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.
There was so much we loved during our weeks in Ecuador but here are the standout “Number Ones” from each of us:
Paul’s #1 Thrill
Riding the “milk truck” on a journey that seemed to climb its way to the apex of a very remote and stunning area of the Andes. We enjoyed the open air with the camaraderie of the locals who, like us, were taking the only ride out of town that day. The only thing missing was a thermos of nice hot coffee because we did have the luxury of an endless supply of fresh creamer right at our fingertips.
Peter’s #1 Natural Wonder
The captivating Quilotoa Crater Lake was a supremely blissful start of our 3-day trek through the remote Andean highlands. Every step of our walk was beautiful but the splendor of Volcán Quilotoa’s turquoise water was the most dazzling of all.
Paul’s #1 People
The group of young Ecuadorian hikers we met at the waterfall near Baños. If they are an example of the young and upcoming generation in Ecuador I have great hope for that country. I was thoroughly impressed with their enthusiasm, curiosity and manners not to mention they were just plain fun.
Peter’s #1 Animal
We encountered countless friendly critters in Ecuador, but none endeared our hearts like Felipe in at our hostal in Chugchilán. This lovely little cat spent every moment with us: purring on our laps, rambunctiously playing with peacock feathers, knocking over beer bottles, sneaking in the dining room to sniff our food, and generally being an entertaining nuisance. Oddly the owner said Felipe was in “mourning” over the recent death of his sister, but to us Felipe was always in the highest of spirits – he certainly lifted ours.
Paul’s #1 Area
Baños. I not only enjoyed the immense beauty of the stunning scenery which engulfed this town but the energy that seemed to permeate every nook and cranny was infectious. The town was filled with backpackers who seemed to be on a single quest… to challenge themselves with a myriad of activities ranging from zip lining to bungee jumping and every other hair-raising experience in between. Oh… did I mention the daily soak in the natural hot springs which was just icing on the cake in this little paradise of the Andes.
Peter’s #1 Show
Barnum & Bailey’s it wasn’t but the traveling Miami Circus’ small troupe of performers that landed in Vilcabamba far surpassed our expectations. The clowns had us laughing hard while the charmingly hokey trapeze acts kept us in our seats – unexpected feats for a pint-sized Big Top!
Paul’s #1 Hostel
The beach shack in Canoa which was akin to popping several Valiums every day. I have never known such deep relaxation in the week we had the pleasure of staying there. I’m not sure if it was the fact we were barefoot the entire week…or could it be the gentle sway of the hammocks which we seemed to live in….or maybe the mellow rhythm of the surf… how about the cool and constant ocean breeze which kept us so wonderfully comfortable? It was all just perfect.
Peter’s #1 Meal
Weary after a couple weeks of dining on heaps of rice and heavy fried plantains, we keenly ordered up two salads in Vilcabamba that were delightfully satiating. With crisp, crunchy greens from the surrounding fertile valley and delicious home-made salad dressing, it was a pleasingly healthy and hearty meal. And despite the nationwide Sunday ban on alcohol, the waiter was gracious enough to surreptitiously serve us beer in coffee mugs – ah, the recalcitrance of small towns!
Paul’s #1 Drink
My Club Rojas beer. I can’t think of a better way to spend a dollar on a warm and sunny afternoon.
Peter’s #1 Non-alcoholic Beverage
We loved the fresh-pressed sugarcane juice found everywhere in Ecuador. Street vendors cranked the tough stalks through clanking presses that squeezed out fresh yellowy guarapo. After our active days in Baños, the sweet glasses of jugo de caña never failed to replenish our energy.
Paul’s #1 Scariest Moment
Coming inches away from cracking my head on a concrete wall at the end of the zip line ride. Going from 40km per hour to 0 head first just a few feet from this wall gives me a headache just thinking about it.
Peter’s #1 Ride
Our Ecuadorian train journey up and down the sheer 600 m (2,000 ft) cliffs of Nariz del Diablo in the Andes was a pure thrill. We were mildly disappointed when we learned we could no longer ride on top of the carriage (two Japanese tourists fell off and died), but the panoramic windows provided sufficiently knuckle-biting views.
