Planet   Backpacker
  "From flying monkey gods and amorous donkeys to tales of a bus caravan speeding through a terrorist-infested desert, Downes puts you right there with him."-- Ben Gohs, Charlevoix Courier
  "From flying monkey gods and amorous donkeys to tales of a bus caravan speeding through a terrorist-infested desert, Downes puts you right there with him."-- Ben Gohs, Charlevoix Courier

Bumming Around Brazil: RIo, Ilha Grande & the Falls

Rio, Brazil, Sugar Loaf, Planet Backpacker
Chances are your first stop in Rio will be the cable car up the Sugarloaf.

"I dreamed I saw you walking on a Rio beach,

   Flower in your hair, so far out of reach…"

                              -- Acoustic Dynamite

   There's nothing to compare to the beaches of Rio de Janeiro, especially Ipanema, which on any given day looks to be packed with tens of thousands of buff and beautiful bodies lounging on the sand for miles down the bay.

   The spectacle of those sun-worshippers -- including a mix of favela kids from the hillside slums, tourists, families, gays and thong-clad beauties -- is part of the scenery itself in "the most beautiful city in the world." 

Travels With My Wife


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In the distance, the green peaks of the Two Brothers shimmer in the haze past the luxe shopping district of Leblon, while looking back over your shoulder, you can see the Sugar Loaf with its skein of cable cars creeping over the bay.  You see people of every racial heritage and nationality (Nigerians, Indians, Italians, Germans, Spanish, Portuguese and Japanese) walking hand-in-hand, sharing tables, and no doubt beds -- all of which adds to the exotic mix.  People-watching was our favorite thing to do in Rio.

   As travelers who prefer to 'see for ourselves' rather than heed warnings, my wife Jeannette and I nonetheless approached Rio and Brazil with a sense of trepidation.  The web brims with claims (and counter-claims) attesting that Rio is one of the most dangerous cities in the world and that you need to watch your back everywhere in Brazil in general.  One guidebook advised that tourists should always take cabs everywhere at night, even if it's only two blocks to your hotel.  And an old friend from Sao Paulo (who's been ATM-kidnapped two or three times) advised me that Rio is far more dangerous.  "We consider it the most dangerous city in Brazil."

   Then there are the news reports of robberies and shootouts on buses and police attacks on the drug lords of the favelas.  I expected an extremely tense atmosphere, much like a tropical inner city Detroit, with nothing but hassle, bad attitudes and confrontation just beyond our hotel door.

   Nothing could have been further from the truth.  Rio felt as safe and welcoming as Disneyworld -- as did all of Brazil -- with a booming middle class and friendly people at every turn who patiently accommodated my fractured Spanish and smattering of Portuguese.  I've never been so pleasantly surprised by any of the more than 55 countries I've visited through the years, or found the 'conventional wisdom' to be so wildly wrong.

Ipanema, Brazil, Planet Backpacker
If you're insecure about your body, the beach scene at Ipanema won't help. Slim down before you go!


   With that said, it's also true that we stuck entirely to the tourist path, spending four days in Rio, three on Ilha Grande, two in Parati, two in Foz de Iguacu and four in Florianopolis.  On our visit to the Christ the Redeemer statue, which requires a trip up toward the hills which are cloaked with favelas, I noticed some rough characters horsing around in a park who looked both illiterate and opportunistic.  So I can well imagine that it would be possible to get in over your head if you wandered off the beaten track…

   But as for ourselves, we walked along the mosaic sidewalk of Copacabana Beach at night, got blasted on caphirinhas (a lime and cactus drink that's a cross between a margarita and a mohito), took some of the local buses, and wandered around Copa's neighborhoods and beyond with a carefree (and sometimes blitzed) abandon.  The beachside cafes provide a relaxing, romantic way to wind down the night, with cool winds soothing the sunburn you acquired that day.

   Prices were surprisingly high, given what you might imagine from a newly-developed country: a cup of fresh-brewed coffee was about $4 U.S. in Ipanema.  On the other hand, a standard dish in Brazil is grilled fish filet for two, served with french fries and rice for around $22 -- a bargain we couldn't resist at dinner most nights.

   So, thumbs up Rio and Brazil.  Here's one itinerary for those looking to visit the country for the first time:

Ilha Grande, Brazil, Planet Backpacker
Ilha Grande, an hour or so south of Rio, has much the same vibe as the islands of Thailand.

