trip report: Brazil, March 2016 – Chapada Diamantina, Rio, Ilha Grande, and São Paulo

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There are places you go to because it’s a place you’ve always dreamed of going. There are places you go because your friend told you about their great experience. There are places you go for the pure aesthetic. There are places you go because buzzfeed made a list. But another major reason for traveling is certainly for travel’s sake. In this case, Brazil was the place we went to because we’ve never been and I wanted to get in on a mistake business class fare. The end result of that business class saga turned out to be a lot of headache and it lead to a lot of planning by the seat of our pants.

This style of traveling is much different that our typical planned out trips. Research helps to save money and time, but it also helps me to get a sense of what I need to prepare for. This is especially true when it comes to backcountry trekking where you are balancing, literally, what you need and what you don’t. During my attempt to research about trekking in brazil proved very difficult, including trying to find any trail maps online. So it was clear this trip would be without a direct plan, however this style of travel has many  of its own benefits. There is much more freedom to just go and immerse into the local culture. From that perspective, you see new things, try new things, meet new friends, and drinking a lot of caipirinhas.

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the decision

Brazil was not a destination in my plans, as I didn’t know of any treks before getting the tickets. These mistake fare tickets were the reason we were going. American Airlines had roundtrip business class tickets out of Brazil for about R$3200 for 2, which was about $700 USD. So I jumped on it booking a flight from Rio de Janeiro (GIG) to Charlotte (CLT) and back with the intent to using the first leg as a return flight and maybe take the return if we wanted another trip. We’ve never flown business class before so it was pretty exciting. After waiting, AA confirmed that they were honoring the tickets and my reservation was ticketed… or so we all thought. Seeing how the flight was a return flight, I used my Delta miles to booked 2 one-way flights for Meg and I since I couldn’t find the right availability on AA. The flight was to Salvador in Bahia, and I’ll get to that later.

After a month or so, reports popped up that AA was slowly canceling tickets from non-Brazilian residence. Unfortunately, my cancellation came shortly after as AA said they required either a Brazilian residence card or passport to honor the ticket. To rub salt in he wound, I ended up having to take a loss of US$70 because the Brazilian Real was in a nosedive and they took their sweet time refunding my money (3 month).

This last part ended up a plus for us because Brazil was much more affordable for us. Since I didn’t want to spend US$150 each to cancel my Delta award booking, I was left looking to find a flight back. With AA’s pre-devaluation of March 2016 off-season award pricing, I was able to find 2 tickets back from São Paulo (GRU) to Roanoke (ROA) for only 20k each ticket. That’s the story of how were going to Brazil.

As we crossed into the 2016 year, general prices from the US to Brazil were pretty low because of Brazil’s economy (around US$450-600 roundtrip). So our friends Kevin, Shannon, Mat, and Vrushali were able to join us for part of the trip.

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pre-trip research and planning

when, where, and what

So, this was pretty tough. We wanted to get out into nature, but didn’t have the time to head up for the amazon. Our total time was about 11.5 days in Brazil getting in during the afternoon of 3/3 and and flying out at night from São Paulo (GRU) on 3/14.

Googling about trekking and hiking in Brazil and reading Lonely Planet’s guide lead to a short list and, at that, very vague descriptions of each. Chapada Diamantina was one that I did see come up several times, so we decided that would be one of our destinations. Lonely Planet said there is a “grand circuit” and treks that would take 3 to 5 days (fyi: no one knows what grand circuit is there).  Chapada Diamantina is located not far from Rio and the timing recommended there fit with our plans to meeting up with our friends for the second half of our trip.

Rio de Janeiro was the main base where we were all gathering. It was going to be a touristy time there including the food, the redeemer, the beach, and the caipirinhas. Having been scuba certified together, Mat and Kevin were interested to look for some place to dive in. It seemed like there were a several different regions along the coast with diving. We decided on Ilha Grande for the combination of activities and decent diving. Also talked about was further south on the coast in the Ubatuba region and upcoast on toward the east in Arraial do Cabo. Kevin and Shannon did head out to Ubatuba for a few days because of the world-class bouldering.

We would all stay a couple of days in Rio de Janeiro and a few days on Ilha Grande. Lastly, Meg and I were going to have around half a day in São Paulo where we planned to fly out of GRU.

This was pretty much most of the planning we organize in terms of activities and what we were going to do. We went in thinking we’ll figure it out while there, so traveling in the less scripted kind of way.

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logistics

There were some basic logistical things to be aware of for travel to Brazil. Mainly, the basic checklist for any travel abroad.

Brazilian visa

The biggest organizational issues for everyone were getting visas. Unless you live in a major city with an embassy, mail-in service was probably the best. A tricky thing with these visas was that you had to go to a specific embassy for different region of residence. It ended costing me more since my residency isn’t in SWVA. However, it might be possible to a form of proof other than your driver’s license. Make sure you check with your agency. The cheapest in the DC region was allied passports, while I had to go through the Chicago embassy and Travisa. Meg’s passport got back within 2 weeks while mine took 3. This was a large cost for us but it’s good for 10 years.

A side note, travels to Brazil during the 2016 Olympics won’t require a visa.

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vaccinations and precautions

We recently got all our vaccinations updated, but there are some for brazil according to the CDC. For Bahia, malaria pill isn’t required, but we took some just in case since we were planning to go into the backcountry.

Lastly here in the states, we’ve been hearing a lot about Zika. Interestingly while we were there, there were not many conversation about Zika at all. We did bring plenty of mosquito repentant with DEET. There are bracelets that can even double as hair ties, though it’s harder to find ones with deet.

We still got bit here and there, but don’t think we got the Zika. Either way, we don’t plan on having babies soon.

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communication

I bought a TIM (pronounced CHim) sim card with the help of Victor in the tourist office at the Salvador airport. The cashiers at the pharmacy didn’t want to sell us the card initially, and it was the same case when we were reloading the card in our transit through the airport later on. After being insistent and with Victor’s help, we were able to purchases one. It cost us R$15 and we later added another R$20.

I was using my old unlocked IPhone5, so I had to manually cut the edge of the micro sim card to fit the nano slot. The scissors at the tourist office were very sharp and up to the job. Once that was done, you have to register the sim card with TIM by calling in to company. TIM has an English option and you’ll need your passport. The basic plan allowed 50mb of data and you can up that amount either by subscribing on a 7 day basis or paying for some more on that day. It’s probably not the best rate in Brazil, but it was nice pay as you go.