Paul’s #1 Exciting Moment
Galloping down Main Street in Vilcabamba on a horse named Tequila. It would have made John Wayne very proud.
Peter’s #1 Rainfall
Passing through Mindo, the birding capital of Ecuador, we decided to take a waterfall walk through the rainforest. And it rained and rained and rained. It is the rainforest after all… ‘nuff said.
The Basílica del Voto Nacional in Quito offers intrepid travelers a chance to scale the soaring bell towers for blessed views of the city and area volcanoes. Paul said I look like a Broadway actor wannabe in this photo… it would make a great setting for a Cats-inspired musical: Bats! (In The Belfry)
Flipping through the pages of Lonely Planet Ecuador we found a short segment on the Quilotoa Loop, a walking circuit in the central Andean highlands. Eager to leave the tourist-heavy main corridor of the Panamericana highway, this was right up our alley. Offering energetic walks through attractive valleys and nights in isolated Kichwa-speaking villages, this outdoor Ecuadorian excursion reminded us of our gratifying rambles in the UK and Ireland.
So we dumped our heavy stuff in storage at our friendly hostal in Latacunga and set off with light backpacks on a bus bound to Zumbahua. There we found a large crowd awaiting the appearance of Rafael Correa, the socialist president campaigning for his third term.
He’s wildly popular among Ecuador’s indigenous voters: he learned Kichwa (the dominant local language) and has systematically backed strong social programs and public works since he took office in 2007. Fortunately there are sufficient funds to implement these changes since the new constitution guarantees that 85% of proceeds from Ecuadorian resources stay in the country (rather than 15% previously) – much to the chagrin of large multinational companies.
Correa is part of a growing group of popular and pragmatic leftist leaders taking root in Latin America in the last decade, known as the Pink Tide, which rejects the “Washington consensus” policies of unchecked open markets and rampant privatization. Widely expected to win by a landslide, Correa is already the longest-serving Ecuadorian president in more than a century. The current political and economic stability offers enormous hope and optimism for a large part of previously disenfranchised Ecuadorians.
Our first stop was in Quilotoa, a settlement on the rim of Volcán Quilotoa with its stunning turquoise crater lake. We spent the night with other walkers from Germany, Australia, the United Kingdom and Brazil, sharing a hearty family-style meal. We love these kinds of hostales where meeting fellow travelers is easy and conversations flow breezily. It was chilly on the rim at nearly 4000 m (13,000 ft) but the camaraderie warmed our hearts.
Greeted with sunshine the next morning, we explored the lake and walked along the rim towards Chugchilán. All the small villages along the route have somewhat tongue-tricky names (such as Isinliví and Saquisilí) so we found it easier to refer to them by first letter (i.e. “I-town” and “S-town”).
What fun we had in Baños! I was somehow expecting this given that pretty much everyone we met had told us so. “It’s touristy,” they all warned us, “but you’ll barely notice it once you start doing stuff.”
Normally when my expectations are high about a place I tend to be underwhelmed when I get there. But in the case of Baños, I can honestly say it was more pleasing than I anticipated.
Baños is touristy. So much so that there are literally hundreds of hotels and restaurants in the relatively small town of 10,000 residents. But this also means that competition among businesses is intense so the quality is high and the prices very favorable to the tourist.
Our hotel, for example, Hostel La Chimenea was a delight: sparkling clean and spacious rooms with private bathrooms and balconies, a pool and sauna, wireless internet, a rooftop terrace with views of the surrounding mountains and waterfalls, a great breakfast restaurant, and friendly laid-back management. All this for a mere $8.50 a person!
The real charm of Baños is not the town but the surrounding area. There are miles of excellent hiking trails with views of the active Tungurahua volcano which towers above the valley at 5,023 m (16,480 ft). There is mountain biking past scores of waterfalls, mostly down hill with frequent buses to whisk you (and your wheels) back effortlessly to Baños. You can whitewater raft, bungee jump, zipline, rappel down waterfalls and rent ATV’s. And since the mountains descend rapidly to the eastern Amazon, you can even tour tropical indigenous areas and spot jungle wildlife.
