Month: October 2016

Tchau, Tchau Brazil!

Tchau, Tchau Brazil!

On October 10th, we left Jundiai and our friends, the Simoes family, via Sao Paolo’s longstanding regional airport, Congonhas, for Campo Grande.  Campo Grande is the capital city of the Brazilian state of Matto Grosso do Sul and borders both Paraguay and Bolivia. We left bright and early and had a chatty driver who loved hearing about our adventures and kept us entertained pointing out sites along the route to the airport. Unfortunately, the last site he pointed out to us before we arrived at the airport was the site of a tragic passenger plane crash that killed 199 people in 2007. On the ‘bright side,’ he was telling us the whole story in Portuguese and the kids were still sleepy, so only Jim and I heard the story.

After an uneventful flight ;), we landed in Campo Grande and started our ‘few hours’ drive to the town of Bonito, an ecotourism hub and home to rivers and natural pools that are the clearest in all of Brazil. Every time we’ve asked drivers or guides for estimates of our drives or routes, we’ve noticed that the ranges are either very large, or very vague, and this time was no exception: when we asked how long the drive would be, we were told between 1 1/2 and 3 hours (but when we asked if it’d be about 2 hours, we were told no…)

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En route to Bonito we stopped for lunch and realized that the climate was quickly changing with the geography! It was easily 95 degrees with no breeze mid-morning, and though we were hot and wilting, we welcomed the change from the rainy weather of Ilha Grande and Paraty.

Bonito is called an “aquatic playground” and all of the activities center around being in, around, or on water, to the delight of the kids.  Sites to see include clear rivers, an abundance of waterfalls, beautiful cave formations with amazingly blue waters, and tons of wildlife.

While we were in Bonito, our first activity was a snorkel float down the Sucuri River. Putting on even midi wet suits in such hot weather was a drag, but as soon as we walked a short distance to the river to practice in the water (around 66 degrees) with our equipment, we were happy again. Since we’d also practiced with our snorkels in Fairfax, we had lots of fun and got to see dorado and black pacu among many other species of fish (with names that none of us can now remember…)

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In stark contrast to many waterways in Rio, the rivers and lakes surrounding Bonito are gorgeously clear and noticeably free of any trash. Many in Brazil consider Bonito a ‘model’ for how ecotourism should work-the mutually reinforcing forces of tourist revenue and environmental preservation: protect the environment so people will come, and if people come, there will be revenue to build up the local economy and to preserve the environment.

(Sean making bird calls (ha,ha) and demonstrating his inner jaguar. More than ever on this trip, we have realized that if Sean’s blood sugar gets too low, he does actually have an inner jaguar and it does NOT appreciate being hungry.)

Another adventure we had in Bonito was river rafting.  We inquired multiple times (and were reassured multiple times) that this trip was completely suitable for families, and we felt reassured when we showed up to see many other children suiting up for the trip. Nonetheless, a few minutes into our introduction and ‘safety training’ we were made aware that our ‘float’ actually had 4 waterfalls (not rapids, waterfalls!) After some additional Q&A, we decided to still go on the trip and were rewarded with a mostly tranquil float on the Rio Formoso, punctuated by 4 exciting (but small) waterfall drops.  In addition to seeing toucans, macaws, and monkeys, we also had our first anaconda sighting.

(This pic is our picture of their picture- there is one guy in a kayak who follows all the rafters the entire trip to take pictures like these to sell at the end of the trip. Yes, it looks scary, but the bottom of the “waterfall” is just below the frame of the photo).

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The next day we were off to the Rio de Peixe (river of fish) for an easy hike with waterfalls and natural pools formed by the river to swim in along the way. Highlights included two ziplines, a ‘cliff’ jump, suspension bridges and  ‘trampolines’ (aka diving boards) into the pools along the trail.