  • Ilha Grande: Reminiscent of Phi-Phi in Thailand with its sandy streets, lack of cars and abundant backpackers, Ilha Grande was our favorite stop in Brazil.   It's a honeymoon island, adorned with a necklace of beaches and coves.

   Located about 120 miles down the Costa Verde south of Rio, Ilha Grande is reached by ferry from the town of Angra dos Reis.  We took a mini-van from our hotel in Rio (arranged through for around $100, including ferry tickets; but it's possible to spend far less by taking an express bus from the Rodaviaria Novo Rio bus station in Rio, which is how we returned.

  The town of Abraao serves as the island's headquarters, packed with shops, pousada guesthouses, hostels, campgrounds and restaurants.  (Be sure to check out the dessert carts in the evening.)

   Here too are a fleet of Portugeuse-style dragon boats (again, reminiscent of Thailand) that whisk tourists to a variety of beaches around the island, with the most popular destination being the Laguna Azul snorkeling trip.

   By luck, we booked the Pousada Manaca which is one of the few inns right on the beach just beyond the town.  Another twist of serendipity was reserving a second floor sea view room with a balcony ($115 per night) which appeared to be the finest lodgings on the entire island, with a fine breakfast in the garden each morning included along with the hospitality of owner Gerald and his family.

   As for things to do, the 6-hour trek across the island (and three mountainous climbs) to Lopes Mendes beach was a highlight.  It's said to be one of the most beautiful beaches in Brazil, and although you can take a pricey boat trip there, we preferred the jungle hike.  Got to see some interesting monkeys and removed a deadly poisonous coral snake from a crevice in the trail.

   Another great hike is the Circuito do Abraao just outside town which involves 2-mile jaunt past a ruined prison and an awesome aqueduct.  And of course, no trip to the island is complete without a snorkeling cruise on one of the many boats.  We were sorry to leave Ilha Grande.

Paraty, Brazil, Planet Backpacker
The old section of colonial Paraty hasn't changed much since the 1700s.

    • Parati:  This colonial town (also called Paraty) retains a touch of the 1700s with its cobblebrick streets, ancient churches and storefronts that were constructed with slave labor hundreds of years ago.

   With its bay discovered by Europeans in 1502, Parati soon became a major port of entry for Brazil, with slaves brought here from Africa and the Caribbean and agricultural goods and gold shipped back to Portugal in return.  Fortunately, "progress" and development managed to miss Parati in the 20th century and it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage region in 1992.  Today, it is one of Brazil's top tourist destinations.

   It's an easy 60-mile bus ride from the plaza in Angra dos Reis near the ferry docks from Ilha Grande, and Parati makes for a good continuation of a trip down the Costa Verde.  There are numerous hostels and budget hotels here, along with day trips and schooner excursions to the islands offshore.  At night, there's a lively dining scene around the plaza in town, often with free concerts.

Robert Downes, Jeannette Wildman, Brazil, Iguazu Falls, Planet Backpacker
Cooling off on a sultry day beneath the thunder of Iquazu Falls.

  • Iguazu Falls: Failing to visit Iguazu Falls on a trip to southern Brazil would be tantamount to a crime.  With numerous daily flights from Rio, Sao Paulo and other cities (or a 10-12 hour bus ride), it's not hard to work this spectacle into your itinerary.

   One of the world's premier waterfalls, this torrent of the Iguazu RIver is made up of 275 cascades averaging 210 feet high.  The falls are in the same league as Victoria in Kenya and Angel Falls in Venezuela, and they range along both sides of the border between Brazil and Argentina.

   Thousands of visitors are shuttled by buses through a rainforest park on the Brazilian side and it's easy to hop on and off at trails and attractions which include costly boat and helicopter rides.

   We opted for simply walking the mile-long trail (twice) which ends at a walkway out in the river where you're bathed in the mist of the thundering Devil's Throat.  Some visitors spend several days at the falls, but a single day felt just right for us.

   You can take a bus from the airport 15 miles to the city of Foz do Iguacu where there are budget lodgings, but given the notorious heat of the State of Parana, we decided to make this destination the "splurge" option of our trip with a fancy hotel.  We stayed just 2 miles from the airport (and far closer to the falls than in town) at the Hotel Panorama & Acquamania Resort ($128 per night) which had a large pool amid a palm tree setting, pleasant grounds with a hiking trail, and a nightly buffet of Brazilian specialties with live music.  Worth the extra dough.

