Saturday December 14th to Wednesday January 15th
Salvador da Bahia, founded in 1549, was Brazil’s first capital city. It was the most important city for two centuries, growing rich on exports of sugarcane, tobacco, gold, diamonds, imports of African slaves and the profits of cattle ranching in the interior. Eventually this trade went into decline and it is only recently that new industries such as petroleum and chemicals have been introduced. However, the city still suffers severe social and economic problems and many of its people are homeless, jobless and hungry.
We stayed in the Pelourinho district, the centre of the old town. Salvador has a bit of a bad reputation for crime but they’ve started to clean up the place in this area so there were lots of police around and we felt safe (and didn’t go out of the area). The old town is full of restored, brightly coloured buildings and many churches.
Our hotel was on the 7th floor of a building that was right on the main square. In that square they put on an incredibly elaborate and spectacular Christmas concert. They had 3 kids in every window of the buildings around the square, a big stage, lasers, lights and powerful amplification. The best bit was at the end when they had Jesus and Santa Claus on stage at the same time (two of our favourite gods -- no wonder kids get confused). And, to top it all off, we had the best seats in the house because our hotel had a terrace overlooking the square.
The city has a large afro-brazilian community. Only very recently (1960’s) have they been free to practice their ancient African religion, Candomble. Candomble is, in fact, a mixture of African religions brought over by the slaves and indigenous South American Indian religions. This interesting religion is full of gods (Orixas) that serve many purposes. Their religion was kept alive by hiding it under the guise of praying to Christian saints and by adopting Christian symbols. Another interesting, and formerly banned activity is Capoeira. It is an African martial art that had been practiced by the slaves. It was banned because the slave owners lived in perpetual fear of a slave revolt. The blacks simply added music, made it look like a dance and continued practicing.
The most opulent church in Brazil (Sao Francisco) is in Salvador. There is gold everywhere. It was built and decorated by slaves who were not allowed to worship their own religion so they deliberately distorted cherubs' faces, angels were endowed with huge sex organs and others appeared pregnant. It was worth a visit.
Lençois is a tiny town on the edge of a new national park, Chapada Diamantina (Diamond Highlands). From here we set off on our first completely independent camping trip in South America. The highlands are beautiful and virtually undiscovered by tourists so we often felt like we had the place to ourselves. There are many rivers, waterfalls and interesting geological formations. The area had been heavily mined over the years and was in danger of being ecologically destroyed. A few years ago a group got together and convinced the government to kick out the wildcat miners with their diesel powers water pumps and turn the area into a park.
We had plans of doing a major hike but the heat slowed us down so it became a more leisurely walk (still hot and with full backpacks, however). We were lucky to discover a lovely little campsite, very private off the main track, beside a stream with a pool next to a massive cliff face. We made it over to the Capao valley and found the cheapest pousada ever, less than 2 pounds per night (so much for camping). During our time in the park we saw beautiful electric blue butterflies, termite mounds that looked like brain coral and hundreds of colourful flowers. Fortunately we didn't encounter any of the poisonous snakes, scorpions, tarantulas or Africanized bees that are common in this area. Unfortunately we didn't find any diamonds either. Believe it or not, out in this backwoods, we met the first Scotsman and Canadians since coming to South America. On our way back to Lençois we stopped again and spent the day at our secret little campsite.
For Christmas we treated ourselves to a suite in a posh hotel. It was tough but there was nothing to do but swim and drink cocktails by the pool. We had signed up for the fancy Christmas dinner that was put on by the hotel. Unfortunately we arrived a little late, 24 hours late in fact, because Brazilians have their Christmas dinners on the 24th of December. (Christmas is still on the 25th, right?)
On Boxing Day we took a bus tour of the area and saw some magnificent caves (snorkeled in one of them in the dark), big waterfalls and crystal clear lagoons. We also climbed Morro do Pai Inacio for superb views of the valleys. At the top we found "bearded" cacti and other unique plants.
Then it was 7 hours on a bus back to Salvador, layover of 4 hours, another bus (24 hours) to Belo Horizonte, one hour layover and finally a 2 hour ride to...
