My travels so far – as interesting as they have been – have been packed with trials and tribulations, from the uphill battle of the Inca Trail and a bumpy 4×4 ride across Bolivia’s Uyuni Salt Flats to the bugs, bats and Piranhas of the Pantanal Wetlands. This led my friend Liam to message me asking: “Are you actually having fun yet? You mostly seem to be ‘experiencing’ stuff lol”. Well “lol” away Liam.
The fact of the matter is that I had been having fun – just not the sort of ‘fun’ I would previously have identified as ‘fun’. But as it happened, as we left the Pantanal to experience more of Brazil I was in for an absolute treat because it turns out Brazil is BRILLIANT! My trip was about to get a lot less cold, and a lot less “being at one with nature” would be required (apart from one sorry incident involving some racoons). And at one point I even made it to a real life beach!
Our first stop post-Pantanal was Bonito, which was muito bonito as the Potuguese-speaking would say. Potentially one of the most touristy places we’d been to so far, it is famed for its crystal clear waters which make for great snorkelling and diving ops – well, for everyone who doesn’t have a crippling fear of fish anyway.
As everyone else went on trips to celebrate their freakish love of sea creatures, myself and the two other Brits on the trip – Tom and Cat – decided to find some less gross (and less expensive) activities to do. These were threefold:
- Wandering up and down the main street in the pouring rain
- Youtubing old Goosebumps episodes
- Hiring bikes for a 7km ride to a park, only to be told by the janitor upon arrival that it was closed. Apparently the weather – at 24 degree C – was too cold for the park to be enjoyed.
However, I still consider the trip to Bonito to be successful, given that I managed to avoid becoming one with the sea creatures – as long as you don’t include the two monstrous fish statues in the main square anyway.
From Bonito we caught an absolutely freezing overnight bus to Iguassu Falls. This bus was so cold that in the middle of the night we demanded the driver let us get our thermals from our luggage: and these were thermals that had not even seen use during the Inca Trail when we were camping at sky-high altitudes.
Upon arrival we were whisked off to the Brazilian side of Iguassu Falls, which was absolutely stunning. The falls are incredibly broad, overwhelmingly powerful, and peppered with rainbows. It is nothing short of magical.
HOWEVER, for one unfortunate member of the group, this day was tainted somewhat when an army of alarmingly vicious racoons descended on his bag, due to the large supply of Dulce de Leche (a sort of caramel dessert) he was keeping in there, and made off with his phone charger.
On our second day in Iguassu Falls we ventured to the Argentinian side. While the Brazilian section is great for panorama shots of the falls, in Argentina you can really get up close and personal with the thundering waterfalls. We took a boat trip out under the cascading tonnes of water, and it was one of the most exhilarating things I’ve done so far. Thanks to the breathtaking scenery it was an absolutely incredible day, and one I’ll never forget.
You see I’m learning so much about myself on this trip. For example, I really enjoy a good waterfall!
During our time we also got the opportunity to cross the border for a visit to Paraguay, which some of us took up. This made for a very interesting few hours. Our guide dropped us off in a very, very Western shopping mall and told us not to leave is as “this is the only place that is safe for you”.
This means our only experience of Paraguay was made up of cosmetic, electrical and department stores, soundtracked by muzac, and I returned from my exotic international jaunt with a faulty hairdryer, some face wipes and a bottle of Chilean wine. After drinking the Chilean wine that night, two of us – by this point sick of the standard tourist food in South America – decided to take a trip to…Pizza Hut. And do you know what? It was LOVELY so you can judge all you want.
Now let’s take a second to talk about South American customer service.
The first thing you need to know about South American customer service is that it does not exist. If my mother was here, she would say (loudly, in front of the offender): “That man needs to go to CHARM SCHOOL”.
During my two months in South America, my food has been entirely forgotten about a total of seven times (yes I’ve been counting), I have been entirely blanked by service staff too many times to remember, and that good old tradition of having a drink with your food just falls by the wayside. One time when I was preparing to consume some salty quesadillas, I tried to outfox the system by ordering both a Diet Coke and a glass of wine before my meal arrived. My Diet Coke arrived around an hour before my meal, and my wine came with the bill after I enquired about it several times.
Peru wasn’t too bad re: customer service woes, but we were warned before entering Bolivia that as it is not as used to tourists we would have to be patient – and we were! The real surprise, however, was Brazil, which our guide warned us was difficult in terms of coordinating transport and activities. “Only 50 per cent of the things people say in Brazil will actually happen”, she explained. This turned out to be pretty true. Anyway enough ridiculous moaning! I was in Brazil!
