Brazil, April 2014

While I have been in Brazil before, so far I visited only the northern coast and hadn't been to the southern parts of the country.

But this time, I got to see a bit more of southern Brazil and spent some time in the city and state of São Paulo.

One thing that surprised me when preparing for the trip was that there aren't any significant attractions in São Paulo itself. It's a large city, but it doesn't have any particularly interesting places to visit. It seems to be more of an 'event' city (where lots of things happen and it's fun if you go there) than an 'attraction' city (which has places worth going or interesting things to do for the whole year).

However, the city has some good restaurants and also a fairly filling mortadela sandwich at the old city market hall (Mercado Municipal).

Sao Paulo sandwich Sao Paulo sandwich

And that's the normal size sandwich. There's also a bigger version with a pound of meat available...

Besides eating, I spent most of a day in Ibirapuera Park, which is a large park more or less in the middle of the city of São Paulo (as far as such a geographical description makes sense for the city). The park has some nice paths for walking around, two lakes (one of them with fountains) a couple of old and distinguished looking trees and some buildings in 1950's style futuristic design.

Ibirapuera Park Ibirapuera Park Ibirapuera Park tree
Ibirapuera Park trees Ibirapuera Park Ibirapuera Park Oca building
Ibirapuera Park planetarium

While the buildings look interesting, it seems like they have outlived their usefulness.

The first dome shaped building (with the round windows) used to be an aeronautics museum as well as a folklore museum. Now it is just used for random exhibitions (like one on Chinese Art, when I was there). Given the size of the building, it probably didn't have a large aeronautics exhibit anyway. It seems like there was place for one full sized plane and maybe a couple of info posters.

The planetarium (the UFO shaped building with the yellow ring) wasn't in any good state either. It was "experiencing technical difficulties". For the time being it had "no defined date to return to activities". (Not that it would have made any difference - even if it is active, the only shows are on weekends.)

One thing that was open for visitors was the MAM, the Museum of Modern Art, which is a small museum focused on Brazilian modern art (not to be confused with the Museum of Contemporary Art, which hosts mostly European art and is across the street from Ibirapuera Park).

In any case, most of my experience of the city of São Paulo came from spending a day in the park and looking over (part of the) city from the roof of my hotel.

Bits of Sao Paulo Bits of Sao Paulo

But it had been obvious in advance that I wouldn't find much to do in the city of São Paulo and it would also not be the best place to just relax and do nothing. So I rented a car to be able to go to other places in the state of São Paulo.

So I went to Ilhabela.

Which took me a bit longer than expected.

I knew that it wouldn't be a good idea to drive in the city itself, since it is kind of famous for traffic jams and accidents, so I rented a car at the airport. As the international airport is already at the edge of the city and has good connections to the highway, this made things a bit easier. (I got to the airport by taxi, which made the inner-city driving the taxi driver's problem.)

Basically a good idea.

And for the first hour or so, I didn't encounter any problems.

But then I found out that, as it was 'Good Friday', a lot of people from the city were heading for the coast to spend the weekend there, so I got stuck in a traffic jam and the next 22 kilometers took five hours. So the whole trip from Guarulhos airport to Ilhabela (less than 200 km) took more than nine hours. Sigh.

I took it easy the next day, went for a short walk in the morning, had a quick look at the surroundings and spent most of the rest of it relaxing and reading in a hammock.

Ilhabela coast Ilhabela coast Ilhabela street Ilhabela houses

On the following day, it was time to hit the beaches.

Ilhabela is odd in respect to beaches - while all the lived in places are on the west side of the island, all the relevant beaches are on the east side.

And there is only one track across the island. (Formally, it's just a track for 4x4 vehicles, but unless it has been raining, any normal car would probably be able to cross the island as well.) So the choices for going to the beach are either using a off-road vehicle and go to Castelhanos beach (at the end of the cross-island track) or use a boat to go one of the other beaches.

Or do a combination of both. Take a boat to a couple of beaches, end up on Castelhanos beach and take the land route back from there. (Which is what I did.)

As I tend to sunburn easily, I was quite glad that the sky was overcast, although I assume that everyone else would have preferred clear blue skies.

Flexboat tour, Ilhabela Flexboat tour, Ilhabela Flexboat tour, Ilhabela

The skies cleared up a bit, so it got warmer when we hit the first beach,

Ilhabela beach Ilhabela coast Ilhabela coast

At least warm enough to hit the water and swim around a bit in the (reasonably) clear waters.

