Sunday, December 14, 2008

Brazil Recommendations

Here are a few recommendations of our favorite hotels, restaurants, tour operators, etc.

Ihla Grande: Overnativa Hostel. Christina's cooking is the highlight of this place... great breakfasts are included and you can pay $3 for a delicious home cooked dinner.
Olinda: Pousada d'Olinda. Nice common space with a pool and grassy area. There's a huge difference in rooms.... Make sure you get one out back.
Gaibu: Aguas Marinhas. Right off the beach, amazing oceans views from the hammock up top. The Belgian owner is a bit strange but this may just have been a language barrier (well, maybe not as he did have Nader transcribe all the words to a Black Eyed Peas video he was trying to learn how to sing).

Rio: Livros e Cafe (at least that's what we think it was called). In Santa Teresa, a bookstore/cafe set up on a hill off the main street. We were drawn in by the ambiance (funky bookstore, live music, casual crowd) and ended up having the best pizza either of us had ever tasted. Sorry to not have better directions but do try to find this place if you can...

Tour Operators
Rio: Be a Local. Their favela tour was excellent... Our guide / owner of the company was very knowledgable and had a genuine respect for and commitment to the community.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

December 7-13: Recife/Olinda & Gaibu

We´ve spent the past week or so in the far northeast of Brazil, in the state of Pernambuco. This area has more of an African influence than any other part of Brazil as evidenced by the darker people, drum-influenced music and slightly spicier food. At the suggestion of a friend we spent some time in the Recife/Olinda area. This turned out to be one of our favorite spots in all of South America.

Olinda is a small colorful town, a few kilometers from the major city of Recife. It supposedly has one of the best carnivals in all of Recife as it is free, as opposed to Rio or Salvador´s where you buy a ticket and are sitting on bleachers. Olinda´s draws more than a million people all partying in the streets. As an old Portuguese colony, there are beautiful 17th century churches throughout town, that are still actively used. We made Olinda our homebase for exploring the area.
We unexpectedly stumbled into a week long art festival. Olinda has a very active art community with probably 50 or more artisans displaying their work. The whole place seems to revolve around carnival, with much of the art taking inspiration from it and everyone talking about it even though Carnival´s not til February. With few tourists, and therefore a lack of restaurants or hotels, the place had a great atmosphere. Almost ghostlike during the day, it comes to life in the early evening, as everyone walks the cobble-stoned streets, greeting their friends, drinking beer, playing music, dancing capoeira (Brazilian dance fighting)... Everywhere we went there was some form of live music, from the anyone-join-in African style forro beats we heard at a small concrete-floored club, to the couple sitting on their steps, guy playing guitar, woman singing to him,  to the troop walking the streets practicing for carnival, while serenading old women. I had this impression of Carnival as raucous and almost violent, but these people where inclusive, loving and brought out the best in everyone they walked by way. We were almost brought to tears watching this maurading group sing to a 90 year old woman as she smiled appreciatingly through her gate. Another guy was sitting with his family having a beer on his stoop, when he got so excited he ran into grab his shirt to join the group. It was like this was all through town, like the pied piper they were picking people up as they went. By the end it was a group of about 100, all singing every word to every song.

At Barrett´s suggestion we checked out the Oficina Brennand, an old ceramics factory that Francisco Brennand inherited in the 60s and has turned into a surreal sculpture garden, filled with anatomically vague animals in sexually suggestive forms. In a forested area, with extensive grounds it was a really interesting place to spend a couple hours. Recife itself is like many other large cities, and besides the music scene is somewhat missable. There was some interesting architecture in the old part of city, but downtown was just another hectic South American city.

As our last spot in South America before heading home for a few weeks, we decided to just spend sometime by the beach. Based on one recommendation from a complete stranger we picked the town of Gaibu, about an hour down the coast from Recife.

