Out On the Dunes: ATV Adventures in Jericoacoara

You’ve already read how in just one week, I fell deep under Jericoacoara’s spell. While the tiny, remote Brazilian beach town had charm in spades, most people were drawn to what lay beyond its borders — miles upon miles of endless, untamed sand dunes, their shapes changing with the whims of the wind.

To explore them, you’ll need a set of wheels. From what I discovered, the tourism industry in Jeri is still quite underdeveloped and most “tours” are arranged on a whim. If you’re traveling solo like I was, you’ll need to form a group of your own before approaching a tour operator or they are likely to shrug you off.

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

Thankfully, I was adopted by a group of a dozen Israelis who arranged two separate days exploring on ATVs for us. The first day we had a slightly smaller group than the second, and each paid 140R ($40US), while for our second outing we each paid 115R ($33). My newfound travel tribe were excellent negotiators, I should note — I have no doubt we would have paid more had I been the one in charge of setting a rate.

In general, it appears there are two general routes the guides will lead you on — one to the east, and one to the west. You could also tackle either of these routes in a buggy with your guide behind the wheel, if you didn’t feel like self-driving. In our case, the guides zoomed ahead on monster-sized dirt bikes, leading the way for our caravan of ATVs.

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

On our first day, we went west. I have to admit that I’m not the most comfortable behind the wheels of an ATV — I’ve had a few friends get in serious accidents in the last few years and well, I just feel vulnerable bouncing around on this big ‘ol hunk of metal that could flip over and crush me any second.

So I was more than happy to be a passenger on this little excursion, though within moments I could tell that at the speeds my crew was driving, I was going to spend a lot of the day screaming with my eyes clenched shut.

Our first stop was in the hamlet of Mangue Seco. It’s not every day you get to use the word hamlet, but in this case it seems the only descriptor appropriate for the blip on the map that Mangue Seco was.

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

Water levels were high in the area at the time, and so we eventually reached a standstill where our ATVs had to be loaded onto precarious rafts and pushed across the water onward. On the other side, our guide asked us if we wanted to take a short boat trip for another 10R to see the “Cavalo Marinho.”

We puzzled over what this could possibly be, my Israeli friends turning to me and asking if my Spanish knowledge might reveal any clues. “Well… caballo means horse in Spanish,” I said with a shrug. “Could they be talking about… sea horses?

I said it with incredibly trepidation. After all, we were crossing a freshwater lake, right? But shortly after we loaded into the boat, the new guide leaned over the hull and scooped into a mason jar, yup, three tiny little seahorses. It was my greatest moment of communication victory in all of Brazil. Six weeks, and I finally was able to accurately predict what sea creature I was about to see.

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

After exiting through a surreal, jumbo-sized mangrove forest that we unfortunately didn’t stop to photograph, we were back to the dunes.

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

We soon spotted a crowd in the distance, and paused as we pulled up next to them to see what all the commotion was about, out here in the sand-filled middle of nowhere. We found an enterprising group of locals selling rides down into a rainwater lake for a mere 5R. After watching a few groups face-plant in the sand, I grabbed a board and took my own turn publicly humiliating myself. It was wonderful.

Finally, a chance to relax after the super stressful day we’d been having (ha!) Looking back at a map, I can’t say for sure if we were at Lago Grande or Laguinho da Torta Tatajuba, but I can confirm that it doesn’t really matter. The dunes surrounding Jericoacoara are surrounded by scenic lagoons dotted with in-water hammocks and fringed by palm trees. I wouldn’t get too picky about which one you end up in.

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

This was the best part of the day. It was incredibly windy, but we didn’t mind. Hours melted away as we lounged in the sun, watched kite-surfers work their magic, and marveled at the paradise we stumbled upon in what felt like the end of the earth. Seafood and beer were offered every time we so much as looked at a hammock; and my travel companions were all too happy to take one for the team with a few orders.

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

All good things must come to an end, and eventually we packed up and prepared ourselves for the long drive back to Jericoacoara. Now, all day, I’d been lightly teased for my clear discomfort with our driving speeds. As our guides geared up, one of the boys, Eliko, approached me and asked what was making me so nervous. “These things flip over all the time,” I pointed out. “No, no,” he assured me. “You are very safe. We all drove in much more difficult circumstances in the army. You are safe.” Who can argue with a man who just dedicated three years of his life to compulsory military service?

I hopped on the back of another ATV and braced myself when the adrenaline-loving driver started taking it in tight circles. Maybe now would be a great time to ask him to stop doing this, I thought to myself, and in that exact moment I felt the left two wheels of ATV lift off from the ground as we both were launched into the air. Somehow, time really did go into slow motion, enough for me to push off with my feet to get as far away from the vehicle as possible, and enough for me to lock eyes with Eliko, who was looking on in horror. If I didn’t know better, I might even recall that I had time to shake my head with disapproval mid-air. When we hit the ground, time resumed at a normal pace, and I was quickly surrounded by a dozen faces of concern.

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

We slowed down a bit after that. Eventually, the girls teamed up and I hopped on the back of Maude’s ATV for a bit, where we happily enjoyed the view from the back of the caravan. Never a dull moment, as they say!

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

A few days later, when my bruises and memories of the crash had faded, I was talked into doing it all over again (sorry mom.) This time, we went east.

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

Our first stop was the famous arch called Pedra Furada. It was quite the scramble to get there after we parked our wheels, but it was worth it for the gorgeous geological formation that awaited us. Here, I wowed everyone with my remote shooting capabilities to capture a group photo with my dSLR balanced on a rock and triggered from an app on my iPhone. Stick with the travel blogger, I assured them. They always have the best selfie tricks.

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

Next up was Arvore da Preguica, a truly amazing tree shaped by years of wind and harsh desert conditions. We didn’t have it to ourselves for long though before the next group rolled up next to us — this route was far busier and far less remote and wild than the one we’d taken the previous day, when I wondered how the guides knew which way to go into the endless dunes ahead of us.

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

This was a much more subdued journey, a balance I was more than a-ok with.

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

Again came my favorite portion of the day, the one in which we lounged in Instagram-ready water hammocks. This time, we ditched the local beer shacks in favor of the upscale beach club (or should I say lake club?) Alchymist at Lagoa Paraiso. As the fanciest of its kind in the area, stepping into Alchymist felt a bit like stepping into a portal to a European beach club — and I didn’t hate it.

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

That said, we didn’t spring for beach chairs or expensive cocktails. After splurging on a late lunch, we happily spent the rest of our time splashing around in the lagoon and enjoying our last day in Jericoacoara together.

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

Simply put, you’d be crazy to come to Jericoacoara and not spend at least one day out on the dunes exploring the wild west of the desert. These were some of my greatest adventures in all of Brazil — I loved them almost as much as the town we went home to.

Are you an ATV wimp like me or an adrenaline-loving daredevil like the rest of my crew?

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A Guide To Jericoacoara Brazil

ATV Adventures in Jericoacoara Brazil

Buggying around Buzios: Our Bonus Days in Brazil

Guys I am going to shock you here. Like really blow your mind. Sometimes, things don’t go according to plan.

Yeah, I know. Hard to believe when you’re a Tracy Flick loving, organizational spreadsheet making, perpetually over-planning-yet-somehow-still-a-scattered-helpless-hot-mess like I am. But every once in a while those plans just really go off the rails. Sometimes the weather is relentlessly terrible, sometimes your professional life crumbles at very inconvenient times, sometimes a dream trip you’ve been planning since you were thirteen is peppered with daily disasters.

Sunset from Praia Manguinhos, Buzios, Brazil

Some of you may have picked up that yeah — I’m talking about my trip to Brazil. And yup, it really boiled over when we got to Buzios. The day that we returned from diving, Heather and I went to check in for our flights to the final leg of our trip, a crazy whirlwind three days and two nights at Iguaçu Falls. I was stressed out from trying to decide what to do with my last week of travel after Heather left and exhausted from weeks of already being on the road. When I looked at the forecast and saw nothing but relentless thunderstorms for the next week in Iguaçu, I almost burst into tears.

We had had crazy downpour in Paraty. We had had rain in Rio. We had had drizzly days in Buzios. We couldn’t handle any more rain at a freakin’ waterfall, of all places.

So I did something crazy, something this type-A planner is not likely to do.

We skipped our flight.

Brigitte Bardot Statue, Buzios, Brazil

Courtyard at Nomad Hostel, Buzios, Brazil

And DAMN, did it feel good. I am not one to throw money down the drain no matter how small the sum, and I am not one to veer from the plan, no matter how awful a plan it seems when it comes time to execute. So this was a very big deal.

We traded an insanely ambitious 72 hours of non-stop travel and sightseeing for an extra night in Buzios and an extra night in Rio before our flights, an absolute luxurious bliss of near nothing-ness. I swear, it was the best decision I made in all of Brazil — as we booked an extra night in our hostel and headed out to a celebratory dinner, I was actually giddy.

I was free of the terrible professional situation that had been haunting me. I was free of the bad weather. I was free of the questionable itinerary I’d created for us. I was so flippin’ free.

And I was thrilled to have another night in Buzios, which I’d been stressed out feeling like we were short-changing. Between the work awkward-ness of our first few days and the bad weather that had delayed our diving and put cancelled two straight days of our plans, we’d hardly gotten to explore this highly-anticipated destination.

Can you even imagine a cuter place to enjoy our newfound liberation than the waterfront Nomad Hostel?

Name Sign at Nomad Hostel, Buzios, Brazil

Private Room at Nomad Hostel, Buzios, Brazil

At 210R ($67US) per night, our room wasn’t exactly the cheapest room I’ve ever booked. But for a private bathroom, a nice included breakfast, an oceanfront balcony, and the most central location a backpacker could ask for, it represented pretty good value for bougie Buzios. And dorms are available for those who have a little tighter of a budget.

View at Nomad Hostel, Buzios, Brazil

Nomad Hostel, Buzios, Brazil

Nomad Hostel, Buzios, Brazil

With our newfound day and night by the sea, we strolled the waterfront at sunset, more relaxed than we’d felt in ages. While I’m not much of a shopper, even I couldn’t resist the adorable boutiques of Buzios, and ended up with a new dress — and an adorably endearing hug from the salesgirl at check-out.

We had a celebratory dinner at Salt, where we ordered Thai curries and toasted to our new plans.

