Ilha Grande, Paraty and Curitiba

After spending a week in Manaus and the jungle the only thing we wanted was to get some rest and trip to Ilha Grande was a perfect way to do it. From Manaus we flew back to Rio where we spent one more night at Katia’s (Airbnb) place waiting for a transfer to Ilha Grande next morning. Instead of taking public transport we used a private company specializing in this (Easy Transfer Brazil). It was a bit more expensive than public transport, but we didn’t want to go for 5am bus to bus station then wait for a boat etc. Instead of this we got a full package: bus + boat to Ilha Grande and then after two days: boat + transfer to Paraty for 135R$ each.

Bus ride from Rio was smooth and after ~3 hours we boarded the boat. Sea was a bit rough, so the whole journey was a bit wavy. Anyway, none of us have sea-sickness, so we actually liked it. After ~1 hour on the boat we reached the main port of Ilhe Grande – Vila do Abraão. It was so amazing to find such a quiet place after buzzing Rio. There are no paved roads and almost no cars in this island, the only exceptions are lifeguard, police and ambulance cars. Everything in this little town can be reached on foot, so after disembarking the boat we went to search for our hotel. It wasn’t easy as map wasn’t very accurate, but after wandering around we found it. We dropped our things and went to explore the island. There are a few other establishments around it, however the only way to them is to take a walking trail or take the boat. We took an easy and short trail to a small beach (Praia da Julia) as it was already afternoon. It was so good just to lay on the perfect sand and enjoy the sunset. After it we went to have a dinner at one of many restaurants in the town. It actually seems that every house is either hotel, restaurant, shop or tour company – all for tourists. However it didn’t feel too touristic as nobody was trying to force you to buy or to order something how it happens in e.g. Turkish resorts.

The interesting thing about restaurants is that all main dishes are served for two people, it’s not possible to get the same dish just for one person without paying premium. Dishes are not cheap (70-150R$ – 23-50$), but the portions are really(!) big and food is really good. We tried local thing – fish with passion fruit sauce – it was amazing!

Next morning we took a half island day trip with a speed boat. It included going to two best snorkeling places on the island – Lagoa Verde and Lagoa Azul, and also stopping at a couple remote beaches that are accessible only by boat. It was a bit cloudy, so snorkeling wasn’t perfect, but as water is super clear there still were some nice views to enjoy. Once again it was really nice just to stay on the beach, do some snorkeling and not to worry about anything.

We wish we could have stayed more days (or planned to do so) as two days is not enough time to explore this beautiful island. There is a really nice beach – Lopez Mendes – on another side of the island, however hike to it takes ~2 hours, so we didn’t have time to do it this time. Maybe one day we will return..

The next day we took a quick trail to see an old aqueduct and some waterfalls. After that we found another quiet beach and enjoyed it for a couple last hours. After that we took a transfer to Paraty – a small coastal town which used to be the main port for shipping gold to Europe for a long time. Because of this interesting history it doesn’t have any new buildings and the only ones are from colonial period, so town is really colorful and cozy. A few decades ago people at this town realized that tourism is perfect choice for it and started renovating all buildings. Also cars are not allowed to get into the town historic center which makes it even more authentic and attractive. We took walks around the town in the evening and in the morning, and both times it was really nice to walk around and feel like being in 18th century colonial port town.
To conclude, both Ilha Grande and Paraty are definitely worth a visit if you’re in Brazil. The connections from either Rio or Sao Paulo are easy and it’s completely different Brazil you’ll find there.

After Paraty our plan was to go to Iguazu Falls and as there is no public airport in Paraty, we had to take bus from it to Sao Paulo and then to Curitiba from where we found really cheap flight for 33$ with Azul airlines. The buses took 12 hours in total and after this long journey we reached Curitiba where we spent one night. It’s quite a big city (3.2 mil people) and also it’s much more European than other Brazilian cities we visited. That’s probably because most of the city inhabitants are European descendants from countries like Poland, Germany and so on. Curitiba is really really clean and well organized: bus station was perfect and easy to navigate, taxis were new etc. We took a short walk around the city seeing some of the most famous sights, however Curitiba is not a very touristic city, the same as Sao Paulo we would say. Anyway, if you have time, especially before going to Iguazu Fall, you can stop at Curitiba for a day or two.