Here is more info about all the cell companies.

If i wasn’t on a family phone plan in the united states, I would have switched over to google fi. Kevin had it and was very pleased with the service. Here is a review from flight deal about it.

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money and credit cards

Most Brazilian merchants were ok with credit cards, of course certain small time places were not. There are also certain places that are cheaper if you use cash, for instance the dive shops on Ilha Grande. This is because there are no ATMs on Ilha Grande, so cash is at a premium. Remember to have some on you before you head to the island.

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itinerary and air travel

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Our basic travel itinerary is as shown above with more detail pricing in the final budget. I used a total of 60k Delta miles and US$32.22 to book 2 one-way flights from ROA to Salvador, Brazil (SSA). From SSA, we had to make our way to the main bus station (Rodoviária) as explain here by amobr82. There are several buses through the day run by Real Expresso that travel to Lençóis, where most base their exploration of Chapada Diamantina. The two night bus tickets would cost us around R$200 total. For all the bus planning, rome2rio.com is a good resource to help out local bus transportation.

To meet up with our friends in Rio de Janeiro, I decided to just book a fight out from Lençóis (LEC) rather than bus back to SSA. The flight from LEC connected to SSA anyways and including that segment to our total flights with Azul Airlines to Rio was only slightly more expensive than the bus option. Also luckily for us, the flight from LEC to SSA only runs once a week on Wednesdays and it fit our schedule perfectly. Skyscanner was the useful resource to search for flights involving budget airlines and it connected me with tripsta to buy my tickets for US$230.88.

After meeting up with our friends and spending some time in Rio, we planned to make our way toward Ilha Grande. From there we would go our separate ways as we would head to São Paulo to catch our flight out.

From the Rio bus station, it was R$108 to reach Conceição de Jacareí by a Costa Verde bus and another R$70 for a speedboat to the main town on Ilha Grande, Abraão. We bought both tickets can be bought on location. Angra dos Reis is another place to reach the island, but it’s a longer bus ride from Rio. When Meg and I left our friends to head to São Paulo, we headed to Angra dos Reis via speedboat because it was a bigger city with buses running to São Paulo operated by Reunidas. It is the most direct bus, but we ended having to take an alternative to Sao Paolo through Barra Mansa on Util and Cometa.

Our flight from São Paulo back to ROA was an American Airlines award booking costing me 40k AA miles and US$120.68 in taxes and fees total for 2 tickets. This was before AA devalued their miles recently removing offseason discounted fights to the southern region of South America. We also did have to take a shuttle that cost US$30 total for Meg and I to go from LaGuardia to JFK, but that was the only flight routing available.

Again, we didn’t do much planning activity wise as we decided to just see how thing were on the ground. The lack of information online really made actually planning anything difficult. Plus, my schedule has been very hectic with teaching a class this term so I didn’t really have much time to research intensively.

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equipment

Packing this time was a mad scramble as I was busy until 3 hours before my flight. I was literally throwing things together to the last second. I didn’t know exactly what we were doing, so it made it hard to anticipate what we needed. We packed the regular trekking equipment including tent, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, and the rest of our backcountry equipment. For shoes, we had our trail runners and gaiters in case of rainy and muddy trekking. This reflected about much I knew about where we were going. I did have my Chacos, which ended up being the only shoes I needed. We also had our scuba masks, camera equipment, and laptops for the flights and bus rides. In the end both Meg and I had our backpacking packs as checked bags and my Dell travel pack to carry on.

I’d say we were a very over packed as you could have easier got away with a carryon for what we ended up doing. Though if you were intending to do Chapada Diamantina without a guide, I’d say we were only slightly over packed. More on that later.

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trip report

pre-trip transit

We had an evening flight out of Roanoke (ROA) to connect us with the red-eye from Atlanta (ATL) to São Paulo (GRU). What made this trip different was that we didn’t need to pack food for the transit ahead of time as we had lounge access.

The bloggers out there are very high on the Citi Prestige and I am starting to see why. It comes with Admiral Lounge Access for when you are traveling AA stock and Priority Pass whenever you are not, both allow access for 2 companions also. So we were able to enjoy some sandwiches, soup, and drinks in the Club at ATL for free.

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Unfortunately, we didn’t have access to the lounges in the domestic terminals 2 during our layover at GRU, but they did have these awesome bubble seats that allowed us to catch up on some sleep. Our last flight into Salvador (SSA) was on GOL airlines and was uneventful and we continued napping our way across the world.

After getting our bags in SSA, Victor as the tourist office helped us get our bearings with getting a sim card (see logistics) to confirming how to get to the Rodoviária. He told us of a few options, including the taxi (~R$60), minibus (~R$40), and the actual bus (~R$3). Having some time, we decided to go for the bus option since it was the cheapest. However, we were marked as gringos right away as we walked to the bus stop. One of the taxi drivers was very persistent and we were hungry as it was the late afternoon, so we ended up going with the taxi. We were able to able to barter for a cheaper flat fee of just R$50. The ride was about 30-40 minutes with heavy traffic as we got closer.

The Real Expresso booth was on the second floor at the Rodoviária

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and we bought the night bus so we could get some food and save on hotel for the night. The tickets were about R$200 total for the both of us. Afterwards, we took the cross walk from the Rodoviária to a huge mall with a food court (actually there were 2 different food courts) for dinner. This is where we saw that a lot of Brazilian restaurants were by the weight buffets. You’d take a plate and just fill up with what you’d like and you pay based on a per kg cost.

After talking around the mall for an hour or so, as Meg likes to look at fashion from different places, we headed back to the bus stop. Protip, use the bathrooms at the mall because it cost money in the Rodoviária. At Salvador’s Rodoviária, they give you a couple of passes to check into a gated section of the compound where the buses are parked. The bathrooms are free once you get into the gated area also. We boarded our bus around 11pm and planned to fall asleep right away.

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That was easier said then done as it was a bumpy ride because of poor roads to Lençóis that not the comfortable seats could help.

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Chapada Diamantina

We pulled up into Lençóis at 4am in the morning, a whole hour earlier than we were scheduled. This was unfortunate as we were expecting another hour of sleep. We filed off the bus half asleep with the other tourists just outside of town in the middle of the night.

