The Great Escape: Month 60 Roundup

Oh, my monthly roundups. They are so ridiculously out of sync with real time now (this post is basically eleven months late, whoops!) that I recently considered axing the series, but I decided to play catch up instead — so brace yourself for a couple of these coming up! However, now that I’m writing on multiple timelines they do serve as a nice roadmap of my archives for those who want to follow my travels chronologically.

Apologies for the delay, but I suppose better is late than never… right? 😛

3-devide-lines

My first month in Brazil was this roller coaster in which I would be having this unbelievable experience or this really authentic connection or seeing this amazing sight and my heart would be bursting with how lucky I felt to be there, and then moments later something would happen that would leave me baffled or fuming and I’d have to just hold back tears.

A lot of minor things went wrong in Brazil on a regular basis (major attractions being closed, tour disappointments, communication breakdowns) and for some reason I really took them to heart more so than I did on other trips. Maybe that’s because my expectations were so high, maybe it’s because I was nearing heart-attack level stress over work, maybe it’s because I planned a relatively ambitious itinerary. Maybe I just got into a funk early on and had a hard time shifting my attitude. Even so far after the fact, when I hoped to have some clarity, it’s hard to parse, exactly. It terms of frustrations it was up there with Vietnam, which until now was the most challenging trip I’ve ever taken, mentally. Yet there was so much incredible joy in there, too. Like I said — a roller coaster!

Sao Paulo Travel BlogSão Paulo

Indeed, my trip to Brazil was a wild ride. It was also a full six weeks, so it will end up being split up into two roundups — this one here I believe is the longest post I’ve ever written!

Where I Was

• Fifty-two hours in overnight transit

• Two nights in São Paulo

• Four nights in Itú

• Two nights in São Paulo

• Five nights in Paraty

• Three nights in Ilha Grande

• Seven nights in Rio de Janeiro

• Five nights in Buzios

• One night in Rio de Janeiro

Highlights

• Honestly, getting there. Why? Because it was nowhere near as bad as I imagined! A motorbike ride, a ferry, a shuttle, four flights on three itineraries, and a cab ride equaled fifty-two-and-a-half hours in non-stop, door-to-door transit to get from my apartment in Koh Tao, Thailand to my hostel in São Paulo, Brazil.(Normally I would never do a nutso travel itinerary like this, but I had a really short window of time between Songkran in Thailand and Tomorrowland in Brazil!)

It was my longest stretch of uninterrupted transit ever. No fun layovers, no leaving the airports. Just one big blur of boarding passes, security checks and baggage claims. What made it tolerable was flying airlines I love, and having a lounge pass at JFK (thanks for the spare, dad!) that meant I could take a shower and chill a bit before boarding my last red-eye flight to Brazil.

• Falling wildly in love with São Paulo. Honestly, it’s just such a cool place, and I adored both places I stayed there, my hostel in Vila Mariana and my Airbnb in Vila Madalena (where our hosts were some of the sweetest people ever). Both places were both trendy reflections on the city they were set in — which had fun yoga studios, a hoppin’ healthy food scene, and so many chic bars and cafes I could barely stand it. It was good that I loved my accommodation so much, because I spent a lot of time in it — between recovering from my travels and recovering from Tomorrowland, I didn’t do nearly as much as I’d hoped in my two short stints in São Paulo, other than chill.

• Soaking up so much street art. My Instagram tour around the hippest haunts of São Paulo — street art included — was so inspiring and fun, I don’t think I would have appreciated the city half as much without it. I didn’t think it could possibly be topped by the street art tour we took in Rio, but I’d be hard pressed to pick a favorite! Both were led by creative, passionate, badass ladies — my favorite kind of businesses to support.

• Dancing my heart out at Tomorrowland Brasil! While there were a lot of disappointments — see below — those couldn’t take away from the hearts-and-rainbow soaked good times we managed to have despite them. Guys, I just love festivals. At this one, the weather was stunning, the natural setting was beautiful, the stages were fun, we loved the cashless wristband system, and in comparison to the Belgian version the music was a little more accessible and the food and drinks were a little cheaper. And oh yeah, champagne was everywhere!

• Dressing up for Tomorrowland Brasil. In comparison to the Belgian original, we noticed that festival go-ers at the Brazilian spin-off were way more into dressing up in crazy outfits — so yeah, we blended right in.

• Making the most of Paraty. After having gorgeous weather for the first week of my trip, Paraty really tested us. But again, we really tried our best to look on the bright side and enjoy the highlights of the seaside town, even when it was darkened by rain clouds — wandering around and photographing the beautifully preserved colonial architecture, a private yoga class and spa day at a really unique, lush villa, and a delightful dinner party and cooking class with two of the most colorful characters in Southern Brazil.

• Soaking up the sun again in Ilha Grande! Oh how happy we were to see blue skies! And we sure made the most of them, wandering every little lane in the charming Vila do Abraão, stand up paddling in the idyllic bay, and tackling three of the island’s sixteen marked hiking trails. Ilha Grande is packed with free and reasonably priced entertainment options — it’s a nature-lover’s playground!

• Being literally the first two people at the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro. What a rush! …And a photo op! Getting up and out the door early — rare for this pair — also meant we had plenty of time to explore Lapa and Downtown Rio after, too. We had so much fun spotting tiles from our favorite destinations all over the world in Lapa steps — it was the perfect sightseeing morning.

• Experiencing humbling hospitality in a favela. One of the most eye-opening and enlightening days of our trip was in Santa Marta, where we were welcomed into the home of our tour company owner and got invited to a football game the next day (I wish we’d gone!) by our tour guide. The favela was nothing like I thought it would be — and it’s something I’m so grateful to have experienced. The art project at the base of the hill that made this particular favela famous was the icing on the proverbial cake!

• The rush of hang gliding! I do love my “adventures in jumping off things” series, but somehow hang gliding had alluded me up until this point. What an iconic city to check it out in! Hang gliding is a major industry in Rio, which made it feel very routine, regulated, and safe — can’t recommend a better place to give it a whirl.

• Beach bumming. We were lucky to have beach time in Ilha Grande (so gorgeous!) and Buzios (briefly!) but my favorite beach days were on Ipanema Beach in Rio. In all my years of sun-chasing, I’ve never experienced anything like Brazilian beach culture — one of the biggest reasons I plan to return to Brazil someday despite all the challenges. I loved every second on the sand!

• Playing house. The hostel from our first few days in Rio was a bit of a disappointment, so we were extra wild over our insanely adorable Airbnb by the beach. It was full of charm and character, and was just a really comfortable place to chill out and take a breather from travel — watch movies, order take-away, do some laundry (a surprisingly difficult task to achieve otherwise in Brazil), and generally re-group. I’m a big fan of apartment rentals in general, but in Brazil they are particularly necessary for long trips!

