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The Iguazu falls are shared between Brazil and Argentina, the falls are surrounded by 2 nature preserves of Brazil’s Parque Nacional do Iguacu & Argentina’s Parque Nacional Iguazu. It contains one of the largest surviving tracts of the Atlantic forest in South America. The falls are formed by a succession of 275 interlinking cataracts that stretches for 3km making it one of the widest waterfalls in the world.

It is a UNESCO World Heritage site, the subtropical forest provides the setting for one of the worlds’s greatest wonders. There was much more water than usual when we visited which made the falls even more impressive and magnificent when you see and hear the roar of the enormous volume of water cascading down the falls.

In fact, a few days after we left they closed the park on both sides due to flooding. It really made me think about how powerful & unpredictable nature is. To think I was slightly dissapointed I didn’t get blue skies on both days of my visit and then to hear that just a couple of days after we left all the walk paths had been flooded and some parts washed away, so thank God! The guide also told us a few years ago they had a drought and the water dried up and there was no falls.

We spent the first day at the Brazil side of the falls, then the next day at the Argentinian side and one free morning which I opted to visit the bird park, Parque des Aves on the Brazilian side.

Day 1: Brazilian side of Iguazu Falls Majority of the cataracts are located on the Argentinian side so a visit to the Brazil side is the best place for panoramic views of the falls.

Iguazu Falls at sunset

Iguazu Falls at sunset

Brazilian side view of the falls

Brazilian side view of the falls

Some of the tour group

Some of the tour group

Day 2: Argentinian side of Iguazu Falls Garganta del Diablo (Devil’s throat) at 80m high is the biggest and most spectacular of the cataracts. Powerboat trips that skim the rapids to the very foot of the falls

Iguazu where the boat docks

Iguazu where the boat docks

Salto San Martin from Argentinian side

Salto San Martin from Argentinian side

Walkway that allows you to peer into the depths of the magnificent multiple cascading falls

Walkway that allows you to peer into the depths of the magnificent devil’s throat

Adventura boat

Adventura boat

On the speedboat

On the speedboat

More of the falls

More of the falls

Coati, raccoon like animal

Coati, raccoon like animal

Woodpecker

Woodpecker

Capucin monkey

Capucin monkey

Day 3: Parque des Aves

    There were a few optional activities which included visiting the bird park, itaipu dam or visiting Paraguay’s market. Majority of the tour group opted to get another country’s stamp on their passport and visited Paraguay’s market which I hear was a major disappointment. I opted to go to the bird park because I had seen a few toucans from a distance but wanted to see one up close.
Super cute toucan

Super cute toucan

*chuckle* I am such a sucker for cute things and is he a darling! I had seen a couple of toucans in the wild and they are so shy and illusive but these fellas in the bird park have such character, are curious creatures and happy to strut for you. Which reminds me of Rafael from Rio…

Rafael from Rio

Rafael from Rio

Cute Toucan

Another cute Toucan

Their beaks look unreal in real life too!

Another toucan, cute bib

Another toucan, cute bib

Parrots

Parrots

Blue Macaws

Blue Macaws

Scruffy looking toucan

Scruffy looking toucan

I love the toucans but obviously they had all sorts of other birds and animals at the bird park too. Tips: I decided to use the public bus (less than BRL 6 for return) as opposed to the private transfer (BRL 50 for return). The bus is the same one that goes to the airport and the Iguazu national park so easy to use. The parrot enclosure is closed for feeding between 13:00-14:00, Thank God for the lovely Swedish-English guy who told me that and showed me the quickest route that was not on the map to get to the enclosure.

Brazilian BBQ dinner at Churrascaria do Gaucho, non-stop supply of roast beef and other meat. The star of the show was the cinnamon dusted roasted pineapple. Sooo good! I have already started searching for a recipe to recreate it here…

Churrascaria do gaucho

Churrascaria do gaucho

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Paraty is one of the most photographed colonial towns on the Brazilian coast. Paraty is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is charming little place with a nice, friendly and laid back vibe. Paraty apparently means river of fish and used to have a gold mine which was shipped back to Portugal before the railway was built back in the day.

