But first… Paraty
On our way to Rio we have one more stop which is Paraty, a coastal town worth exploring. To get there, we follow the tropical coastline between Sao Paolo and Rio de Janeiro, which is a beautiful drive with a ‘praia’-exit every other kilometer or so leading to the most stunning beaches. To break up the drive there we thus take a beach lunch break of a few hours and enjoy the really warm waters of one of the bays.
We stay in a cozy Pousada, a bit uphill from the town, where we arrive at the end of the day and relax with some ‘hands-on’ pool billiard. The next morning we start feeling the damp heat, which is a real change from our earlier stays, even the sticky one in Praia Grande, but nothing a fan can not handle. We have the town of Paraty on the plan today, some beach relaxation (a must) and a waterfall slide to top it off.
Paraty town is a colonial town that is really nicely preserved and kept, especially its small old town part. We park the car just outside of it, planning to climb up to the fort first, but as we get there (ignoring the first ‘closed’-sign on the trail) the gates are really locked with a security guard there. Seems like the ever present landslides caused by the heavy rainfalls has made this promontory also unstable, so we stroll down hill again to get into the old town.
The old town is a colorful affaire, with cobble stone streets lined with seemingly freshly painted buildings that contain artisanal shops and quaint cafes. The waterfront is riddled with even more colorful boats luring tourists in to take a ride with them along the coast and to some of the islands nearby. As we walk through town the tide is coming up, which actually means the streets start to get wet! It is definitely a first we have seen a trumpetfish swim by from the sidewalk :-). Apparently this always happen and is usually curbside high, but only last week the water came one meter high, which by the looks of it has been cleaned up thoroughly right after, because you would not know by the looks of it.
For beach time we take a short half hour drive across a very steep hill to Trindade. As we do so the clouds gather and it does not look great, but as the water is so warm (again potentially to Dutch standards) that does not stop us from spending a few hours in the waves and on the beach, as it actually stays dry. But as we pack up and leave for our waterfall adventure the rain starts to pour in the tropical way it can, and upon arrival the guard at the parking lot tells us it is too dangerous now to take the slide down. Disappointing, but safety comes first, so we go back and spend the rest of the late afternoon under the terraced roof of our pousada looking at the rain pouring down.
Rio in the rain?
The rain continues to pour all night, and so we have to fully skip the waterfall plan. This means we have a relaxing breakfast and only plan to drive to Rio today, along the coast we have come to love so far. We truly see the effects of rainfall with all the mud sliding across the streets and previous landslides pushing out again, and keep our fingers crossed that the road will be okay as the detour would be a hefty chore! While it continues to pour, the road seems fine and even quieter then normal, so we make good time. 1 stop is getting a raincoat for Luc at Decathlon (we lost his along the way… as we have with several things along the road :-)), and some groceries before driving into the big city.
There is one big reason for our speed across the coast of Brazil: CARNAVAL!!! Yes it is normally held in february/march, but due to Covid, it has been postponed for 2 months to exactly fit our travel schedule (more or less ;-)). With the competition part of the samba schools being over, the only part left is the ‘champions’ parade’, where the 6 best schools do their parades again as a final send off of the Rio Carnival. We are just in time to catch this feast, one that will take place in the Sambadrome (a road turned into stadium) and starts as of 21:30… Not really a child friendly time, but we decide that we are ok with a few days of grumpiness for this once in a lifetime event.
And we are not disappointed. We pick our tickets up at a hotel nearby, and have dinner at home to fill our stomachs. We got free T-shirts ( they only had L or bigger) that we made into an outfit looking good for us, and head out to the metro to take the 30-minute ride to the stadium. The atmosphere is very relaxed, this year due to Covid the ‘Bloco’s’ or streetparties are still not allowed, so we have really no issues getting around town with the kids. Being about 1 hour early means we can select a spot in our grandstand, so we opt for the driest benches (after the rain) a few rows up from the fence which are already taken.
The entire night was planned to have rain (the fellas selling ponchos outside the stadium had some good business), but of course we took our own that doubled as cushions for our butts. Luckily for us the forecast was completely off and we experiences a rain-free Carnival extravaganza. The show is incredible, every samba school has 65-75 minutes to fill the promenade with their show, every show is kicked off with fireworks, and the night program is 6 schools in total! After the first one the boys ask if it is over, but to their delight there are still 5 to come! It truly is spectacular, and as we told our boys we would stay until the moment they don’t enjoy it anymore they soldier on.
From floats with animals and castles, from dancers in the skimpiest dress to the most elaborate costumes, you can see it all in every single samba school showing the fruits of their 1-year labor on these parade grounds. Most interesting are the elements that tackle the current affairs such as racism, equality and pride, something we see in our carnivals as well but that are dramatically envisioned here. The boys are enthralled with the purely visual spectacle, but also gather the inputs from the scenes displayed, while dancing to the beat of the 1 song per samba school that goes on repeat for more than 1 hour. If you ever have the opportunity to go – GO FOR IT!!