• Going diving in Buzios. After failed attempts in Paraty and Ilha Grande and our first booking being cancelled in Buzios, we were so relieved we got to go diving! And despite the disaster it was to get there (see below) once we were on the Seaquest boat we had a really chilled-out, nice day of diving. I found lots of exotic little creatures to bug out over, and it just felt good to be underwater — in my happy place! — again.

Canceling our trip to Iguassu. It was a hard decision, because I hated wasting the money we spent on what we couldn’t get refunded from our flight and hotel, but I felt ten tons come off my shoulders as soon as we made the call. Honestly, it was a harder decision for Heather than it was for me as she feels less confident that she’ll return to Brazil someday, but I just know that we would have been miserable rushing around in the rain. 

• Getting a bonus day in Buzios. It meant we got another night in our insanely adorable beachfront hostel, we got to go out and experience Buzios’s infamous weekend nightlife, and we got a day of beach-hopping in a buggy! Were we hungover and did we wish we woke up earlier? Yes and yes. But it would have been practically criminal to leave Buzios without checking off this flagship activity. I’m so glad we didn’t have to!

• Getting a bonus night in Rio. We did our week in Rio fairly off-the-beaten path — we split our time between a funky hostel in Botafogo and an Airbnb in the winding hills behind Ipanema. So for our final, spontaneous night back in the city, we booked the first beachfront hotel with a rooftop pool that popped up on Tripadvisor. For $80 each, it was a crazy fun and relaxing splurge!

• Catching epic sunsets. As you’ll read below, the sunset time was a bit of a sore spot for us in Brazil. But we did have a couple spectacular ones — a stunning final sunset behind the main stage at Tomorrowland, a giddy night drinking champagne and watching surfers at Aproador and an evening watching the lights of Rio going on from atop Sugarloaf in Rio, and a beautiful sunset from the dock in Buzios.

• Generally feeling much safer than we anticipated. We were a bit on edge about bringing out expensive electronics to Brazil, mostly in Rio, and ended up relieved not to experience any crime — or feel particularly threatened by it, either.

Tomorrowland Brazil BlogTomorrowland Brasil

Lowlights and Lessons

You’ll notice that a lot of the highlights and moments I loved from my trip were almost universally tainted with disappointments and frustrations, too. I think if I had read a post like this that basically told me to brace for impact, I would have been mentally prepared and been able to adjust my expectations and attitude before walking in. So consider this my gift to you.

Also, this is where I hope to work through all my lingering resentments from Brazil so just be warned, this is going to be one of those months where the lowlights are longer than the highlights and I’m going to get petty AF. It’s so much cheaper than therapy!

• Moving way too fast. Seriously, when will I learn. Twelve different beds split across five cities and one festival, all in thirty days? I know better than to think I could do that while working from the road and without burning out — but I forged ahead anyway. This one was my bad, not Brazil’s!

Also, we moved accommodation in three out of those five cities, which added to the sense of chaos. In retrospect, I would have skipped the two comped hotels in exchange for just hosteling all the way through, if it meant less moving parts and check-ins and check-outs.

• Sunset time. It sounds like a hilarious thing to complain about, but seriously, the sun was setting at 5:15-5:30pm throughout our trip. As someone who has hated the dark and suffered from an animal-like craving for Vitamin D her entire life, I am all about the 9pm summer sunsets. The later the better. And when you happen to be on an insane sightseeing schedule like we were, an early sunset just becomes an enormous hassle.

My work productivity starts at an all-time peak the moment I wake up and basically nose-dives throughout the day, so when I’m on the road I try to wake up early and get as much work done as possible before leaving my accommodation. In Brazil that left us with a small window between work time and sunset, and it always felt like we were scrambling against the clock to get everything in that we wanted to do during daylight hours.

• Weather. We were woe-fully unprepared for both the rain and the low evening temperatures we encountered. Oops.

• Festival flops. So, in a lot of ways Tomorrowland Brasil was a complete organizational disaster, so much so that I was not really surprised to hear it was cancelled indefinitely in anticipation of its third year. I don’t want to take away from what a serious blast we had making the best of it… but Rome was pretty much burning around us and we were just dancing in the flames.

The magnitude and frequency of the issues at this particular event were just plain unforgivable given the ticket price, and they really put a damper on the overall experience. The big three were the camping situation outlined below, almost getting locked out of the festival when trying to upgrade to VIP, and our daily struggle to find one English speaking staff member at a festival with thousands of attendees from English speaking countries. Normally I am super careful to frame my frustrations with my communication issues in Brazil to take all the blame for not speaking Portuguese. But not here — if you aggressively market an international music festival to English speaking countries and have an English-language website and exclusively sell tickets in US currency, you sure as hell better make sure you have at least a handful of staff who are comfortable speaking English so that those guests feel safe and informed.

• Wasting $700 on “VIP” camping. We were extremely disappointed with the Dream Lodge situation and one of my biggest regrets from Brazil is not saving nearly a grand by doing Easy Tents instead. Among a million minor disasters and disappointments, we were literally held hostage on check out day. Also, the layout of the campground was so illogical it hurt our brains, things were stolen from our tent, and staff at our “VIP” campgrounds were indifferent and inefficient and frequently gave us incorrect information or shrugs when we requested help. It just felt like a huge rip-off, particularly painful after it was one of the highlights of our festival at Tomorrowland Belgium.

• Getting booked out. In a way, I really regret not being more spontaneous in Brazil — but in another, I realize that even planning ahead like we did, I struggled. The private room I wanted at my hostel in São Paulo? Only available one night, had to switch into a dorm after that. The room we requested at our hostel in Rio? Snapped up before we got the chance, as were so many of the amazing Airbnbs we first bookmarked. Some adventure tour companies I contacted were booked a whole month in advance, and flights skyrocketed in price if you didn’t book crazy early. It drove me crazy to feel like I was doing so much research and planning so far in advance, and still not getting exactly what I wanted.

I’m trying to use my frustration and disappointments to finally learn this lesson once and for all: JUST BOOK IT. My wavering and wishy-washy decision making over trivial details meant I missed out on AirBnBs and hostel rooms that I knew I wanted right from the get-go! I wondered if I could reach out and partner with those brands, I wondered if maybe I wanted to tweak the itinerary by a day or two here or there, I wondered if I might magically find an even more perfect unicorn of an apartment the day after. My indecision really makes me want to punch myself in the face sometimes.