Paraty Old Town

Paraty Old Town

Where the boat for the boat trips are

Where the boat for the boat trips are

Store front with cute dog. Dogs seem to roam around here freely (all friendly)

Store front with cute dog. Dogs seem to roam around here freely (all friendly)

The other important fact is that it is the home of CACHACA! There’s a special variety here called Gabriela and is a golden coloured cachaca that is infused with spices like clove, cinnamon and a few more I can’t identify and sweetened with honey.

Me and Jorge Armado

Me and my Jorge Amado

Jorge Arado is a local cocktail with Gabriela Cachaca and passion fruit, lime and soda. It is delish and you MUST try it! Oh Jorge Amado is a famous Brazilian novelist and the cocktail was named in his honour.

A lazy day on the beach

A lazy day on the beach

I opted to pass on the boat trip and have a lazy day on the beach. You could also opt to do a jeep tour to see the gold trail, a few waterfalls and a cachaca distillery.

Bossa nova at Paraty 33

Bossa nova at Paraty 33

Shops and bars only come alive again after siesta at about 4pm. The nice thing about Paraty is that it has a really nice and friendly atmosphere about it. Wish we had a few more days in Paraty and maybe a little less at Ilha Grande (although beaches there were better)

P/S: Most restaurants and bars in the old town charge a small cover charge for the live music in the evenings.

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Map of Ilha Grande

Map of Ilha Grande

Ilha Grande is Portuguese for Big Island, although that’s misleading because it isn’t really all that big. It’s meant to be the most romantic and pretty of south eastern Brazil’s many islands which remains unspoilts by development and tourism. There aren’t any vehicles on the island. We get there by a schooner (a ferry) and we stayed in Abraao, the largest village on the island. The schooner was also used by the locals to bring in their produce.

Schooner with produce

Schooner with produce

Me & 2 others from the tour

Me & 2 others from the tour

Beach where we docked

Beach where we docked

We had 4 days & 3 nights here. Once we checked in, we did a mini tour of Abraa0 (seriously though, the village is tiny and pretty much is only a 4 streets that form a rectangle) and caters only to tourist. It has 2 bars and a church on its main square. The rest of the village is made up of restaurants, tourist souvenir shops, restaurants and pousada (bed and breakfast type hotels). The main activities on this island are hiking trails. You can hike to Lopes Mendes beach (one of the top 10 beaches in Brazil), hike to an old abandoned prison,  hike to the peak of the island (called Parrots peak because it is similar to the shape of the parrot’s beak, the most challenging hike here), take a schooner almost to Lopes Mendes (a 15 min hike instead of 3 hours without the boat), Kayaking, etc. Our tour guide advised against the boat trips and snorkeling because there isn’t much to see when snorkeling (no reefs, just a few types of fish which isn’t impressive if you’re from Asia or Australia) and save the boat trip for our next destination where it is cheaper and apparently better.

Watching Brazil vs. Japan game (Confederation cup)

Watching Brazil vs. Japan game (Confederation cup) at the local bar

I was the only Asian face at the bar and all the Brazilian locals immediately assumed I was Japanese so when Japan loss I got a few consolatory kisses (on the cheek of course) from the local men.

Grilled seafood platter (photo bombed)

Grilled seafood platter (photo bombed)

Dinner on Abraao beach front with free caipirinhas.

Acai for breakfast

Acai for breakfast

Acai is a type of super food berry, it’s served here kinda like a sorbet topped with granola, banana and a dollop of condensed milk. I loved it and had it everyday in Ilha Grande but beware, according to our Rio tour guide that it is super packed with calories. There’s a fantastic bakery in Abraao (unfortunately I forgot to take down the name or a picture of the place), they made good breakfasts, breads, sandwiches, cakes, juices, coffees and pretty darn good burgers! We had all our breakfasts here and when we needed to pack lunches for the hikes, we got them here too! Was that good! However, there are also cute dogs trying to mooch some of your food.