The next stop on the itinerary was one big PARATAY. Pun very much intended.
Paratay turned out to be one of my favourite places on the whole trip. After weeks of trekking in the cold, altitude sickness and mountain villages, this sunny beach town could not have been more welcome.
On the first day – while the others went on a Caprinha-heavy booze cruise – Cat and I went on a four-hour kayak trip. I must be growing up. It was absolutely stunning and I even went for a dip in the sea!
After an afternoon of wandering round the cobbled old town, we went for the best meal of my time in South America. It was, of course, an Italian. I had pasta, and a slice of chocolate pizza for desert, and we splashed out on a delicious bottle of Sauvignon Blanc.
The next day I learned how nice Brazilian people are when a woman gave up her seat on a boiling, packed bus for very hungover me. We were on our way to the gorgeous Trinidade beach where I actually swam in the sea and subsequently decided to find myself and buy a t-shirt featuring a luminous peace sign in my ongoing mission to become an “Inbetweeners 2 person”. That’s right I did. That night we went out for a bit of salsa time. Sadly none of us had improved since Peru.
And then it was onto Ilha Grande – our next beach paradise. The island was dotted with idyllic beach bars that lit up at night and, as I had a number of deadlines looming, I spent most of my time sat in these, eating chips, drinking Brahma and writing in the world’s best office. It was warm and beach-y and my first real opportunity to relax.
One day we went to Lopez Mendes – a white sand beach famed for its beauty. Sadly it was incredibly overcast and we had to just sit there for a few hours to wait for the return boat. The return boat turned out to be the scariest bit of the trip. We were on a tiny speedboat that had seen better days, in the dark, battling our way through HUGE waves that went higher than the boat itself. There was a lot of screaming from the six of us onboard and at one point Cat shouted “THE BOAT IS GOING UPHILL”, which should give you some indication as to the size of the waves. The captain – who was prepared in a rain mac – merely lolled at us all the way back to the pier, by which point we were drenched with saltwater and, it is fair to say, terrified for our lives.
And then very suddenly it was time to head to Rio de Janeiro – our last stop on the trip. The first few weeks of the tour had dragged somewhat, but towards the end our time had zoomed by, and I was really sad to say goodbye to the group of 12 that had been through the whole trip together. I feel very lucky to have got to travel with such an amazing bunch of people – six weeks is a long time, and if I’d have been stuck with basics for that long it would have sucked.
In fact, it turned out we’d learned a lot from each other. Little to our knowledge, the Canadians and American on the trip had been compiling a list of British slang. We didn’t realise this until we heard them playfully calling each other “knobs”, which we had to explain is not actually an insult to be taken lightheartedly in the UK, and maybe they’d want to switch to the more endearing “dickhead”.
Before entering Rio we were told that – like any big city – you need to be careful of pickpockets and other criminals that roam the streets, and we were also told to take our jewellery off, as people on bikes have a habit of ripping it off as they ride by. However, during our time there I never really felt in much danger although this could be because blind optimism is my homeboy. Hence why I have been mugged/robbed/burgled a total of seven times in my 26 years.
When I messaged my mum to tell her we were in Rio she messaged back saying “stay away from the favelas”. So after arriving, my roommate Tiffanie and I went on a tour of the favelas.
This was marred only slightly by an extremely racist Brazilian man wearing a 420 hat. If you don’t know the meaning of 420, Google it and then bear in mind that we were in the dangerous Rio slums, where drug gangs casually walk around with their guns out (that is not a euphanism).
The favelas are unique: they’re claustrophobic, unsafe, weirdly picturesque and embody a real sense of community. Winding around their labyrinthal alleys, we visited an art gallery, listened to some music, stopped for some lunch and dropped in at a school.
The only reason it was safe for us was that our tour guide had built strong relationships with the community: everyone he walked past knew him, and children constantly ran up to him for a hug. Whenever he told us “cameras down”, it meant we were walking past a drug gang with guns.
After saying “ciao ciao” to our tour group, four of us that were left in Rio had what was probably my favourite day of the entire trip.
We started the day off with some flying: doing an 8am paraglide from a mountain overlooking Rio right down onto the beach.