• A total washout in Paraty. I honestly have concluded that Paraty is a fabulous destination — that we really didn’t get to enjoy because it downpoured the entire five days we were there, with the sun finally breaking through the morning we left. In retrospect, I wish we’d just accepted that it was going to rain the whole time and embraced the time to get work done. But instead we spent a lot of time agonizing over weather reports and trying to run around and reschedule stuff every time there was a momentary break in the clouds. It was a huge waste of time and mental energy, and it would have been better to just get ahead on work.

• When it rains, it pours. Paraty is a pretty good example of the “even when things went right they went wrong” phenomenon. That fabulous dinner party? We had a booking snafu that left us both sick to our stomachs with stress. That spa day we adored? Well, we were pretty bummed when a power cut meant we had to cancel half of it. And yeah, our horseback trip? Well, nothing went right there, other than the fact that we were out of our rooms and the rain was holding off and technically, we were sitting on horses — otherwise it was a complete mess on my part.

Paraty Travel BlogParaty

• Running around Rio. I actually loved every single tour we did in Rio and would be very, very hard pressed to pick a favorite. Our only major “time wastes” were transportation snafus and going to Sugarloaf only to find it closed. That said, we had a very packed itinerary and I left craving more chilled-out beach days! In retrospect, I think I would have been much happier if we’d taken our exact itinerary for Rio and stretched it from one week to two, allowing the extra time to be filled in by work time and morning runs and drinking caipirinhas on the beach. When you schedule things down to the minute it leaves very little room for those inevitable little disasters, like when I had a last minute work call pop up that I had to clear and afternoon for, or when Heather took an unexpected trip to the hospital for an infection.

• Sugarloaf frustrations! Wow, was this iconic Rio site hard to see. Our first evening in Rio, we threw down our bags, rushed like crazy people to get into an Uber, and arrived to find… that the cablecar was closed for three days due to construction. Buzzkill! Later, on our Christo Redentor tour, the guide was talking about taking the other guests there after and we were like, oh gosh, luckily you mentioned this to us because it’s actually closed! And he kind of shrugged and said maybe it was open. And we told him the guards very clearly informed us that it would be closed for three days and he seemed irritated — I couldn’t believe he was going to waste the other guests time like that.

And then it was our final night in Rio and our last chance to go. Our Uber driver was literally the worst I’ve ever had and ignored the apps directions, got lost, and made us frantically late. I was almost in tears in the cab! We made it just in time, and ended up with a stunning sunset… but suffice it to say that it was a microcosm of our time in Brazil.

• Biking blues. In what is pretty much another perfect metaphor for our time in Brazil, we were extremely excited that Rio had a bike share program, with a bike stand right next to our Airbnb! What an affordable fun and sustainable way to get around the city for two bike lovers! Fast forward a few hours and a few handfulls of hair: the bikes required a local SIM card to be unlocked, and we only had one SIM card, and reservations online could only be made for one person, and reservations in person blah blah blah it was completely impossible to do. This was when all the stories about Rio not being ready for the Olympics were reaching a fever pitch and I was reading them thinking… yup.

• Fabulous as our tours in Rio were, there were some minor frustrations — forgetting my camera battery on our favela tour (my fault), not getting the full street art tour because other guests had refused to go into a pacified favela (eyeroll), getting blatantly misled on the hang gliding photo package (such a rip off), having to reconfirm our Christo tour not once, not twice, but three times (and then getting annoyed at our guide when he told us to buy snacks and then immediately insisted we board a shuttle where no food or drinks were allowed and sniffed at us for holding up the group), canceling our favela nightlife tour and not being able to get a refund (actually, the manager kindly offered to give it to us in cash, but it would have taken hours to cross the city to get it so we passed — and this one was our own hungover fault anyway).

Between the poor transportation infrastructure for tourists and the struggle to obtain correct information when booking tours and planning outings, I have concluded that it is very hard to “do stuff” in Brazil and really rewarding and amazing to basically do nothing in Brazil. It’s more or less what I finally gave up and did for my final week in Brazil (coming up next roundup) and, well, it was way better.

Ilha Grande Travel Blog

 

• A professional meltdown. As I alluded to in this post, I had one of the greatest communication disasters of my entire blogging career while in Brazil that landed Heather and I in deeply awkward, horrible situations I simply felt powerless to disentangle us from. I still don’t feel comfortable sharing every dirty detail (as I can’t find a way to do so without being unprofessional myself), but suffice it to say that it really taught me some huge lessons: the importance of being clear in my requests to and expectations of the brands I partner with, the self-respect to pull the plug when I see so many red flags that there’s a sea of crimson in front of me, and the need for a business manager in my life who stands up for me when I am being treated unfairly.

I was also reminded that sometimes, the risks of partnering with travel brands outweigh the benefits, and that my focus should always be on increasing my income rather than arranging so-called “freebies” that come with a million strings attached.

The entire situation was undoubtedly the greatest mental burden on my time in Brazil, an ordeal that left me sleepless and my stomach twisted with stress and terrified to look at my inbox from the day we left for Tomorrowland to the moment I finally felt free of the situation half-way through our time in Buzios. Dying of curiosity? I promise, the whole story will come out some day… hopefully when I can tell it in print.

 

• Our symbolically loaded failed transfer to Buzios. It was, in short, a total nightmare. I described it pretty well here, but the bottom line is it was arranged by the organization from my previous bullet point — so, yeah:

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, surrounded by dog poo and 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.

• Another spa “situation.” Heather felt so bad for me after everything came to a head in Buzios, she treated both of us to spa day at Casas Brancas. It was kind of a hilarious example of even on the good days, things went wrong. We shivered in the plunge pool until realizing it was, in fact, a broken hot tub, and I found myself wandering around the spa unattended after being left alone, explanation-less, moments into my facial. At least at this point the little stuff just seemed funny.

• Post office rage. Wow, did this little thing not seem funny at the time though: in Buzios, I put together a pile of gifts to mail home rather than continue traveling around the country with. We arrived to a ridiculously long, slow line. I tried to look around for a box to purchase, but unlike US post office, all the mailing supplies are kept behind the counter. I tried to quickly and politely grab a box from an employee in between customers so I could prepare and label my package while I cooled my heels in line for nearly an hour, but they just angrily yelled at me to get back in line, and I watched while every single person in the line went up one by one, got a box/envelope/whatever, and stood there painstakingly preparing their package while the employee just stared at them. This post office is where efficiency went to die. It was the worst system I’ve ever seen, and I couldn’t believe everyone just accepted it! Basically I was the stereotypical traveler who can’t accept why things aren’t done the wonderful way they are at home (who would have ever guessed I’d be longing for the coherence of the US postal system) and rather than just patiently accept things for what they were I stood there burning from the inside with rage. Totally not embarrassed about that in retrospect at all.

