The flight from Seattle to Sao Paulo via San Francisco and Miami is a long one. Including a six-hour time change, we were in transit all day and all night, arriving the next morning. We had a long layover in Sao Paulo on our way to Brasilia, so we checked our bags at the airport and took the express bus downtown. Sao Paulo is a huge city, spreading out as far as you can see when viewed during the approach from the air. With 17 million inhabitants, traffic jams are inevitable. The bus dropped us at Praca de Republica, a pleasant square in the city center adjacent to a sheltered park with a network of ponds where turtles sun themselves on the rocks (photo, turtles). Our tour books have a lot to say about how unsafe Sao Paulo is, and it seemed to us that anyone walking by with a curious look at our digital camera might be getting ready to rob us. But after strolling a little in the sun with crowds of people shopping and going to lunch, we began to feel more comfortable. We walked along the Avenida Itapetininga, a pedestrian mall with lots of shops and street vendors, with hundreds of Paulistanos doing their Christmas shopping. We saw the impressive Municipal Theatre and a nearby square featuring a wild fountain full of horses spitting water out their nostrils (photo, horse fountain). We bought a fresh coconut from a street vendor. He cut a hole using his big machete and put a straw to it. After we drank the juice, he split the shell open and we enjoyed the fresh coconut jelly. We took the bus back to the airport in the early evening to catch our flight to Brasilia, where we picked up a rental car and managed to locate the hotel district and get ourselves checked in for the night.
At breakfast the hotel restaurant features live music for the guests. What a treat! We went out to take a sightseeing tour in our car. Brasilia is a planned city, created in the 1960s around an artificial lake right in the middle of a dusty red plateau in the jungle. The futuristic architecture of the city's buildings is generally impressive (or ugly, or innovative, depending on individual taste), with lots of cement and glass of all colors. The city blocks are long and empty. Everybody drives, the pedestrians have to be survivors. We watched in horror as some locals on foot crossed the six lanes of a one-way street with no pedestrian crossing was in sight. We liked the Catedral Metropolitana (photo, Catedral) and its spacious interior with pretty stained glass (photo, Catedral interior). The Three-Powers Square (Praca dos Tres Poderes) is also interesting with the Parliament, Presidential Palace, and Supreme Court buildings assembled around the square with some lonesome statuary and monuments (photo, Praca dos Tres Poderes). The memorials in the square exemplify minimalist architecture. At the Liberty Shopping Mall we had nice meal of Brazilian beef and seafood. Then it was off to the airport and to Manaus, starting point for our jungle adventure. We were met at the Manaus airport by our local host and escorted to our hotel.
After breakfast we were met by our local guide, Raymond, and his German girlfriend Fran. We took a taxi to the Manaus docks and loaded our five-days supplies. on a little launch. The boat took us first to the famous Meeting of the Waters, where the black water of the Rio Negro joins the more caffelatte-colored Rio Solimoes to form the Amazon. The waters of the Rio Negro are somewhat acidic, so it does not have much life in it except the river dolphins. In particular mosquitoes don't thrive on the Rio Negro. Rio Solimoes, on the other hand, is more inhabitable and is home to more than 2000 kinds of fish, birds, insects and animals, including lots and lots of mosquitoes. The two rivers flow into one at the meeting place, which seems wide as an ocean. But because the two rivers have such different densities, they refuse to mix. The two separate streams flow side by side for four kilometers, half an ocean black and half an ocean cream (photo, meeting of the waters).
The boat took us across the Solimoes to Careira, then we drove for an hour out the trans-Brazilian highway to River Araca, where we boarded a motorized canoe and cruised down the Araca into the deep Amazon jungle (photo, Araca River). Seven native families live here along the Araca, totaling less than 100 residents, all more or less related in an extended family. After 2 hours in the canoe, we arrived at our local host's house on the water (photo, river house). The river house is actually two houses linked together, built on a raft so when the water rises (20-30 feet in rainy season), the house is always on top of the water. We settled in with our hammocks (photo, hammocks) and had a tasty lunch of rice, veggies and Pirarucu fish, monarch of Amazonian fish.
