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Morro de São Paolo – How to spend your last week in South America…when you need to top up the tans

Beers with the waves lapping at your feet on 1st Beach - Morro de São Paolo

Beers with the waves lapping at your feet on 1st Beach – Morro de São Paolo

Brazil is famous for many things; football, samba and beaches are often what spring to mind for most people. Everyone can name Copacabana and Ipanema but these are certainly not all that Brazil’s massive coastline has to offer. Just a couple of hours from Salvador de Bahia, and given barely a footnote in the Lonely Planet guide, are a few small islands, the largest of which is known as Morro de São Paolo (nothing to do with and nowhere near the metropolis which shares its name). Most information we could find on it was on other blogs and these almost entirely written by Brazilians, so we decided this would be a good opportunity to sample some authentic Brazilian beach life. We were not disappointed.

Great old buildings at the port at the bottom of the Lacerda

Great old buildings at the port at the bottom of the Lacerda

Looking back on Salvador.

Looking back on Salvador.

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There are a couple of ways to get to the island – a cheaper but more convoluted journey by ferry, bus and small boat, or when the weather is fine and by paying out a little more (75 reais each) you can catch a catamaran directly from the port at the bottom of the Lacerda lift in the old town of Salvador. We decided to treat ourselves to this option. Having had dubious previous experiences with catamarans Rich armed himself with seasickness pills and we set off to catch the 9.30am boat. The weather was on our side and the sea was calm so while Rich succumbed to medicinal drowsiness I sat on the back of the boat and watched Salvador retreat into the distance under blue skies. Two hours later we slowly rolled up towards the island. Ancient city walls greet you just behind the port, along with a picturesque old lighthouse. Lining the jetty were rows of wheelbarrows with the word ‘TAXI’ emblazoned on the sides – this is due to the fact that the island is entirely traffic free; the wheelbarrows are run by locals offering to lug your baggage up the steep hill on arrival and around the roads and beaches to your accommodation. Given that our hostel was a mere 5 minute walk we decided to go under our own steam but fellow Brazilian holidaymakers did look at us as though we were mad! The wheelbarrow taxi ‘drivers’ all wear vests emblazoned with their names – ‘Wanderson’ being my particular favourite moniker! The few actual streets in Morro have only recently been paved – by all accounts it used to be just sandy tracks until a year or two ago and a few have complained it’s ‘not what it was’ but we can confirm that the island certainly does retain a very relaxed feel and the lack of cars is bliss!

Taxi!

Taxi!

Turning right off the main square we passed under a stone arch that read “Rua da Fonte Grande 1746” down to an old fountain (from around the same year) which formed the island’s water supply in years past and still flows today while doubling up as a precarious playground and climbing frame for the island’s children at dusk. Just past the fountain was our hostel; another HI-affiliated place (but much, much better than the one in Salvador) called Hostal Escorregue no Reggae. The name means ‘slide into the reggae’ in Portuguese; the colour scheme and laid-back owner back up the general theme! Recommended.

Rua da Fonte Grande 1746

Rua da Fonte Grande 1746

Fonte Grande - Morro de São Paolo

Fonte Grande – Morro de São Paolo

We wasted no time in checking out the island’s beaches which are handily numbered rather than named: Primeira Praia is the first one you reach from the port, followed by Segunda Praia, Terceira, Quarta… you get the picture. As we walked onto Primeira Praia we were greeted by an Argentinian lady selling homemade empanadas which sorted out the issue of lunch pretty well and was just the first of many great beach snacks on offer. The next nice surprise was a series of makeshift bars with plastic chairs and tables selling cold beers while the sea washes over your feet. The French have the expression “pieds dans l’eau” that is used for anywhere on the seafront but this was a whole other level and probably one of the finest spots for a beer that we found; you just have to occasionally reposition your chair if a particularly large wave comes and destabilizes your drinking spot! The final surprise on this beach plummeted into view out of the corner of our eyes – a zipline that runs down from the hill on the island and deposits the user straight into the sea. It would have been easy to sit there all afternoon until the tide (or the beers) knocked us off our chairs completely but we carried on along to the other beaches; Segunda Praia is where the most action is in terms of bars/restaurants/watersports etc, and after that the beaches get quieter and a little more rugged. There’s something for every kind of beach goer really.

