Friday, 1 May 2020

Brazil. Islands and Carnivals

In my last post "Colombia, Coffee and Culture"  I wrote  about our lovely stay in Manizales.

It was during this time that Pat had a conversation with a fellow traveler Fran Calder .

"We are in Brazil and are hoping to go to the Carnival in Rio"
"We have always fancied that"
"Why don't you come"
"That's a good idea"

Within 2 days the trip was planned, it started as a long weekend in Rio de Janeiro and finished up as a   month long  trip to Salvador, Coastal Islands, Buzios, Rio de Janeiro and Foz do Iguacu.

Being independent travelers the trip was planned with military precision. Flights, Hotels, Excursions, Hire Cars and Transfers were all booked . It became so complicated that I even had to make a spreadsheet that reminded us what was going to happen on each day. 

The final plan for the 30 day trip was 8 Flights, 6 hotels, 1 stay with a great friend, 3 boat trips, 1 hire car, and many day trips.

At this time the term Corona Virus hadn't hit the news. By the time we set off it was a mere rumor of a problem in the far east.  

Medellin to our first destination at Salvador took three flights. After a quick overnighter in a hotel we set off  towards the island of Boipeba. A ferry, 4 hour taxi and small boat trip and 8 hours later we landed at the small dock on the island.

In order to keep the island in good ecological health there are no cars allowed. There is however, a handful of quad bikes. We hired two local guys with wheel barrows to carry our luggage to the quad bike station. 

Twenty minutes later the Quad bikes delivered us to our island paradise , a small hut on the beach in the village of Morere.

What a slice of heaven. Turquoise seas, golden sand humming birds  and no vehicles. Chilling out, swimming and snorkeling  were the order of the day. 

The boat the to neighboring island of Tinhare only took a few minutes and on this island a small number of vehicles were allowed. Transfer to the hotel was in a Landrover, and the route along the beach took an hour. Pat was grinning like a Cheshire Cat and felt that we were back overlanding

In order to cut down the physical length of some of my blog posts I have now adopted the slide show approach. I hope it makes viewing it a bit easier.

We survived the boat journey back to Salvador without incident, despite some websites referring to it as the Vomit Comet . Two hours of total unpleasantness. Most of the crew were armed with mops and buckets and were very busy.

The historic Colonial town of Salvador Bahia ( aka Salvador or The Land of the Drum ) was the original capital of Brazil and was founded by the Portuguese in the mid 1500's.

Its location and growth was sadly born on the back of the slaving industry that thrived in the Americas.

Still to this day the Afro / Brazilian culture is what makes this place amazing and unique.

The old center of Pelourinho was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985.  This would be our home for the next few days . Pat had booked a beautiful hotel that overlooked the main street. The view from our window would make you think  you were in Lisbon or Porto.

When the term Carnival and Brazil are used in the same sentence you automatically think of Rio de Janeiro. However, carnival season in Brazil is national and nearly any town of note will have its own Carnival. Salvador Bahia is no exception and by design we hit town right in the middle of it.

As you will see later in this post, the Rio Carnival is enormous. It's all about floats, costumes and parades. The Salvador Carnival is totally different. Here it is all about communities, culture and most importantly Music. The weapon of choice in any Salvador band is the Drum. Literally for 24 hours a day during our stay there was never a minute that you couldn't hear the sound of drums. 

I cannot describe the feeling of watching a drum band with over 100 members. It actually stirs up emotions.  

The Drum phenomena known as Olodum was created to combat barriers within the community and unite people who shared a common interest, Music and drums.

It was fantastic to see large bands made up of every aspect of the community. Old, young, male, female  indigenous and immigrant, rich or poor all shoulder to shoulder.

Olodum works.


A fantastic example of these drums in action can be seen in this, slightly dated, video by Paul Simon which was filmed in the streets of Salvador. It's quite a long video, feel free to move on if its not your type of music

The silhouetted Martial Art / Acrobatic  / Dance routine shown at each end of this video is known as  "Capoeira." It is a practice that dates back to times of slavery with its origins in Angola. Although the martial art element has been declared illegal, mock combats are common place in the street theatre that can be seen during carnival.