Amazon jungle experience

Our time in the jungle was supposed to be one of the Brazil highlights and sure it was. There are various ways how to explore Amazon jungle: you can take a boat on the river, stay in one of the lodges or buy the whole package with one of the companies in Manaus. We booked a tour with Amazon Backpackers in advance which included everything we needed for 5 days trip: transfers, accommodation, food and all activities. That was really convenient as you don‘t need to worry about anything and that really helps as program was pretty packed. The whole package cost 110$ per day for both of us.

We were very lucky to get awesome guide for our trip – Ralf who lived in the jungle for his whole life. Funny, but he is 30 and his wife is 26, exactly the same as us. However when comparing our lives it‘s so different: they are married for 10 years and have two girls: one is 6 years old and another is 9, both of them know so much about nature, however not that much about technologies like mobile phones or internet etc.. There is even no cellphone reception in the jungle, so Internet is also far away. They never traveled further than Manaus while we are trying to explore the world. It‘s interesting to see completely different way of living however we can‘t imagine ourselves living in their conditions. Wouldn‘t say that it‘s bad, just not for us. By the way, Ralf speaks fluent English which he learned by buying an old computer and English CDs.

A little bit about our amazing experience:

Group
It was quite a small group which consisted of 8 people: us, 3 Chinese girls who study in LA and a couple from Sao Paulo. This couple spend only one night and left the next morning. Chinese girls were like Chinese, always making pictures, saying lots of „wow“ and really scared of insects. However they still wanted to spend the night in the jungle sleeping in the hammocks and were happy about it. The girls stayed two nights which left us two more night for just two of us – like a private tour.

Transfers
Amazon Backpackers picked us up early morning and after gathering all group brought us by car to the port where speed boat transferred us to another side of the river. There our guide found a van which brought us to his little boat further in the Amazon. All other trips were made by that small boat or even smaller one when there were only 3 of us left.

Food
Fish, fish and fish. As the main food provider is river and you can catch a lot of different fish there. What the locals eat usually it‘s fish or chicken and manioc flour which is a gluten-free flour made from the root of a manioc plant. Not sure why they like it so much and we couldn’t get used to it. For the tourists they usually prepare something more, our lunch and dinner usually consisted of: fish (of course), chicken, rice, pasta, beans, vegetables (which they don’t eat at all), watermelon, pineapple and some desert. For breakfast there were usually some eggs, bread and coffee. So in total we were really happy about the food as we always enjoy eating fish.

Accommodation
A couple of nights we spend at the Ralf‘s place. He has two little houses for tourists and is building one more. Currently he can accommodate 8 people, but in the future he hopes to expand a bit more. Furthermore one night we spend in the jungle sleeping in the hammocks and the last night we visited Ralf’s parents who live 2 hours away up the river. Actually, the feeling was similar like living in a village somewhere in Lithuania as if we would take out the river everything else was really similar.

Activities
The program was really packed: usually we were getting up at 6-7am in the morning, having some activities, then lunch at around 11am, some rest and then other activities till the sun goes down. All program consisted of:

