.

 

Olinda also lays claim to some rather beautiful colonial churches.

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Carnival, and preparing for carnival is always on the agenda.

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This collection of carnival figures was a bit spooky. We came across them unexpectedly while visiting the loo in a restaurant late one night

The giant carnival dolls had their origin in Olinda with the Man of Midnight in 1931. Kim Jong-un, Superman and ET are modern additions.

 

Recife

We headed in to Recife late one Sunday morning (a cheap cab ride is easiest). The roads around Marco Zero (the spot where the Portuguese first landed in 1537) are closed off on Sunday, foot-volley nets are strung up, market stalls and skateboarders appear, and carnival blocos gather on every street to practice their performances. It’s also the area for street art, galleries and museums, and for wandering around in the sunshine with everyone else.

 

 

Frevo

Frevo music and dance emerged from Afro-Brazilian culture, which is particularly strong in this region due to the historic importance of sugar cane as a crop and the slavery that went with it. Religious and military music bands at the end of the nineteenth century gave Frevo its distinctive character with plenty of brass instruments, and Frevo dance came from the fights that ensued as these bands clashed on the narrow streets and battled for space.

At the front of each band marched capoeirstas and fights, usually involving knives ended up with many  dead and wounded. When the police began arresting the capoeirstas they started carrying umbrellas instead of knives and disguising the capoeira movements as dance movements. The frevo dance was born.

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Frevo dancer from the 1970s. The small umbrellas are used in rapid intricate moves

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A standard spectacular Sunday on the streets of Recife

From Recife we travelled north and west, heading towards the Amazon. Although we are now in the last month of our big adventure, there’s still plenty to see.

Fly me Down to Rio

A flight to Rio made sense. With stormy weather down south, and our plans to travel north up the coast through Bahia to Recife and beyond, it was clear that this country is just too big to get around by road.

P8057467-1244x933I’ll start the Rio story with our visit to Sugarloaf mountain and then to the iconic, art deco statue of Christ the Redeemer – it proved to be an interesting and adventurous day.

That Saturday dawned with low cloud hanging over the city, but the forecast looked good and we headed down first to our local beach. We were staying in Injoy Hostel, Botafogo a friendly place in a great location for restaurants and public transport. We walked along the shore and then up by cable car to Sugarloaf, as the clouds began to clear.

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The mountain and ‘Redeemer’ appear and disappear among the clouds behind the city

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Christ the Redeemer

Visiting such an instantly recognisable, totemic statue whose image has represented Rio, Brazil, South America, the Catholic church and so much more, we were prepared to be disappointed. The mountain was much higher than I imagined, the statue itself was smaller than I anticipated but it’s Art Deco design was striking. And the clouds lifted for a beautiful afternoon.

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Not a miracle, just some lens flare!

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Give us this Day, our Daily Selfie ….

Of course the view over the city, Sugarloaf peak and the harbour below were spectacular – set in a sparkling azure sea and sky.

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With a good few hours left of sunlight, and with a cooling, balmy breeze, we decided to call an Uber and head down to Copacabana Beach to finish off a perfect day…

And then

On our way down from Christ the Redeemer, in an Uber, heading to Copacabana. Suddenly the cab screeched to a halt as two men stepped out on to the cobbled road in front of us. There was a moment of silence, as we tried to work out what was going on. Clearly the driver was spooked as he’d stood on the brakes to stop on the steep hill.

We peered out at the scene ahead and then saw one of the men raise an Uzi machine gun, crouch into a firing position, and aim right at us. The driver tried to reverse back up the street, but the clutch kept slipping on the steep hill, and the car wasn’t moving. The driver shouted ‘get out of the car, get out of the car’ so Anne and I slipped out of the doors, and using the car as a shield, headed back up the street. There was a lot of shouting going on.

The car managed to lurch up the hill, with the clutch screaming – the gunmen hadn’t moved – and we jumped in the car and sped away. I asked the driver ‘Foi um assalto’ via Google translate and he thought a gang were conducting a big drug deal in the area and had sealed off the streets.

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Around a quarter of Rio’s population live in the favelas or comunidades

All ended well, but it’s the first time I’ve been threatened by a machine gun (600 rounds per minute – I looked it up).

The driver dropped us off in Copacabana and said ‘Rio is very beautiful, but sometimes dangerous’. And of course that’s true. What happened to us could have happened to an organised tour bus, and obviously happens to local people living in the city. With the military deployed on the streets, and shoot outs Screenshot_20180822-135120_crop_653x703between them and well armed drug gangs, violence is a real problem in Rio.

But it’s a big city of over six million people and hundreds of thousands of tourists, most of whom are unaffected by this conflict. There are now regular organised tours into some favelas, with the avowed aim of showing the positive community organisation in these poor areas, although this ‘slum tourism’, as in South Africa and India, remains controversial.

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Jorge Selaron, with his take on favela living

As if to emphasise the normal life of Rio, within minutes of our scary moment we were walking along the beach in Copacabana, as people swam, played ‘ foot-volley’ and relaxed with cold beers on a sunny Saturday.