The guides and stores in the middle of the town doesn’t open until 8am, so we had some time to kill. There were some locals at the bus stop trying to sell rooms in their hotel, but most didn’t speak English, except Lucas. He offered us a room for the rest of the night at the hostel he worked at called Doce Lar and breakfast for R$30 each. Being still half asleep and being able take advantage of someone that spoke English, we agreed and were able to get another few hours of sleep. The hostel was decent, but there wasn’t any air-conditioning which made it more difficult to fall asleep. There was also limited wifi in the common area that we could get a signal part of the time.

In the morning at breakfast we started to get a better understanding of how the tourism works in Lençóis. The park itself is very large and there really isn’t any infrastructure like there are in US national parks. In fact, many of the attractions are actually outside of the national park itself and run by the locals that maintain the area. Secondly, the distance between a lot of these attractions are very far apart and takes a while to drive to. However with many of the attractions, the hiking required at each place was a mile or so to none at all. Lastly, many of them are rather difficult to access as there is usually a lack of paved roads that lead to them. On this last point, my theory is that they could pave the roads, but it would just make each of these places easier to access and thus lower the demand of the tour companies.

There are several opportunities to trek and the main trek is Pati Valley or Vale do Pati. The many companies and guides have treks from 3 to 5 days with the standard being 3 days. Most had no idea what lonely planet’s “grand circuit” was. The trails can indeed walked in a loop fashion, but most of the companies will only know the treks in term of the number of days.

So, given the limited number of days, it came down to balancing the number of attractions we could see versus the amount we wanted to hike. We ended up deciding on a couple day trips and try to do a 3 day trek of Vale do Pati to get the most out of our days there. This website was probably the best that described the different day trips, short hikes, and trek options that I found. This is mainly because they provided the topo maps that can help you if you wanted to do things yourself. I’ll have more on that in the final impressions of this section. The Brazilian prices on their updated site are very competitive to what we found on the ground.

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Chapada Diamantina day 1: tour number 1

Lucas was able to set up the first day trip for us through H20 adventures that operated out of a hostel. It was R$200 for each of us and we were set to visit 3 locations. Tony was our guide for this day and he spoke English.

trail information

  • name: Gruta da Lapa Doce
  • type: loop
  • distance: ?
  • elevation change: ?
  • time: 2 hours depending on tour group
  • location: Chapada Diamantina, Bahia, Brazil
  • You will be accompanied by a local guide and given a flashlight. There is a cost around R$20.

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Our first stop was Lapa Doce, which is a series of caves. There is an entrance fee here, but covered by our tour. We started directly on top of the cave and had to make our way around. The tour we joined had a group on an overland tour across the entirety of South America. This was their second overland tour for a few of them as they had done one around Africa before.

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We had just arrived after the rain season, so there was plenty of green around. Normally everything would be reddish brown according to our guide Tony. Like the color of these cool striated rocks.

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After a quick downhill we reached the entrance to the cave.

With flashlights on, we continued into the cave while being careful to step on any forming stalagmites.

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My favorite in the cave was the naturally forming pools but there were also plenty cool stalagmites and stalactites.

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Some even made me giggle, ok a lot did.

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ratings (1-5)

  • view: 2.5. Intersting caves, something you can skip if you don’t have the time
  • difficulty: 1. Uphill near the end
  • technical: 1. It was guided.

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After exiting the cave, we had lunch at the restaurant where cactus was indeed in the buffet. The cost of the lunch was included in the tour cost, but not the price of drinks.

trail information

  • name: Poço do Diabo
  • type: in and out
  • distance: 1.3 mi total
  • elevation change: 287 ft descend
  • time: 2 hours, depending on the amount of time spent swimming
  • location: Chapada Diamantina, Bahia, Brazil
  • bring a swimsuit.

After lunch it was time to cool off. Mr. lizard also agrees.

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This was the only attraction we went to that was right by the road and not through a stretch of very poorly maintained dirt road.

We had a quick hike along the river, before we reached the top of the falls leading to “Devil’s Pool”.

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As you notice the color in the water here is brown and there are a couple of explanations I’ve heard. The first is that the color is from the local plants that dye it brown. Specifically, it’s like tea or tannins in wine. The secondly, it is rich in minerals. The locals will drink the water, so either ways it is harmless.

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One interesting quality of the water is less buoyant that normal water, so you have to spend a little more effort treading water.

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There is a rope leading up to the waterfall so you can hang out behind the falls or swim around the side were there are rocks you can walk on.

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One the way to the pool, there is another swimming hole with a local bar built next to it should you want a beer while dipping in the water.

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ratings (1-5)

  • view: 2.5. Nice pool to swim around in with some good views as you walk down the river. There are a lot of similar rivers and streams in this area, so its ok to miss this.
  • difficulty: 1.
  • technical: 1. It was guided, otherwise navigation my the river might be more difficult.

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After cooling off in the pool. There was one last stop on tour number 1.

trail information

  • name: Morro do Pai Inácio
  • type: in and out
  • distance: 0.9 mi total
  • elevation change: 372ft ascend
  • time: 30 minutes to 1 hours
  • location: Chapada Diamantina, Bahia, Brazil

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Our last stop was on top of one of the outcrop of rocks.

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After a quick uphill with some minor scrambling, we were able to get some nice shots of the valleys.

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It’s a nice outlook to get a full sense of what’s left of these very old mountains.

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ratings (1-5)

  • view: 3. This is cool outlook and can give you a good sense of the geology of the area. Tony said this was close to Vale do Pati.
  • difficulty: 1.5. Straight uphill with a little scrambling at the end.
  • technical: 1. It was guided with a clear

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As the sunset we headed back to Lençóis and were dropped off by our hostel.

This is the typical tour number 1 at most companies. I thought it was a good mix of walking around a relaxing. It did involve about a hour drive between each attraction which can be a little tiring, but this was light driving in comparison to the other tours. For us, I think this was a good first day’s worth of activity to recover from a full day and half of traveling. It also allowed us to explore the town a little afterwards and talk to some of the tour companies in town to figure out the rest of our time in Chapada Diamantina.

After a shower we wondering around the central part of Lençóis for food and check out a few of the tour companies about doing Vale do Pati. The center of Lençóis is full of restaurants and tour companies. All the streets were cobblestone and there are houses of all colors. I think people project a little more romanticism on these small towns when they are vacationing, as I thought it was a pretty typical.