  • Visit to the meeting of the water where we stopped on the way to the jungle. The Meeting of Waters is the confluence between the Rio Negro, a river with dark (almost black colored) water, and the mud-colored Amazon River or Rio Solimões, as it is known the upper section of the Amazon in Brazil. For 6 km the river’s waters run side by side without mixing. It is one of the main tourist attractions of Manaus, Brazil. This phenomenon is due to the differences in temperature, speed and water density of the two rivers. The Rio Negro flows at near 2 km per hour at a temperature of 28°C, while the Rio Solimões flows between 4 to 6 km per hour at a temperature of 22°C.
  • Tour through the Amazon by boat watching wild animals (monkeys, dolphins, birds, snakes), water lilies and other spectacular nature.
  • Fishing piranha that wasn’t so difficult and quite fun. Donatas caught 1, Ieva even 2 piranhas.
  • Amazing sunsets in the evenings when we stayed at Ralf’s place.
  • Spotting Caymans. These are small crocodiles which can be found in Central or South America. We did this experience when it was already dark as it’s the easiest way to find them. You just simply need to hold your torch above the water and see where their eyes reflect the light. Caymans get blind after that and it’s very easy to catch them. Therefore we were able to hold one of them with our hands.
  • Getting early in the morning together with nature and going to see a beautiful sunrise
  • Hiking in the jungle. Ralf showed us various medical plants, insects and survival tips during 2,5 hour trek
  • Sleeping in the jungle. It was a bit similar to camping in Lithuanian forest – e.g. cooking food on fire, cutting small trees for fire etc. However other part – sleeping in hammock – was really different. One of the most surprising things was that it was pitch black around, so if you open your eyes nothing changes. That was the first such experience for both of us. And also sounds sounds sounds – frogs, insects, animals – true rain forest experience.
  • Visiting local people and their native house. They have pineapple plantation and also sell jewelries made from berries (like acai)
  • Canoeing into small creeks in flooded forest. Ralf showed us how to put net into the water and found quite a lot of fish in it on the way back. Furthermore he caught a fish with a spare! Unfortunately didn’t hit the big one.
  • Seeing how manioc flour is made. Ralf’s family showed us the whole process and we were able to try everything as well.
  • Fishing at night. Donatas joined Ralf for late evening fishing from the boat with spares.

We really enjoyed spending our time in the nature. It’s amazing when the only way to reach everything is by boat and how much forest is being flooded during rainy season. We got some rain, but it wasn’t that bad. It was still quite hot all the time and we were trying not to get bitten by mosquitos. Ralf said that during last 2 years none of the locals caught malaria. Each year government organizations come to the amazon and spreads something that kills mosquitos which carry malaria. So hopefully this disease won’t be the one to be afraid in the future.

Highlights:

  • Flooded forest
  • Piranha fishing
  • Cayman spotting

More photos here!

Manaus – city in the jungle

Manaus was the starting point of our Amazon adventure. We wouldn’t have flown there just to see the city, but while you are there why not to explore.

Manaus is the city in the middle of Amazon. The easiest way to reach it is by plane otherwise it might take days from Rio. It’s the capital of the state with 2 mil inhabitants. Quite a small city comparing with Rio or Sao Paulo, but has almost the same number of people as the whole Latvia.

For our first nights we used Couchsurfing again. There weren’t many people who host in Manaus, but again we were lucky. Nae responded to our request and agreed to host us not only for the first couple of days, but also the night when we came back from the jungle. As Nae works during the days her father Joel showed us around the city. Joel is already retired and his whole life worked as programmer. He even build the first computer in 1960s there in Manaus. After arriving the first day Joel showed us a great view from the top of their building which is in the very center of Manaus. From there you can see all main sights: Amazon Theater, Downtown, river etc. We also went to different markets selling various typical amazon fruits, vegetables and fishes. The most interesting part was piles of bananas and watermelons. After the markets Joel drove us through industrial zone where a lot of big worldwide companies have their factories. It’s quite convenient as Manaus is still a tax free zone. On the other hand it helps local people to get the jobs and they really need that as Manaus still trying to recover from poor recent history.

After picking Joel’s wife from work (she’s working as a teacher) we went to check quite a new park near the city center where a lot of local people are walking or running. Forgot to mention that Joel is very fit man and still runs marathons. Currently he is preparing for the next marathon and he is 74 years old!

In the evening we met Nae with couple of her friends at the bar. Enjoyed dinner and a couple of caipirinhas.

Next morning we got up just around 11am. Had lunch with Joel and went to rest a bit more because it’s really hot during daytime in Manaus, so it’s better to stay inside where you have air conditioning. We left home just around 2pm and headed straight to see Amazon Theater. It’s really nice and definitely one of the main sights in Manaus. We also found a post and sent some postcards to our families in Lithuania.