   • Florianopolis:  We were lured to Florianopolis and Santa Catarina Island by the promise that it is the "hippest place" in South America, home to some of the continent's best beaches, shopping & nightlife scene, and allegedly the most beautiful women in the world (see supermodel and Floripa native Gisele Bundchen for example).

   The city of Florianopolis is the jump-off for the island, which offers about 30 miles of beaches, small villages and a massive tourist complex, Canasvieiras,  at the north end.  

   We stayed in Cassaveiras in the hope of catching some good night life/music and because it has buses connecting to the beaches in the south.  It was easy to catch a local bus from the airport to a larger terminal in Florianopolis and thence to the island, saving us a cab fare of $80 of so.

   Canasvieiras and Santa Catarina, it turns out, is of primary appeal to Brazilian tourists.  Although there is a large German colony on the coast north of the island, we were virtually the only non-Brazilians there, which made for an interesting experience and sharpened my language skills.  I mean, how many places do you go on earth where you don't bump into a European?

   Alas, the "hip" part of the town is mostly its evening shopping scene, strolling with thousands of people along packed streets, jammed with bikini and t-shirt shops.  There are plenty of restaurants (our favorites were those  overlooking the ocean), but we were disappointed to find no music/samba scene in evidence -- perhaps those clubs were off down the side streets or over in Floripa.  

   The best bits of Santa Catarina were strolling the beach in Canasvieiras amid hundreds of Brazilian families on vacation; a day on the lovely beach at Barra da Lagoa; and the even more beautiful beach at Praia Mole where you rent a chair for a few bucks and watch the surfers tumbling on some of the island's best waves.  

   Otherwise, this was the most expendable stop on our trip to Brazil. The hectic nightlife shopping scene got old fast and the buses, while wonderful to have available, were still a bit of grind to negotiate back and forth between beaches.  If we had it over to do, three days would have sufficed -- but please note, it may not be worth the bother if you're going for only two days.

   Details:  If you're planning a vacation in Brazil, take care to get your hotel reservations far in advance.  I found it difficult to find rooms for our end-of-January trip, even though I searched a variety of online sources six months in advance.  The best budget places that are touted on the Internet fill up fast.  You could probably arrive in Brazil without any reservations and find local pousadas and small hotels that aren't listed online, but it makes life easier to have your way smoothed in advance with a reservation, especially if you don't speak Portuguese. 

   • Getting Around:  Brazil has a great interurban bus system and we found this the best way to get up and down the Costa Verde south of RIo.  There are also minivan services, one of which we took while 'learning the ropes' of the country. These cost double or triple the average bus fare.

   In town, tourists are warned not to take the local buses, but this is overkill if you're just riding up and down the stretch along Copacabana and Ipanema.  There are also small jitney-style buses that can be hailed along this stretch if you grow tired of walking.

   If you've got plenty of time to kill you can take long distance buses all over the country, but this means many long hours in transit.  A popular option with travelers is flying, and Brazil has a 4-city flight package available for around $500.

   I found it difficult to order tickets over this particular package, however, which requires booking all of your flights at once.  And since we were only taking 3 flights in Brazil, I ordered them separately via TAM Airlines and came up spending slightly less than $500.  The flights were on time and efficient, with no hassles, though one attendant did advise me not to leave my iPhone in our luggage (good advice anywhere).


   • Warnings, crime, hazards, problems, etc:  None to report, and as noted above, Brazil and Rio both seem far safer and friendlier than as is widely claimed.  On the other hand, the neighborhoods got rougher and the people too the higher up you go on Rio's mountainside.  Best to beware.  Also, we met a young backpacker from Oregon who had his pocket picked at Iguazu Falls, however.  Apparently, it happened while he was waiting in line to get on the bus at the park.  For some reason, he made the error of leaving his wallet in his rear pocket -- never a good idea.  For more on safeguarding your wallet overseas, see the "How to Do It" section of my book "Planet Backpacker."

Iguazu Falls, Brazil, Planet Backpacker
You can't go to Brazil without seeing Iguazu Falls...
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