• Our diving near-disaster. Our first diving attempt was cancelled by wind and when we finally made it, the visibility wasn’t great. But you can’t do much about weather. You can, however, do something about not being a jerk to your customers. From the moment we were picked up by Pablo, I had a bad feeling. He was downright rude, and totally ignored my attempts to speak to him in Spanish when I realized he was from Argentina (I thought perhaps he just didn’t speak English comfortably as first). Then, he gave us the wrong wetsuits — and was totally rude about it! Thankfully our dive day was rescued by the company he handed us off to upon arrival in Arraial do Cabo, because it came really close to being a total wash.

• Losing my dive computer. Yup, that was an expensive mistake. I can’t really be sure when exactly this happened, but my suspicious is it may have been stolen somewhere in Brazil. However, I can’t confirm it — there’s a chance I misplaced it when moving out of my apartment in Thailand, too. Regardless, it stung.

• Sticker shock. Back in Rio, my computer charger died. No big deal, I thought, at least I’m in a big city. Until I saw the $200+ price tag! Say what?! They weren’t kidding about electronics being marked up in Brazil. I literally cried in the store. Thankfully I was totally rescued yet again by Heather, who gave me her charger and let me send a $50 Amazon one to her next stop in Chicago. She’s such a good friend.

• Wanting more. This is just me being greedy, but I wish I’d had more time in a few destinations! There were so many things I wanted to do that I didn’t have time for in São Paulo in particular — parks, museums, walking tours, etc. In Ilha Grande, I’d loved to have tackled more hikes and in Rio I was down for more beach days. In Buzios and Paraty, we definitely scheduled the perfect amount of time, had we not had rain.

• Communication. I wrote extensively about our communication struggles in this post, but suffice it to say I’ll never again brush off someone’s concerns about language barriers. I guess my first 30ish countries just didn’t prepare me for the fact that sometimes, communication frustration can seriously damper a trip.

Rio Travel BlogRio

LOLs

• Google Translate saved our bums many times. This wasn’t one of them — but these wine list translations from Paraty still makes me belly laugh when I look at them.

• One of my more comical misunderstandings from Brazil involved bubbly — my thirty minute attempt to purchase a glass of champagne in which I was continually pointed from one line to another until a frightened-looking employee thrust an empty champagne flute into my hands and ran away. That was one of my favorite laughs from Tomorrowland Brasil.

This sign.

• We planned our trip at the height of Zika mania, and my dad showed an uncharacteristic concern for my well-being on this trip. On one heavy phone call where he actually asked me to consider postponing it, he asked me for Heather’s parent’s phone number 😂 Heather is a grown woman in her thirties with her own business who hasn’t lived at home in nearly two decades, so that really tickled my funny bone. And it was also really cute.

Best and Worst Beds of the Month

Best:  We loved both our Airbnbs so much, and I adored our ocean-front hostel in Buzios and my charming colonial one in Vila Mariana

Worst: Our hostels in Rio, Paraty and Ilha Grande were nothing to write home about. Rio was particularly disappointing — didn’t get the room we thought we booked and felt kinda meh about the whole place (which later closed, so apparently we weren’t alone.)

Best and Worst Meals of the Month

Worst: I’m going to level with you — really, aside from the specific meals I will list below, we were very underwhelmed by the overall restaurant experience in Brazil. On the whole, prices were very expensive, service was so-so, and meals were, well, often just okay. This is one of the reasons I was thrilled to break up our hotel stays with Airbnbs and hostels that had kitchens — and to have some beach snack picnics along the way!

Best: Normally I pick one standout, but for the reason listed above I’m going to list out all my highlights in one place for anyone who might be planning a trip to Brazil. I loved Raw, Maha Mantra, Biozone, and Motocó Cafe (order the dadinhos de tapioca com queijo coalho and a Guaraná for a super Brazilian snack!) in São Paulo, Banana da Terra and Thai Brasil in Paraty, Meza, and Zaza in Rio de Janeiro, and Salt and Rocka in Buzios. More recommendations can be found in my posts for each destination. Bom apetite!

Buzios Travel BlogBuzios

Spending

This Brazil trip cost a fortune — my four days at Tomorrowland Brasil alone cost almost what an entire month does for me in Thailand! Read the breakdown for more details. This was my second most expensive month of the year, only beat out at the last moment by my month spent in Hawaii. Food, accommodation and transportation all gave me sticker shock in Brazil! It’s wild to think I spent so much even considering some of the work perks I was able to take advantage of — comped tours, transfers, a few nights of accommodation, and using some of my Airbnb credit took some of the sting off what could have been an even bigger bill.

My biggest stand-out expenses were our group transfer from São Paulo to Paraty ($70) our cooking class in Paraty ($80) our unexpected cab to Buzios ($45), our diving day in Buzios ($90) and various cancellation fees for our non-trip to Iguassu Falls ($100, and the best money I’ve ever spent on nothing!)

One thing I nailed was flights, after several hours spent pouring over spreadsheets and search engines trying to figure out the cheapest and most efficient way to get from Thailand To Brazil and eventually back to New York was this:

• I booked a round-trip flight from New York to São Paulo for $508 after watching for weeks. Flights kept dropping due to zika madness and political instability and for once I got them right at the bottom of the curve. One way flights along this route were more than a round-trip ticket!

• I used 35,000 AA frequent flyer miles to fly from Bangkok to New York one-way, paying $60 in fees.

• Knowing how long I was going to be in transit already, I majorly splurged and bought a flight from Koh Samui to Bangkok for $144, basically the priciest way to get from Koh Tao to the international airport in Bangkok — but also by far the fastest and most comfortable. With the insane journey ahead, it was a guilt-free splurge!

I also did something very out-of-character for myself and did a lot of shopping in Brazil! Brazilian bikinis, beach cangas, Havianas, and colorful Brazilian work-out wear were just too fun to resist and I found myself filling my already over-packed bag even further to the seams. It was fun!

Saving

For better or for worse, I had a flood of projects come in while I was in Brazil. For one, I scheduled tons of tour reviews with Viator, which are fun but indeed time consuming. I also picked up projects with a sunscreen brand, a new travel app I hadn’t worked with before, and an old travel app I had worked with before. Between those and my standard annual contracts, it was a very busy month behind-the-scenes, too. I’m amazed I produced any blog content at all! (At the time, it was my lowest posts-per-month rate in five years! I’ve since lowered the bar again, oops.)

