Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A short trip to Brazil…

Hi there!

Long time no news. It has been a busy year, what with launching our brand new budget adventure travel website South America Adventure Travel just last week. I’ve not really had the time to write much, let alone travel…

But, last week I finally got a chance to escape and went to Brazil for 6 days to join my long time friends from Germany, Gerd and Christel. They had been to Galapagos the week before (on the Nemo II, an excellent Catamaran for those who like to travel in style without losing the sporty element of being out on the open seas). They arrived at Sao Paulo Guarulhos Airport about 3.5 hours before me and took a day-room in the Caesar Park Hotel just 5 minutes from the Airport, to relax a bit after the night-long journey from Guayaquil.

As soon as I arrived, I picked up the car that we had reserved with Budget and went to pick them up. After a healthy breakfast (Caesar’s Burger Special with lots of black coffee) we got in the car and drove toward Paraty, some 4 hours north on the coastal road between Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. It has rained severely in almost all of Brazil for the past weeks, so we were happy to arrive in Paraty and hide ourselves in the beautiful Pousada Arte Urquijo (http://www.urquijo.com.br/english/iindex.htm) for a day or 2…

Paraty is a town with an amazing history: everything from sugar cane, coffee and tobacco to precious stones and gold, to the famous Cachaça (which the Portuguese transported to Africa to serve as a currency in the slave trade) have passed through this town over the past centuries, bringing some serious wealth and development. All this was in the past however, and for the last century the main commercial routes from Minas Gerais (where most of the country’s riches came from) to the coast ended up running through Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, leaving Paraty behind in a slowly declining colonial state.

Ironically it was these last “100 years of solitude” that put Paraty back in the spotlights about 30 years ago, when a Brazilian TV broadcasting company decided to shoot a now famous “Telenovela” (soap opera) in the, by then, almost completely forgotten town. Many Brazilians love and vigorously watch these soaps, and that was how Paraty returned to their mental map. Since it had remained virtually unchanged for so long (as our guide told us: Paraty is “preserved by poverty”), it had an excellent colonial charm and soon enough the first new explorers began to arrive from Rio and Sao Paulo to find the perfect weekend hide-out. Shortly thereafter the first investors came; old colonial structures were purchased and converted into comfortable second homes for the well-to-do of these, the two largest of Brazilian cities. The word Paraty apparently sounds like “Paradise” in French (when expressed in that beautiful language) and today most of the foreigners investing in the region come from this European country. But the editor of the famous Harry Potter books has also found a second home here, and brought with her her insatiable craving for literature, resulting in Paraty now hosting Brazil’s annual book fair and the town having some seriously well-stocked book stores!

Luckily, the place has not lost its original looks; as a matter of fact it is becoming more and more beautiful as time goes by. Paraty wants to become a part of UNESCO World Heritage and much is being done to preserve and restore the town to its original state.

Just across our lovely Pousada, Richard and Yara Roberts run their “Academy of Cooking & other Pleasures” and we were lucky enough to secure an evening with them learning how to prepare typical dishes from the Minas Gerais province. We started with a black bean soup, which was followed by a Linguiça risotto with crispy collard greens and a green salad with pumpkin seeds and Canastra cheese, and then rounded it all off with a stunning “Doce de Leite” parfait with candied banana. Yara is a famous cook and she met Richard (a former CEO of several large international companies) in Paris. Their love of the gourmet life somehow led them to Paraty where Yara purchased a house some 25 years ago - the very same place that formed the backdrop of a great evening of preparing and enjoying a wonderful meal (accompanied of course by several caipirinhas, an excellent Argentine wine and some of the best Cachaça I have tasted in years). Yara and Richard are great hosts and we had an excellent conversation that led us straight through the evening. It was not before well past midnight that we made our way back to our hotel… Yummy!

If you have a chance you should really try and book an evening with Richard and Yara; you will be mesmerized! Also, the best Cachaça in Brazil apparently comes from a place called Salinas, so make sure to look or ask for a bottle coming from there when you order; it is not exported, so you can only get it in Brazil…

From Paraty we made our way to Angra dos Reis, where we parked the car and took a private boat transfer to the Pousada Estrela da Ilha (http://www.estreladailha.com/en/index.htm) at our next destination: Ilha Grande. Wikipedia says:

Ilha Grande is an island located off the coast of Rio de Janeiro state, Brazil, and part of the municipality of Angra dos Reis. The island is largely undeveloped and noted for its scenic beauty, which includes tropical beaches, luxuriant vegetation and a rugged landscape.