Salvador was alive, The music never stopped and the people never slept. Unlike many  European festivals , alcohol appeared to play little or no part in the festivities. 

Rio de Janiero was our next destination. 

This huge sprawling city on the South east  Atlantic Coast is home to about 12 million people. Unbelievably, during Carnival season an additional 5 million tourist arrive. 

The world famous city views were streamed into nearly every home on the planet when the Olympic Games was hosted there in 2016.

This city has opposite ends of the social spectrum living on top of each other.  Apartments costing millions of dollars overlooking the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema are literally just a few minutes walk from the densely populated Favelas built near vertically on the hills behind them.

Probably the most diverse city in the whole of South America 

One of Pat's wonderful friends and fellow traveller  "Roberta," who we had met in Chile two years earlier, lives on the outskirts of the city by the beach in the area of Tijuca. Foolishly, Roberta once said "If you are ever in Rio come and stay."  Not sure she meant 6 nights, but she was the perfect host, and we loved getting to know her better. Staying in her beautiful apartment was a highlight.   Thanks Roberta we cannot wait for our paths to cross in the future xx

Whilst there we also managed to catch up with the previously mentioned Fran Calder and her husband Doug.

The list of things to see in Rio is overwhelming. But the usual beaches, Statues and Mountains were lined up.

Sugar Loaf Mountain

Christ the Redeemer

Copacabana Beach

Copacabana Beach

Copacabana Beach

Ipanema Beach

The big attraction for all the visitors is Carnival.  Daily around the city, usually at beach locations, are mini Fiesta or Street Parties  known as Blocos. Sadly these have a bit of reputation for being unsafe for tourist, so we chose not to take part in these, bearing in mind that the rate of crimes and murders in this city is unbelievable. In an effort to cut the numbers of crimes down, the city now only permits some Blocos to occur between 7am and 10am.

Instead, we set our sights on the main event. The Samba Parade in the cities arena " The Sambadrome"

This event that runs over 4 nights, starting at 10pm and running through to daylight. 

The entire event is a huge competition between Samba Schools from the local communities. Each school spends the entire year creating their Floats, Costumes and Choreography, employing hundreds of participants and maybe thousands more behind the scenes.

The floats are enormous. We were sitting in the higher seats and still found ourselves almost looking up at some of them.

Each school gets one hour to walk the 600 meter route. Six Schools per night take part, with various themes ranging from Indigenous issues to the Circus and Movies. 

Winning this competition is akin to winning the world cup. 

The stadium has 90,000 spectator capacity and is packed every night. This is the same as Wembley Stadium in the UK or the Rose Bowl in Pasadena USA.

I must point out at this time that Corona Virus was still a low level, almost unheard of,  threat in South America.

Despite its reputation for high crime and violence, which I am sure exists in some areas, we never had any issues in Rio de Janeiro and never once felt at Risk. We loved it.

We love seeing locals playing unusual games. You may remember back in Filandia  the game involved throwing lumps of metal at explosives.

Here on the beach we saw a two person team sport that was a mix of   Football and Volley ball ( Soccer) . 
This imaginatively named "Footvolley" was a great spectator sport . We couldn't quite grasp the rules but using any part of the body to get the ball over the net seemed acceptable

Buzios lies in the Atlantic Coast about 175 km directly east of Rio de Janiero. Its a very popular sea side resort and many people from Rio have second homes here .

We went there for 5 nights..... It rained .

Our final port of call was a location that had been on our Bucket List since before this trip was planned, but we had never been able to get there.  The nearest occasion we had was when we first arrived in Uruguay. At this time we were about 1500 km away but decided to head south in the opposite direction.

Foz do Iguazu lies on the Brazilian side of a three way border between Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay. 

The borders between these countries is clearly defined by the T shaped confluence of the rivers Parana and Iguazu.

The attraction that brings in many thousands of tourist is the magnificent water falls that lie between Brazil and Argentina. These can be viewed from both sides.