The next few days slid by, mainly based at Segunda Praia by day and the pizza-by-the-slice joint next to the old fountain by night. Restaurants on the island are a little pricey so we saved a few of our pennies by dining on pizza (5 nights out of 7 to be exact – don’t judge us!)

There are few great stories to tell about day after day of sunbathing but one thing worth mentioning is some of the great snacks available on the beach in Brazil. Mr Whippy and sandy sandwiches have nothing on this country’s offerings:

Fresh coconuts – drinking the water then scooping out the soft interior afterwards. Bliss.

Açai – or “assa…EEEEEEEEE” as pronounced by the lads selling it on the beach: a sorbet of dark purple açai berries topped with chopped pineapple, banana and granola (or pretty much anything you want really).

Grilled cheese – Oh yes. Sticks of halloumi-style cheese cooked right in front of you on little portable barbecues. This should be sold everywhere in the world, all the time.

Acarajé – also found in Salvador and cities but great as a sunset snack – a fried back-eyed bean fritter filled with vatapá, a kind of shrimp paste, chillies…and some other great stuff which I don’t know how to make but do know how to eat.

The other observations on Brazilian beach life are as follows:

You can wear as little as you like, but you have to wear something: In mainland Europe topless sunbathing is commonplace but in Brazil it’s not the done thing. However, wearing the smallest bikini or shorts possible is positively encouraged, whatever your age or size. It’s a refreshing attitude to be honest but you do occasionally get quite an eyeful…

Don’t even bother playing beach sports unless you’re extremely good at it: From beach football to bat and ball or ‘keepy-uppy’ volleyball – if you’re going to give it a go you have to know what you’re doing. The competitiveness and level of skill on show on a family day on the beach or a group of friends having a kickabout is extraordinary and not exactly inviting to join in, but great to watch!

These guys mean business.  No 7-1 results here!

These guys mean business. No 7-1 results here!

I suppose the general conclusion is…Brazilians know how to do beach life. Morro is a fantastic and authentic spot to experience it without big crowds and away from the tourist hordes (although we were slightly out of season; it could be quite a bit busier at peak time, but a visit in May is highly recommended!).

Sadly though, it was time to head back to Salvador for our final night in the Americas before our flight back to Europe. I won’t go into too much detail about our journey back to Salvador ‘the long way round’ (due to the catamaran being cancelled), suffice to say just don’t do it if you have any choice in the matter. Fork out the extra 20 reais for the catamaran if you can.

Central Square in the Pelourinho - Salvador

Central Square in the Pelourinho – Salvador

The excellent pully delivery system at restaurant  Dona Chika-ka

The excellent pully delivery system at restaurant Dona Chika-ka

By the time we arrived back in Salvador the World Cup was even closer and so the old town had been decked out in colourful flags making it an even more magical sight. The whole atmosphere of the place seemed to have revved up into celebratory mode and I found myself enjoying it more that our first visit which was a nice surprise. We had a final fantastic Bahian dinner and caipirinhas at Dona Chika-ka restaurant in the Pelorinho (the best moqueca of our time in Brazil) to the sounds of a street party down the road. It felt like a great send-off, even if it had hardly sunk in that we were leaving the continent and this leg of our adventures…

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Drum roll… it’s Salvador da Bahia!

After our whistlestop tour of Bogota it was time for our tenth and final country in the Americas…. Brazil! We’d initially had grand plans to sail down the Amazon and travel down the Atlantic coastline before realizing that: A) After two months of slacking in Colombia time was running out, and B) Brazil is big. Seriously big. So as our flight back to Europe was out of Salvador da Bahia we decided to focus the 11 nights remaining on seeing the city and finding a fairly local beach to sample some of Brazil’s (justifiably) renowned beach life.