Buzios, Brazil on a budget

Shopping in Buzios, Brazil

Dining in Buzios, Brazil

No longer shackled to a before-sunrise wake up call to get back to Rio for our flights, we finally got the chance to experience Buzios’s wild nightlife and danced the hours away at Privilege, an overpriced, high society nightclub along the waterfront.

View from Nomad Hostel, Armacao dos Buzios, Brazil

Armacao dos Buzios, Brazil

Armacao dos Buzios, Brazil

Armacao dos Buzios, Brazil

The next morning, we braced our hangovers for to check one last thing off our Buzios bucket lists — renting a buggy and exploring the peninsula’s dozens of beaches. This is pretty much the thing to do in Buzios, and it was bordering on criminal that we hadn’t gotten the chances to do so yet.

Renting a Buggy in Buzios, Brazil

Praia de Ferradurinha, Buzios, Brazil

Confession: we got a pretty late start on the day. Considering the cost of buggies — our rental was $20US each for the day and we also spent $7US each on gas and $5US each on parking — I’d recommend snagging one the second the rental companies open, or even better blocking off two or more full days to play. We were leaving the next morning for Rio but didn’t waste a moment lamenting our lack of buggy hours — after all, it already felt like we were on gifted time.

Our first stop was the beautiful rumored tide pools of Praia de Ferradurinha.

Praia de Ferradurinha, Buzios, Brazil

Praia de Ferradurinha, Buzios, Brazil

Perhaps the tide was really high or perhaps we went the wrong way, but we didn’t actually find a beach. We couldn’t have cared less though, captivated as we were by the gorgeous local scenery. The place was pretty much deserted aside from a local fisherman who enthusiastically showed us his catches and told us a long, dramatic story with so much passion that it didn’t matter to any of us that we didn’t understand a single word.

Praia de Ferradurinha, Buzios, Brazil

Praia de Ferradurinha, Buzios, Brazil

Praia de Ferradurinha, Buzios, Brazil

On the way back to the main road, we stopped briefly at popular Praia de Geriba so I could photograph some colorful buggies and swan floats that reminded me of a Gray Malin photograph.

Praia de Geriba, Buzios, Brazil

Praia de Geriba, Buzios, Brazil

Praia de Geriba, Buzios, Brazil

Praia de Geriba, Buzios, Brazil

Praia de Geriba, Buzios, Brazil

The next few hours were a blur of beaches, viewpoints, and colorful vignettes we pulled over on the side of the road to photograph. Buzios had such a different climate and feel from anywhere else we’d been in Brazil; it was as if we’d somehow driven our buggy all the way to Aruba.

Colorful Murals in Buzios, Brazil

Colorful Murals in Buzios, Brazil

The sun setting at around 5:30 meant that we often ate lunch only a few hours before sunset. Such was the case on this lazy day, when we drove along Praia de Tartaruga until we stumbled on the adorable Restaurante Tartaruga, where we watched beach-goers start to pack up for the day and head to their sunset spots.

Restaurante Tartaruga at Praia de Tartaruga, Buzios, Brazil

Restaurante Tartaruga at Praia de Tartaruga, Buzios, Brazil

Restaurante Tartaruga at Praia de Tartaruga, Buzios, Brazil

Eventually, we did the same, working our way towards the pier at Praia Manguinhos, Buzios’s most famed location for sending off the sun. The busy beachfront here was packed with chic boutiques and bars, a world away from the remote stretches of sand we’d spent the day exploring.

We decided to forgo the hustle and bustle — we were late to snag a prime seat, anyway — and walked to the end of the pier to dangle our feet over the edge and wait for the sky to catch on fire.

Sunset from Praia Manguinhos, Buzios, Brazil

After, it was a mad rush to return our buggy by the inconvenient hour of 6 (it would be nice if they gave you an hour post-sunset), reconfirming my suspicious that it’s best to take the buggy for at least two days.

The second half of our time in Buzios was a really happy high point for me in Brazil. With its close proximity to Rio, it’s amazing beaches, the great diving nearby, the indulgent nightlife and all the rest of the hedonistic fun on offer, I can’t imagine leaving it off any itinerary.

Am I said I didn’t get to see Iguaçu Falls? Kind of… but I also kind of know it will still be there when I eventually boomerang my way back to South America. And so why make myself miserable trying to fit it into this one trip? I’ll always be grateful to Buzios for reminding me that sometimes an impulsive decision is the best one, and that sometimes plans really are made to be broken.

What To Do in Buzios Brazil

Next up, back to Rio!

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We were full-paying guests at Nomad Hostel and all other businesses mentioned in this post.

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The Best of Buzios Pin

The Best of Buzios Pin

Blowing Bubbles in Buzios: Diving in Brazil

This post is brought to you by PADI as part of the PADI AmbassaDiver initiative. Read my latest ramblings on the PADI blog!

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It’s pretty much a guarantee that when Alex in Wanderland regular Heather and I do a trip together, we’re going to find somewhere to go diving together, even if it’s the inside of a particularly spacious bathtub. Thankfully it hasn’t come to that quite yet, but suffice it to say these two PADI aqua-addicts love to get their scuba on.

Diving in Arraial do Cabo, Brazil

Diving in Arraial do Cabo, Brazil

While Brazil has some five star diving destinations like Fernando de Noronha and Bonito, neither were on our original itinerary due to that ever delicate balance of time, location, budget, and season.

But we were hopping along the coast, after all, and spots we were stopping in like Paraty, Ilha Grande, and Buzios all had diving on offer — each of which we were keen to try. Unfortunately it rained non-stop for our time in Paraty, and by the time it cleared up and we reached Ilha Grande, the local divemasters assured us the visibility was so torn up from the storm we might as well be diving in pea soup. So Buzios it was!

Diving in Arraial do Cabo, Brazil

Diving in Arraial do Cabo, Brazil

From our research, we knew that while there are local dive sites in Buzios, most hardcore divers head to nearby Arraial do Cabo, about an hour west back towards Rio. We called around to several local dive shops in Buzios and ended up booking with P&P, who promised to whisk us to Arraial and back for two dives plus equiptment rental for 320R ($104), or 290R ($94) if we paid in cash — an upcharge for using plastic was common throughout Brazil, unfortunately.

The morning of our dive we were met by a fairly surly dude who refused to make conversation even when I dragged out of him that he was in fact Argentinian and excitedly attempted to speak Spanish. By the time we arrived in Arraial we weren’t super excited to spend the day with him so we were actually fairly happy to realize we were being handed off to another dive operation entirely, Seaquest.

Diving in Arraial do Cabo, Brazil

Diving in Arraial do Cabo, Brazil

We hopped aboard with Seaquest and were immediately impressed with the organization and cleanliness of the boat, and the friendliness we were greeted with. Within seconds of stepping onboard we pulled away from the harbor, we went to set up our gear and realized that we had been assigned large and extra large wetsuits — we laughed as I held mine up to myself, the legs spilling over a foot beyond my short frame.

We waved over a divemaster who pulled an “oh shit” face before revealing those were the wetsuits they’d been given for us by P&P, to whom we had given our height and weight as requested. Considering an oversized wetsuit is not only ineffective (unless it sits firmly against your skin, cold water will seep in rendering it useless) but can also be dangerous (that water trapped between you and your wetsuit can create drag that restricts mobility), we both immediately refused to wear them and requested that we be brought back to shore rather than sit on the boat for two hours waiting for the other divers to have their fun.

Diving in Arraial do Cabo, Brazil

Diving in Arraial do Cabo, Brazil

Diving in Arraial do Cabo, Brazil

We called P&P en route to ask what had happened, and were shocked when we were indignantly told that based on our weights, they had given us the correct sizes. I replied that with a couple hundred dives under my belt oh and uh, twenty-seven years living in my body I was pretty sure that I knew what size I wore and this enormous mess of unisex neoprene I was holding wasn’t it. We can only assume that they didn’t have enough small wetsuits — a common issue at dive shops everywhere — and were too embarrassed to say so. But we were pretty livid.

At that point, Seaquest radioed back to their shop and asked them to rush a small and medium wetsuit to the dock, and turned around for us to get them. We were embarrassed to delay the whole boat but incredibly grateful to Seaquest for saving the day for us. Lesson learned — I certainly will never leave the dock without checking my equipment again.

Diving in Arraial do Cabo, BrazilShot by Heather Holt on a GoPro HERO3+

Diving in Arraial do Cabo, BrazilShot by Heather Holt on a GoPro HERO3+

Suffice it to say, it was a very dramatic start to the morning! However, once we had two properly fitting wetsuits we decided to leave our frustrations at the surface and enjoy every second of our long-awaited first dive in Brazil.

Diving in Arraial do Cabo, Brazil

And oh, how much there was to enjoy! Teeny tiny starfish, curious boxfish, arrow crabs, pufferfish, and my absolute favorite, flying gurnards — a fabulous new-to-me species that was literally everywhere I turned on the dive site. As we began to ascend for our surface interval, I already couldn’t wait for the second dive.

Diving in Arraial do Cabo, Brazil

Diving in Arraial do Cabo, BrazilShot by Heather Holt on a GoPro HERO3+

There were even more sea surprises awaiting us at the next dive site. This time, Heather and I had our divemaster to ourself, and he waited patiently while we oohed and ahhed and snapped a million photos of spotted drum, more flying gurnards, and then finally, my favorite find of the day, a colorful spotted eel who bravely darted from coral to coral, letting us admire every inch of his bright pattern.

Turned out Brazil was as colorful underwater as it is on land.

Diving in Arraial do Cabo, Brazil

Diving in Arraial do Cabo, Brazil

Diving in Arraial do Cabo, Brazil

Diving in Arraial do Cabo, Brazil

Diving in Arraial do Cabo, BrazilShot by Heather Holt on a GoPro HERO3+

Diving in Arraial do Cabo, Brazil

Diving in Arraial do Cabo, BrazilShot by Heather Holt on a GoPro HERO3+

We giggled into our regulators when our divemaster pointed out a man-made wonder — a tiny replica of Rio’s famous Cristo Redentor statue, sunken by what we can only assume was an enterprising local dive shop.

Diving in Arraial do Cabo, Brazil

Diving in Arraial do Cabo, Brazil

Just as our dive computers began prompting us to make our way back to the land of air-breathers, we spotted one last wonder of the deep — two perfectly posed batfish (different from the orbiculate batfish I know and love in Thailand) practically preening for our cameras.

Diving in Arraial do Cabo, Brazil

Diving in Arraial do Cabo, Brazil

We had the best time diving with Seaquest — the owner Gabi in particular was an absolute gem! Unfortunately, based on our multiple negative experiences with them, I cannot personally recommend P&P, though perhaps they were just having a really bad day. We left Buzios at 8am and were back by around 2pm. The water temperature was around 73 degrees fahrenheit in May.

If I could do it all again, I’d rent a car for the day and drive myself to Arraial do Cabo (while the diving there was amazing, from our quick glance around town I was glad we were staying in Buzios). Seaquest’s rates are cheaper than those we were quoted in Buzios, so depending on what kind of deal you can get on transportation, it might work out to the same price.

Bottom line? Regardless of how you get there, don’t miss the opportunity to blow bubbles in Brazil!

Want more underwater? Read more diving posts here!

Diving in Arraial do Cabo, Brazil

Next stop, back to Buzios for one last land-based adventure!

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All underwater photos in this post were taken with the Canon PowerShot G7X and its Canon Waterproof Housing. See a full list of my photography gear here.

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Diving in Arraial do Cabo, Brazil

Diving in Arraial do Cabo, Brazil

Hotel Crush: Casas Brancas in Búzios

It’s been called the Brazilian St. Tropez and the Hamptons of Rio; basically, it’s this pocket of the planet’s infamous playground for the rich and famous. Welcome to Búzios, Brazil.

I’ve never been to the Hamptons and I couldn’t point out St. Tropez on a map, but I knew I had to go to Búzios. Less than three hours north of Rio de Janeiro, Búzios boasts seventeen beaches strewn around a jutting peninsula so narrowly connected to the mainland, it almost feels like an island.

When Heather and I were invited to experience this extravagance-studded paradise via one of its most sought-after boutique hotels, how could we resist?

Casas Brancas, Buzios, Brazil

Casas Brancas, Buzios, Brazil

Lobby of Casas Brancas, Buzios, Brazil

Casas Brancas, Buzios, Brazil

Casas Brancas oozes understated luxury. Perched on the far end of Orla Bardot, the town’s charming cobblestone beachfront promenade, it’s just a short stroll from a statue of Brigitte herself. Yup, Brigitte Bardot, the French actress now in her 80’s, is somewhat of a legend in Búzios.

Prior to her “discovery” of Búzios in the 1960’s with her Brazilian boyfriend, this was but a sleepy fishing village. Simple fishing boats still line the harbor, but these days they share dock space with yachts. High-end boutiques, fine restaurants, and posh beach clubs round out the upscale vibe.

Casas Brancas, Buzios, Brazil

Lobby of Casas Brancas, Buzios, Brazil

Hard as it had been to leave Rio, we were bursting with excitement to reach Búzios. And yet we’d barely made it.

The transfer we’d literally triple confirmed from Rio to Buzios left us cooling our heels on the sidewalks of Copacabana for two hours after handing in the keys to our Airbnb, and we eventually had no choice but to take a $90 Uber if we were to reach our accommodation by nightfall.

Frankly, it was one of the most stressful days we had in Brazil — sitting on the hot curb of a notoriously crime-heavy city with thousands and thousands of dollars in electronics and one slowly dying phone waiting for a confirmed transfer that never arrived and then later being reprimanded for missing it — and it put us in a pretty funky mood.

For now, just know that if you find yourself in Brazil having a terrible day, Casas Brancas is a pretty great place to end it.

And I’d recommend a meal at Rocka thrown in there too, if possible. For ultimate healing.

Rocka Restaurant, Buzios, Brazil

Rocka Restaurant, Buzios, Brazil

Rocka Restaurant, Buzios, Brazil

Yup, I think these dishes might just be able to do the trick.

Rocka Restaurant, Buzios, Brazil

Steak at Rocka Restaurant, Buzios, Brazil

Dessert at Rocka Restaurant, Buzios, Brazil

All jokes aside, Casas Brancas was the perfect place to rest our bruised travel hearts after a hectic day.

The staff was so, so endlessly sweet. I was having a completely unrelated work drama to the one otherwise mentioned below in this post (I know!) — a company that had hired me to review a product shipped it to Brazil, which set off a chain of customs disasters and endless hours on Skype, confused and trying to get it delivered — and Gabriel, the head concierge, was so kind in his attempts to assist me it almost made me cry.

Casas Brancas, Buzios, Brazil

Casas Brancas, Buzios, Brazil

Casas Brancas, Buzios, Brazil

And oh, how chic the design! We agreed, our stylish rooms would have earned a nod of approval from Ms. Bardot herself. A true boutique hotel, all thirty-two rooms are every-so slightly unique.

Room at Casas Brancas, Buzios, Brazil

Bathroom at Casas Brancas, Buzios, Brazil

Bathroom at Casas Brancas, Buzios, Brazil

We had just two nights at Casas Brancas, and we had big plans to make the most of them. Originally, we’d decided on one of the area’s famous boat trips around the peninsula for our first full day in Búzios, but with a so-so forecast we decided to scrap it.

Porch at Casas Brancas, Buzios, Brazil

Instead, we kicked off the day with an onsite yoga class followed by an afternoon at Casas Brancas Spa, where Heather treated us each to a package in an attempt to calm my frayed nerves and get us back on relaxation track.

Spa at Casas Brancas, Buzios, Brazil

Spa at Casas Brancas, Buzios, Brazil

Later that day, as the afternoon faded into evening, the sky cleared enough to allow for a beautiful sunset.

Pool at Casas Brancas, Buzios, Brazil

Pool at Casas Brancas, Buzios, Brazil

Sunset at Casas Brancas, Buzios, BrazilPhoto by Heather Holt

Pool at Casas Brancas at night, Buzios, BrazilPhoto by Heather Holt

Sunset at Casas Brancas, Buzios, Brazil

Sunset at Casas Brancas, Buzios, Brazil

We were lucky to dine at two restaurants owned by the Casas Brancas group (along with Rocka, which is offsite overlooking Praia Brava beach) — 74, the onsite lunch and dinner restaurant at Casas Brancas, and Mistico at sister hotel Abracadabra. A lot of the food in Búzios is overpriced and underwhelming; here, you won’t be disappointed.

If you’re looking for a splurge in Buzios, you really couldn’t go wrong with either. Just look at that view!

Night view from Casas Brancas, Buzios, Brazil

The next day, we enjoyed one last lovely meal at Casas Brancas before moving onward. We’d scheduled two more nights at accommodation slightly closer to the center of town in order to go scuba diving, so while it wasn’t quite time to say goodbye to Búzios, it was time to say goodbye to the luxury that the getaway has become infamous for.

And what better way to toast goodbye than with a decadent breakfast buffet!

Breakfast at Casas Brancas, Buzios, Brazl

Breakfast at Casas Brancas, Buzios, Brazl

Casas Brancas, Buzios, Brazil

Casas Brancas, Buzios, Brazil

Breakfast at Casas Brancas, Buzios, Brazl

Looking back, I regret that I was in such a dark place mentally when we were in such a beautiful one physically. I’ve struggled greatly with how much to share about what was essentially one of the greatest communication disasters of my entire blogging career, which followed me through Brazil and came to a head in poor, blameless Búzios. The missed transfer that left us in tears of frustration was just one piece of a big, messy puzzle. Considering it was a professional issue, it’s not something that would effect you, my dear readers — in which case I’d be obligated, of course, to be much more detailed.

However, I was so deeply effected by the whole ordeal that it had an enormous impact on my trip, and it’s hard to tell my true story of this experiences without mentioning that I was struggling with a professional meltdown in the midst of it.

I’m really not a scorched earth kinda girl, and so I hope you’ll allow me this bit of vagueness, which allows me to be honest with you all without totally burning my blogging house down. For those who are still curious, I’ve written more about the lessons I learned for an upcoming roundup post.

I know this — someday, I’ll return to Casas Brancas with a clear head and a happy heart, just like it deserves.

Casas Brancas, Buzios, Brazil

Casas Brancas, Buzios, Brazil

Next up… Buzios underwater!


I was a guest of Casas Brancas in order to write this review. As always, you receive my honest opinions and thorough recommendations regardless of who is footing the bill. To clarify, they were completely blameless in any of the professional partnerships that left me in tears.

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A Luxury Guide To Buzios, Brazil

Casas Brancas Hotel Review, Buzios, Brazil

Street Art, Sunset and Sugarloaf: The Perfect Last Day in Rio de Janeiro

A week in Rio de Janeiro flew by. I knew it would.

Heather and I had debated what to do with our final day in the city. There were so many options! We’d hit a lot of the major must-sees — we’d woken up before dawn to be (literally) the first two people at Christ Redeemer, we’d gone hang gliding over São Conrado, we’d sampled the southern beaches, and we’d toured a colorful favela. Top attractions? Check. Adrenaline activities? Check. Beach bumming? Check.

Rio de Janeiro Street Art Tour

So for our final act, we decided to tick the culture box, and signed up for Viator’s Rio de Janiero Street Art Tour. I’d been amazingly inspired by the works I saw from the creative community in São Paulo, and I wondered how the two cities might compare.

We knew from the moment that we were greeted by our cute guide Nina — also the founder of the tour! — that we were going to get along great.

Rio de Janeiro Street Art Tour

Rio de Janeiro Street Art Tour

Rio de Janeiro Street Art Tour

For starters, Nina spoke some of the most fluent English of any Brazilian we’d met along our journey, which felt like an undeserved treat after weeks of butchering Portuguese. And thank goodness, because we would have been devastated to miss a single word!

For the next four hours, we were under Nina’s spell as she led us through tunnels, around school yards, into craft breweries and beyond to discover some of Rio’s most intriguing pieces of public art. It’s a relatively new industry, at least from a legal standpoint — it was only in 2009 that the Brazilian government decriminalized street art.

Unlike every other street art tour I’ve ever been on, this one is not exclusively a walking tour. Rio is sprawling and the best works are spread out around the city, so a comfortable, air-conditioned bus transported us from stop to stop where we’d often then walk for a bit.

Rio de Janeiro Street Art Tour

Rio de Janeiro Street Art Tour

Rio de Janeiro Street Art Tour

Rio de Janeiro Street Art Tour

Rio de Janeiro Street Art Tour

Generally, the tour meets at Siqueira Campos Metro station, however, we were getting a slightly abridged tour. We’d hoped to schedule this activity earlier in our stay, but there was only one tour running the week of our trip, and it was a chartered trip from a wealthy group of wives of expatriate bankers from neighboring South American countries — mostly Venezuela and Colombia. Heather and I were disappointed to learn that they’d strictly specified that they refused to enter a favela, which is normally a popular stop along Nina’s route. It was an eye-opening reminder of the terrible stigma that favelas have in Brazil, and of the enormous income inequality that plagues the country.

But we tried to focus on the positive: we had a beautiful day and a great tour guide, and lots of intriguing art to admire. Nina took time not just to point out impressive works, but also to educate us, explaining the difference between a tag, graffiti, and murals — in both the eyes of artists and the law. She pointed out different methods and materials, and most notably seemed able to recite the name and backstory of the artist responsible for every brushstroke in the city.

Rio de Janeiro Street Art Tour

Rio de Janeiro Street Art Tour

Nina is, it was slowly revealed, personal friends with many of the artists, which allowed her to share an amazing number of quirky insider anecdotes.

We quickly caught on that if you pay attention, there are actually a relatively small number of artists creating street art around Rio. Which means that once you recognize an artist’s work, you’re likely to see it everywhere. Even more fun? Many of them are frequent collaborators, which made looking at a mural like trying to solve an equation — perhaps a bit of Bruno Big in one corner, a Carlos Bobi portrait in the center, and is that one of Rodrigo Villa’s birds up top?

Many of the pieces also addressed social injustice, or current events in Brazil. The FIFA World Cup and the then-upcoming Olympics were two hot topics. Many artists voiced the outrage some Brazilian citizens felt at the overspending on these events, funds which could have been channeled into education and healthcare, for example. Others were hired to do official projects promoting the events. It was one small example of the complexity layered on these simple concrete walls.

Rio de Janeiro Street Art Tour

Rio de Janeiro Street Art Tour

Yup, these two art school nerds were in visual heaven.

Rio de Janeiro Street Art TourPhoto by Heather Holt

Rio de Janeiro Street Art TourPhoto by Heather Holt

Rio de Janeiro Street Art TourPhoto by Heather Holt

A brief stop near Botafogo reminded us that we still had one major attraction to tick off our list: iconic Sugarloaf mountain! We still hadn’t been, but not for lack of trying. On the day we’d arrived in Rio we’d breathlessly thrown our bags down, turned around and rushed into an Uber and flew over to Sugarloaf, perfectly timed to catch sunset… except the star attraction was closed for cable car maintenance. For three days. Oops.

The day it reopened, there was full cloud cover and no sunset. Then we were hungover. Then it rained. Then suddenly, it was our last day in Rio and we were on an art tour. That evening was our last try.

Rio de Janeiro Street Art TourPhoto by Heather Holt

Rio de Janeiro Street Art TourPhoto by Heather Holt

Rio de Janeiro Street Art Tour

Back on the bus, we made our way towards the last stop of the tour, a microbrewery and gallery hybrid in chic Leblon. After a quick drink — and free popcorn! — we gave Nina an enormously heartfelt thanks for the day.

Love art? Interested in seeing an alternative side to Rio? Want to support a young female entrepreneur? Take this tour! While we were a bit bummed out that our tour was huge and had so many outside-imposed restrictions that we didn’t agree with, it sounds like it’s a rarity. Plus, it’s good to keep in mind that all tours have a flexible itinerary since street art is always changing. One thing likely to remain the same for a long time to come are the talented artists Nina features — she even emails you a PDF run-down after the tour so you can keep an eye out for their works when wandering on your own.

Which is one reason of many to take this tour as early in your trip as possible. Nina will also give you plenty of tips for what to see and where to eat, and give you a heads up about upcoming events and shows. I wish we could have attended some that she recommended!

Rio de Janeiro Street Art Tour

Rio de Janeiro Street Art Tour

Rio de Janeiro Street Art TourPhoto by Heather Holt

Rio de Janeiro Street Art Tour

So how did Rio’s street art compare to that of its rival city? In my subjective opinion, the scene as a whole wasn’t quite as sophisticated as the street art scene in São Paulo, but considering the latter is the center for art and design for the entire country, that’s not too much of a surprise.

Plus, the quality of Nina’s tour was just so high it kind of offset the ranking.

Rio de Janeiro Street Art Tour

We had a bit of time to kill before sunset at Sugarloaf, and so we ambitiously tried to squeeze in a visit to the famous Jardim Botânico, since we were quite close in Leblon. And it probably would have worked if we hadn’t wasted some time time looking for a snack (could have gotten one at the Botanical Garden), having trouble connecting with an Uber driver, and then literally having one of the two worst Uber drivers we had in all of Rio.

By the time we arrived, we had tragically little time before we had to turn around and leave again.

Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden

Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden

Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden

Rio de Janeiro Botanical GardenPhoto by Heather Holt

With basically zero minutes, we made a straight shot for the park’s most famous row of historic palm trees, took a few (billion) portraits, and off we went. I hope to return someday — designed in 1808 with over 8,000 plant species, it’s certainly worth more than the very brief glance we had to give it.

However, assuming you are less rushed and have better driver luck than we did, this truly is the perfect post-street art tour activity — it’s a very convenient location, and the natural beauty perfectly complemented the man-made one we’d just soaked up.

Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden

Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden

Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden

Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden

Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden

Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden

Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden

Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden

But have you ever seen a dreamier place to take a few twirling pictures?

Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden

Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden

Rio de Janeiro Botanical GardenPhotos of me by Heather Holt!

And then we were off to our Pão de Açúcar, the famous Sugarloaf Mountain. Remember when I said our driver to the Botanical Garden was our second worst taxi driver in Rio? Yeah, well the driver who eventually brought us to Sugarloaf — he was number one.

We were in agony as our driver got lost, boldly ignored Uber’s driving directions, pulled the car over to consult with locals, and then missed the entrance to one of Rio’s most visited attractions multiple times. The ride took twice as long as it should have and it was the first time I’ve ever asked Uber for a refund (which they granted).

Sugarloaf at Sunset

Sugarloaf at Sunset

We caught the last of the sunset from the window of the first cable car. We ended up getting some gorgeous photos and having an amazing experience regardless, but it was hard to shake off the chaos and stress of getting there and just enjoy the moment.

However, when the lights of Rio started to blink on in the darkness, that was certainly just what I needed to switch gears on a sour mood.

Sugarloaf at Sunset

Sugarloaf at Sunset

Sugarloaf at SunsetPhoto by Heather Holt

We stayed up at the top of the mountain for ages watching the sky change colors. From our brief anecdotal experience, sunset seemed like a great time to go — we got gorgeous city views, the lines were very short, and we mostly had the place to ourselves.

Sugarloaf at Sunset

Sugarloaf at SunsetPhoto by Heather Holt

Sugarloaf at SunsetPhoto by Heather Holt

It was a surprisingly rocky road to get there, but ending our final day in Rio at one of it’s most iconic viewpoints was a beautiful note to go out on. Chaotic, rushed, stressful, but ultimately stop-you-in-your-tracks gorgeous and inspiring — our last day in Rio was a bit of a metaphor for our entire trip to Brazil.

Sugarloaf at Sunset

Sugarloaf at Sunset

Next stop, Buzios!


I am a member of the Viator Ambassador initiative and participated in this tour as part of that program.

From Bullet Holes to Murals: An Afternoon in Santa Marta Favela

To visit a favela or not to visit a favela: it’s a controversial decision many travelers to Rio will ponder at some point or another.

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

Critics call it poverty tourism, proponents say it de-stigmatizes and brings income to marginalized communities. Even amongst my own peers, there’s discord. Friends from South Africa have made me cross my heart that I’ll never take a township tour, and some of my Brazilian friends strongly discouraged me from visiting a favela as well. Their concerns were not for my safety, but rather that tourists create a “human zoo” by paying to ogle at the darkest side of economic inequality. That, I wanted no part of.

And yet, pretending favelas don’t exist also seemed cruel in its own way. I desperately wanted to be educated, to be exposed, to experience multiple sides of Brazil. After much research and reflection, Heather and I decided we were going to visit a favela in Rio de Janeiro — and that the most respectful way to do so would be to take a walking tour with a small, locally owned company. (Big, drive-by tours in armored vehicles were out from the get go, obviously.)

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

There are many favelas in Rio. We chose to visit Santa Marta for several reasons. First, it was literally within walking distance of our hostel in Botafogo, and we were eager to explore the neighborhood we were staying in. Second, as artists, we were magnetically drawn to the popular mural project at the base of the favela and were excited to see it in person. Third, we found a locally-owned, ethically-run and reasonably priced walking tour with Tour Santa Marta.

We met our guide at a petrol station across the street from Santa Marta. We were pleased to learn we’d lucked out with a private tour, which meant we’d have no distractions from the bajillion questions we were planing to pepper our guide with.

And Pedro was more than happy to answer them. When he first approached us, we did a double take at how young he appeared to be. Later, when Pedro was flipping through his backpack I noted several textbooks, and he confirmed he was attending university nearby using his earnings from tour guiding. Based on his amazing English, I could only imagine his studies were going well.

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

Pedro explained we’d start the tour with a ride up to the top of the favela via cable car, and wind our way slowly back down on foot. Chiago, the owner of the small tour company, met us briefly to say hello and invite us to stop by his home in the favela on our way back.

As we approached the cable car, I noticed a small piece of street art and reached for my camera, only to realize I’d made the day’s massive face-palm: I left the battery charging back in our hostel room. To my surprise, Pedro translated that Chiago was a photography aficionado and had offered to quickly run home to see if he had a spare on the same size. A favela-dweller with a dSLR camera collection? Our misconceptions were already being broken down.

After an initial bout of the blues I realized it was perhaps a blessing in disguise. Heather, with her journalism background, is much more comfortable and skilled at taking photos in sensitive situations. Frankly, I’d been stressing even before we arrived. Freed from my discomfort and my obligation to take photos, I could focus fully on the experience. So with the exception of a few iPhone snaps, full credit for the photos in this post go to the talented Heather Holt.

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

As we disembarked from the cable car, a gift from the government to the favela upon pacification, we marveled at the amazing views over the city. Pedro laughed when we commented what high real estate prices vistas like this would command in the US, and countered that the top of the favela was actually traditionally the least desirable, as pre-cable car, it was a difficult slog up the steep hill on foot.

Santa Marta was the first of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas to be pacified back in 2008. Pacification refers to the government’s plan to wrest control of the favelas from drug dealers and gangs and hand it to a special police force known as the UPP, or the Pacifying Police Unit in English. The results have been mixed, but in Santa Marta, once one of the most violent slums in Rio, it’s almost impossible not to see the changes as positive.

Favelas have been a part of life in Rio since the late 1800’s. The word favela comes from the favela tree, a plant that, ominously, causes skin irritations to all those who come in contact with it. The moniker stuck for the communities mushrooming up all over Rio, populated by former slaves, poverty-stricken squatters, and soldiers who had nowhere else to go.

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

With 22% of Rio’s population living in them, favelas are an unmistakable facet of Brazilian life. At 8,000 residents, Santa Marta is on the small side.

Pedro’s fascinating stories were regularly paused to greet friends and acquaintances as we walked. From tiny tots calling his name and running over to ask for help finding their cats to the local barber stopping him to discuss football scores, it truly felt that Pedro knew every single person in Santa Marta.

And we weren’t left out. One of my favorite moments of the day was when we walked by a street-side barbecue and an older gentleman called Pedro over to try some, and translated through him his absolute insistence that Heather and I have a taste as well. With Heather being a vegetarian, I thought it only polite to eat enough for both of us!

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

Pedro explained that Chiago had created the tour company to change the conversation on favelas. Born and raised in Santa Marta, he wanted to show the world the energetic, vibrant community that he loved and continues to live in to this day by choice.

That spirit we were starting to understand was introduced to many in the world when Michael Jackson and Spike Lee traveled to Santa Marta in 1996 to film scenes for Jackson’s controversial music video They Don’t Really Care About Us. The government initially opposed the project and they pushed forward regardless, hiring residents as extras in the video and making Jackson a hero to the community in the process. Pedro proudly showed us the football field where Jackson’s helicopter had landed for filming, and the mural and statue the community built in his honor after.

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

Around the statue there were a handful of ramshackle souvenir-shops with locally-produced art and gifts, as well as a few small bodegas and snack shops.

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

Knowing that Santa Marta was the first pacified favela and continues to be one of the safest in the city, I frankly didn’t have any security-related qualms whatsoever about visiting. However, we got a serious reality check when, moments after stepping into a local shop to browse, we heard shouting and commotion out the door. While the owner of the shop smiled and tried to distract us, our hearts pounded as we pressed our faces to the window and saw military police with assault rifles aggressively shoving a local resident to the ground.

Just drug related, Pedro later assured us.

It was a reminder that yes, Santa Marta was once one of the most violent slums in the city and many people died here in bloody shootouts. In one of the most poignant physical symbols of change, bullet holes still dot the colorfully painted walls of a former day care center, now HQ for the Pacified Police Unit.

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

As our heart rates returned to normal we continued to ply Pedro with questions. In turn, he volleyed them right back at us, asking everything about where we live, what we studied, our travels, and beyond. Soon it felt like we were being shown around by a friend.

That feeling was only reinforced when we arrived at Chiago’s house. He offered us juice and showed us photos of famous visitors he’d welcomed to the favela, big names from Madonna to Vin Diesel to Alicia Keys and beyond. I marveled at how lucky we were to be seated in that cozy living room, invited guests in world that seems so mysterious to so many.

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

As we continued our descent down the hill, I reflected on how the day was different from my expectations.

I’d read so many posts from my fellow travel bloggers about their favela experiences before arriving that frankly, they’d all started to run together in my head and I’d even started to feel blasé about the entire experience. After reading about nightclubs and hostels opening in some favelas, and the growing concerns of gentrification, I think I half arrived expecting some sort of hip facsimile of Bushwick. Um, yeah, guys — I’m guessing you don’t need a spoiler warning for this, but Santa Marta is no Brooklyn.

So while many visitors to favelas seem to have their eyes opened to the fact that these are tight-knit, supportive communities with a lot to be proud of, I kind of already went in expecting that. Instead, what humbled me were the bullet-hole riddled reminders of gun violence, the relentless smell of open sewage, and walking paths carved out of mountains and rivers of garbage. Having just come from a morning of hang-gliding over some of Rio’s plushest ocean-side manors in São Conrado, it was quite the contrast. I’ve been exposed to poverty many times in my travels. And yet, my eyes were wide open to it here.

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

The further down we traveled in the favela, the more “cleaned up” it felt. Soon, we were almost back down at sea level, and we found ourselves face to face with the mural project that had partially inspired us to visit Santa Marta in the first place.

Just look at this beautiful work! The project was pioneered by two Dutch artists who lived in the favelas for some time and eventually hired local youths to bring their paint-swatch daydreams to life. The project energized and made proud the local community, Pedro assured us with a smile. In fact, the same favelas that residents were once dying, literally, to get out of, have become desirable real estate that some are actually moving into by choice.

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

Earlier I mentioned that Santa Marta was within walking distance of our hostel. Santa Marta is in Botafogo, which felt like an entirely different city than the one we’d later experience in Copacabana and Ipanema. We loved our time there and I was sad to learn that our hip hostel, Oztel, has permanently shuttered — so I won’t be writing a full review of it. Admittedly, we had several issues there that in retrospect didn’t look promising for its future, but shucks — isn’t it cute?

Had we had more time at Oztel, I would have happily returned to the base of the Santa Marta for dinner or drinks. We’d actually booked a favela nightlife tour for later in the trip to see yet another side of favela life — with a different company — but had to cancel due to travel burnout and the worst hangovers of our lives (ugh). While I can no longer recommend Oztel specifically, I highly recommend considering a few nights in Botafogo, which is the perfect base for exploring Santa Marta.

Oztel Hostel Rio de Janeiro

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

Oztel Hostel Rio de Janeiro

Favela tourism, I predict, will only continue to grow. If you are coming to Rio, I gently encourage you to do some research to find the right fit for you. I never feared for my safety, just for the possibility that I was being unintentionally disrespectful or voyeuristic — however my concerns were quickly assuaged upon arrival.

I believe Chiago had amazing intentions of supporting his family and his community when he started this business, and that Pedro is a fabulous tour guide and all around cool dude to hang with. He even invited us to a football match the next evening with his friends, which we regretfully had to decline because we had other plans. How many tour guides have you ever had that are so friendly?

So, do you need to do a tour? We did see two girls who appeared to just be wandering around without a guide, which in Santa Marta is totally possible to do. However, we felt the most respectful way to visit was to be led by a member of the local community, and had we just gone for a stroll we never would have left with such an informed understanding of the social and economic dynamics of the neighbhood.

Tour Santa Marta offers two hour tours twice a day, at 10am or 2pm, for a minimum of two person, at a cost of 100R per person ($32USD).

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

What I took away from this experience, in addition to a profound respect for people who manage to live with dignity regardless of their external circumstances, was a reminder that the world is so very small. From Brazil to Bangkok to Brooklyn, gentrification brings both the blessings of stability and de-marginalization but also the curses of scrutiny and rising prices, and people everywhere are just trying their darndest to find a balance between the two.

Only time will tell what the future holds for the community of Santa Marta. But in this present moment, I feel grateful for the opportunity to have been welcomed into it, if only for an afternoon.

What do you think? Would you visit a favela in Brazil?

Thank you again to Heather Holt Photography for the photos in this post. We paid full price for our tours and I was not compensated for this review.

3-devide-lines

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Soaring Over The Land of Samba: Hang Gliding in Rio de Janeiro

Hang gliding in Rio de Janeiro was just one of those things I had to do. Back when I was a distracted student sketching maps of Brazil in the back of my math notebooks, I must have come across a guidebook or an early blog post that highlighted it as a top attraction — because while I can’t pinpoint where or when I first heard about it, hang gliding in Rio de Janeiro has been a must in my mind for as long as I can remember.

Hang Gliding in Rio de Janeiro

Hang Gliding in Rio de Janeiro

Hang Gliding in Rio de Janeiro

Lucky for me, Heather was enthusiastically onboard. She was also, with very little convincing, wiling to wear matching Brazilian flag leggings with me. And this is why I love Heather.

This wasn’t my first time testing gravity — I’ve been parasailing on Maui, hot air ballooning in Laos, sky diving on Oahu and helicoptering and prop-plane-ing all over the show. But it was my first time hang-gliding, and I have the nervous-yet-hilarious GoPro shots to prove it.

No, this is not the face of a girl who’s totally sold on the idea of running off a cliff.

Hang Gliding in Rio de Janeiro

Hang Gliding in Rio de Janeiro

Hang Gliding in Rio de Janeiro

Little time had passed since we were whisked from our hostel doorstep to the white sand beaches of São Conrado, the epicenter of hang gliding in Rio de Janeiro. A strip of glide shops formed a neat row along the beach, and we were directed into the appropriate one to sign waivers, pay 30R (about $10USD) in fees, and get matched up with an instructor. Then we were back in the van, winding our way up to the launch point in Tijuca National Park, the largest urban forest in the world.

Although I was incredibly impressed with how organized, efficient, double-checked and safety-focused the whole affair was, the idea of flinging myself off a mountain was starting to seem suspect. Despite of, or perhaps because of, the expression on my face, I was the first one called forward to fly, and after receiving the world’s shortest briefing — which literally consisted of “keep running until you don’t feel the ground under your feet anymore” — I started to sprint.

And soon I couldn’t feel the ground any more.

Hang Gliding in Rio de Janeiro

Hang Gliding in Rio de Janeiro

Hang Gliding in Rio de Janeiro

The adrenaline rush of the launch was overwhelming, but within moments my heart-rate returned to something resembling normal and I was struck how peaceful it was, up there among the clouds.

While I admired the view, my instructor expertly navigated us using the wind. That’s the beauty of flying tandem — you pretty much have your own private air chauffeur and you can just kick back and focus on making thumbs up signs and flashing peace fingers at the camera. (Why, Universe, why is must this be my default?)

Hang Gliding in Rio de Janeiro

Hang Gliding in Rio de Janeiro

Hang Gliding in Rio de Janeiro

Hang Gliding in Rio de Janeiro

Rio de Janeiro has no shortage of incredible views, but these were particularly impressive. Not only could we make out our friend Christo Redentor in the distance, but we also had front row seats for Pão de Acuçar, the lush Mata Atlantica forest, and of course the white sands of several of the city’s most famous beaches.