Ilhabela swimming Ilhabela sea waters Ilhabela swimming

Although it seems that swimming is not a popular activity at the beaches.

As I am not a 'beach dweller', I don't know what people are looking for in beaches. But it seems that the main reason for going to a beach in Brazil is social. You go there to take a picture of yourself at the beach and then sit down, order a drink, chat and move on to the next beach.

As an effect of this, there also doesn't seem to be an incentive to go to empty beaches. (Because there is nobody there...) So all boats go to the same beaches where all the other boats go, passing by the secluded and empty beaches in between.

And while I have no clue about 'Brazilian Beach Culture' (or anything related to beaches), I don't even suspect that the reason for this is commercial. While all the beaches we visited had plastic chairs and some sort of hut that sold drinks, even if there would be a commercial kick-back for tour operators to provide them with customers, the tour operators would make more money to pack some drinks in an ice box and sell them themselves.

So going to beaches where nobody else goes seems just inherently not to be attractive.

So after a cold drink, it was time to leave the beach and head for the next one.

Ilhabela coast Ilhabela coast Ilhabela beach
Ilhabela coast Ilhabela beach Ilhabela beach
Ilhabela beach Ilhabela beach

Even though it was a long weekend and a lot of people from São Paulo had headed for the coast, the beaches still were far from crowded. Even with everyone heading to the same places, it was still a relaxed place.

And the weather was nice too, at least for me. The center of the island has some high hills, so a lot of clouds were 'hanging' around the hilltops, but along the coast the clouds were lighter. So it wasn't too hot, but it didn't rain either,

Clouds in island center Ilhabela coast Nice weather at island coast Ilhabela coast

After a third boat trip we arrived at the main beach, Castelhanos.

Here it was a bit busier than on the previous beaches, since those could only be reached on the boat tours, while Castelhanos can also be reached directly by offroad vehicles.

Time for some lunch.

Fried shrimps

The bar's specialty drink had me confused for a moment, as I had no idea what "tangerine mad" was supposed to be, but a bit of guesswork revealed that it was just an unusual translation of "wild tangerine".

However, it took a bit of googling to figure out what kind of drink "Booty" was supposed to be.

Turns out that "saque" is a Portuguese word meaning (amongst others) "loot" or "plundered treasure", which can be translated to the English word "Booty" (even though that usually has other connotations as well), but "saque" is also the Portuguese spelling of Japanese rice wine or "sake", which makes a lot more sense.

Odd cocktail description

The beach (and street) dogs were all a bit scruffy looking and featured a fair amount of cuts and sores. But this one looked as if someone tried to re-paint the dog as well.

Beach dog

Leaving the beach is a bit odd.

For some reason everyone leaves at 4 pm.

While that is a reasonable time (as sunset is around 6 pm and you want to be back on the west side of the island by then), all tours leave at that time - there is no distribution over, let's say, an hour. (Admittedly they can't leave any time they like - the road across the island is 'one way' towards the beach until 3 pm and then 'one way' away from the beach afterwards. But still, the first tours could leave around 3 pm.)

Ilhabela brook Ilhabela brook

So after crossing a small brook, you get to the parking area.

Ilhabela east coast parking space Ilhabela east coast parking space

Which has room for about 120 vehicles. (This makes sense, as the number of vehicles per day on that road is restricted to 107, of which only 42 can be from individual travellers and 65 are reserved for tour operators and leaves some space for official vehicles and stuff like that.)

Assuming an average of eight people per vehicle, that means that even in high season there are less than a thousand people on that beach, which makes it busy, but not crowded.

But even when I was there (and there were about 200 people on the beach), everyone leaving the beach at the same time led to a bit of an offroad caravan.

Leaving Castelhanos beach

The whole road looked pretty much all the way like the images above - a dirt road, but a well maintained and flattened dirt road. Nothing that a normal car couldn't easily do as well.

But I have seen pictures that make the trip look like a real offroad driving adventure and read comments like "the 22km is not for the weak" and "due to the road's terrible condition ... only suitable for 4 wheel-drive vehicles". So I have no idea whether the pictures have been specifically taken after heavy rain, whether the road has recently been remade or whether the condition of the road has just been over-dramatized to make it sound more like an adventure than a bus ride. (I've also seen the statement about the beach itself that "Praia dos Castelhanos is long and wild and completely undeveloped", which seems to be significantly outdated.)