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Colourful streets of the Pelourinho

We eventually landed in Salvador on a Tuesday morning after a lousy overnight flight from Bogota with a stressful connection in São Paolo. The first main challenge was trying to adjust my sleep-deprived brain from the Spanish to which it had become accustomed, and was reasonably competent in, to Brazilian Portuguese. This did not go as well as I had hoped – after enquiring as to the price of a taxi into the old town, and hearing a very reasonable “18 reais”, we arrived at our destination and found out that it was actually “118 reais” A minor linguistic difference but a fairly hefty one on the wallet. I was so tired I almost cried but decided to write it off as a sharp lesson in not being afraid to ask someone to repeat something! Speaking of the language, despite studying a little Portuguese (although not the Brazilian variety) 8 years before and being able to decipher most things in writing, understanding conversation is another matter. Rich’s assertion that it “sounds like Dothraki” wasn’t too far from the truth to our untrained ears. In fairness it has more beauty than that comment would imply but it’s certainly worth learning some before you go – English is rarely spoken and Spanish in a Dutch accent doesn’t really cut the mustard…

Largo de Terreiro de Jesus

Largo de Terreiro de Jesus

Driving into the city we sped past the recently renovated Arena de Fonte Nova, all shiny and ready for the World Cup (which is well underway as I post this blog but was a couple of weeks away while we were there). The city has a number of other ongoing construction projects (in varying states of readiness!) but we did get the impression that a lot of money has been put in by the government which, ready in time or not, should benefit Brazilians and ongoing tourism in general.

Arriving in the old colonial district of Salvador, known as the Pelorinho, is certainly an assault on the senses. Visually it’s stunning. Colourful and utterly beautiful. But the main assault is on the ears. Our hostel (Laranjeiras) was conveniently located between two carnival drumming schools, one of which is the famous Olodum, who performed in a Michael Jackson video and at the World Cup opening ceremony. They know how to make some noise. Deciding that a peaceful evening in was out of the question we wandered around the cobbled streets then settled in for the first of just a few caipirinhas in our time in Brazil. Those drinks wallop you fairly quickly so I ordered some much-needed hearty dinner of moqueca de camarão (a stew made with prawns, coconut milk, dendê oil and spices, served with rice and black-eyed beans). Our Brazilian education continued that evening, lesson two being: two caipirinhas is enough. A third is a silly idea.

Before I talk about sightseeing, it’s worth mentioning what we’d heard about safety in Brazil before arriving there. When people say a place is ‘dangerous’ I always take this with a large pinch of salt, as it has a lot to do with how you behave (i.e. wearing/carrying things that draw attention to you) and dumb luck. We’ve been to many supposedly dangerous places without incident and lived in London which isn’t exactly a protected bubble. That said, we’d heard several first-hand reports of muggings in Brazil as we traveled and what made us somehow more nervous was Brazilians themselves telling us to be careful on the streets of their own city. Hostel owners, the tourist police and restaurant owners would tell us not to go out at night or use a camera. It made us feel a little uneasy as the atmosphere, especially at night, did feel sketchy at times. However, we had no problem while there at all so this feeling may not have been justified. It seems perhaps that locals are aware of the reputation but want things to improve to bring more tourists in so encourage visitors to ‘not get mugged’. I’m not sure it has the desired effect, as it puts people a little on edge, but the intention is good I think.

So, back to sightseeing. The old city is split into two areas: the Cidade Alta and Cidade Baixa (‘Upper’ and ‘Lower’ cities). The two are connected by staircases and a bizarre-looking huge lift (Elevador Lacerda) that whizzes people from top to bottom for just a few cents. The Cidade Alta is probably the finest preserved collection of colonial buildings we’ve encountered and despite having seen a fair few colonial towns over the past months, I was still stunned by the hilly streets and plazas here. You get a fairly standard amount of tourist hassle here (such as paying for photos with the fabulously dressed Bahian ladies and Capoeiristas in the square) but it’s mostly pretty good natured. Still after a couple of nights in the centre we decided to migrate to the more peaceful beachside district of Barra to see a different side of the city. Unfortunately the hostel we had in mind was full so were left with little choice but the HI hostel Albergue do Porto (Don’t do it. FYI, Hostelling International, a decent breakfast doesn’t make up for paying through the nose for a room that smells of piss.) Keen to spend the evening out, we strolled along the seafront past the old lighthouse and feasted on a dinner of garlic and chilli prawns before a couple of sundowners watching the joggers, strollers and dog-walkers of Salvador. Barra is a much more relaxing spot than the centre (major construction work aside!) and it made a nice contrast to see these two sides of the city.

But city life takes its toll, so the only thing to do next was head to the beach….

 


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From city to jungle – Salsa in Cali and tubing in San Cipriano

After the beautiful scenery and greenery of San Agustin it was time to get back on the road and to the next city, this time Cali, the largest city in the south and famous for one main thing – salsa. Cali is a hot, busy place that features little in the way of pretty tourist attractions, but its main draw is the music that pours out of every window and shop door and the dancing that gets going after dark.

