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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 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.
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.
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: