The border town that separates Brazil from Uruguay
is literally split across the middle. I start off in Chuy at 7am, having caught my 6am bus from La Corranilla, and cross a fairly unsuspecting road.
By the time I reach the middle, let alone the other side, I’m in Country #44; my money isn’t accepted anywhere; and the Spanish words I’ve spent months learning don’t work either. It’s also now called Chui.
My first plan is to head northwest to Foz do Iguaçu, where I can walk into Paraguay and Argentina to get a full view of the amazing Iguazzu Falls. This plan is shot down as soon as I arrive to Porto Alegre and discover the inconsistent bus schedules; if I took the next bus, I’d be there for 4 hours before I’d have to take the only bus that could get me to Rio in time to check into my hostel for carnival, which I’ve had booked and prepaid since before Christmas. Not worth the gamble.
So I settle for 3 days in Porto Alegre, aiming to spend as little money as possible before an anticipated blowout at Rio’s world famous carnival. I find a hotel room for £8 and spend my time walking to the Beiro Rio football stadium (again I miss the chance to see a game due to South America’s summer fixture schedule); relaxing in its many parks and exploring the Science and Technology museum (although this is harder in Portuguese).
On the Sunday, I check out of the hotel room, which started to feel like a prison cell after 3 days of trying not to touch my wallet, and board a 30 hour coach to Rio de Janeiro. Monday evening, I pull into the carnival capital of the world and reconvene with my two Mexican amigos, Manuel and Cesar (who I stayed with in Durango) in El Misti Hostel.
I’m delighted to be able to speak Spanish again and show off how much I’ve improved since I stayed with them in November.
The whole city is apparently constantly in a state of anticipation for the next carnival throughout the year; dancers audition for their next troop, everyone works on their outfit, fancy dress or float design – so I knew there would still be parades and things to see even if I arrived early. We take a booze cruise around the harbour until ridiculous o’clock; hike up to Christ the Redeemer and Sugarloaf Mountain for sunsets; and relax on the Copacabana and Ipanema beaches before the official start date of the carnival.
The first street party/blocco that I go to is in Santa Teresa, more known for its tourist trap of Spanish Steps than anything else. The MC on the leading bus sings the ‘Santa Teresa blocco’ anthem relentlessly for 3 hours; flamboyant, gigantic puppets dance in the air above the Brazilian puppet-masters; and a herd of drummers dressed in orange bang out a beat for the dancing punters to follow. Cold beer, caiparanhas and cocktails are sold from ice buckets every few metres to keep punters, puppeteers and drummers nicely inebriated. The atmosphere is electric and the whole district is an explosion of colour, noise and alcohol.
The following morning, a smaller group of us leave the hostel battling chronic headaches to go to the Copacabana blocco. Its ten times bigger than both of yesterdays (after Santa Teresa we joined onto the Lapa blocco), with over 50,000 people accompanying the floats. The music is more varied, drones fly above to capture the madness, and a river of people slowly samba their way down the promenade. Heir of the dog.
Bloccos all have the same ingredients so they started to merge into one after a few days; but we go to several more, usually two a day until the thought of more caiparanhas makes me queasy. We check out of El Misti, saying goodbye to another excellent group of people, and go a few hundred kilometres back east to in the hope that life is cheaper and more chilled.
We arrive at dusk to Ilha Grande, the biggest of a network of paradyllic islands (reminiscent of Caye Caulker and Roatan) in the middle of Rio and Sao Paulo. It’s this similarity to Belizean and Honduran Caribbean islands that made me instantly assume it was safer than Rio. Wrong. An hour after we arrive, a pickpocket is shot dead by a security guard on the beach during the warm up to the blocco (there is literally no escaping bloccos during Carnival season!). The blocco continues; there is no escape in Carnival season.
“I hope this view is worth it,” pants Cesar as we battle up another vine-covered slope in the central jungle of the island. At 9am, we started trekking up to the highest mountain we could see last night; convincing our Chilean dorm-mate to join us. She turned back a few kilometres ago having seen how steep the trail would be, but the 3 of us are battling on. We jump over boulders, cross streams and pull ourselves up cliff-like slopes using ropes until we reach the top. Two Brazilian off-duty firefighters are there already and reward us with biscuits and crisps; we take photos, videos and snapshot memories before the inevitable realisation kicks in that we’re technically only half way. On a climb like this, the descent is going to be just as brutal as the incline.
Cesar and I are stood waist deep in the blue water that laps against Palmas’ golden sand, trying to catch dinner. We set off late, arriving at dusk, but we’re getting a lot of nibbles. With each cast and “We’ll get one this time!” we risk walking back through the jungle at night with no water, food or lights. A lightning bolt cracks against a tree to our left, and we realise that the walk back will be worse in the incoming storm (and holding a metal pole whilst being surrounded by water can never be a good idea!). Fish dinner is put on hold for the meantime and we settle for homemade skewered kebabs (bruchetas, in Spanish) cooked on a campfire on the beach once the storm fades instead.
Ever-the-optimist, I’ve led the group on a “It’s just a 3-4 hour walk, lads!” hike across virgin jungle to reach the northernmost point of the island, Lago Azul. It’s actually taken closer to 8, we’ve missed half a day’s snorkelling and we’re still not there. Confronted by a cliff, we pay a fisherman to take us the rest of the way and finally reach the crystal clear waters with fish swimming underneath the boat. We eat rice and take turns snorkelling; while the others teach Manuel how to swim/me how to dive. The boat owner gives his price to take us home to Abraao, where we later find a tour company that would have done a full day tour (including lunch, drinks and snorkelling gear) for the same price as we paid the fisherman. A kick in the teeth for 3 shattered hikers, who walked a sweaty 8 hours for 2 hours in paradise.
I have a desperate hunt for jobs on the island and an awkward interview in Portuspanglish that results in a handshake that mutually says ‘We won’t be in touch’. So I join Manuel and Cesar back to Rio and wave them off as they return to Mexico. I have a month until I meet Hannah in Iceland after she returns from Indonesia; so it’s either Operation Get Any Job You Can or Operation Just Eat Rice And Beans to ensure I have funds to enjoy an exciting adventure in a fairly pricey Country #45.
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