Jared & Lea’s Jungle Adventure

“Colombia might be the country that finally kills us.” – Lea Millet, April 14, 2019

Day Zero: In Which We Melt

We arrived in San José del Guaviare at an ungodly hour before sunrise on Flota La Macarena, by far the worst bus company we’ve used so far. After a blissful reprieve of cool weather in Bogotá, we were back in the steamy forests of northern South America. San José is a small town eight hours south by southeast from Bogotá, down from the Andes in the valley of the Rio Guaviare. Until three years ago, this region was infested with FARC guerrillas, but after a treaty with the government and the disarming of the rebels, nature tourism in the area has started to boom. San José isn’t strictly in the Amazon, but like Lençois in Brazil it’s as close as we’re going to come on this trip.

We were made aware of San José del Guaviare and the tour company Geotours by the blog Tom Plan My Trip, which is proving useful for finding other things to do in Colombia as well. After contacting Geotours, they sent us a selection of packages that included all housing and meals in addition to the daily excursions. Perhaps feeling a little over-ambitious, we opted for the four-day, three-night package. We made sure to arrive in town a day early, so as not to go directly from our night-bus to a grueling excursion. We had to arrange our own accommodations for that night, which wasn’t a problem; we’re old hands at that by now.

Chasing birds before dawn as we wait for our hostel to open.

However. There wasn’t much available in San José that was both 1) in town and 2) in our budget, so we settled on a guest house that had a shared bathroom and (somehow I missed this) no air conditioning. “It’s only for one night,” we told ourselves.

Our room was on the second floor, right in the middle of the house. There was no window to the outside, but there was a window to the hallway. There was no ceiling, just an opening to the gables to let heat rise. There was a floor fan, which was the only thing that saved us from melting into human-shaped puddles of slag. We had to hang a mosquito net over the bed and refresh ourselves with bug spray every four hours while we were outside. We took turns napping so as not to set each other on fire. The shower was cold-water-only, which was a blessing. We spent almost all of our time sitting on the porch, petting the cat, and listening to a local work crew directly across the street feed trees into a wood-chipper.

A cat makes all things better.

That night, between dinner and bed, we went to buy water. We’ve done this everywhere in South America. From Ecuador to Bolivia, it wasn’t even safe to use tapwater to rinse toothbrushes. It’s been better since, but we’ve never trusted the local tap for drinking or other uses, such as in my CPAP. Usually we buy a five or six gallon jug, which is much more cost-effective than spending the big bucks on individual bottles. Imagine our surprise when we discovered that in San José they don’t sell water in jugs. They sell it in bags.

What could possibly go wrong?

Now, I imagine this makes perfect environmental sense. After all, a flattened bag takes up a lot less room in a landfill than a big, round container. However, as we would discover the following day, the bagged water they sell in San José tastes exactly like insect repellent.

Day One: The Shape of Things to Come

We dragged ourselves out from under our mosquito net so we could hurriedly pack and be picked up by Geotours. After dropping our luggage at our new hotel (with its promised A/C) and a breakfast of soup and various sides, we were off on a bumpy road to our first day of travel around Guaviare!

A word about the region: modern civilization ends the instant you leave San José. Pavement, plumbing,  and electrical service don’t extend into the countryside. Most of our hikes would begin and end at farms in the campo which double as tourist waypoints. As I said, the tourism industry is still taking off in San José. In many places it hasn’t cleared the launch pad.

The Portal of Orion, despite appearances, will not teleport you to other planets.

Our first outing was a hike to a rock formation called the Portal of Orion. It’s an impressive stone arch set among many other geological outcroppings. Once Lea outed herself as a geologist, our fellow tourists were very much interested in hearing her explanations of what we were seeing as well as those offered by our guide.

The whole area looked like an ancient lost city from an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel.

The hike was strenuous. It was several kilometers in and out, level for some stretches. In other places there was much climbing over boulders and jumping over narrow gaps. Two dogs from the farm/tourist center followed the entire way. As with the best of nature walks, the beauty of the surroundings compensated for the exertion and stiff muscles.

Our guide knew all the best places to roll in the dirt and sniff.

Not so much for the second hike, which in my notes for this post I dubbed “The Pointless Death March to Nowhere.” This was actually a combination of two hiking trails – the first up and down many steep inclines to reach a rocky, mossy overhang that was not vale la pena of getting there. Once we crawled out of that narrow defile, we passed a “do not go beyond this point” sign onto a much easier nature trail. This one had signs highlighting the local flora, and all the signs were pointing in the opposite direction from which we were walking. This trail eventually brought us to a different farm where we enjoyed lunch, panela-flavored lemon water, and hammocks while a torrential downpour moved through the area.

I almost twisted an ankle forty times for this shot.

Here we also changed into our swimsuits. Our final outing would be a swim in Laguna Negra (that’s Black Lagoon for those playing at home). It would take a boat ride to get there which would, for me, become the most harrowing part of the day.

The boats used in this region are extremely long, narrow, flat bottomed canoes with shockingly shallow drafts. So shallow that once we were in the boat, the surface of the creek was no more than an inch from the lip of the boat. One sway too far in either direction could easily have tipped us, or so it seemed.

Me trying very hard not to move.

But first, we watched the boatman bring our canoe’s motor out of the shack where he kept it and hook it up to our worthy vessel. Then we had to climb down a freshly slippery bank to reach it. I was the first after our guide and I wiped out, jamming my shoulder on a root. It wasn’t a bad injury but it did put my left arm out of commission for a day or so. After we wobbled on board, we sped down a twisty channel through mist and rain, surrounded by a multitude of wonderful South American birds that we couldn’t really photograph thanks to the weather and the lousy light.

And yet, occasionally one would pose.
I mean, wouldn’t you?

The channel opened into a wide lake, and we swam. However, there’s no reason we couldn’t have done the same at our hotel’s swimming pool – the Laguna Negra was no more impressive than any swamp hole along the U.S. Gulf Coast. Once the swim was over, we took a slightly less nerve-wracking ride back to the truck, followed by a bumpy road to our hotel and its marvelous cold shower.

The Black Lagoon, sans creature.

Oh yeah, the shower. The shower at our first hostel was nothing but a bit of PVC pipe sticking out of the wall with a single knob to turn it on or off. (Hot water? Who are you kidding?) When we saw the exact same setup in our touristy hotel room we realized that, like bagged water, this was probably a standard set-up for the area.

High-tech shower nozzle.

Day Two: A Few Good Moments and a Lot of Wasted Time

The second day did not get off to an auspicious start. We rose very early for a 6:00 a.m. ride back into the wild to eat breakfast and spend several hours at a tiny coca farm. In this case the farm wasn’t a departure for a hike to some point of interest, it was the point of interest. And it wasn’t very interesting, not when we couldn’t follow a word of the farmer’s heavily accented Spanish, nor did we really care all that much about agronomy. Even after the farm tour was done, it felt like we sat around for at least an hour doing nothing but taking pictures of animals and wasting precious daylight as it got hotter and hotter.

I got up at 04:30 to see… a pig.
And this fellow.

Next, once it was truly scorching, came the hike. We drove to another farm and walked a long, long cow path to Cerro Azul. We’d asked our guide in advance about the difficulty of this hike, and he told us that its first stop was the most important. It would become more difficult after that, but there would be no problem if we decided to turn around.

Cerro Azul. That’s an easy climb, right?

That first stop was halfway up the mountain to view an huge wall of rock covered in ancient pictograms. There was little we could understand from the local guide who lectured on what is known of the culture who painted them, but they were stunning to behold. Just as in the Cueva de las Manos in Argentina, these pictograms have been exposed to the elements for untold thousands of years and still hold their vibrancy and color. Unlike those in Argentina, these presented a wide variety of images, shapes, animals, and figures.

This day we were with a much larger tour group, most of whom had purchased a single day trip instead of a multi-day package. There were several who elected to return to the farm with Lea and I instead of climbing the rest of the way up the mountain. Those who went on reported seeing several more areas of pictograms, a cave with bats, and the view from the top of the mountain. It also turned out that those of us who returned early made the right decision, since we weren’t the ones caught in another torrential downpour on our way back.

The day ended on another high note. After lunch in a nearby small town we made for a local bar where those of us who were so inclined had the chance to try our hands at the Colombian game of tejo. Lea and I have been wanting to try this, and while this was hardly a regulation tejo field it gave us the chance to get the feel of it.

Rafael explains the rules.

Tejo is like a Colombian version of “cornhole,” except that instead of throwing beanbags at a hole in an angled plank of wood, you’re throwing rocks at a circular ring set on an inclined bed of clay. In a true tejo club, the target ring is lined with gunpowder charges, so that if you hit the mark it explodes. The tejo targets we were using did not explode, but there’s still no better way to spend forty minutes throwing rocks at things short of participating in a riot.

Day Three: River Dolphins and a World of “Nope”

This day started with another 6:00 a.m. pick-up. This time our guide led us four blocks from our hotel to a dock where we boarded a boat for a trip down the Rio Guaviare.

I had high hopes. This was the day that had sold me on the idea of coming into San José in the first place. This day we would get the chance to see and swim with the “pink” river dolphins of the Guaviare. In the end, this day would be a massive disappointment.

At least the boat was a real boat this time, and not a canoe. We sped east along the Rio Guaviare for at least an hour and a half until we slowed into a side channel. There we pulled up to the bank next to the farm where we would eat breakfast. There was no dock from which to disembark and this boat wasn’t designed to let people climb out the front, so we got from the vessel to dry land by stepping off the side into another of those unstable, flat-bottomed canoes and walking along its length to shore.

This bird was having none of it.

After breakfast, we walked what must have been another two miles to the camp/chicken farm that was the setting-off point for the dolphin encounter. We learned that at other times that walk wouldn’t have been necessary, but that the river was too low for our motorboat to reach this far along the creek. From this point we sat around for a while, drank more lemon water, were given lifejackets, and walked the next two miles through shade and scorching sun to meet the dolphins.

This bird was enjoying the sun more than we were.

Once again, we learned the error of expectations. I’d imagined that this swim would be like before, both at Laguna Negra and on the other tours we’ve taken where swimming was an option – namely that we’d walk into the water from the shore.

Nope. Here, they expected us to climb into another of those damned canoes, ride it into the middle of the lake/river/whatever, and jump in over the side of the boat. After the swim, we were then expected to somehow climb back into the canoe without tipping it. While I’m sure that wasn’t impossible for all the twenty-somethings we were touring with, neither Lea nor I felt comfortable attempting such a feat. So instead, we sat in the boat and watched.

A very lucky shot..

In truth, there wasn’t much to see. The dolphins showed up, moved on, and showed up again, but they barely did more than break the surface. They were nearly impossible to photograph, because you never knew when or where they would appear. When they did, all you would see was a curve of back and a blowhole for the briefest of moments. They aren’t really pink – just grey with pink splotches – but we knew that going in. What we didn’t know was how miserable the whole experience of baking in the sun while a whole lot of nothing went on around us would be.

A dolphin’s tail from a long way away.

All this was made worse by the fact that just before we walked down to the canoe, one of the guides stopped us from applying sunscreen. Apparently we weren’t supposed to, but no one had made that clear. In fact, our other guide had told us to apply sun lotion and bug spray when we specifically asked him about it the day before. Anyway, I got sufficient lotion on Lea’s back but was stopped before she could get the front of her shoulders or chest. I didn’t get any except on my arms, legs, and neck where I’d applied earlier in the day.

After an hour of sitting in the boat, the guides had mercy and allowed us to return to shore. From there, Lea and I hiked on our own back to the camp/chicken farm instead of waiting around for the others, who would catch up with us half an hour later. We had lunch, then lazed around for two pointless hours before moving on.

This is important. Had we not wasted so much time at lunch, we would have returned to the riverboat before the deluge started. As it was, it poured on us during the hike back to farm #1. Lea and I had ponchos, so no worries there. The rain stopped for a while as we loaded ourselves on board and returned to the mighty river.

