Morro de Sao Paulo

After our brief stint away from the normal beach destinations, we continued our journey to visit another beach on Tripadvisor’s Best Beaches in Brazil. We took a bus south from Salvador to a town called Valenca. From there, we took a slow ferry to the island of Morro de Sao Paulo. Though our guide book said it would be cheaper to do it this way, it is far slower and does not save you a lot of money. It is much better to take the direct ferry from Salvador to the island. Unfortunately, we had to figure this out the hard way.

Morro de Sao Paulo is a cute, little town, on an island south of Salvador da Bahia, where you can enjoy the warm waters of northern Brazil in a nearly waveless ocean. There is really only one street and 5 beaches, appropriately named First Beach, Second Beach, Third Beach, Fourth Beach, and Fifth Beach. Second Beach (#24 on Tripadvisor’s list) and Fourth (#8) Beach are the best and offer very different feels. Though Fourth Beach holds a higher position, I personally liked Second Beach better.

First Beach closest to the town, but is rather thin, especially at high tide. Yet, despite the size of the beach and the rocks scattered throughout, this is where all the local boys play and learn to surf. There is also a zipline that goes from the lighthouse on the ridge above into the water of First Beach.

Second Beach is close to all the restaurants and there are servers walking around all day that can bring you whatever you would like, including our beloved açai. Perhaps this is where açai officially became implanted in my heart. On top of serving our favorite Brazilian superfruit as a snack, one of the vendors would walk around yelling “Açaaaaa (5 second pause) EE!” very emphatically. We thoroughly enjoyed this vendor’s shtick and in fact, it is the only one we still remember. Because of all the amenities, proximity, fine sand, and warm waveless swimming area, this is the tourist beach and our favorite here.

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When you continue down the boardwalk following the water’s edge, you reach Third Beach. Third Beach is not really a beach at all. The tide gets too high here and covers most of the sand. It is still close to the vendors though and nice for an evening stroll.

Fourth Beach is a long stretch of quite beach space with coral in the water. Visit this one if you want to get away from the crowds. You can walk around in shin-high water and explore the reef and marine life. Be careful not to step on any of the dark spots since the coral is alive and you can kill it. If you are a runner, Fourth Beach makes an excellent spot to get some miles (or kms) in.

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As for the rest of the town, we stayed in a Che Legarto Hostel which proved to be nearly the same price as camping. It was very nice and secure, and they also had many activities every night. In town, souvenirs seemed pretty cheap, despite it being a touristic island. Because of the value, we opted to try a pizza “rodizio” at one of the restaurants on the way to the beach. A rodizio is the Brazilian word for all-you-can-eat buffet where the waiters walk around serving you as much food as you want. In this case, every kind of pizza you can imagine: shrimp (camarao), ham, hawaiian, veggie, garlic (alho), and even dessert pizza like chocolate and banana. While I am on the subject, another popular food option in Brazil is what they call “por kilo,” which essentially means you pay by weight. We also tried the famous Bahian street food, aracaje. This is a dense, fried manioc cake, topped with shrimp paste and whole shrimps and spicy oils. To go along with your street food, why not a street drink? Vendors line the boardwalk along Second beach at night making a number of delicious drinks at a good price. We would recommend pointing to one of the many fruits on a cart and asking for a caipiroska.

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Chapada Diamantina On A Budget

Everyone knows that Brazil has heaps of beautiful beaches. Nearly every city on the coast has one, but is there anything to do other than laze around on the magnificent beaches in Brazil? My answer is definitely. Perhaps the most obvious example is the Amazon surrounding the city of Manaus and covering about 40% of Brazil. The Pantanal close to the city of Bonito in the southwest of the country is also another interesting wildlife adventure. Brasilia, the capitol, is smack dab in the middle of the country where one can witness impressive architecture by Oscar Niemeyer, and there are some very nice colonial towns scattered throughout the country. The most popular are Paraty, Ouro Preto, Olinda, and Lencois.

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The colorful buildings and tight, cobblestoned streets make Lencois a very charming colonial village.

After our time in Rio de Janiero, we visited Lencois, a very small town about a 6 hour bus ride from Salvador de Bahia on the eastern coast. So why did we want to go here? Well for starters, we felt like we needed a break from the big cities and sandy beaches we had recently visited. We also love colonial towns and Lencois fits the bill perfectly. But, what really sold us was the fact that Lencois sits right at the edge of one of the country’s most famous national parks in an area known as Chapada Diamontina.