In addition to the major professional disaster that I went into detail about above, it was a tough month for making work work. I had a client for a very simple project who absolutely insisted we “hop on a call” and also pushed for a crazy deadline that messed with our plans one week, and I literally spent hours on the phone and in tears trying to track down a product that had been shipped to me for another project the next. Thankfully, it was a very profitable month, which helped offset the crazy cost of Brazil and made the suffering worthwhile! I just barely made it out in the black.

Rio Travel BlogRio, again

Health and Fitness

Real talk: Brazil was BAD for my waistline. And I definitely let it get to my head after working so hard to get back on track in Thailand. Outside of the amazing vegetarian food we sought out in São Paulo, we found Brazilian fare to be heavy, fried, and composed primarily of meat and cheese.

Heather is one of those tall, naturally slim chicas who can literally eat pizza every night and still look like a glamazon. I, unfortunately, blow up at the simple contemplation of cheese plate, and though Heather and I travel together frequently, I found it challenging to be in Brazil with someone who happily eats heavy bread and pasta at every meal. It was so hard to avoid them and seek out healthier food, and it was made a lot harder by traveling with someone who didn’t have much incentive for doing so.

And unfortunately, the insane-in-the-membrane itinerary I created for us didn’t leave much time for working it off. One thing I noted was that yoga isn’t super popular in Brazil. While Sao Paulo had a few studios, Rio had a shocking dearth of them! Ashtanga, Iyengar and Hatha were the styles of choice in Brazil over the Vinyasa and Yin that I favor.

I went to one studio bikram yoga class and used our Airbnb gym once in Sao Paulo, went for one run and a private yoga class in Paraty, went hiking and stand up paddleboarding in Ilha Grande, went to a hotel yoga class in Buzios, and used the hotel gym on our last night in Rio.

What Was Next

Two more weeks in Brazil, followed by summer in the USA!

Thanks for coming along for the ride, my friends!

Since I left home for my Great Escape, I’ve been doing monthly roundups of my adventures filled with anecdotes, private little moments, and thoughts that are found nowhere else on this blog. As this site is not just a resource for other travelers but also my own personal travel diary, I like to take some time to reflect on not just what I did, but how I felt. You can read my previous roundups here.

Surprises From Six Weeks in Brazil

As my biggest getaway of 2016, I spent plenty of time meticulously planning my six week trip to Brazil. And yet for all my research and reading, nothing can actually prepare you for the culture shock of completely immersing yourself in a new country, new language, and new lifestyle.

So many aspects of Brazil took me completely by surprise — both good and bad! While I’ve sprinkled in plenty of stray observations throughout my coverage, here are a few final thoughts on the biggest bombshells of my trip. Of course, in the end these are just the musings of a tourist — my experience was shaded heavily by my luck and by my mood. Others might have a different take. Brazilians, feel free to set me straight if I’ve misinterpreted your culture in any way.

Brazil Travel Blog

How safe we felt

One of our pleasant surprises of the trip was how comfortable Heather and I felt as two women traveling alone through what is often considered a very dangerous county. I should note that we had very low expectations in this regard. Stories of theft in Brazil are so rampant that I literally considered buying a backup iPhone before this trip, because that�™s how much I had pre-accepted that I was going to be robbed blind. My first day in São Paulo was a hilarious wake up call that I really needed to chill.

While we were constantly — like literally, constantly — warned by everyone we encountered to be careful with our cameras (to which we were like, yeah, duh), we were vigilant and cautious and had zero issues and really felt surprisingly safe and secure throughout our time in Brazil, with a few uneasy but brief exceptions. Of course many travelers do experience crime in this country, hence the constant warnings, but our experience was a reminder that there are plenty of travelers who move through the country grief-free, too.

Brazil Travel Blog

How no one gave a flip about Zika

Our trip was at the HEIGHT of Zika mania. My dad, a busy CEO who probably isn’t really sure what country I am in the vast majority of the time, called me specifically to ask if I might consider postponing or canceling my trip — Heather’s parents did the same.

So I arrived half-expecting some sort of Hazmat-covered country under quarantine. And seriously? No one cared. No. one. cared. The first few times Heather or I casually brought up Zika to Brazilians, they looked at us like we were paranoid nutjobs. When we told them that Zika was still headline news every night in the US, they were baffled. “Oh yes, Zika. I had it last year. Dengue is much worse,” a doctor we met at Tomorrowland told us flippantly before casually ordering up another caipirinha. As someone who is kind of the opposite of a hypochondriac, I found the whole attitude very refreshing.

Also? We literally did not see one mosquito. Anywhere. Ironically, our two biggest fears before arriving in Brazil could not have been less of an issue.

Brazil Travel Blog

How hard it was to communicate

Yet the thing I didn’t think to fear left me so frustrated I nearly flew home early. Living in Thailand, a country where I speak no more than a pitiful few throwaway phrases in the country’s notoriously difficult and tonal language, I have done plenty of pantomiming and getting by with little-to-no shared vocabulary. I’ve traveled to 37 countries now and before Brazil, communication has never been an issue beyond a passing flicker of frustration — I certainly never imagined that a language barrier would negatively influence one of my trips.

It started with a very misplaced sense of confidence. I like to classify myself as a “blissfully barely-competent Spanish speaker.” Which is a winking way of saying that while I’m far from fluent, I love speaking Spanish and embrace the challenge with gusto, never letting an improperly conjugated verb get in the way of a productive conversation in Latin America. And I thought, how different can Spanish and Portuguese be?

Ha! That false sense of security was only heightened by the planning stage of our trip, in which I was able to fairly easily understand several all-Portuguese websites. Oh, how naive I was! I’d soon learn that written Portuguese and spoken Portuguese are two entirely different beasts. While the former is quite similar to its Spanish cousin, the ladder was unlike anything I’d ever heard. “When we first boarded our plan to Brazil for Argentina, we wondered why they were giving the announcements in Russian,” confessed my Israeli travel companions in Jericoacoara. At the risk of offending my Portuguese-speaking readers, the primary adjective I’d use to describe Brazilian Portuguese was mushy. Without the sharp clarifying corners I’d grown to love in the Spanish language, I couldn’t even pick up the different words when spoken to in Brazilian Portuguese. And again, I greatly hesitate to write this and offend any Portuguese speaking readers, but the truth is the language didn’t agree with my ears. In the same way that some people’s taste buds are predisposed to certain foods, the sound of different languages appeal to different people. Portuguese just isn’t my jam.

Of course, I accept full responsibility for not knowing more than the basic guidebook phrases when I arrived in Brazil. Translation apps can only go so far, and I should have been better prepared.

But regardless, you must be thinking, surely there are plenty of Brazilians who speak English? Nao muitos! Studies claim only 3% of Brazilians speak English as a second language. And I found that those who might were extremely reluctant to speak it.

