Brazil is a huge country (the fifth largest in the world) and many backpackers take months to see and experience its mega cities, quaint hill towns, Amazon jungle, pristine beaches and samba and carnival culture. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the luxury of time as I was on a two-week holiday, but I was determined to see as much of the country as possible.
For those lucky enough to be in Rio from Friday – here is a quick run-down of where you might like to go post-Olympics, for some more Brazilian flavours.
1. Ilha Grande – “This is Brazil”
“This is Brazil” Came the response to the question; “The taps in our room aren’t working anymore?” It came to succinctly summarise our trip, and might also be pertinent for the Olympics if early reports of the Athletes’ village is anything to go by…
So yes, the hostel is a little basic, and yes communications between the council, builders and business owners, often leaves something to be desired. But it is also paradise.
Beautiful wooden chalets in a tropical garden filled with hibiscus, magnolia and orchid flowers. A wooden sweeping veranda for lounging where free afternoon tea with a selection of beautiful and delicious cakes is served to you from 3.00pm, while you watch, open-mouthed at the hummingbirds buzzing around the liquid feeders for their own afternoon sugar hit.
Ilha Grande is more than the Lopes Mendes beach which has made it famous, although that too is beautiful. We even spotted wild penguins on the walk over there! This emerald island is a bit of a must for anyone travelling in Brazil and is very close to Rio (about 3-4 hours including boat transfer) so perfect for a weekend gateway from the city.
Hum hum hummm
2. Paraty – Cobbled streets, colonial churches and Portuguese custard tart sellers trundling up the roads with their cake stalls.
It is a picture-postcard, old-world village, complete with white wash walls, colourful window shutters and heritage status. It has a slightly sleepy feel, so rather than just eating out, we visited the ‘Academy of Cooking and Other Pleasures’ for our evenings’ entertainment.
Our Brazilian inspired night was an intimate affair, situated in our host’s kitchen and dining room with a very small group of like-minded travelers, all helping to prepare our delicious meal of local fish, tapioca and vegetables – washed down with more than one caipirinha and all whilst learning about the provenance of the traditional ingredients from Europe, African and indigenous Latin American peoples that come together on the plate to make Brazilian cuisine what it is. A tasty and educational night and one to do if you are in town looking for something extra.
3. Ubatuba – Jungle covered mountains meet the Atlantic ocean for an adventurous beach holiday location.
Surfing has a happy home here, but alongside this and other water-sports, there are a multitude of remote beaches (one even with a natural mud spa!) to choose from to get your wilderness hit. Visitors can also go to the home of the Tamar Turtle project to see injured and rescued turtles recovering in the shelter. My main highlight for my stay in Ubatuba though was jungle / beach treks. A fairly easy and accessible walk from town is a trip to the Prumirim waterfall and natural pools. A truly stunning location, it is perfect to bring a picnic to and somewhere you can have a bit of fun jumping in to cool down (if the locals let you have a go!).
4. Sao Paulo – finding beauty and space in this built-up mega city
Batman Alley is famous for its epic murals of colourful street art. Take your time wandering its living gallery and perusing its walled canvases, but be mindful when you go as it does get a little busy at peak times, late afternoon was quiet for us. The art changes all the time so there are always new pieces being added to the street collection by visiting artists as well as locals.
If you are looking for a feeling of space, then Ibirapuera Park is a must. Sao Paulo’s biggest park has a buzzing cultural scene of music and art venues inside the park, as well as facilities for people trying all kinds of sports and of course child-friendly play areas. It also has a huge scenic lake – just make sure you cover yourself in insect repellent as I got eaten alive here at dusk!
5. Iguacu – Off the beaten path
Iguacu is known as the natural wonders of the modern world and with good reason. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that covers an area of 185,262.5 hectares (457,794 acres) and is home to the largest waterfall system in the world with 275 separate drops making up Iguacu Falls.
As well as boasting magnificent waterfalls and the chance to see them, both from Brazilian side and Argentinian side, it is a haven for rare flowers and animals including the giant otter and the giant anteater.
Once you have explored the waterfall sites there are plenty of jungle trails to take you off the beaten path. Some require guides as there are predators like jaguar prowling the forest. We didn’t spot any big cats sadly (or luckily!) but we did see toucans, monitor lizards, caiman, lots of South American coati and hundreds of butterflies which had gathered on the floor to get to the minerals after a heavy bout of rain. Walking through this tropical jungle surrounded by such brightly coloured butterflies is something that will stay with me forever.
I crammed a lot into a two-week vacation and saw some wonderful things, it can be done – but if you don’t have time, then my recommendation would be to do Rio really well. There are loads of cool neighbourhoods with their own vibes to explore, so see these and maybe do a weekend break to Ilha Grande if you can get out of the city for 48 hours.
The ethos of Brazil is to party, preferably on the beach, which you can do pretty much anywhere in this stunning country! So let your hair down, grab a caipirinha and enjoy the music.
Ilha Grande – Hostel: Aratinga Inn, Rua das Flores 232