We finally give up after 3 schools (halfway through), at 1am, and walk back to the underground station. On our way we pass the next floats and schools setting up for their run in the samba drome, a unique backstage peek at the prep, and as we take the metro, those who are already done also make their way home. Completely exhausted but incredibly satisfied with the experience (although there was a slight hit of FOMO coming on when we left), we turn into our beds and dream of all the glitter and spectacle we have seen.
The rest of Rio
It sounds ridiculous, but when you have experience carnival, the rest of Rio truly is ‘the rest of Rio’. That does not take away the joy and entertainment of it, but it is a step back from the superlatives of carnival. There is however no better way to spend your ‘post-carnival’ day then a relaxing Sunday on the famous Copacabana beach. Less than 5 minutes from our apartment we take to the beach and very quickly the boys makes friends with whom they share their 2 beach props; bodyboard and shovel.
Highlight for the parents; watching all the people pass by, and even more entertaining all the salespeople. It is incredible what you can get to eat and drink by simply staying put and waiting for people to pass. Coming from a very different beach town, it is really cool to just watch the parade of hamburgers (grilled on a tiny grill on the spot), shrip skewers, ice cream, drinks, and of course our favorite; Caipirinhas. We let the prepped ones pass us by and wait for the guy that does them fresh right in front of us; One of the best Caipirinhas we have had (and mom has had plenty) so needless to say that when we run out the same guy did not stroll very far and provided a refill… guess he recognizes return customers a mile away :-).
The next day it is of course time to tackle the man on the mountain; Cristo Redentor, the epiphany of everything Rio. To get there there are multiple options, but we are of course up for a challenge so we go for the climb up the mountain from the side of Parque Lage. The park itself is a beautiful spot of tropical forest with all kinds of nooks and crannies with caves, palaces and ponds, really worth exploring in itself, but the goal is clear: a 600m climb up the Corcovado. There are park guards at the start of the trail where you sign into the sheet (in case you don’t make it and they need a search party? :-)) and start your trek.
We are mostly triggered by the promise of seeing monkeys on this trail, as we are keen on adding some more animals on our wish list. We are not disappointed as only a few minutes into the climb we already have our first monkeys overhead, throwing leaves down and showing their incredible acrobatic skills by jumping from one tree to the other. This of course inspires the boys to try the same, but the lack of a tail turns out to be challenging. Only a few minutes later we are surprised by a troop of Sagui monkeys, that leisurely sit at the side of the trail, almost waiting for us. A quick Google search later tells us these cheeky monkeys are very keen on getting anything from humans, and of course there are people stupid enough to feed them, creating this very unnatural behavior. They are incredibly cute though, and being able to get close to them is a real treat for all of us.
After almost 2hours of serious climbing, we make it to the top and immediately get hit with the touristy part of this landmark. Entry fees, hundreds of people (where there were hardly any on the trail), all scrambling to get the perfect shot of the Crist, sometimes leading to a not so friendly atmosphere… odd. The views are incredibly though, as luckily the clouds disappear from time to time and give us stellar views all over the city underneath us.
Now of course after the climb we would not get the boys to climb down as well, and between taking a tourist van or the metro style tram down, we take the latter to give the legs some rest until our next climb. The metro is a fun ride through the forest again, at places really going very steep and again giving some very nice views as it slowly makes its way down.
Once we arrive at the bottom of the metro ride we are in a spot with not much around and the tummies are rumbling so we search for a bakery to get some lunch for all. Thankfully ‘padarias’ are never far in Brazil, and we quickly find one with some very tasty and cheezy treats. We walk a bit further to the bottom of a very long staircase where we eat our lunch, and gather some momentum to take on the next climb up (and motivate the boys to do so). The stairs are a whopping 260 steps and then we still need to walk a slow winding road up, but the reward is great: The small one-cart tram that goes down into the city.
It is one of those really old ones, like we have seen in Lisboa as well, and it is a rackety ride down through pretty cobbled streets and alleyways. We get off right before the Arcos da Lapa, as we want to see the Selaron staircase which is closeby. The staircase is fully set in colorful tiles, many from all over the world, creating a beautiful mosaic all the way up the stairs. We come down the stairs from a pretty dreary street, and going around the corner we realise the tourist crowd comes from below and only cover the first part of the steps – in big numbers!
It is a lot of fun to look for tiles from the Netherlands and other countries we know, and of course to climb on and slide down some of the tiled sides of the stairs. Getting down we cross the square of the Arcos, and of course wait for the tram to cross it for a nice shot of our little tram. Walking through this part of the city we take a small detour to visit a magical place: the Royal Portuguese Cabinet of Reading. It is nothing short of Hogwarts atmosphere, a stunning library you can just walk into and gaze at the walls filled with books, and the beautiful decorations around it. Luc is sure he found the forbidden section as well, so it must be a truly magical place!
