Ilhabela Part 1: Paradise and Hemorrhoid Cream

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View from our balcony

I knew it was going to be a good day when I woke up Monday morning, after a great night’s sleep, and had an amazing cup of coffee! We were off to the Ilhabela to stay at my friend Anna’s hotel for a few days. Anna has been unconditionally helpful to us on the trip so far. She has booked us flights, phoned hostels, and put up with my endless emails asking her to translate Portuguese so I can organize Carnaval accommodation. On top of all that, she is the manager of an amazing 4 star hotel, called Hotel Mercedes, on an island off the coast of Brazil, and has reserved us a room for the week!
 

 

The morning continued successfully when we arrived with perfect timing to the bus station.  We got our tickets for a cheaper price than expected, and I finally found a dress that I had long been searching for (at 50% off, might I add). It took us about 4 hours to get to the island, including the quick 15 minute ferry from Sao Sebastio. We easily found a cab that took us right to the hotel, and was greeted by a bellboy who grabbed both our bags to take to reception.

 

We already realized we were outside our comfort zone. There’s no way we are classy enough for a place like this. It is absolutely unbelievable. As I told Anna, I could have slept on one of the couches in the lobby and been on cloud nine! 
Adam and I decided the place was medieval castle meets Caribbean luxury resort! A unique combination of stone walls and large, dark wood furniture combined with modern looking white and blue accent pieces and splashes of bright tropical color. The place has it’s own private beach and bar with a swimming pool, a long dock with a plethora of sun chairs and a refreshing breeze! We checked into the hotel, and the bellboy brought us, and our bags, through the hotel to our room. It is quite a walk through the place; we passed a large common room with a huge 52″ TV in it, a reading room with tables and chairs to relax in, and walked over a small river with waterfalls that runs right through the middle of the grounds. We were escorted up to a floor that needed a special key just to get on to, walked to the end of the hall, and was led in to our suite… OH MY GOD!

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This is hands down the nicest place I’ve ever stayed in. We had the most VIP suite in the entire hotel. Our bathroom alone was bigger than my bedroom at home, with a his and her sink, a two person Jacuzzi, a walk-in shower that could fit 11 people (Adam at 6′ could lie down in the shower and have a good foot and a half to spare before touching the walls!). Our bedroom had a 46″ plasma TV in it, a two person couch that sat in front of a king sized bed, a fully stocked mini fridge, a lounge chair and a whole desk area full of stylish magazines. Our deck, which was on the corner of the building, looked out towards both the ocean, and across the property. We had a little glass table with chairs for a morning coffee, or a crib tournament in the evenings, and a big round lounge chair to curl up and watch the sunset (my favourite place in the room). We were absolutely floored by the place! Anna, if you’re reading this, you are an angel. You have outdone yourself, so thank you to you, Stefano and to your family sooooo much!
 

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After settling into our room, we went down to the pool for a swim. The pool was like bath water and was a perfect way to unwind, watch the sunset and nibble on a bruschetta appy! We then walked around the area checking out the neighboring beaches and the nearby restaurants (we definitely have the nicest beach area). Then afterwards, off to town for dinner! This is the first time on our trip that I actually look like a girl! With the dress I bought earlier and the fact that there is a shower with pressure AND a hairdryer in our room, I actually managed to look presentable for dinner! So we bussed into town and found a lovely restaurant with live music and a great atmosphere. We shared a large fish dish that was delicious.  This was also the first time we’ve ordered seafood on the trip, so that made me happy.  After dinner we stocked up on beers, and the mixes needed for delicious caipirinhas, and headed back to the room for another crib tournament.

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The next morning, after an amazing sleep in our air-conditioned room and king-sized bed, we went to breakfast. For breakfast we were spoiled again. It was served, buffet-style, in a giant hall and had everything under the sun: fresh fruits and pastries, rolls, croissants, cereal, frittatas, coffees, juices, various meats and cheeses and two whole tables of desserts! There was apple crumble, chocolate cake, cheese cake and so many more! This is definitely a change from the stale bun and dolce de leche we have been getting at our hostels, so we took FULL advantage of the feast! 


 

But after breakfast, you’ll be sad to hear, our day got very stressful. We went out to the dock, set up lounge chairs and umbrellas, grabbed some icy beers and homemade caipirinhas and sat there for 6 hours. Decision-making was difficult… Should I hold my beer in my left hand, and have the breeze blow cold condensation on my stomach, or in my right hand where it is more difficult to write my blogs? Should we listen to Matchbox 20 or Third Eye Blind on Adam’s speakers? It’s frustrating that the beautiful cruise ships are in the way of my otherwise uninterrupted view of the mainland mountains. It’s equally upsetting that I can’t spend the afternoon picking out shapes in the clouds… because there aren’t any. Should I tan my back, or my front? Read or listen to music? Swim in the ocean or the pool?  Luckily I don’t have to worry about going to the bar for beer, or keeping track of money, because the bar staff will bring everything out to us, and just charge it to the room… But that’s really the only thing we have going for us. 