In any case, we made it back just after sunset.

Ilhabela evening

After one day of doing nothing and one day visiting the beaches, the next day was about to be a bit more active.


The destination was Bonete Beach, on the south side of the island.

There are no roads leading to that beach, so the only option is a twelve kilometer walk or a boot tour. Or a combination of those.

The difficulty of the trail is somewhat open to interpretation.

When I booked the tour, I was told it was a relaxed and easy walk.

The info sign at the start of the trail gives it a difficulty level of 'high' and a severity of environment of 4 (out of 5).

To be fair, the sign assumes you will walk the trail in both directions, but even then you will probably spend some time on the beach in between.

Bonete Beach trail sign

The main issue is the altitude profile of the path (the path itself is wide and easy to walk on). While the trail never goes really high, it has a fair share of ups and downs and you walk about 500 meters uphill (and downhill again) over the length of the trail, which can be a bit tiring.

Bonete Beach trail

A nice feature of the trail is that it crosses three 'waterfalls' (though 'cascades' might be more appropriate - there isn't much water actually falling).

The first one is easiest to cross - there's a bridge right next to it. The other ones need a bit of wading through the water, but that's easy. The water is at best knee deep and by the time you get there, you appreciate the refreshment.

Bridge crossing waterfall

It also has a nice natural pool and, conveniently, a bit of a slide as well.

Bonete trail cascade Bonete trail cascade Sliding down waterfall

For most of the trail there isn't much to see. It has trees on both sides, which makes it shaded, but doesn't allow much of a view. Only along the last few kilometers the trail opens up and provides a view of the coast and the beach ahead.

Bonete trail view Bonete trail view Bonete trail view Bonete trail view

And there is one more 'waterfall' to splash around in.

Bonete trail cascade

But there was one more obstacle to overcome before reaching the beach.

And that was one that wasn't widely advertised.

Almost every tourist guide about Ilhabela tells you about the 'borrachudos', some mosquito-like insects. And advises to use insect repellent. A lot. And at all times.

And while that might be useful information, the 'borrachudos' are at best a nuisance.

But Ilhabela has also about 20 species of snakes, including a couple of nasty ones.

It was only when I mentioned something about snakes in general that the guide mentioned that there were a lot of snakes on the island and he was worried about them.

After that, I wasn't quite sure whether the fact that he led me lead the way was because he was a good guide (as this allows the client to set the pace) or whether he was using me as a snake detector (so if someone accidentally steps on a snake, it would be me, not him).

Luckily, when I spotted a snake crossing the trail, it was far enough ahead and not close to us.

Snake on Ilhabela island

Supposedly, it was a harmless, non-venomous type. Presumably a chicken snake / yellow rat snake (or, scientifically, Spilotes pullatus), although I was not willing to get close enough to check. But the guide seemed sure that it was a harmless snake, as he tried to grab it by the tail and pull it back a bit, just to get a better photo of its head. That didn't quite work, though. The moment he touched the tail, the snake whipped it forward and vanished into the bush. (And did that very quickly, so I wouldn't want to be on the receiving end of the other side of the snake, in case it wasn't harmless. That's a lot faster than video game reflexes.)

But in any case, we made it to the beach without any further incidents, had some lunch and the guide tried to organize a boat back to where the car was parked.

By the time we got our ride back, the weather had worsened a bit and it had gotten windy.

Bonete beach, marginal weather

The boat we got was a bit on the smallish side and less powerful than the flexboat I had been on the previous day. Also, once out of the bay itself, the sea is the open Atlantic Ocean, so there were a lot of impressive waves and the boat trip was, well, interesting.

Not scary, but a lot rougher than the ride on the previous day. And it became obvious why there are a lot of sunken ships along the coast of Ilhabela, making it a popular place for wreck divers. Unfortunately, I don't have any pictures of that boat trip, since my bag was well packed away in a watertight box.

Which turned out to be a good thing, as the skipper kind of misjudged a wave when leaving the beach.

Usually you try to stay with the boat a bit in front of where the waves break, wait for a wave to break before you and when that is gone, quickly try to get through the breakwater zone and out onto the open sea.

But when a wave broke just in front of us and the skipper rushed forward, he ran right into the next wave, which broke right over the boat, leaving us all soaking wet.