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This tour had a stop for a (huge) traditional Brazilian lunch, complete with time for a rest in a hammock afterward. While resting, members of the family that own the fazenda provided all the visitors with unpeeled banana pieces and the neighborhood Capuchin monkeys dropped in for snacks.

(Look closely and you’ll see in the last pic that the monkeys enjoy soda as well. Cute, but probably not great from the perspective of preserving wildlife in their natural environments…and no, it wasn’t ours)

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While in Bonito we were doing at least two tours per day, and so we skipped homeschool in favor of learning from the sights and sounds of the natural world around us. We had a great time in Bonito and it is definitely a place one could spend more than our 2 1/2 days. Our only disappointment was probably with the town itself, specifically the restaurants; it’s a straight up tourist town with the local economy completely revolving around tourism. Despite consulting our trusty Lonely Planet Brazil, the two restaurants we chose for dinner were pretty disappointing, with the local staff less welcoming than what we’d experienced elsewhere (and surprising for a tourist town). Even though we were in town during a Brazilian holiday and we were surrounded by other (Brazilian) tourists too, people we met in town were not very friendly despite our best efforts to communicate in Portuguese and to go with the flow. Nonetheless, it was a super fun family experience, and everyone left happy and exhausted from all our adventures in/on the local rivers.

After Bonito, we met up with a guide, Lajania, who would accompany us to the Pantanal. The Pantanal is a natural region that encompasses the world’s largest tropical wetland area. Roughly 80% of the Pantanal flood plains are submerged during the rainy seasons, which creates an environment that supports an amazingly diverse collection of plant and animal species. In the rainy season, the water levels in the Pantanal rise between 7-15ft (2-5 meters). An estimated 99% of the Pantanal is privately owned for ranching and agriculture, and there are arrangements between the private ranches and the tourism industry that balance the economic cycles of farming and raising cattle in a seasonal flood plain.

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Lajania traveled with us as our guide for 5 days and she was great! We all loved her, and it was so nice to have a third adult (we didn’t realize we’d been missing one, but wow, what a difference!) along for our various adventures and outings. Colin in particular really connected with her and on a few occasions, he would sit and talk to her for up to an hour while the rest of us were nearby doing other things. At the end of our 5 days with her, the kids asked if she could come with us on the rest of our trip, and Colin requested to give her a few extra hugs goodbye…she was amazing to work with and had such a great rapport with all us. We hope she’ll come visit us in CA someday (she’s lived in Alexandria, VA before) and also that we meet others as kind and fun as her again in our travels.

Our first stop in the Pantanal, was, of all places, the Fazenda San Francisco (San Francisco Farm). A few hours after arriving, we joined our first nighttime safari, and were fortunate enough to see barn owls, capybara, caiman, and ocelots!

(Clear glasses for all the bugs…and Colin being a joker!)

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We continued to join the nighttime safaris and by the end of our stay, we were fortunate to see many of the rarer of the Pantanal animal species, including the hyacinth macaw, the maned wolf, the marsh deer, and the giant anteater. We also saw more common capybaras, jacare caiman (a crocodile relative), the yellow anaconda (our second viewing), howler monkeys, bunnies, and toucans.

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Ever since we first told the kids of our plans to take this trip, Cecelia has been looking forward to going horseback-riding in the Pantanal (some might even say this activity was used as a bribery/bargaining chip while trying to convince her the trip would be fun). Well, true to our word, and much to her delight, we did get to go- and it only took her 5 minutes on the horse to turn and ask us “when we get home to Berkeley, can I please get a pony?”

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Our other activities at Fazenda San Francisco included a fishing excursion on which all the kids caught piranha (I caught a tuna somehow!) on bamboo poles using raw meat for bait, and then we got to watch the guides feed piranha to a caiman alongside our boat. During this trip, we witnessed the hardest rainstorm we’ve ever seen, including thunder, lightning, and torrents of rain (the boat had a cover!) which was promptly followed by clear skies and a double rainbow.