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Either way, after 6 hours in the sun, even with sunscreen, I was a lobster from head to toe! We’d been drinking steadily in the sunshine for several too many hours and I needed to go inside. So back up to our suite we went! Sadly, once we got there, we missed being at the pool, so we decided, in our inebriated state, to have our own pool party! 
I honestly don’t think it is humanly possible for any other male / female duo to make this honeymoon suite LESS romantic than Adam and I did. We first filled our two-person Jacuzzi tub with icy cold water (to ease my burn) and added Adam’s laundry “camp suds” detergent to make tonnes of bubbles. Then we grabbed a family sized bag of Ruffles chips, cracked a couple more beers and belted out, old school Third Eye Blind songs (with the speakers on full blast) for the better part of 2 hours.  We then high-fived at the realization that we were probably the only people to have ever done this in such a VIP suite. Once again, clearly not classy enough for a place like this. 


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After the Jacuzzi party, we headed back into town for dinner. We went back to the same restaurant, since they had amazing deals on food before 8pm. Our two main problems for the evening were money and sunburns. We had just enough cash on us for dinner, some after-sun lotion, a case of beer and the bus home with 3 dollars to spare, and so, Adam ran to the bank during dinner to get cash. Unfortunately that particular bank would not work with either of our cards. So after dinner, we went to the only other bank in town; BOTH machines were out of order. Great.

 

Even with our limited funds, my sunburn was stinging so badly that I stopped in the pharmacy to grab some aloe. I couldn’t see any on the shelf, so tried to ask the man behind the counter. I did one of those “I don’t know your language, so I’m going to attempt to describe my issue via charades” act… The man handed me hemorrhoid cream. Clearly I’m not cut out for charades. Turns out, the cream was ALSO useful for sunburns, but no one mentioned that it will also turn your skin a streaky beige colour. At this point I would have tried anything: so I buy the lotion. Then we wait at the bus stop, I’m covered in hemorrhoid cream from head to toe, and we have a combined total of $3 to our names. The bus comes and we jump on. Turns out, this is the turn around point for this bus, and we start going in the wrong direction from our hotel. The stop buttons aren’t working, and we don’t know where we are going, so, 4km in the wrong direction, when the bus makes its first stop, we jump off. Now we have $2 to our names, we are in the middle of nowhere on a random island, and I am STILL covered in hemorrhoid cream. Luckily, within a couple minutes, a bus drives by; we chase it down and cross our fingers it’s going where we need to go. It does! We head up to the room, I take an Advil and try to sleep while Adam watches a movie in Portuguese. Rough day in paradise.
 

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The next day we decide to do nothing again. Breakfast in the morning, beach in the day! Only this time Adam won’t let me in the sun. So I am forced to stay in the shade of an umbrella and sulk while I watch everyone play in the sunshine. It is, however, another perfect day. Cool breeze, flying fish jumping out of the water on all sides of us, big turtles coasting through the waves, and a perfectly sunny afternoon! We once again sit for hours reading, lounging, and sipping on cool beverages: a much-needed vacation after a month of travel.  Honestly, traveling is tough! At the end of the day, we are much more relaxed, albeit still broke. The ATM’s were still out of service, so we decide to leave the issue for “mañana” – such a South American mindset already!
 

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When mañana arrives, we head to the big town of Ilhabela to find a working bank machine. It’s our major excursion for the day, and after three days of nothing this seems like an impossible task. But we guess the bus system correctly this time, so the trip is fairly straightforward. I even find some real aloe vera at the supermarket! Then back to the beach (where I’m again banned from the sun) to await Anna’s arrival!

Sao Paulo: Barzinos and Caipirinhas!

The short three days we spent in Sao Paulo were amazing, thanks to the generosity of my wonderful friends, Lilian and Raf. We spent Friday in zombie mode after our sleepless bus ride from Blumenau. By the afternoon, we got our bearings in the Vila Mariana and checked out a local mall for a couple hours. Sao Paulo is MASSIVE, and that is a huge understatement. It is the business district of Brazil and has a population of 20 million people (three times the size of Rio). The city buildings stretch literally as far as the eye can see, and traffic is horrendous 24/7. The metro system is, fortunately, very excellent. 2nd in the world to Shanghai, Sao Paulo’s metro moves 6 million people each day through it’s various line (As Adam pointed out, that is the equivalent of Canada’s entire population in less than a week). Commuting to work in the city sounds like a nightmare. People have up to 2 or 3 hours of commuting EACH WAY to get to their jobs (i.e. Lilian), and even a very short distance makes for a tedious journey (Raf takes a quick 40 minutes to get to work… And lives 7km away).  It’s work, work, work for most Brazilians from Monday to Friday: then the parties start!

Lilian picked us up Friday night and took us out on the town. We headed to the lively Vila Madalena neighborhood where the streets are lined with Barzinos, or “little pubs,” that are EVERYWHERE in Brazil. We found a nice one that had a live Samba band and sat down for a drink and some food. Everyone but Adam and I knew the lyrics to each and every song.  People of all ages would get up by their tables to dance and sing along! Lilian even taught us a few moves and we danced along with the locals! We sipped on icy beers and I had a kiwi caipirinha, thanks to Panos’ recommendation, that was out of this world!  It was great to see the lively atmosphere of Sao Paulo on a Friday night! Everyone clearly loves to party here and the weekend is definitely the time to let loose. Bars here close well into the morning, but we went home at a very early 2AM, because we had still been awake since the morning we woke in Blumenau.

