Monday November 18th to Friday December 13th, 2002
We left Santa Elena, Venezuela a little before 8:00am and arrived at the Brazilian border shortly after. Unfortunately, the Venezuelian side, must stamp our passports to allow us to leave the country, doesnīt open until 8:30. Itīs a good thing the bus didnīt leave on time at 7:00am. Who schedules these things anyway?
"Brazil is the country of tomorrow ... and always will be" (cynical Brazilians have been heard to quip).
Our bus was a "Supercama". Thick leather seats, only 3 across rather than 4 and lots of legroom -- like first class on an airplane. We thought it was the best bus we'd ever been on until it broke down about 1/2 an hour south of the border. After a couple of hours of standing at the side of the road beside our magnificently beautiful bus, watching rusted out pickup trucks cruise by, another bus and a mechanic arrived. He had it fixed in minutes. That delay combined with there being no one at the Venezuelan border post meant that we didn't get to Manaus until 1:30am. We weren't too pleased with arriving in an unfamiliar city in the middle of the night. We had thoughts of staying in the terminal until sunrise but the taxi looked safe enough so we hopped in. He took us swiftly (and we mean really swiftly -- 120kph on city streets) to the hotel we selected but they didn't have any rooms. We got back in the cab and he started driving towards the dangerous side of town before we could get our thoughts together. We had been getting the hang of Spanish but this Portuguese stuff is totally incomprehensible. We had no idea where he was taking us and could not communicate a thing. We drove down the street, towards the docks. It appears the prostitutes clock off work at about this time. Well, everything turned out OK because he actually took us to a nice hotel that was reasonably priced (it is near red light district, sure enough, but it wasnīt unsafe).
Manaus is the biggest city up the Amazon River and is a major port. The ocean going vessels come up this far. We visited a few museums and wandered around. Itīs a fairly cosmopolitan city so after weeks in the outback we enjoyed wandering through a C&A (thatīs a department store for you Canucks). We even found a sushi bar and splashed out on a yummy and expensive (by Brazilian standards) meal. We didnīt do any of the many "jungle trips" on offer because much of the stuff is the same as the Orinoco Delta and Los Llanos.
We did, however, take in a concert at the Theater of the Amazons. This place was built during the rubber boom at the end of the 19th century. Everything came from Europe. Marble and glass from Italy, plaster and crystal mirrors from France, iron columns from Glasgow (Jackie was pleased). Even the chairs, made of Brazilian wood, were carved in Europe. They were trying to create a European city in the middle of the jungle. It really is magnificent, especially when you think about where on the planet it is. 1000 miles up the Amazon in the middle of the jungle. (Well, it was in the middle of the jungle. Now itīs in the middle of a city in the middle of the Jungle.) Anyway it was a "humourous" concert (lighting and sound problems and a saxaphone who, weīre sure, was playing in a different key from everyone else) but we enjoyed the atmosphere of the theater.
There are no roads to Manaus other than the one we arrived on from Venezuela. The only way to access the rest of Brazil is either by boat or to fly. The boat trip down the Amazon to Belem from Manaus takes 4 days. The boats are about 20m long and carry 200 to 300 people. Itīs a free-for-all to get a place to hang your hammock and you can end up with people swinging above and/or below you. Itīs hot and possibly wet (and certainly smelly). The ticket (about US$35) includes meals which is mostly rice and beans. And you have to watch your stuff 24 hours a day so it doesnīt get nicked. What an incredible adventure ... we decided to fly.
Observations: In the grocery store we saw crisps called "Skinny", kitchen roll called "Snob" and steel wool called "Asshol"
After a flight that left at 4:00am and a 12 hour bus ride, we made it to São Luis on the coast. São Luis is a colonial town (UNESCO World Heritage listed city) and is known as the reggae capital of Brazil. The first thing we did was go to see Harry Potter. It had just opened on Friday and the shows were sold out hours in advance (we got there at 5:00 for the 6:00 show which was sold out so we saw the 9:00 show instead). They had 2 of their 5 screens showing Harry Potter, one dubbed in Portugese and another in English with subtitles. It was great fun.
São Luis is famous for "Bumba Meu Boi" which is a wild, folkloric festival derived from African, Indian and Portugese influences. Itīs a rich mixture of music, dance and theater and it tells the store of the death and resurrection of a bull (see the bull headdresses in our photos).
From São Luis we visited Alcãntara on the other side of the bay. It was an amazingly rough hour long ferry ride but it was entertaining watching other passengers throwing up. Alcãntara was built with extensive slave labour (see the oldest "pelourinho" (whipping post) in our photos) in the 1600s and was the hub of the regionīs cotton and sugar economy. It is the most "homogeneous" (thatīs what the book says) group of colonial buildings in Brazil. Peter says, "and īhomogeneousī is a reason to visit yet another colonial town?". Jackie thought it was cute with itīs little cobbled streets and old churches.
Parque Nacional Dos Lençois Maranhenses
Sand, sand and more sand. Carried by the wind all the way from the Sahara Desert, so weīve heard. This is the place where the sand, the river, the sea and the mangroves are all battling for supremacy. The dunes get up to 50m high here and there are lagoons of crystal clear water (rain water filtered by the sand). Unfortunately, we were here at the wrong time of year and all but the biggest have dried up. Still, the vistas are incredible. We also visited a small village where they were processing manioc flour. Manioc is a root vegetable and has been the staple of the Indians, slaves and Portugese for hundreds of years. The locals like it a lot and put it on or in everything. Weīre not impressed.
Fortaleza, on the coast, is one of Brazilīs major fishing ports and commercial centres. They are now promoting it (and Natal) as a European tourist destination. There is surfing, beach volleyball, and we found a Covent Gardens like area with lots of bars, restaurants and entertainment. At one of the bars the band was playing Beatles music. Although we find the Venezuelan and Brazilian music pleasant enough to listen to, it was nice to hear something we recognised and could sing along to. We also tried the state dish "peixe a delicia" which is fish in a white sauce with cheese, banana and pineapple. Sounds disgusting but we loved it.
Ubajara National Park
Cool cave. See pictures.
This is another popular beach town and we got a great hotel across from the beach. Here, the big thing to do is dune buggy rides, so we did, twice. What a hoot. To the north of Natal is where the big, moving dunes are and the driver did stunts like "Wall of Death", "Vertical Descent" and "Rollercoaster". Then we went on to "Bundi Slide" where, from the top of a dune, you slide down a cable and splash into the lagoon. Next was the "Bundi Ski", this time you slide down the dune on a board and, you guessed it, splash into a lagoon. Jackie managed a microlight flight over the dunes and the sea (Peter was too heavy for the light wind conditions). South of Natal is an endless series of big, beautiful, wide beaches. It also lays claim to having the worldīs largest cashew tree, over 1/2 kilometer in circumference and still growing. Thatīs a lot of nuts!
Yet another beautifully restored colonial town but the buildings are not nearly as "homogeneous" as Alcantara. :-) The place is very arty with lots of fantastic restaurants. We certainly arenīt eating like typical backpackers. There are also a zillion churches and a Benedictine monastry. Brother Marcelo, who had spent two years as a guest at a monastery in Saskatchewan (thats in Canada for you Brits) showed us around. He was very proud of the fact that their alter was on display last year at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. He invited us to lunch with the other brothers the next day. When Peter advised him that we werent Christian he laughed and said "Thats OK, well still feed you anyway". The monks are very friendly, they wear normal street clothes are are quite approachable. Sharing lunch with 20 monks was a cool experience.
Click here for Brazil Travelog (Part 2)