In the afternoon we canoed further down the river, watching alligators basking on the river bank with their mouths wide open. We saw graceful herons with their slimmer postures reflected on the river (photo, heron), curious pink and gray river dolphins checking us out, and countless birds (photo, hawk). We saw toucans, slow treetop hoppers with loud mouths, and groups of Caracara flying by. At dusk, we sat quietly on Lake Mamori and witnessed an amazing sunset (photo, Mamori sunset). After dark, the alligator spotting adventure began. Alligator and caiman eyes reflect the flash light, shining red as rubies in the dark. Raymond caught a baby alligator with his bare hands. We examined the baby female (photo, baby alligator). Raymond stroked a nerve on her belly to hypnotize her. As she lay on her back, we saw her forelegs go from tense to totally relaxed. She only became alive when we threw her back to the water. We arrived back at the house as a full moon was rising over the far bank. We jumped into the river to wash ourselves, had a great dinner of fish, rice and manioc, and finally passed out in our hammocks.
A loud tree frog sounding like a furious puppy woke us up early. After some coffee and crackers we got ready for a day of jungle walking. We walked for three hours in the morning while Raymond pointed out the rubber trees and drum trees. He showed us how the rosewood bark smells purer and stronger than department store perfume sample. The quinine tree and numerous herbs are used by local people to relieve pain, stings, etc. There are also a lot of mushrooms in every shape and color imaginable, but we were told local people don't eat them, what a pity! Raymond was so handy in the jungle, cutting a path for us with his machete. He knew where to look for tarantulas, and found one as big as a hand (photo, tarantula). He spotted a big sloth sitting high up in the top of a tree. After lunch, encouraged by the overcast weather and 80 degrees weather, perfect for walking in the jungle, we took another two-hour walk focusing on flora identifications. Richard swung on a long vine and let out his best Tarzan yell. Spearfishing after dark was kind of a failure due to the beginning of the rainy season, when water rises fast. After dinner, we made Caipirinha, the Brazilian national drink made of Cachaca sugar cane liquor, lime and sugar. We sat around our hammocks talking about our life stories, families, and friends well into the night.
It was hard to get up after drinking and chatting late into the night, but we got out of the house in the mid-morning to go to a secret lake. We had to hike over the wetlands a bit to get from the river to the lake, which is at least as big as Seattle's Lake Union. When we arrived at the lake, we found an uncle and his friend out fishing in the canoes the family keeps there. Upon their return, we saw their harvest included two dozen or so catfish, two to five pounds each, and a giant Pirarucu fish (photo, Pirarucu). The fish was perhaps 60 pounds, though we were told they can grow to over 300 pounds and 3 meters long. Pirarucu is the largest river fish, with scales so big and thick that they have to be kicked off by machete. The fish was skinned, filleted and deboned within 10 minutes and the two happy fishermen were gone. We boarded the two canoes and set up a long net along one side of the lake and then started bait fishing. Barbara caught half a dozen Piranha in no time, remarkable for her first time fishing (photo, devil fish). The fish are deadly because their teeth are powerful as chainsaws and they work as a group. They can attack humans and large animals in the water, and eat their flesh in a matter of minutes. However, Barbara's fish were too small for our dinner, so they became bait. Richard and Fran caught some bigger ones that made it to the lunch table and our net caught a couple of five-pounders, along with a couple of small caimans that we released back to the lake.
In the afternoon, we took our motor canoe further downstream to the Jurara River, where the Tucanu tribe lives. Normally the native people do not entertain any guests, but Raymond is friends with a local man and his wife and family. They welcomed us into their house on the bank of the river (photo, native house). The family has a piece of land around their house where they grow manioc, and tend a dozen fruit trees. They process the manioc in a little open-air shed. We enjoyed a dinner prepared by our hostess using fish caught that afternoon by her husband. Richard played his flute after dinner, Raymond sang some Christmas carols and we played cards by candlelight. Then everybody took the benches and dinner table out of the kitchen and we hung our hammocks up, it became our bedroom.