Then the heavens opened up again. We dropped the canvas flaps that hung from the boat’s roof to keep mostly dry inside, but our pilot had close to zero visibility. His windshield wiper was useless. He kept wiping condensation out of the inside of the windshield and sticking his head out the side to check our position against the bank. This didn’t stop him from barreling ahead at full speed, winding around sand banks and fallen trees.

It was here that Lea uttered the quote I used at the head of the article. Intellectually we realized (or rather, hoped) that the pilot was familiar enough with the river that we weren’t in as much danger as it seemed. But it seemed like a lot.

The fact that I’m writing this means that we did escape with our lives. However, after a day of baking, burning, hiking more than necessary, and getting soaked, we decided we’d had enough. There was one more day of excursions ahead of us, but we decided to cancel. After three days of sore bodies, bug bites, and wasted time, we let the tour operators know that we couldn’t handle any more. There was even a “native cultural ceremony” we were supposed to attend that night, but we just couldn’t bear to leave the hotel.

Day Four: In Which We Cut Our Losses

I know it sounds like I’m giving Geotours a bad rap, and I really don’t want to. If you’re young, in good shape, and speak Spanish fluently enough that you can follow country dialects, they provide a great opportunity to experience the sights and native culture available in this remote part of Colombia that is only now being discovered by the wider world. If you sign up for one of their multi-day packages, they really do take good care of you, providing a hotel and three square meals a day. They’ll even get you to and from the airport or bus station.

If you’re like us, I’d recommend doing what some of our fellow travelers did – arrange your own lodgings, then pick and choose which excursions to go on, giving yourself time to recover in between.

On our last day in San José, we stayed in our air-conditioned room until our 1:00 p.m. check-out, then had lunch at a nice restaurant and wandered the town, spending time in the city park and one of the many, many pool halls that populate the city. When it was clear another deluge was on its way, we went back to our hotel lobby, petted the hotel cat, and waited for our last dinner and late-night ride back to Bogotá.

The proper way to recover in San Jose.

We may have made this resolution before, but from here on it’s firm: no more guided tours unless absolutely necessary. We’d rather find places to go that we can get to on our own and take at our own pace. We’d like the option to quit while we’re ahead and to go somewhere else once we’ve experienced as much of a location as we care to. Guided tours let you reach places that you probably wouldn’t have otherwise, but they also trap you into their own program. That’s a degree of autonomy that, at this point, Lea and I don’t want to give up anymore.

Looking ahead, we’ll have self-guided hikes, days on the beach, hopefully more snorkeling, and time set aside for prepping our return to the States. As of this writing, we’ve got one month left in South America. I’ll let you know how that feels once I figure it out for myself.

Bogotá & Beyond

Don’t get attached to plans. That’s what I said this time last year (mas o menos) when we landed in Guatemala City to find that Avianca had canceled our flight to Flores. In that instance it was because “the plane needed parts,” to which our reply was, “No problem. You get those parts. We can wait.”

This time we expected to fly Avianca direct from Salvador, Brazil to Bogotá, Colombia. What we weren’t aware of, until Lea didn’t receive an email reminding us to check in, was that Avianca Brazil had gone bankrupt. Our plan had been to spend our last day in Brazil lounging at our hotel’s poolside bar until late afternoon. When we discovered that our flight may no longer exist, we decided to get to the airport now.

Sure enough, our flight had been canceled twenty days prior and we hadn’t been notified. The frazzled Avianca employees (who someone told us hadn’t been paid in a month) did everything they could to get us and another couple in the same predicament to our destination as quickly as possible.

Hmm… That’s not the Amazon out the window.

After an hour of searching their own flights and those of other airlines, the wonderful Avianca attendant came up with a way to get us into Bogotá a mere fourteen hours after our original scheduled landing – but we had to get on a plane that very minute. She ran us through the security express line and before you could say “obrigado” we were flying south to São Paulo, a city we’d completely bypassed on our way through the country. Once there we rushed to catch a flight farther south to Porto Alegre, our very first port of call in Brazil. The whole time, a voice in the back of my head was screaming, “We’re going the wrong way!” It was as if all our hard work traveling north through Brazil had been undone in a single afternoon.

But wait. There’s more!

To their credit, in addition to finding new flights, Avianca put us up at the airport Ibis Hotel in Porto Alegre, where we arrived in ample time to get dinner and go to bed early. Our alarm was at 02:30, breakfast at 04:00, then off we were on the 04:30 shuttle for a cross-continental flight to (drum roll please) Lima, Peru!

We never meant to go back to Porto Alegre. We especially never meant to go back to Lima. Ever. Our return to Peru wasn’t long, though – just enough to go back through security and grab duty-free chocolate before the last leg of our journey, landing us in Bogotá at 2:00 in the afternoon. We came west two time zones, but that’s still four flights in under 24 hours for those keeping score. Here’s a map of our original flight plan and the route we actually took:

Despite the unexpected hassle, I’d still like to thank the kind employees at Avianca who kept their cool and worked this out for us during what must have been the latest in a series of very bad days.

So We’re in Bogotá – Now What?

Our itinerary for Colombia was vague to the point of nonexistence. People online had told us that Bogotá was nothing special. Having spent a few days there ourselves, Lea and I would disagree. Granted it’s not the prettiest of cities, but we got sick of “colonial architecture” a long time ago. There are still plenty of things in and around Bogotá to do. In fact, we’re going to pass back through Bogotá and spend two more days, giving us a chance to visit a few places we missed the first time ‘round.

An item in the Museo del Oro.

So what is there? Museums aplenty, a big produce market, and a long pedestrian walkway through the downtown business district thronging with street vendors. There’s a Hooters for cryin’ out loud. There is also Monserrate, a mountain that looms over the city with a church on top. There’s no climbing this one unless you’re crazy, so we rode the funicular up (the teleférico is out of service at this time). Once we established the lack of oxygen at the top of the mountain (and since we still hadn’t adjusted to being back in the Andes) we took a few pictures and came right back down.

The cafe on top of the mountain.

Bogotá’s transportation system isn’t the most fun to navigate. Like other big cities in South America you have to have a metro card which you load with money – that’s no problem in Bogotá. The public transport here is only buses, but there are some bus lines that act as a de facto subway system, running in dedicated lanes down the middle of the city’s larger freeways and only accessible via subway-style stations in the center of the road.

Bogota is a mix of drab buildings and amazing street art.

The problem with the transit system is much like it was in Quito, where despite the presence of buses everywhere, there are some places they simply don’t go. To make things worse, one of these places is the main inter-city bus terminal that connects Bogotá to the rest of the country.

More from the Museo del Oro.

Let me say that again: The city buses do not stop anywhere near the city’s main bus terminal. The closest you can hope to get without taking a taxi or Uber is a ten minute walk away.

Back to the Salt Mines

One of the most enticing attractions we came across while going through information on the Bogotá area (and something that fell into the ever-important category of “we haven’t seen this before”) was the Salt Cathedral in Zipaquirá, an elaborate underground church in an old salt mine. Before going, though, we discovered from another travel blog that there was a better, less touristed salt mine experience in the town of Nemocón twenty minutes farther down the road. This blog indicated that Zipaquirá was overrun with tourists, and to get there you had to travel all the way to Bogotá’s Terminal Norte, whereas you could get a direct bus to Nemocón from Terminal Salitre in the center of town.

The reflecting pool.

Here’s the problem with old blog articles. Things change, they go out of date, and sooner or later everything they say becomes wrong. For instance, there is no longer a direct bus line from Salitre to Nemocón. We picked up the bus to Zipaquirá, which took nearly two hours just to get out of Bogotá because it stopped every two blocks to pick up more passengers. (It would have been faster if we’d taken the city bus system to Terminal Norte to begin with.) Once we got to Zipaquirá we quickly found a bus to Nemocón and the salt mine, and while it wasn’t overrun it has certainly been built up to handle a larger tourist crowd.

A salt nativity scene with disproportionately large sheep.

The salt mine was still impressive. The tiny chapel inside, not so much – the statuary wasn’t carved out of salt, it had simply been brought in from outside and placed in a vaguely chapel-shaped chamber. The tour also made a big deal of the fact that this was where the Antonio Banderas movie The 33 was filmed. Part of the set was still in place, which was cool I guess. However, the most impressive features of the mine were the perfectly reflective brine pools. These pools of saline water are only a few inches deep, yet they are such incredible natural mirrors that they make the mine’s chambers appear twice as grand as they actually are.

More of the reflecting pool.

Getting back to Bogotá was another adventure. There is no bus station in Nemocón, so we walked halfway across the little town, asking directions as we went, until we finally found a bus stop. We didn’t wait too long for one that advertised “Zipa” in its front window, but because of roadwork and rush hour, what had been a twenty minute trip on the way out became forty minutes on the way back. Once in Zipaquirá we quickly found a bus heading back to Bogotá, but we probably should have waited for the next one as it felt like the driver had been snorting cocaine. He drove like an absolute madman, flooring the accelerator, slamming the brakes, continuously honking at and tailgating cars in front of him as if he was going to run them over.

The Heart of the Mine – carved from the largest known salt crystal in the world.

None of this madness helped us get to Bogotá any faster, of course, due to a half hour of backups on the edge of town. When the bus arrived at Terminal Norte we were all “LET US OFF NOW.” From there we were took the more sane, though no less crowded, city bus the rest of the way. What we’d thought would be a half-day excursion had turned into a full-day, exhausting slog. Nevertheless, we were still enjoying Bogotá. We had one day left before riding the night bus south into the wild. We didn’t expect that last day to be as exciting as it turned out.

Crime Fighting!

After dropping our luggage at the bus station, we still had plenty of daylight left to visit museums in the Candelaria district. We’d been told this area was sketchy at night. We found that the same holds true during the day. The only museum we made it to was the Museo del Oro, with its mind-blowing collection of gold artifacts and handiwork. There were others in the area, such as the Emerald Museum and a photography exhibition, but before checking those out we set off down the main pedestrian street in search of hot dogs.

And that’s when it happened.

It was a dark and stormy… day.

I was waiting at an intersection when something hot and wet splashed all the way down my right arm. Confused, I turned to see what had happened when an old lady rushed up and started pawing at my sleeve, babbling in Spanish, and pointing upward at something – an umbrella, a tree, a bird that might have crapped on me. Whatever it was, I tried to tell the lady I was all right when my left front pocket, where I keep my cell phone, suddenly felt very much lighter. I turned around and caught a glimpse of a man, probably in his late thirties, hiding my phone under a bit of newspaper as he walked away.

I shouted, ripped the paper out of his hands, grabbed my phone, and punched the bastard (rather weakly) in the middle of his back. The guy did the smart thing and kept walking. Lea, who’d been several yards away, realized what was going on and started shouting “thief” in Spanish, but the two of them had vanished.

It was a classic distract-and-grab ploy. The old lady splashed me with either warm milk or soapy water, then made sure my attention was firmly on her while her partner came in from the other side and picked my pocket. I’d like to attribute the recovery of my phone to my lightning-fast reflexes and acute situational awareness, but really I think the thief was simply off his game, waiting too long after the original distraction by the old woman. If he’d moved in quicker while I was still utterly confused he would have made off with my phone with no problem. Instead he gave me time to realize that something was out of place.

I won’t lie. I wish I’d punched the guy harder and somewhere more vital. However, I’m sure that cops would have shown up at that point and I’d be writing this entry from the American embassy while waiting on a flight back to the States. As it was, Lea and I released the emotional tension by walking away and finding a fast food joint where I could enjoy that hot dog I’d been after to begin with.

Now if you read this and come away with the feeling that Bogotá or South America in general is a dangerous place, I think you’re jumping the gun. Consider: we’ve been in South America since August 1, 2018 – that’s nine months and counting – and this is the first instance in all that time that someone tried to rob us. Also consider: at no point was I ever in danger. The worst that would have happened was that I’d have lost a phone. If they’d have gone for my wallet, I’d have lost my Georgia driver’s license, a fake credit card (a Visa gift card with $0 balance), my health insurance card (I can always print another) and about $100 USD in Colombian pesos.

I’m not happy it happened, but I’m glad it worked out the way it did. We’ll go back to see those museums that we missed – and I’m not going to worry about it. I will be a little more paranoid about my belongings, but that’s better than giving up on enjoying myself.