The next day, after another terrible sleep for both of us, we went to explore the city. We walked down Franca Pinto Street and found a large farmers market that was full of fresh fruits, vegetables, cheeses, meats and fish that continued for blocks! At the end of the market was one of Sao Paulo’s largest parks. The place was filled with families, couples, people running, biking, rollerblading and picnicking all over the place! There were a number of museums – one of which we explored that was a very strange modern art museum full of creepy statues and paintings all displayed on metal scaffolds. Giant video screens hung in each one of the scaffolds and had a film of each of the artists talking, I’m assuming about their collection, but we didn’t understand any of the language so we were very lost.

After the park, we headed out on the metro to a place where they were offering free walking tours of the city. We were only 2 of 4 people that spoke English on the tour, and so the whole thing was done in Portuguese (although the guide was nice enough to come up after and give us a very brief summary about what she was talking about). Either way, we had a nice time exploring the Luz district, saw the Parque do Luz, and walked through another Brazilian museum for a half hour.

Later that evening we met up with my friend Raf and went for pizza. Not just any pizza, mind you, but the best pizza IN THE WORLD. They say that Sao Paulo makes the best pizza on Earth, so much so that Italians come here and get jealous. We went to one of the most renowned and oldest pizza parlors in all of Sao Paulo. The place was a brothel turned pizza joint, but you would never know it. By the time we arrived, the place was full and Raf already had our names on the list. The place was SUPER classy and all of a sudden I felt a little under dressed in my backpacker outfits! Thankfully, they let us in anyways. Raf did all the ordering, as we were once again lost with the Portuguese menu, and the place looked a little too nice for me to whip out our Portuguese/English dictionary that I have embarrassingly done on so many previous occasions. We started with Antarctica beer and the most amazing Bruchetta! Then came our first pizza! The thing about Brazilian pizza is that it has a thin but perfectly crispy crust to it and it’s extra cheesy!! Unfortunately, there’s no way for me to really describe what’s so awesome about it… You’ll just have to come down yourself. But I promise you; it is out of this world! We also tried one with a vegetable called palmito on it. At first I heard there was no English translation for this word.  I didn’t think I had seen it before, until finally I saw a street vendor selling it whole.  “Palmitos” are Palm Hearts! They are white and crunchy and a PERFECT addition to pizza! All future South American pizzas will be sure to have this on it!  We enjoyed our pizza dinner so much that we actually refuse to eat pizza for a while so as not to be disappointed!

After dinner, Raf took us on a whirlwind nightlife tour of Sao Paulo. We drove down Augusta street, which is Sao Paulo’s equivalent of Vancouver’s Granville street, but on steroids! People from all walks of life were out and about on a Saturday night! People were lined up for concerts, nightclubs, drinking beer in the street, gathered in groups, relaxing in Barzinos! There were the classy groups, punks, skater kids, the club crews, people listening to electro music, and others to traditional Samba. This place was the happening area of town for sure! Raf said that nightclubs could be up to $CAD30+ for cover, and they stay open until 7am. We drove down the street for about 15 to 20 minutes and didn’t get remotely close to the end. The street continues for block after block and goes straight down to the centro of Sao Paulo. We decided to head to a quieter neighborhood to catch up over some good beers. Raf took us to a pub in the Vila Mariana district that served hundreds of types of beer imported from around the world (a rare find in Brazil, where they usually offer the same 3 or 4 types of lagers). There we tried a delicious beverage that I cannot, for the life of me, remember the name of.

After the pub, Raf invited us back to his apartment for some real Brazilian booze. His apartment is right in the middle of Sao Paulo and is GEORGEOUS! An elevator that takes him directly to his front door, the apartment is the entire 15th floor and wraps around in a giant circular shape. His balcony is massive and looks out onto the endless concrete buildings that make Sao Paulo. The city is beautiful at night! The three of us sat outside, sharing stories and taking shots of cachaca well into the night. Raf offered to take us to a football match the next day, but we already have plans with Lilian’s family. Oh how I wish we had longer to spend in Sao Paulo!

For weeks now, we have been at a loss for what to do on Sundays. Sunday’s in South America are “taken very seriously” as many have told us. The cities shut down; everyone leaves the bustle of urban life, and spends the day eating good food with their families. As a backpacker, this is slightly depressing. We are left with nothing to do, and missing our families back home. This past Sunday, however, Lilian kindly invited Adam and I to join her and her family, at their country home, for a swim in the pool, a “churrasco” BBQ, and a first-hand look into how Brazilians spend their Sunday. 
So we got up bright and early Sunday morning and headed out of the city center to Lilian’s family’s place. Her family is ADORABLE! We met one of her sisters, her parents and her grandmother at the house and they immediately offered us anything we could want: breakfast, drinks, seats etc. Her parents don’t speak any English (apart from her father who throws out the occasional English word to impress us) but Lilian is a fantastic translator, and I found out later her father understands Spanish, so we are able to small talk when Lilian is gone. 
We drove the hour and a half or so out of the city to their home, and it was perfect! On a hilltop with a beautiful view of rolling hills, their house is a quaint little villa with a couple large BBQ pits and an outdoor pool. Hammocks were hung on the front porch for siesta time, lawn chairs on the grass, and 4 different puppies happily greeted us as we came through the gate! The backyard had a big vegetable garden with lettuce, fields of corn, lychee trees, mango groves, and fruits we’ve never even heard of before!