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We’d started off our time in Rio with a three hour free walking tour on the Thursday morning. It was very well done, with information about the unique and surprising colonial history and architecture of Rio. There were also some friendly and interesting people on the tour, so we signed up for an entertaining pub crawl in Lapa that evening. We missed breakfast the next day.

The walking tour ended at the Escadaria Selarón, 125 steps covered in different tiles and ceramics over decades by Chilean-born local artist Jorge Selaron. He spent his artistic life working on the steps, at first using reclaimed tiles and then adding contributions from around the world. It is an eclectic and vivid tribute to the people of his adopted city, Rio.

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Santa Teresa

One other area we visited in Rio was Santa Theresa, a mixed neighborhood with some old colonial buildings, either dilapidated or restored as well as poorer areas hanging on to the hill. One incentive for us to visit was the old tram that went from town, across the viaduct in Lapa and up the hill – hard for two ex tram drivers to resist. Our first visit was a wash out with rain and low cloud, but on the Sunday, after promenading on Ipanema beach and visiting the hippie market, we jumped on the tram and rattled through the streets once more.

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View from the tram as it crosses the viaduct in Lapa

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There is also a project representing the trams in ceramic tiles, which of course we liked.

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Perhaps the final highlight of our time in Rio came via a message from a friend in London – two friends were visiting Brazil, and might just still be in Rio. Sure enough, we tracked each other down and spent a lovely evening catching up and swapping tales, a precursor for our return home in October after two years traveling.

Arraial d’Ajuda

Heading North from Rio to Arraial d’Ajuda looked a logistical nightmare. Two flights (with a two hour delay), a taxi from Porto Seguro airport to the harbour, a ferry and then a van/bus to our hostel. Yet it all worked smoothly, despite the language barrier, and we were dropped right outside our hostel, Hostel Arraial d’Ajuda. And what a lovely place, beautiful, artistic shared areas, comfortable rooms and staff that did everything they could to make you welcome.

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Aerial d’Ajuda Hostel

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Arraial d’Ajuda is relaxed, with cobbled streets, markets, bars and restaurants. You get to the beaches down a steep cobbled street and then follow the coast along to your chosen spot. Minibuses ferry you back to the town square at the end of the day for a small fare. Lovely spot; and in the evening there is the music of Bahia on the streets and in the bars and restaurants.

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Caraíva

On the advice from our hostel we took a minibus tour to Caraíva – two hours over bumpy cobble and dirt roads would have been twice as long on a local bus. Access to the village, river mouth and beach is across the river, boats constantly ferry people and goods back and forth. There are no roads, and the whole place has a relaxed slightly ‘alternative’ vibe.

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The ever present foot-volley

Itacaré

It’s around 450km from Arraial d’Ajuda to Itacaré, and of course the journey starts with the bus/ferry/taxi to Porto Seguro. The bus to Itacaré is then another seven or eight hours, (comfortable but ice cold a/c) so we arrived about 8.00pm. Luckily our hostel, Che Lagarto, was a short walk from the bus depot and we were soon checked in and wandering down the pedestrianised street, looking for somewhere to eat. The hostel is in a great location and the people are friendly and helpful with advice and recommendations. It’s known as a surfing destination (we were amazed to see all the young people in the hostel up so early for breakfast!), but there are plenty of beautiful little bays with golden sands.

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The highlight of our time in Itacaré was a day  out on a boat for some whale watching. It was recommended by the hostel and Amanda, one of the workers there, volunteered to come with us to help with translation. The project is heavily involved in research of humpback whale migration, behavior and distribution along the coast of Brazil and our guide explained how local and global conservation efforts have seen a massive increase in whales migrating down the coast from Antarctica between July and October.

For the first hour, the boat rocked back and forth, but no whales, and unfortunately Amanda was seasick 😯.

And then we started sighting humpbacks.

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Before long there were groups of them all around the boat. In all we saw maybe fifty whales. One, bigger than the boat, passed underneath us. It was a wonderful sight.

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And then, just as we were about to finish for the day, three humpback whales breached the water and came crashing down nearby. Jaw dropping. I only managed to capture one picture, as it slammed down on to the sea -everyone was mesmerised by this force of nature.

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Our guides told us it was the best day of the year. It was a special experience.

From Itacaré, our next stop was Salvador, the old capital of Brazil and the capital of Bahia, with its unique history and culture. But that story will be in our next blog, coming soon.

A Slice of Argentina

South America

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Back in South America after thirty five years, it’s immediately clear that there is so much to see on this vast and varied continent that we would have to be traveling for another year at least if we wanted to experience it properly.

So for our few remaining months we’ve set ourselves the task of exploring a few regions of Argentina and Brazil, with the ambition to return – but maybe with a shorter interval between visits next time.