After Nae came back from work we went for a dinner in the square near the theater where we tried local fish and fish wrapped in fried bananas. Yummy!

Next morning after saying goodbye we left for the jungle. We came back after 5 days and had only one night before the flight to Rio. That night there was a party in one of the rock clubs. First band was a bit weird as it consisted of almost only the girls (one guy played the piano) and all of them were so unique and interesting to watch. That evening we also met Nae’s friend who also hosts people through Couchsurfing. It was really fun night with very strong caipirinhas which didn’t help us next morning when we had to catch the flight back to Rio, however everything ended well.

Highlights:

Amazon Theater
Fruits market
19 years old Nae’s cat
Great local rock club with live music

More photos here!

5 days in Rio de Janeiro

We took a night bus from Sao Paulo and after 6 hours sleep we‘ve reached Rio de Janeiro. The bus was „leito“ type meaning that it‘s possible to adjust the seat and make it almost like a bed. It was really comfortable and smooth ride. Another good thing is that when taking the bus you can go from one central station to another without going to airports which can be far away from the cities.

Rio de Janeiro welcomed us with sunny morning and the next thing to do was to find a city bus going to Recreio dos Bandeirantes where our Couchsurfing host Jacob lives. The bus station is nice and new itself, but the neighborhood didn‘t look that well. Anyway, after wandering around a bit we have found a bus stop and after 15min the bus (No. 315) finally came. The bus had to take ~3 hours, however it took only 1,5 hour as bus drivers drive like they are racing in F1. Recreio is a nice district, right on the beach which is also a great surfing spot. Jacob who is originally Norwegian lives there with his two Brazilian sons and seems really enjoys it there.

The same day we went to see Tijuca park up the mountain to check some fabulous viewing spots. You can see the whole Rio and also a Jesus statue. There are many amazing trails, so it‘s possible to spend days if not weeks exploring this park. One of the most famous viewing spots is Vista Chinese which is named so, because Chinese immigrants have been growing tea in this area for a while.

After coming back from the park we still had a couple of hours to enjoy the beach and quite warm (~21 C) water (Brazilians said it’s cold). Anyway Donatas wasn’t very lucky and got his foot finger cut with something sharp in the sand, probably glass. It was bleeding pretty badly, so we went to lifeguards who helped to stop the bleeding, but didn’t have any disinfection liquid, anyway Ieva managed to get some from one of the local bars. Flash forward, wound healed in ~1 week with no complications. It’s only a bit pity that Donatas couldn’t surf in really nice surfing spot there.

The next day it was Mother‘s day in Brazil which is really important and big day in Brazil. We have walked across the beach for a half of the day, stopping a few times to have a cold beer which is kind of Sunday tradition in Brazil. After that we went to a local park where we saw some crocodiles living in sewage (!) next to it. We‘ve also managed to see some smaller ones living in the park, also turtles and capybaras. What‘s interesting is that crocodiles don‘t seem to be aggressive, living in the same pond with turtles, so not that picture we imagined. The same day we also had to go inside local favela, but as it was Mother‘s day it was a bit unsafe as everybody was getting drunk there, so we left this for one of the next days. We‘ve also tried locally caught fried shrimps which were perfect and, of course, a capirinha to finish the day. After getting back home we spent the whole evening playing PlayStation with Jacob‘s sons.

On Monday we left Jacob‘s home and went to Rio center where we stayed with Katia (through Airbnb). She lives in a nice and safe neighborhood (Gloria) next to downtown. She is a retired psychologist living in really nice and big apartment with a great view from it. And the elevator goes straight to her apartment(!). After we got settled we went to see the center part of the city: interesting and modern Cathedral, Aqueduct, lots of churches, Theater building, National Monument etc. Unfortunately tram to Santa Terese hill is still not working after being closed in 2011 after a deadly incident when 5 people died. Guys working there said that it should open in a month or two which could be a lot in Brazilian standards.