Houses of San Antonio

Houses of San Antonio, Cali

Our journey there involved backtracking to Popayán on the bus before carrying on to Cali, a journey that took around 8 hours in total. After arriving at the bus terminal we piled into 2 tiny cabs (for some inexplicable reason most cabs in Colombia are ridiculously small Kias that barely have space for one bag in the boot) and set off through the rush hour traffic to the barrio of San Antonio. Our cab driver could generously be called a ‘character’ and at worst a lunatic, but a friendly one at least; he barely watched the road as he was so busy laughing at his own jokes and managed to get lost even though we gave him a card with the hostel address printed on. But after driving round in circles a few times we arrived at El Viajero hostel. The private rooms were twice the price we were used to paying so we settled for a dorm bed for the night and speedy access to some cold beers to take the edge off the journey.

Cali street

Cali street

The next day dawned seriously hot and somewhat sleep deprived after a lousy night in the noisy dorm. Deciding that we couldn’t hack it for another day we set out to find a more peaceful spot to rest our heads and found it at the French-Colombian run Café Tostaky which also seemed to have the best coffee in town. Paul and Catrin stayed put, lured by the pool at El Viajero to cool off from Cali’s fierce sun. The next order of business was of course salsa. It had been 8 years since I last tried my hand at it in Cuba but was itching to give it another go. To say Rich was reluctant was an understatement but in the spirit of marital compromise he agreed to try it. Once. Without giving him a chance to object further I arranged a private lesson for us both the following morning with a local lady, promising him that at no point would he have to dance with a man, which seemed to appease him slightly.

 

Once the evening settled and the air cooled down a little we met back up with Paul and Catrin and went in search of a watering hole in the Granada area of the city. It being a Wednesday night the famed nightlife seemed very low key, but we eventually found our way to a bar called Bourbon Street that was recommended to us by a local. Walking in was a strange experience as it was like stepping into an American bar complete with live band singing in English, sports on the TVs, American food and drinks and prices to match. We did get some proper beer though, made by the BBC (Bogota Brewing Company) which was a change from the usual weak, cold lager. We whiled away a few hours chatting away and doing some people watching including spotting some of the renowned surgically-enhanced Colombian ladies: they certainly are, er, eye-catching.

The next morning at 11am our salsa teacher, Constanza, arrived and we went to her apartment for the class (we opted to do it there rather than in the hostel in view of the other guests!) Connie was lovely and chatted away to us, and definitely made us feel more at ease about our lack of dancing skills. Rich was initially horrified when she put some music on at the start and just asked us to dance (“just move, however you feel, to the music”) but we quickly began with the basic step and she managed to teach us one fairly complicated turn which we pulled off even if our feet were doing more of a shuffle than salsa! The hour sped by and we had worked up quite a sweat by the end – Connie enlisted her teenage daughter to help out, who also surreptitiously took some photos (which make us look better that we were) and a video (which told a more accurate story – and no, sorry, we don’t have a copy to put up on here!) It was a lot of fun (for me – Rich declared that it “wasn’t quite as horrendous as I expected” which I took as a positive vote) and we at least felt ready to head to a salsa club with one move up our sleeves. That evening, with a sizeable quantity of rum ingested for Dutch courage the four of us caught a cab to TinTinDeo, one of Cali’s best known and loved salsa clubs. The $5 entry fee can be claimed back at the bar and at 11pm we were pleased to find it busy with a decent mix of locals doing their thing and gringos giving it a good go. The atmosphere was really friendly and we tried a couple of dances but mainly watched, impressed. The highlight was quite possibly a spontaneous salsa line dance that we ended up getting caught up in (again, sorry, no video evidence!). We left feeling like we’d definitely given it a good go!

I would have happily stuck around in Cali longer to dance more and spend time in San Antonio which is a pretty, if slightly sleepy area, but the city as a whole is fairly hectic and we were ready to head out into the countryside once more. We had read a short section in the guidebook about a tiny town in the jungle famous for tubing and the fact that it can only be reached by a homemade motorbike railway system. This sounded too interesting to miss so the next morning we set off.

