Brazil is a massive powerhouse for iron, oil, soy beans and sugar. Nearly 30 million of its 180 million people also live in the Amazon which produces almost 10% of the planet’s annual fresh oxygen.
The country had been on my hit list for years for multiple reasons. I timed the trip to link up with Carnival in Rio (a giant party prior to lent), but the real allure was for a three-day Amazon jungle survival course! Knocking off Christ the Redeemer (one of the seven wonders of the world) also added some thrill to the journey.
I was moving cities back home, and planning for the trip was absolute chaos. Amidst all of the turbulence, I realized that I didn’t have enough time to get my Yellow Fever vaccine! Usually I would be able to call a week or two ahead of time and get my required shots with my local travel clinic. Apparently there is a world-wide shortage, and the waitlist could have been thirty days or more.
While it’s not required to enter Brazil, I was about to head into one of the most mosquito-laden forests in the world and didn’t want to risk it. Let’s not even mention that it takes about a week for it to kick in. It was literally three hours before my departing flight from Canada when one of the store owners took pity on my emergency and put together a dose for me. Panic finally subsided.
The trip would span two weeks, and was action packed hour by hour. Should anything go wrong, it would throw the entire schedule into complete chaos. I was a walking example of what not to do while travelling and ignored all my own advice, but I knew I had a lot of ground to cover.
During the trip I took a total of EIGHT domestic flights to span the 8.516 million km² country. To maximize my usable day light time, at the cost of my sanity, I would booked predominantly morning flights.
I always pad my trips with emergency downtime on day one, and don’t plan anything of consequence. International flights can be riddled with delays. Disaster struck. My flight from São Paulo to Foz do Iguaçu was cancelled on account of poor weather. The airline offered to put me in a hotel for the night, and get me a flight the next morning. That just wouldn’t do. My tour to the falls was at 9am and I would miss it entirely!
I risked everything and intentionally missed the shuttle bus to the hotel. I kept an eye on the weather, the cancelled flights, and hoped things would change. I would pay any price with any airline to get to my destination by morning. I even thought about hiring a private driver, but it turned out that would’ve been a 13 HOUR ordeal in ideal conditions. Seven hours passed, and I was starting to feel defeated…
Luckily, I have a stockpile of horseshoes up my ass, and a flight opened up. I paid the excruciating ticket fee and managed to get to my hotel by midnight. I fought for this trip, and it WAS going to happen…
Foz do Iguaçu
Iguazu Falls, a name which literally translates to “big water,” are best viewed on the Brazilian side because the majority of them are on the opposing side in Argentina. There’s over 275 falls in total, and their land formation was caused millions of years ago by a massive volcanic eruption. The best way to see them is to grab a boat tour to take you right up to and under their mist.
They are one of the New7Wonders of Nature as of 2007, amongst places like Table Mountain in South Africa and Hạ Long Bay in Vietnam that I also bucket listed in recent years.
Parque das Aves
I spent the rest of my afternoon exploring the local bird park to see some exotic animals. Just be mindful of the Coatis (kow · aa · tee), a type of South American racoon – though they are quite a bit friendlier than the ones back home.
In the evening, your best bet for entertainment is the elaborate Rafain Churrascaria cultural dinner show. It’ll fill up the rest of the day and the music and dance is excellent. The feast was incredibly elaborate. Multiple buffets of both local an international food. Besides those two add-ons, there’s not much else to do in the area.
The city of Curitiba (kuor · ree · tee · buh) itself isn’t particularly a tourist hub, but the Botanical Gardens are definitely a gorgeous walk as is Tanguá Park. I was there at the end of their rainy season which runs from October to March, so it was a mix of gorgeous sunny days, and getting absolutely drenched. When it does rain, prepare for the roads, even in major cities, to be sunken and undriveable.
The old downtown also features a plethora of colourful buildings, and spray painted murals.
If you’re here on a business trip, there’s quite a few other unique areas to spot modern and historical architecture. But Brazil is famous for Oscar Niemeyer’s work which you’ll primarily see in the country’s capital of Brasilia. Though, the museum here in town is iconic and shouldn’t be missed.
While it’s not one of his works, the Wire Opera house, which is still in use today is also a spectacle of unique design.
15th of November Street was one of the first pedestrian streets in Brazil and it is exploding with shops and restaurants. Make a point to check out the unique BRT bus boarding areas. Brazil’s rapid bus model heavily influenced other systems around the world.