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Strange to me, there were a lot of restaurants offering pizza. Seems like it’s what they thing the tourists look for. We decided to eat at Adrenaline Trekk Bar e Restaurante, which wasn’t the best or the cheapest restaurant in Lençóis. It did have a good atmosphere the street and good fried cheeseballs.

Afterwards, we tried to talk to a few different tour companies as our lack of Portuguese made the task more difficult. The ones that did speak some English gave us quotes that were a little more than we wanted to pay. Talking to others on we met on our trek, a 3 day Vale do Pati trek should cost around R$900 a person with some finding as low as R$750. Granted, these are with a guide and barely carrying anything. Again, I’ll talk about the possibility of doing it without support later.

When then we came across Luan at Volta Ao Parque. He didn’t speak English, but German worked for us. He told us that there was another couple planning to trek Vale do Pati the day after and they did speak English, so it was nice to be able to have some communication in English in case. The price he quoted us was R$850 a person, which was very competitive. So with our plans set, we headed back to our hostel to get our first full night sleep on the trip.

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Chapada Diamantina days 2-4: Vale do Pati

Trail information

  • name: Vale do Pati – 3 day
  • type: multiday in and out trek
  • distance: 27.7 mi total
  • elevation change: 7292ft
  • time: 3 days (25.5 hours total hiking)
  • location: Chapada Diamantina, Bahia, Brazil

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Vale do Pati day 1: Guiné to Pousada do Joao with Cachoeira dos Funis

We woke up early the next morning to pack up what we needed for the trek and put the rest of our equipment into storage at our hostel. Since we didn’t need most of backpacking equipment, we only took the camera equipment, batteries, phones, a set of clean camp cloth, toilettes, snacks, swim wear, hard-shells, and bottles for 4 liters of water. Meg had her fleece because she thought she gets cold. After breakfast, we were picked up by Luan and met our new friends Natália and Guilherme from São Paulo.

In Lençóis, similar to how it was in Lombok, the guides all know each other and even though they compete for business with each other, they all work together in guiding and coordinate in their trip planning. So we were joined by more friends and their guide Jah Jah. The rest of the group included Christoph, Gabriela, Clebio (who didn’t speak English, but was quick with the Cachaça), Rui (which we call Ronaldo because of the jersey he wore), and Paola.

The ride out to the trailhead was a good 2-3 hours with more than half on very bumpy dirt roads. After a pit stop in Guiné, we were at the trailhead around 11am. Since I barely had anything in my Osprey Aether 70 pack, Jah Jah decided he’d fill it up with food and use it rather than his own pack. I offered to share carrying it, but he wouldn’t have it. I did feel bad for Jah Jah, but also wasn’t going to complain as it was much hotter and more humid then I was use to here in the Virginia winter.

Much of our drive into Guiné and the trailhead, the mountains stood like a wall to our east. It felt like something out of Game of Thrones.

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The first portion of our trek was to get through that wall. There was rarely cover as we worked our way up for 45 minutes to the pass.

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From there it was a slight descent from the pass through a mixture of rocky and very sandy terrain on the plateau until we reached some pools of water

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and Rio Preto, though it was more like a stream.

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After a quick rest and cooling off in the stream, we continued on through some open space

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until we reached the Vale do Pati view. It was a perfect spot for lunch

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and a nap.

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Afterwards, it was a steep down to the Pousada do Joao, our home for the next 2 nights. By steep, I mean we went down that wall we were sitting on directly to the bottom. The pousada has a few different rooms with bunk beds, a room with a double bed, or just a room with mattress on the floor. We were ok with the ladder seeing how we carried nothing the entire day.

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With a few hours before sunset, we dropped off our things in our room and headed for a waterfall. Also by dropping, I literally dropped by Sony a6000 and got the dreaded lens error. So I’m 2 for 2 with that camera not working in my South America trips.

The hike to Cachoeira Dos Funis was a pretty awesome on as we make our way along the river with some scrambling at places.

The views here were some of my favorite on the trip. After 45 minutes, we were came to this.

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There is nothing more relaxing then sitting under a waterfall after a hot day of hiking. The water coming down had some force and provided a nice massage. We all had a blast swimming around the pool.

After a nice diner by Luan and Jah Jah, we were treated to some Capoeira music with a couple of berimbau instruments around a fire.

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Surprisingly, the temperature was pretty cool at night providing us with a good night sleep.

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Vale do Pati day 2: Morro Do Castelo

We woke up on the second day to fog and a little drizzle. The second day was the hardest with the most elevation change and the humidity wasn’t going to be my friend today.

Hiking began with a short up and down with groves of purple flower all around us.

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After a quick stop at Pousada Do Seu Wilson, we crossed the river and started heading straight up. It’s safe to say, I was pretty drenched on the 1400 ft ascend in 1 mile.

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A hour climb later, we reached the mouth of the massive cave called, Gruta Do Morro Castelo. We took some time to relax here and wait for the clouds to lift before continuing though the cave to the other side. A few of the Brazilian girls decided to do some yoga and I’ll just leave it at that.

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After the cave,

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it was a good stretch of scrambling downward to reach a jaw dropping view of the valley.

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After some pictures

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and a nap for Luan and Jah Jah,

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We scrambled back and then upwards to the top of Morro Do Castelo for more shots of the valley.

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Back through the cave we retraced our steps and then it was that 1400 ft descend in 1 mile that stood between lunch and us. My knees were not happy, but it’s worth it for views like this.

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Through the entire up and down, I ended up sweating out so much salt that I later found them crystalized under my clothes. I was pretty beat and sitting with my foot in the river was one of the best feelings. Lunch and a pop by the river helped too.

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Half of our group decided a trip back to the waterfall would be very welcoming. Luan on the other hand decided that for us to enjoy the waterfall, we’d need to earn it.

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So we sped hiked up a hill and along the river bootcamp style passing another group who though we were seriously mental (as the British girl from the other group would say). To their comments, Luan laughed.

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It was all worth it at the end.

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Vale do Pati day 3: Pousada Do Joao to Cachoeirão do Vale do Pati to Guiné

On the last day, we retraced our steps back out to the trailhead near Guiné with a side trip to the Cachoeirão do Vale do Pati

Our day started with an uphill back onto the cliffs, but not the save route we took down. Instead we continued along the wall as the valley floor gradually ascended and met up with the end of the wall itself. From there we dropped our packs and headed for the falls. Getting there involved first walking across the plateau with a good amount of sand and then on large stretch of solid rock with random divots in them. Even though there were no markers on the trails we’ve walked up to this point, we didn’t really need any as the trail was clear. It was here where we first saw arrows drawn into the rock to point you into the right direction.