Probably one of the most spectacular natural occurrences I have seen.
From the Brazilian side you can take a boat ride up river near the base of the falls and view them afar on a walkway. However, from the Argentinian side you can get really close and stare right down the phenomena known as the "Devils Throat" 

Due to the water levels being a little lower than usual , we were unable to take the boat ride to the foot of the falls on the Argentinian side.

Another great, but completely unnatural, feet of engineering in Foz do Iguazu is the Itaipu Dam.

This 8 km long structure holds back the Parana river between Brazil and Paraguay. 

Built over 13 years starting in 1971,  this  joint venture between both countries  is physically the second largest Hydro Electric Dam in the world being only slightly smaller than the famous Three Gorges Dam in China. However, the Itaipu Dam actually produces more electricity.  

The 1350 square Kilometres of reservoir feeds 20 Generators that can annually produce in excess of 90 Billion KW of energy.

The power is split 50/50 between Brazil and Paraguay, however Paraguay then sells most of their share back to Brazil giving the Brazilians 90% of the production .

After 3 long flights we eventually returned back  to Cloud 9 in Medellin Colombia.

By now the Corona Virus had really taken a grip in Europe.

The Colombian Authorities were quick to respond imposing regional and national lockdown measures.

However, we soon realized that if the virus got a similar hold as it had in Europe , that it was unlikely that the Colombian Health Services would cope.

In view of this, and our imposed travel restrictions,  we decided to try and get back to the UK. 

The problem, was that we weren't the only expats trying to return home, so all the flights were over subscribed ten fold.  With near 70% of international flights out of Bogota being cancelled we were reluctant to move from the comfort of our truck without an absolute assurance that we could make it all the way back to the UK. The thought of spending days sleeping on the Airport floor wasn't appealing.

The camp site we were on had other campers from Germany, America, France and Austria.  We kept hearing of rescue flights from all these countries picking up stranded Nationals, except British ones.

The British Embassy in Bogota rang us several times a day but just couldn't assure us of a viable escape plan. They had no rescue planes organised.

The internal flights were due to cease on the Wednesday , meaning that it would then be impossible to escape as there would be no way to get to Bogota. 

Despite Pat having spent every waking minute of  an entire week scouring the flights, we had  just about resigned ourselves to the fact that returning to the UK was just out of reach. Then, at the last minute, Pat managed to spot a French flight to Paris leaving at 5 minutes past midnight on the Wednesday morning.

Thinking if we can get to Europe then we are home and dry, the decision was made " Go for it "

Luckily for us we had already booked a flight from Medellin to Bogota . This flight was originally booked  for 3 days earlier but had been cancelled and re scheduled twice. By chance  its latest time slot fitted in exactly with these new plans. However, we knew that if this flight was cancelled for a third time our entire escape plan would collapse at the first hurdle.  

The whole journey was a very fragile chain of events that could have left us stranded at any stage. Pat was keen to take the chance as she was eager to get home. I , on the other hand,  was very reluctant to even set off with the odds of success against us.

This and disputes over how much luggage we should take made the whole experience very stressful to say the least

Making the choice to leave our comfortable home hoping that our journey will be successful was a big leap of faith. Especially knowing that by the time we arrived in Bogota our return option to the truck would be closed as internal flights would have ceased . 

This move had the potential of leaving us stranded in a cheap hotel in Bogota for several months if the international flights failed. We know fellow travelers  that even now ( 6 weeks later ) are still trapped midway on their journey, confined to their hotel rooms. 

It was a big gamble to say the least

Even as we set off we hadn't yet finalised the last stages of the Journey between Paris and the UK.

Whilst sitting on the marble steps ( All the benches and trolleys had been removed ) in Medellin airport waiting for our flight to Bogota , Pat managed to book the last two seats on the last British Airways flight to the UK from Paris. 

We got to Paris to discover that there had been 5 flights from Charles de Gaulle to Heathrow scheduled that day and the first 4 had been cancelled, leaving our flight as the last chance. We watched the departures board constantly and sighed with relief when our boarding was announced. 

The airports were deserted and Charles de Gaulle looked like a scene from a Science Fiction disaster movie.  The usually busy halls full of rushing travelers were deserted.   Very Spooky.

Unbelievable it appeared that most of the previous cancelled passengers had made alternative arrangements and we flew back to the UK with only 20 people on the whole plane.  

