Salvador, Praia do Forte, Amazon, Rio

Like most Brazilian cities, Salvador at night is a no-go zone. After our (slightly drunk, distracted by the dashboard TV screen) taxi driver deposited us at the wonderful Bahiacafe hotel at 11pm we were too tired to see the city anyway. We breakfasted the next morning with a view of one of the main squares and the sound of people in the street chatting and children laughing.
A rainbow of pastel-coloured buildings, cobbled streets and ornate churches make up the pretty historic centre of Salvador. With a temperature of no more than 27C and a constant sea breeze this is a pleasant city to stroll around.

Beach-fringed Barra is dotted with centuries-old coastal forts. This is where Amerigo Vespucci landed in 1501 and the neighbourhood feels very wealthy with lofty cliff-top apartment blocks boasting opulent lobbies and views across the stunning Bahia bay.

Three hours north of Salvador lies the touristy Praia do Forte. Like many such places people flock here for a good reason, in this case the perfect powdery beaches backed by gently swaying palm trees. Praia itself is a cute little town with a long pedestrianised street flanked with boutique shops and restaurants.

Praia do Forte beach
Praia do Forte beach

 

We were staying with Anna’s distant relative who lived in a condo on a huge Iberostar resort. Ken kindly opened his home to us and we enjoyed a glimpse into his life living in a place where only a few live permanently in beautiful apartments, thus affording us with what felt like sole use of the immense pool and wide beach. 

The walk along the endless beaches here is magnificent, although in places you have to be careful not to step on (well marked) turtle nests. We’ve been eating a lot of local food, including plenty of fish, stewed beans, rice and the ever-present ‘farinha’, which translates as ‘flour’ and has the same consistency, but has a subtlety delicious savoury flavour and is made from manioc or cassava.

Bidding farewell to our host we flew with low-cost airline (although they gave us drinks, a snack and films on our iPads) Gol to Fortaleza where we had 35 minutes to transfer to another flight to Manaus – which happened to be on exactly the same aircraft. 

Manaus is big, busy, bright and in the middle of the Amazon. As a city of 3 million, though, you feel as though you could be anywhere. After a night at the Local Hostel (full of young backpackers selfishly making me feel old) we only started seeing the rainforest after an hour’s drive. 

City became towns, which became villages, which became isolated habitations. Fewer and fewer vehicles appeared on the road. After about 220km from Manaus we hurtled along a side road to a huge river – not the Amazon, just a mere tributary. 

A motorised canoe spirited us along the waterway for 30 minutes until we reached the Amazon Eco Adventures lodge. The lodge is a floating platform anchored on the banks of the river and boasting 6 simple (but air-conditioned!) rooms, large decks and a good number of hammocks. 

The water here is warm, brackish and slightly acidic which means few mosquitoes and no piranha. Swimming is blissful. In late afternoon we re-boarded the canoe and the large lake-like part of the river on which the lodge was located grew narrower and narrower until it was a rushing channel of fast water up which we wended between verdant banks.

Toucans, kingfishers and storks flew above us. The current grew stronger and stronger. A few simple wooden houses hove into view besides fruit plantations. And then; the Amazon. At this point on the epic river it was barely possible to see the other side. Large cargo ships – some carrying soya beans – powered along in the distance. You don’t imagine such a large body of water to be moving very much, but the Amazon was carrying water down to the Atlantic at a swift 7-9km an hour. Immense.

Amazon sloth
Amazon sloth

 

Night fell and the return journey became a caiman hunt, which consisted of hurtling along the water whilst shining a torch along the banks. That tiny glowing dot caught in the beam? That’s a caiman eye. The guides steered the canoe straight at each eye but the creatures kept splashing away. Soon, however, a baby caiman was grabbed and held up for us to see. It’s jaws were wide open and, after a close-up look, it was quickly released so that its stress wasn’t prolonged.

Above us the stars and Milky Way shone brightly. All around us the forest was alive with the sound of nocturnal critters. Into our faces flew clouds of insects but, close to where the lodge floats, that acidic water meant that the insects lessened considerably.

We rose early the next day to enjoy sunrise from the boat. Pink river dolphins appeared with the sun, snorting and giving tantalising glimpses of their dorsal fins before submerging. Unlike grey river dolphins, the pinks don’t leap out the water and so it isn’t easy to spot them.

A stroll through the jungle educated us on the many medicinal plants and trees to be found here. We spied Capuchin monkeys and avoided the dreaded bullet ants – one of the most feared things here due to the terrible pain they inflict, which lasts for up to 24 hours.

Early evening brought with it the opportunity for a spot of piranha fishing. On the way we saw a sloth (a sloth!) clinging on to the top of a tree, it’s long claws wrapped around the trunk. It didn’t take much bait to attract the piranhas. Within minutes their ferocious jaws were clamping onto our hooks and their colourful bellies flashing out of the water. We released them all so that they may sink their teeth into more meat another day.

The lodge has a wooden canoe that can be borrowed and there’s an island across the water which makes for an interesting early-morning circumnavigation. A little later we visited a nearby native’s dwelling and learned about life in the rainforest. 

Returning to the city I had the opportunity to visit somewhere I’d long wanted to see; the Manaus theatre. Built in 1896 in the midst of a rubber-fuelled economic boom, the pink-painted building is a work of architectural art both on the outside and on the inside, which still boasts most of the original features including seating, the massive curtain and numerous paintings. The vast majority of the materials for the theatre were shipped over from Europe. It must have been quite a sight to see after returning from months on a rubber plantation.

Flying to Rio I got to see where the black waters of the Rio Negro met the brown waters of the Amazon. We flew over the forest for almost three hours – it’s easy to see how people (and cities?) can get lost in there forever. 

Rio de Janeiro
Rio de Janeiro

 

Rio de Janeiro is a buzzy and beautiful city blessed with jagged, tree-clad mountains, blue sea and long sandy beaches. Ipanema and Copacabana are just as you hope they will be; miles of soft sand, big surf and unforgettable views. Our visit to nearby Sugarloaf Mountain began with a hike up to a cable car station (there’s one at street level too if you can’t manage the walk). From there the journey takes 3 minutes and suddenly you’re on top of an 800-metre rock with views that result in endless staring and wondering how one city can contain so much beauty
The view from Sugarloaf is surpassed only by the one from Corcovado, reached by van if you’re on a budget or funicular if you wish to be sedately carried up through the forest. Today was Brazil’s Independence Day which was being celebrated by a Christian group at the feet of the Christ the Redeemer statue. Serenaded by their passionate music we gazed down upon Rio and pointed out Ipanema, Copacabana, the Macarena Stadium etc. Wow, what a view. Amazing, too, to be so close to such a famous edifice

Closer to sea level, the botanical gardens were perfectly serene, with a large variety of trees as well as pleasing water features such as a small lake, numerous burbling streams and a waterfall. We walked from here along the Rodrigo de Freitas lake to Ipanema and Copacabana. This being a public holiday the beaches were full to bursting

Rio is such a happy, friendly city with a huge variety of things to see and do. It is blessed with so much natural beauty and has become a surprising highlight of this trip so far. 

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