As for danger, let me tell you about a boat ride down the Rio Guaviare. That post will be coming sooner than you think!

The real danger in Bogota.

The Caribbean Is Dead to Me

Hello, dear readers. As promised, we’re checking in from (mostly harmless) Bogotá, Colombia. Due to an unexpected airline bankruptcy, our simple evening flight from Salvador turned into a two-day, four-flight odyssey clockwise around the continent, retracing much of the ground we’d previously covered and depositing us north of the equator fourteen hours later than expected. But that, my friends, is a tale for another day. This week I’m going to pass the mic to Lea for a special bonus entry on her adventures in Brazil. Read on to find out what she was doing before I caught up with her in Salvador:

Let’s start with a rhetorical question – Why don’t more estadounidenses (Spanish for ‘Muricans) visit Brazil? Granted, many of us don’t travel internationally the same way as Europeans, but that doesn’t stop the hordes from descending upon all-inclusive resorts in the Caribbean and Mexico . Is it that Brazil seems too exotic, too dangerous, too far away? Or that when we think of Brazil, the only picture we can conjure is sweltering jungle and piranha feeding frenzies in the Amazon? Whatever the reason, I’m very sorry it took me so long to visit, and I plan more trips to explore the many areas we missed. We barely scratched the surface of this exciting, beautiful country.

Jared and I are very different people, and I have a much higher tolerance for almost everything than him. In this case, he wanted to take a break and relax in the (tiny, boring) beach town of Porto Seguro, while I wanted more adventure and to see more places. This led to me hopping north to Ilha de Tinharé and the tourist paradise of Morro de São Paulo. Getting there was definitely a slog, but the island was worth every minute!

The trip to Morro de São Paulo is somewhat complicated. First, I took a 13-hour overnight bus from Porto Seguro to São Salvador de Bahía de Todos os Santos (or “Salvador,” because who has time for all that). Upon arriving at the main bus terminal, I took two city buses to the docks just south of the Mercado Modelo. I luckily arrived just in time to buy a ticket for the 9 a.m. ferry, but not so lucky was the weather. It was too bad for the quicker open-water ferry to operate, so instead I took a 40 minute ferry across the bay to the small town of Vera Cruz on Ilha de Itaparica, followed by a 1.5 hour bus ride to Ponta do Curral, then another 15 minute ferry to the dock in Morro.

At this point, even I was ready to break down and cry after almost 16 hours in transit on four buses and two ferries! I paid the island tax, hiked up the short but very steep hill from the dock, and finally made it to my hostel. By this point, it was almost 3 p.m. and I hadn’t eaten for over 24 hours, so I stuffed my things into a locker in my dorm room and headed out for the first restaurant I could find. After eating and taking a badly needed shower, it was time to hit the beach.

Morro has five beaches, conveniently named First Beach through Fifth Beach after the order in which they were developed. From where I was staying on top of the hill, First Beach was closest. It is a beautiful stretch of rocky coast with a nice, big sandy area, beautiful to look at and fairly uninhabited compared to Second Beach. That first day I simply sat on the sand until it started raining, then headed back to my hostel to relax and get some sleep.

I chose Morro for my destination because I had read there was great snorkeling in the tide pools at First, Third, and Fourth Beaches. After a good night’s sleep, I got up the next morning and hung around in the sand until low tide. My arrival on the island had fortuitously coincided with the full moon, so low tide was extra low and there were a ton of rocks exposed at First Beach. I put on my mask, grabbed my Olympus T-4 waterproof camera, and headed into the warm water to check out the fish. And fish there were! Many different kinds, of all sizes, plus crabs, snails, and eels. The water was very clear behind the natural breakwater, which also made the area very calm and easy to swim. Here are some of the things I saw that first day during approximately 2.5 hours of snorkeling:

I thought about dinner but his claws are too small
Hey there beautiful!
Here fishy fishy
I scared these corals taking the first picture and had to wait a few minutes for them to peek out again
I almost had a heart attack when I first swam over the eel because SNAKE!!!

I’d taken a chance and booked a bunk in a dorm room, as I often do when not traveling with Jared (who has much higher standards). However, upon arriving at the hostel, it was immediately clear that this was a pretty young crowd. The rooms were very small to accommodate four people, and the bathrooms were miniscule. I spent time my second day looking for another place with more comfortable accommodations. On my third day, since I was changing hostels and my room wouldn’t be ready until 2:00, I left my bags at the new place and headed down to Second Beach to check out the party.

Second Beach is by far the most developed in Morro, with tons of restaurants, bars, chairs for rent, and strolling vendors selling anything your sandy little soul could desire. I rented a beach chair with umbrella and enjoyed several hours of chair-side service. One thing in Brazil I absolutely adore are the big chunks of mozzarella cheese impaled on skewers, coated with oregano, and grilled over hot coals in a hand-held brazier. I’m normally not a huge fan of cheese, but something about Brazilian cheese sticks is simply too delicious to pass up. Luckily the cheese lady walked by my chair and I was able to buy a snack to go with my drink.

Queijo coalho – the only way to cheese on the beach

Later that afternoon, after chilling (literally) in my new hostel, I decided to visit the church and lighthouse at the tip of the island, since the views of sunset were supposed to be stunning. All I can say is: what a waste of dripping sweat and knee pain from climbing a super steep and rather long hill! The lighthouse was almost completely obscured by trees and power lines, and the view over the island was really nothing special. In addition, it was very crowded at the top because everyone else on the island was thinking about watching the sunset, and there was a zipline from the top of the cliff down to the water on First Beach.

After approximately 45 seconds and two pictures, I headed back down the hill. When I arrived near the bottom, it made me wish even more I had not expended the energy to climb up – the view from the bottom was over the boat dock, with trees and a much better angle on the sunset. Here’s a tip if you visit – save yourself the angst and just watch the sunset from there!

Now you don’t need to hike up the horrible hill to see the lighthouse
The sunset from near the bottom is infinitely better without all the effort

The fourth day on the island, I set out in a kayak to Ilha de Caitá. I had read about this beautiful little island right of the coast of Third Beach and the wonderful snorkeling in its tide pools at low tide, being able to walk on the island itself, and the lone palm tree that inhabited the island’s large sandy spit. Since I was kayaking for the first time in the ocean, I opted to take a smaller, lighter, one-person kayak because I was concerned I wouldn’t be able to handle the larger two-person kayak by myself. Mistake! That was the single worst kayak trip I’ve ever taken.

The lady renting them mentioned (in mixed Spanish and Portuguese) that the single-person kayaks were unstable, but having white-water kayaked before I wasn’t overly concerned. How bad could it be? The answer to that is it can be very bad. It was the most unstable boat I’ve ever been in, even though there were barely any waves because the tide was going out and the reef was blocking most of the flow. I didn’t fall out of the boat, but it was a very close thing a couple of times and I was completely soaked by the time I got out to the reef.

Once near the island I wanted to get out, tie off the boat, and walk around to let the tide finish going out before snorkeling. It seems that in the time since the articles I read were published, several things have changed. First, the palm tree is gone. I’m not sure what happened, but there was almost no vegetation on the island, and certainly nothing as distinct as a palm tree. Second, the person leading the kayaks wouldn’t let us get near the island itself. Maybe they closed it to protect it, or who knows what, but he led us to an area behind the reef instead. Third, there were no tide pools.

The tide was low so there were areas to snorkel, but being outside the shelter of the island meant that there was still a fair amount of current and waves coming over the reef, making this a much rougher snorkeling area than First Beach. In addition, this area is where the kayak company took people to do the “Bautismo” dives, so there were a number of divers walking on the bottom and kicking up silt and sand, making conditions close to the boat very cloudy. I finally swam away to a shallow area with clearer water. There were fish around the area, but not nearly the number or diversity of those at First Beach. After maybe 35 minutes of poking around, I gave up and paddled my horrible kayak back to shore.

This guy wanted me to take his picture
This is one handsome fellow (or pretty gal, who knows)
These brown and yellow corals caught my attention

Since tide was just past low, I walked back to First Beach, renting a snorkel along the way, to see if I could salvage the day. After all, it was sunny and warm and I still had a few hours of daylight to enjoy. And I’m glad I went back! Once again there were many different fish, crabs, and TWO eels at First Beach. I was able to spend over an hour snorkeling, including some areas I hadn’t been able to access previously because the tide had been too low. Overall, it was a very nice ending to what had been a rather frustrating 24 hours, and a nice way to wrap up my time on this very beautiful island.

This shell was cruising around on a submerged rock
Lots of snails, munching on algae where it grew on the submerged portion of rocks
This beautiful blue color was very visible against the other, duller greens and grays
Even fish like rainbows
Aaaaand another heart attack because TWO SNAKES!!!!!

The next morning I got up early for the return trip to Salvador. The weather was sunny and (very) hot, so I was able to take the fast ferry directly back in just 2.5 hours. Jared had arrived early that morning and was waiting at the dock to give me a kiss and help me with my bags. With a smile and fond memories, I said goodbye to Morro knowing that I will never again be content with a Caribbean beach.

The All-You-Can-Eat Brazilian Buffet

Brazil is too damn big. That’s a problem when we’re trying to see as much of this continent as possible and can only allocate so much time to each country. Our average has been about six weeks. We cut that short in Peru, Bolivia, and Uruguay, and went a bit longer in Chile and Argentina. Theoretically we could have added a week or so to Brazil by stealing from Colombia, but a while ago we found cheap tickets from Salvador to Bogotá for April 5 so that’s locked us in a little on our schedule.

Hummingbird v. Cactus.

So basically, we’re going to have to come back. We were planning to come back anyway to see more of Bolivia, so now we’ll add Brazil to that future trip. We didn’t see any of the sights around Brasilia, we didn’t get to visit the beaches in Fortaleza, and we’ll have gone around the whole continent without once dipping our toes in the Amazon. Brazil is bigger than the Lower 48. You can’t see America in six weeks; it’s the same down here.

Random monkey is unconcerned.

What we did this last week was squeeze in as much Brazil as we could in the little time remaining. In my last post I was moping around in Porto Seguro while Lea snorkeled in Morro de São Paulo. (More on that in a future article.) Since then we reunited in the port city of Salvador, saw the sights there, then bused seven hours inland to the small town of Lençóis and the giant wilderness of Chapada Diamantina.

Pool party, Brazilian style.

Side note 1: Lençóis is pronounced “Len-Soys,” not “Len-Swah.” And the letter T is pronounced like a CH and the letter R is pronounced like an H. Because Portuguese.

Side note 2: In this part of Brazil, at least half of the restaurants are buffets where you pay by the kilo. In deference to that slice of Brazilian culture, and all the buffets we’ve eaten during the past week, here are some options on the menu:

Dish 1: Churches

When this journey began, Lea and I spent a lot of time visiting old colonial Catholic churches to admire the architecture and the artwork inside. Somewhere halfway down Chile the churches lost their shine, the architecture became more modern and boring, and Lea and I stopped bothering. That changed once we got to Córdoba and the old churches started trying again. The city of Salvador, with its dazzling cathedrals on the hilltop Pelourinho district, wins the prize.

Church of the Third Order of Our Lady of the Rosary of the Black People.

The interiors of these churches are gilded beyond belief. Our hostel was almost next door to the Church of the Third Order of Our Lady of the Rosary of the Black People. (How’s that for a mouthful?) It was built in the 18th century by black slaves who weren’t allowed to attend services elsewhere. The exterior, perched on a steep cobbled slope, is robin’s egg blue. The interior is an astounding tribute to the work of those who constructed it.

One of the many black saints inside.

Further up the hill is the Catedral Basílica de Salvador, the principle cathedral of the old city, with enough gold and silver inside to blow the lens right off your camera. Even more impressive, in a different way, is the Igreja e Convento de São Francisco, hidden so well on the other side of the hill that you can easily miss it. The outside is nothing spectacular, but the inside of the convent and church are covered with painted tile. I don’t just mean individually painted tiles, I mean giant tile paintings rendered across every wall of every courtyard and many of the interior rooms. The images are mostly still intact and the sheer amount of work required to create these hidden masterpieces is humbling in the extreme.