Buenos Aries

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Landing in Buenos Aries after a long flight from New Zealand gave us the chance to adjust to a new continent. All the basic things work – water, money, transport, eating, pavements, accommodation. Indeed it’s considered the most European of Latin America’s big cities, and though of course Spanish is universal there were plenty of locals who took pity on us and helped out with English.

We’d booked a room in Milhouse Hostel, a good choice in the heart of the city with lots of organised activities, including a walking tour of the barrio of La Boca. A traditional working class area, with a history of European immigration and radical politics, it is famous for its colorful tin covered buildings and walkways. These are said to have been inspired by one of its most famous sons, artist Benito Quinquela Martín who used his fame and wealth to provide medical care and facilities in the area.

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Tango dancers still perform on the streets
A large mural reflects continued anger and continued protest for The Disappeared, victims of Argentina’s Dirty War in the 1970s

And of course La Bombonera football stadium is in the heart of La Boca, where large sections remain standing areas, ensuring a ‘waterfall’ of fans when Boca Juniors score.

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La Boca, despite the tourist visits remains a vibrant community.

We spent the rest of our time in BA, visiting museums, watching a Tango performance and walking through the eerie streets of mausoleums in La Recoleta cemetery, where Eva Peron is buried.

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Tango is taken very seriously in Buenos Aries

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Salta

Salta, in the mountainous north west of Argentina, with its Spanish colonial buildings and Andean culture, was a real contrast to cosmopolitan Buenos Aries. It is also a popular destination for Argentineans, and we had trouble getting accommodation in the local holiday season. Luckily we found an Airbnb place in the centre of town (Posta del Àngel) and our plan was explore the city for a few days and then hire a car and drive into the mountains. The town square, elaborate churches, yummy empanadas, cold Salta beer and local restaurants all gave off a very relaxed vibe, and the Andean culture reminded us of Bolivia, all those years ago.

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We also visited the museum of High Altitude Archaeology, where the three mummified bodies of the Children of Llullaillaco are kept. They were discovered in 1999, at 6,800 metres on the border between Argentina and Bolivia. The mummies are Inca child sacrifices from the sixteenth century who were sacrificed to appease the gods and it was usually the children of the elite who were chosen. They were taken to Cusco and then sent high up in the mountains across the Empire where they were drugged, froze to death and then entombed. Seeing these mummified children was a sad, poignant moment, and to me a reminder of the insanity of religion.

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Our planned journey in to the mountain regions around Salta quickly fell apart when we turned up at the local Hertz car hire, only to be told they had no cars, despite having booked the car a week in advance and visiting the office twice beforehand. There were no other cars available in town. Luckily, even though we had checked out of Posta del Àngel, Marta was kind enough to let us back, and we then spent hours booking day tours of the area, which it must be said turned out to be well organised and informative.

North to Humahuaca

The tour ran along the Humahuaca gorge and the Rio Grande, once part of the Inca trails across the altiplano, connecting the vast empire.

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The startling colours of the sedimentary layers, twisted and thrown up in dramatic patterns were a striking feature of this journey. The village of Purmamarca set at the base of the seven colour hill also had a busy artisan market.

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Much simpler than the ornate churches of Salta

Humahuaca

The village of Humahuaca is dominated by a large statue, commemorating the native chasqui in the fight for independence.

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Tilcara

The Pukara fortress in Tilcara is impressive, because of its size and because it is the most extensive example of the pre Inca society that existed before the mid 16th century. It’s a harsh landscape, with giant cacti growing down the valley.

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The famous ‘Painter’s Palette’ rock formation

Salińas Grandes

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The next day we were to head high in to the altiplano, following the original route of the ‘Tren de Los Nubes’, the train of the clouds, with some track, viaducts and switchbacks still in place. This region is important for its mining, as you get higher, very little grows in this immense dry climate.

Lower down we spotted some ostriches that had come off the mountains in search of water, a Vicuna and a heard of llamas, brightly tagged and running across the path of our van.

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From a high point of 4,170m (around the height of the Matterhorn), where the air is thin, we dropped down to the Salińas Grandes at 3,400m (Ben Nevis in Scotland comes in at 1,350m).

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We tried some fun pictures with two great people from Barcelona, but I’d say I need to work on my technique🤣

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On our third day out of Salta we headed South to Cafayate. Again we encountered dramatic rock formations and vast empty landscapes, particularly as we headed through Quebrada de Las Conchas, the gorge of the shells, with 60 million year old sedimentary rock.

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We saw a condor soaring above our heads at Tres Cruces, visited a winery in the quaint town of Cafayete and headed for home before an early morning flight down to Puerto Iguazú and the falls.

Iguazú

The Iguazú National Park covers an area of subtropical rainforest on the border with Brazil. Within the park on the Iguazú River, the Iguazú Falls encompasses over 200 separate cascades, including the iconic Garganta del Diablo or ‘Devil’s Throat’.

It is, first and foremost, an experience of the power and wonder of a natural phenomenon and, as such descriptions and photos cannot do it justice. The Argentinean park is brilliantly designed to bring you close to the falls on accessible tracks through the rainforest. If you can, go!

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