Next day, we hiked 3 hours through the forest to Lopes Mendes beach.

View during the hike to Lopes Mendes

View during the hike to Lopes Mendes

Marmosets

Marmosets

Spider

Spider

Unidentified mammal

Unidentified mammal

We wore hiking shoes or trainers for the hike, here’s what some locals wore (but they did zip by):

Red speedos and havaianas for the hike

Red speedos and havaianas for the hike

Puffer fish on one of the beaches en route to Lopes Mendes

Puffer fish on one of the beaches en route to Lopes Mendes

Beach on Ilha Grande

Beach on Ilha Grande

Lopes Mendes

Lopes Mendes

Lifeguards on Lopes Mendes

Lifeguards on Lopes Mendes

The waves were pretty strong when we were at Lopes Mendes, we saw the lifeguards in action when they tried to rescue a man who was pulled out by a rip and took almost 45 mins to bring him back to safety. They had him on a surfboard and needed to bring a jet ski round to rescue him (as no boats are allowed on Lopes Mendes).

Me at Lopes Mendes

Me at Lopes Mendes

We then headed back by schooner and onwards to a BBQ. The beef in Brazil is pretty damn good

Tour group at BBQ and Caipirinhas

Tour group at BBQ and Caipirinhas

We saw a pool of tadpoles while walking around and wondered why we had not seen or heard any frogs. Its because the frogs here live in trees and don’t croak. We heard some rustling in the trees during dinner and saw a frog jumping from one tree to another!

Tree frog

Tree frog

Kuat Guarana drink - kinda like red bull but much better. Even stocked in McDs.

Kuat Guarana drink – kinda like red bull but much better. Even stocked in McDs.

Tips: Besides that bakery, my other tip is to bring your insect repellent, plenty of mosquitoes here.

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Day 3: Centro & Museums

When we were first dropped off in Centro, it could easily be mistaken for a city in Europe. There is a strong influence of  French Architecture in the Municipal theatre (Theatro Municipal) and the Fine Arts Museum (Museu Nacional de Belas Artes). One can also find the Biblioteca National (Library), Cinelandia (Local Parliament) and Palacio Pedro Ernesto on this square.
Centro

Centro

Confiteria Colombo

Confiteria Colombo

Also located in a street in Centro, is Confiteria Colombo or Colombo Tearoom. It dates from 1894 and remains a wonderful mix of Art Nouveau and Belle Epoque. The queues during lunch to get a table are long, so I ended up buying some savoury snacks with the intention of coming back later to have tea here to soak up the ambiance.

The other historical sites includes:

Paco Imperial

Paco Imperial

 Igreja da Candelaria

Igreja da Candelaria

 Palacio Tiradentes

Palacio Tiradentes

To be honest, I wasn’t too impressed with Centro. It was a combination of things, Centro just seemed quite pale and an odd mish mash. There are beautiful old European buildings, then there are modern buildings but I live in Europe and grew up in Asia. The modern buildings seem really dated, reminiscence of dated building in smaller cities in Malaysia and the old, well lets just say it’s not quite Europe either.  The first 2 days in Rio were great, Centro just didn’t seem to have the character of the places we have seen in the past 2 days. It was a busy during the weekday, the nicest parts are covered here on the blog but there were also parts that looked like it could have used some major TLC and maintenance.

The plan was to explore centro, wander into shops, visit the Banco de Brazil Cultural Centre and then a museum (I had a few shortlisted including a UFO looking one a boat ride a way in Niteroi or National History Museum, Modern Art Museum, Fine Arts Museum). The weather was just too good to spend indoors, so after a couple of hours wandering about town, I left after the visit to the cultural centre (exhibits commentary were not in English) and decided to pass on the museums in favour of returning to the beach to soak up some sun.