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At our destination, there were 2 views where you can see into the valley and where the waterfall would have been.

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There was also an outcropped rock at the first viewpoint what definitely elevated my balls.

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We relaxed at the second viewpoint while Luan and Jah Jah got our lunch ready.

For our lunch, we were even able enjoyed a live band.

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They were a group of hippies that met up and in Lençóis and started to just hike the park themselves, instrument and all.

The rest of the way back was during the hottest part of the day with the sun beaming down on us. At this point, I really wished we brought both hiking umbrellas.

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We were all happy to see a local guy selling frozen fruit juice at that first viewpoint where we had lunch on the first day. We were also very happy to reach Rio Preto and splash around in it’s brown waters.

We were back at the trailhead following on last gradual up and a final down. These few days was where Chacos became my favorite hiking shoes.

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Christoph looks like he’s ready to do it again.

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ratings (1-5)

  • view: 4. Based on overlooking views by themselves, I probably would have given it a 3.5. However, the thing about Vale do Pati that really brings it up to a place I’ve want to come back to are the hikes along the rivers. The activities that’s possible here such as swimming, scrambling, and possibility climbing, which I don’t have a specific category for, cements the 4 rating for me.
  • difficulty: 1.5. It would be probably 2 if you had a full pack. The overall endurance needed was more for the heat and sun. The hardest day was day 2 with the steep elevation change and humidity, but that’s with a day pack.
  • technical: 1-2.5. With a guide, it was clearly a 1. It is doable without a guide but good map skills are needed. See my impressions below.

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After a long ride back to Lençóis and a long shower, we met up with Luan at his favorite drinking spot overlooking the main square on the other side of the river. I can see why with R$5 boozy capharinias and small eats from the stands set up there.

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That was followed up with a big diner at Grisante where the Sol de Carne was good and… the Liver was interesting.

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Chapada Diamantina day 5: Poço Encantado and Poço Azul

Day 5 was the one full day left with our flight around midday one Day 6. I had seen a couple of blue underground pools online, so I did want to visit them. Secondly, Natália and Guilherme told us that the best food they had while in Chapada Diamantina was at the farmhouse near Mosquito Falls, which was near the airport. So we negotiated with Luan, eventually having to use another company for leverage, for a deal where they’d setup a tour of the blue pools on day 5 and take us to Mosquito Falls before we had our plane to fly out for R$450 each. Probably not the best price, but I was very ready for bed the night before.

There are 2 underground pools in the area for tourism. The first is Poço Encantado, or Enchanted pool. It took around 3 hours to reach Poço Encantado as sitting in a car was the majority of the day. We had to pass through the town of Andaraí on the way and again endure a large stretch of dirt roads, which used to be paved.

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To get to the Enchanted pool, it’s a short but steep walk down some steps to the mouth of the cave and then a few more into the cave.

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You come to the enchanted pool and it’s blue water. The tour guide said it was a combination of minerals illuminated by the light that makes the color.

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The water in the Enchanted Pool doesn’t cycle very fast, so no swimming is allowed in it anymore.

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After climbing up the steps, it was another couple hours of car ride and more dirt roads before reaching Poço Azul or Blue Pool. There is a restaurant here with where we had lunch while waiting our turn to see and swim in Poço Azul. Before we headed down, we had to rinse ourselves off to prevent contaminating the pool with bug spray and sunscreen.

The water in the pool was indeed very clear and we caught the last of the sunbeam in the water.

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The water was very deep at some points to where you felt like you were staring in the abyss even with so much visibility.

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I can see why Scott, our local divemaster loves cave diving.

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After 15 minutes of swimming around, our time was up and we were in the car again heading back to Lençóis. Overall, it was a lot of driving for maybe an hour of cool views. At least it was a slow and relaxing day for us after 3 days of hiking. We were able to spend a easy night in Lençóis and drink more caprahinias.

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ratings (1-5)

  • view: 3. The pools were cool, but not for the sole purpose of visiting them.
  • difficulty: 1.
  • technical: 1. It is definitely possible see these places yourselves, but you have to make sure your car can handle the horrible dirt roads.

If you want to drive to these places yourself, be aware of the best time for the pools change depending on the time of year because the time the sunlight hits the water changes. At each of pool, there is an entrance fee that was covered by our tour company. I’ll talk a little bit more about what I would do if I were to come back in my final impressions.

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Chapada Diamantina day 6: Cachoeira do Mosquito

On our last morning to Lençóis, we left early so we can head to Mosquito Falls before our plane ride. We ended up paying R$400 for the 3.5 nights at the hostel. Mosquito Falls was on our way to the airport with a 30 minute detour on another dirt road. The 2 things I heard about why it’s called Mosquito Falls was because of the Mosquito diamonds they found here and that is was a small falls, but the locals spent a lot of money on it. Both could be true indeed.

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We stopped briefly at the overlook of the falls before hiking about 15 minutes to the falls itself.

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It was much more intense that it looked from underneath.

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You could really feel the force of the water coming down.

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After another shower under the falls and some time relaxing, we headed back up and to the farm house were we did indeed have our best meal in Lençóis. Meg really liked the carne de sol here and I though the stewed lamb was perfect.

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ratings (1-5)

  • view: 3. The falls were pretty epic looking at the bottom and it did pack a punch. The food at the farmhouse may have boosted this up from a 2.5.
  • difficulty: 1.
  • technical: 1.

After a couple of beers with Luan we were on our way to the Lençóis airport, which comprised on 1 building with a room to check in, a room pass security to board, and a room for arrival.

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With that, we bid farewell to Chapada Diamantina on a propeller plane.

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Chapada Diamantina final impressions

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National Parks in Brazil don’t have the same protection and support from the government compared to national parks in the United States. However, it isn’t needed as much because the locals fully utilizes the benefits of the national park to support their livelihoods. Chapada Diamantina use to be a region supported by diamond mining, but now it’s 95% supported on tourism. As such, the locals take it on themselves to preserve the natural habitat they do have, but at the same time it is important for them to take advantage of it to make a living. With Brazilian Real in a free fall, Lençóis actually haven’t had an issue at all. In fact, what was a seasonal tourism industry is now year around because foreigners are able to visit much easier. Majority of tourism (60%) come from foreigners. The caveat being there are not many Americans, we only met 1 during our entire time and he was part of the overland group. So knowing some Portuguese or another language is very useful there.

