Mission: Middle Brazil

A brewery, a palace, a gold mine, a football stadium, a police selfie, a floating angel, broken glow-plug, a desert lagoon and a foot swallowing sand-bubble. Our last post saw Rio and fab beaches, now we’re on a mission to see the great mix of middle Brazil, with the added dilemma of so much to see, so little time!

 

Imperial Petropolis

Who knew that Brazil ever had its own royal family? We didn’t. Actually, it was an off-shoot from the Portugese crowd who scarpered here fleeing the Napoleonic invasion. Prince Dom Pedro liked it here so much that in 1822 he declared independence from Portugal and bagged himself the rather grand title of Emperor of Brazil. Nice work if you can get it. During their reign, the imperial family acquired a fabulous summer palace in Petropolis on the cooler high ground behind Rio, which is now an interesting museum. The super-shiny polished mahogany floors require us to don some soft slippers, ostensibly to protect the floor, but in practice we enjoy precarious entertainment skidding from room to room, buffing the floor with the slippers as we go.

Interesting as the imperial palace is, the real attraction for us in Petropolis is the Bohemia Brewery museum. Bohemia is a popular beer in Brazil and one of the country’s oldest brands. We learn about the history of the brewing industry generally, the Bohemia brand in particular, the science and the art of beer making and the state of the global brewing and micro-brewery industry today. Then there are of course the generous samples of the products which start even before you have left the ticket desk! Luckily, we had found an overnight park-spot nearby so that we could stagger back to Cuthbert after the event.

Gold and slaves

Back into Cuthbert, we do quite a long tootle up the road further inland to historic Ouro Preto. Distances are big in Brazil and we get nowhere quickly in Cuthbert! Ouro Preto’s quaint shops and houses are set on calf-achingly steep cobbled town-streets but are nevertheless worth a wander, particularly some of the many (many) churches which are literally around every street corner. Nearby we visit the defunct gold mine on which the town’s history is based (sadly, no free samples here!) At the mine we put our lives in the hands of a tiny, rickety, steam-powered cable-train and descend steeply 120m down an old shaft. In the miles of hacked-out tunnels we learn about the techniques and the huge scale of the gold operation in its day, from which the Portugese King took a large share.

The gold mines are the reason why so many slaves were brought to this area and it was an appalled Princess Isabella (her of the imperial palace back in Petropolis) who eventually secured their emancipation. Unfortunately, she gave little thought to what these ‘free’ slaves would do following their release. Suddenly, Brazil had thousands of ‘free’ men, all homeless, jobless and penniless. They flocked down to the coast to the ‘promised land’ of Rio de Janeiro where their communities formed the early beginnings of what are now still the crime ridden favelas. A tragic episode in history, but one which has contributed in making Brazil one of the amazing cultural melting-pots that it is today.

Also near Ouro Preto is the town of Congonhas with its 12 remarkable sculptures of the prophets, carved in soapstone around 1800 by local boy Aleijadinho. He had lost his fingers to some mystery disease but continued his work with tools strapped to his arms. The quality of the life-sized figures would be remarkable for any Tom, Dick or Harry sculptor, but they’re even more amazing under the circumstances. Impressive.com.

The Beautiful Game

Next stop on the inland odyssey is Belo Horizonte, one of Brazil’s major modern cities and home to two of the country’s top football teams: Atletico Mineiro and Cruzeiro. On non-match days their stadium is open for guided tours. To be honest, our knowledge and interest in football is limited to recognising David Beckham in an underpants advert, but even for sporting luddites like us, the tour gives a fascinating insight into the sport generally, the stadium’s construction in 1965 (plus its extensive renovation for the 2014 World Cup) and the behind-the-scenes operations of a 63,000 seater venue. The slight ‘fly in the ointment’ for the stadium’s illustrious history is that it was here where Brazil suffered its humiliating defeat 7-1 by Germany in 2014. Very much not their finest hour, but given England’s extraordinarily poor performance that same year, we’re really not in any position to mock here 🙂

Capital Police Encounter

After another very long tootle even further inland (did we mention that Brazil is quite big?) we reach the purpose-built capital city. Designed from scratch by Oscar Niemeyer in the 1950s, Brasilia took Brazil’s seat of power from Rio de Janeiro in 1960.