Lencois, itself, is a quiet, little town lined with colorful buildings, cobblestoned streets, and tour agencies. The tour agencies are trying to sell tours to Chapada Diamontina National Park, a strange, and timeless area of water wells, rock formations, caves, and ultra blue and red water. We visited some agencies to see what they had to offer and to get information on what types of tours were leaving in the next few days, but we felt the prices were much higher than expected. Since we were backpackers on a budget, it was time to get creative.

Note: When planning, we found this website and this map to be incredibly helpful. (as long as you can read a little Portuguese or can translate the page)

The deal in Chapada Diamontina is that all the locations can be quite far apart and some are a days drive away from Lencois. For this reason, Anna and I determined that because it was low season and there were not that many other people to split the cost of the tours, it was cheaper to rent a car, pay for gas, buy a map, and pay for local guides when we got to all the different sites. We rented a car (manual transmission, of course) from a place on the main plaza and drove to the attractions. We visited Gruta Lapa Dolce, Gruta da PratinhaMorro do Pai Inácio, Poco do DiaboPoco EncantadoPoco Azul and Cachoeira do Buracao.

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Nice Wheels eh?!

By doing it independently, we figured we saved half the cost of going through an agency and we still got to see all the spectacular scenery we wanted. To be honest though, Chapada Diamontina is so large that one could spend weeks here and still not see every waterfall, cave, and impressive natural formations. There are even opportunities to do multi-day guided treks inside the park, but we chose to do our own thing this time.

Day 1: The Northern Caves

On day one, we drove North and did a loop of some caves before returning to Lencois. Gruta Lapa Dolce is a 1 km long, pitch black, underground, cave with stalagmites (bottom) and stalactites (top), and all kinds of amazing cave formations. Our guide told us about the geology and history of the cave and pointed out the notable formations. We had fun guessing what the name of each was based on their appearance. During our time in the cave, it was only our guide, Anna, and myself down there. This was exactly the reason we came here. At one point, we turned off the flashlights they gave us and it was so dark that we could not even see our hands when touching our noses with them.

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Entrance to Gruta Lapa Dolce

Gruta da Pratinha was our second stop and is basically a cave and a natural swimming pool with some of the clearest water I have ever seen. When we walked into the warm water, there were all kinds of little fish that would wait for you to get in then start kissing your feet and legs. I assume they were just going after the bubbles we brought with us when entering the water, but it was a strange experience nonetheless. Pratinha was a nice place to cool off from the heat of the sun in a beautiful natural pool. You could explore the cave, swim with the fish, or zipline into the water for an extra cost.

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The clear waters of Pratinha

Morro da Pai Inácio is a lookout point North of the National Park. It is a plateau that is characteristic of the region and the view at the top is incredible. For a small fee, you can climb to the top of this natural rock formation and look out at the other rock faces jutting out all around you while you wonder how this strange landscape could have been made. It only takes about 15 minutes to get to the top and we would recommend it because you really get to see the unique geology of the region.

Poco do Diabo was our last stop of the day. Though it was a bit harder to find, despite being right off the main northern highway, we parked our car and started the 45 minute hike. The workers at the restaurant right next to the start of the trail were very friendly and helpful in giving us exact directions on how to get there. Poco do Diabo is a very beautiful, layered waterfall with reddish-brown water that you can swim in. It is contrasted by the slide-like Mucugezinho that is along the way to Poco do Diabo. Both are worth at least a quick visit or you can take your time enjoying the natural waterslide that is Mucugezinho and have a swim in the red water of “Devil’s Well.”

Day 2: The Pocos

On day two, we drove South from Lencois to Poco Encantado and Poco Azul. “Poco” in Brazilian Portuguese means (water)well, and “encantado” means enchanted. The reason for the name Poco Encantado became clear as soon as we entered the cave. After descending down some steep stairs, we were able to swim in an unbelievably clear-blue pool in a cave. We were the only ones there and it was just as enchanting as it was spooky. It was incredible to be able to see 17 meters (55 ft.) down. At the same time though, it was a bit nerve wracking looking into the water toward the darker end of the pool – who knows what kind of monsters live down there!

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Poco Encantado – our private, blue swimming cave

Poco Azul is further South from Poco Encantado, but is much larger and even more blue. We arrived just after the time in the afternoon when the sun comes streaking through at just the right angle to shine a ray of light and make the water even more blue. Even without the added sunlight, the water still had its amazing blue glow. Unfortunately, and probably thankfully, it is forbidden to swim in this ancient cave because soaps, shampoos, and other personal hygiene products that people use can alter the mineral make-up of the water.

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The minerals in the water make Poco Azul an outstanding blue.

