Here’s Paul and I flying high on the ziplines at the Adventure Park from the rim of the Barrancas del Cobre (Copper Canyon) in northern Mexico’s Chihuahua state. Comprising seven adjacent canyons, this area is estimated to be many times larger and at least twice as deep than the Grand Canyon in Arizona.
It’s a majestic and scenic area rich in greenery which resembles oxidized copper, hence its name. The indigenous Tarahumara inhabit the cliffs and valleys and continue to practice a traditional nomadic lifestyle. They are still a visible feature of the entire region. Refreshingly little visited by tourists, Mexico’s Copper Canyon is a traveler’s delight with endless opportunities for hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding and exploring picturesque pueblos mágicos.
And if the Adventure Park’s seven ziplines, two rocky suspension bridges, and a 2-mile long gondola ride back to the rim aren’t enough to get your adrenaline rushing, in a couple of weeks the park will inaugurate the longest zipline in the world: a thrilling 8,350 foot (1.5 mile) drop from the canyon rim. We’ll surely be back for that.
Brazil is big. Colossal. It’s actually larger than the continental USA. Yes… bigger than all the contiguous United States. It’s simply enormous. Amidst this bigness, nothing in Brazil has astounded me more than the immensity of the Amazon, the largest forest on our planet that comprises half of Brazil’s land mass.
My contact with the Amazon Basin has been mostly transitory. I’ve traveled a good portion of its expanse starting near the Bolivian border and arriving after 3½ days in Manaus, the central metropolis connected only to the rest of Brazil by boat or plane. I continued down the great Rio Amazonas for another few days until I reached the delta at Belém. In all, this 2,600 kilometer (1,615 mile) journey required nearly two weeks of travel.
Along the way I was constantly amazed by pretty much everything, from the vastness of the rivers which much of the time seem more like huge lakes, to the incongruity of the massive megalopolis of Manaus – an urban jungle trapped in the heart of Amazonia’s heady tropics.
So I was hardly surprised to find a picture-perfect oasis just outside of Santarém, the main port city between Manaus and Belém. It sits where the Rio Tapajós meets the Rio Amazonas and forms a huge lagoon. With a white-sand island, Ilha do Amor (Island of Love), with glistening waters and barracas (food stalls) serving fresh-grilled fish and icy caipirinhas. And the nearby Tapajós National Forest offers ample opportunities for walks in the jungle and visits to traditional rubber communities. Alter do Chão is a perfect place to break up the down river journey so I spent a few days there in blissful repose.
Heading inland from Brazil’s littoral, I happily landed in the former diamond-mining town of Lençois, so-named for the miners’ crude tent camps that resembled lençois (sheets) from afar. In the late 1800’s richness came to this area in Brazil in spite of its relatively poor-quality gemstones. The cloudy diamonds were sold to the French who needed them to help dig the Panama Canal, the London Underground and other fin de siècle tunnel projects in Europe.
When mining ended a few decades ago and the Chapada Diamantina National Park was established, Lençois turned to tourism. Crumbling colonial homes and buildings were renovated, cobblestone streets and plazas spiffed up, tour operators opened shop. The result is a delicate balance of between reserved locals who still follow caipira (i.e. rural) traditions and eco-tourists who flock to the town in search of the great outdoors.
Lençois is perfectly suited for independent travelers. With good accommodation, a steady stream of backpackers for companionship, and excellent dining at the many outdoor eateries – it’s touristy yet low key. I found Lençois to be the perfect place to spend a few days hiking and taking in its many outstanding features.
Trek to Cachoeira da Fumaça
Eager to stretch my legs after many days lounging on the beach, I booked a hike to Brazil’s highest waterfall, Cachoiera da Fumaça (Smokestack Waterfall), through one of the tour agencies. Three chatty Brazilians from São Paulo were my companions as we climbed the windswept canyon in Vale do Capão (they later posted this about our day – big ups to my fellow travel bloggers!)
Cachoeira da Fumaça is unusual in that the waterfall does not reach its base. Rather the water is blown back over the top and evaporates – giving it the appearance of a smoking chimney. This is due to the 420 meter (1400 feet) drop, strong upwinds from the canyon, and the small river which feeds the waterfall.
It’s a wonderful spectacle and hard to give it justice in words so I’ve created the short video below.
Twenty-six hours with little sleep on a cramped bus – most of it beside a crying, fidgety child sitting on his pregnant mother’s lap. I’m hungry and weary of cheese sandwiches – the only vegetarian option at rest stops. I forgot to unpack my healthy snacks which are buried in the storage below. I’m under the weather – sneezing and congested and low-energy – from the cold snap that hovered over the region for a few days.