Rio de Janeiro
Pedra da Gávea
Over in Rio, the Pedra da Gávea hike was my favourite. It’s not recommended to trek without a guide due to steeper sections requiring some bouldering experience. The four-hour round-trip hike will not disappoint and give unparalleled views of Rio and the ocean below.
For the less fitness inclined, the Gondola Ride up Sugarloaf Mountain is an easier way to get similar views from the opposing side, and does offer a much better view of the beaches.
The walk down the Copacabana beach will make your stomach rumble. Every few meters there is another restaurant or bar often featuring live music. Use this is a chance to try a fresh cut of Picanha – the national standard for cuts of beef. This is known as top sirloin cap back home.
Largo do Boticário & Esqueleto Hotel
I was in the mood for some haunting experiences, so took a detour out to Largo do Boticário. It’s a great example of some neocolonial houses, but didn’t quite “do it” for me so I popped in an cab and headed to the elusive 16-story Skeleton Hotel (“Esqueleto Hotel”). It was challenging to find at best, but is the remnants of a nearly 50 year old hotel that was abandoned mid-construction 19 years later due to bankruptcy.
Christ the Redeemer
In theme with this trip, the best laid plans were always doomed to failure. I was enroute to Christ the Redeemer when the driver informed us that the road was closed due to fallen trees. I wasn’t taking “no” for an answer. I ditched my tour company and waited…
The summit was jam packed as expected and the view was stellar. It became a matter of national pride for Brazilians when it was time to decide on the New7Wonders of the World. A national campaign launched under the slogan “Vote for the Christ” — from citizens to large corporations, the Brazilians weren’t going to let any other country steal the spotlight!
The Selaron Steps are world-famous and designed by a chilean artist. His original concept was to simply spruce up some run down steps in front of his home with the colors of the flag. It quickly became his passion and began incorporating over 2,000 tiles from 60 countries around the globe. He believed it was an ever-evolving masterpiece that would be finished.
The crowds gathered, the rains poured, the drinks splashed, and the music blared. The street parties and parades for Carnival were surreal! It was reminiscent of Mardi Gras in New Orleans, but boasts upwards of two million partiers hitting the local block parties. Partake in an exclusive VIP ball or head to the Sambadrome for the colorful floats, music, and dancers.
Manaus is the gateway to the Amazon. The city also has a bustling banana and produce market. But, if you’re like me, you may have to hold your breath once you get to the meat market! The smell of rotting flesh was overbearing! The street markets have tons of local vendors who produce their own handicrafts. It’s the perfect spot to pick up a souvenir.
Ponta Negra (nay-graH) is the most popular beach, just a short 15 minute drive from downtown. But, I wasn’t here to sit in the sand and catch a tan.
I headed down the Black River on a private charter to see the Pink Dolphins. They’re actually born grey, and turn pink as they age. It can happen due to a variety of environmental and behavior reasons such as diet or trauma from intra-species aggression. They also have the largest brains of any freshwater dolphin!
Meeting of the Waters
Nearby the “Meeting of the Waters” is where the Black River meets the Amazon river, but because of the differences in temperature, speed, and composition of dissolved sediments the two rivers actually don’t mix! They run side by side.
Cipiá Indigenous Community
The big highlight of the day was visiting an indigenous community where I received the formal welcoming dance. I had some time to kick around their settlement to see how they lived, as well as try some of their regular foods.
And now it was time to let my inner adventurer flourish. I took a long car and fishing boat ride to the Amazon Riders jungle camp on Lago do Ipanema. Sleeping in a hammock on the balcony was my last night of luxury before we’d head into the jungle and prepare to survive for a few days.
For most of the morning, we carted round in the tiny fishing boat, sneaking up on nearby reeds to try and catch tiny frogs. When we didn’t have much luck, we navigated a dense network of canals, occasionally stopping to dig in the mud and try and find worms or other usable insects for bait.
That afternoon, in the agonizing full heat of day, we strung our lines and sunk them on the Paraná do Mamori river in hopes of catching piranhas. Every time I dropped my line I was pulling up another one! I couldn’t believe the luck I was having. This would’ve never happened back home.
Contrary to popular belief, and despite their gruesome looking teeth, it would actually take upwards of five-hundred piranhas to take down a human, but would normally only attack if you were already severely injured or dying. But, they have been known to eat smaller animals including capybaras.