In Southeast Asia, for comparison, my experience has been that there is no expectation among locals that foreigners will speak Thai, Khmer, or Laotian. Fluency in English is also a rare trait in this region, though communication between traveler and local is generally light-hearted and earnest. There’s a sense of, we’re in this together, and neither of us is leaving until we figure out how many papayas I want to buy and how much you’re going to charge me for them, gosh darn it. 

Brazil Travel Blog

But I found that in Brazil, it was harder to get anyone to even attempt to communicate �” my apologetic English or hapless attempts at Portuguese were frequently met with terror, blank stares, and the person I was speaking to simply walking away from me. At Tomorrowland Brazil, I was unable to hear an employee at the information booth’s hesitant reply to me in English due to the loud music playing; when I asked her to repeat herself, she shook her head over and over again in mortified horror until I finally gave up and walked away. In Duty Free at São Paulo’s international airport, multiple employees practically sprinted from me in fear when I, again, always apologetically, requested assistance in English. When I wrote emails to hostels with English websites, they went unanswered. And more than once, I called a business and was told harshly, in perfect English, “we don’t speak any English,” before being hung up on. Needless to say my attempts to politely ask, “puedo hablar in Español?” were, with a few exceptions, also a giant flop.

I don’t think any of the people — just a few random examples plucked from six weeks of exasperation — were trying to be rude or unhelpful (in fact, the Brazilians we met who were comfortable speaking English were overwhelmingly warm and bubbly.) It was explained to me that many Brazilians are simply embarrassed by their lack of English abilities. In fact, one Brazilian I met explained that the reason we’d encountered so many domestic travelers at the hostels we stayed at was that Brazilians are often hesitant to travel to other countries, given their limited English abilities. It affects not just travel but business, too. And while many articles I’ve read in researching the lack of English speaking in Brazil assured me that locals would go out of their way to help me despite our lack of shared languages, I unfortunately did not find that to be the case. Maybe we just had bad luck.

Heather and I spent a lot of time reflecting on why we personally found the language barrier in Brazil so upsetting. We met quite a few men on the road (women traveling without male companions in Brazil were rare from our observation) who were basically like, “ha ha yeah we don�™t understand anything! Who cares!”

Is it that as women we have to be more concerned about our physical safety? Is it that we are highly attuned to being talked over and brushed off? Do we just find communication to be more important? Whatever it was, I found myself very on edge knowing that I was unable to express myself in the local language, and that if I were to try to use body language or, heaven forbid, my mother tongue, I’d clear the room. I felt invisible and vulnerable in a way I never have before while traveling.

Brazil Travel Blog

The champagne campaign

On a lighter note, I couldn’t believe how much Brazilians LOVE bubbly. I was extremely onboard with this. Tomorrowland Brasil had more champagne tents than beer ones, our brunch restaurant in Rio de Janeiro had a DIY Bubbles Bar for creative mimosas, and at three out of the five hotels I stayed at on the trip, sparkling wine was handed to us at check-in — at in some cases, again at check-out!

We learned at our cooking class in Paraty that the sparkling wine industry in Brazil is booming, which made it all click.

Brazil Travel Blog

How diverse it is

One thing that struck me immediately is how many nationalities Brazil encompasses, especially coming from uber-homogonous Thailand. Brazil is enormous and incredibly ethnically diverse, and there is no one way to look Brazilian.

From the blonde-haired, blue-eyed, German-descended Brazilians of the south to the Afro-Caribbean Brazilians of the northeast to the indigenous tribes of the Amazon and everyone inbetween, Brazil is a really beautiful mosaic of different faces.

Brazil Travel Blog

What novelties we were

I mean hello — this is the country that has hosted the World Cup and the Olympics in just a few short years! Surely a few blonde gringas wandering around would be no big deal? Yet even in one of the most famous cities in the world, we were blessed with some very authentic little interactions that reminded us that we were a fairly exotic sight to some, and provided a sweet and refreshing counter-point to the frustrating anecdotes I outlined above.

It started with the dozens of Brazilians whose eyes lit up with excitement when they saw the American flag I was waving at Tomorrowland and came over to give me a high five — a refreshing reaction, as a citizen of a country that tends to take a lot of international flack.

And it continued with the hilarious National Park Ranger at Christo Redentor who whipped out a notebook and solemnly quizzed us on random English slang and insults after hearing us chatting; furrowing his brow and taking detailed notes at each of our replies. The employees at the pet supply shop it Botafogo who were very indiscreetly taking photos of us with their cell phone until we started chatting in broken Spanish and showing them pictures of our dogs, at which point they dropped the secrecy and each took turns taking photos with us and shyly gifting each of us a special free dog toy to bring home to our pups. The man in the favela who waved us over and insisted I try his BBQ meat straight off the grill, wanting only a smile in return. The salesgirl who sold me a $12 dress and gave me a huge, heart-felt hug before I left the store.

The Uber driver who saved us from disaster and drove us all the way from Rio to Buzios, calling everyone in his phonebook and excitedly repeating the same story — we got the gist of it when we heard “Americanos!” sprinkled in over and over again. Though he didn’t speak a single word of English, he chivalrously tried to be of assistance when we stopped at a rest area for snacks, hugged and kissed us when we got to Buzios, and looked back at his star fares with pride as he started the long three-hour drive back to Rio.

Brazil Travel Blog

How much I loved São Paulo

While planning this trip I kind of considered São Paulo a necessary evil; a place we had to fly into and out of and stop in on the way to and from Tomorrowland. And yet it literally turned out to be one of my top two favorite destinations of the trip (alongside Jericoacoara, its polar opposite).However, while São Paulo might have been the greatest surprise, all the destinations I visited were great in their own ways. There’s not one stop on our trip that was a disappointment in and of itself, though some were somewhat marred by terrible weather and other circumstances.

I originally only planned four nights in São Paulo, but it was long enough to have lingering moments of wondering what it might be like to move there. (And also to my great surprise, I never once had that “if I lived here…” daydream in Rio.) I loved South America’s largest city so much, however, that I ended up stopping there for three more nights on my way back out of the country.

I spent most of it chilling out and reflecting on the six weeks behind me and little else (hence the lack of a blog post on this time), and what a better place to do so than Hotel Unique, where I wildly splurged on one last night of luxury. One of the most architecturally distinctive hotels I’ve ever stayed in, Hotel Unique summed up the cutting edge art, stylish design and bold style that made me fall for São Paulo in the first place — what a perfect note to say goodbye to the city, and the country, on.