For much of the wild, violent and debauched 18th century, slaves in the state of Minas Gerais were digging up half of the gold being produced in the world. The baroque churches and sacred art that some of this loot paid for account for over half of Brazil’s national monuments. Of all the exquisite towns in the country, this is the "jewel in the colonial crown" of Brazil (Peter: our last colonial town, thank goodness). This town is built in a mountainous area so all the roads are extremely steep. The town is so nice because it had been the state capital during the big gold and diamond rush and lots of money poured through it. The capital was moved to Belo Horizonte as soon as the boom ended so Ouro Preto remained frozen in time and was not destroyed to make way for more modern buildings. It is worth noting that the vast amounts of gold and gems that were dug from these hills went to Portugal and then on to England where it financed the industrial revolution (the Portuguese had massive debts to the Brits).
Brazil's second most opulent church is here, Matriz de NS Pilar. (Peter: What a let down after seeing the first most opulent church in Salvador). It has 434kg of gold and silver in it. Brazils oldest theater, Teatro Municipal, is here too. It was small and quaint and was well worth the visit.
In Ouro Preto we also visited Mina do Chico Rei (Encardideira Gold Mine). To quote the Lonely Planet:
Brazil's first abolitionist was Chico Rei, an African tribal king. In the early 1700's, amid the frenzy of the gold rush, an entire tribe, along with its king, was captured in Africa, sent to Brazil and sold to a mine owner in Ouro Preto. Chico Rei worked as a foreman of the slave miners. Working Sundays and holidays, he finally bought his freedom from the slave master then freed his son Osmar. Together they freed the rest of the tribe. This collective then bought the fabulously wealthy Encardideira Gold Mine and Chico Rei assumed his royal functions once again, holding court in Ouro Preto and celebrating African holidays in traditional costume. News of this reached the Portuguese king, who immediately prohibited slaves from purchasing their freedom.
This mine was dug entirely by hand without the benefit of power tools or dynamite. We don hard hats and enter the mine on our own as there are no english speaking guides. The tunnels are very small and it's a tight squeeze. This is one of the few places that Jackie is glad that she is short. Its a fascinating place but apparently dangerous as parts are crumbling and we were told not to touch the roof.
We also visited Minas de Passagem (1719-1985). This is the largest gold mine open to the public in the world. There are 9 levels and 7 entrances. This is on an entirely different scale to the Mina do Chico Rei as they extracted 35 tons of gold over the 266 years of operation. We descend into the mine sitting on the original cable car (they tell us the "cable" is new). At the bottom the huge cavern roof is supported by massive pillars of rock left intact that still contain gold and diamonds. There are tunnels going off in all directions into the dark. We can still see the veins of quartz along with which the gold (and arsenic) is usually found. There's a shrine to dead miners here too.
On New Years Eve most Brazilians where white and millions flock to the beaches to pay homage to the sea goddess Lemanja. On New Years day there was a Congados (a version of Candomble) parade that passed by our window. The participants were all wearing white and they were carrying a statue of Lemanja. (You can see a picture of Jackie standing next to a Lemanja status in our “Olinda & Salvador” gallery.)
We spent a quiet New Year here because Rio was fully booked.
Rio de Janiero
(Le Cidade Maravilhosa)
Cariocas (inhabitants of Rio) claim their city is the most beautiful in the world and we would find it hard to disagree. It is a magnificent city squeezed between unusual mountains and beautiful beaches under the tropical sun.
We arrived without our bus having been hijacked as had Jackie feared and our first priority was to see Lord of the Rings. That done we took a city tour which visited Sugarloaf Mountain and Corcovado Mountain with the Cristo Redentor statue on the top. We also saw the Maracana soccer stadium (biggest in the world), the Sambadrome and the unusual and very modern Metropolitan Cathedral with its huge stained glass windows. We also splashed out on a spectacular helicopter ride over the city - WOW!
We also visited Dennis and Janet Dugan, who very kindly invited us to a barbeque at their fantastic penthouse apartment in Leblon. Thanks for the hospitality, y'all. (Dennis is the brother of Peter's friend Wendy from Tallahassee).
We relished the cosmopolitan Rio with it's sushi bars, book stores with english books and magazines (even the Economist!!) and especially Leblon Cinema where we went back to see Lord of the Rings a second time. As you can see, South America is not really changing us.