Day 3: Buracao near Ibicoara

After the Pocos, we drove down to a town called Ibicoara where we spent the night. We arranged a guide for the next day to take us to Cachoeira do Buracao. When morning came, our guide directed us along a bumpy, gravel road for 1.5 hours. We parked the car, and began our hike along the river bed because the water had receded. Our guide said during summer months, it could be quite busy here, but because of the time of year that we visited, there was hardly any other people. Along the way, the guide pointed out some plants and small critters, and explained a little about the landscape.

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At the top of the falls…

Near the end of our hike, we started the descent down some rocks and ladders. We followed the trail to the left until the walls started to change. It was as if someone had made a canyon of stacked, flat boulders, and took the trail away. Or so we thought. The guide said we had two choices: hike or swim. Surprisingly, the water looked like Coca-Cola so we chose to hike it instead of swim. We then proceeded to hike across an aged wooden plank over the canyon water to the other side of the canyon wall. Carefully, we shuffled along the side of the stacked rocks using whatever we could for footholds and handholds. When we rounded the bend, we finally saw it.

Cachoeira do Buracao is one of the most unique waterfalls I have ever seen with its layered canyon walls, 85 meter (279 ft.) of height, ability to go behind the waterfall as well as jump off of the walls into the Coca-Cola water below. I guess that is why it is called “Big Hole Waterfall” in Portuguese. This was my favorite spot that we visited.

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There it is! Cachoeira do Buracao!

Though we only drove through a very small section of the National Park, as you can see, there are plenty of other features that make this area well worth visiting. Of the places we visited, my favorites were Lapa Dolce, Poco Encantado, and Cachoeira do Buracao. Hopefully next time we return, we can do some multi-day tekking into the interior of the National Park because there are plenty of other awaiting adventures in Chapada Diamontina!

I HIGHLY recommend visiting this place.

Rio de Janiero

“Tall and tan and young and lovely, the girl from Ipanema goes walking.” Everyone knows the song, but did you know that it was written about a real person? I didn’t either. I did know, however, that Ipanema, alongside Copacabana (which is also a famous song title, but about a club in Miami), is one of the most famous beaches in the world. In fact, the city of Rio de Janiero basks in the glory of its several world-famous beaches. It is even has the nickname of the “Marvelous City.”

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Ipanema Beach in Rio de Janeiro

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One of the most famous spots on the beach, posto 9 is supposedly where the fabulous people congregate.

Undoubtedly one of the most unique and recognizable cityscapes on the planet, Rio de Janiero is home to the world’s largest urban jungle. Green hills flow seamlessly into the city. Sugarloaf Mountain pokes out into the sea. Several famous beaches line the coast. The Maracanã is one of the most famous soccer stadiums in the world, and the Sambadrome is home to the madness that is Carnival. All this is overlooked by Christ the Redeemer, one of the 7 Wonders of the World.

Each of these landmarks add to the city’s fame and mystique, but for me, a look from inside the city revealed a different story. To be honest, I thought I would love Rio de Janiero, especially after watching the colorful cartoon movie called “Rio.” Yet when I arrived in the “Cidade Maravilhosa,” I did not feel the charm I thought I would. Anna and I even stayed in “the best hostel in South America” according to HostelWorld, which was nice, but not “the best” on our list.

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A look at the Maracanã from above.

The hostel staff were careful to remind us about carrying cameras and phones, and not to wear any jewelry, including $10 watches from Target. They pointed out the areas in the city that were safest to walk, and told us to pay extra attention to our belongings while on the beach. Even though we had been traveling for nearly 11 months, we could tell that Rio was probably the most dangerous place we had been. With these (and many more) safety precautions freshly on our mind, we walked the entire length of Leblon beach, Ipanema beach, and most of Copacabana, but were not totally impressed. Though they are nice beaches, I personally think there are better beaches in Brazil. In my opinion, theses famous beaches make the city of Rio look prettier, but the city buildings do not reciprocate. Plus, the higher risk of danger, and dirtiness of the city took away from a potentially very charming place.

It was not until Anna and I took the cable car up to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain, the famous, tan rock formation that is in nearly every photo of Rio de Janiero, that we began to see the beauty of the city. Just like Huayna Picchu is in every photo of Machu Picchu, Rio de Janiero would not look the same without the “Pão de Açúcar.” Once atop, the real beauty of Rio shined, like the sun in our face. It was almost magical to be removed from the stress of constant vigilance and watch the city lights begin to twinkle on as the sun set over the urban forest that encompasses the city. For a moment, we almost forgot about the potential dangers down below. The pictures do not do justice. This is a must see for anyone visiting Rio.

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Cable car up to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain

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Looking at Rio atop the Sugarloaf Mountain at sunset.