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Our fishing and horseback riding excursions happened to fall on my birthday and led up to our second to last night at Fazenda San Francisco. Despite agreements otherwise, my dear family surprised me with a wood-carved back scratcher and a birthday cake (made by the fazenda cooks on my behalf!) at the end of dinner in a crowded communal dining hall. After our family sang to me in English, the rest of the guests chimed in with the Portuguese version to help me ring in my 42nd year. It was a great day and already felt pretty perfect. The small, sweet celebration (albeit rule-breaking) was literally icing on the cake.

One of our final excursions for this part of the trip was a kayak ride in the same river with the hungry jacare caiman. I was less than thrilled to be getting even closer to them, but we enjoyed our paddle up and down the river, and saw many species of birds, and more caiman as well.

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Departing from Fazenda San Francisco, we headed to another ranch called Pousada Aguape closer to the town of Aquidauana which was a 2.5 hour drive, including 50km(!) on a very bumpy dirt road. In Aguape, we joined one nighttime safari and did one boat tour down the Aquidauana River during which we saw no fewer than 16 toucans (they always travel in pairs!), howler monkeys, and multiple types of macaws.

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Jim, Lajania, and Cecelia also had the opportunity for a short tour of the surrounding region by air. While flights in small planes are never high on my list of things I want my loved ones to do (nor that I want to do personally), the pilot has done the flight 1,000s of times and everyone enjoyed the flight and returned safe and sound. To help put me at ease, there was even a guy on the ground who drove his dirt-bike the length of the runway prior to takeoff to make sure all of the cattle were out of the way-standard operating procedure, of course.

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After our swimming, hiking, wildlife viewing adventures of Bonito and the Pantanal, it was time to say goodbye to Brazil. We departed Campo Grande and connected through Sao Paolo International Airport where a longstanding family wager was finally settled- would Sean lose his first tooth (loose for months now) in Brazil or Argentina? He lost it on a bagel and cream cheese at the airport in Sao Paolo, and the tooth fairy recognized the significance of the international loss with the bulk of his payment in Argentine pesos + 1 symbolic Brazilian Real.

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We arrived to Buenos Aires late Monday night, October 17th ready for a month in the city of Messi, Boca Juniors, and lots of sweet treats. (We have not been disappointed thus far on the last point especially- as far as we can tell, the minimum number of bakeries per block is 2.)

More to come soon from Buenos Aires!

Hasta Pronto

On the move

(disclaimer to readers: this is a LONG one, but has lots of great pics and now featuring video! We hope you enjoy!)

We left Rio on 10/1 to travel around in areas south and west of the state of Rio de Janeiro before we ‘settle in’ again in Buenos Aires starting October 17th.

Right before we left Rio, we snuck in some final tourist sites, including the famous Corcovado (meaning “hunchback”) Mountain with the famous Christ the Redeemer statue (with outstretched, encompassing arms).  If you watched any of NBC’s Olympic coverage this summer, you most likely saw the statue and view from the Corcovado about 5,492 times, but here are a few more shots from our visit just in case you missed it:

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View from the Corcovado:

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Sean’s most-prized companion Puppy wanted to join us for this particular excursion…

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And he didn’t want the rest of them to feel left out, so they came along for the trip too.

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Colin’s new buddy, “Sook” (acquired in the Houston Airport once we realized that his true best friend “Beary” didn’t make it into the shuttle from Berkeley to SFO!) also joined us:

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We also fit in a driving tour of some points of interest in and around Rio, including a tour of the flavela Vila Pereira da Silva, which is a small community above Rio’s South Zone Laranjeiras neighborhood that is home to the now-famous Morrinho Project. The Morrinho model, which was started by local youth in 1997, is a model of the city constructed from bricks and other recycled materials. From the project’s own website: “It began as a simple childhood game to escape from the realities of violence and corruption that surrounded the teens and their community. Morrinho has increasingly garnered attention for its aesthetics and ingenuity of its young creators, growing from a local phenomenon to an international exhibit. It has been able to use that attention to evolve, not only as a work of art, but also, into an organization with aspirations for social change.”