A Brujita and its driver - San Cipriano

A Brujita and its driver – San Cipriano

San Cipriano is just off the coast road that heads towards Buenaventura, Colombia’s main port city. The bus journey there, like most these days, was stunning. The roads winds up out of Cali into the hills, then the scenery slowly turns greener and the air more humid. The bus drops you by the side of the road near a town called Córdoba, where it’s a short walk down to what seem to be disused railway tracks. We were met off the bus by a rather keen tout by the name of Jefferson – if you go that way try to avoid him as he is in the habit not only of overcharging you but also stealing business off his fellow drivers in quite underhand ways and being quite unpleasant in the process. If you come across him I recommend just saying you want to go with someone else. That aside – although we expected it to be a somewhat tinpot setup we weren’t quite prepared for how it actually works. The system is a small homemade wooden trolley with metal wheels that just rest on the tracks and a bench balanced on top to sit on. On the right-hand side of the trolley the front wheel of a motorbike is screwed on, while the back wheel lines up with the tracks. The whole thing is then lifted on to the railway lines, you all climb on and the bike starts up; slowly at first but speeding up rapidly, and on the straight sections hitting speeds that are frankly terrifying given that you are basically sat on a glorified tea tray. What’s more a few minutes in it started to rain; big heavy jungle rain that soaks you in seconds. Our driver slowed slightly and a couple of times manually hauled the motorbike wheel back on to the rail (“It sometimes just slips off in the wet” he helpfully, and rather alarmingly, explained). The single track is all you can see as you go for 20 minutes into the jungle. If another trolley comes the other way there is a brief standoff while they decide which has less baggage (that group have to get off, haul the whole setup off the track and put it on again further down). The whole journey was probably the most bizarre and most fun of our travels so far.

Eventually San Cipriano came in to view; a colourful collection of mostly wooden houses on one main street along the river. It is completely different to everywhere so far in Colombia, reminding me more of Roatan and the Caribbean than South America. Like much of the Pacific Coast the people are black rather than Hispanic and although the town is isolated it has a decent sized community; the streets were full of children playing, people chatting and wandering between each others’ houses – it seems a very sociable and friendly place. After paying our COP2000 entry fee we sought out a hotel that was recommended for having decent food (Hotel David) and got ourselves a couple of very basic but cheap rooms (COP12500 per person) from the rather no-nonsense lady who runs it. The rain continued to pour down so we settled for an evening of cards, beers and dinner (she may be stern but the lady can cook).

The main road - San Cipriano

The main road – San Cipriano

Most houses are restaurants or shops - San Cipriano

Most houses are restaurants or shops – San Cipriano

Football field - San Cipriano

Football field – San Cipriano

The next morning the sun was out so we armed ourselves with tubes and walked up through the well-marked path upriver into the jungle. An ill-advised detour down a ‘nature trail’ was short-lived after accidentally standing in a trail of ants in flip-flops and coming off worse than they did. After that we stuck to the main path. After 15-20 minutes walking the route has well-signposted smaller paths down to the river where there are stony ‘beaches’ where groups of Colombians visiting for the weekend come to swim, picnic and of course drink. The river itself is crystal clear and shallow – you can stand up in most parts – and perfectly paced for tubing. It takes around 45 minutes to wind back to the town itself passing overhanging trees and lush vegetation with nothing but the sounds of the jungle; it really is a lovely spot. After a couple of trips the rain set in again so we headed back for another homemade feast (including a delicious fish soup called sancocho de pescado) and a nap (yep, it’s a tough life). Despite it being the weekend nightlife is pretty low-key in San Cipriano but the establishment opposite our hotel had pool tables and the sort of sound system which meant that if you can’t beat them, join them, so it seemed a reasonable choice to while away a very rainy evening.

 

 

The route home - San Cipriano

The route home – San Cipriano

San Cipriano seems the sort of place that will increasingly be on the tourist map as it’s so much fun and so beautiful; we spotted no other gringos in town while we were there so felt lucky to visit while it’s still really only on the radar for Colombian visitors (at present it warrants only a tiny mention in the guidebook). It’s tricky to get there and not really on the way to anywhere (on our return we had to go into Buenaventura, just to backtrack past Córdoba to return to Cali in order to carry on elsewhere in Colombia) but the reward is very much worth the effort. It’s not a place I’ll forget in a hurry.