Brazil Travel Blog

Brazil Travel Blog

Brazil Travel Blog

Brazil Travel Blog

Brazil Travel Blog

The crazy kissing culture

Heather and I didn’t go out much for the first five weeks we were traveling together (my final week, when I was itinerary-less in Jericoacoara, I let loose a bit more.) However, we had one big night out in Rio and one big night out in Buzios, and both of them had one common theme — we were fending off random liplocks left and right!

In Buzios, we actually ended up chatting to a group of guys away on a bachelor weekend who spoke great English, and playfully confronted them about the apparent Brazilian preference for kissing first, asking names second. They conceded with a laugh that it was true, but countered with a scandalized observation of their own. “But American women… it’s crazy… they dance like they want to [redacted term for intimate activities]!” 

The finer nuances of twerking, it seems, have not reached the shores of Brazil. We couldn’t stop laughing. But it’s true — in the US, it’s fairly common sight in nightclubs for people to wordlessly approach each other and dance pretty intimately, which we were learning was as shocking to Brazilians as their saying-hi-with-a-snog was to us.

Brazil Travel Blog

That Brazil is not a year-round tropical paradise

Perhaps some of you will read this and say “duh.” But Heather and I were ridiculously unprepared for the weather we encountered throughout April and May in Brazil, which is their autumn. Our first week was glorious (residents of São Paulo complained of a heatwave but it felt great to us!), our second was a disaster (it downpoured in Paraty non-stop for days), and the two weeks that followed were mostly nice with a few full days of rain tossed in to keep us on our toes. We had to cancel a bunch of activities as a result, which was a bummer.

However, the larger issue is that we were just completely unprepared for the evening temperatures. During the day, these two Southeast-Asia expats were happy and smiling in sleeveless tops and sundresses. But as soon as the sun went down at 5:30pm, the temperature would drop down to the fifties — omg! — and we would literally be sent into a frenzied cold panic. Neither of us had anything more substantial than jeans and a cardigan, and I kid you not when I say there were multiple people in Paraty wearing puffy coats and winter hats to keep warm. There were many days where we’d make big plans to go out for a few drinks in the evening and as soon as we felt that chill in the air we would freak out, run back to our rooms, put on as many layers and possible, make ourselves into bedding burritos and wish for for the warmth of the sun until morning. Dramatic? Abso-freaking-lutely. But there is very little that I loathe more than being cold — I’ve literally designed my entire life around avoiding it. And I didn’t do a very good job in Brazil.

Don’t let the pictures of palm trees fool you. Brazil is an enormous country with four seasons and a major range of eco-systems. Do your research and pack accordingly!

Brazil Travel Blog

How carefully you need to pack

In addition to the weather wake-up call above, we also discovered a few other surprises that make packing well essential for a happy trip to Brazil. First of all? Laundry is surprisingly tough to do. Hostels don’t offer per-kilo laundry service like travelers might be used to in Southeast Asia or other parts of Latin America, and laundromats are few and far between.

Second? Electronics are insanely taxed and tough to track down. For long trips, bring extra camera batteries, a spare laptop chargers, the works. I got the shock of my life when my MacBook charger fried and it was going to cost a cool $17oUSD to replace it. No joke! I heard at least one Brazilian explain that Apple products in particular are harshly marked up by both authorized and off-the-books retailers — one of the reasons iPhones are one of the prime targets for street snatchings.

How few backpackers we met

I’ve touched on this before, but in our weeks of traveling through Brazil, I was absolutely blown away by the lack of English-speaking travelers we encountered (which meant, compounded with our issues communicating with locals, Heather and I got to have a lot of deep and meaningful conversations with each other. I’m pretty sure she was ready to never, ever hear the sound of my voice again by the time she headed home.)

Having experienced the Gringo Trail full blast in Peru and Ecuador and throughout Central America, I found it baffling at first. Hello… where are all the battered-passport, backpack-toting Europeans, Australians, and North Americans on long haul trips around the continent?! Where are the retirees in zip-off pants? Where are the honeymooners? I didn’t find a heavy concentration of any of them, or any sort of traditional backpacker scene, until I hit Jericoacoara.

Why? Brazil has more visa restrictions than its neighboring countries, it is bigger and more expensive and thus a bit more intimidating to travel. Plus, six of the seven hostels I stayed in throughout my six weeks in Brazil were overwhelmingly populated by domestic Brazilian travelers. The cool thing is that the Brazilians staying in hostels are more likely than the rest of the population to speak a bit of English, and getting to bond with locals who are also traveling is pretty unique and fun — I went to the beach and to dinner with Brazilians in Jeri, we partied with Brazilians at Tomorrowland and I had some awesome chats over breakfast with Brazilians in São Paulo. However, those were kind of the exceptions and for the most part, everyone in the hostels spoke Portuguese and it was hard to break into that clique as an English speaker. Speaking Spanish does help, as many non-domestic travelers hail from neighboring Spanish-speaking countries, specifically Argentina.

Typically I love traveling alone, however in this case I was incredibly grateful to be on the road with Heather for the majority of my trip, lest I feel totally linguistically isolated from the world for six weeks straight.

Brazil Travel Blog

How unique the beach culture was

As a certified beach girl, I thought I knew a think or two about spending a day on the sand. Nah. Brazilians have the most unique beach culture I’ve encountered anywhere in the world — I wrote a whole post about it! People always talk about how Brazilians can teach the world a thing or two about how to party. I think they can also show us how to go to the beach!

Brazil Travel Blog

How tough it was to get a visa

Seriously, hats off to those of you who have to go through the difficult process of procuring a visa for every country you travel to. As a US citizen, most of the visas I’ve applied for in my life have been because I have desired to stay in a specific country longer than the standard visa-waiver would allow. And while they’ve often been a headache to procure, Brazil was the biggest eye opener by far.

First, I had to travel in-person to Bangkok to apply, and by that point I’d already gone back and forth with the embassy multiple times with questions about the application questions and procedure and other logistical issues. The amount of information I had to procure was astounding and I felt like I had assembled approximately twenty-seven documents by the time I was finished. My appointment was stressful, with my interviewer grilling me on minute details of my trip, cross checking my application with Heather’s (who had gone in separately) and berated me for not photocopying my passport ahead of time to the point that I broke down after my appointment worried that my application was going to be denied.

And it was expensive! The whole shebang set me back about $230, not including the cost of a trip to Bangkok, where thankfully I was going to be anyway. I was definitely left with a newfound respect for my fellow travelers who have to cut through this much red tape and more for every trip.

Brazil Travel Blog

Have you been to Brazil? If so, what surprised you about your trip? If not, which of these would catch you off guard?

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!

My Kind of Paradise On Ilha Grande

I guess I have a thing for seedy islands.