With tourism being their major source of income, it is understandable why they are very discouraging, and sometime are hostile to, independent trekking trips into the park. Furthermore, most of the roads leading to tourist sites are unpaved dirt roads. Some like the road to Enchanted Azul appears to have been paved at one point but purposely disrupted. This seemingly purposeful neglect of infrastructure is in part how the locals prevent individuals from doing things themselves, or at least makes it more difficult to. From a business standpoint, it’s how they make a living. The price we were able to negotiate worked for us because of the strength of the dollar at the time of our visit (close to R$3.75 to US$1). Going through a company would have been much harder just a year ago when it would have been twice the cost.

That being said, it is very possible to trek into Pati Valley and to visit many of the sites without going through a company or with the use of a guide. But it is a lot harder and it definitely takes more knowledge of the place than what you can find online. Even the lonely planet guidebooks are a bit outdated to some extent.

For any independent trekking, you need to be aware of the season you are hiking in. There is a rainy season and a dry season where it is prone to fires. The guides made a strong example of a hiker that went missing in the mountains during the dry season.

Secondly, you will definitely need good map skills or a gps. There are two maps you can buy from the outfitter in the center of Lençóis, but the maps are a little outdated and will not have all the sites of interest (I will have the smaller of the 2 available here soon). I would recommend downloading an Openstreetmap version of brazil and then mark specific locations of sites you need to know. The trails in Pati Valley are mostly well worn but there are no signs regarding directions or locations of anything. There are minimal trail markers so you need to be able to navigate without them. The hippy group we meet on our last day said it was very easy to get lost west of Andaraí and east of the more walked main 3 day trek area. Water is readily available at the pousadas with some food, but otherwise assume full backcountry gear and supplies are needed.

The third main issue is getting to and from the trailheads. There is car rental possible, but it might just be easier to hire a car to drop you off and pick you up at certain places. The dirt road that you need to access for certain trailheads can be problematic and the best way to see the park maybe to design through hike (i.e. Lençóis to Andaraí or Guiné to Andaraí or Vale Do Capão to Andaraí).

As for hitting the rest of the sites, it might be better not to base out of Lençóis since some of the best sites are pretty far. These include the Poço Azul, Poço Enchante, and Cachoeira da Fumacinha. The last of which is a 5 hour car drive to get to the location from Lençóis. The best way might be to go from town to town and do things around each area. This specific plan may require a long time in the region, especially if you plan to backpack Vale do Pati also. If you are limited on time, hiring a guide and basing out of Lençóis might be the best option.

If there is one thing I’d say is a must do in Chapada Diamantina, it is the Vale do Pati.

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Rio de Janeiro

Our flight to Rio de Janeiro was on Azul Airlines with a stop in Salvador (SSA) and Belo Horizonte (CNF) before a night landing at in Rio De Janeiro’s Santos Dumont Airport (SDU). Azul’s flights were all very new and they gave you plenty of snacks on each leg. As we approached SDU for landing, we flew by Christ the Redeemer all lit up on top of a completely dark mountain, a nice entrance.

We arrived pretty late that night so taxi it was to the Airbnb where our friends were pretty far along in the partying process. One thing to be careful of for taxis are that the are on the correct fare rate. It’s a good way to pay the gringo tax if you are not careful. Uber isn’t technically allowed in Rio, but they are also around. Taxis Rio are pretty reasonable making it much more competitive with Uber’s pricings. It cost us about R$50

Our Airbnb was in Ipanema and it was perfect for us, being 3 couples. Joana was very helpful with recommendations and very easy to communicate with in term of our arrival and departure. She also was able to hold bags for our friends while we visited Ilha Grande. After a full day of travel and a few drinks with our friends, we were ready for bed.

The next day we did the touristy thing and headed up to Christ the Redeemer. We ended up taking 2 taxies between the 6 of us, which was about R$25 each way, to Corcovado train station. There it was R$46 per person for a roundtrip in a very hot trolley to the top of the mountain. There are some alternative ways to reach the redeemer.

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At the top, there were a couple of overpriced restaurants and a lot of tourists. If you were looking for a place to photobomb people, this would be the place. Overall, it was nice to be up there and you do get to Rio from high up.

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By the time we were back at the train station, we were pretty starving. We taxied back to our Airbnb and headed out for food. Being in Brazil, we had to visit a steakhouse and Carretão Churrascaria in Ipanema was recommended to us for its fair price and good steak.

Yep, we were thoroughly stuffed with high quality beef.

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The “salad” bar was not too shabby either. It helped we were practically the only people in the place at 3 in the afternoon whereas it is usually very busy supposedly. This place met our expectations and rivaled Foco de chaco and Texas de Brazil back in the states less. This was including the many drinks and desert that we normally wouldn’t get back home.

We ended the day with a couple of stores Meg wanted to check out and then some time at the beach.

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The caipirinhas continued as we headed back to the apartment for a chilled night. Overall, it was a pretty touristy day in Rio but it with friends, it was a lot of fun.

The next day, we had a big breakfast at eatery right on the corner of our apartment as we had another day of traveling in front of us to Ilha Grande. The taxi to the Rio Rodoviária was about 45 minutes and R$45. Rio Rodoviária was much larger and it can take a little bit of time to find the right bus line.

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As planned, it was R$108 for 2 tickets to reach Conceição de Jacareí by a Costa Verde bus.

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Ilha Grande

After a 2 hour bus ride to Conceição de Jacareí, we took the local speedboat to the main town of Abraão on Ilha Grande for R$70. Make sure you use the ATM before you head to the island because there aren’t any ATMs on the island itself. It can potentially save you some money with local operators, though most do accept credit cards. While on the speedboat, we saw a couple of dolphins playing around in the bay. That was exciting for the diving to come.

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Our Airbnb for our time on Ilha Grande was located on Bica Beach, which was several beaches to the east of Abraão and took about 25 minutes to walk. It was a pretty minimalistic apartment, but cheap and had air conditioning. We had a downstairs common area and a room upstairs where all the beds were located.