Super excited! The tour begins tomorrow!

Day 4: Shopping

With one spare day in Rio after the tour and before my flight back to London, I allocated it for shopping. My shopping list for Rio included:

    1. Havaianas – These flip flops are available almost everywhere for half the price it is in London. E.g. basic pair is GBP25 but you could buy a pair for BRL30-ish (approx GBP10 at current exchange rate) depending on where and on model. Obviously you buy 2 pairs for the price of one pair in the UK!
    2. Bikini – I only brought 1 pair with me planning to buy a couple while in Brazil. I wasn’t planning to get a dental floss bikini bottom but even the regular bottoms are much smaller than normal bikinis (the shape is cut inwards like a regular bikini & thong hybrid). I am a size zero and don’t really have any insecurities about my bum but where else besides Brazil would I be able to wear their teensy bottom bikinis without getting an odd stare.
    3. Souvenirs – Check out the streets perpendicular to the Copacabana or Ipanema. E.g. Rue Santa Clara (#33 esp. is meant to house floor after floor of apparel but I never went in, the tip is to start from the top floor and work your way down) or Ipanema’s Hippie Fair on Sunday. I also checked out the Leblon shopping mall (which only opens after 3pm on Sundays) with high end shops.
    4. Cachaca – Pronounced “ka-sha-sa”, is a local sugarcane based liquor that is used to make caipirinhas.

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Day 2: Beaches (Copacabana, Ipanema & Leblon) & Botanic gardens

On the second day, Olivia suggested that we check out the beaches, the lagoon and the botanic gardens by bicycle. We hired a bike one block away from Copacabana Palace Hotel and cycled along the beaches. Cycling is a wonderful way to see the beaches as there are cycle paths all along the beach front with plenty of places to dock your bike, it is also very flat and easy ride.

Copacabana Beach

Dental floss bikinis on Copacabana

Dental floss bikinis on Copacabana

Copacabana beach

Copacabana beach

Stopping for a coconut

Stopping for a coconut

Brazil must be the reason why coconut juice is so popular around the world now after a work out. Weekday or weekend, day or night, there are many people on the beach just exercising, both young and old, male and female. They run, cycle, surf, play beach volleyball, beach tennis, those exercise stations where you can do pull ups, etc. Then after that rehydrate with coconut juice from the ACTUAL coconut. Sadly, here in London, it’s exercise in a gym (most of the year) and buy an overpriced tetrapak of coconut water from the vending machine. Sigh!

That said, the coconuts I tried in Brazil are not nearly as yummy or fragrant as the ones from Thailand! That explains why Vitacoco (the most popular brand of coconut juice sold here but produced in Brazil) taste so bland and nothing like the real coconuts we are used to in Asia. I previously thought it was because of the processing it has been through like how long life orange juice tastes horrible compared to freshly squeezed orange juice but turns out it’s also the variety of the coconut grown here.

Drinks kiosks that line the beaches

Drinks kiosks that line the beaches

Beach volleyball

Beach volleyball

Ipanema Beach

Ipanema from Aporador

Ipanema from Aporador

Panoramic of Ipanema from Aporador

Panoramic of Ipanema from Aporador

Leblon Beach

Leblon beach with dark clouds

Leblon beach with dark clouds

Lagoon – Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas

Botanic gardens  – Jardim Botanico

Dinner on Copacabana

Fillet steak and risotto for Dinner at Manoel Juaqium on Copacabana. So good! Seriously, if beef is so good in Brazil, can't wait for Argentina

Fillet steak and risotto for Dinner at Manoel Juaqium on Copacabana.