The Cathedral Basilica says “Top this!”
The Church of St. Francis says “Hold my beer.”
The Convent of St. Francis, lined with these tile murals, says “Whatever, guys.”

Dish 2: Dance

By sheer luck, the hostel I booked in Salvador was one block away from the home of the Balé Folclórico da Bahia, with shows every night. Lea had the chance to see this dance troupe perform in Atlanta two years ago. Here we just walked up the street, bought tickets, and enjoyed the show.

The BFB is the only professional company of folk dancers in Brazil and has achieved international acclaim. Their repertoire includes dances of African slaves, local samba, and capoeira – the martial arts/dance style that originated in this region. No photos or videos of the program were allowed so once again I’ll have to swipe some of the Interwebs.

These guys mean business.

Dish 3: Cobbled Streets

If I go the whole rest of my life without walking or riding on another cobbled street, it will still be too soon. However, I’m sure Colombia will provide many more for me to enjoy. In Pelourinho and Lençóis there are nothing but cobbled streets. Steep cobbled streets. And when I say “cobbled” I mean “someone dumped a bunch of random rocks between the buildings and called it a day.” Every single step twists your ankle in a different direction, which is especially fun when lugging 30 kg of backpack up or down an incline. It’s even more fun when it’s been raining and the rocks are slick.

Dish 4: Rivers, Rocks, and Waterfalls

Apparently water runs downhill. You’d think we’d have learned this by now, having spent a week at Iguazú Falls, but nevertheless water features keep drawing us back. No matter how big or impressive one set of falls is, every one is beautiful in its own way. So we bused out to Chapada Diamantina and signed up for three tours of its river canyons, falls, and water-filled caves. The first fall that we visited, Mosquito Falls, was the most impressive, not in the least part because we could swim in the pool at its base and stand (as close as we dared) under the fall itself.

Finally, a shower with some water pressure.

Later that day we hiked up the Rio Lençóis just outside of town to several areas used as natural swimming pools by the locals. While theoretically you could find all these spots on your own, there’s no way you can realistically do it without a guide. The trail vanishes for kilometers at a time and is not blazed in any way. Along the hike you also get to see giant conglomerates – formations of different size rocks that were the results of ancient river deposits and massive offshore debris flows.

Light on the rocks from an ancient river.

By the third day of hiking, heavy overnight rains had flooded the rivers of the area. We climbed down to the Rio Mucugezinho, which was still in full flood. The restaurant at the base of the steps had been destroyed and the bridge we were meant to take to the Devil’s Pool, a popular swimming spot, had been washed away by the torrent.

Speaking of climbs…

Dish 5: Uneven Steps to Everywhere

I swear, many South Americans would fall on their faces if they ever tried walking on level ground. I’m not just talking about Brazilians, or even modern post-conquest South Americans. This tendency goes back as far as every ancient civilization whose ruins we’ve come across on our voyage. If South Americans of any era had built the city of Colorado Springs, for example, they would have built it on top of Pike’s Peak.

The only point to being on top of mountains is to look down on other mountains.

That’s all just to warn you that you cannot visit this part of Brazil without climbing up and down stairs, inclines, or boulders with every single step you take. Our first day’s hike finished with a climb to the top of a mountain overlooking the valley with the city of Lençóis off in the distance. Our guide was honest about it too – this wasn’t a hike, it was a climb. We scaled boulders, pulled ourselves up on tree branches, and skirted around stone ledges using both hands and feet to stay on the trail. Lea, the smart one, stayed behind at the swimming hole. I, the dumb one, forged ahead.

I don’t know the name of the mountain I climbed and I don’t actually care. By the time we reached the top, it was clear in my mind that mountain climbing – like lion taming – is not something I’ve ever aspired to, nor do I feel any real sense of accomplishment upon achieving it. Still, I did it and here’s the photo to prove it, so you better enjoy it.

There. Happy?

On day three we scaled another mountain, this one not nearly as hard. For starters we were able to drive most of the way to the top, and the rest of the hike was marked by a mixture of stone steps (some natural, some put there) and real wooden stairs. I’ve groused in the past about tourist places without tourist infrastructure. That’s not the problem in Chapada Diamantina. The only problem here is that the infrastructure looks like it was designed and installed by the Flintstones.

The point of that last mountain was its fantastic views of the valley region west of Lençóis. In the original program it was to have been the final stop for the day to watch the sunset, but there was a strong possibility of rain in the afternoon so our group elected to tackle it first. (It never rained, BTW.)

I can’t bear to watch this kind of thing.

I’m not afraid of heights – as long as there’s a solid railing or a good ten feet between me and the drop. I’m not afraid of falling off, because I’d never be so stupid to get close enough to the edge. What freaks me out about sheer mountain tops are the other people – the ones who go right up to the edge and pose for photographs where the slightest gust could turn them into a greasy splat. Just watching them makes every inch of me shriek like metal on glass. As much as I’ve wished ill on all these wannabe fashion models posing in front of natural wonders, I don’t want to witness the worst possible outcome of people with no sense of mortality.

Dish 6: Caves and Azure Pools

There was a photo that brought us to Chapada Diamantina in the first place. It was of a person floating in a crystal blue pool in a cave where the water was so clear you couldn’t even see it. Visiting these caves was a must – it was the “pillar” that brought us here. And thankfully, this pillar did not disappoint. Even though this wasn’t the best time of year in terms of lighting, the view of these pools was amazing.

The first was Poço Encantado. We donned helmets and headlamps, then descended many, many steps down into a cavern where the water-filled bottom was lit by a shaft of light from the other side. Then we turned our headlamps off and saw this:

Poco Encantado.

After spending far too short a time admiring this wonder, we piled back into our tourist van and rode to Poço Azul. (This involved crossing a river by motorized canoe while our van was transported by – I kid you not – a hand-pulled ferry.) At Poço Azul we stripped down to our swimwear, showered off any sunscreen or bug repellent we’d applied, put on life preservers, and picked up snorkel gear.

Told you I wasn’t kidding.

That’s right, folks – we snorkeled. According to our guide, the water filters through Poço Azul quickly enough to maintain its clarity without being clouded by things like human body oil so long as the number of swimmers is limited and certain precautions are taken. The waters at Poço Encantado filter more slowly, and so swimming is forbidden.

Above and below the waterline.

Swimming Poço Azul was magical. There weren’t any fish to see, but the rock formations and especially the play of sunlight and shadow were breathtaking. The area available for swimming wasn’t very large. It was limited to where the sunlight could reach, but under the surface was a giant structure that, to my D&D-addled mind, looked like a submerged dragon skull. Which I’ve filed away as source material for a future story to write, thank you very much.

The last cavern we visited was dry, though there were signs that water had flowed freely across the floor, and not in the too distant past. It was a long climb in and a long climb out, but the cavern itself was wide and beautiful. What I particularly enjoyed was that unlike other caves for tourists, this one wasn’t pre-lit. Everyone in our group carried a flashlight, which gave the cave a different feel than any I’d visited before. Lea also pointed out that not having permanent lighting prevented moss and lichen from growing on the formations that were normally left in the dark.

Caves within caves.

Dish 7: The Perfect Flan

Brazil being as large as it is, there are noticeable regional differences in cuisine, even to fast-traveling Americans like ourselves. In the South there was a great variety in “lanches” – afternoon snacks – from burgers with corn and peas to loaded fries and vegetable risotto. Here in the North, we’re in the land of meat buffets and lukewarm empanadas. However, what the North does have going for it is the best flan anywhere, that even beats Mexico. Hell, I don’t even like flan but I love it here.

Flan, for the uninitiated.

Lea mentioned to Radi, our hostess in Lençóis, that flan was her favorite desert. When we came home from our excursion, Radi had made us a giant plate of flan all for ourselves – it was dinner and breakfast the next morning. Lea has now committed herself to tracking down a flan recipe specifically from the state of Bahia, Brazil. I see lots of flan in the future once we come home, and I don’t mind.

Speaking of Coming Home:

We have a date! Our plane will land in Fort Lauderdale Airport, which has the best airport pizza in the world (Desano, on Concourse G), on Friday, May 17. Our transfer to Atlanta will land just around midnight. We’ve already lined up an apartment (knock on wood) and will burn some Holiday Inn points and make ourselves ill at our favorite Atlanta restaurants while we get our new flat ready.

Between here and there, though, is Colombia. Onward!

Catching rainbows in the water.

P.S. Our Route Through Brazil

Here it is. You can see how much of the country we did not cover and will have to come back for.

P.P.S. My Film Recommendation for Brazil

City of God (2002, directed by Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund)

Normally I’ve recommended a book for each country we’ve visited, but I just finished the original novel City of God by Paolo Lins and the only point in its favor is that the movie wouldn’t have existed without it. Looking at other reviews online, this was a “love it or hate it” novel and I fall into the “hate it” camp. The book chronicles three decades of gang life and warfare in Rio de Janeiro’s most dangerous slum. The film manages to find a coherent narrative in the middle of all the violence; the book does not. Instead of a novel, it reads more like the plot synopsis of a twenty-year soap opera where every single character is shallow and despicable. Even though it was based on the author’s personal experiences growing up in Cidade de Deus, the book rambles and repeats itself while failing to find the essential humanity in its characters. The movie fixed those problems. Watch it. You can read my full review of the book here on Goodreads.

For my next check in, we’ll be north of the equator for the first time since Mitad del Mundo in Ecuador. Be excited!

The Toll, or “What the #@%! Am I Doing Here?”

“To think it will soon be June!” grumbled Bilbo, as he splashed along behind the others in a very muddy track. It was after tea-time; it was pouring with rain, and had been all day; his hood was dripping into his eyes, his cloak was full of water; the pony was tired and stumbled on stones; the others were too grumpy to talk. “And I’m sure the rain has got into the dry clothes and into the food-bags,” thought Bilbo. “Bother burgling and everything to do with it! I wish I was home in my nice hole by the fire, with the kettle just beginning to sing!” It was not the last time that he wished that!

– J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

Confession time again. Last week at Santuário do Caraça, I looked really hard at the possibility of calling the trip quits and coming home. Logistically, there was a window where I could have done it quickly and relatively cheaply. All it would have taken was a bus ride to São Paulo instead of Vitoria and a discount airline ticket to Orlando on the 20th with a connection to Atlanta the next morning. The “escape hatch” from South America was right there, and all I had to do was pull the rip cord.

Long term travel is difficult for me on the best of days. It’s a lifestyle not well suited to my personality. Staring at the option of returning home forced me to think hard about whether I wanted to continue. No more excuses. Did I want to see the trip through, or admit I wasn’t enjoying myself and pull the plug? I decided to keep going, but I did have to admit that if I was going to get any value from the miles that remain I’ll have to change my attitude toward travel and how I take care of myself.

If I’d written this blog yesterday, it might have been a different story. Yesterday I felt much like Bilbo Baggins in the passage quoted above.

Right now I’m in Porto Seguro, a mediocre tourist town on the Brazilian coast. I came here with the intention of unpacking all my luggage, walking on the beach, not thinking about long-haul bus trips, and enjoying cheap burgers and caipirinhas in the sun.

So of course it’s been raining like crazy. Twice, when the rain seemed to have passed, I went for a walk along the surf – and both times I returned shivering and drenched to the bone from a sudden storm. The rain was so heavy that yesterday I worried about parts of town flooding and stocked up at the grocery store in case I couldn’t leave my hotel. The forecast was grim: 100% chance of DOOM until my bus ride to Salvador on Wednesday.

But yesterday afternoon the rain stopped. This morning the sun came out and everyone in town poured out of their resorts onto the sand. I spent an hour drifting in the waves, finally, finally recharging my batteries. The forecast still calls for afternoon showers but Noah can put away his nails; Brazil will not be sinking into the Atlantic.

I keep saying “I” because at the moment Lea has gone ahead to the island community of Morro de São Paulo (no relation to the big São Paulo), accessible only by ferry from Salvador, where at this very moment she is snorkeling the reefs and hopefully taking some fantastic photographs that we’ll get to share later. In fact, all the pictures you’re enjoying this week are thanks to Lea’s eye for macro and underwater photography because frankly, I got nothin’.