We hadn’t been at the house for more than five minutes before we were handed icy beers, a caipirinha, and the BBQ was turned on. We met Lilian’s aunt at the house as well, who brought more delicious food to the gathering. Within no time, Lilian’s father was bringing platters of meat to the table. Juicy sliced steaks and chicken wings cooked to perfection. When we moved inside, another plate was placed in front of us.  When it looked like our plate was getting low, another one appeared, overflowing with food (The same rule applied for cold beers). By the time salad and rice was brought out we were stuffed!

The caipirinhas were fantastic! We asked Lilians father to show us how to properly make them so we could try on our own later. His special formula was one thinly sliced lime, muddled at the bottom of a glass, half a lime squeezed for juice, a couple heaps of sugar, fill the glass with cachaca (39% alc) but leave a little room to water it down… with VODKA. Apparently this makes the drink smoother. No wonder we were feeling the booze after only one drink each! It probably had 5 shots of straight alcohol in it! But man were they tasty!  After lunch everyone had a siesta while Adam and I played in the pool. We had a big inter-tube that left us more entertained than a child with an oversized box. After a couple hours in the pool we sat down to a game of cards. We taught Lilian and her dad how to play golf, and even with the language barrier we had a blast!

At the end of the afternoon, Lilian’s parents headed out on their motorcycle for home, we joined them shortly afterwards in Lilian’s car. The day was absolutely wonderful and Lilian’s family was more than hospitable to us! They said next time we come to Sao Paulo we will have to stay at their home, and we can visit their beach home on the next trip (how luxurious are these people!?). It was so great to finally get to experience a Brazilian Sunday.  The tradition of family and food first is something I wish we had more of in Canada. It was definitely a perfect way to spend our last night in Sao Paulo!

Blumenau: A 46 Hour Mission for Great Beer!

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For those of you interested in hearing about our time in Curitiba, I’m sorry, we missed it. Our long bus ride from Campo Grande, apart from being 10 hours longer than our ticket said, was an additional hour and a half late. We rolled into the city close to half past 7 in the evening, and seeing the size of the city, had no desire to search out a place to stay, only to jump on a bus bright and early in the morning to head to Blumenau, our intended destination. So we arrived in Curitiba, went to the ticket counter and booked a bus right to Blumenau 45 minutes later. Another 4 hours on a bus to go. 
We heard about Blumenau, only a week and a half ago, and instantly decided we wanted to go. We have been enjoying Skol, Brahma, and Antarctica, Brazil’s mainstream beers, because they are light, refreshing and perfect to sip on at the beach or patio on a scorching day; however, we still craved a better tasting and more full flavored beer.  Due to the overwhelming number of immigrants from Germany, Blumenau has a very traditional European feel to it. It also has several German breweries, all of which produce the best beers in all of Brazil (arguably South America). “The Best Beer” is way too tempting of an idea for Adam and I, and so, we went on the most epic, 46 hour adventure in the wrong direction, to spent only 7 hours drinking… Ridiculous? Yes. Worth it? Absolutely!


 

 We pulled up at the Blumenau bus station at 12:30am, after 36 hours of traveling, with absolutely no plans. There is no information on Blumenau in our Lonely Planet guide, the bus station has no tourist desk, and everything else was closed. We were both exhausted. Although my iPod battery is in its last 10% of life, I manage to steal some wifi from somewhere in the terminal. Lucky!  We check out the hostel world app and there is only one hostel listed. Adam gets only the address written down before the wifi cuts out and we lose it completely. We don’t know the name of the hostel, where in the city it is, how much it costs, nothing: just an address. So we find a cab, point to the address, because, even after two weeks, I only know “thank you” and “goodbye” in Portuguese, and people are understanding less and less of my Spanish the further from Argentina we get. The cab drives all across town and ends up pulling into some small alleyway with no lights and no people. We drive up the road for a bit, our driver clearly looks confused, and then he pulls up to a random house that says 271.  He speaks no English or Spanish, and us no Portuguese. We have no other address or name, so our only option is to get out and knock. Adam rings the buzzer and a man comes down, clearly half asleep, and in his boxers – it is 1am. “Room?” we ask. He looks at us blankly and confused as his wife walks up behind him. Then all of a sudden, he wakes up and opens his eyes really wide “ROOM! Yes, yes! Un momento!” He puts some pants on, unlocks the door and rushes us into the house. He speaks a little English, and a lot better Spanish, which is a relief. With our Spanglish conversation, we book ourselves two beds for a decent price in a room to ourselves. He and his wife are so sweet and give us a broken old fan, and some fresh sheets. I think we are the only people staying in the place, and they seem happy about the business. We go straight to bed and sleep for 9 hours. I don’t even realize that the mattress feels like a rock and the pillow is lumpy. The fan feels great and the fact that I’m not sleeping on a bus makes me feel like I’m in a 5 star resort!