We also had a poignant vantage point of Rio’s infamous gap between extreme poverty and opulent wealth. In one direction, we gazed at the infamous Rocinha Favela; in other, the ocean-front mansions of São Conrado. If you do want a voyeuristic look at the houses (and pools!) of Brazil’s rich and famous, you can’t ask for a better bird’s eye view.

Hang Gliding in Rio de Janeiro

Hang Gliding in Rio de Janeiro

Hang Gliding in Rio de Janeiro

The final challenge? Landing. Again, on my part it involved little more than simply running till I was told not to. For an “adventure sport,” I was sure taking it easy up there.

Hang Gliding in Rio de Janeiro

Hang Gliding in Rio de Janeiro

Hang Gliding in Rio de Janeiro

And then we were back on land — or sand, rather. While my instructor took care of our harnesses and rig, I ordered up two fresh coconuts and waited to cheer Heather’s landing on.

Hang Gliding in Rio de Janeiro

Hang Gliding in Rio de Janeiro

She rocked it! Once reunited, we giddily recounted every moment of our experiences, and gave ourselves some serious high-fives for checking another adrenaline rush off our travel wish lists.

Unfortunately, we soon encountered our one and only complaint about the tour we’d booked. We carefully selected a package that said “photos and videos included,” and technically, there were some photos and videos included, our instructors explained to us while we perfected our mutual RBFs. The gliders are set up with two GoPros, and the included photos and video clips are from only the front camera. The side camera shots will run you an extra 100R (around $32USD). Also, they give them to you on a DVD unless you pony up 20R (around $7 USD) extra for a USB or memory card.

Considering we were traveling with approximately twenty-seven USB sticks and memory cards between us, we were pretty annoyed we hadn’t been given a heads up in order to bring our own. And we were extremely irritated that the photography exclusions weren’t clear when we booked. I begrudgingly paid for the extra photos, which to his credit my instructor gave to me on memory card that he didn’t charge me for, in order to smooth out the situation. Considering it was an expensive experience, being nickeled-and-dimed at the end didn’t feel good. It definitely left a bitter taste in our mouths to feel like we’d been mislead, so if you’re heading to Rio and booking a hang gliding package, just clarify exactly what’s included before hand.

Hang Gliding in Rio de Janeiro

Hang Gliding in Rio de Janeiro

Three hours later, we were back where we started on the steps of our hostel. Our photo frustrations aside, I loved this experience and would recommend our tour package. The ease of transportation (our driver offered to drop us at Ipanema or Copacabana beaches if we preferred, which was lovely), the efficiency with which we got up and off the mountain and the high safety standards all left us impressed.

After so many years of anticipation, and so many other amazing adrenaline-inducing experiences in between, it would have been easy to be let down by this one. But nope, hang gliding in Rio de Janeiro lived up to every math class I ever daydreamed about it through.

Hang Gliding in Rio de Janeiro

Hang Gliding in Rio de Janeiro

As I told Heather that morning… it’s a beautiful day to leap off a cliff!

3-devide-lines


I am a member of the Viator Ambassador initiative and participated in this tour as part of that program. This post contains affiliate links for which I earn a small percentage of any sale made at absolutely no cost to you. Thank you for supporting Alex in Wanderland!

Waking Up With Christ Redeemer in The City of God

There are two attractions that are pretty much non-negotiable must-sees for more travelers to Rio — the Cristo Redentor statue, also known as the Christ Redeemer statue, and Pão de Açúcar, also known as Sugarloaf Mountain. Heather and I were no exceptions, and planned to make both a priority during our one week in Rio de Janeiro.

However, we chose to check off each in what I considered especially spectacular fashion.

Downtown Rio de Janiero

Early Access Tour to Christ Redeemer Statue

As a professional photographer and a professional blogger, it pretty much goes without saying that photos are a top priority for Heather and I when we travel (but I went ahead and said it anyway, just in case.) Which is why, despite being very distinctly not morning people — at least not setting-the-alarm-for-before-sunrise-morning-people — we enthusiastically signed on for a Viator Exclusive: Early Access to Christ Redeemer Statue Tour. Photos of Rio’s top attraction without hundreds of our fellow tourists loitering in the background? I could get up early for that.

And so on our first morning in Rio de Janeiro, we sprung out of bed, grabbed our cameras, and set off to meet Jesus — and maybe let him take the wheel (please tell me I have at least one country music fan in this crowd).

Cristo Redentor Rio de JanieroPhoto by Heather Holt

Early Access Tour to Christ Redeemer Statue

Cristo Redentor Tour Rio

We were mildly irritated by the three different phone calls back and forth that were required to confirm our tour, but at this point we had grown at least mildly accustomed to the daily miscommunications that were a fact of traveling in Brazil for us. We were also a little bummed that our hostel in Botafogo wasn’t within the pickup zone, which required us to travel in the opposite direction of our final destination in order to reach the designated meeting point for those not on the pickup list, but we just rolled with it.

At 7am, we were scooped up from the meeting point in Copacabana and on our way. Our tour guide Solomon switched seamlessly between English, Portuguese and Spanish for the mini-bus full of travelers from around the Americas, and we settled in for the ride up to Corcovado Mountain.

Cristo Redentor Tour Rio

Early Access Tour to Christ Redeemer Statue

We reached the ticket gate about ten minutes before the attraction’s opening time, and remarked on the chill at 2,300 feet above sea level — bring a cardigan, friends! As soon as the clock struck 8:00am, we were on the very first official park shuttles from Paineiras (private vehicles cannot go past this point).

When we reached the top, we had the choice of climbing the 220 steps to the top or hoping on the elevator. Heather and I were not shy about practically sprinting onto the elevator in our attempt to be first to the top — and it worked! We probably had a good three or four minutes before the rest of our group appeared, and then another five or six more before another bus-full showed up. It might not sound like much, but if you’re shutter-ready, you can get drool-worthy travel shots in a matter of seconds. When it comes to having one of the world’s top attractions to yourself, every minute matters! We were pretty lucky that things stayed low key the entire hour or so we were onsite.

Early Access Tour to Christ Redeemer StatuePhoto by Heather Holt

Early Access Tour to Christ Redeemer Statue

Early Access Tour to Christ Redeemer StatuePhoto by Heather Holt

When we were finally able to momentarily chill and cede our perfect shot spot for others the snap away at, Solomon filled us in on the history of the iconic statue. Constructed in 1931 from concrete and sandstone and named one of the Seven Wonders of the World in 2007, the statue was bigger in our minds than it was in reality — we both remarked we though it would be bigger! Apparently, we don’t have a concept of what 130 feet tall with a 98 foot arm span really translates to.

Cristo Redentor Tour Rio

Cristo Redentor Tour RioGoPro fail // Photos by Heather Holt

The morning, like many in Rio, was foggy, giving the city below us an other-worldly feel — but making it somewhat tricky to photograph. Still, the morning light was perfect for photographing the statue, as well as taking portraits in front of it. And of course that was that whole “escaping the crowds” thing going on too — which was made even more successful by the fact that we came on a weekday.

If you still want to beat the crowds and the heat but your priority is taking photos of the view, you might prefer to come in the late afternoon.

Early Access Tour to Christ Redeemer Statue

Early Access Tour to Christ Redeemer StatuePhoto by Heather Holt

Cristo Redentor Tour RioAbout as crowded as it got // Photo by Heather Holt

When Solomon finally summoned us we’d had plenty of time to snap statue selfies, soak up the view and enjoy the morning air. We opted to take the steps back down to basecamp, and after getting the okay from our guide, grabbed a morning tea and snack from the overpriced onsite cafe… which we immediately had to frantically chug/inhale because we were told we couldn’t bring them on the shuttle with us. Ha! Cue us asking Solomon why he encouraged us to get hot beverages when we knew we couldn’t bring them onboard and we had to leave urgently that moment, and filing it away in our “We Literally Never Knew What Was Going On Ever in Brazil” folder.

Would I recommend this tour? I’m going to skip yes and just go straight ahead to DUH. Despite some of the logistical hassles, we were just giddy with happiness at at the swoon-worthy photos and exclusive experience we walked away with. I often find myself seized with stress at big crowded tourist attractions, and it was so dang nice to just saunter around the place like had rented the place out for a small private party of ourselves and a dozen friends.

One thing to keep in mind is you will not be taking that cute little cog train up the mountain. We didn’t read the tour description very well and were a little disappointed, so just be aware of the trade-off when booking. A minibus might be little less glamorous than a train car (and a lot more motion sickness inducing, so prepare for that if needed) but in my opinion the compromise is well worth it.

Cristo Redentor Tour Rio

Early Access Tour to Christ Redeemer Statue

Back at the base of the mountain, it was time to go our separate ways. The tour actually offers an optional upgrade in which you can visit Sugarloaf on the same day, which is awesome for those with limited time, though because we had a whole week we decided to save that for another outing.

Plus, we had big plans for the rest of the day. We decided to forgo our ride back to south Rio and instead take advantage of being up in the north to do a little DIY walking tour of Lapa and Centro using my trusty guidebook to lead the way.

Escadaria Selarón, Lapa, Rio

Escadaria Selarón, Lapa, Rio

Escadaria Selarón, Lapa, Rio

Next stop? Escadaria Selarón! This expansive piece of open-air, public installation art is the brainchild of Chilean-born Jorge Selarón. Began in 1990, the steps lie between the bohemian neighborhoods of Lapa and Santa Teresa, and are a popular draw for art-lovers from around the world.

Wandering the steps, I was reminded me of similar mosaic installation projects I’ve seen in Philadelphia and in Utila — each the inspiring work of one dedicated artist. This 215 steps that make up this constantly evolving work of art are covered in tiles from over sixty countries, many of them gifts once Selarón’s project became widely known — in the early days, he scavenged tiles from trash and construction sites and sold paintings to fund the work. Selarón once claimed that “this crazy and unique dream will only end on the day of my death,” a quote that felt omniscient in retrospect when he was found dead under mysterious circumstances at the top of the stairs.

Escadaria Selarón, Lapa, Rio

Escadaria Selarón, Lapa, Rio

Escadaria Selarón, Lapa, Rio

While many arrive, take a quick glance around, snap a few photos and then leave, Heather and I spent ages on the steps. We moved slowly, admiring the various tiles and excitedly pointing out to each other the ones from destinations we ourselves had visited. We also did some wonderful people watching — the homes along the stairs are still very much occupied, and it was fun to imagine what it must be like to walk along art every day to make it to your front door.