Brasilia is said to be a city of its time, but I think it is actually a city reflecting what one forward-thinking architect thought at that time, would be a city of the future. Wandering around the city with its symmetrical layout, its buildings of modern shapes and clean-lines and lots of green spaces between them, I get the distinct feeling that back in a time when the end of the 20th Century seemed a long way off, Brasilia was designed to reflect Niemeyer’s idealistic prediction of how all modern cities would (should?) look by the futuristic Year 2000. Niemeyer lived until 2012 and the ripe old age of 105, so he did survive to see how his designs stood the test of time.

One the alleged ‘must-see’ tourist-ticks of Brasilia is the monument bearing the eternal flame. Unfortunately, we find said flame to be not so eternal and it looks as though its eternity ended some time ago. After visiting the not-so-eternal flame, we wander back to Cuthbert and two police officers approach us “You’re Julie and Marcus… right?” OMG… what on earth have we done? 🙁  “We looked at your blog-page… we love Cuthbert” Phew… the website is written on the truck! Diana and Rodrigo turn out to be the friendliest cops in Brazil and insist on taking a selfie to share on Facebook. Later we see that the PR department of the Tourist Police of Brazil is also sharing the pic on their official FB page. Brilliant!

Glow-plug extraction

Just before Brasilia, Cuthbert had passed his milestone 120,000 km, so parked-up in a quiet field behind the city’s Youth Hostel seems as good a place as any for Marcus to do Cuthbert’s routine health-check. The 120K is a biggie service, so it’s going to take a couple of days. There’s quite a lot of rain at the moment, so Marcus erects a make-shift tent over Cuthbert’s bonnet to work in the dry. Ingenious! All goes well except that one of the glow-plugs refuses to come out of its hole (yes, I’ve got all the technical jargon here 🙂 ) and needs a special tool to extract it. We take Cuthbert to a nearby workshop, but have you ever tried explaining such a task in Portugese? We find the only way to clarify the issue is for Marcus to strip the engine in front of the mechanic to physically show him the problem, but the chap concludes that we’re unlikely to find such a tool in Brasilia. Helpfully, he suggests that we might find such a tool in Sao Paulo maybe. Yeah… thanks for that… it’s only 1,000 km away!!! In the end, Marcus decides that we can carry the snag for now. It’s only likely to be a problem in very cold weather and we’re not going to see any of that for a loooong time!

Park-life: Jalapão and Chapada Diamantina

One of the dilemmas we have in Brazil is so much to see, so far to travel, so little time! As Brits we don’t need a visa here, but we can spend only 90 days in any six month period in the country. We have allocated this as 60 days to cover over 9,000 km up to the French Guiana border, then when we return to Brazil from British Guyana, we will have 30 days left to get across the middle of the Amazon jungle to exit into Peru. This, for us, is an unusually tight schedule and we have to decide which of Brazil’s many amazing sights we stop to see on the way.

Over 800km north of Brasilia (another long tootle up the road) is the national park of Jalapão. It’s remote, and the last 100km to reach it are on rough tracks. But we are reliably assured by locals in Brasilia that it’s the up-and-coming, destination-of-choice for adventurous Brazilians and far less touristy than the popular Chapada Diamantina Park over to the east. They show us beautiful photos on their phones of desert dunes with sparkling fresh-water lagoons; waterfalls into natural swimming holes with crystal-clear turquoise water. Okay… they convince us… we’re doing an 800km detour to see Jalapão.

Luckily for us, it turns out to be even better than the photos had shown. It’s stunning! Jalapão is essentially a 4×4 destination, but truly worth the effort to get there and really should become a regular destination for overlanders exploring Brazil. We’ve tried to back this up with our own pictures, but we still don’t think we have quite done justice to this exquisitely beautiful place. Jalapão is definitely one of our highlights in Brazil, if not the whole of South America so far.

One fascination phenomenon that occurs in the park is a series of water-pools called ‘fervedouros’. In these small, idyllic looking, fresh-water pools, water is permeating up in vertical shoots from the ground through the sandy floor and creating a natural jacuzzi effect. It really cool to swim above the bubbling sand, but it’s even weirder when you put your foot onto the bubbles and you sink-in, losing your leg into the void below. So bizarre!

After Jalapão we’re heading east finally back towards Salvador on the coast. En-route we’ll be passing the much-visited park of Chapada Diamantina, so it would be churlish not to stop by and say hello. Chapada Diamantina is indeed very beautiful and we can see why it is so popular; we enjoyed a couple of short walks there and some lovely natural swimming holes. But having now seen them both, we’re very happy that we took the advice and focussed our park-time on Jalapão. One day no doubt, Jalapão will become as popular as Chapada Diamantina, but for now we feel privileged to have seen something special in the heart of Brazil that few tourists take the time to see.