After all this adventuring, you can relax in the numerous hot mineral springs in Baños (known officially as Baños de Agua Santa or “The Baths of Sacred Water”). Our favorite were the baths just two blocks from our hotel which sit beneath a striking 100 m waterfall. We went every day, sometimes during the mornings when we encountered quiet older Ecuadorians, and a couple times during the evening when it is packed with locals and travelers – the happening social scene in town.
Clearly there is much to love about Baños. Here are some of the many things we enjoyed during our visit:
We rushed to escape the clouds and cold of Cuenca, traveling about six hours south to the small town of Vilcabamba. Nestled in the green hills near the Peruvian border, Vilcabamba has attracted a fair number of expatriates who appreciate the laid-back feel, the mild climate, the relative isolation and its attractive natural setting.
Paul and I immediately took to the town. We settled into our cozy hostal just a block off the main square, replete with a hammock on the balcony and lush gardens inside the expansive walled patio. We chatted with the caretakers, an English-Romanian couple who own a well-regarded restaurant in Cuenca and agreed to run the hotel in Vilcabamba while their friend/hotelier takes a much-needed sabbatical.
Vilcabamba has a great feel. It attracts a trickle of backpackers and the expat residents are mostly alternative/hippy types who seem to integrate well with the locals. We met young and old, and many families live here. It’s not uncommon to see bilingual European or North American kids playing in the main square with their Ecuadorian friends.
My first visit to Cusco was in 1999 at the end of a backpacking trip through Peru with my brother Erik. As a finale to our journey we hiked the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Standing together at dawn at the Puerta del Sol high above the celebrated Inca city, the clouds parted and the shining white stone buildings revealed themselves. It is an experience I will always remember. As soon as Erik left I was surprised by a visit from Paul, and we traveled together through the Sacred Valley, an area rich in important Inca archaeological sites.
My memories of Cusco are among the most vivid of my past travels. As I recently returned to this much-loved place after thirteen years, I could not extricate my past recollections from my new experiences. And that was big part of the fun!
Of course I expected differences. The most notable change is how tourism has grown. Cusco then was still very touristy but I was not prepared for the marked increase in boutique hotels, shops and restaurants. In 1999 there were maybe one or two franchises in the city but now are many more with, of course, a Starbucks on the corner of the Plaza de Armas, epicenter of the Inca world.
Visiting Cusco and the important sights now requires an expensive, all-inclusive boleto turístico entry pass. To hike the legendary Inca Trail you now need to sign up months in advance and pay hundreds of dollars. In 1999 Erik and I just showed up at a travel company and booked the four-day trip for $60 leaving the next day. But these changes are not bad things per se, of course regulating the Inca Trail limits the environmental impact of thousands of walkers each year and the much-needed entry fee revenue helps Peru maintain and improve its national treasures.
Fortunately, despite these changes, Cusco remains a marvelous destination. The city admirably balances the strain of mass tourism and its vibrant Peruvian highland culture. Local markets still subsume the central Plaza de Armas during festivals, you can still walk along streets lined with stunning Inca stonework, fill up on a hearty breakfast of rice and beans, fried eggs, avocado, onion, tomato and spicy salsa de ají at the boisterous San Pedro market. And good budget accommodation can still be had; it’s just a few blocks further from the city center.
Cusco remains one of my favorite places in Latin America, most of all because it is evolving and changing. The city lives and breathes its history, like Rome or Bangkok, drawing upon its past and present identities to sustain its exceptional character. Traditional and touristy, Cusco still boasts an incredible concentration of art, history, folk traditions, architecture, religion and creature comforts that few areas on the continent can match.
I was in great need of a long weekend in Toro Toro which awaited me at the end of a curvaceous and bumpy six-hour ride from Cochabamba. The town, with its laid-back vibe, is the base for an adjacent national park that promised me a rewarding getaway with spectacular sights. It was my first escape from large Bolivian cities in two months and I was ready for a mini-holiday from my consuming Kiva duties.
There’s not much to Toro Toro town and that’s what makes it such a delight. It’s a traditional quechua-speaking village that hasn’t changed much from its Republican days except for a mild increase in tourism once 60-million-year-old dinosaur footprints were found in the area. And given that it sits in a place of striking natural beauty, it’s a small wonder people started coming here.