Escadaria Selarón, Lapa, Rio

Escadaria Selarón, Lapa, Rio

If you want people-free photos on the steps, you’ll have to follow one of my favorite photography tips: be patient. Still on a roll from our successful morning at Cristo Redentor, we were relentlessly persistent while waiting for those brief moments when the steps cleared so we could frame the shots we envisioned. As you can see from Heather’s behind-the-scenes shot below right, it was no easy feat.

Escadaria Selarón, Lapa, Rio

Escadaria Selarón, Lapa, Rio

But the portraits we took of each other in front of the most famous section of the stairs were well worth the wait.

Escadaria Selarón, Lapa, RioPhoto by Heather Holt

Escadaria Selarón, Lapa, RioPhoto by Heather Holt

One of the things I love about traveling with Heather is seeing how different the world looks through her lens! One thing this chick excels at is portrait photography. Generally, I am far too shy and too nervous to take portraits when I travel, but Heather comes from a journalist background and really makes magic happen when she points her camera at someone. How beautiful are these portraits of the people of Selarón steps?

Escadaria Selarón, Lapa, Rio

Escadaria Selarón, Lapa, Rio

People of Rio de Janiero

People of Rio de Janiero

After spending so long at the steps we basically became honorary locals, it was time to wander on. We meandered over to the nearby Arcos da Lapa, an aqueduct dating back to the 1700s. A local landmark, the aqueduct was architecturally impressive, but we didn’t linger long in the nearly abandoned square. Both of our guards were up and we later agreed that this square was one of the few places in Brazil that we felt uneasy.

Downtown Rio Walking Tour

Downtown Rio Walking Tour

Downtown Rio Walking Tour

Luckily it was a relatively short walk to our next stop, Catedral Metropolitana Church. Our guidebook had a long list of Rio churches to explore, but this one stood out to us as the one must-see. Built in 1976 after over a decade of construction, the cathedral is a textbook example of ultra modern, brutalist architecture. Though we both felt there was a very strong spaceship inspiration going on, we later read the true muse for the cathedral was the Mayan pyramids.

Downtown Rio Walking Tour

Downtown Rio Walking Tour

Downtown Rio Walking Tour

Downtown Rio Walking Tour

Next up, we made our way to the Theatro Municipal, a stunning theater built in 1905 to mimic the Paris Opera. Though we skipped the guided tours of the ornate interior, we loved admiring the building from the outside, which truly did feel like a piece of France plopped down in the middle of a South American street.

Downtown Rio Walking Tour

After wandering by a few more museums, churches, and busy downtown streets, we could wait no longer for lunch. We decided to dine at one of Brazil’s famous per kilo buffets, settling on The Line. Bursting with color and set along a busy, narrow alley, we exercised literally zero self control at the buffet and piled our plates as high as can be before nabbing ourselves two outside seats. For both our heaping plates and drinks below, we paid just 40BRL, or about $11 — not a bad deal in pricey Brazil.

The Line Lunch Buffet Downtown Rio de Janiero

The Line Lunch Buffet Downtown Rio de Janiero

Most tourists head to the Christ the Redeemer statue, but few stick around the explore Lapa and Centro during the day. I can’t recommend more highly to start your day with Viator Exclusive: Early Access Tour, and then take advantage of your location and strategically spend a few hours exploring Rio’s under appreciated downtown.

It was the perfect day. We experienced a very, very different side of Rio than what we saw in the southern zone — and both left so glad we set aside time to explore here. And with a dash of patience and the help of the perfect tour, we captured it beautifully in priceless photos.

What’s your secret for getting crowd-free travel photos?


I am a member of the Viator Ambassador initiative and participated in this tour as part of that program. This post contains affiliate links for which I earn a small percentage of any sale made at absolutely no cost to you. Thank you for supporting Alex in Wanderland!

One Week in The Cidade Maravilhosa

One Week in The Cidade Maravilhosa post image

“On the eighth day, God created Rio.”

It doesn’t take long to understand why cariocas love to say so. Palm fringed beaches bookended by iconic granite morros, the world’s largest urban forest, and one infamous statue of Christ perpetually watching over the city. One of the most geographically blessed cities I’ve had the privilege to visit, it’s hard not to believe that whatever or whomever created this universe, they had a soft spot for Rio de Janiero.

Cristo Redentor Early Access Tour

Cristo Redentor Early Access Tour

And so did I, long before I first set my own eyes on the city. When I was cleaning out boxes of old college notebooks and projects last summer, I came across detailed ramblings about a fantasy semester in Brazil scribbled in the margins of many a class note. More recently, my mom took on a similar project purging my sister and my’s grade school stockpiles, and came across a report I’d done when tasked with researching any continent – I’d lovingly selected South America. For years, when asked what destination topped my bucket list, I barely had to hesitate.

For as long as I’ve loved travel, Brazil was a tornado force of a desire, with Rio at the eye of the storm. That’s a lot for one city to live up to, regardless of how marvelous it may be.

Sunset at Sugarloaf

Rio de Janiero Botanical Garden

Rio de Janiero Botanical Garden

Itinerary

Originally, as this dream began to take shape in reality, I hoped to spend two full weeks in the city. Later, as I negotiated with Heather, my travel copilot, and accepted how much else of the country I wanted to see, that time was pared down to just one week.

I was determined to make the most of it.

Rio de Janiero Street Art

Sunset at Sugarloaf

By the time we arrived in the Cidade Maravilhosa, we had partied at Tomorrowland in Itú, fallen for the biggest baddest city in Brazil in São Paulo, been charmed by Paraty, and got lost in wild Ilha Grande. We were ready for Rio.

After careful consideration, Heather and I had chosen to split our time in Rio between two different digs – kicking things off at a hostel in Botafogo, and then later moving to an Airbnb near Copacabana beach (get $35 off your first booking!) We bit off a lot before we’d even arrived, booking several tours and creating an exhaustive itinerary. We were so excited we were practically powerless to do otherwise, despite being fully aware of how burnt out we’d be by the end of the week. We even skipped one tour we’d pre-payed for, a favela nightlife tour – pretty much unheard of from this penny pincher — because we were too exhausted and hungover to make it.

Santa Marta

In one week, we crammed in a sunrise tour of Cristo Redentor, a DIY photo safari of Lapa and Centro, hang gliding over São Conrado, a walking tour of Santa Marta favela, a sunset at Aproador, a night out in Ipanema, two beach days, a street art tour, a trip to Jardim Botânico, and sunset at Pão de Açúcar. We literally loved every single one of these activities and I’ll be writing in more detail about each of them.

Even so, we left with much not crossed off our lists.  Rio is a big, sprawling city with so much to see and do — it could take weeks, or months, or a lifetime to explore. I think one of the biggest struggles for any do-and-see-it-all-er heading to Rio will be accepting that in this city, that would be an impossible mission.

Cristo Redentor Early Access Tour

Hang Gliding in Rio

Impressions

There’s a famous comparison that Rio is Brazil’s Los Angeles and São Paulo, Brazil’s New York. After being well and truly and very unexpectedly swept off my feet by São Paulo, I couldn’t help but see why.

While what I loved about Rio did remind me of what I love about Los Angeles — the beach! — a lot of what I didn’t like about Rio reminded me of what I don’t like about Los Angeles – namely, urban sprawl and charmless seediness.

Santa Marta Favela

Santa Marta Favela

Santa Marta Favela

The rivalry between the Cariocas (people from the city of Rio de Janeiro) and Paulistas (residents of São Paulo) is an intense one, just like that between residents of the US’s largest east and west coast cities. To state the obvious, Rio wins by a landslide when it comes to setting. The city’s natural beauty is unrivaled, and the ocean it’s surrounded by is its number one draw.

Sunrise over Sugarloaf

Experiencing this city’s unique beach culture was the highlight of my time in the city, so much so that I’ll be dedicating a whole post to it coming up — stay tuned! While we were visiting in Brazil’s autumn, we found the beaches pleasantly buzzing.

The weather, our busy itinerary and a few unexpected wrinkles in our plan (hello, last minute work assignment and Heather going to the hospital) meant we spent less time there than we would have liked to, and so I dream of returning one day in the summer to spend a whole week doing not much more than beach bumming.

Sunset at Arpoador

Sunset at Arpoador

Beaches aside — and I admit, it’s a rather important factor to put aside — I was surprised to find myself favoring São Paulo in many other categories. Through my eyes, São Paulo had an undeniably chicer, hipper vibe. The art scene was a bit more sophisticated, the restaurant scene a bit more diverse and trendy, and transportation was more accessible (though traffic in both cities was insane).

The more I travel, the greater emphasis I have placed on food. After really swooning over the restaurant scene in São Paulo, especially for Heather as a vegetarian, we were a little disappointed in Rio’s — though I was warned. That said, we did find a few gems. We fell in love with hip Meza in Bogafoto (we went for both dinner and Sunday brunch – with a bubbles bar!) and bohemian Zaza in Ipanema, and made three different trips to cute Oficina Gelato. Yet overall, we were super grateful for the kitchen in our Airbnb – it meant we could cook a few meals, eat takeaway in comfort and not rely on eating every meal out at a restaurant.

Brunch at Meza, Rio de Janiero

Brunch at Meza, Rio de Janiero

Brunch at Meza, Rio de Janiero

Getting around in Rio was a bit of a struggle at times. Traffic was intense and destinations were quite spread out. Due to the language barrier we used Uber exclusively for cab needs — get a free ride of up to $20 with Uber here — but even then we did run into some issues with drivers getting lost and taking ridiculous routes. We spent ages attempting to use the city’s municipal bike program but it requires a local SIM card to unlock the bikes. Heather had one but I didn’t, and so that was out.

The best thing we did for ease of movement was simply splitting our time in two different areas of the city and creating a logical itinerary around those two bases. This allowed us to walk quite a bit, which is always my favorite way of getting around a new city. Next time, I’d love to try using the metro.

Cristo Selfie

One of the pleasant surprises of Rio was how comfortable we felt as two women traveling alone. While we were constantly — like literally, constantly — warned by everyone we encountered to be careful with our cameras, we were vigilant and cautious and had zero issues and really felt surprisingly safe and secure throughout our time in the city.