Now we’re heading the last few hundred kilometres eastwards back to the coast. Tune in soon for the city port of Salvador and our coastal trip north up to the Amazon delta.

Middle Brazil Gallery

It’s Brazil, Baby!

You like beaches? Brazil’s got trillions. You like jungle? They’ve got the world’s biggest. You like mountains and caves? Yup, they’ve got those. Waterfalls? Tick. Deserts and dunes? Err… yes. Wildlife? Yah, plenty dat too. And of course, the football… many shed-loads of that! They do sport, they do fashion, they do science, they do arts, they build things, they party-hard and they’re the economic power-house of the region. Sure, they have few teeny political snags on the agenda at the moment (who hasn’t? 🙂 ) but overall, we’re looking forward to seeing Brazil (and those beaches!)

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Little Falls, Big Falls

Argentina has its finger stuck between Paraguay and Brazil. Yes, really! Look on the map… there’s long, narrow, finger-like, sticky-up bit in the far north-east of Argentina: Misiones province. We crossed into Argentina from Paraguay at the bottom of the finger and set a new northerly course through Misiones, up to Brazil.

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Paraguay

The Chaco… a chuffing big, flat plain stretching east from the Andes. Covering eastern Bolivia, north-east Argentina, a bit of south-west Brazil and much of Paraguay… it’s big. After the descent from the Bolivian altiplano, it’s a long, long, straight road reaching over 800km to Asuncion. We expect the Chaco to be hot. Turns out… our introduction to Paraguay is not just hot, but damned hot! And what’s Paraguay all about beyond the Chaco?
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Bolivia: Celebrities and Wine

In the Andes at over 4,000m again… a bit of re-acclimatisation is required. We interrupted the sequence of our blogs slightly for our ‘Dakar Special’ when we had a tougher than expected challenge to catch the Rally in Bolivia. So now please humour our ‘time-warp’ as we step back in time to a few days before the Dakar: we’re leaving the beaches of Arica on New Year’s Day for a last bit of exploring in the Andes of northern Chile before crossing into Bolivia.

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The Dakar

No, we haven’t just upped-sticks and shipped to Africa, we’re in Bolivia for the world famous Dakar Rally 2017. After a load of security shenanigans in West Africa, the rally formerly known as ‘Paris-Dakar’ was shifted to South America where it’s affectionately known by locals as ‘El Dakar’. Here’s our attempt at finding over 400 bikes, quads, cars and trucks charging across the altiplano in 2017, together with our Top Tips if you’re contemplating a trip to see Dakar 2018.

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Not-so-silent night

It’s not every Christmas that we open our presents to the booming sound of Chile’s answer to Snoop-Doggy-Dog (or whatever the latest hip-hop chap is called these days) and to be honest, it wouldn’t be our first choice for 2016 either! Nevertheless, that’s what we get 🙂  But before we launch into the Christmas Story, there is the final instalment of the Tyre Story. Continue reading

Colca and Coast

It’s little visited, the south coast of Peru, which is a real shame. Back in September when we travelled up through southern Peru we took, like most travellers, the mountain route via Lake Titicaca and Cusco. Now south-bound, we’re loving the coastal route south of Nazca and on to Chile. Continue reading

Peru Two

Heading to the Dakar Rally?” we asked the friendly Brit biker at the Peruvian border, “Yeah… I’m competing” came the reply. Blimey. Impressed.com. We’re not quite, or even anywhere near, as brave as Lyndon, but we are keen to go and see what antics the competitors get up to on their way around the route. Our new claim to fame: we now know one of the Dakar riders who we can go to cheer on!

Peru by the back door

We’re now in Peru for the second time. This time we’re far inland from the coastal route that we took north-bound. Now we’re taking a small rough back-road through the mountains to a relatively little used border post at La Balsa. On this whole trip we have met very few Brits Continue reading

Exit Ecuador

A ‘rainy season’ usually brings ummm… rain. Except for Ecuador in 2016, that is. The 2016 ‘rainy season’ has so far not really materialised in these parts and it’s been conspicuously dry in the north-western Andes. Locals tell us that they have seen not a single drop throughout November. Regular Cuthbert readers may recall that we have just returned to Quito from an impromptu trip back to UK due to a family illness. During those three weeks we had the traditional British ration of copious precipitation, but now we are back in sunny Ecuador ready to hit the road with a fresh supply of Twiglets and Yorkshire Tea bags!