The next morning we head to the bus station, and drop our bags; we book a night bus to Sao Paulo and head to the brewery! Eisenbahn is a brewery just outside of town. It brews 10 types of beer that you can also buy around town in bottles, and is the most famous brewery in Blumenau – having won several awards! We get there at 2pm and the place is closed until 4. We are a little crushed after such a long excursion, but we cheer up when we find a local pub a block down the street. The clientele reminds me of the Squarerigger pub on a Thursday afternoon. A bunch of old men, all regulars, who are more than happy to drink beer all day and chat up anyone that is not a regular in the bar. No one speaks English, but one old man comes up to us to have a conversation anyways. He speaks Portuguese, I explain I only know Spanish, he thinks we are German and spits out a few words to us in German. We managed to get across that we we’re Canadian here on vacation to drink the best beers in Brazil. He laughs, and luckily speaks some Spanish, and then explains the history of Blumenau to me.  He describes about the immigrants coming from Germany, but I only pick up half of what he’s saying. I nod and smile nonetheless and ask some questions I think are relevant to the conversation. (Yes Caitlin, old men telling me life stories even happens to me in Brazil- nothing has changed since Ireland, except instead of not understanding accents, I don’t even understand the language!). As Adam points out afterwards, this is my first Portuguese conversation! We high-five about this, even though I didn’t speak one word of Portuguese. We order another Skol, the cheapest we’ve found in Brazil yet, and pre-drink for the brewery!

By 4:00 we are already tipsy, so we stumble over to the brewery. There are so many options of beer, so we start at the top of the list and work our way down! There’s Pilsen, Kolsch, Pale Ale, Weizenbier, Dunkel, Raucherbier: you name it, they’ve got it! As well, they perfectly pair each item on the food list to its proper beer. We shared a schnitzel dish with mustard and tried nearly every beer on the menu throughout the afternoon. There was even champagne they made there called Lust! I got very excited, but it was R99 for a small bottle ($60) so we took a photo instead! Much more economical 🙂

After the brewery we went downtown to walk the main streets. It was like walking through a traditional little German village! The architecture was unlike anything else we’ve come across in Brazil, but the atmosphere was still lively! You can definitely see how this city holds the second largest Oktoberfest party in the world! We stopped at another pub right in the middle of town and had dinner on the patio (with more delicious beer of course). And afterwards we headed to the bus.

I’m not exactly sure what we were thinking when we decided to take a 10 hour night bus drunk, but I can tell you I won’t be doing it again. We figured we would just pass out right away and the beer would help us forget the noise and movement. This might have happened, until we decided to search out the cheapest bus that Brazil has to offer. The seats went back about 2 and a half inches, there was no leg support, the bus lurched over the cobblestone roads and potholed highways and I slept for probably about 15 minutes total the whole night. Not to mention, everyone was already in “sleep mode” when we hopped on the bus, while we were in “party mode”. So we spent the better part of 2 hours telling stories and giggling on the bus in the dark trying not to disturb the sleepers before we decided to try to get some shuteye. All in all, we spent 46 hours getting to and from Blumenau, and spent 20 hours actually in the city (9 of which were spent sleeping). I dare anyone to come up with a larger mission to find good beer! Our bus to Sao Paulo was on time, and we arrived in the station at 7:15 am on zero sleep. We found our way through the metro system and arrived at our hostel 4hours and 15 minutes before check in. Fantastic…

The Pantanal – Tropical Wetlands of Brazil

So Adam’s upbeat attitude paid off and we made it to the Pantanal as planned. We arrived 3 hours late and a man was there to greet us as planned: he only had to stand there for a few hours!
  Our tour group had apparently already left for the jungle, but the guy who greeted us said “no problem” he would just drive us the 5 hours into the middle of nowhere himself, then drive back to Campo Grande alone (yes, he is that nice). He said it would be no problem, because if we left right away he would be back in time to have a nap, and then head out to the clubs with one of his 7 girlfriends. Excuse me?

 

So pretty much immediately after getting off 18 hours of busses, we hop into his beat-up Fiat van and drive through the wetlands towards nowhere. We make excellent time because there is no traffic on the road, stop for lunch and make it to our checkpoint a good hour before schedule. From there we were herded into the back of a pickup truck (exactly like the death cab in Kao Sok for those of you in Thailand with us) and continue for another hour, off-roading through the jungle, towards camp.

The camp is very well put together, and much more luxurious than I would have imagined. There are tons of hammock circles covered by thatched grass roofs, a little swimming pool, beach volley ball court, a small bar, a big dining area, bungalows with dorm style beds and even a soccer field (which is totally unusable because it is filled with cows and bulls). There are a tonne of noisy parrots and unique looking birds (we even saw a great horned owl a few minutes ago). Weird looking little pigs keep roaming around our hammocks and the bugs, of course, are endless.

On our first night, after a wonderful buffet dinner, we went on a “night safari”.   We all jumped into the back of a large truck, our guide Paulo held a huge spotlight, and we drove through the jungle in search of animals!  Before we even left the camp a giant bug hit one of the girls in the chest and fell onto her lap. She started screaming and jumping around, so everyone’s flashlights quickly moved to see what was happening. There on the ground was the absolute LARGEST beetle I have ever seen in my LIFE.  The thing was a little larger than the palm of my hand, with giant pincers and thick, pointed legs! It scuttled around on the ground, freaking even the boys out, until the guide picked it up and tossed it off the side. I’m pretty sure that made everyone a little itchy and squeamish for the next hour of our excursion. Adam and I faired the best, but even the Israeli boys were a little jumpy as every few seconds another beetle hit one of us in the face or leg.
  The jungle was full of life we couldn’t see at night. Frogs, bugs, birds and what sounded like a loud dying cat filled the air with a deafening noise that almost drowned out the sound of the truck we were in! We managed to see quite a bit of wildlife in the short hour we were out. Apart from the bugs, obviously, we saw a whole load of caimans in the ponds. Their glowing eyes were actually really freaky, a good dozen of them staring back at us into the light. Next we came across a family of capybaras, the largest rodents on earth.  They are just like gophers, but are larger than most big dogs. Very weird. Then we saw a Toco toucan in one of the trees, which was really exciting. We saw a bunch of them in the bird sanctuary in Foz Do Iguassu but it was really fun to see one in the wild. We also ran across a deer (yes they are even in the Amazon!) and a fox!