Frankly, overall we felt this was all throughout Brazil, but it was most poignant in Rio, where multiple viewings of City of God had prepared me to be relieved of all my belongings within moments of stepping onto the streets. It was a nice surprise.

Rio de Janiero Street Art

Ideas

Bottom line? We had a blast. But we were also so busy – and rounding the corner of travel burnout – that we didn’t leave much time to just soak up the magic of the place, which Rio requires quite a bit of.

I look forward to returning someday and putting less emphasis on tours and attractions (only because I’ve now seen them – I don’t regret a single one) and focusing instead on soaking up the beach culture, my absolute favorite aspect of the city, enjoying some of the nightlife, which we regretfully missed out on aside from one over-indulgent night, and attempting some of the beautiful urban hikes and beginner surf breaks I learned about in the area.

Sunset at Arpoador

Sunset at Arpoador

Sunset at Arpoador

I hope I don’t have to wait too long for that return. In the meantime, I can’t wait to share more details from our week in Rio de Janeiro.

Have you been to Rio? Did it live up to your expectations? What part of my trip are you most excited to read about?

3-devide-lines

Many thanks to Heather for the beautiful portraits she took of me throughout this post!

Uma Bela Caminhada: Hiking on Ilha Grande

Ilha Grande stole my heart — and it also gave it a workout. Cardio and adventure fans alike will flip for the hiking opportunities on this untamed Brazilian island.

With sixteen marked trails of varying length and difficulty, we were spoiled for choice when it came to which corner of Ilha Grande to wander. As we were hoping to cool our budgets and enjoy some solitude, we eliminated the trickier routes for which guides were recommended and stuck to the classics. We spent our three short days hitting three of the island’s most popular routes, and left daydreaming about our return to tackle a few more.

Hiking on Ilha Grande

Abraão to Mangues/Pouso: Trail T10

Leaving directly from the far East side of Vila Abraão, and connecting directly to Trail T11, together Trail T10 and T11 make up one of the most popular hikes on Ilha Grande. And we were perfectly positioned to tackle it: our hostel, Che Legarto, let out directly onto the path.

A helpful sign at the start of T10 alerted us we were in for a 5.6-6 kilometer, 2.5-3 hour trek to reach the twin beaches of Mangues and Pouso.

Hiking on Ilha Grande

Hiking on Ilha Grande

We set off a bit later than we’d hoped, around noon, but were still surprised to have the trail more or less to ourselves as we headed away from Abraão village. We’d dutifully let the receptionist at our hostel know where we were going before setting off, and were shocked when we checked to make sure we’d be able to buy more water along the way — and were told we couldn’t. So like good little responsible hikers we brought everything we’d need for the entire hike and then some, practically drowning ourselves along the way in an attempt to lighten our loads.

Hiking on Ilha GrandePhoto by Heather Holt Photography

Hiking on Ilha GrandePhoto by Heather Holt Photography

Hiking on Ilha GrandeWeb photo by Heather Holt Photography

Just over an hour into our trek we hit our first beach, Praia de Palmas. We quickly realized our receptionist had never done this hike when we saw enterprising locals all along the beach had hung out hand-painted signs advertising water, coconuts and other treats for the thirsty hiker for sale. It was the kind of beach we ordinarily might linger on, especially when we discovered it all but abandoned. Yet we had loftier stretches of sand in mind.

Hiking on Ilha GrandePhoto by Heather Holt Photography

And so onward we forged.

Hiking on Ilha Grande

Hiking on Ilha Grande

Hiking on Ilha Grande

Exactly another hour later (after a few lengthy photo stops), we hit Praia Mangues, and cheered as we soaked up yet another postcard-perfect beach. After a quick scramble over the rock separating Mangues from neighboring Praia Pouso, we paused to confirm with local boat captains about the return trip to Vila Abraão. Unfortunately for us slow starters, the last boat was at 4pm — but if you’re headed to these parts, check for yourself, since it seems to vary based on the sunset.

By the time we got moving again to tackle the T11 portion of the trail, about two hours and twenty minutes had passed — and that included plenty of time for photo shoots and dawdling.

Hiking on Ilha Grande

Hiking on Ilha Grande

Hiking on Ilha Grande

Mangues/Pouso to Lopes Mendes: Trail T11

From the end of Trail T10, we picked up Trail T11. Boat tours advertising transport to Lopes Mendes are actually a bit of a sham — in reality the boats cannot reach that side of the island due to waves, and the boat will actually leave you at Praia Pouso. So regardless of how you get to Praia Pouso, you’re getting to and from Lopes Mendes on your own two feet.

The good news? At 2-2.4 kilometers, it’s just a 30 minute to one hour roundtrip trail. While the trail gets quite steep, it’s shockingly short — we made it from start to finish one way in twelve minutes. And while we were decked out in trainers from the bigger bulk of the hike, we saw plenty of people returning in flip flops.

Hiking on Ilha Grande

Lopes Mendes Beach Ilha Grande

At this point, I’d really just been enjoying the journey and not worrying too much about the destination. But as we laid eyes on Lopes Mendes beach for the first time, I think my jaw may have actually dropped, cartoon-character-style.

Hiking on Ilha Grande

Lopes Mendes Beach Ilha Grande

Lopes Mendes beach is often hailed as one of the most beautiful beaches in Brazil — and we could easily understand why. But even on this beautiful sunny day after a long stretch of rain, we really didn’t have to look to hard to find a wide space to spread out our cangas on.

Unlike the other beaches we’d passed on our journey, this one had no permanent structures, yet there were plenty of locals with coolers hawking cold drinks and even snacks sandwiches, and we settled in to enjoy the last stretch of the day’s sun.

Lopes Mendes Beach Ilha Grande

Lopes Mendes Beach Ilha Grande

Lopes Mendes Beach Ilha Grande

Lopes Mendes Beach Ilha Grande

In total, it took us 2.5 hours to hike the full 7.2 kilometer route to Lopes Mendes beach, plus a little bonus 1.2 kilometers to hike back to Praia Pouso for the boat ride to Abraão — which was a bargain and a blessing at 15R (or $4USD). Much as I loved getting there, I don’t think I’d have been up for the full trek back!

Our only regret? Bringing so much water — we could have packed half — and not leaving first thing in the morning. Lopes Mendes truly is stunning, and you’ll want to spend literally every second you can there.

Lopes Mendes Beach Ilha Grande

Lopes Mendes Beach Ilha Grande

Lopes Mendes Beach Ilha Grande

Circuito de Abraão: T1

On our last full day on Ilha Grande, we decided to tackle one last trail, the unassuming Circuito de Abraaão. This easy stroll covers 1.8 kilometers and takes about an hour to an hour and a half, according to the trail marker at the kick off. You could do this one in flip flops, as we ourselves did.

Hiking The Circuito de Abraao on Ilha Grande

Hiking The Circuito de Abraao on Ilha Grande

This trail starts on the far East side of Abraão, the opposite end from T10. Just walk as far as the road goes from town, and keep going. You’ll run into it eventually — but not before stopping to ooh and aah over beautiful views of the bay.

Hiking The Circuito de Abraao on Ilha Grande

Hiking The Circuito de Abraao on Ilha Grande

Hiking The Circuito de Abraao on Ilha Grande

Hiking The Circuito de Abraao on Ilha Grande

What I really loved about this little loop were the near constant distractions of little stops along the way. We tackled the trail clockwise, and so our first stop was a viewpoint over Praia Preta. Not bad, eh?

Next was an aqueduct viewpoint that we couldn’t quite see the aqueduct from, followed by an unspectacular waterfall. But all were lovely distractions from the physical exertion, which are always welcome in my book.

Hiking The Circuito de Abraao on Ilha Grande

Hiking The Circuito de Abraao on Ilha Grande

Next up, the aqueduct! Now, this was cool. At eleven meters high, the twenty-six arches stretched so far deep across the jungle we couldn’t see either end, and felt like we’d stumbled upon a mysterious clue from the series Lost.

Constructed in 1893 using stones and whale oil, the aqueduct still carries to Abraão village to this day.

Hiking The Circuito de Abraao on Ilha Grande

Hiking The Circuito de Abraao on Ilha GrandePhoto by Heather Holt Photography

Eventually, we wound back to the coast and arrived on the beautiful shore of Praia de Galego. Here, we stopped for a well deserved beach break.

Hiking The Circuito de Abraao on Ilha Grande

When we’d had our fill of sun, we wandered next door to the Lazareto Ruins, a reminder of Ilha Grande’s seedy past. This now abandoned building has had many lives. Originally a farmhouse, in 1884 the structure was redesigned as a Brazilian Ellis Island, a quarantine stopover for European immigrants by order of the Emperor of Brazil in the midst of a devastating cholera epidemic.

Closed in 1913, Lazareto was given new life as a penal colony from 1940 to 1954, and finally abandoned for good again in 1963.

Hiking The Circuito de Abraao on Ilha Grande

Hiking The Circuito de Abraao on Ilha Grande

Hiking The Circuito de Abraao on Ilha Grande

Hiking The Circuito de Abraao on Ilha GrandePhoto by Heather Holt Photography

After lingering just a tad too long in the damp old ruins, I cheered when we reached Praia Preta. Here, we shared the beach with a few local pups, a fisherman who proudly showed us his catch, and other travelers vying for the last bits of beach at high tide.

Hiking The Circuito de Abraao on Ilha GrandePhoto by Heather Holt Photography

Hiking The Circuito de Abraao on Ilha GrandePhoto by Heather Holt Photography

Hiking The Circuito de Abraao on Ilha Grande

The the label “adventure paradise” is thrown around pretty loosely these days, I feel confident bestowing the title on this beautiful island. Equal parts beautiful and accessible, I can’t think of a better hiking destination I’ve visited recently — and we only brushed the surface! If you’re looking for an independent adventure in Brazil, look no further.

While Ilha Grande feels idyllically safe, we still took some base-level security precautions — this is Brazil, which as guidebooks, other travelers, and our mothers warned us frequently, has a bit of a reputation for crime. Though we took the calculated risk of hiking with our cameras (after backing up all our memory cards), we carried very small amounts of cash and always told our guesthouse reception where we were going. While T1 and T11 were well-trafficed trails, T10 was quite desolate. Some trails should only be tackled with a guide — ask around if you’re considering others.

Hiking on Ilha Grande Brazil

Happy hiking! Next stop… Rio de Janiero!