I feel alone in this less-trodden corner of Brazil and miss my companions on the backpacker-friendly coast. I left Cuiabá disappointed by the cost-prohibitive Pantanal wildlife (3-day tours are nearly $800 USD) and the bureaucratic hurdles at Chapada de Guimarães national park that made it very difficult to enjoy.
So I feel the last few days have been a bust. Things just haven’t quite worked out.
Travel is full of shitty moments like this. Like most things in life – a job, a relationship, a hobby – there’s no shortage of let downs. And when on your own it can feel worse, there’s no one to turn to amid indifferent surroundings.
With the battery dying on my mobile phone, I opened my calendar and counted the days remaining in Brazil. Almost home… I tell myself. What a relief!
As if by chance Mary Chapin Carpenter’s song “Almost Home” plays in my random mix:
I’m not running I’m not hiding I’m not reaching I’m just resting in the arms of the great wide open It’s gonna pull my soul in And I’m almost home
Almost home… is momentarily forgetting the thousand tiny details that travel demands, knowing things soon will be logistically easier. It’s thinking of those I love and miss. It’s setting an anchor by filling my mind with familiar things.
Almost home… is remembering that I choose this life. Being away has allowed me to let go of the demands and dull routines of home. Knowing home is around the corner helps me to accept the here and now.
Almost home… is not being homesick. It’s part of the journey, a destination too. It’s appreciating the home I carry inside that lets me find comfort in new places and with new faces.
Almost home… is a great place to be. It means I’m out there. Travel is a permanent part of my life and home is what connects all the trips, it’s the pause in the middle between adventures.
Almost home… is time to start dreaming about my next travel destination!
Sometimes I’m not happy, things aren’t wonderful and my surroundings don’t delight. Tomorrow will be a new day. I’m just resting in the arms of the great wide open. And I’m almost home.
Brasília has always intrigued me. A modern metropolis located in the middle of nowhere yet a powerful statement of rising Brazil’s great potential – built with spectacular speed under the careful guidance of Brazil’s top designers. I spent a Sunday roaming its methodical streets, marveling at the novel buildings and wide open spaces, yet sensing a bit of emptiness amid its monumental enterprise.
Brazil’s capital has a history of moving around with shifting economic power centers: first Salvador in Bahia for most of the colonial 300 years, then to Rio de Janeiro for another two centuries. All along there was talk of moving the capital to a more central – and politically neutral – part of the country and by 1891 the constitution mandated this.
But it took another 50 years for President Juscelino Kubitschek to get the ball rolling in 1956. Stunningly, Brasília was officially inaugurated just over three years later in 1960.
Brasília was conceived by heavyweight trio Oscar Niemeyer (architect), Lúcio Costa (urban planner), and Roberto Burle Marx (landscape designer). Their distinctly modernist approach – fueled by a healthy dose of utopian optimism – prescribed a workable and futuristic metropolis. The result is a fascinating 20th-century creation: impeccably planned streets, purpose-built neighborhoods (Hotel Sector, the Banking Sector, Embassy Sector, etc), and an efficient infrastructure built for a new millennium.
From above, Brasília is shaped like an airplane. The “cockpit” houses the main seats of government in the Praça dos Três Poderes (Plaza of the Three Powers). The “fuselage” centers on the Eixo Monumental (Monumental Axis) lined by the principal monuments and federal administrative buildings. The outspreading “wings” enclose measured superquadras (superblocks) that obsessively propose the number and type of apartments, stores, schools, and parks.
Brasília has both adherents and detractors. Many laud the auspicious planning and consideration for 20th-century urban life. It is the only UNESCO World Heritage city founded in last 100 years due to its epic and ambitious design.
Yet others point out the failure to fully realize this vision. To me Brasília lacks a certain human touch, and this was especially true on a quiet Sunday when government offices are closed. While I was impressed with the idiosyncratic buildings, I felt weighed down by its austere urban expanse. So much of the bleached exterior smacks of artifice and invention – some of it even feels outdated. In Simone de Beauvoir’s words, Brasília exudes an “air of elegant monotony”.
After sightseeing I saw a Brazilian friend I met in Salvador at the Uruguay-Italy FIFA match a few weeks prior. Edmilton (or simply “Ed”) is a government functionary and a transplant from São Paulo like most of the migrant candangos who were not born in Brasília. We drank some beers late in the day and I heard another side to the Brasília story.