 

The next morning we had breakfast bright and early at 7am. We then went horseback riding all morning! The horses were younger and had a lot more energy than the ones in Uruguay, so we had plenty of chances to gallop along the open meadows, and canter into lakes deep enough to get our feet soaked. The horses seemed particularly thrilled to run into the lakes and splash around for a while. We didn’t see a lot of wildlife, but the ride was amazing and we were out for a couple hours, messing around through the jungle.

After a short siesta and a wonderful lunch, we set out, in the back of the pickup once again, and towards the Parana River for a boat ride through the wetlands. We didn’t see as much unique wildlife as I had expected. Families of capybaras were fun to photograph, and the occasional caiman, but we did see ENDLESS species of birds. So many I can’t remember even a quarter of their names.  However, even though we didn’t spot the elusive jaguar, or catch an anteater, the scenery was beautiful, and the sunset on the way home was spectacular!

The next morning we were up bright and early for a 3-hour jungle trek. Honesty, I should have stayed in bed. I got very little sleep because Adam and I stayed up late drinking beers with the most interesting man in the world, and so, I was already not looking forward to a three-hour excursion. I also was NOT prepared for the number of mosquitoes that would be out at that time of day!  In the end, we didn’t see any wildlife because three of the guys we were with were so noisy. So instead of a wilderness trek, we hiked it through the dense jungle (at parts literally fighting through with a machete) and I was DESTROYED by mosquito bites. For all of you present for the bug bites Caitlin and I had in Thailand… This was worse. Fortunately, we made it home, and I cheered up a bit after a nice shower and a hearty lunch!

For our afternoon activity, we went piranha fishing! This was by far my favourite part of the Pantanal. We trucked out to one of the near by rivers with some bamboo rods and set up camp with a bucket full of raw steak! 
The piranhas at this time of year (end of the dry season) are starving, so it’s very easy to get a nibble. It is more difficult to pull one out, since they are very smart, and very quick! We were told to stand right up close to the river’s edge, which was slightly unnerving for a couple of reasons. Firstly, one of the guides apparently went into the river a couple years earlier and had a cut on her leg. The piranhas instantly started attacking her leg and she was lucky to get out before losing it. We were apparently fine, because they only attack open wounds, but I didn’t particularly want to push my luck.  Secondly, there were several caimans just a few feet in front of us that smelled the meat and wanted some food. Apparently, the caimans wont attack us, but this was told to us by our guide Paulo, who was making the caimans snap away at dead piranhas he held above their heads… and Paulo was missing a finger. So I’m not sure if he is the most trustworthy source.

Nonetheless, I stepped up to the water, Marcello baited my hook, threw it in and said “when u feel a nibble, pull straight up very quickly”. Before he even finished his sentence I said, “like this?” and jerked the rod straight into the air. The hook, with the meat still attached flew about 12 feet into the air, and a piranha, NOT attached to the hook flew right along side it. I’m pretty sure I must have shrieked a little as both of them flew towards me at a considerable speed. I let the hook swing past me, and the piranha landed at my feet. Everyone looked a little stunned. My memories of fishing in the past have been a lot of waiting around, and not a lot of nibbles, but this was VERY different. Turns out the piranha I caught was a baby, so Marcello kicked it back in (with flip flops on) and we tried again. All of us caught several fish in the short time we were there. I only caught the baby ones (and a tree at one point), and Marcello joked I was the worst fisherman he’d ever seen! Adam turned out to be the hero of the day and snagged two big ones to take home and grill up!

Ultimately, fishing was my favourite part of the Pantanal. If you ever get the opportunity to fish for piranhas DEFINITELY do it. It’s a little difficult to try to fish, while watching for flying hooks, trying to avoid the wasps that want the meat, and keeping an eye out for the caimans that will sneak up within a meter before grunting and giving away their position (and scaring the hell out of the fisherman) but it’s totally worthwhile. As Antoine, one of the French guys, put it “there are too many dangerous things all around!”  
At the end of the afternoon, Marcello and Paulo cleaned the fish, and we headed back to the pousada. For dinner that night, on top of the buffet, we were presented with a huge platter of BBQ piranhas! We each took one and they were pretty delicious! It’s a tasty white meat, but very bony. Kind of reminded me of crab, because it was difficult to get into, but worth the fight! Most of the meat was in the head, which freaked out Antoine and Francois when we ate the eyes and brains.  When in Rome, right?

Our final morning we went trekking through the forest again. I was unenthused to be eaten alive by mosquitoes again, but our guides ensured us we’d see more animals because the noisy Israeli boys had left.  So we dragged ourselves into the truck and drove out to a new trekking area. I came prepared with my bottle of mosquito repellant in hand, the longest pants I own, a long sleeved shirt, AND Adam’s long sleeved shirt on top of that (because he is impermeable to mosquitoes. Jerk.). It was so unbearably hot in the sunshine I could hardly handle it, but I then remembered how itchy I was and powered through. We did see more animals this time, including monkeys, coatis and hyacinth macaws (which are endangered, and only 4000 exist in the Pantanal) among many others. Day 2’s trek was much more worth it.