From there, the fun is not over yet in this jam-packed Rio excursion as we take the subway out towards Sugarloaf Mountain. The mountain juts out from the ocean and its main attraction is the cable cart taking you to the top. Being only the third one built in the world more than 100 years ago, it was a true wonder of engineering and a major tourist draw for over a century. In 1972 they did a massive rehaul and modernized the cart to what it is today, with much more capacity and speed going up, but the old trains are still displayed to give you an idea of how it must have been back in the day.
We came out specifically at the end of the day to see the sunset and hopefully get a glimpse of Crist as well, but while we get a beautiful skyline, the Corcovado stays shrouded in clouds, obstructing our view. It is a great adventure going up though – sometimes being inside the clouds ourselves – and the lights at the bottom are beautiful to watch. We spend as much time as we can (until it closes) before going down to our last stop: dinner! Now this is supposed to be a special treat, as we have watched an episode of ‘Somebody feed Phil’ about Rio de Janeiro, which features a BBQ restaurant.
The concept is quite simple: there is a buffet with all kinds of food, but the star of the show are the meats that the waiters walk around with and cut you a piece of if you are interested. You show your interest by putting down your sticker; Green is a ‘yes please’, Red is a ‘not this time, maybe later’. So when we look for a restaurant the boys are only focused on whether there are these stickers on the table, and the first one they find we HAVE to go in and eat there. It is a really fun experience, again we find ourselves not being very vegetarian, but the food is delicious and we get to try some new stuff again (chicken hearts anyone?). All in all a perfect end to a great day of sightseeing in Rio de Janeiro – a city we enjoyed much more than we expected!
Tiradentes & Ouro Preto, colonial towns
With Brazil being such a huge country we have to make some calls on where to go. Everybody recommends the north east coastline, but it really is impossible for us to drive all the way there, we we bid the coastline goodbye and drive northbound from Rio into the countryside of the next state: Minas Gerais. As the name suggests, it gets its roots from a lot of mining done back in the day, and the state is also dotted with very pretty colonial towns. We decide to tackle 2 of them; Tiradentes and Ouro Preto.
Tiradentes is the smallest one, and we only spend a few hours in the evening there walking around and having a delicious pizza in a restaurant as we are staying in a B&B this time just outside of town . The town has a real popular feel to it, but it is obviously out of season so it is very relaxing and pretty to wonder around. We even get a good look at the true ‘van der Valk’ tucan that greets us from a palmtree nearby.
Ouro Preto is a bigger town and not so far away from Tiradentes, so we arrive there right after lunch so we have the entire afternoon to explore. Unfortunately Sven has fallen ill (there was bound to be some stomach trouble at some point of our journey, so here it is) and sits this one out at our apartment, so the boys and mom go out and train those leg muscles across the very steep hills of Ouro Preto!
Known for its many churches, we visit several of them while crossing the hills several times through cobbled streets, small alleyways and stairs. Every church seems to have a different feel and inside, while the outside is quite similar for all. So going into a church is every time a surprise, and leaves us mesmerized at times with the color and detailed artwork inside.
As we walk the streets we pass a house where we hear woodworking going on, and as Luc sticks his head through the window we are invited to come in and have a look! The man is working on a very beautiful door so we watch as he carefully chisels out the wood, and even let’s Luc have a go, which turns out to be not that easy :-). We continue on to the last of the churches the furthest away from our apartment climbing as we go, feeling our muscles ache but getting rewarded with beautiful views of Ouro Preto and its surroundings. The boys even get treated to a free souvenir on the ‘stone artisan’-market, where a craftsman carves their names into a stone pyramid for them to keep…
Our last stop in town is one of the few hundred gold mines that used to be in the urban limits, now a tourist attraction to learn about the gold mining done here and its history. We walk into the mountain for 160 meters through a very tight tunnel with sometimes very low ceilings, and hear the stories of the slaves that were brought here to work and how they were treated to be as well equipped as possible to work these small and tight spaces. This included castrating tall men to avoid tall descendants, but also doing this to teenage children to stunt their growth, all with the same purpose of working them to the bones.
After visiting the US and learning about their slavery history it was interesting to realize that Brazil has a very big slavery background as well (accounting for some 40% of all African slaves brought overseas!) and how this has shaped its society nowadays. The boys were very impressed with the fact that children their age would spend hours underground working hard and not going to school, only to be fed some polenta and come back the next day.
With still a few ups and downs ahead of us it is time to put some energy back into the bodies with our favorite treat: Ice-cream!!! Turns out to be a special one with even hot chocolate sauce in the tip of the cone, so needless to say the appetite for dinner was gone after this, but well-deserved. Unfortunately Sven is not yet feeling better, so we tread lightly and hit the beds… that turn out to be horrible (the boxspring without the required mattress/topper) so no good bedrest for us!
Next week: Going westbound to the Pantanal