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Cable car down with a view of the city below

The next day we wanted to climb to the top of Corcovado so that we could visit the Christ the Redeemer statue. Before we started to hike the trail, we were again reminded of the violence in the city when a group of tourists came down from the trail and warned us not to climb that way. They had just been mugged by 4 men with knives. Even though we had travel insurance, we decided to take the tour van up to the entrance since it was much safer. Christ the Redeemer was looking over us the whole time.

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When we arrived at the top and looked out over the city, I was again moved by the natural beauty of the city’s landscape. There was also a paraglider floating above us and above the 98 ft. statue of Christ. Looks like we were not the only ones enjoying the escape.

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When we came down from Corcovado, Anna and I met up with our Couchsurfing host, Cristiano, at an all-you-can-eat Brazilian Steakhouse. It was awesome to see the waiters carry around sabers of every different kind of meat for you to choose from. This was our first time Couchsurfing and had a great experience with Cristiano.

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Like the unreachable charm that is alluded to in “The Girl from Ipanema,” the beauty of Rio at the time of our visit was much easier seen from afar; in photos or from lookouts atop the Pão de Açúcar or Christ the Redeemer hill. Rio de Janiero has a lot of things going for it and may even have the potential to be one of the prettiest cities in the world, but in our opinion, there is still a lot of work to be done. Was it everything I had hoped it would be? No. Would I go back? Yes. Would I recommend it to others? Yes, but go prepared.

Buzios: Escape from Rio

Cabo Frio

Three hours east of Rio de Janeiro lies the peninsula of Cabo Frio. It would not be unreasonable to think of Cabo Frio as the Cape Cod of Rio de Janiero. It is a favorite vacation spot for Cariocans (the name for people from Rio) because of its wonderful beaches, diverse activities, great weather, and close proximity to the city. The peninsula itself, however, is actually made up of 3 areas: Arraial do Cabo, Cabo Frio, and Armação dos Buzios.

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Lagoa Beach Hostel in Buzios

We ended up here on a whim. As we tried to leave Sao Paulo for Paraty, we found out that the buses were all sold out. So, because there was availability on the buses, we decided that Cabo Frio would be our next destination. Our bus was an overnighter, getting us to the town of Cabo Frio in the morning. From there, we took a local bus to Arraial do Cabo only to determine that the hostels (and campground) there were not what we wanted. This brought us to Buzios, a short bus ride away, but that quick stop in Arraial do Cabo was enough to make us want to come back- for the beaches at least.

Armação dos Búzios

Buzios, which is sometimes called Buzios Aires because of the large amount of Argentinians that vacation there, is a great place for a beach vacation. Although Arraial do Cabo claims a few of Brazil’s best beaches, Buzios also offers its fair share of nice beaches to enjoy. Once in Buzios, we asked around to see which ones were worth our time. Here are a few of the beaches we tested and our opinions about them:

  • João Fernandes is the most well known and popular beach, but is very thin and becomes very crowded when the tide comes in. This is Anna’s favorite beach because of the sparkling water, little to no waves, and all of the amenities.
  • João Fernandinho is a smaller beach right along side João Fernandes over a small rocky strip.
  • Praia Armação/Centro is right near the main downtown area and has nice boardwalks and restaurants though it is not good for swimming.
  • Praia Osso is a little ways down the boardwalk from Centro before you reach the church, but is very similar to Centro and not ideal for swimming.
  • Praia Azeda is labelled as the best place to watch the sunset in Buzios, though it is a bit of a walk from the main tourist area.
  • Praia Geriba is a much larger beach with plenty of space to play beach soccer, play in the waves, build sand castles, or take in the sun’s rays. This was Adam’s favorite beach. It was also the only beach with waves large enough to surf and that was not in a cove.
  • Praia Ferradurinha is a very small beach, but equally as crowded as João Fernandes. It is a little harder to find, but has very calm waters. May be a good place to learn how to Stand Up Paddleboard.
  • Praia de Ferradura is a larger beach that is sheltered in a cove surrounded by large, private homes. This protected it from normal ocean waves. It was also the least crowded beach we visited in Buzios.
  • Praia de Manguinhos is across the peninsula from Geriba and is lined with restaurants which had very nice waterfront seating areas. Not for swimming.

During our time in Buzios, we stayed in a pretty nice Che Lagarto Hostel which was close to the center of Buzios for the first night. Che Lagarto is a chain of hostels scattered throughout South America and it has a reputation of being a bit pricey. This is not our preferred type of hostel so we switched to a cheaper, less crowded hostel called Lagoa Beach Hostel. There were not many guests at this fairly new hostel and in fact, we ended up talking to the owner quite a bit because we were the only guests for most of our stay. The owner, it just so happened, was a young German girl who started her life in South America in Chile. Where in Chile? Pucon. Where in Pucon? Hostel El Refugio. That is right. She worked in the same hostel that we did when she first came to South America. What a coincidence!