Upon Arrival in the UK we fully expected to be delayed by the Immigration Services  and questioned about our journey. Surely in a crisis of this nature monitoring or even controlling entrants into the country would a high priority, especially as the UK had already implemented lockdown measures at this stage.

You guessed it.  Nothing. Between landing and walking out into the street we didn't speak to one other person. Our passports were swiped in a machine and Customs were completely deserted. 

Although a very long journey it all went remarkably well and we are currently , like everyone else , in a lockdown situation, staying with family.

Who knows when we will see Cloud 9 again.

Hasta Luego

Tuesday, 31 March 2020

Colombia. Coffee and Culture

Feeling a bit worn out from Christmas and New Year, and upon recommendation, we headed for what was described as a small bit of paradise outside the historic city of Manizales.

As we entered the town , we hit the congestion. Manizales was just starting to celebrate its Feria (Fair). Thousands of tourist flock to this event and most of the industry in the area packs up for the week to take part in this annual festival, which sadly revolved around the historic and once popular practice of "Bull Fighting"

Manizales is one of the few remaining locations in Colombia that has an active Bull Ring. Although distasteful to many, Bull Fighting has played a huge part in Colombian culture and tradition. For the Matadors who take part, winning a tournament is similar to winning an Olympic gold medal or the World Cup.  Statues of previous immortal heroes adorn the town.

Having spent an hour or so feeding though the very steep streets of the town we arrived  at Camping Santa Luis perched on the very  top of large hill about 2 km outside town.

Our online Camp site guide ( ioverlander )  and some friends who had recently visited the site both suggested that the size of our vehicle wouldn't be a problem.  The last 100m of the the long single track pathway to the site got narrower and narrower. With 25m to go and our mirrors folded back we ground to a halt. A bank of earth on the right, a steep drop on the left and overhanging trees stopped us in our tracks with no way forward or backward.

After  a few stressful minutes salvation appeared in the form of the owner Patricia, armed with a large saw and a shovel. Thirty minutes later the path was 1 meter wider and the trees were all looking trimmed.

The descriptions were  correct. The site was perched on an outcrop with  270 degree views into 3 different valleys. It was fantastic.

The owner Patricia was wonderful, and we knew that leaving this place wasn't going to be easy.

Our plan was to stay for the weekend. However, two weeks later we were still struggling to get the enthusiasm to pack up and leave. It was heaven. We were lucky enough to meet Catalina and Juan, from Bogota  . Wonderful people who very kindly asked us to join them on a coffee plantation tour called           " Hacienda Venecia. This place couldn't have been more different to the small family run plantation we visited previously in Salento. Many of the larger plantations work in conjunction with other similar ones to ensure a stable supply and yield. Unlike the Salento plantation this one employed hundreds of mainly seasonal workers to plant, grow, harvest and prepare the coffee beans for roasting. 

At the end of a long hot tour, discovering that the plantation also had a swimming pool was a bonus 

Whilst chilling out at camp in Santa Luis, two other great things happened. Firstly we got a surprise visit from a fellow traveller "Francis" who we had previously met in Filandia over Christmas  and secondly Pat decided we needed a holiday in Brazil. Buts that's another story for a later blog entry. 

The day came when we had to leave and tears were shed when saying farewell to the beautiful owner Patricia, who had made our stay there very special.

The three and a half hour , 128 km, drive to the pretty town of Jardin took 2 days. It was mostly off road but a really great drive .

Jardin is a similar town to Filandia in that it revolves around a large colourfully painted town square, flanked with nice restaurants and cafe's. A pleasant place for a few days. 

Throughout Ecuador and Colombia we have made several efforts to get a glimpse of a rare bird known as "The Cock of the Rock".

Rumour  had it that they might be seen in a private garden on the edge of town. Armed with our best anoraks and binoculars we set off for the location.

We got lucky 

The pretty town of Jerico will always be remembered for the worst reasons. 

Having spent three days camping at the take off point of a local Paragliding centre enjoying the beautiful views and the local town's festival, our peace was shattered.