 

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The Big Turn Around

Flexibility… the key to overlanding! Way back in May we left Chile into Bolivia, then on to Brazil, back to Bolivia, then to Peru. Now here we are in Ecuador and we’re making a big turn-around, heading some 3,000 km back southwards. It’s not the most logical of routes, and if we ever had an approximate route in mind when we set off in South America this certainly wasn’t it! But we have a date with a tyre supplier… in Chile!
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Galapagos

I’ve seen enough boobies for today” Things you thought you’d never hear your husband say 🙂  But fair cop… these are the red and blue footed avian varieties of boobies, indigenous to the Galapagos Islands and we had indeed seen rather a lot of them on that particular day. By far the best way to see the unique wildlife of the Galapagos Islands is on a cruise and our friends Mark and Lindsey have flown out from UK to join us for one of the most exciting legs of our South American trip. It’s more than just a wee bit exciting, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. For our flights to Galapagos we need to get to Quito. Let’s first pick-up where regular Cuthbert followers last saw us: leaving Peru and crossing into Ecuador…

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Coasting North

Back at sea-level! Yehhy! We do love the mountains, but life at over 12,000 ft can provide a few wobbles in your physiology. It’s a welcome change to now have the soothing sound of rolling waves and the smell of the salty sea air. The drive from Cusco down to the coast is a long and painfully winding road, but finally we’re down at the Pacific coast, back on the Pan-American super-highway, looking forward to following it north all the way to Ecuador.

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Reaching the Rainbow

Rainbow Mountain might predictably be described as colourful. The strata are indeed exquisite but at over 5,000m/16,400ft altitude in southern Peru, Rainbow Mountain sits far from any driveable tracks and it’s no ‘walk in the park’ to get there. Our friends Karen and Jimmy on holiday from UK, aren’t going to let the minor detail of a gruelling high-altitude Andes trek put them off visiting this geological wonder and we (foolishly??? 🙂 ) agree to join them on this quest.

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The Rainbow Mountain hike can be done in one tough day-sesh, but only if you are both: (a) a fit-young-crazy-thing, and (b) Continue reading

Sleeping on a cliff-face

How on earth do we find ourselves hanging off a cliff-face, in a glass-bubble bedroom, suspended on wires above Peru’s Sacred Valley? Well, it is just the small matter of a 400m rock-climb via-ferrata and a 200m high hanging wire-bridge to reach said bubble, then a six-stage zip-wire descent to return to terra-firma next morning. Stupid or brave… 🙂 ?

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Winding the clock back a few months, our great friends Jimmy and Karen are planning a holiday in Peru to meet up with us. Karen has a proven track record as an adventure holiday planner extraordinaire. “There’s this Skylodge thing…Continue reading

Incas and Reeds

Peru is a new country for us. We cross the border from Bolivia on the shore of Lake Titicaca near Copacabana and perhaps unsurprisingly, the Peru-bit of Lake Titicaca looks remarkably similar to the Bolivia-bit of Lake Titicaca! We’re heading first to Puno on the north-west side of the Lake then on to… well… errrm… we do have a plan, honest we do! We’ll let you know when it’s safe to do so (or to be more frank, when we have made up our minds and have a clue) 🙂   So much to see and do in Peru.

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Titicaca and out

Titicaca… the highest lake in the world. More accurately the highest navigable lake, although we don’t know exactly what the difference is. It sits at 3,700m on the altiplano and straddles the Bolivia/Peru border. Bolivia has more than a fair share of natural beauty and this is yet another example of its best. A fitting exit point for us from this scenic country (Click here for route map).

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Amazon and Mud

Amazon… the well-known patch of rainforest rather than a profitable on-line retailer. We’re in the Bolivian bit of it known as the Madidi; the most southerly extent of the vast Amazon Basin. It’s hot, humid and of course, jungly (see route map).

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There’s a lot of trees in Madidi

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La Paz

Approaching La Paz we have a mixed impression. The city sits in a spectacularly steep sided valley surrounded by stunning snow-capped mountains. Nice. But we also see a blanket of ‘clag’ hanging over its skyline. Not nice. Emission standards still have some way to go around here! We’re not great fans of mega-cities but we do have a few practicalities to sort out here and we are just a teeny bit interested to have a look around.

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Altiplano and whiteness

We’re high. Very high. We’ve been plodding around the Bolivian altiplano, often at well over 4,000 m (13,000ft). After the central cities of Sucre and Potosí we’ve moseyed-on down to the remote south-west corner of Bolivia: volcanos, lakes and the world’s largest salty-pan Salar de Uyuni (see map).

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