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The project has been featured in art exhibits all over the world, including the Venice Art Bienalle.

Our photo-bombing skills continue to evolve as well…

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Our first stop after leaving Rio was in Ilha Grande (‘big island’) which is a few hours’ drive south + a short boat ride from Rio. In fact, we felt right at home because we took “The 101” south to get there. (For our New Jersey readers, this is the same as saying route 101 :))

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Known for beautiful and clean beaches, lush forests, many beautiful birds and tons of marine life, Ilha Grande is a popular vacation spot for many Brazilian vacationers, in addition to tourists from abroad like us. With no cars on the island, and development limited to preserve the area, the population of the island tops out at 12,000 residents.

While Mother Nature didn’t exactly favor us with the weather while we were there (3 days of mostly rain), we made the most of our visit including exploring parts of the island coast by boat, hiking between gorgeous beaches, and snorkeling in both the Lagoa Azul (the Blue Lagoon, which in this case was actually green) and the Lagoa Verde (Green Lagoon, which was also a green lagoon ;)). We saw huge sea urchin that looked like they were glowing with lavender light, schools of different small fish, huge orange star fish, and reefs covered with anenomes.

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Cecelia and Sean didn’t hesitate to work on their boogie-boarding skills, and we got in many hands of our current repertoire of card games: crazy 8’s, hearts (we’re learning!), and of course “I doubt it,” known to some as “baloney” and maybe even to others (not saying who) as “BS” (we play the ‘baloney’ version). Next on the list are Spades and Bridge.  Wish us luck 🙂

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Highlights of Ilha Grande in ranked order were definitely 1) the gorgeous nature of the barely developed island, and 2) a little spot on the beach about 200M from our Pousada called Cafe do Mondo. The food was honestly nothing of note, but the playlist on the bartender’s laptop was somehow ideal for playing cards in the pouring rain at the beach, and we had a lot of fun drinking chocolate quente (hot chocolate), along with a caipirinha or two (of course) beating each other at cards, and watching the waves rock all the tiny boats in the bay.

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The lowlight of Ilha Grande was probably when the water got a little rough when we were returning to the island from our day of snorkeling and our boat captain said to us “I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen conditions like this,” referring to the combination of winds from the south with rain.  Then he added “it’s definitely been more than 5 years…I can’t remember seeing this weather, so strange.” The water was only a bit rough, but really, I would have preferred to hear about the unique nature of the weather and water conditions once we were safely back on shore.  For any Seinfeld fans out there, it called to mind George’s encounter with the whale he saved when he was a marine biologist: “the sea was angry that day my friends” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0u8KUgUqprw

From Ilha Grande, we continued south to Paraty. Paraty (also spelled Parati, and pronounced “para-chee”) is a coastal historic town that has the southernmost beach in the state of Rio de Janeiro.  We learned (and maybe Jim already knew) that it was first settled by the Portuguese in 1667. It is a beautiful town of old churches and cobblestone streets with no cars allowed in the historic downtown, and it is surrounded by forests, waterfalls, islands and emerald-green sea.

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In Paraty, the adventures continued, and we took two different day trip tours with two different guides to explore the amazing natural areas surrounding the town. The first day, we did a jeep tour to visit waterfalls and to swim, including one that had a natural waterslide of solid rock that Jim, Cecelia and I all braved the frigid water to try.

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On Day 2 in Paraty, we boated over to a natural pool created by huge rocks at the end of remote Praia Do Meio (Trindade Beach) and swam with fishes and crabs [this linked map shows our starting point in Rio, Ihla Grande south off the coast, and Paraty, including Trinidade Beach].

We also saw the historic Capela Nossa Senhora da Conceicao (Chapel of Our Lady of the Conception) which was the first church in the Paraty region, built around 1686.