Gaibu is a small town with not much going on, which is exactly what we were looking for. We are the only non-brazileans we've seen here these past four days.  Our daily routine has been simple. Lots of swimming and reading. Watching the kids play soccer at low-tide and the men waist deep in the water fishing by net. Allison does some yoga in the afternoons, while I find some kids to play soccer volleyball with (just like regular volleyball, but using your legs and head) Due to a yet unexplained abhoration in global timezones, Pernambucu with is significantly east of Rio is an hour behind it. This means sunsets at 5 pm and early evenings out. We've spent each one sampling the street side bars (bar is an overstatement, I should say plastic table on the street), each competing for their patronage playing music videos louder than the next. We´ve had the same lunch and dinner most days. Fried fish on the beach for lunch; rice, beans and BBQ´d chicken with a healthy dose of hot sauce for dinner. Delicious. We recently discovered the one place in town with internet access (thus this blog post). The place is thronged with 12 year olds playing on Orkut, Google´s social networking application, with is apparently only big in Brazil. Mid-week I went scouring the only street in town for a TV tuned to the Champions League, sure that in Brazil they would be showing it. Every TV I found had music videos playing; a real testament to the love of music in this region.

Some views from the hammock...

Tomorrow we take an early flight back to Rio, where we´ll kill a few hours before a red-eye back to the US where we´ll spend some time with family before heading back to the Bay Area for a couple weeks then onto New Zealand.

Monday, December 8, 2008

December 3-6: Rio de Janeiro

Rio was everything we had been told it would be... wild, beautiful and alive. Although we felt a little too old to truly appreciate all that the nightlife had to offer, we thoroughly enjoyed our three days in the city.

We were staying in the beach neighborhood of Ipanema. Despite having to pay above our budget for a somewhat moldy room in a ¨hostel village¨*, we loved being so close to the beach. Ipanema and it´s neighboring beach of Copacabana are like no where else on earth. Beautiful pristine beaches (just how do they keep them so clean?) right in the middle of a massive city. The flow between beach and city is truly seamless -- only in Rio can a man in a white speedo with no shoes on confidently saunter through the streets of his city. And these people know how to do the beach. For $2 you can rent a chair and umbrella for the day. From there, the endless stream of vendors saunters by selling caparinhas, beer, nuts, grilled shrimp, empanadas, coconuts, bathing suits, beach balls, hats, and anything else you can imagine. Sit back, people watch and enjoy.... Hardly a better way to spend an afternoon.

On our first morning in town, we ventured up the Sugarloaf monolith for some views of the city. We hiked halfway up through dense jungle terrain and then took the tram for the rest of the trip. Rio is a city built admist the jungle and from the top of Sugarloaf you can see the beautiful battle which ensues between the two with skyscraper highrises giving way to lush mountains throughout.... With the favelas claiming the gray space in between.

Speaking of the favelas, we decided to take a tour of them on our second morning in town. At first we were highly skeptical of these tours... Allison tried to imagine a tourist ¨tour¨ through West Oakland or Dorchester, MA and it sounded like a bad idea for about a million different reasons.  But the favelas aren´t the inner city neighborhoods of the US.  Although the realities of poverty and drug dealings are the same, the favelas represent something entirely different -- most notibly by the reality that they live completely off the grid of city infrastruture with their own neighborhood associations that coordinate trash pick up, mail, etc. and pirated electricity.  Their scale is also staggering.  20% of all Rio residents (a rough estimate) live in Favelas.  So if we were going to understand a bit of this city it seemed like an important exploration, skeptical as we were.

Our tour ended up being extremly well done.  Well, that is, after we survived the beginning.  As I mentioned earlier, most of the favelas have taken over the land between city and jungle which means they exist in the steep hills in between.  So our tour started with motorcycle ¨taxis¨speeding us up to the top of the neighborhood each on the back of our separate bike.  Passing buses as they sped closer to the curb, flying around corners all on the backs of a strange man shouting ¨gringo!¨as he passed his friends.... It was a bit harrowing, but we survived :) From there we wound our way down through the favela through the alleyways between makeshift houses, stopping along the way to meet residents, check out some art, and visit a daycare center that our tour agency supports.  We were warned to not take any pictures if anyone with a ¨walkie-talkie or a machine gun crosses our path¨.... Um, ok, I think we´ll heed that advice.  We did see one of the walkie talkie dudes on our travels, keeping watch for if the police came into town.  Our guide, the owner of his small tour company, was excellent.  He seemed to know everyone we passed and had a sincere passion and commitment to his work in the favelas.  We can easily imagine how such a tour would be patrionizing at best and exploitative at worst.  Ours was neither and we walked away with a better understanding for and respect of the communities that are built in these neighborhoods.  (If you´ve never seen City of God, go rent it right now.... a beautiful movie about one of the other Rio favelas).