Ed’s enthusiasm for his adopted city is clear: he is proud to work for the federal government and extolls Brasília’s orderliness, efficient public transport and traffic-free roads, and renown cuisine and nightlife. Brasília has a great quality of life compared to other Brazilian cities – and the expanding population, with an annual growth rate of 3%, bears this out.
Today as I depart to the Amazon — a lifelong dream of mine — I am greeted with extraordinary headlines from the new pontiff’s trip to Brazil. Pope Francis’ astonishing statements to Brazilians are bold and promising and, I hope, consequential.
Brazilians are paying attention — live coverage is broadcast on the nation’s televisions and locals dutifully switch back and forth between soccer matches.
I hope the world is listening too. While these are just words, Pope Francis seems to be a man of action. I’m beginning to like this guy…
I would like to invite everyone to reflect on what Aparecida said about the Amazon Basin, its forceful appeal for respect and protection of the entire creation which God has entrusted to man, not so that it can be indiscriminately exploited, but rather made into a garden.
After three weeks in the magnetic city of Salvador I was getting mighty used to its comforts, neighborliness, and vibrant Afro-Brazilian culture – not to mention two rollicking weeks of non-stop festivals. I was falling for its charms and feared I might never leave.
Yet as alluring as Salvador is, underneath the party dress it’s a dense and exhausting city. I was ready to move on to somewhere more relaxed.
The beach was calling me…
So the inner rambler got me packing and off I went to Morro de São Paulo via ferry, bus, riverboat and finally wheelbarrow (i.e. “taxis” on the car-less island). On the boat over I met two robust Uruguayans, Marisa and Rosita. We hit it off instantly.
The gals lassoed me into staying with them on the Segunda Praia (aka the Party Beach) where we could split the costs for a triple room which would be about the same price as bunks in the hostel. Sounded good to me – my intuition gave me the green light so I bunked with two crazy chicas for the next four days.
Local tout Luis latched onto us as soon as we stepped off the boat. He was at first our taxi driver (i.e. hauling our backpacks in the wheelbarrow), then our hotel booking agent, and later our “Julie McCoy,” planning our activities and events. He received a kickback from the operators (i.e. no cash directly out of our pockets) and he was goodhearted in nature and genuinely friendly towards us.
We stayed at the personable Marilyn Café (as in Monroe) where we rented a second-floor triple (with a spacious terrace) right on the beach with great views of surfers, volleyball players and passing pedestrians. The owner, Alessandro, a transplant from Milan who landed in Morro de São Paulo, fell in love with a Brazilian beauty and started a business and family. The pousada was small and family run and the perfect place to kick back for a few days.
Quaint and colonial Morro de São Paulo, perched at the northern end of Ilha de Tinharé, can be magical: the beaches are pleasing, the atmosphere is laid back, and the nightlife is chill with candlelit dinners and easy-breezy music. People are receptive, fresh-catch seafood and ice cold beers are always at hand, and the rhythms of surf and samba flow through the air.
Morro de São Paulo is touristy. Very. A fortress outpost established in the early 1600’s, it protected Portugal’s American Empire for three centuries. But Morro de São Paulo has been less successful in withstanding the tourist invasion in recent decades. This onslaught has turned practically every square inch into a pousada guesthouse, café bar, pizzeria or flip-flop shop peddling the ubiquitous Havaianas brand – Brazil’s de facto national footwear.
Salvadorans, Brazilians, Argentines and Uruguayans flock here in droves – especially on weekends – but the island does a respectable job of absorbing the masses. With the right attitude, Morro de São Paulo is pure pleasure.
Here are some of the qualities I enjoyed most during my five days on the island:
I spent eight days working on an organic farm through WWOOF International (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) at Chácara Canto Guardian just a couple kilometers outside of the charming town of Pirenópolis in Goiás state in central Brazil. This was something I’ve wanted to do for some time.
It was a superb experience – the host Julia greeted me each morning with a smile and hug, fed me healthy and hearty organic meals, gave me a list of manageable tasks that I willingly did each day, and offered me a comfortable cottage where I could relax in private.
Canto Guardian isn’t a typical WWOOF property since it’s not really a full-fledged working organic farm. While Julia does have a couple of vegetable gardens, banana and coconut trees, and a bounty of medicinal herbs, she is a full-time professor and has only part-time help so her farming operations are limited. And since I arrived in the dry season and the irrigation system is just being built, there was little hands-on gardening during my stay.
But each WWOOF experience is unique and I found magic while walking the nature trails, observing the birds and butterflies and bugs, marveling at each sunrise and sunset, and chatting with Julia while swinging in a hammock. What follows is the diary of my WWOOFing days.