By coincidence the festival in question was the Literary "Hay Festival". We tried to claim that we were delegates from the UK and that our surname proved that we were from the festivals founding family. Didn't work  

This location is on the bucket list for many experienced or would be paragliders and its easy to see why . It was beautiful, the steep views down into the valley below were stunning. We spent hours chatting with pilots from many nationalities who were waiting for the perfect moment to launch.

It was during the afternoon of day three that we heard a commotion occurring at the centre. Upon investigation we discovered that a very experienced American pilot  had not checked in upon landing and his personal GPS was suggesting that he was located in a very dense jungle area and hadn't moved for the the last two hours.

Everyone was very concerned and a search and rescue  party was  assembled. I obviously grabbed some water, a couple of torches and my boots and set off , hoping for the best.

We drove to as near as we could get to the signal and along with some volunteer firemen we set of into the night on foot. The high altitude, humidity, constant steep incline and millions of biting insects made the 3 hour hike into the dense forest pretty tough. Eventually with our lungs screaming  and hearts beating out of our chests we arrived at an area that was within 25 meters of the GPS beacon. 

Despite shouting and searching we could not find the pilots exact location.   

We found ourselves standing on the top edge of a very high cliff that was densely covered in thick vegetation.

Having searched the area at the top to no avail we could only conclude that the pilot must either be trapped out of site on the cliff face or at the bottom of the cliff.

The fire Officers very carefully lowered themselves over the cliff on what could only be described as a totally inadequate piece of rope.  After several descents they announced that they could see the canopy of the glider entangled in the vegetation on the cliff about 10 meters below them. They couldn't however see the pilot or descend any lower as the rope was just too short.

Getting to him was impossible.

At 3 am we all sat on the top of the cliff and made the very painful decision that we were unable to progress any further and despite locating the pilot, we had to abandon the rescue and return to base. 

The journey back down was very quiet and everyones spirits were rock bottom.

The next day a search and rescue team was from Medellin was despatched and very sadly the Pilots body was recovered from the cliff  face. 

This was a very very sad experience. 

We are not really city people, preferring to spend our time relaxing in open spaces and countryside. 

We do however make an effort, but usually find that a few days in a city is our maximum. Medellin was no exception.

Once the Murder capital of the world, Medellin has over the last decade cleaned its act up and has now become very popular tourist destination. This change has partly come about by the glamorising of the ruthless drug dealing murderer Pablo Escobar who lived there. 

I have no doubt people will forget what he stood for and the thousands of people he murdered.  In 20 years time we will all be wearing T shirts with the a black and white image of his face on it, like Che Guavara .

We camped in the city in a small town square and did the tour. We didnt do the Escobar tour opting for the cultural experience.

Medellin, in the district of Antioquia, is Colombia second largest city and is home to about 2.5 million people. 

It is divided into "Communes" which have both names and numbers. One popular Commune for tourists is that of "San Javier" also known as district 13.

This area was once the most violent, lawless regions. It was ruled totally by the drug cartels. With one of the highest murder rates in the world Comuna 13 was not on the tourist menu.  Its steep hillside Favelas look across and down onto the city. 

Now however, after huge investment and law enforcement, it has become probably the number one attraction in the city. People come from all over the world to see the amazing street art, painted by locals. 

Young people who's futures would have been uncertain now embrace the changes by turning their attention to more creative trades.

Another very popular feature in the city centre is Plaza Botero. This is the home of 23 Bronze sculptures that were created by locally born artist Fernando Botero. 

These figures are famous for their unique style, depicting slightly out of proprtion characters. 

Although, Botero now resides in Italy he still invests a huge amount promoting culture and art within the city. 

Our tour guides for the day were Luis and Carolina of Super Tours Medellin . Just Brilliant. Very Recommended 

Still within the region of Antioquia, the Lake district of Guatape lies about 100km east of Medellin.

This large man made lake called the "Penol Guatape Reservoir" is overlooked by a peculiar outcrop of stone called the "Piedra de Penol".   Its summit is 200m above the lake and it takes 649 steps to reach the top.

Colombia is without doubt a beautiful country full of amazing landscapes and hidden gems.

Hasta Luego