Later that same afternoon, we headed up to the bohemean neighborhood of Santa Teresa.  Set in the hills above town, you take a streetcar/tram to get there.  We were the last passangers to make a leaving streetcar and so found ourselves hanging off the sides as it wound its way up through town.  Our second harrowing ride of the day after the motorcycles, but this one was a uniquely spectacular journey with beautiful views along the way.  Santa Teresa was our favorite neighborhood in town.  Local artists displaying their work, quaint cafes with casual live music, and a chilled out crowded that seemed much more our style than the flair of Rio´s beaches... we could have happy spent much more time here.

Our favela tour guide gave us a tip on a great local musician who was playing in Lapa that night... since a big interest of ours in visiting Brazil was to check out the music scene, we hopped on the chance to see this show.  Doors opened at 10 with the show ¨starting¨ at 11.  We showed up around 10:15 to a completely empty venue and realized that we may be in for a late night.  Around 11:30 the first opening act went on, followed by a second opening and then the main guy around 1:30  Although we had to leave at 2 because we were so tired (again, too old to fully appreciate this city), the music and atmosphere was amazing to soak in.  Seating for the show is set back from a large dance floor where couples danced samba.... everyone in this country seems to be an amazing dancer.  It was also super cool to see hip young kids grooving to samba instead of sitting around drinking like their peers in the US are likely doing.  I had a similar feeling to when we were at the Boca Juniors football match.... Partying is about passionate involvement in the things you love.  People drink, sure.  But it´s more of an after thought rather than the way that alchohol dominates such experiences in the US and other countries.

Off to the northern coast for a week of music, beaches, and off circuit travels before heading back to the US/Canada for the holidays and some greencard paperwork.... Looking forward to seeing many of you soon!

*A quick side note on the hostel village experience: South America most certainly has a backpackers ¨circuit¨that we have found ourselves on and off over the course of our 3 months here. For anyone who´s travelled at all, you know what we´re talking about. Germans with big hiking boots, hungover young Australian girls, loud Isralis (I´d insert a cliche about Americans on the circuit but our cliche is that we don´t travel so we´re not really here). Anyways, the cluster of backpacker pads we dubbed the hostel village in Rio was the apex of the circuit.... We´re looking forward to a bit more off the circuit travel in Asia although it certainly has provided some entertainment and a few new friends when we´ve floated through it here.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

November 28 - December 2: Parati & Ilha Grande

We took our last South American overnight bus from Iguazu to Sao Paolo, where we killed a few hours in the early morning in the bus station before catching another bus to Parati. Parati is a little colonial town on the coast south of Rio. White-washed buildings, fishing boats in the bay, and snack stands on the beach. It´s a pretty town to stop in if you´re making your way up or down the coast, but with the increasing number of restaurants and boutiques it´s at risk of loosing its charm. To be fair we didn´t take a boat out to any islands, which are supposed to be a highlight and it was cloudy, so we may not have seen Parati at her finest. Nonetheless, we enjoyed our time there, walking the cobbled streets and enjoying our first beer on a Brazilian beach.

Ilha Grande on the other hand is a little slice of paradise. A two hour ferry ride off the coast, Ilha Grande is a large island (about the size of Brooklyn), mountainous, and covered in rain forest. While fairly close to Rio, the island was protected and was used as a prison til the mid-90s, which has kept it relatively undeveloped. Today the entire island is protected land with only one small village. No cars are allowed on the island and the only way to get around the island is by boat or by a series of trails connecting the various beaches. We hiked a cross the island to spend the afternoon at the white powdery surf beach of Lopes Mendez one afternoon. Another day we took a boat to a snorkeling spot. The best times, however, are just wandering the trails til you get to a georgious beach all to yourself.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

November 24 - 27: Iguazu Falls

One flight and a 16 hour bus ride later, we found ourselves in the steamy jungle on the border between Argentina and Brazil, home to the Iguazu Falls. With 270 falls spanning 1,600 meters wide, Iguazus falls are officially the largest in the world. According to Wikipedia, upon seeing Iguaçu, the United States' First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt reportedly exclaimed "Poor Niagara!". Although we had to fight through the masses of tourists and school groups a bit to see them, these falls were truly remarkable.

We ended up with an extra day to kill before our bus was leaving for the Brazillian coast, which we happily spent lazing by the pool at our hostel.... A great transition point from the mountains to the beach.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Argentina Recommendations

Here are a few recommendations for our favorie hotels, restaurants, tour operators, etc.