There are a handful of basic hostales spread about town that serve meals since there aren’t any restaurants. I was incredibly happy to stay with the warmest and welcoming hostess Lily at Hostal Las Hermanas, a lush paradise of blooming roses, bougainvillea, lime and pomegranate trees, hanging coyate squash (which is cooked and sweetened for tasty desserts), a host of potted flowers and a menagerie of kittens and parrots roaming the grounds.
One of the great joys of living in Cochabamba is the ease of access to its surrounding mountains which abound with great hiking trails. The lofty peaks of the olive-colored Tunari Range of the eastward-reaching Andes awakened my inner rambler and I headed to the hills on many weekends. Here are some highlights:
My first weekend in Cochabamba I rose early, grabbed some bananas and chocolate and my filled water bottle, and hoofed it from my apartment to the gate of the Parque Tunari. This is the closest and most accessible areas for hiking and soon I was rising high above Cochabamba. The city’s iconic Cristo de la Concordia with his monumental outstretched hands quickly faded to a mere spec far below. I was surrounded by the smell of eucalyptus and the spectacle of spring bloom.
I encountered very few people on the trail, just a couple families out for a picnic and one dedicated student, his nose diligently in his textbook at a particularly inspired lookout above Cochabamba. Eventually I reached an abandoned campground I and goofed around in the children’s playground:
I kept ascending and finally stopped high above the Cochabamba valley at around 3700 m (over 12,100 feet). I took in the beautiful vista s of the valley below and the towering Mount Tunari (the highest peak in the region at over 5000 m) covered in clouds to the west.
It was a satisfying hike from house to hilltop, I’ve never had this luxury before. All my previous hikes required some sort of transport from my home… this was fueled by just my own two feet.
After a chokingly long week in congested La Paz, Paul arrived and at our first chance we were off in search of cleaner air, a less-harried town, and some water in land-locked Bolivia. I had finished my first week with Kiva, happily making friends at the Emprender loan offices and completing a couple borrower visits. It was time to celebrate my recent success with Paul!
So off we went to Copacabana on the shores of the magisterial Lago Titicaca. Standing at 3,812 m (12,507 ft), the lake is the highest navigable body of water in the world. The Copacabana region, or kota kawana in Aymara (which means “view of the lake”), was considered by both the Tiwanaku and Incan empires strategically, economically and spiritually important. Consequently Copacabana was settled long before the Spanish arrived.
Today it is a quaint town of 6,000 residents and a tourist hub for both backpackers and Andinos alike. The Basilica of Our Lady of Copacabana, a hallowed shrine dating back to the 16th century, is home to the patron saint of Bolivia. This so-called “Dark Virgin” purportedly has magical healing powers. Her reputation is so great that pilgrims flock to the cathedral all year long. Revered far and wide, the Virgin even inspired the naming of a now-famous beach in Rio de Janeiro.
Paul and I instantly bonded with Copacabana. Laid-back, friendly and geographically and culturally interesting, we both relaxed within minutes of getting off the bus from La Paz. On the ride there, I couldn’t remember if I passed through this town back in 1999 when I made my first Andean circuit with my brother Erik. At the time, I recall, I was quite ill from the flu and my recollection was fuzzy at best. But as soon as I saw the distinctive Basilica, fashioned in the mudéjar style of Islamic Spain, I instantly remembered being here.
One tidbit I do remember from my first visit was changing $100 USD at a local bank since Copacabana was my first stop in Bolivia, having just arrived from Peru. There were no ATM’s in the town then and the bank teller patiently counted out a pile of small-denomination Boliviano notes. I made my way back to my hotel with a stack of bills as thick as a brick, what a feeling!
The first afternoon Paul and I just wandered idly around town, poking about the markets, climbing the Cerro Calvario which has great views of the town and the lake. We enjoyed a cold beer as the sun sank on the western shores of Lake Titicaca and delivered an almighty sunset. The vote was unanimous — Lake Titicaca was a perfect place to be for a few days.