So it's a good thing that my gear was stowed away and not out in the open.

Next day it was time to take the ferry again and leave Ilhabela.

From Ilhabele ferry From Ilhabele ferry From Ilhabele ferry From Ilhabele ferry

I was heading to Campos do Jordão. It's the highest city in Brazil (the country's "Mile High City").

It has a bit of an "European Alpine" flavour to it, but not extremely so.

And I'm pretty sure that I haven't seen trees with colourful 'scarves' in the Alps.

Tree with scarf Tree with scarf

The place is a bit of an oddity - its main purpose seems to be to let people from São Paulo feel cold.

Within reason.

So there are a lot of big thermometers around, with their scales going down to (gasp!) -10°C.

Giant thermometer

There's also an info sign noting that temperatures might reach -4°C in winter.

Can reach -4 degrees!

Historically, the town seems to be mostly a place where affluent people from São Paulo went to experience 'winter' and enjoy the opportunity to walk around in fur, down clothes and heavy footwear. And, if they were lucky, they could even witness the strange phenomenon called 'snow'. (Supposedly, it snowed there in 1928, 1942 and 2004, so it's a rare and special occurrence.)

Nowadays, people probably just take a plane and go to some colder country if they want to experience winter conditions. But as Campos do Jordão is just a two hour drive from São Paulo, it's still a popular weekend destination.

With weekend being the relevant term here.

One of the 'things to do' in Campos do Jordão is to take an old train to and ride the highest railroad line in Brazil to Pindamonhangaba. I'm not a train enthusiast, but then again - why not?

Well - as it wasn't main season, the train was only running on weekends (and I was there on Wednesday and Thursday). So this wasn't an option.

There was also a chair lift up to a nearby hill. Which was only running from Thursdays to Sundays.

Of course there was also the Horto Florestal national park - which was closed on Wednesdays.

So there's not that much to do during the week.

But there are quad tours.

I was a bit worried about the lack of visitors and the possibility that there wouldn't be any tours on offer, but it turned out to be easier than expected.

I just went there, asked what a tour would cost' they named prices for 30 minutes, one hour and two hour tours. I had nothing else to do, so I wanted a two hour tour. I asked when there would be such a tour. They asked whenever I wanted to go. I said now. They said ok, grabbed a guide, filled two quads with petrol and off we went.

Quad tour

Driving was interesting and well matched to my skill level.

The track was challenging and I needed to pay attention to what I was doing, but it was never worrying.

The two hour tour took us up to Pico do Imbiri (the highest point of Campos do Jordão. with a nice view) and also to the 'Gruta dos Crioulos' 'cave'. (Well, more a stone slab lying over some smaller rocks.) The 'Gruta' has some semi-historical significance, as supposedly some escaped slaves hid there. But most references seem to be vague about that, so it might just be a legend.

Campos do Jordao view Campos do Jordao view trees Campos do Jordao and me Pico do Imbiri walkway
View from Pico do Imbiri View from Pico do Imbiri Trees near Pico do Imbiri Gruta dos Crioulo

All in all, doing a quad trip is a fun way to spend the morning.

After that I did some lazier form of travel - a tram ride.

Although the railroad wasn't operating during the week, the tram was.

It's a bit of an oddity.

Campos do Jordão is a long stretched city, so it would benefit from some tram that allows people to get from one side of the city to the other without being stuck in a traffic jam.

There are also some old stations along the way.

But the tram operates as a tourist attraction only, running once per hour, starting at one end of the city, taking 25 minutes to the other end and then going back.

When I was on that train, it had a total of five passengers.

Somehow it seems it would be better for the city if the tram would operate as a public transport, stop at the stations along the route and take passengers.

Campos do Jordao tram Campos do Jordao tram Campos do Jordao tram

But given the amount of parking space (and extension space) at the railroad station and the number of small tourist shops next to it, the tram and railroad seem to popular (presumably on weekends) and maybe they make enough profit just from tourists.

Tram and railroad parking space Railway station shopping area Railway station seatings

One unusual feature of the tram where the benches.

As the tram just goes back and forth (there is no turntable or turning circle at the end of the track) and people usually want to ride the tram looking forward, the back rests of the benches are moveable, so you can push them over and sit on the benches facing the other direction.

Moveable bench back rests

The chairlift up to Morro do Elefante is close to the railway station, but as it was Wednesday, it wasn't operating.