Curitiba is a nice enough little city but the reason most people (including ourselves) come here is to take the train to Paranagua. This is the most spectacular train ride in Brazil (which isn't hard to claim as there are very few trains here). However, we weren't disappointed because this train winds its way through the mountains from the highlands, where Curitiba is located, down to the coast. It crosses 67 bridges and goes through 13 tunnels as it clings to the mountainside. Unfortunately, on the way down, there was quite a bit of cloud about so the views were hidden. To make up for this, Peter took pictures of the inside of all 13 tunnels which you can see on our website :-) The way back was clearer and we saw the views that everyone was excited about, they were fantastic.
Foz do Igaçu
Only two things here, Igassu Falls and Itapui Dam, but they are two incredible things. Igassu Falls is the most spectacular set of waterfalls in the world (Peter: second most spectacular after Niagara. Hey, I'm Canadian what else can I say?). 275 cataracts along a 2 km long line spill the contents of the Igassu River. All we can say is "see the pictures" but they really don't do it justice. Most of the falls are in Argentina but they are best viewed from the Brazilian side of the river. Here they have a nice park and a walkway all along the edge with spectacular vistas at every turn. There are also catwalks out over the falls. To top it off, we took a boat ride up Garganta del Diablo (Devil's throat) and captain put the boat right under San Martin waterfalls. We then transferred to a raft and whitewater rafted back down. It's not the Zambezi but it was still fun, just the two of us and a guide.
Itapui Dam is the worlds biggest (in power output) hydroelectric dam. It has 18 turbines (with 2 more under construction) that puts out 12,600 megawatts of electricity. This provides 25% of Brazil’s power needs and 95% of Paraguay’s. Even after China’s Three Gorges Dam is fully operational, Itapui will still be the biggest. The (free!) tour takes you by bus along below the dam and then back over it. It really is an amazing feat of engineering.
So, now it's time to say t'chau Brazil and hola Argentina. First stop, Igassu Falls, from the other side.
Observations of Brazil
Portuguese: Brazilians are really nice and friendly people but they talk too fast. We’ve been here two months and still find Portuguese incomprehensible. (“Reals”, the Brazilian currency is pronounced “hay-ice”. No wonder we don’t get it.) When a Brazilians talks to us, and we look back with stupid stunned faces, they don’t slow down, they just try to use different words and talk louder. Fortunately, however, they are very patient and full of humour.
Thumbs up: One really handy thing is that all Brazilians use the “Thumbs up” sign to represent “yes” or “ok” or “correct” or “I understand”. Given the difficulty we had with Portuguese, we really liked this habit.
Pssssst: In Brazil it is not considered impolite to get someone’s attention by going “psssst”. We never got used to that.
Buses: Modern, comfortable and efficient. It made the huge distances we travelled tolerable and the planning and booking of our travels easy.
Caipirinha’s: Lime, sugar and cachaca (a locally distilled alcohol made from sugar cane). It seems that everyone makes the stuff and that there are more varieties of cachaca than whiskey. Great stuff and really cheap!
Meal size: In many restaurants, the meals are all intended for two people. Unfortunately, they don’t always make that clear. Many times we looked at the menu, thought “this place is a little expensive”, then went about ordering twice the amount of food we could possibly eat.
Cerveja Garafa: (Large beers), most places serve beer by the quart that is poured into small glasses but then they put the bottle into an insulated container to keep it cold. In this hot country, we really liked the cold beer.
Religion: We have visited many churches (mostly Catholic) in the many colonial towns in Brazil. Some are simple, some are totally over-the-top. What caught our eyes, however, is the number of statues of saints in the churches -- far more than in Rome or anywhere else we’ve been. They have a patron saint for everything and they worship these saints and pray to them more than Jesus or God or even Mary. When the Portuguese invaded 500 years ago they “saved” ALL the souls in Brazil. (They were “all” saved because those that didn’t want to be saved, were killed and, therefore, didn’t count anymore.) So, the indigenous indians and the black slaves that were imported from Africa had a choice: adopt this new Christian mythology or die. The problem was, their old gods were working just fine for them, they really didn’t need any new ones. What they, quite cleverly, did was simply change the names of their gods to be Saint This or Saint That and put up a few crosses and carried on in secret. Most of the people in South America are Christian in name only -- really they are still animists. With very recently introduced freedoms, many of the old religions are re-emerging and flourishing. It appears to us that there is really very little difference between Christian mythology, Greek or Roman Mythologies, or animist mythologies. They all have many gods to help with any of life’s problems.
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