A pirates lair, a leper colony, and a penitentiary for political prisoners — much like Koh Tao in Thailand and Isla de Coiba in Panama, Ilha Grande in Brazil has quite the illicit past. And much like those islands before it, this one also managed to steal my heart in just a few short days.

Ilha Grande BrazilPhoto by Heather Holt

Ilha Grande Brazil

Vila do Abraão Ilha Grande Brazil

Ilha Grande Brazil

Though the last island prison dissolved in the mid-90’s, gorgeous Ilha Grande’s sordid reputation kept developers at bay, much to the delight of travelers now lucky enough to stumble upon it. And it’s pretty convenient to stumble onto — several boat and van services offer door-to-door connections between Paraty and Rio, making Ilha Grande a natural stop on a hop along Brazil’s emerald coastline.

The first stop for visitors to the island is Vila Do Abraão, a once sleepy fishing village now bursting with pousadas, canga shops, acai stands and other tourist trappings that manage to maintain the tiny town’s ramshackle charm. Adding to the adorability factor is the lack of motorized vehicles. A garbage truck, a fire truck and a police vehicle make up the list of exceptions, and everyone else gets around on foot or by bicycle.

Ilha Grande Brazil

Vila do Abraão Ilha Grande Brazil

Vila do Abraão Ilha Grande Brazil

Vila do Abraão Ilha Grande Brazil

Vila do Abraão Ilha Grande Brazil

After our rainy five days in Paraty, we could not have been any more thrilled to be greeted by the sun in Ilha Grande. Yet we quickly learned that one thing we were seriously unprepared for pretty much all through Brazil, with the exception of our first lucky week? The weather.

We spent three glorious nights on Ilha Grande, and during the day the weather was beautiful and the temperatures in the high sixties to low eighties. But with strong island winds and temperatures dropping into the fifties at night, we were seriously unprepared for anything Brazil was throwing at us past sunset — which was around 5:30pm at that time of year.

Thank goodness I had bought a pair of jeans specifically for this trip! We fell into a pattern of enthusiastically planning a night out every day, then gradually putting on every layer we had in our bags as the temperature dropped until we were huddled in our beds wrapped in our comforters cursing ourselves for having acclimated so seamlessly to the tropical climates of our adopted homes. The last thing I expected to be on this Brazilian holiday was cold — though on the upside, I’ve lived happily through a Thai heat wave with no air conditioning, so there’s that!

Vila do Abraão Ilha Grande Brazil

Vila do Abraão Ilha Grande Brazil

Vila do Abraão Ilha Grande Brazil

Vila do Abraão Ilha Grande Brazil

Vila do Abraão Ilha Grande Brazil

Ilha Grande Brazil

Vila do Abraão Ilha Grande Brazil

Vila do Abraão Ilha Grande Brazil

We’d waffled on where to stay in Ilha Grande, entertaining lush pousadas, budget hostels and even a charming houseboat on Airbnb. In the end, we settled on the Che Legarto Paraty, a sister property to the hostel we’d tried in Paraty.

We’d been won over by the waterfront location, though I can’t say I’m itching to return. Our dorms were painfully pricey at $25 per night per person (private rooms are no longer offered), the included breakfast was pitiful, the location was a bit out of town and there wasn’t much in the way of hostel camaraderie during our stay. We were tickled by the local luggage service, however, which consisted of a bicep-flexer tossing our bags into a custom push cart and leading the way to our hostel for $4 each.

Che Legarto Ilha Grande

Vila do Abraão Ilha Grande Brazil

How to fill one’s days on such a charming island? Options are a-plenty. We’d originally enthusiastically planned to go diving though were warned off by the local dive shop due to the storm that had plagued us in Paraty and churned the visibility up to nothing.

Other tours for snorkeling, island hopping, and waterfall rappelling were appealing, however in the end we decided to give our budget a rest and entertain ourselves on the cheap. We spent the majority of our time on Ilha Grande tackling three of the island’s sixteen signposted hiking trails — leading to just a few of its hundred and two beaches! This was such a special experience that I have a whole post coming up dedicated to our hiking adventures. Stay tuned!

Ilha Grande Brazil

Hiking on Ilha Grande

And, needless to say, with a professional shutterbug as my co-pilot (she took both the beautiful photos above!), photography walks were a fun part of almost every day. I love how creatively challenged I can be by my travels with Heather, and comparing the different ways we see the world through our lenses.

Vila do Abraão Ilha Grande BrazilPhoto by Heather Holt

Vila do Abraão Ilha Grande BrazilPhoto by Heather Holt

Vila do Abraão Ilha Grande BrazilPhoto by Heather Holt

Also kind of needless to say when it comes to the two of us, eating and drinking were also a main form of entertainment.

While Ilha Grande doesn’t have close to the dining scene that Paraty boasted, we did find a few favorites. Fornilha Pizzaria was the perfect comfort food for our first chilly night, Kebab Lounge was a healthy dinner option, and Cafe do Mar was our pick for chic beachside eats in the sun — don’t forget to look for their special evening BBQ a few night a week, too! We both gave a thumbs up to the vegetarian-friendly self-serve buffet at Biergarten, and the flavored mojitos and fresh empenadas at Coruja were definitely the hippest thing happening in town. And let’s just say we made a thorough sampling of the local acai bowl offerings, and we weren’t let down once.

Ilha Grande Brazil

Vila do Abraão Ilha Grande Brazil

On our final morning, we decided to go wild and for over a few riels for fun. While rentals for bikes, surfboards and kayaks were tempting, we saved our mild splurge for a mutual favorite: stand up paddle boarding.

Stand Up Paddleboarding on Ilha Grande Brazil

Stand Up Paddleboarding on Ilha Grande Brazil

Stand Up Paddleboarding on Ilha Grande Brazil

For 40BR each (about $11), we had an hour to play in the bay. We were heading onward to Rio de Janiero that afternoon, and while it was a city I’d looked forward to visiting for much of my life, I couldn’t help but feel wistful about leaving. The three nights we’d originally budgeted due to rumors of horrific wifi (a serious concern for two online business owners) suddenly seemed far too short. We’d actually tried to extend our trip by another day, but found our transfer was non-refundable and couldn’t be budged.

We were both overwhelmed with happiness as we paddled around and looked back on the beautiful island we were saying goodbye to all too soon. How rare to find such a gem of nature, so unsullied by overdevelopment. Ilha Grande is truly a special place.

Stand Up Paddleboarding on Ilha Grande Brazil

Stand Up Paddleboarding on Ilha Grande Brazil

Stand Up Paddleboarding on Ilha Grande Brazil

Ilha Grande left a big impression on my heart. Here’s hoping I’ll be back someday!