Food in hand, we carted off to a nearby clearing in the jungle and began to setup camp. We pushed through tarantula infested dense jungle to lug back a ton of palm leaves which would provide us a roof to our shelter – protecting us from the elements and stalking animals.
We gathered some already fallen branches and I, keyword: attempted, to chop them up with a machete to create a basic framework for our jungle tent. We strung up some branches, braced them between trees, and carefully latticed our greenery on top. We were beat.
We gutted the fish far away from camp and let the entrails float down the river. Then, my guides thought it would be fun to terrorize me a bit and made sure to point out all the tarantula dens in the dark on the way back to camp. One of which they grabbed a stick and started poking at to see if they could provoke the spider into coming out.
We dug a small pit for a fire and setup a simple makeshift roasting bar. We split open a branch and inserted the piranhas and let them cook. About an hour later, we were famished and ready to eat the dinner we so rightly deserved.
Constant howling of animals and terror stories from my guides kept me awake virtually all night. Every time I had an itch, I envisioned that it must’ve been a tarantula crawling on the mesh surrounding my hammock. It was one of the most traumatizing camping tips I’ve ever been on in my life. Would I do it again? Absolutely not! But, it’s a life experience I’m so glad I had the fortune to endure.
One of the least interesting destinations was Brasilia. It’s the capital city for the country, and not a tourist trap. It does, however, feature countless examples of Oscar Niemeyer’s futuristic architecture. It felt like I had stepped onto the set of a retro science fiction movie from the 60s. Suffice it to say, I didn’t stay long – a single day was more than enough time to take it all in – and I bolted to my next destination.
Sao Luis had stunning beaches, but its tourism industry has been dead for a long time. Tourism across all of Brazil has been on a decline in recent years. Many businesses have closed up shop, or are very run down. However, you can imagine the lustre it must’ve had at its peak. One of the most famous derelicts to treasure hunt for is right behind the Grand São Luis Hotel.
Cabana do Sol is the top recommendation for food in town and offers a spectrum of local delicacies.
And, in the local markets you’ll spot something very unique. Full crabs preserved in glass jars filled with the popular local rum: cachaça.
Barreirinhas & Lençóis Maranhenses
Sao Luis retains its popularity due to its proximity to Barreirinhas. It’s a solid four to five hour drive west, but Sao Luis is the fly-in airport for most tourists. Barreirinhas is famous for its national park: Lençóis Maranhenses. The jungle abruptly stops at the sand dunes which are dotted with countless lagoons. They are filled up during the rainy season, and make for a seemingly magical stop. Most tours will be a minimum of two days.
The other days of the tours involve a full day of boating to the numerous tiny sea side villages. Hang out and have a bevy at the monkey hut to take a selfie. Or, hit up the sand dunes for an epic ride in an ATV. River tubing on the Rio Formiga near Cardosa was also a great way to spend a day cooling off in the heat. Just try not to think about what’s likely lurking below your toes!
Bringing me to the end of the journey, I flew to Sao Paulo. Like every big city, you’ve got your smattering of cathedrals, ethnic quarters, galleries, and shopping districts. I’d highly recommend taking a city tour, because only about five percent of Brazilians have a degree of English. The one thing that really stood out was the fringes at Embu das Artes.
Beco do Batman
On our way we stopped at Beco do Batman which is a neighbourhood filled with some incredibly talented graffiti. In March 2009, the Brazilian government decriminalized street art permitting that the owners of the private property approved. Unfortunately, this had the unintended side effect of the country being covered in a swamp of amateur and uninspired tags. It has been a struggle to cover the mess ever since, but a few gorgeous areas like this do exist.
Embu das Artes
Embu das Artes is chalked full of artisan shops, cute cafes, and numerous craft fairs. Even just walking down some of the city streets feels like an exhibit. But the real winner for me was the local wine tasting at O Alambique. Only in the last few decades have Brazilians been permitted to import wine, so prior to this they would only have what they could buy locally. Many of the domestic wines were low in sulphites, which are preservatives, which means that they don’t keep for nearly as long.
Wrapping the trip up, I paid a final visit to meander through Ibirapuera Park to see where the locals hung out on weekends. It was a soothing and cultural end to an action packed trip that almost didn’t happen.