On Tuesday it was another beautiful sunny day, so we have decided to visit both Sugarloaf mountain and Jesus statue. We tried to go there in the beginning, but unfortunately after last night storm the train going up was closed, so we had to turn around and go to Sugarloaf instead. Views are amazing from both Sugarloaf and Urca rock which is a bit below it, definitely worth a visit if you‘re in Rio. We also saw some nice little monkeys waiting for tourists to give them something to eat. After Sugarloaf mountain we went to try again the Corcovado mountain with Jesus Christ statue. The train was already working and we climbed up. Both the statue and views from top are amazing and as we came later in the day, we also had a chance to see Rio lights from above as it was getting dark already.

The next morning we went to Ipanema and Copacabana beaches. Both are nice, but we liked Ipanema much more, it‘s cleaner and not so crowded as Copacabana. Because of the storm waves in the ocean were huge, so there were lots of surfers trying to catch them. It was really great to see how they catch and rides those big waves (probably ~3-4 meters).

After lunch we finally went to see a favela. We have visited Rocinha which is the biggest in Rio and hosts ~200000 people, however the exact number is unknown. The favela itself is very different – from the parts that look the same as normal city to really bad ones with lots of small chaotic buildings and narrow streets between them. Some of them probably never sees sunlight. People living in favela get some most important things for free like water, electricity, school etc. Looks like people don‘t want to pay for anything and want that government would give them everything for free like build new houses as one of previous presidents did. Our guide told that it‘s actually pretty safe in favela as people hate robbers there, however for example it‘s possible to get in the middle of police and drug dealers clash which would be really dangerous. We saw some heavy armed police officers, so it seems the „cleaning“ of favelas is not over yet. In general, it was really interesting to see favela from inside and find out that people live there is not that bad, most of them have even the satellite TV.

Rio left us better impression compared to Sao Paulo, however probably because there is much more to see in Rio and naturally it‘s just nicer to live in a city which has perfect weather, nice beaches and friendly people. Ieva thinks that she would probably like to live in Rio, however Donatas still prefers California as there is a bit more order there. Also we would need to learn Portuguese..

Local highlights:

  • Thin line between „safe“ and „unsafe“ in the city. We didn‘t have any incidents, so in our opinion if not doing stupid things like going to favela to buy drugs, it‘s a really safe city.
  • Prices can be really different for locals and tourists, however most of the places have the same prices for everyone as there is actually such law.
  • Local transport. The bus drivers go really fast, however we didn‘t see any accidents, so it‘s safe (probably). It‘s possible to anywhere in the city by taking the bus and in most cases it will be really fast. Metro is also nice and comfortable, for example, it‘s a great connection between city center and beaches. Also there are separate train cars for women which Donatas learned the „hard“ way.

The most interesting places:

  • Sugarloaf mountain
  • Christ statue and train going up to it
  • Favela
  • Crocodiles’ park
  • Vista Chinese viewing point
  • Bars on the beach serving great Capirinhas
  • Ipanema surfing spot
  • Local cafe next to Katia home with great food and friendly locals

More photos here!

São Paulo

The flight to Sao Paulo from Istanbul took 12,5 hours and that was the longest flight in our lives. Anyway, last year we flew 3 times to Los Angeles, so it wasn’t that bad as every such flight takes ~11 hours. Sao Paulo airport looked really nice and wasn’t crowded at all. After we got our passports stamped and crossed the border, we had to get Uber as it was the most convenient way to reach city center. Flash forward, Uber has cost us 98 Reals which is ~33$. Ordinary taxi would have cost ~140 Reals while bus + metro would be ~50 Reals per person, so ~100 Reals in total. Uber driver was nice, car was new and in ~35min we reached our destination in Sao Paulo center.

We used Couchsurfing and found Vicente who agreed to host us for 3 nights. He is a lawyer, lives in 16 floor apartment building and also has an office in the same building. He has been hosting Dutch and Chilean girls already, so he gave us another apartment he has in the same building. It was small, but had everything we need: a couple mattresses and shower. Vicente also helped us to plan our days by explaining all the main sights and how to get there and we also went to eat out a few times together. So in general our first Couchsurfing experience in South America was really great!