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It didn’t take long to realize that we’d only be scratching the surface of Paraty in the three days we were there, and Jim already has a mental to-do list for the next time he returns. Bottom line is that Vaya Adventure clients will probably have some great new options in Brazil as a result of our fun (and Jim’s hard work) while we were in town.

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Most of the hotels and pousadas have some type of entertainment for the kids, and as a result, Sean’s pool skills have developed considerably in the past 6 weeks! Just watch out if he challenges you to a game once we return next Summer.

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Our final morning in Paraty, the sun came out and stayed out, which was perfect for Jim and Cecelia and their planned sea kayaking adventure.

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After Paraty, we were graciously hosted in Jundiai [pronounced june-jai-ee] (a city of 400,00 outside of Sao Paolo) by one of Jim’s business partners, Douglas Simoes, and his family, wife Luciana, and kids Anita (7), and Miguel (6).

Jim and Douglas have been working together for close to 2 years, but we were still a bit disbelieving to receive an invitation to host our entire family of 5 for three days and nights in their home. Anyone who has shared a meal, an afternoon, an overnight, or maybe even just a car ride with our entire family knows that it has it’s moments. Not to mention, by the time we arrived, we had been wet and dirty for 6 straight days of rain and adventure  in Ilha Grande and Paraty. Grandma and Marmo will both cringe to hear that we not only showed up as not the best-smelling houseguests you could hope to have, but with 4 loads of dirty laundry to boot.

Douglas and his family planned an entire weekend’s worth of activities for us- they wore us out, and we had a great time! We kicked off at a birthday party of one of Anita’s friends on Friday night and then woke up Saturday morning for a guided nature walk with 4 other families (17 people in total!) and enjoyed a traditional Brazilian BBQ lunch that they prepared at home. Lunch is typically the biggest meal in Brazil, and this was no exception, with us eating tons of yummy grilled food hot off the grill, until we were (very) full! On Sunday, we joined in a neighborhood activity, led by Luciana, to replant seedlings in the community garden, and to plant trees in the community park. Sunday afternoon we were treated to a live performance of a popular kids’ band from Sao Paolo, Grupo Triii at a 100 year old theater (recently refurbished) in downtown Jundiai.

Their community also just happened to have a soccer field which was heaven for (especially) the boys- all you have to do is show up with a ball, and soon enough, you have enough kids for a great game (and the moves on some of these (young) kids, wow!)

We topped off the weekend with a sushi dinner(rodizio-style) with a big group of friends and they surprised Jim (and me) with a cake and singing for Jim’s birthday.

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It was an amazing three days and we were overwhelmed by the generosity and hospitality of Douglas and his family (and friends!) It was so great for the kids to hang out with other kids, language barriers notwithstanding, and they had so much fun with Anita, Miguel and their neighbors and friends. The kids don’t always know exactly how to tell us (at least with words, that is) but we know they need their own space too, and this was a great opportunity for them to get some.

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It can be hard as a tourist or traveler to feel like you’re an observer day after day, and that you’re watching how others live without really experiencing how it is to live in that way or that place. It was so wonderful to be in our hosts’ home and to see a small slice of what daily life looks like. And one thing that Luciana and I agreed on almost right away is that despite all the differences, there will always be so many things that are the same for families, and really, for people, everywhere. Listening to Luciana talk to her sweet daughter Anita (with whom Cecelia made fast friends) was great Portuguese practice for me, and more than once, I smiled or laughed out loud because I recognized the exact same conversations happening between them in the car, at bedtime, or at mealtime, that I have with my own kids all the time.

After Jundiai, we were off again for more adventures to Bonito and the Pantanal. Stories of our adventures in both places will be featured in our next post as we get caught up after a few super busy (and offline) weeks.

Hasta pronto (see you soon, in Spanish) from our new base in Buenos Aires, Argentina.