Splitting and up and traveling apart was always part of the plan for this voyage, but aside from two days in Bolivia when I stayed behind to hike Isla del Sol, we haven’t done it. However, at this point in the journey I needed to simply stop for a while and Lea needed to keep on going. If she were here in Porto Seguro, I guarantee she’d be climbing the walls.

Like Bilbo Baggins, I’m a deeply introverted person. Introverts aren’t averse to going out and having new experiences, but afterward I need time to slow down and process, preferably in the comfort of a familiar environment that I’ve made into my own personal refuge. Long-term travel rarely, if ever, lets that happen. In my case, I feel that non-stop travel has exacted a heavy toll – one that I’ve ignored and haven’t truly dealt with until recently.

When we set out on this trip, I envisioned it as a “hard reboot” on our lives. I imagined that quitting our jobs (in my case, my career), stuffing our belongings in storage, and hitting the road for ten months would change us in many ways. I didn’t set any goals or expectations as to what those changes would be. I just dove in and hoped for the best, thinking that “travel broadens the mind” (the narrative that frequent travelers espouse) and that it’s good to get out of your comfort zone (the narrative that successful risk-takers sell).

Side note: Lea did set goals and expectations for personal development on this trip, and you really ought to read about them and her progress on LinkedIn.

Not setting personal development goals has turned out to be a mistake, because it feels like that “hard reboot” I expected hasn’t happened. Instead I’ve sunk into old patterns of withdrawal and not acknowledging my feelings until they bubble over. Going “out of my comfort zone” with no clue as to what I hoped to accomplish has simply made me crave that comfort zone even more as we’ve traveled. I joked to Lea once that my comfort zone has actually shrunk, and that as soon as we get back I’m going to dig myself a hole and burrow in like a tick.

“Knowing where the trap is – that’s the first step in evading it.”

– Frank Herbert, Dune

So here I am, alone in a town where no one speaks my language, trying to get my mojo back and wondering where I’m going from here. But what happens now, and what happens when all this is over? Has this journey changed me in any meaningful way?

Honestly, I’m not sure. This trip has taught me lessons, but many of those were things I already knew in theory. Now I just have personal experience to back it up. In that vein, let me impart some words of wisdom to any of my fellow lunatics as you consider chucking your current life and traveling the world for an extended time.

  1. DON’T.

Okay, scratch that. Unfair and too extreme. Let’s try again. Learn from what I didn’t do.

  1. Know thyself. Know what your limits are. Know what you enjoy and what you don’t. Know what you hope to gain by traveling the world. Know how you want to push yourself and why. And most of all, know how you’ll need to refuel yourself in order to keep going.
  2. Take breaks. Understand that you don’t have to do everything. It’s okay to say “no.” You don’t have to climb every mountain, visit every ruin, or hike to every waterfall. There are a million things to see in the world. You’ll never see all of them, but you’ll get to enjoy more if you acknowledge when you need to skip a few in order to take care of your needs.
  3. Adjust your focus. It’s very easy to ruminate on the negatives of travel, especially when it’s 3:00 a.m. on a bus ride on an unpaved road and your teeth are about to rattle out of your skull. Many times you’ll find yourself, like Mr. Baggins, slogging through the mud and wondering what the hell you were thinking. But not every moment is going to be like that. Many will be magical. Focus on those times. Relish them, and come back to them when you need to.
  4. Acknowledge that it’s going to be hard. Long-term travel is difficult, and even when you think you’ve figured it out it will get harder. I thought we had it mastered by the time we were coasting through Chile, and then we hit High Season for tourists in Patagonia. We escaped High Season only to hit the language barrier in Brazil. On top of that, we’ve just begun prepping for our return to the U.S. without guarantees and no fixed abode. The challenges change, but they never ease up. Be ready.

“No matter where you go, there you are.”

– Buckaroo Banzai, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension

Several times on this trip, Lea has asked why I didn’t go home when it was clear that I was struggling and miserable. I had reasons for staying, but none of them had to do with my happiness or well-being. On one level I was concerned about the financial hit we would take if I came back early, unemployed and uninsured, but I also knew deep down that I would beat myself to a pulp for “quitting” and giving up, even though I had no real plan to give up on.

It was in Caraça that I finally overcame the thought of being ashamed if I turned around and came home. So why didn’t I?

Because while we were there, I sat in monastic silence as a wolf walked by within arm’s reach and loped away into the dark.

I don’t travel to have fun and party. I’m not that guy at home, and I’m even less that person abroad. I don’t travel to relax. While I enjoy all-inclusive resorts and I love a lazy cruise, that’s not travel. That’s staying in a hotel.

When I travel, I do it to experience Wonder. I felt wonder when I saw the northern lights in Iceland, even though it was an ungodly number of degrees below zero and I was wearing too many layers of clothes to count. I felt wonder on the Serengeti, and looking over the rim of Ngorongoro Crater. I felt wonder in the maze of alleys in Fez, and in the ruins of Beit She’An. I felt wonder in the decorated cemeteries of Oaxaca, and watching humpbacks leap into the air off the coast of Ecuador. I felt wonder seeing the southern sky from a mountaintop in Chile. I felt wonder in the bite of the wind from the Perito Moreno glacier while watching a giant slab of ice calve into the water below.

I don’t know what wonders await in the jungles west of Salvador or south of Bogotá. I don’t know what wonders await in the barrios of Medellin. I don’t know what it will feel like to reach the Caribbean coast and know that I’ve circled a continent. But I’m willing to stick around and find out.

I could easily say that I don’t enjoy travel. I don’t like spending ten or more hours on a bouncy night bus. I don’t like eating the same food over and over again because it’s all that’s available. I don’t like being stuck in a room for days because of excessive heat or rain. I despise having to fix every damn toilet because apparently South America has a shortage of plumbers. I hate feeing isolated from the world I understand and unsure if my plans to start over will bear fruit when we finally return home.

But that’s okay. That’s the toll you pay when you travel for as long as we have. The question I asked myself when faced with the choice of whether or not to quit was whether or not those fleeting moments of wonder are worth the hardships that make them possible.

Today, the answer’s still yes.

P.S. Next week’s entry – the last for Brazil – will be posted on Thursday, April 4. On Monday, Lea and I will be exploring Chapada Diamantina and who knows what the Internet signal will be like. Besides, if I post on April 1 no one will believe a word I say.

Her Name Is Rio / Hungry Like the Wolf

Hold on to your britches. This has been a busy week of sightseeing so this post is going to be a barrage of “What We Did On Summer Vacation” bullets with little in the way of philosophical musings on the long-term travel life – except to say that we set our record for the sheer number of long-distance bus trips in a single week. The only close tie was our last week in Chile with all of its long-distance excursions. This week we saw the inside of the Belo Horizonte bus terminal more times than was probably healthy.

Our travel hub this week.

Email readers, this post is chock full of videos so click on over to TheEscapeHatch.net or miss out.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. When I left you hanging last week, we were leaving Foz do Iguaçu for Rio de Janeiro by air, having missed out on the local Carnaval and expecting to find nothing in Rio but leftover streamers, glitter, and discarded T-shirts littering the sidewalks in the wake of the festivities.

We were wrong. We landed in Rio and, on the way to our guest house, discovered that most of the entrances to the metro line were closed and those that weren’t were cordoned with traffic directed by uniformed security. Why? Because while Mardi Gras/Carnaval/Whatever You Call It ends on Fat Tuesday everywhere else in the world, in Rio de Janeiro it continues all the way through the following weekend.

The bad news: it took us a good two hours, at least, to get to our room in the south of town. The good news? We went to Carnaval! IN RIO!! Beat that, vicarious travel blog readers!

Sunday morning, bright and early, we got ourselves downtown to the path of the main “Monobloco” parade and picked out a patch of sidewalk to watch from. The crowd hadn’t become a mob yet, but it was thick enough for us not to get lost finding our way from the Metro stop to the parade route.

No one is having more fun.

Now Lea and I have both been to Mardi Gras, and being a Louisiana native I had certain expectations of what a Carnaval celebration should entail: mainly bands and floats promenading down a street whose sidewalks would be a crush of bystanders and onlookers jostling for the best view. My expectations were dashed last week in Foz, and they tripped me up again in Rio – this time in a different way.

Can you party so hard you need a military escort?

I mentioned last week that Carnaval in Brazil seems to center around the “Block Party.” In that vein, a parade in Rio is quite different from its New Orleans counterpart. A Rio parade is a block party that moves.

Get it on, Bang a gong!

There was still the crush of people ready to party all day, don’t get me wrong, but  there was only one band and one “float” – a giant party wagon with singers and dancers on top, pulled very slowly by a semi. Once the parade begins, the band/float procession inches its way along the route, stopping every half block for fifteen or twenty minutes before crawling onward. The crowd, instead of idly viewing from the sidelines, moves with it. In New Orleans, you watch the parade. In Rio, you are the parade.

This was the parade going on behind us.

Lea and I stood our ground in the mob-shadow created by a stationary beer vendor and let the parade wash over and around us. Once it passed, and once we’d enjoyed enough thumpy Latin pop for the day, we made our way out against the tide of new revelers, beer coolers in hand, who were only then showing up to join the party. I can only imagine that not long after we left, the entire affair must have ground to a standstill – and everyone was probably overjoyed. You can’t party all day if you don’t start in the morning!

That evening we braved Rio’s horrific bus system to see at least one of the iconic landmarks of the city. The most famous is the giant statue of Christ the Redeemer (which we couldn’t stop referring to as “Buddy Christ”) but to get there seemed long, arduous, and expensive. Instead we opted to ride the teleférico to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain, a giant block of granite that overlooks Guanabara Bay with views of the entire city. The nerd in me couldn’t help but point out that it was on top of this very cable car that James Bond fought the assassin Jaws in the (otherwise terrible) film Moonraker.

The ascent to Sugarloaf Mountain.
Rio at twilight.
Christ the Redeemer from a loooong way away.

Next came Beach Day. But how to choose which beach? Rio is known for two: Copacabana and Ipanema. By sheer luck, I managed to rent us a room in easy walking distance from both. We checked out Copacabana first, then rode the bus to Ipanema and found that it was less crowded but extremely dirty. We went back to Copacabana and, as per our beach routine, rented an umbrella and chairs from which to watch the surf.

Copacabana, with added enticement.
Ipanema, with stunning view.
All the wave you’ll ever need.

The surf, let me tell you, was fierce. Though we were some distance from the water and on top of a plateau of sand, rogue waves would wash right under us, dragging away our shoes and water bottles if we weren’t quick enough to grab them.

All told, we spent three nights in Rio, the shortest length of time we’ve spent in any South American city of comparable size. In truth we could have spent a week and not seen everything, but Brazil is just too big and there are other things we want to see. On our last day in town we hit museums – the Museum of Tomorrow, the Museum of Art of Rio, and the Royal Portuguese Cabinet of Reading which houses the largest collection of works in Portuguese outside of Portugal itself. You’re allowed to take pictures, but you can’t touch anything.

The Museum of Tomorrow!

The Cabinet of Reading or the Hogwart’s Library?

Thus began our paddle-ball travel route north to the mining city of Belo Horizonte and its surrounding environs. We took the night bus to Belo Horizonte, arrived around 5:30 a.m., and immediately bought tickets for the town of Brumadinho several hours to the west. (We can’t pronounce “Brumadinho” without concentrating, so we keep calling it Broom-Hilda.) Brumadinho, by the way, was the site of the recent dam collapse that killed hundreds and made international headlines.

Brumadinho is also where you will find Inhotim, an outdoor garden and modern art “theme park” set far back in the Brazilian wilderness. You could spend days wandering its miles of wooded trails to widely separated art installations and galleries. We stayed for several hours before the walking and the weather got the best of us.

Not nightmare-inducing at all.
Nor this.

The coolest installation is the one farthest from the park entrance. If you walk about two kilometers – all uphill – to the back of the park there is a hill in which the artist Doug Aitken drilled a 200 meter shaft into the earth and placed microphones along its walls. In a room above the shaft, the vibrations picked up by those microphones are amplified into the chamber, allowing you to sit and listen to the sounds of the earth. There were booms and long, sustained notes which Lea thinks might be the P- and S-waves of distant earthquakes. We don’t know for sure, but it’s as awesome a hypothesis as any.