The first evening when we arrived there was a weekly Couchsurfing gathering in downtown, so we went there with Vicente and girls. There was ~30-40 other hosts and couchsurfers inside already when we arrived. It was a good chance to chat to fellow couchsurfers and to have the first capirinha in Brazil. It was actually really strong and as we found out in the next couple of days it wasn’t an exception. Brazilians like their drinks strong or very strong. It was also a funny moment when we got asked where are we from and when we said that we’re from Vilnius, the guy we talked to said “oh that’s the city where mayor is crushing illegally parked cars with tanks, it would be nice to have the same mayor in Sao Paulo”. So that was a nice surprise to hear that this Zuokas’ PR thing got noticed in another side of the world as well.

The next day we walked to the Old Town or how local call it “the oldest downtown” (there is also new Downtown and the newest Downtown). On the way we also had a chance to change money in the “touristic agency” which apparently has the better exchange rate than banks (definitely better than in airport where I was offered 225 Reals for 100$ while it should be ~300 Reals. I kindly declined). The exchange place was well secured with ~7-8 guards.
The next thing we went to was a Cathedral which is nice, looks old, but was actually built only in the last century. The surrounding of the Cathedral is not the safest place in the city especially having in mind that next to is a park where all the “crack heads” are gathering to do drugs. The story behind it is that for a long time all those people were scattered across the city, but as ordinary people didn’t like them very much they have been getting hurt or even killed in streets. So for some reason they started gathering in that park in front of Cathedral (some say it’s because there is a lot of police, so they feel safe).

Then we went to see the first house in Sao Paulo which was built in 16th century. It looked very similar to Spanish Mission building in California, so I guess the purpose of that building was similar here as well. After it we went to a building which used to be the main office of Bank of Brazil. Now it’s used as an art museum with paintings from such artists as Picasso or Dali. They also have original vault doors preserved which was really interesting to see.

Another thing which draw our attention is that it can suddenly change from feeling “safe” to “not so safe” by just walking a few blocks. For example, we have been walking to see another church and everything looked nice until we entered the park behind it. There were a few hookers (behind the church!), some strange looking people, so we didn’t stay there very long. We have also noticed a few high-rise abandoned buildings (30-40 floors) which used to normal apartment buildings some time ago, then they became slumps while finally city government cleared them and now they are just empty, standing in the middle of the city. Actually a few buildings seemed to still have some residents, so it might be that people are still living in them even if it’s probably very dangerous.

We also went up to the highest (or one of the highest) building in the city (Santander tower). Surprisingly it didn’t cost anything to go up and check a nice panoramic view of the city. Usually there is a big line waiting to go up, but we got lucky and waited only ~20 minutes. After going down we went to have lunch as on Wednesdays most of the places serve dish called Feijoada which was highly recommended by our host Vicente. It’s hard to describe, but it’s basically a combination of a few things: pork stew, rise, beans, some greens, crushed corn (not sure) and oranges. The dish was really good and big(!), I’m quite sure it would have been enough to take one for us two, but we didn’t know that when ordering.
On the same say we also went to Mercado – the big market selling all kinds of food: fruits, meat, spices, fish etc. It’s nice, but actually quite expensive, so it’s better to buy e.g. fruits somewhere else (in the street). The last thing we saw that day was a train station and the park behind it. The park is big and nice, but apparently not always safe. We saw some police in front of it, so decided that it’s safe to go and it actually didn’t feel dangerous in any way inside.

The next day we spent in Ibirapuera park which is one of the biggest parks in the world and has 10 museums in it. We went just to one of them – Afro-Brazilian museum which was really interesting to see and learn about this culture. The park itself is really nice, lots of green spaces, a few ponds with lots of birds, running/cycling tracks, picnic places etc. It’s well maintained and clean, so definitely worth a visit.
On the last day in Sao Paulo, we went to a Botanical garden of Sao Paulo which is another great park. It cost only 5 Reals to enter and is quite big. In addition to some nice plants we also saw monkeys that actually live in the park, so with all other animals like birds it’s actually like a small zoo as well.

After this we packed our things and took overnight bus to Rio de Janeiro. More from there soon!

Photos here!