Caipirinha, national cocktail of Brazil - much nicer and stronger than the ones in London

Caipirinha, national cocktail of Brazil – the best one in my entire trip was here at Manoel Juaquim, Rio

Just a FYI that the food in Brazil is quite heavily influenced by the Portuguese or Spanish. The beef here is pretty good, which is whetting my appetite for Argentinian beef! They also eat rice quite a bit here.

I am loving Rio, its laid back but yet has such a good vibe and energy. It’s such a fantastic city, they have these amazing long beaches right in the city, great weather and such an interesting outlook on life. However, Rio is expensive and property here is really expensive. Hotels here are expensive by London and NY standards.  In Rio, not only the rich own beach front properties, there are favelas that spring up around the city in nice areas including those beach facing ones. Oh the other thing people complain about is that people here don’t really speak english. It’s possible to get around without speaking Portuguese but majority do not speak it.

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Map of Brazil

Map of Brazil

We had 3 days in Rio de Janeiro before the tour began and here’s how we spent it:

  • Day 1: Private tour guide who tooks us around Rio de Janeiro
  • Day 2: Copacabana, Ipanema, Leblon, Lagoon & Botanic Park
  • Day 3: Centro & museums

Day 1: Private tour guide to take us around Rio de Janeiro.

We met our lovely tour guide Olivia Alves (she’s really the BEST tour guide we’ve hired and we’ve been through quite a few by now) who picked us up from our hotel at 8.30am. I really liked her and she was genuinely nice but also enthusiastic and really knows about and her way around Rio. Even after our tour ended, she gave me her number in case I needed any help in Rio as I was staying a couple of  extra days on my own. How sweet is that? So I haven’t told her that I would do this nor do I normally recommend people but sometimes you just feel you need to share good things. You can find her on http://www.privatetourguideinrio.com.br

Anyway, we decided to cover the usual highlights of Rio:

Corcovado mountain – where the iconic Crist Redento (Christ the Redeemer) statue is located. We were really blessed with fantastic weather and blue skies.

Corcovado derives its name from corcova (hunchback) which describes the physical appearance of the mountain. The mountain is not really a mountain, it’s only 706m high. The statue which is really an awe inspiring sight to see in person and with blue skies towers over Rio is 30m high and sits on an 8m high pedestal was shipped from France shows Christ embracing the city with open arms (although there are quite a few other interpretations but this is my favourite).

Tips: Best to arrive early, around 9am when the crowds haven’t yet arrived or it can become very crowded. There are 2 ways to get up the mountain, by train or by minivan. According to our tour guide, the tickets to get the train are now sold online but keep rules keep changing daily about how to purchase the tickets for the train so we took the minivan as she could not obtain any tickets online for the date we were there.

Christ the Redeemer at Corcovado mountain

Christ the Redeemer at Corcovado mountain

Us at Corcovado

Us at Corcovado

The panoramic views from here is pretty amazing as Corcovado is right in the center of Rio.

View from Corcovado

View from Corcovado

Besides the views, there are also cute little marmosets (type of small monkeys) that can be seen here. It also sits on Tijuca national park.

Sugar Loaf Mountain (Pao de Acucar) – The name of the mountain is derived from the mountain’s shape which resembles conical clay molds used to refine sugar.

Tips: A visit during sunset would also have been beautiful if you have more time in Rio. Only way up is by cable car.

View from Sugar Loaf Mountains

View from Sugar Loaf Mountains

Surprisingly, I somewhat preferred the atmosphere and views from Sugar Loaf to Corcovado.

Another angle from Sugar Loaf

Another angle from Sugar Loaf

The mouth of Rio de Janeiro can be seen from here. Some of the forts used to protect this area look like it’s built facing the wrong direction but that’s because some areas have been reclaimed since it was originally built

Me at Sugar Loaf mountains

Me at Sugar Loaf mountains

Lunch at Bar Urca

Lunch at Bar Urca - classic Brazilian snacks & drinks

Lunch at Bar Urca – classic Brazilian snacks & drinks

Clockwise from top left: Original beer (my favourite of all the Brazilian beers I tried), empadinha, bacallao, caipirinha (local cocktail), seafood soup (super delicious), pastel, us and our fab tour guide Olivia. Sooooo good! I later read that Bar Urca is one of the top bars in Rio when I was searching top watering holes in Rio.