The planet’s sounding board.

The next day we caught the early bus back to Belo Horizonte and grabbed the noon bus from there to the town of Santa Barbara. From Santa Barbara we took a taxi for another 20km to stay two nights at the Santuário do Caraça, a Catholic seminary and mission set in the midst of an 11,000 hectare nature reserve. There are endless miles of trails you can hike if that’s your thing but the main attraction at the Sanctuary is the chance to see the rare Maned Wolf.

The Sanctuary by day.
The view from our window.

The Maned Wolf is technically not a wolf. It’s South America’s largest canid and resembles a giant red fox the size of a pony with a crest like a hyena, though it’s not related to any of those (certainly not the pony). The reason you can see maned wolves at the Sanctuary is because the monks have been feeding them for decades. It began when they noticed the animals rooting through the monastery’s leftovers and decided to make it easier on them. A tray of meat cuttings is set  out in front of the steps to the chapel every night at 7:00 and guests are allowed to sit, wait, and watch. The rules are to not approach the wolves and to not take photos until after the wolves feel comfortable enough to approach the food and grab a few bites.

The Sanctuary by night.
A neighbor drops by.

There’s always the chance that the wolves won’t show, but on our first night they appeared right away and returned to the buffet about every 45 minutes. On the second night we weren’t so lucky – it had been a rainy day and thunderstorms were moving in during the evening. Apparently the wolves weren’t as interested in free food as they were in staying dry.

As brief as each appearance of the wolves was, it was always amazing. I’m used to being around domesticated animals and even small wild animals, but to have a wolf walk right beside you, look inscrutably at you while it dines, then move along without a care in the world – the experience carried a sense of intimacy with the Wild that I didn’t even feel on safari in Africa back in 2012.

Our stay ended with the taxi-bus combo back to Belo Horizonte. Originally the plan was to immediately grab another bus for Ouro Preto, but at this point we’ve regained some flexibility in our schedule and decided to stay put. After two nights in the far outback without even hot water for a shower, we (for the second time on this whole voyage) spent the night at a Holiday Inn.

Our time in Belo Horizonte was brief, as we’d booked a night bus to the coast for the very next evening. Nevertheless, the city surprised us. What we’d seen near the bus terminal wasn’t inspiring, but after moving to another part of town we discovered an entirely different city, with beautiful parks, Chinese buffets, a Mercado Central where we sampled outstanding liver and onions (a dish we both normally hate) and a mineralogy museum with a mind-blowing collection of, well, minerals.

The best liver in Brazil, and it’s at a market stall.
Too bad it won’t fit in our luggage.

One more weary night ride with a driver who handled his bus like a dirt bike has brought us to the seaside town of Vitoria, where we’ll begin to crawl north along the Atlantic coast. More on that next week, but for now I’ll leave you with a musical send-off:

Waterworld: Iguazú, Part Two

I don’t want to bury the lead, so I’ll start with this: Iguazú is much, much, much more enjoyable from the Argentinian side. If you want to visit both sides of the falls, do what we did and go to Brazil first.

The Brazil side is impressive too, but if you go there after visiting Argentina you will be disappointed. The Argentinian side feels much more like a national park and less like Disneyland. There are more trails, more overlooks, and much more contact with nature (not just the legions of coati trying to steal your food).

And FYI, coati define “food” as “anything in a bag.”

Fair warning – There are a lot of videos in this post. Email subscribers click here or miss the full show.

You’ll also notice that I’m spelling it Iguazú, not Iguaçu. Spanish, baby! I never imagined what a relief it would be to return to a Spanish speaking country, if only for a few days. Though they do share many words, Portuguese has much less in common with Spanish than I thought it would. Lea can pick out a little bit here and there, but I’m completely at a loss. Foz do Iguaçu did have many more Spanish and English speakers than the other parts of Brazil we’ve been to so far, but communication in Puerto Iguazú (the town on the Argentinian side) was so much simpler.

Uncharitable thought for the day: To the untrained ear, Portuguese sounds like Ewoks speaking French.

Also – skipping ahead again – from Puerto Iguazú you can see Paraguay! We decided not to enter Paraguay since it would cost us $160 USD each for the visas, but two kilometers from our hotel was an overlook where you could see three countries at once. Here it is:

Paraguay on the left, Brazil on the right, Argentina in the foreground.

Anyway, last week I left you hanging with the question of whether or not, since we were in Brazil for Carnaval, we would get to experience any Carnaval-related activities. Well – yes, but…

Being a native of Louisiana, I had my own set of expectations about how Mardi Gras should properly be carried out. I had visions of parades, beads, costumes, floats, loud music, and festive Krewes marching down the street. I projected these cultural expectations onto Brazilian Carnaval and while some of them were met, most were not. Looking at the schedule of events in Foz do Iguaçu, there had been a parade on Saturday that we’d missed. There were other activities on Monday and Tuesday which we decided to seek out once we were done with the Brazilian falls experience.

The “Carnafalls” Band.

From what we saw, Carnaval in Brazil is centered less on parades and more around the “block party.” The event we found on Monday night was a family-friendly neighborhood party with a band, food trucks, and big inflatable bouncy things for kids to play on. We hung around for a while to see if anything else would happen, such as people promenading in fabulous costumes, but it was not to be. Instead, we did have some excellent shawarma from a restaurant called Bin Ladin. I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume that Bin Ladin is just a common Arabic surname. Whatever the case, the food was good and inexpensive.

Shawarma to the evil Americans!

On Fat Tuesday itself, we went hunting for what looked to be the main Carnaval event in the city. The location was simply given as a street name downtown so I assumed this would be the parade we were after. It was not. The event was supposed to begin at 3:00 and last the rest of the day, but we headed to the street in question and, after much walking around, found that one long city block had been cordoned off with a bandstand at one end and entry gates at the other. People were arriving with chairs and coolers, vendors were setting up on the sidewalks, and children were running around spraying each other with silly string. Lea and I picked a patch of sidewalk and settled down to see if anything would happen.

It didn’t.

Even the hot dogs weren’t for sale yet.

Apparently, 3:00 p.m. was the setup time for the street, nothing more. Other events were listed as beginning at 6:00 and 7:00 so we went back to our hotel. When we returned later, we discovered that Carnaval in Foz is one massive block party with alcohol, thick crowds, and a band playing loud music. We entered at one end of the block and pushed our way through to the other while randomly taking pictures over the heads of crowd. Many people were dressed up in what looked like neighborhood uniforms – one whole crowd with Superman t-shirts, another with yellow tutus. Compressing all of Foz’s revelers into one city block created the equivalent of the Bourbon Street Crawl minus the throwing of beads.


Lea and I made it from one end to the other, paused to catch our breath, then went to a Brazilian steak house and stuffed ourselves silly with meat. And that was it for our Carnaval experience in Iguaçu.

The next day we crossed the border, found our hotel in Puerto Iguazú, left clothes at a laundry, located the bus terminal, grocery store, an honest-to-God Mexican restaurant, stood in line at the Post Office to mail our last few Argentinian postcards, and got rained on a little. While our days in Foz had been hot and dry, the forecast for Puerto Iguazú promised to be hot and damp. That was fine. We had dry bags and ponchos, and were ready for whatever the rain gods had to offer. As before, we planned to spend two days at the national park – the first to see as much of the falls as possible and the second to hike a nature trail that promised the chance to view more wildlife than on the beaten path.

Day One

We got up really early. Rain was forecast for the afternoon, so instead of bringing my tripod and backpack full of camera gear, we simply brought a drybag, two ponchos, my Canon Rebel T3 with its standard lens, my wide-angle screw-on attachment, and Lea’s ever-trusty waterproof Olympus. The bus to the park was a longer ride than in Brazil, but the crowd to buy tickets and get into the park was nonexistent. The Argentinian side opens earlier than its Brazilian counterpart and we were there on a regular weekday, not a national holiday.

Instead of buses to take you farther into the park, Iguazú offers a very slow-moving train. There are two stops: the first for the trails and the second for the viewing platform over the Devil’s Throat. On this side most people opt for going to the Devil’s Throat first, so we got off at the stop for the trails. This was the right decision. We had the trails almost completely to ourselves. For the first hour or more there were only a handful of other hikers – until the big tour groups finally returned from the Throat platform and met up with us.

There are two sets of trails to view the falls – Upper and Lower. The lower trail is longer and more strenuous but also offers better views of more of the falls. The upper trail takes you along the top of the falls, so all you really see is water rolling over the cliff. The lower trail is – well, breathtaking is too small a word. You can see the full magnitude of Iguazú and can get right up to some of the falls to experience their power first hand.

Photo and video dump commences:

Panorama around Isla San Martin.
Approaching the longest section of falls.

An accidental rainbow.

You can watch a giant flock of birds swirling in the updrafts in this video:

A mated pair of North American hairless apes provided for scale.

“The Two Brothers.”
The falls keep going and going and going.
And over it goes.

After hiking the lower and upper trails it was easy to hop on the train and take it the rest of the way to the Devil’s Throat platform. To be clear, it doesn’t drop you off at the platform itself. It stops at the last nugget of dry land, from which you have to walk a kilometer along a raised walkway over the slow-moving Iguazú River. Along this route there are several stops for you to put on your ponchos and anything important into your dry bag. The fact that everyone you pass on their way back is soaking wet lets you know that this will be important.

While hiking along the metal bridge across the wide expanse of water, we started to hear thunder. It’s always been my hope that if I were to be struck by lightning I’d have just enough advance warning to shout “Shazam!” before it struck and possibly gain superpowers. Doubting that would actually happen we picked up the pace.

By this point you want to have your wetsuit on.

On the Brazil side, you can see the giant cascade at the head of the Devil’s Throat from afar on a tightly packed observation platform while craning your neck around a Japanese lady with an enormous blue hat. On the Argentinian side you are literally hanging right over the thundering void. See for yourself:

Up close and personal.

My glasses were useless without windshield wipers. Thankfully you don’t need your eyes to feel the power of the fall. Hanging there in space above it is like standing in the middle of a thunderhead. We inched our way around the platform, soaking in every sensation, then scurried back across the walkway to the train, inched the slow way back to the park entrance, and splurged on the park’s magnificent buffet.

We made it to the bus before the rain clouds exploded, but not to the bus station. Though only three blocks from our hotel, we were trapped and had to wait it out under the station’s overhang for an hour while this happened:

Day Two

The rain forecast was still in effect, so we returned to the park early (50% discount if you validated your tickets the day before), skipped the train to the usual tourist spots, and walked out of the park entrance complex in search of the nature trail. I’d switched my wide-angle lens for my telephoto, but otherwise we were geared up the same as the day before. It was at least a kilometer along an access road just to reach the trail head, and from there more than three kilometers to another fall. The ground was muddy and puddled from the day before and we crept along slowly so as not to disturb any wildlife along the way.

We spotted a medium-big cat hurrying across the trail and a Rodent Of Unusual Size but didn’t manage to photograph either. Mostly what we encountered were insects, birds (from a great distance), and the giant scary-ass spiders that cover the entire area with their huge webs, many of which are just above head-height.

Not nightmare-inducing at all.

The main thing we were after were the monkeys that were supposed to live in this area, but two kilometers in there had still been no sign. Our joints were tired from the past week’s excessive hiking and we were afraid of getting deluged on again, so at the 2km post we turned and headed back.

Soon though, something up in the trees started shaking water out of the higher branches. We looked up and there they were: spread through the trees around us were what must have been a whole troop of monkeys. They were in the highest reaches of the branches nibbling on leaves and whatever else they found, just at the edge of my telephoto’s range and ridiculously hard to focus on even when they weren’t jumping from tree to tree. Every now and then I swear one of them noticed me and stopped to check me out, probably because of the sound of my shutter. From over a hundred photos blurrier than Bigfoot, I did manage to catch a few of them pausing for a moment to reflect on their little monkey lives.