Running off the mountain was a nerve-wracking experience to say the least, but once we were in the air I was so chill that when my tandem guy was all “woohoo!” I told him to shhhh. I am just too British for that enthusiasm shit. At $200 this was expensive, but I’d been saving up in South America for that very moment and as I glided above a just-waking-up Rio, it was so very worth it. I would happily do that every day for the rest of my life. From my vantage point in the sky, I could see the centre of Rio, the Favelas and Christ the Redeemer, not to mention plenty of other landmarks.
After that incredible wakeup, we were off for a full day tour of Rio starting at Christ the Redeemer which was surprisingly big and just so busy.
Then it was off to Rio’s artsy Santa Theresa Neighbourhood and the colourful Selaron Steps of Lapa.
We then went to the St Sebastian Cathedral, which was like no other church I’ve ever seen (and believe me I have seen a LOT). The outside looked like a giant beehive but inside was spectacular with four huge stained glass windows reaching from floor to ceiling. These days I’m firmly in the atheist camp, but I would have loved to attend mass there.
And then it was onto Sugar Loaf Mountain (or “The Sugar Loaf” as locals call it) and up its two cable car rides for sunset. The view of Rio all lit up at night as the sun went down was breathtaking, but we were told that when the weather is better the view is even more stunning. I can’t even imagine that but I’d love to go back some time and have a meal at the top of the mountain at dusk.
It was then time for more goodbyes as Theresa and I headed for our Copacabana Beach Apartment, which was a bit of a steal, for the next couple of days. Upon arriving, it seemed extremely sketchy: the neighbourhood didn’t seem very appealing with a strip club in the same building, and there was a whole security desk that took our pictures and finger prints before letting us in. After arriving we left pretty quickly to find some food, and when we got back we couldn’t get into our apartment, despite trying to force the key into the lock for ages. My immediate thought was that someone had got in and changed the locks in order to steal all our stuff. However, it turned out we were actually trying to get into the wrong apartment, and so the only criminals trying to break and enter in the building were us.
The next few days went by in a whirlwind of writing, drinks and beach bars. Copacabana beach is absolutely massive, sitting along the front of Rio’s very built-up promenade. However, aside from one incident where I fell asleep alone on the sand, miles from anyone, and miraculously didn’t get robbed, we didn’t really use the beach. For me, the actual beach experience just didn’t compare to the one we’d had at Trinidade Beach in Paratay. I certainly didn’t feel like it merited its eponymous song anyway.
One night we rushed out to dinner after not eating all day, and too hangry (angry through hunger) to do our usual checking of Tripadvisor before picking a restaurant. It’s also fair to say that Theresa and I were among the more lax in our group when it came to researching and arranging things.
Upon arrival at the restaurant we noticed a myriad of women in unusually tight clothes wandering around, but not wanting to appear judgemental we sat down and ordered anyway. After a while we started to suspect these women might not just be there for a beer as they were not eating or drinking anything, but instead occupied their time talking to any men who walked in. Particularly the lonely-looking ones.
Sat at the table, we decided to check out the place on Tripadvisor:
“Maybe not the best place for kids”, the first review ominously said.
“Okay food with free entertainment”, noted the another.
“Lots of prostitutes, food okay, creepy atmosphere” the next customer had written. Yep. “Lots of prostitutes” indeed. But to be fair, the food WAS “okay”!
On my last night in South America, we went out out with some of the people from our trip who were still in Rio. Partying under Lapa’s white arches is a must-do for any traveller to Rio, with plenty of stalls selling Capirinhas, giant hot dogs (and – to my delight – tumblers of Creme de Menthe) and street entertainment. After a while we wandered down to a salsa club, which was situated in a gorgeous building, and was clearly a place the rich kids of Rio partied at, with an extortionate door charge.
Upon reflection, a night of partying before a three-day journey to Bangkok was maybe not the best idea I’ve ever had – but it was worth it to say goodbye to this incredible continent. During my seven weeks in South America I’ve seen so many things and done so much (sorry for the emosh – at time of writing I’m 3 tequila sunrises deep). At times it’s been hard, and it’s definitely not been a ‘holiday’ in the more traditional sense of the word, but it also feels a bit like I’ve achieved something.
But anyway, after weeks of travelling in a group, never having to worry about where I was staying or how I was getting there, and having activities served up on a platter, it was time to FLY FREE and hop on to my three planes to Bangkok. I’ll miss South America’s incredible history, the stunning mountain scenery, and of course, the potato-heavy food, but at the end of the day I am an inherently lazy person and I can’t wait to go lie on a beach in Thailand for several weeks with a Chang in one hand, and a reliable Wi-Fi connection on my phone. Yaaaaaaaaaas.