See Part Two for the second-half of my experience. Also check out my recommendations to anyone interested in giving WWOOF a try.
Monday, July 15
I wake up late to sunshine. It’s a welcome change from the cloudy skies and rain of interior Bahia state. Before heading to breakfast, I sit and admire the surrounding green hills and the bees busily working the bright yellow blossoms outside my door.
I notice the following posted near my terrace. It pretty much sums up the tone of this place:
Bem vindo! Você está no Canto Guardian. Silencie seus pensamentos e busque entrar em contacto com seu Eu interior. É importante estar presente.Você faz parte de um todo, descubra seu valor e contribua com o colectivo. Convidamos todos a desenvolvero senso de presença através da observação.
Welcome! You are at Guardian Song Silence your thoughts and seek to contact your interior You. It is important to be present. You are part of a total, discover your value and contribute to the collective. We invite everyone to develop a sense of presence through observation.
Julia, my host, is sweet and welcoming. She has a childlike laugh and broad smile and takes time to introduce me to the property. There is a main house, open and airy with a basic kitchen and a large living room fitted with a yoga mat where she does tai chi and meditation. A spacious veranda wraps around the main house where we spend most of our time – there are hammocks, comfortable chairs, a large table for meals, and some of Julia’s small art objects comprised of stones, seeds, feathers, plants and other natural effects gathered nearby.
I learn that currently there are no active gardens which changes my WWOOFing expectations. Julia is a professor at the Federal University of Goiás and only maintains an organic farm during the wetter summer months when irrigation is less toiling and she is less consumed by her teaching duties.
This morning Julia invited me to accompany the Chileans to a nearby cachoiera (waterfall). They were unable to get a taxi for the trip out so I was the chauffeur since Julia knows and trusts my driving abilities. It was a pretty spot with refreshing waters and an impressive cacsade. I chatted with the Chileans while enjoying the sunshine, I even was able to manage a short meditation beside a smaller waterfall which cooled me with its light spray.
As for WWOOF work, today I repaired another splitting table so more glue and tiny nails. I continued clearing out irrigation canals and helped Julia by dropping off the Chileans in town and running some errands for her so she could concentrate on school work.
I did some laundry today, great to use a nice deep sink. As I churned the dirty laundry in the basin I spotted a nearby serene praying mantis (or rather a phasmatodea). Critters are everywhere: ants, geckos, frogs, spiders, moths, flies, mosquitoes, butterflies, bees and a host of other small insects. I’ve become an expert at shooing them from my room since there’s almost always a new friend to greet me when entering. At first it was a bother but no longer – there’s little here that will harm and they are just trying to get through each day like the rest of us.
I’m starting to get that restless feeling – it’ll be time to move on in a few days. I was planning to spend a couple of weeks on a WWOOF farm but frankly there’s little farm work. I’ve almost completed Julia’s to-do list and she seems somewhat harried by all the guests (10 Chileans + me!) and her end-of-semester pressures at the university. So I’ll talk to her tomorrow and let her know I plan to leave after the weekend, I doubt this will be an issue.
I fell asleep early tonight to the sweet songs of the curiango, a nocturnal bird that is common in these parts.
Saturday, July 20
No rest for the weary in WWOOFing! Even though it’s the weekend it’s still a work day. Today I spent hours hoeing a bone-dry garden and adding household compost to the soil. The result: a crunchy and dehydrated bed ready for planting that is sure to nourish some succulent veggies when the rains return.
I was amazed by how easy it is to use compost: Julia simply adds all the kitchen organic waste (including eggshells) to a pile out back. She adds fallen leaves from the scrub on her property, blends the two occasionally and in a couple months has a fine stash adubo to add to her garden. We’ve been composting our vegetable waste for years in Maine by simply tossing it in a heap in the backyard woods but then we just ignore it. No more! I’ve learned it’s easy to work this into the garden soil in the springtime; I’ll be sure to do this going forward.
Timing is everything and my arrival in Salvador da Bahia coincides with a growing Perfect Storm:
the lead-up to the São João festival that will spill into the cobblestone streets of the Pelourinho neighborhood with wild drumming, dance and drunkenness
the kickoff of the FIFA Confederations Cup in Brazil with matches watched on big screens and celebrated in crowds throughout the city
the headline-grabbing street protests clamoring against government corruption, poor services and the high cost of living here
These brewing forces will surge in coming days, auguring a street festa of Big Brazilian proportions. Here’s a snippet of the preparations for the São João festival I witnessed in the streets the day after my arrival. If this is just a warm up, the real deal this weekend promises to sizzle!