That wrapped our time at Iguazú Falls. We ended the night with pizza and hot dogs from the restaurant next to our hotel. The next day brought a 4:00 a.m. alarm clock for a 6:00 a.m. taxi across the border and a 12:45 flight to Río de Janeiro. We were tired but quite happy from our experience at the falls, but a little disappointed that we’d missed the full experience of Carnaval.

But had we? On my calendar Carnaval was over, but Río had a surprise in store. Next week, faithful readers. Same Bat-Time, Same Bat-Station.

Heaven & Hell: Iguaçu, Part One

I haven’t been completely honest with you. If you’ve read this blog, you may have come away with the impression that long term travel has its ups and downs, but in the long run – despite the difficulties – it’s very much worth it. Hopefully at some point in the future I’ll be able to look back and agree with that sentiment, but I haven’t written about the full truth of the situation. The truth I’ve left out is the part where I’ve been suffering chronic, intense, agonizing pain for the past several months.

It began in Bolivia, where I put it down to the effects of high altitude. It continued off and on through Chile, where I assumed the source of the pain was related to a known medical issue that I’ve already dealt with for several years. That assumption was incorrect.

The pain escalated throughout Argentina and became pretty much unbearable by the time we reached Mendoza. (“Unbearable” is a funny word, because when you’re stuck in the wilderness of the Argentinian outback you’ve got no choice but to bear it.) Since we had left behind the South American equivalent of the Gobi Desert and returned to civilization, I called our expat health insurance and arranged an appointment with a doctor in Córdoba.

I’m being deliberately coy about what my medical problem is because 1) I don’t want to say and 2) you don’t want to know. Suffice it to say that the doctor in Córdoba diagnosed the problem, prescribed medication, and suggested a course of self-treatment. That was five weeks ago. Treated, this problem should clear itself up in four-to-six weeks, yet while the pain has lessened (on most days) it’s still there. When it flares up it hurts worse than just about anything I’ve ever experienced, and that includes broken bones, an incarcerated hernia, and gout.

A little bit of self-care.

The result, dear readers, is that a lot of the awesome sights and experiences I’ve shared on this blog I’ve experience through a fog of pain. On some days, such as when we sat on the beach in Uruguay, I was merely squirming in discomfort. On others, such as when we visited a bird sanctuary I’ll get to below, I felt like I would rather pass out. I could have left the park but, as I told myself, the pain would follow me wherever I went, so why not suffer through it while looking at beautiful birds?

Now that I’ve bummed you out, on with the story!


Last week I left you hanging as we were about to depart Porto Alegre for Florianópolis. That was after we’d driven our rental back to Porto Alegre, three hours in the wrong direction, instead of simply heading north. After dropping off our car, we went to the bus terminal and waited, waited, waited in sweltering, sticky heat. It had rained all day but that hadn’t dropped the temperature – especially not in Porto Alegre’s extremely busy terminal where the heat from all those buses washed through the station like steam from Lucifer’s hot tub.

Our bus didn’t leave until 11:00 p.m. The bus itself was air conditioned, but only when it was running. This particular bus stopped at every small town and off-the-main-road terminal along the route, and the driver kept turning the bus off and on again – I guess to save gas? At one point, perhaps at two in the morning, they shut the bus off for half an hour while the staff went to have dinner, turning the inside into a sauna. Yes, everyone else could get out and snack at 2:00 a.m. as well, but the whole point of taking the night bus is to sleep.

We arrived in Florianópolis at 6:00 in the morning. We weren’t staying long. Florianópolis is a large-ish city on an island just off the Brazilian coast, but it’s on the side that faces the mainland across a narrow channel. The apartment we’d rented was on the Atlantic side of the island, in the Ingleses Sul neighborhood an hour away by local bus. We wouldn’t be able to check in until 10:00, so we hung out in the station with our post-bus-ride headaches and, as long as we were there, bought really expensive first-class seats to our next destination. The trek to Foz do Iguaçu was going to be a fifteen-hour ordeal and we would be traveling on a holiday weekend, so we wanted to make sure we had seats we could tolerate.

The only break we could catch.

As in Porto Alegre, it was raining in Florianópolis. The bus to Ingleses Sul only ran once an hour, so we hiked several blocks through the drizzle and waited at the bus stop under a blessedly sheltering overhang. The bus arrived and should have dropped us off at about the right time for our check in, but that morning no one but us and two other people were taking that route. The bus blew by nearly every stop and dropped us off in Ingleses Sul an hour before our apartment would be ready.

And it was still raining.

Though near the beach, we’d washed up in a mostly residential area with not a single open café where we could wait. We ended up sheltering under a leaky tin awning in front of a closed convenience store eating pastries Lea bought at the grocery just down the street. The rain finally eased up, check-in time arrived, and we dragged our tired bodies and four backpacks down the road to our apartment.

Where the sidewalk ends.


We really got lucky with this apartment. It had a real kitchen with a full-size stove and refrigerator. It was better, I dare say, than the one we had in Santiago, and a million times better than any we’d had in Argentina. It had air conditioning that worked. It had a shower that worked. It had a couch. It had a shady courtyard. Unlike every other option in our price range, it was only two blocks from the beach. And get this – the owners had beach chairs and umbrellas you could borrow for free.

Plenty of room for everyone!

Ingleses Sul isn’t an exciting place, but let me tell you – they know how to beach. The beach there is long but extremely narrow. Wherever you plant yourself, you can be sure that sooner or later a wave is going to wash under you. But that’s okay. We stayed for four nights, and every day the forecast was the same – not too hot, not too cold, mostly cloudy with a little bit of sun and a chance of rain in the afternoon. On Tuesday and Thursday the beach was crowded. On Wednesday it was surprisingly empty. (Higher chance of rain, sure, or maybe Wednesday is the designated day off for all the vendors?)

Doing it right.

Oh yeah, beach vendors – Here’s a thing we didn’t see in Uruguay and that I’d been craving since Ecuador: guys going up and down the beach offering cold adult beverages. Caipirinhas. Caipiroskas. Piña coladas. Not to mention the guys selling fire-grilled cheese on a stick or chorizo in a bun with slaw. That’s the way to do it, señor. That’s the way to do it. On Tuesday I walked nearly all the way up and down the beach several feet out into the surf. On the other days we just sat where the alley from our apartment let out and waited for tasty treats to come by. When the rains came in the afternoon, we moseyed back to our apartment and napped.

Boring? Perhaps, but it was everything I’d been wanting.


The day it finally got hot in Florianópolis was the day we had to leave our cool apartment and hang out in another bus station. We dropped off our luggage and went in search of a museum that wasn’t there (no one had bothered to tell TripAdvisor). The city was gearing up for Carnival, downtown was very crowded, the wind had died almost completely, and the temperature spiked over 90. We ate at a lovely poke-bowl restaurant and slugged back to the bus station sauna.

Our bus company had a V.I.P. lounge that we’d hoped would be cooler than the rest of the terminal, but so many bodies were packed in there that it felt like it was over 100. So instead, we baked in the main waiting hall and savored some quickly-melting ice cream. We didn’t have as long to wait since our bus left at 6:00 p.m. When we got on board we found out – to our amazement – that the expensive seats we’d paid for didn’t simply give us more arm and leg room, but were designed to lay all the way down and become actual beds. This, let me tell you, was wonderful beyond belief, since it let us actually sleep and helped keep my pain under control despite the fact that the road from Florianópolis to Foz was insanely bumpy.

This bird has never experienced “bumpy” in his life.

Our room in Foz do Iguaçu was one that we’d booked well ahead of time. Iguaçu Falls is one of the sights we knew we had to see on this trip, but it took us a while to decide if we would approach it from Brazil or Argentina. We decided on Brazil (though we’ll visit the Argentinian side too) but we’d also needed to make reservations well in advance for Carnival. It was my bright idea to combine the two, which let us avoid spending Carnival in the crush of Río or another big city. However, it also landed us at one of Brazil’s major tourist attractions on one of the biggest holiday weekends of the year.

The hostel we found was ideally situated just outside of the central area of the city of Foz do Iguaçu on the road that leads directly to the park, so all we had to do was walk to the corner and hop on a bus. Usually after a night trip we’re too ragged out to do anything but wander around like zombies, but since we were both able to sleep for once we decided to go ahead and start seeing the sights. We’d save the Falls for the next day, but we started with a visit to the Parque das Aves (Bird Park) just outside the entrance to Iguaçu Falls park itself.

A legend in his own mind.

The Parque das Aves is a bird rescue and conservation reserve. The birds are all in aviaries so that some of them you can only view through mesh screens. Several of the aviaries, however, you can walk through and get very close to the birds themselves. The birds are amazing, from many species I’d never seen before, and many of whom are endangered (or even extinct) in the wild. I wish I could have enjoyed it more but as I said earlier, the chronic pain I’ve been feeling kicked into full blast during our visit and it felt like I was seeing all these amazing creatures from inside a scorching hot torture box.

Seeing Heaven from Hell:

On Sunday it was time to do what we came for: see the falls. Iguaçu Falls, on the Brazil/Argentinian border, are actually a confluence of many cascades that make up the largest waterfall system in the world. You can view them from either country and there are different activities to do on each side. Some you can do and stay dry. Some will get you soaked.

These aren’t even the big ones..

On Day One we opted to get soaked. We brought shorts, water shoes, Lea’s waterproof camera, and a small dry bag. We’d read that there was a lower trail where you could view the falls but get wet doing so, and that there was an into-the-falls boat ride you could do for an extra fee.

We also decided to sleep in and go to the falls in the afternoon. Big mistake.

We arrived and bought our tickets at an electronic kiosk rather than wait in the line for the ticket counters. There was a deep discount for buying two days at once, though it locked us in to coming right back on the following day and not skipping one in between. Then we got in line to get into the park.

Ladies and gents, that line was an hour and a half long. There were three parts: a loop-de-loop through the bus drop-off area, an outside rat maze, and indoor rat maze. Halfway through the indoor maze they scan your ticket, and at the end of all this you get on a bus to take you to the drop-off point of your choice in the park itself. Entry to the park closes at 5:00, and the last bus to bring people out runs at 6:30. We left our hostel at 2:00, and it was 4:30 before we even got into the park. We decided to skip any trails and go right to the boat ride.

Speedboats for scale.

The boat ride was disappointing. First, the wayfinding at the park is awful in general, but particularly at the boat launch. First you ride a very slow open-air wagon down to the upper platform where you can rent a locker to store anything you don’t want drenched, then you take a short funicular down to the river where you get in line for your boat. At every point along the way you have to ask someone “where do I go next” because there is absolutely no signage to direct you and there is no logical flow to the human traffic.

The boat ride takes you up the rapids towards the falls, which is fun, but doesn’t get nearly as close to the big falls as we’d hoped. You can glimpse them in the distance, but the boats never venture farther than several of the lower, smaller falls, which they slowly dunk you under. The ride does have some nice views, but for several key minutes of the journey there’s a member of the boat crew in a blue rainsuit standing right in front of you taking pictures with a GoPro to sell to you later. The whole thing is a disorganized, overpriced theme park ride. Leaving the boat launch at the end went so slowly that we barely made it out of the park before they shut down and locked up behind us.

One boat was mysteriously empty.

On Monday we got up early and hopped on the bus to get there when the park opened. This involved arguing with the bus driver, who didn’t want to drive his route all the way to the end and instead wanted to dump his passengers at the Bird Park and make them walk. Thankfully we weren’t the only ones to argue about this and when we got to the park entrance there was hardly a line at all.

The line, or rather the mosh pit, would be at the falls themselves.

The viewing, pushing, shoving, and squeezing platform.

Beyond the stop for the boat cruise, there is a bus stop at the beginning of the hiking trail. The next one is the stop for the restaurant, shopping area, and main viewing platform. What the park wants you to do is get off at the trail, walk to the falls from that direction, and then spend your money at the gift shop and buffet. We chose to ride all the way to the end, start from the viewing platform, and work our way backward. I’m not sure if that made things better or worse, but we would have been fighting the swarming mass of humanity either direction.