Campos do Jordao chairlift

So I did a bit of walking and went to a nearby waterfall, named Ducha de Prata, instead.

Given the amount of souvenir shops, it was an even bigger attraction than the railway, tram and chairlift together.

Which is a bit odd, since the few people who were there on a Wednesday afternoon mostly ignored the original attraction and went for the artificial one.

There is an actual waterfall on the site.

Ducha de Prata

It is not large, but it has some water falling down.

But right above it, the water flows down over a bit of rock, which also has am artificial channel in it, a big 'photo opportunity' rock right in front of it and some of the water redirected via some pipes and spraying over viewing platforms.

Water piped onto viewing platform Water piped onto viewing platform

It was a bit too cold to stand under the pipes (that's more of a summer attraction). But a lot of people just walked to the large rock, stood on it, asked random strangers (i.e. me) to take a picture and then went back up to the souvenir shops and the hot chocolate vendors. Without even going down the five meters to see the actual waterfall.

Next day I went to Horto Florestal, a nature preserve close to Campos do Jordão.

It's a pleasant place, with well-maintained trails, all having their individual styles. There's the easy bike trail to the waterfall, a 'bridge' trail along a river, a trail up a hill with good panoramic views and one winding through a forest around a hill, with river views.

All the trails take roughly an hour, so I had enough time to visit them all (and go for some lunch at the local restaurant in between).

Horto Florestal waterfall Horto Florestal waterfall Horto Florestal small trail Horto Florestal river
Horto Florestal panorama Horto Florestal panorama Horto Florestal bridge Horto Florestal bridge
Horto Florestal river Horto Florestal river Horto Florestal river

I didn't see any significant wildlife there, except for some butterflies and lots of evidence of termites. There also seem to be a fair number of spiders around, but I didn't get close enough to the net to have a better look.

Horto Florestal butterfly Horto Florestal butterfly Horto Florestal termite mount Horto Florestal spider net

One part of wildlife that I didn't see (which is probably a good thing) were pumas, which, according to a sign in the park, live there in 'considerable numbers'. But there wasn't any further indication what that was supposed to mean.

There was one attraction in the park that I skipped - the zip line.

There is a long (400 meters) zip line crossing a valley and a river, but except for two wooden platforms at the ends and the steel cable itself, there's no infrastructure nearby.

In the center of the park, there is a short rope course with a shorter zip line at the end, so I assume that you rent your gear there and then walk to the longer zip line to 'zip' along it, but I wasn't sure how that worked. I doubt that you just get the gear and do the zip line all by yourself (there was nobody else around), so either you walk there with the guide (which is a fair bit of uphill walk) or there is usually someone stationed at the longer zip line when it is in operations (on weekends, I presume).

Horto Florestal zip line Horto Florestal zip line

Before heading back to São Paulo the next day, I stopped at the chair lift (which was operating on Friday mornings) and went up to Morro do Elefante.

Campos do Jordao chair lift Campos do Jordao chair lift Campos do Jordao chair lift Campos do Jordao chair lift

While not spectacular, there was a reasonable view from "Elephant hill".

Morro do Elefante view Morro do Elefante view

Do live up to its name, there were some (more or less derelict) elephant statues around that place.

Morro do Elefante statue Morro do Elefante statue Morro do Elefante statue Morro do Elefante statue

Another stop before going back to São Paulo was a sculpture garden with sculptures by an artist named Felícia Leirner

The sculptures themselves were almost secondary. The real attraction was the landscaped park with a couple of nice views.

Felicia Leirner sculpture park Felicia Leirner sculpture park Felicia Leirner sculpture park
View from Felicia Leirner sculpture park Felicia Leirner sculpture park Felicia Leirner sculpture park Felicia Leirner sculpture park

One last stop at a viewpoint near the road to have a last look at the scenery.

Campos do Jordao surroundings Campos do Jordao surroundings

My flight back was on the next day, so I stayed in a hotel next to the airport.

Not much to do there, but, interestingly enough, there was some 'wildlife' to watch.

The hotel was close to the airport lake (which provides water in case there is some fire at the airport) and (presumably to keep the grass short) they kept a group of capybaras (definitely R.O.U.S...) there.

Capybaras Capybaras

So at least there was something to look at, instead of just staring at the sky and wait for night to fall over São Paulo.

Sao Paulo Sunset Sao Paulo Sunset Sao Paulo Sunset

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