We were wakened in the early morning by roosters crowing all up and down the river. We toured the house's surroundings after breakfast. The manioc shop produces a bit extra that the family sells or barters for cloth, sugar, salt and school supplies. When Barbara was playing with the boys (photo, playing), our host came to report he found a sloth. Four of us walked through the manioc field into the woods where Raymond climbed up to snatch the animal. He was very cute and we had a great photo opportunity with him (photo, sloth). We all trooped back to the house, where we released the sloth near a tall tree. As soon as the sloth was free, he made a slow but determined beeline for the tree and started to pull himself up with his long arms and claws. The boys rounded up some of their friends from the neighborhood and we all stood under the tree staring up at the climber.
After a lunch of rice, manioc and eggs, we went back to the boat and left the Tucanu island to embark at an isolated spot covered with thick-looking grass. The six of us hiked with our gear into the forest. We walked for about an hour, mostly pretty easy except for one muddy slippery hill. Raymond and his friends scouted out a likely flat spot featuring some conveniently spaces tall trees (photo, campsite - before) and we watched while they demonstrated practical jungle camping skills. They cleared the area by cutting and pulling out all the bushes and vines, then patrolled the area finding and cutting a number of poles. With these they erected a frame to hang the hammocks in a row (photo, campsite - after). Soon all the hammocks and mosquito nets were up and cooking was in progress. Fran was feeling weak and a little feverish, so she and Barbara sat by the fire, while Richard played some flute. Dinner soon was served with some "Rooster Blood" cachaca. We passed out pretty quick after dinner, though the forest is a symphony of noise of all animals, birds and insects all night long. The crickets and other bugs never stop their chatter. We heard a chorus of howler monkeys in the distance. Sometime after midnight, a night monkey came to investigate our camp. Raymond turned his flash light on and saw him up in the trees directly above us.
We rose at dawn and enjoyed strong camp coffee with some boiled eggs and crackers. While Fran rested and our boatman started packing the camp, our native host led us deeper into the "virgin" or primary forest. He pointed out a spot where he had killed a jaguar while hunting an armadillo beneath the exposed roots of a fallen tree. Raymond demonstrated more jungle survival craft, showing us how one tree's bark is good for rope, another for paper-like sheets. He braided a bracelet with the strings of the bark and secured it onto Barbara's wrist (photo, bracelet). Using two big fern fronds, he made a basket with straps so it worked like a backpack. When the indians go hunting in the jungle, they walk straight through the forest instead of following trails. It is inconvenient to carry anything more than just machete and gun. They will fashion a carrier once they catch the animal. On the way back to the camp, Raymond cut a fat liana vine and poured the vine water directly into our mouths (photo, water vine). The liquid is a native remedy supposed to relieve fever, headache and diarrhea. The water itself was cool and perfectly flavorless. We picked up our gear at the camp and went back to our canoe. We got back to the river house in time to scrub ourselves and jumped into the river for a swim before lunch. Afterwards, waving everybody goodbye, we headed back toward Manaus.
After the canoe, bus, ferry and taxi trip back to civilization, we thought it would be nice to treat Raymond and Fran to dinner before we got on our midnight flight. Finding a restaurant open in Manaus on Christmas Eve turned out to be something of a challenge, not to say a comedy. We took a taxi to a famous restaurant, but found the place closed for the holiday. We tried a few other spots, all without success. The taxi driver took sympathy on us and started calling his dispatch center to see if they knew any restaurants open. We ended up in downtown cruising the streets trying to find food. We finally piled out at a little sidewalk cafe that still had lot of people drinking, eating and enjoying the music. We ordered beef, chicken, spaghetti, rice and beans, plus two big bottles of beer and a liter of soda, all for under $10 USD. We laughed all through dinner about our Manaus dinner hunting experience.