Ilha Grande is one of the most pristine remnants of Brazil's Atlantic rainforest, one of the richest ecosystems in the world and a hotspot for biodiversity and conservation. It holds some of the largest remaining populations of many endangered species, including the red-ruffed fruit crow (Pyroderus scutatus), the brown howler monkey (Alouatta fusca), the maned sloth (Bradypus torquatus) the red-browed Amazon parrot (Amazona rhodocorytha), and the broad-snouted cayman (Caiman latirostris). The seas around the island, which are also protected, feature a unique convergence of tropical, subtropical, and temperate-zone marine life, and may be the only waters in the world where it is possible to see corals and tropical fish along with Magellanic penguins and Southern right whales.

The entire island is a protected area, with most of its territory included in Ilha Grande State Park, and the rest subject to stringent development restrictions. Small-scale ecotourism, however, is encouraged, and the island, which is road-less and off-limits to cars, features over 150 km of hiking trails connecting the handful of coastal villages and hamlets where lodging is available, to each other and to the many beaches, mountain peaks, waterfalls, and pristine forests.

That about says enough I would say, except that it is a lot more fun exploring the island when the sun is out… Instead we had almost constant rain, which sadly forced us to stay indoors most of the time. However, we had one beautiful morning when we actually glimpsed some blue skies through scattered clouds, and took a beautiful walk along the Saco do Céu Bay, along the beaches of Caxadaco and Lopes Mendes. After that we took a boat across the bay and had a marvelous lunch (yes this trip was about eating and drinking mostly…) at the restaurant “Reis Magos”, apparently one of the best places out there for excellent sea food. Afterward the owners took us back to the Pousada in a small fishing boat, and even though the weather turned terrible immediately after our little outing, our day was made already and we spent the rest of the afternoon dozing in our hammocks, overlooking the bay, perfecting the art of doing nothing…

Next day we headed back to the coast to pick up the car and make our way to Rio de Janeiro. I have been there several times, but the place does not cease to amaze me. Not sure what to write about this trip, as this time I did not really go out much (yes it was still raining…), other than that the view from the pool bar on the roof of the Porto Bay International Rio Hotel we stayed at is excellent! I will give you a short recap (again Wikipedia helps out) in case you’ve never been (in which case you have to make sure to go very soon):

Rio de Janeiro ("River of January") is the capital city of the State of Rio de Janeiro, the second largest city of Brazil, and the third largest metropolitan area and agglomeration in South America. The city was the capital of Brazil for nearly two centuries, from 1763 to 1822 during the Portuguese colonial era, and from 1822 to 1960 as an independent nation. It is also the former capital of the Portuguese Empire. Commonly known as just Rio, the city is also nicknamed A Cidade Maravilhosa or "The Marvelous City."

Rio de Janeiro is famous for its natural settings, its carnival celebrations, samba, Bossa Nova and hotel-lined tourist beaches, such as Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon, along with its slums. Some of the most famous landmarks in addition to the beaches include the giant statue of Christ, known as Christ the Redeemer ('Cristo Redentor') atop Corcovado mountain, named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World; Sugarloaf mountain (Pão de Açúcar) with its cable car; the Sambódromo, a giant permanent parade stand used during Carnival and Maracanã stadium, one of the world's largest football stadiums. Rio de Janeiro will host the 2016 Summer Olympics, and will be the first South American city to host the event.

The city also boasts the largest and second largest urban forests in the world: Floresta da Tijuca, or "Tijuca Forest." and (almost connected to the first) the forest in Parque Estadual da Pedra Branca, or White Stone State Park.

This trip, apart from relaxing at the hotel and having too many Caipirinhas at the bar, we had another great culinary experience; Azul Marinho (check out reviews in Fodor’s Guide to Brazil). Located at the base of one of many hotels at Arpoador (which divides the neighborhoods of Copacabana and Ipanema), this little restaurant’s kitchen has blown the minds of many. We had a feast of individual stone grilled sea food dishes, including sea bass in rock salt, lobster, giant prawns, and the like, enjoying a street capoeira show before, and a beautiful sunset towards the end of the meal. Kristofer, our half Moroccan, half French waiter, deserves special praise as he made us feel like royalty during the entire evening. If you make it to Rio one of these days and manage to go for a bite at Azul Marinho, please send him my very best regards!

And that was already the last evening with my friends in Brazil. The next morning I got up at 6AM, had a light breakfast, checked out, got the car and drove straight back to Sao Paulo. A friend met me at Guarulhos airport and we had a spectacular lunch in Café Journal (www.cafejournal.com.br/), making it pretty much the best stop-over in a long time. After that I flew back home, back to Karin and the kids, back to my real life, the life I had missed dearly, but still with a taste of Brazil in my mouth…

I just checked out our web page for some info and came across this little gem: Tropical Treasures of Rio, Paraty and Ilha Grande. Seems there is more to do, more to see, more to enjoy…

Happy trails,