After settling in we headed back to Abraão for dinner and to plan our diving. Abraão is pretty typical touristy beach town with so-so restaurants and a lot of people trying to sell you drinks. We found that the restaurants were cheaper and better as you got a few steps away from the beach, but they can be variable too depending on what they had in stock. One place I would say to avoid is the Kebab Lounge where you’ll spend a long time waiting for pretty bad food. The best place was Padaria e Pizzaria Pães e Cia, which was good for breakfast with their pastries.

There were 3 diving companies in Abraão, Elite Dive CenterDive & CIA, and a company I think called Abudefduf that’s located here. Dive & CIA was open during the afternoon, but they were fully booked already. They told us to check out Elite Dive Center which opens at 6pm. Dive & CIA and Elite Dive Centers share the same rates and they seem to work with each other. They said they didn’t like the third company. There sounded like another company that is pretty sketch based on stuff online, so be careful. Elite Dive Center is a PADI dive center operated by an Argentinian group with Daniel Gouvea as the master diver. Our guide was Paula Presta and the plan was for 2 dives the following day depending on the sea levels. The cost was R$250 each person, with R$100 deposit. It was more expensive to use credit card, but we were able to scrounge enough cash together. The price included all the gear, drinks, snacks, and guide for the next day.

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After a few more drinks hanging out in Abraão, we headed back to get a good night sleep before our 7am wakeup and 8am charter.

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dive 1: Ponta do Alvo

Our first dive was a Ponta do Alvo. This wasn’t a very deep area as our maximum depth was 10 meters and our total dive time was about 40 minutes. We got to the site around 9:30am and stayed until 10:30. We were dropped off on the west side of the point and swam north and east along the coast with the current. Visibility was very good and the water was warm until you hit the first thermocline, where it was a huge drop in temperature.

This area of Brazil isn’t known for its reefs but this dive spot had a lot of critters. Right off the bat we were greeted by a sea turtle

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and we followed him for a while.

Afterwards, we saw some crabs,

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seahorses,

a large puffer fish,

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and “fake flyer” fish.

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On the way back, we must have scared another puffer fish enough that it blew up.

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dive 2: Pinguino wreck

Our second dive was the Pinguino Wreck.

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Its located just east of our first dive site, but there was no buoy on the surface to mark it. Our dive guide jumped in to search for the line to tie the boat to it. The Pinguino was a natural wreck that took place when the boat caught on fire from mechanical issues and was refused a dock from the harbor. So it went back out to sea where it sunk and then turned on its side.

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The top of the ship was at 7 meters while ocean floor was at 20 meters. Our maximum depth was about 15 meters and we spent 30 minutes bottoms time. The visibility was lower for this dive storm clouds were starting to block out the sun. Because the wreck wasn’t near the coast, it was cooler. The first thermocline definitely sent a shiver through me and I understood why they gave us heavy wetsuits. Meg was happy she one with a headpiece.

The wreck didn’t have much sea life, but had more then enough cool features. In one of its holds, air bubbles from scuba divers were trapped and formed a small airspace.

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Secondly, there were hug holes on the side of the boat that you could swim through. It was good practice staying streamlined.

On the top side of the boat, we did see a squid hiding out.

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As a wreck, it doesn’t compare to the Duane or the Speigel Grove in the keys, but it was cool nonetheless.

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ratings (1-5)

  • view: 3. The two dive did provide us with a good amount of sea life and adventure in the form of the Pinguino wreck even though we didn’t see a dolphin. So it’s worth doing if you are here,  but I wouldn’t just travel just for it though.
  • technical: The visibility was good at both sites and neither were deep so there is not much beyond basic open water training. There was a current at Ponta do Alvo.

There is another dive spot at Ilha de Jorge Grego on the ocean side of Ilha Grande. The sites south of the island provide more wrecks and larger sea life, but are harder to get to because of the waves.

Shortly after we returned to our apartment after lunner, the storm we saw looming to the west finally rolled in and dumped on us. It didn’t stop us from drinking and napping and more drinking in town after the rains stopped.

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beach day at Lopes Mendes

The next day was Meg and my last day on the island as we decided to catch the night bus to São Paolo instead of traveling our final day for our red-eye flight home. This provided us with some flexibility in case of bus issues. Furthermore, our new friends Natália and Guilherme, who were from São Paolo, built us a perfect day there. It also helped to save some money on housing as we took the night bus.

Not having spent a lot of time on the beach, our friends indulged us as we headed for the famous Carlos Mendes Beach. To conserve time, we ended up taking the boat from Abraão over to Pouso Beach, the cost was R$30 a person roundtrip. You can hike on the T10 trail as an alternative and it takes around 2 to 3 hours. From Pouso Beach, it’s a short hike over a hill to the beaches on the ocean side. Just after the top of the hill, there is an intersection where you can head over to the smaller and secluded Santo Antonio Beach. Be aware there are tons of mosquitos and ants on the trail, both bite. Along the way, you’ll also see small sagui monkeys that are use to begging for food from the beach goers.

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When the trail splits again, take the left trail as the right one will head toward the prison ruins, which is a more serious hike. As the link specifies, you can also hike there directly from Abraão on an easier dirt road. From Cândido Mendes prison, the taxi boat guy there will sometimes run over to Carlos Mendes Beach if you want to make a loop out of it.

After jumping over a small stream and quickly pass a pile of collected garbage,

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you are at your very own semi-private beach.

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The waves were coming in strong while we were there.

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To the left of the beach there were some large boulders that Kevin and Shannon were exploring.

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Continue further along the rocks to the east and you’ll come to see Carlos Mendes Beach, but a steep drop off separates the two beaches.

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To head over to Carlos Mendes, we followed the trail back to the first intersection and took the other route. I can see why Carlos Mendes is rated so high by others as it is a large sprawl of flat sand.

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Additionally, the waves here were pretty intense with plenty of surfers. We rented a boogie board from a local stand and had some fun with the high waves. Do watch out for the rip tides and it took Mat and I out a bit far at one point. Fortunately we were able to ride the waves in after a few minutes.

ratings (1-5)

  • view: 3. Good beaches and there are a few monkeys to see along the way. Would be higher if you are a surfer or more of a beach person.
  • difficulty: 1.
  • technical: 1.

We took an afternoon boat back to Abraão and had lunner with everyone before taking a speedboat to Angra dos Reis. It was great to travel with Mat, Vru, Kevin, and Shannon and we all agreed that we needed more time together and spend more time at each place for the next trip.