That afternoon, we packed up our things and headed back to Campo Grande. We waited a few hours at the hostel and caught the 23:25 bus to Curitiba. I took a Gravol about a half hour before the scheduled bus time, because the meds take so much longer to hit me than Adam; however, when our bus left 45 min late I was a total zombie. I could hardly stand; I dragged my feet towards the bus and climbed the steps. The whole bus wreaked of urine, but I didn’t care, I snuck in beside a random man, managed to put together my elaborate sleeping arrangement (the only way I can sleep on the bus) of a sleeping mask, sweater, coat, blow up neck pillow, sarong as a blanket, footrest down, purse tied around left leg, and water by my side. Finally, I don’t have to move for hours!  
We got no more than 10 minutes into the trip before the bus stopped for gas. Everyone had to get off the bus and wait at a checkpoint. I unhappily dragged my ass off the bus and found a bench to sit on to wait. My vision was almost blurry at this point I was so exhausted. I folded in half sitting on the bench, let my head hang between my legs and was half in and out of sleep while Adam watched for the bus. The blood rushing to my brain from being upside-down didn’t help with dizziness, so thankfully the bus came back only 15 minutes later. After setting up camp again, I passed out so fast. I woke up 8 hours later at a breakfast checkpoint and was the only person on the bus. My eyes were stinging from dehydration, and I guarantee I looked like a train wreck. So I washed up in the bathrooms and felt a little more human. It was 8:40am local time (the time zones in this area of Brazil are very confusing) and according to our tickets we got off at 9:00am. This was a pleasant surprise, because we thought it would be longer. Then a man came on the bus and announced in Portuguese that we were making excellent time, and we would arrive in Curitiba at 6:00 PM tonight. Excuse me?  Looks like our ticket was wrong: only 10 hours to go.

Transportation Adventure

Well, everyone should be happy to hear that my travel luck has moved from horrendous airport fiascos to endless bus rides.  Adam and I have been trying to get to Campo Grande for 2 days now.  We told our hostel 3 days ago that we wanted to book a bus right away. They ensured us that busses go several times a day, so to check back with them the morning we wanted to leave and they could book us a ticket.

So the next morning, our receptionist Clei calls up the station and books us on the 5 pm bus. We paid for our ticket, went out to see the bird sanctuary for the afternoon, grabbed our bus snacks (because god knows I’m not eating that bus food again) and make it back to the hostel a couple hours early. 
”Bad news” says Clei. The bus is full. Not just ours, but ALL the busses. No more leave until the following night! So, we book the next day’s bus, stay at the hostel for one more night, make it through the day at the giant Paraguayan/Brazil dam and head towards the bus station (finally).

Our bus is supposed to leave at 18:00.  We are fairly on time and leave at quarter after instead.  No big deal. The scenery in Brazil is surprisingly stunning! It reminds us a lot of driving through the Okanagan with rolling hills of green and fields of crops. Other than a little bit of construction on the highway, we are making good time. Which is really nice because we have to switch busses in a city a couple hours up the road in order to continue North. We have 2 hours on the first bus, 13 on the second. Makes for a long night. Unfortunately, just when everything seems so great, our bus gets stopped for a random drug check. Police come on board with drug dogs and search the isles. Our bags are all taken off the bus, opened up and searched through. A couple people are asked to step off the bus and be checked, but in the end, nothing is found and we all continue. We are now another 25 minutes late.  
I start to wonder if we are going to have issues catching our connecting bus. Thankfully, Adam is the voice of reason and ensures me that the bus system in Brazil is probably like airplanes, and they will let the other bus know we are running behind. This satisfies me enough to stop worrying; however, when we arrive at our random town in the middle of nowhere, our bus has already left. One of the employees at the bus station checks our tickets and writes 22:00 on it. “This your new time, 22:00”. Okay, we have an hour and 15 minutes to wait. Not to worry, we will play a couple games of crib and the time will pass. At 10 minutes to, we head out to where our bags are all stored. A few others join us, but there is no bus. So we wait. At 5 minutes after, we are all asked to move BACK into the terminal to wait. No one is allowed to stand in the loading area anymore. Then they close all the exits but one, set up some ropes and a podium at the only open door, and wait. As busses start showing up around 10:30, crowds of people start huddling around the podium trying to get out. We do the same, as we see someone moving our bags (which had to be left outside) towards a bus and loading them on.  No one is allowed outside. The attendants have a GIANT list of names printed off on some old school printer paper from the 90’s (the one where all the pages are in one long row and you have to rip the holed edges off in order to get a normal sized page). The attendant then starts at the top of the list and works his was down the pages (at least 4 long it looks like) reading one name at a time for passengers on 3 different busses that are parked outside. From the absolute zero Portuguese that I understand, I realize something is not working with the system.  Everything has to be done manually, one person at a time. 
Unlike if this happened in Canada, where people would be unhappy, but quietly brood away in their heads, Brazilians are much more verbal. Everyone is yelling at the attendants: “Dios a mio” (oh my God) is heard repeatedly.  The ruckus is making all the names harder and harder to hear! We push our way to the front, and get on our bus relatively early, which is perfect, because it’s 11:00 and I want to take a Gravol to sleep with on the bus. I was worried about taking it before, incase the bus never came and we were required to function. 
So, much later, after another manual seat check on the bus, we pull out of the depot and continue our journey.  At this point, we are 5 hours and 15 min into our trip.