Cafayate: El Balcon. Comfortable airy rooms, good kitchen, a really nice balcony (hence the name.....)
Chalten: Albergue Patagonia. We loved this cozy little lodge. Beautiful views, friendly staff. comfortable common space.
Ushuaia: La Posta. Clean comfortable rooms, good kitchen, friendly staff.

Mendoza: Tablao. The best lomito sandwich we had in Argentina... Lomitos (steak with fried egg, ham, cheese, and more) are heart-attacks on sliced bread but they are SO delicious. Ave. San Juan 165.
Buenos Aires: Cluny. Amazing food, service, ambiance. More expensive than your average Argentinean restaurant but well worth it...
Ushuaia: Rotiseria. This place has huge, deliciously cheap sandwich....great if you´re on a tight budget (together we barely finished one sandwich)

Tour Operators, etc.
Andesmar buses. Fully reclining leather seats (if you spulge for 1st class), flat screen TVs, decent food. Via Bariloche was great also.

Mendoza: Mr. Hugo´s bike rental for wine tasting.... A great reminder that it´s always best to go with the second most popular excursion company (Bikes & Wines is the most popular in this case). They´re scrappy and fighting to win your approval. Mr. Hugo was amazingly friendly, great bikes, and after our tour we were greeted with free carafes of wine while we waited for the bus. Carinae was our favorite vineyard. Small, run by a French couple.

Buenos Aires: Sabor a Tango. A wonderful dinner-tango show... Although more upscale than other shows if you´re on a budget. We recommend the lesson beforehand, it was actually very fun!

Saturday, November 22, 2008

November 15-22: Tierra Del Fuego

We´re now in Tierra Del Fuego, literally "Land of Fire", named by Magellan after observing the fires of the native "cannibals", when he first discovered his famous Straits, and finally a passage connecting the Atlantic to the Pacific. Ushuaia, our base for exploration of this remote part of the world, was originally a penal colony based on the example of Australia, as Tierra Del Fuego is actually an island and was very difficult to get to in those days. The town´s location is spectacular on the water and surrounded by mountains. These days it is an interesting mix of independent trekkers and people getting ready to take a cruise to Antarctica. As the southernmost town in the world it is the most common starting point for trips to Antarctica.

While not as difficult to get here as it was in the penal colony days, it is still quite a journey. After leaving El Chalten, we took a van across the country to the Atlantic going through some very remote and beautiful land. We didn´t see anything for six hours, except for condors, guanacos (a Patagonian llama) and rheas (a Patagonian ostrich - who knew?). Our first stop was the small sea-side town of Puerto San Julian. Way off the beaten path, we didn´t see any other tourists the two days we spent there. Even Argentineans gave us weird looks when we tried to figure out how we could get to this town. Somewhere along the way we had picked up a little flyer saying you could see penguins in this town, and we were determined to see them. It ended up being a sleepy little town, with exactly one little cabin by the water offering anything remotely touristic, which was our trip to see penguins. They had a four person minimum, so the guy running the place told us to come back the next day, which we did to find there were still no other tourists in town, so he took us out for a private tour.

The Magellenic penguins are really cute at only 40 cms tall. It was a week or so before their eggs were meant to hatch, so couples were protectively nesting over their eggs, while others wobbled around awkwardly looking for a lost egg. Others were out fishing; They´re much more graceful in the water.

From there we started an epic 20 hour journey down to the end of the world. Because of various land disputes between Argentina and Chile, the trip down involves going through a narrow strip of Chile´s land, which unfortunately means four immigration and customs checks, out of Arg, into Chile, out of Chile, into Arg. That along with a ferry crossing meant almost as much time out of the bus as in the bus.

But it was worth it. We´ve been blessed with some amazing weather down here, and went on two magnificent hikes. Tierra Del Fuego National Park is breathtaking with its soaring peaks, the glassy Beagle Channel, and its forests covered in old man´s beard and habitated by geese, rabbits and beavers.

From town if you hike straight up you can get to a glacier, while not as impressive as Perito Moreno, the hike gives you a great view of the surroundings as well as a chance to do some fun scrambling.

We also took a couple extra days to get our lives in order a little, catching up on the news and planning our upcoming time in Brazil. While we have loved our time in Patagonia, after a couple months in the mountains we are looking forward to some beach time.

Hope everyone is well and happy thanksgiving if we don´t write before then.