After dinner, we dropped Raymond and Fran at their place and continued on to the airport. Our midnight flight from Manaus to Rio stopped every 2 hours at the cities in the Northeast: Belem, Fortaleza, Recife, Salvador. The regional airline GOL is very much like Southwest Airline in US. At boarding, everybody received a boxed Christmas cake. We arrived in Rio just before noon and the airport was deserted on Christmas Day. We got on the airport express bus that took us to within half block of our hotel, the Florida Hotel near Ave Catete, in a middle-class residential area right on the Metro line. The marble-floored lobby and spotless hallways, along with the hotel staff opening and closing the doors for us; the leap from the primary jungle to deluxe civilization was quite striking. We decide the rest of the day should be devoted to laundry, journal writing and contacting Barbara's client Ben from Los Angeles, who introduced Raymond to us and happened to be also in Rio before they took a jungle trip similar to ours. Since Christmas Day is quiet in Rio, we had the GOL Christmas cake for dinner and went to the (real) bed for a long night's sleep.
We enjoyed hotel's breakfast buffet and the good strong coffee. The staff was friendly and very attentive. Since the hotel is right on the Metro line, we bought two 10-ride tickets and rode the air-conditioned metro to downtown to visit the tourist office for a good city map. We walked around Centro to see some of the older buildings like the Municipal Theatre and the National Museum. We sat in a square in front of Igreja Sao Francisco and looked inside the elaborate rococo interior. We walked along the Ave Presidente Vargas and explored the big outdoor market, Mercado Publico. Hundreds of little stalls and booths offer clothes, leather goods, electronics, CDs, etc. After Barbara answered a shop owner's questions about Chinese characters on a T-shirt they sell, he was very happy to help us find where the music shops are. We found six of them in just two blocks. Richard was in heaven and spent the rest of the afternoon browsing there while Barbara was getting a bite to eat from a snack shop nearby. With some help from another customer who speaks a bit English, she was able to figure out which deep-fried dumplings contained beef, chicken, cheese and fish. It turned out that the owners of the shop were from Mainland China and we had a nice chat in Chinese. Barbara learned that Chinese immigrants dominate the local dumpling shops in Rio. Meanwhile at the music shops, we bought a berimbau and a pandeiro and were thinking hard about whether we should get a Brazilian guitar. For dinner, we looked for a restaurant recommended by the Rough Guide, but the book gave the wrong information about the location. We ended up eating a street vendor's tasty sausage, corn on the cob and some bread.
After breakfast we met Ben and his friend from Sao Paulo, and the four of us decided to make a day tour. We took the Metro to Centro and visited the Municipal Cathedral, another enormous Oscar Neimeyar creation (photo, Cathedral). This one has a vaguely Aztec feeling to the exterior. It is much bigger inside but darker than the one we visited in Brasilia. We took the tram that goes up though Santa Teresa (photo, Santa Teresa bodinho). Santa Teresa is a sweet neighborhood with small apartment buildings and modest pretty houses clinging to the slope. Every turn commands a new view of Centro or Flamingo or Corcovado or Sugar Loaf. The neighborhood is old and not unlike Soho in New York, an artist's haven. Back at the bottom of the hill, we walked straight to the waterfront, past ferry terminals to the Naval Culture center, where we embarked for a tour of Ilha Fiscal, the former colonial customs house. It is a pretty little blue fairy tale of a building like something from Disneyland. After the island tour, Ben and his friend went to do some shopping in the Mercado Publico for their upcoming jungle trip. Meanwhile, we took the bus down to Urca to take a ride on the cable car that goes up to Sugar Loaf. We hung around on the top for about an hour, enjoying a perfectly stunning sunset (photo, sunset behind Corcovado and another view). When the red globe was finally swallowed by the patch of sea visible between two hillsides, about 400 people on the Sugar Loaf cheered and applauded. Coming down from the cable car, we found Ben and his friend waiting for us. We walked around the Sugar Loaf through Urca to a typical Brazilian seafood restaurant right on the bay side. We ate delicious fish dishes with Caipirinha drinks. Ben seemed pretty happy to discover the lime, ice, sugar and Cachaca drink, and pleased to know it would be available in quantity during his coming camping trip.