View from lunch at Bar Urca

View from lunch at Bar Urca

Lapa steps

Santa Teresa

Charming hilly neighborhood with nice bars

Santa Teresa

Santa Teresa

Favela

Favela entrance

Favela entrance

We also opted to visit a favela (shanty town) but I didn’t really take photos once we went in. It was narrow, cramped and obviously haphazardly built. The favela we visited was one of the first that was cleaned up by the UPP so was pretty safe. In the old days, favelas used to be ruled by the drug lords and it was normal to see men with guns and ammo walking around inside the favela.

At the foot or entrance of this particular favela is a police station. In the old days, the drug lords used to use the policemen at the foot of the hill as target practice and they used to have state of the art guns bought in the black market. Nowadays, we just saw people go about their lives and some teenage boys playing football in smallish spaces between the houses.

Cathedral Metropolitana & business centre

Cathedral Metropolitana

Catedral Metropolitana exterior

The Catedral Metropolitana is an unusual sight. Looks like a block of concrete in a conical shape but is quite interesting inside.

Inside Catedral Metropolitana

Inside Catedral Metropolitana

Centro –
Will cover this under Day 3

Various neighbourhoods in Rio – Flamengo (reclaimed from the sea), Urca (very nice and expensive homes),  Botafogo (famous area for plastic surgery clinics), Sambadromo in Lapa (where the Carnaval starts), etc.

Churrascaria – Brazilian barbeque, lots and lots of meat.

Plataforma show

Plataforma show

Plataforma show

Capoeira is a Brazilian martial art that combines elements of dance, acrobatics and music. It was developed by African slaves brought into Brazil but were banned by the Portuguese to practice combat and fighting.

Capoeira

Capoeira

First impression of Rio is that it’s really beautiful and not nearly as dangerous as I thought. While planning this trip, I had read various forums on the internet where they tell you it’s so dangerous, people getting mugged in broad daylight on Ipanema beach, don’t even think of walking on the beach at night, not to look like a tourist, not to ever go near a favela, etc. Some of which is still relevant (i.e. do not go to a favela on your own) and do still exercise caution as I met a few of other people during my journey which were mugged at night. Our tour guide told us that safety in Rio has improved tremendously in the past few years with the international spotlight on Rio with the upcoming international events like Confederation Cup, World cup, Olympics, etc.

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Woot woot! We have booked our flight tickets to go to South America.

World map

World map

We had some frequent flyer points expiring and needed to book our tickets. Redeeming air miles meant our destination and dates were somewhat predetermined by flights to certain destinations that were available before expiration date, we decided on Rio de Janeiro!

South America Map

South America Map

Flight tickets booked, now what? Since it was our first trip to South America and because Rio in particular has quite a bad reputation for crime, our lack of Portuguese and language skills and frankly, it was just nice to sign up for a tour which would sort out all the details of the trip. We picked a tour that covered the 3 main places we wanted to see:

  • Rio de Janeiro
  • Buenos Aires
  • Iguazu Falls

So we settled on the following itinerary that spans Brazil, Argentina & Uruguay:

Tour route

Tour route

  1. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
  2. Ilha Grande, Brazil
  3. Paraty, Brazil
  4. Iguazu Falls, Brazil & Argentina
  5. Estancia (a gaucho ranch) near Fray Bentos, Uruguay
  6. Montevideo, Uruguay
  7. Colonia, Uruguay
  8. Buenos Aires, Argentina

It covered all the places we wanted to see and a few bonus destinations plus fits exactly into the dates of the flight tickets we had booked.

Let the adventure begin!

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