Arraial do Cabo

While we were in the Cabo Frio area, we spent most of our time in Buzios, but we ventured to Arraial do Cabo for one day. You see, part of the reason we decided to come to this area was because we wanted to visit as many of the top beaches in Brazil as possible. Arraial do Cabo on the peninsula of Cabo Frio is host to 3 of the top 20 beaches on the list. Even though we found Buzios to be a better spot to find a hostel, the beaches in Arraial do Cabo did live up to the hype. Clear, blue, refreshing sea water, and fine, white, windswept sand, and on top of that, they were not overcrowded with people.

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Farol Beach – Arraial do Cabo

To visit the best beaches in Cabo Frio it is necessary to take a boat. We took a boat tour from Praia Dos Anjos to some of the hard to get to beaches that were on our list. First we stopped at Farol Beach, then Prainhas do Pontal do Atalaia, and after that we visited Forno Beach before returning to land. Though all the beaches were good, Farol Beach was definitely our favorite and one of the best beaches we have been too. This boat trip is highly recommended if you are in the area, but try to haggle down the price with the people selling you the tour.

TIP: It does not make much difference which tour operator you go with because they all stop in the same spots, unless you opt to go on a longer tour or do some scuba diving.

After our week of relaxing in Buzios, it became one of our favorite spots in Brazil. Next stop, the Marvelous City…

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Florianopolis… Finally!

When Anna and I first started our South American Adventure on June 9th, 2013, we were initially going to arrive at our destination, Florianopolis, Brazil, in the beginning of August 2013. Well, August came and went, and we were still traveling. So did many more months. The reason being is we heard many travelers talking about so many awesome places that we decided to continue exploring other areas of the southern continent instead of heading straight to Brazil.

It was not until May 2014 that we crossed the Argentina/Brazil border and finally made it to our original destination of Florianopolis- a full 9 months later than initially expected. DSC05215It was well worth the wait. Floripa, as the locals call it, is a paradise. You see, Florianopolis is both a large city and an island with 42 beautiful Brazilian beaches. A bridge (that looks an awful lot like the Golden Gate Bridge) connects the island to the mainland, as well as the western side of the city to the eastern side of the city. Once on the island we were transported by bus from the city center to a beach bum’s wildest dreams: long stretches of beautiful beaches, trails through wild forest, glassy lakes, small towns with the right amount of nightlife, and every possible water sport you can imagine.

We made our way through Lagoa da Conceição, a central hub on the island, and found a hostel in Fortaleza da Barra. It was called Floripa Home Hostel and was one of the best hostels we have stayed in during our time in South America. After 11 months of travel, we have stayed in many places, but this was easily in our top five. It was a hidden gem (clean, low key, awesome views, nicely decorated), so we made it our home for the next week in order to explore the island from a central location. During the week to follow, Anna and I were able to enjoy five beaches on our own, plus four more with the help of my friend, Michelle, and her car. As our tour guide for the day, Michelle gave us a snapshot into local island life and also taught us a bit about Brazilian culture. This was extremely helpful because Floripa was our first stop in Brazil, and we knew zero Portuguese. Though similar to Spanish, it is still an entirely different language, but I suspect that knowing Spanish helped us to pick up Portuguese a bit faster.

Besides the normal relaxing on the beach activities like tanning or swimming, there are so many things to do on the island. These include sandboarding on the sand dunes, waterskiing, windsurfing, kite surfing, regular surfing, stand up paddle boarding, boating, wakeboarding, beach soccer, “frescobol” (beach ping pong), or just about any other water sport or beach activity imaginable. There are even lessons for nearly all of the previously mentioned sports. When you have had enough of the beach, you could head to any one of the small beach towns, like Barra da Lagoa, to grab a bite of Brazilian cuisine or wait until night time and check out the nightlife in Lagoa da Conceição. The island has everything you could want; from the low key, more natural beaches on the southern tip, to the luxurious beach destination for famous celebrities in the northern stretch of the island. Regardless, the easy-to-use buses can take you and your surf board to the majority of the beaches in Florianopolis.

I highly recommend exploring Florianopolis for at least a week to anyone visiting Brazil. Though we did not end up staying there as long as we originally thought, we certainly were happy we made it and can not wait to go back. After all, there are still thirty-three other beaches for us to discover!

 

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