Total kilometers traveled: 100.

Normally this would be a non-issue. Time is time, who cares, EXCEPT, this is the only place in our trip that we actually have a tour guide waiting for us on the other side. This poor man is going to be standing with a sign that says “Adam and Hilary” and we will not be getting off the bus! We are supposed to be starting our 3-day tour, right as we get off the bus, and head deep into the Pantanal. So, since our bus didn’t wait 20 minutes, I have a hard time believing a tour guide with a full tour of people will be waiting around for 3 and a half hours instead of continuing their 5 hour journey to the Amazon. Adam is still optimistic, which stops me from panicking too much. I don’t particularly want to stay 2 more days in what people keep referring to as “a shitty city” before being able to book another tour.

So this is where we are! I’m on the bus and it’s quarter after midnight. I have supposedly 12 more hours on this bus and the guy sitting in front of me smells like he hasn’t showered in a month. I could smell his body odor LONG before he reclined his chair into my lap, held his arms up above his head and had his hands touching my bent up knees. Luckily, we are right next to the bathrooms, so the sour body odor smell is occasionally masked with the smell of bus toilet. (If you’ve never experienced this scent, it’s a must!). I have no idea where we are, or when we’ll be getting off, but Adam hopes that when he wakes up, we’ll be lucky enough to “just be there”. At least one of us is optimistic! Here’s to hoping he’s right this time 🙂

Iguaçu Falls: An Incredible Wonder of the World

The day after our long overnight bus trip was gorgeous: possibly the hottest day of our trip so far, although I never actually saw what the temperature was. Adam and I walked through town and down to the river so that we could get our first glimpse of Brazil (everything on the other side of the water). It was fairly uneventful, we just snapped a photo and then trudged our way back up a steep hill in the scalding heat, but, we were excited at the prospect of having a 3rd country on our list. Our hostel had a really nice pool with hammocks and lawn chairs around it, so we took it easy for the rest of the evening.

The next morning we were pumped up for the falls! I woke up, showered (carefully, since it appears ALL the showers this far north are suicide showers) and headed outside to breakfast… As I got outside, I realized it was not just raining, but pouring down in a torrential monsoon only possible in tropical rainforests. Thunder boomed and the heavy-duty waterspouts on our building were having trouble holding in all the rain. 
However, the weather was not about to deter either of us from enjoying this wonder of the world, so we grabbed our raincoats and headed for the bus stop!

As we arrived at the falls, the rain calmed down a bit. We were still soaked within minutes, but the rain was warm and it wasn’t very foggy, so pictures were not a problem.
 I wish I could describe the falls and surrounding area properly, but I suppose wonders of the world are called that simply because they are too great for words: and Iguaçu Falls is precisely that. 
 On the Argentinean side of the falls, there are several waking trails (each around a km in length) that lead to different parts of the falls. We started on the Superior Trail, and found our first view of the falls to be directly on top of them! We stood above some of the smaller falls, and looked towards San Martin Island (a small island at the foot of the falls that we explored later in the day) and were totally taken aback. Both of us at the same time thought “Jurassic Park”. The place looked exactly like some giant T-Rex should pop out of the thick jungle and terrorize both the people and the boats around the base of the falls. Of course, to our relief, this didn’t happen, but it gives you an impression of what we were overlooking. Another thing we were surprised about, was how GREEN the falls were. The water was still a sparkling white, but green grasses and exotic plants clung to the rocks of the falls, making an even more beautiful panorama.

We continued through all the other trails (and San Martin Island) for the rest of the afternoon. I think we managed to see the falls from every angle possible by the end of the day. It was absolutely mind-blowing how much water rushed over the rocks and down into the river. Iguaçu Falls is the largest waterfall in the world in terms of water volume. There are a total of 275 waterfalls and each one bigger than the next!

For our last stop, we took the train up to the “Gargantua del Diablo” or “The Devil’s Throat”. This waterfall was by far the most impressive. It is one giant, semicircular waterfall that is absolutely unbelievable. We stood right on top, in the deafening roar, and looked down over the edge. From the top, you can’t even see where the water ends, due to the amount of steam and spray it gives off when it hits the river below.

The day at Iguaçu was epic to say the least. We managed to stand on top of the falls, look up from the bottom and even take a boat ride right through them (Which soaked us to the core completely as our boat crashed through the spray and right under the rushing water). In the end the weather was refreshing, and it made for a quiet day at the park: no lines, perfect views! 
The next day, the sun was up and we headed over to Brazil. We checked in at a hostel and headed back to the falls to see them from the Brazilian side! The Brazilian side was much less interactive than the Argentinean side. There were no path to walk through the falls, and it was impossible to get up close and personal; however, it did offer amazing chances for photos from a wider perspective. The weather was perfect and the falls were just as beautiful! It is definitely a two day event and a must see wonder from both countries. Unfortunately, the only way to really understand how amazing the falls are, is to make it down yourself. Because no amount of photos or words compare…