Here we go… The Devil’s Throat

The falls themselves are magnificent. They’re amazing. They go on forever, it seems. And while viewing them it feels like being crushed against the stage in the front rows at a Metallica concert. Given that there were this many people there in the morning when the entrance line was low, I can’t imagine what it must have been like later in the day. Busload after busload poured into the trails, with more people taking selfies instead of enjoying the beauty around them than even at Machu Picchu.

I want the power to make selfie sticks explode with my brain.

We never did find a trail that would soak you with anything more than a fine mist (unlike visiting Victoria Falls, which felt like walking through a carwash). We did find that people were rude in the extreme and we had to stand our ground many times to avoid being shoved off the narrow path.

But what a view.

The path was also crawling with coati, cute little members of the raccoon family. We saw one of these fellows from a distance way back in Guatemala, but the coati at Iguaçu have identified humans as a food source (despite all the signs advising not to feed them) and will come right up to you. If you have a bag, they will at the very least sniff it, if not outright steal it. I think my favorite moment was watching one lady get her purse invaded by a clever coati while she was posing for a picture.

The South American Trash Panda.

Four days of peace, three days of excitement, two long bus rides. We’re about to take a dip back into Argentina and experience the falls again, despite impending rain in the forecast. On a lighter note, the pain I’ve been bitching about has been getting better, and aside from that one horrible flare-up at the bird park has been steadily improving.

But wait, you say, wasn’t this also Carnival weekend? Hopefully I’ll have more to report on that. Stay tuned, dear readers. Stay tuned.

Lingua Incognita

So here’s a thing I need to get off my chest: Back in grad school I heard a joke: “If someone speaks two languages, they’re bilingual. If someone speaks three languages, they’re trilingual. If someone speaks one language, they’re American.” The implication being, of course, that Americans are isolationist country bumpkins who never get out in the world or make the effort to converse with other cultures.

I’ve come to two conclusions about this attitude toward my countrymen. First, since I was exposed to it in academia, it probably filtered down from snotty Europeans who were schooled in five different languages before puberty or the invention of Google Translate. Second, the definition of “American” needs to be expanded to include everyone living in the western hemisphere.

The Municipal Cathedral of Porto Alegre

All the way counter-clockwise from Ecuador to Uruguay, the vast majority of the people we interacted with only spoke Spanish and that was cool. We were in their country, so we learned and adjusted. When we crossed into Brazil this week, we had no expectation that suddenly we’d be surrounded by English speakers (although the few Brazilians we met earlier on our travels spoke English very well). What we did think, though, was that since Brazil shares a continent with so many Spanish-speaking countries, Spanish would not be uncommon and that it could serve us as a decent “intermediary” language to communicate.

Boy. Were. We. Wrong.

So far Brazil seems to be just as monolingual a society as the United States, and more so than other Latin American countries we’ve visited. Granted, we haven’t yet been to Rio or Foz do Iguaçu or any other big tourist hub. As in Peru we snuck in through the back door, coming up the coast to Porto Alegre – a harbor city that, while the largest in the South, isn’t anything like a tourist destination.

The… *ahem* …majestic views of the harbor.

But come on. First, it’s an international port so presumably you’ve got sailors from all over the world arriving at the docks. Second, Porto Alegre is the gateway from Brazil to Uruguay and Argentina, so you’d think someone would speak Spanish. But nope. Everywhere we went – restaurants, grocery stores, laundries, what have you – we would tell people “No Portuguese. Inglés o español?” and they would look at us dumbfounded, as if learning for the first time that other languages exist. Then they would carry right along in Portuguese, often talking louder just like a stereotypical tourist from the United States.

Ah well. We didn’t come to Porto Alegre to see the sights – good thing too, since there aren’t many – but just as a stopover between hellacious bus rides and to give ourselves time to adapt to a new country. We expected a bigger cultural shift coming into Brazil than when crossing other borders, especially with our new linguistic handicap, and wanted a few days to adjust without adding on other travel pressures.

Riding around town is exciting and roller-coastery.

Here are a few things we’ve learned.

Food and lodging in Brazil are cheap, at least relative to the last three countries we’ve visited. Transportation and laundry, however, are not. My god, the laundry. We have four outfits each that we wear two days in a row, so every time we do laundry we’re washing six outfits and a week’s worth of socks and undies. Everywhere else it’s cost us $10 – $15 USD to get everything washed. In Porto Alegre, it cost over $40! We hoped was a fluke, but in Florianopolis (skipping ahead to next week’s article) the same amount of laundry cost $50. (!!!)

Who knew that of all the expenses on this trip, it was going to be the laundry that was going to force us to cut back on other things. Hopefully there are self-serve laundromats in this country (there haven’t been elsewhere) because we’re not really willing to spend hours and hours doing laundry in the bathroom sink and stringing it across a tiny room to dry.

Maybe this tree could suck the moisture out of our laundry with its roots.

Back to the food: Thank the Gods that Brazilians eat dinner earlier than Argentinians. This whole business of restaurants not opening until 8:30 at night was driving me batty. In Brazil, restaurants open for dinner between 6:00 and 7:00, but even better – there are lancherias that are open all afternoon.

We kept seeing the word “lanche” in restaurant descriptions and at first thought it was some specific Brazilian dish. But no, “lanche” simply means “snack” and in Brazil “snack” usually means “hamburger.” (Side note: Brazilian burgers are huge, pressed somewhat like oversize paninis, and come with lettuce, tomato, corn, and peas. Lea doesn’t like the corn and peas, but I have to say I do.) Our favorite lancheria, though, was “Mr. Batata.”


Right down the block from our Porto Alegre apartment, Mr. Batata serves french fries in containers shaped like a giant waffle cones and your choice of up to twenty or so different toppings. And a plastic fork, ‘cause you’re going to need it. The ability to find a meal whenever we want and not having to wait until the dead of night to eat if we don’t have a kitchen is such a relief. Thank you, Brazil. Thank you.

So far, air conditioning units in Brazil work far better than those in Argentina and Uruguay. (The west coast didn’t have them at all, so no point of comparison.) Our hosts in Porto Alegre also had Netflix, so I’m sorry to say we eschewed “immersing ourselves in a new culture” for a couple afternoons of watching movies in English. When we did go out for things besides laundry and french fries, we spent some time walking in the shade in the city’s botanical garden, took a boat tour of the river/lake/bay where Porto Alegre sits, and found Porto Alegre’s small museum of contemporary art.

Porto Alegre’s Cultural Center.

Our time in Porto Alegre at an end, we headed north to start exploring Brazil’s natural wonders. (Because at this point we’re sick of colonial architecture and centuries-old churches and I’m honestly looking forward to some forest.) Our first target was Cânion Itaimbezinho in the Aparados da Serra National Park, which was recommended to us by an online friend from São Paulo. You get to the park from the tiny town of Cambará do Sul, but apparently there is only one bus into and out of town each day. Maybe.

Having learned our lesson in Argentina, we rented a car (a mini-SUV because of possible bad road conditions in the park) and made our own way. The weather reports weren’t good, but with fingers crossed we got to Cambará, stayed the night, and went to the park the next morning. The rain gods smiled and the weather held off, though the wind was pretty fierce and we could watch the clouds rolling in. We hiked two trails at the top of the canyon, getting great views of the valley and its amazing waterfalls.

Logistically it would have made sense for us to drive our rental north to our next port of call, but just like in the States car companies hate when you do that and charge quadruple for one-way trips. So after enjoying the park and a delicious lunch in Cambará, we drove three hours south in the rain back to Porto Alegre to catch the night bus north to Florianapólis, the first stop on our Brazilian Beach Tour. And since we’re near the beach…

Is your proboscis ready for this?

Welcome to The Escape Hatch In Brazil Drinking Game©!

How to play: Have your adult beverage of choice near at hand. If possible it should be a caipirinha, the national drink of Brazil. Or, if not, a shot glass and a bottle of vodka or rum will do.

Now, read back through the article and take a drink every time you see an alphabetic character with some kind of silly non-English šymbõl âttáçhėd. If it’s only an áccent, just take a sip. If it’s anything else, you have to do a shöt. If I do the same while I write, it should make these reports from the eastern hump of South America more exciting. It may also improve my Portuguese.


Uruguayan Vacation

Uruguay is a sleepy little country. In a book I’m reading (see below) one character calls it the “Switzerland of South America.” Well, maybe. Really it’s more like a tiny version of Argentina where things cost just as much as in the United States. There isn’t a whole lot to do here, which is actually what I was looking forward to. We’re about to dive into Brazil, which may prove challenging due to the language barrier and the incredibly long distances between all the dots on the map we’d like to connect. (Truth: We just bought plane tickets from Iguazu Falls to Rio to cut out about 24 hours of bus travel.)

Our quiet beach on a Sunday afternoon.

I’m writing from Punta del Este, Uruguay’s resort city. If you’ve been following the blog, you’ll remember that I’ve been craving a nice, warm, comfy beach where we could sit and stare at the ocean for hours ever since we left Bolivia last October. In Uruguay we finally got there. But first, we spent a few days in Montevideo.

A rainy day in the park.
We’ve noticed that water conservation isn’t a priority.

Montevideo really is just like any city in Argentina except for the climate, which was perfect when we were there. Highs in the upper 70s/low 80s, cool at night, often with a pleasant but not blow-you-over breeze. It did rain on our last day there, but even so it wasn’t terrible. That said, Montevideo doesn’t give you much to do except visit museums and eat large portions of meat. We did both, visiting a gaucho museum, a photography museum, a cannabis museum, a sculpture garden, and a grill that seemed heavily favored by the locals.

Too much of a good thing.

One neat concept that we’ve come across in both Montevideo and Punta del Este is the outdoor photography exhibit – the photos are literally displayed on glossy posterboard in an outdoor park. In Montevideo the photos were from past Carnival celebrations, while in Punta del Este we found an exhibit highlighting the effects of humans on the environment around the world.

A novel approach to art.
And another.

The hostel we booked in Montevideo was in the Barrio Sur, a veritable ghost town. In Punta del Este we found a hotel that wasn’t on the expensive peninsula of the city proper, but was instead nestled in a residential neighborhood halfway between the public beach and a shopping mall. We’ve spent a lot of time on that beach, but we did wander into the tourist trap part of town in a fruitless search for postcards and affordable ice cream.

The *only* way to get a photo of this sculpture without tourists in it is to steal one off the Internet (like so).

The beach is fine, white sand; the water is cool, clear, and full of tiny jellyfish. Vendors wander up and down selling their wares, but to my frustration they’re selling the wrong stuff – clothing, empanadas, toy airplanes. Not one person walked up to us with a cocktail menu. That was a missed business opportunity. More than once I would have dropped a dollar or ten on a caipirinha or a frozen margarita.

The first place on our trip where people can play in the water without freezing.

And if I had, it would have been pricey. Like I said before, prices in Uruguay are equivalent to those in the United States, and there’s nothing in Punta del Este that makes it different from any place on the Florida coast. For a long time Uruguay has had very friendly policies toward American expats, and the increased prices are apparently a consequence of welcoming so many retired Yanks.

Still, I’m glad to have finally got my beach time. Brazil promises even more, and also (we hope) new activities to engage in as well. Catch you next week from the other side of the border!

P.S. My Book Recommendation for Uruguay

Right now I’m enjoying The Invisible Mountain by Carolina De Robertis. I’m not going to finish it before we leave the country, but that’s okay. Uruguay is so small that even in the book the characters have to run away to Argentina and Brazil to have anything interesting happen in their lives. The Invisible Mountain reminds me a lot of The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende. Both depict their country during the 20th century through the eyes of three generations of strong, unique women. The difference is that De Robertis is a much better novelist than Allende. Allende wrote with the cold detachment of a historian. De Robertis lets you experience her characters’ lives more intimately, and with more poetry. Once I’m done, my full review will appear here on Goodreads.

P.P.S. Our Route Through Uruguay

Here’s the road we took (or will have, after tomorrow night) including our “round the Rio Plata” bus ride from Buenos Aires. We’ll cross into Brazil sometime in the middle of Tuesday night, and we’re led to believe that we don’t even have to be awake – the bus company will handle our exit and entry and return our passports in the morning. That’s a little nervous-making, but apparently that’s how it’s done.

P.P.P.S. Lea’s Macrophotography!