The speedboat was R$70 for 2 tickets and took about 45 minutes to reach the mainland again. From the docks at Angra dos Reis, we had to walk to the bus station following the coast and heading east. It took us about 30 minutes to the small bus station where thankfully there was an ATM.

Our original plan was to take the Reunidas Paulista overnight bus that leaves at 10pm directly for São Paolo. On Sundays, Reunidas Paulista operates two overnight buses together so we thought we wouldn’t have problems securing seats, we were wrong. The good news was that we were at the bus station early and through broken Portuguese, we were able to work out a route from Angra dos Reis to Barra Mansa via a local Onibus route operated by util and then a night bus that left at midnight from Barra Mansa to São Paolo via Cometa. We tried to get some sleep on the first Util bus as it was about a 2 hour ride, but it was a tough ride with many curves and bumpy road through the tunnels to cross the costal mountains. After killing a couple hours in Barra Mansa, we were aboard the Cometa night bus. The bus itself was nice and smooth as it was on the expressway the entire time, but being in the back of the bus next to the bathroom was challenging. I was able to fall asleep, but Meg had a harder time.

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day in São Paulo

Our bus arrived at Terminal Tietê São Paulo at 4:30am. We found a bench among many other passengers at the large bus station and were able to get a few more hours of sleep before heading out for our day in São Paulo.

After waking up around 7am, we started on the itinerary planned for us by our São Paulo friends Natália and Guilherme. Our first destination was the major market in São Paulo called Mercadão Municipal. From the Tietê, it was a short ride on a extremely crowded subway toward Jabaquara to São Bento Station. Another 10 minute walk, we found ourselves at a pretty awesome market that made me a little jealous.

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Before we explored the market some more, we headed straight to a small eatery in the market where we ordered the recommended codfish pastel and a sandwich for breakfast. We were starving a bit at this point. They gave us an extra mortedela sandwich on top, guess they liked us.

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We walked around the market a bit more and bought some spices before exploring the flee market or Chinatown like area around Mercadão Municipal before heading to our next destination.

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To get around In São Paulo, Uber was the way to go as it is several times cheaper than taking a taxi. Natália and Guilherme recommended that the next destination should be Ibirapuera Park, a central park like area in São Paulo. However, Meg was ready to do some shopping so we decided to Uber directly to the shopping district along R. Oscar Freire and Av. Consolação. R. Oscar Freire is a street filled with many fancy Brazilian stores and even with the favorable exchange rate, many of the places were outside our price range. Meg enjoyed walking around it anyways to look at the fashion and I didn’t mind doing some walking after the big breakfast. It took a while, but Meg did find a store that had both style and good deals for a couple of souvenirs.

We ended up walking a little bit around R. Oscar Freire before turning up Rua Augusta and some of the side streets where there were more reasonably prices and smaller time stores. This areas was definitely the ritzy part of São Paulo and it seems so far from the R$5 caipirinha we had by the makeshift street stand in Lençóis. We slowly made our way all the way up to Av. Paulista, which is the main street of São Paulo. Unknown to us at the time, there was a massive demonstration that took place there the day before. We did see a lot of graffiti calling out the Brazilian government.

After walking around all day, we headed toward the last destination on Natália and Guilherme’s to do list, a sushi buffet called Mori sushi back toward Oscar Freire. Be sure to sit at the bar to get the fresh fish and on demand sashimi here. It’s unfair to compare the fish with what we had at Tokyo’s fish market, but this was some of the best. In addition, they really aimed to dazzle with their rolls. It was our last splurge on the trip, though it cost around the amount we’d normally pay for a dinner out in the states.

With that we called an Uber and was on our way to the airport.

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post-trip: the way home

We arrived at the airport with plenty of time before our late flight out. Having had to carry our backpacks around São Paolo, we were ready to jus relax before our red eye back. With the Citi Prestige card, we had access to the Admiral’s Lounge in GRU as we were on a American Airline ticket. The first thing we did was head for the showers as we hadn’t had one for a couple of days. The shower room they had at the lounge was twice as big as our bathroom and the waterfall shower was wonderful. The Champaign and the entire self serve bar wasn’t bad either.

When we boarded the plain, we realized that it was a very empty plane. So after everyone was seated, we were able to get rows of seats to ourselves by asking the flight attendant nicely. So take that AA for canceling my business class tickets, I got to lay flat anyways.

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We had several connections left, including traveling across New York to JFK from LaGuardia. There was an airport shuttle for US$14 each ticket. We were able to catch up on work and email through the rest of the day between connections from JFK to CLT to ROA and the Admiral Lounges along the way. Lounges access definitely made the travel easier and cheaper as we didn’t have to buy food or drinks along the way. Overall, it I wasn’t as tired because of the good night sleep and lounge access.

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final impressions

This trip can definitely be broken up into two specific segments. Both involved getting a glimpse some of the natural resources Brazil had to offer. What made these distinctly separate was more in the pace of the two segments. In the first half, we had a specific base and we weren’t always in a rush to get to place to place. In the second half, we spend much more time traveling then just enjoying what was there. We did see a lot of different places and tourist spots, but we were always on the move. That made it much more tiring, even more than walking 10 miles in a day.

From now on, I think the minimum time we stay in one area has to be no less than three days. Of course there will be exceptions but not knowing anything about a place, three days sounds like a good length of time to get a taste of an area.

Based on our experience, Brazil has a lot to offer to a lot different types of travelers. We did enjoy hiking in Chapada Diamantina a lot as I explained earlier. We also made new friends that we had a good time with and hope to see them again in the future. In regards to the second half of the trip, I think we would enjoy exploring the coast and the mountains from Rio toward São Paulo given more time. Having our friends from home traveling with us is always a lot of fun and means a lot more drinks. However, this part of the world didn’t really grab me and really pull me into returning immediately. That’s not to say you shouldn’t visit and plan your vacations, but the glaciers and alpine terrain seems to call to me more than the beach and cities. Secondly, it’s been a year since my last backcountry trekking trip and this trip didn’t really contain that to the same degree. So really, my personal preferences is most likely affect my opinion here.

In all, we’d return to Brazil if it’s easy to do so. It’s such a big country that we can find a place to explore like the Amazon or Recife. On my rankings of places to go to though, it’s a little further down.

budget

16_3_Brazil_budget2

16_3_Brazil_budget

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