We arrived at the border town of Chuy from Punta del Diablo in Uruguay and were confronted with half a town in Uruguay and half a town in Brazil! Quite a strange experience to see a city divided by a street, but I guess East and West Germany were like that years back.
So we managed to buy tickets for the next bus to Porto Alegre, which was about a 9 hour journey away.
Porto Alegre sounds like a port town by the ocean, but it isn’t! It is actually on a river and is the capital of the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul. The population is somewhere in the vicinity of 1.5 million which makes it the 10th largest city in Brazil!
Porto Alegre was founded in 1772 by immigrants from the Azores, Portugal and was further populated by immigrants from Germany, Italy and other European cities in the late 1800s.
The city lies on the eastern bank of the Rio Guaiba (Guaiba Lake), where five rivers converge to form the Lagoa dos Patos, which is a giant freshwater lagoon. This five-river junction has become an important port as well as a chief industrial and commercial center of Brazil.
We were lucky enough to experience another very hospitable and lovely host through CouchSurfing! (If you don’t know much about CouchSurfing or haven’t heard of it then check out our link in the menu on website). Patricia Fraga was our new friend on our journey up to Rio for carnaval. Patricia is actually from Rio, but has been living in Porto Alegre with her husband Fernando for the past several years. Patricia was kind enough to let us couchsurf at her place for 2 nights and also took time out to take us on a fantastic walking tour of Porto Alegre’s main sights including the Mercado Publico, Secretaria Municipal de Administração, Museu de Arte do Rio Grande do Sul (MARGS), Praça Marechal Deodoro, Praça Marechal Deodoro, Catedral Metropolitana, Usina del Gasómetro and who could not forget their two massive football teams – the stadiums of Gremio and Internacional!!! Thanks Patricia for being a wonderful host xxx
So a daunting 24 plus hour bus trip ahead of us to Rio de Janeiro, which included a minor pit stop for changing buses in the concrete jungle of Sao Paulo (a small city at 19 million people)!
Rio de Janeiro
At a glance, some history on Rio…
Rio de Janeiro or Rio as it is commonly referred is translated to River of January in English. The city was the capital of Brazil for nearly two centuries, from 1763 to 1815 during the Portuguese colonial era, 1815 to 1821 as the capital of the United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil and Algarves, and 1822 to 1960 as an independent nation.
Europeans first encountered Guanabara Bay on 1 January, 1502 by a Portuguese expedition under explorer Gaspar de Lemos. Allegedly the Florentine explorer Amerigo Vespucci participated as observer at the invitation of King Manuel I in the same expedition. The region of Rio was inhabited by the Tupi, Puri, Botocudo and Maxakalí peoples.
The city of Rio de Janeiro proper was founded by the Portuguese on 1 March, 1565 and was named São Sebastião do Rio de Janeiro. Until early in the 18th century, the city was threatened or invaded by several, mostly French, pirates and buccaneers.
In the late 17th century, still during the sugar era, the Bandeirantes found gold and diamonds in the neighboring captaincy of Minas Gerais, thus Rio de Janeiro became a much more practical port for exporting wealth (gold, precious stones, besides the sugar) than Salvador, Bahia, which is much farther to the northeast. And so in 1763, the colonial administration in Portuguese America was moved from Salvador to Rio de Janeiro. The city remained primarily a colonial capital until 1808, when the Portuguese royal family and most of the associated Lisbon nobles, fleeing from Napoleon's invasion of Portugal, moved to Rio de Janeiro. The kingdom's capital was transferred to the city, which, thus, became the only European capital outside of Europe.
So here we are arriving at one of the most, if not, exotic destinations in the world. Expectations are high, energy levels are low after a long bus trip, but adrenalin is taking over with anticipation of what lies ahead over the next week. I mean, come on it is carnaval time so it can’t really get any better in Rio!
Well our first introduction to Rio were favelas after favelas along the road from Sao Paulo. If this is what makes this city so magnificent then we are not sure how highly it is going to rate.
We managed to find our digs very conveniently located on the border of both Copacabana and Ipanema areas (at this point we should definitely mention and thank Jessica Mullins for assisting with this intervention during the late hours of our Rio planning. Thanks Jess for helping with accommodation! x). We were two blocks in from Posto 5 on Copacabana, so anyone who knows or has visited the area will know how great a location it is!
So over the next 7 days we hit most of the “must do” tourist attractions including Copacabana and Ipanema beaches, Pão de Açúcar (Sugar Loaf), Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer), Lapa by day and Night, Santa Teresa, Escadaria Selarón, Pedra da Gávea, street parties and not to forget probably one of the most iconic and unforgettable experiences, visiting the Sambodromo on Sunday evening when the big schools were parading!
Carnaval in Rio is definitely all that it is built up to be and one of the most incredible experiences one can imagine. Experiencing the Sambodromo on Sunday evening, when the best schools are parading, is not to be missed. Starting at 9pm and finishing around 8am the next morning makes it epic and doesn’t disappoint one bit.
We also enjoyed catching up with our old Jersey pals, Claire and Richie Langford, as they were on their honeymoon and managed to squeeze carnaval in as their last stop! Fantastic to see you guys and great to experience the street parties together.