Our plan was for today's major attraction to be Corcovado and its famous statue of Christ the Redeemer. We took the bus to Cosme Velho and the station for the cog train. The ride up is a nice one rising through Atlantic rain forest. There is a sharp turn halfway up which is known as "Curva De O" because of people's reaction to the panoramic view. We did the "Ohh" too, but it was more like "Oh, there is no view today," since the train had driven directly into a thick bank of fog. At the end of the line there are stairs up the last 40 meters of hillside to the base of the statue. We arrived at the top at about the same time as the tail end of a group of marathoners. We relaxed at the top, completely wrapped in cloud, for a couple of hours hoping it would clear up and grant us a view of the city and the beaches -- but no luck. We finally gave up, had some lunch and a nap back at the hotel, and prepared for our big night at a Samba School. The Lonely Planet guide recommended Mangueira School, and directed us to the neighborhood of Niteroi, which is across the Guanabara Bay from Rio. So we took the ferry to Niteroi, bought a local map and tried to find the street the school was on, but without success. We asked some local policemen, three handsome young men very willing to help with our map and address. They finally decided that the Samba School is actually in Rio, with the address on Ave Visconde De Niteroi. So we rode the ferry back and caught a taxi from the ferry dock to the school. Still, we managed to get there plenty early since the performance does not really start til 10pm. The dancing and music are going in earnest by midnight, with perhaps a thousand dancers wall to wall til 3-4 o'clock in the morning (photo, samba school). We left right around 1:00am, and found the street was just as crowded as the room with people hanging out or waiting to get in.
We decided to wake up early to see if we might get a chance to see the Christ the Redeemer under the clear sky. It was our luck that it turned out to be a nearly cloudless morning. We didn't want to wait until the cog train begins operating at 8:30, so we took a taxi from the hotel all the way up to Corcovado. The view of morning sunlight flooding the city from the high vantage was unbelievably beautiful (photo, Rio in the morning and another view). It was so quiet and remote with just the giant statue looking down at us (photo, Cristo Redentor).
Back at the hotel, we changed to attire ready for the beach and headed out to Copacabana. The beach is enormous, natural white sand extending to as far as 3 or 4 Waikikis together. After wandering back and forth between Copacabana and Ipanema beach, admiring the courage and fashion senses of the local beach goers, we decided that the water was too cold for us to swim in. We spent most of our time sitting at a table under a big umbrella enjoying coconut and mate. In the later afternoon, we went back to the hotel where Richard rested and practiced his new instruments, while Barbara went to Museum Da Republica, where President Vargas shot himself to death in 1954, the suicide bedroom is in display with the bullet itself.
We waved goodbye to Rio in the morning to catch a flight to Iguacu Falls, where we rented a car and immediately drove out to the Argentina side of the river. After riding the park train to the end of the line, we got on the catwalk that goes all the way out to the middle of the river, right above where the water plunges down into the "Devil's Throat." The falls consists of 275 falls occupying an area three kilometers wide and 80 meters high. That's taller than Niagara and wider than Victoria. We idled around getting wet and taking pictures (photo, Devil's Throat and another view) til a park employee came to herd us back in time for the last return train. Crossing the border within one day is allowed without visa to Argentina, so we drove back to the Brazilian side and checked into our hotel in downtown Foz Iguacu.
We started out early after breakfast to go to the Brazilian side of the falls. Though it is smaller in size it offers a grander overview across the churning lower River Iguacu to the falls (photo, Iguacu Falls and another view). After riding the park bus to the observation tower, the walk around the falls gave us another cold shower (photo, wet). We saw dozens of the famous Iguacu butterflies (photo, butterfly). One of them even taking the refuge on Barbara's bag sitting on the bus seat (photo, another butterfly).
We finished our park tour just before noon and drove back to Argentina side again. There are a few trails we wanted to walk and also a boat that took us practically underneath the falls. This was not like being in a nice cold shower; we were in the center of a storm. The water falling is so powerful that we could not keep our eyes open. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Everybody got off the boat as wet as if they had been swimming in the river but we were happy and satisfied. We took last picture of our whole trip in Iguacu (photo, farewell Iguacu) and headed home late evening.