However, overall I guess we were a little disappointed with Rio! There are certain places in the world where you can feel the blood running through your veins, but for us (and funny enough several other travelers we have met) it just didn’t happen. Don’t get us wrong, Carnaval and especially the Sambodromo was mind blowing, but maybe it was the fact we weren’t with a big group from a hostel getting loaded to the max everyday, maybe it was the fact that everything was so ridiculously expensive, maybe it was the overabundance of favelas almost at eyeshot everywhere you looked, or maybe it was the constant feeling of having to watch your belongings and ensuring your personal space was under 24 hour surveillance. It is always a wonderful feeling when you can relax, let the guard down a little and just slip straight into local life. Unfortunately this such liberty is very difficult to find when in Rio, and Brazil for that matter as we found out from some Swiss tourists who had guns put to their heads during Carnaval at 1pm in the afternoon in a reasonably crowded area.
So after experiencing the wonder of Rio and Carnaval, it was on to Ouro Preto, the former gold mining capital of Brazil!
Ouro Preto was about a 6 hour journey by bus from Rio. We took the night bus so we arrived quite early in the morning, actually so early that the sun had still not risen for the day.
Ouro Preto, meaning black gold, has a population of about 70,000 inhabitants and is in the state of Minas Gerais. Ouro Preto is a former colonial mining town which is now recognized as a UNESCO heritage site. It was the focal point of the gold rush and Brazil's golden age in the 18th century under Portuguese rule.
Due to its significance and wealth during the golden age, Ouro Preto has many beautiful cathedrals full of gold and museums rich in art. It is actually an “in awe” experience to witness the incredible architecture of the many, many cathedrals in the town. They are spectacular to say the least, especially when you consider how vast the structures are and the attention to detail on them. We walked around all day, exploring both sides of the town by foot.
Again, on the negative side was crime. Some Brazilian tourists from Belo Horizonte and Florianopolis were kind enough to warn us they were nearly robbed by a guy who was purporting to be a bona fide tour guide (in the fake uniform). So here is how it rolled….we were approached by the guy and he was offering to take us to an old mine just on the outskirts of the city. He looked legitimate, had the uniform and had been touring the Brazilian couple around for about an hour (we were kind of following them). Here is where it gets interesting! Luckily these very nice tourists quickly dramatised the “slit throat” action (i.e. don’t go with him) when the would be robber had his back to them. In addition to this experience, there was also a constant presence of police driving the streets with their lights flashing (not sounding). You know something is not right when this is happening in a town of only 70,000 people!
Also worthy of a mention at this point in our trip was the very average and expensive meal we had in Ouro Preto. USD 70 for a lasagna dish and meat asado type dish. Brazil’s food was not great from our experience and also very over priced (we did have one great asado / parilla in Foz so there was one positive).
So we had a two hour journey to Belo Horizonte ahead of us. Simple journey!
We arrived at Belo some time in the early afternoon and caught a taxi to our hostel in the dodgy Santa Tereza neighbourhood. We were greeted by Christophe, a Frenchman who has now found home to be Belo. Christophe provided us with the necessary information to tour around Belo.
I wouldn’t say by any means that Belo is a beautiful place, rather sketchy in parts around the train station and main park. However, we enjoyed our afternoon walking around the city taking in some of the sights including the Estação Central - Metrô, Palácio da Liberdade and numerous squares + parks (unfortunately we just missed out of the Sunday market).
We walked around the city for a good 4 hours before finally making it up to the magnificent lookout in the exclusive neighbourhood of Mangabeiras. Check out our photos under Belo Horizonte. The lookout is quite something and a highlight of Belo we thought!
The next day we were off Foz do Igaucu by bus – 27 hours ahead of us!
Foz do Igaucu
Wow, what a trip! The bus ride that seemed to go on forever! One of the reasons we take buses and trains as much as possible on our world tour is because it really gives us sense of having travelled a country. In this case we got to fully appreciate the vast distances between cities in this massive country.
We arrived at Foz mid morning and waited until around noon for our lovely CS host Elizabete to meet and greet us at her magnificent home. Elizabete and her husband Walter were amazing hosts and thanks very much for giving up your time to have dinner with us one night and also for the breakfasts each day. It was an amazing experience and our Portuguese is for the better now! Obrigado!
So at Iguacu (Brazil) or Iguassu (Argentina) you have two sides to view these magnificent falls from – Brazil and Argentina. We will report on the Argentinean side in our upcoming Argentina newsletter, so you will just have to wait to find out which side was better in our opinion!
The Brazilian side definitely offers a more panoramic view of the falls. Obviously having seen pictures and heard stories from family and friends who have visited the falls, you can only imagine how awe inspiring these falls are in real life! We journeyed to the spot beyond the mouth of the falls where you are witness to a very tranquillo and serene landscape. Moments later as the gentle stream approaches vertigo you are witness to a magnificent descent into the mouth (or Devil’s Throat as it is known) that causes an enormous eruption on impact and consequently a haze of mist floating over the turista observation decks.
The falls at Foz were definitely one of our highlights of Brazil and we would like to again thank our wonderful hosts, Elizabete and Walter, for playing their part in this experience.
We also enjoyed a magnificent asado / parilla near the terminal de Omnibus in Foz. A parilla buffet for 20 Reais! Non stop meat delivered on foot to your table by numerous staff and carved right in front of your eyes! Ridiculous amounts of carne was consumed in this meal, but what a super business model – the carne was laced with salt, so many drinks were required to be purchased to help with the digestion process! Smart people.
See you in Paraguay for our next edition…love to you all!