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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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The slackers guide to the Caribbean coast of Colombia

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It has been well over a month since our last post and the reason for that is we found ourselves in Colombia’s Magdalena Department. As our time seemed to be disappearing at the speed of the contents of a bottle of ‘Something Special’ on a Colombian bank holiday weekend, we decided to slow down here, well actually just stop here.

How often do you get the opportunity to nothing on the Caribbean for a month? It just so happens there are some wonderful little places around to get some serious hammock time in. It would be an arduous affair for us and you if we were to journal how we spent the last month in great detail, and we are finding it difficult to break it down into separate posts, so here’s our guide to spending a month on the Caribbean coast of Colombia.

Magdalena Department Map - Click to go to interactive view

Magdalena Department Map – Click to go to interactive view

Why go?: The 70km or so of coastline that the Magdalena Dept has stretches from Santa Marta to the Palomino river and the border of the La Guajira Dept. Facing north you have countless spots of idyllic coastline, lined by an endless sea of coconut and banana plantations. Stand on any beach, look south, throw a stone and you will hit the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range with its jungle terrain at the base, unconquered snow-capped peaks, endemic species and the native descendants of the Tairona culture, the ‘Kogi’ that inhabit various reserves. Also, it’s really hot there, Costeños are friendly and lively people, the accommodation is reasonable, and the beers are cheap and mostly cold (providing the power doesn’t go out too often!)

Find a base: This area of Colombia lacks in many things that are a necessity for most travelers. Mainly cash machines and WI-FI.  So we found it necessary to base ourselves in the city of Santa Marta, at the Hostal Drop Bear. This ex-Cartel house has beds galore along with outrageously great value private rooms and swimming pool. The main reason we went back there four times was that it’s near the supermarket and they offer free luggage storage so you can leave your big packs and take small packs for a week away at one place or another. This is important as there is nothing worse than being on a crammed bus or on the back of a moto-taxi with a backpack that is bigger than your average local.

Moto taxi calf burn

Moto taxi calf burn

Dangers & Annoyances: These are few, and not particularly dangerous. Mosquitoes and other bitey things are many so take good bug spray and put it on before you get drunk and forget.

LADS, are a big problem. Big groups of them. Mostly rich kids from the SE of England, but their natural habitat is somewhere where they can drink much, hit the cocaine, get sunburned and offend locals, so it’s perfect for them there. Thankfully, we didn’t encounter many of them at the places we stayed, but they were around the area. Beware and avoid.

The only other one I can think of is the Moto-taxi. A quick and cheap way to nip about is on the back of a motorbike, but be careful of that exhaust pipe. The right calf bandage look is in vogue for many backpackers out there. Also, not all of them carry helmets, so when they are texting on their phones it could quite easily be the end of you.

 

Casa Elemento:

Paul and Catrin went off to be all active in the Jungle on the Ciudad Perdida (Lost City) Trek, and we decided to head up into the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range, and to Casa Elemento which is a 2 hour hike (or 30 minute motorbike ride) up into the hills above Minca.

Above Minca - The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta

Above Minca – The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta

The hostal is just under a year old and is on the premises of a local farm and the property itself was said to be that of an ex-paramilitary General, who no longer occupies it. The land it sits on has some pretty sweet views of the jungle-clad mountains all around as well as views of the offensively hot town of Santa Marta that sits on the coast below. As well as having a swimming pool, a bar with the best view we have ever seen and a jungle canyon in its back garden it of course has the giant 10 person hammock.

The team of British and Canadian owner/operators and volunteers work hard to ensure that you are doing what you want to do up there. It’s like a big kid’s playground in some aspects, with a selection of projects going on at once, ranging from the installation of a bamboo supported pool slide to the cultivation of their new pigs (a giant rope-swing is under construction we’re told). We originally planned to go for two days, then five, then Andy made us an offer we couldn’t refuse, so it became seven. I’m not gonna bang on about how much we enjoyed the delicious home cooked food or the splendid view at sunset. I’ll just show you some pictures of how seven days slipped away from us up on that hill.

Casa Elemento is on every backpacker’s lips in that area and is becoming a destination in itself over the town of Minca that sits below it.

Taganga:

This infamous little fishing village is known for gringos, drugs, prostitutes, corrupt police and, diving. As a result, one helluva party. We were really only looking for a chilled time so were considering dodging it altogether, but Paul and Catrin were resting their weary bones there so we went to see what all of the fuss is about and engage in some more aggressive card playing. A taxi from Santa Marta literally takes you across to the wrong side of the tracks and up into the hills then winds down into a pretty little bay dotted with boats and dusty streets further back.

We have met plenty of backpackers with stories of being set up and shaken down by the cops there but thankfully we avoided that. I did however, just for fun, time how long it took for someone to offer us drugs when we stepped onto the main strip by the shore; 8 seconds was the record! Nevertheless we had some beers, watched the sun go down, then had some rum and headed to ‘El Garaje’ for even more rum where I was forced to try out my Spanish on a strangely aggressive yet clingy coked-up Colombian dude while Ollie asked a man to dance salsa. A strange night and the next day, we got the hell out of dodge and headed for our next stop.

Rancho Relaxo:

Rancho Relaxo

Rancho Relaxo

At km46 on the right hand side of the coast road heading east, just before the ‘town’ of Buritaca you will find Rancho Relaxo (yes, it is a Simpsons reference!). Another word of mouth place; it’s only 18 months old but they have been busy there. The Canadian-run ranch wins the award for the most relaxing atmosphere on our trip. The owners are passionate about three things; agriculture, food and chilling. They have a huge patch of land where they can grow and build anything, so along with their team of volunteers and with the help of their very own mountain spring they keep the place lush and ‘jungley’.

It just so happens that some of the guests from Casa Elemento had made their way their way there as well as owners Jack and Jean, so it was a nice little reunion up at their mirador with a BBQ on the first night. Paul and Catrin were flying out the next day so we spent our last day together on the deserted beach just a short walk away. Sad to see those guys go for the last time on this trip. No doubt we will see them again back in Europe.

We actually stayed at Rancho twice and much like up on the hill above Minca, we were finding it difficult to motivate ourselves to leave the ranch where they have made significant steps in bamboo assisted smoking products. It would also be an ideal place to base yourself to explore the coast (just take loads of cash with you so you haven’t got to go back to SM). Loren, Ryan and the volunteer crew made us feel really welcome there and the home-cooked and largely home-grown food (including some amazing house hot sauce) makes it a must-stop on your trip to the coast.

Rancho Relaxo mirador

Rancho Relaxo mirador

 

General beaches:

From Rancho, you can visit some pretty awesome beaches, some of which you will have to yourself. The one over the road from Rancho was empty, and we had it all to ourselves as far as the eye could see.

Los Naranjos, is another and is near the ‘town’ of Los Angeles. At about km33, a moto-taxi ride dropped us off at the entrance to a coconut plantation that was probably one of the most beautiful places we have been on the trip. The path ran out at a lakes edge, and was guarded by some horses. The beach was deserted in the distance across the river/lake. Fearing we had taken a wrong turn and would soon become lunch for some Caimans, we headed back to search for a path. On the way back we met German and Spanish backpackers we had met before, one of whom assured us we had gone the right way and took us back to show the path. There was no path, just stripping down and wading neck deep through the river. The things people will do for a quiet beach!

Los Naranjos is the most eastern part of Tayrona and has the fun giant boulders and jungle theme that you pay for in the park, except here it’s free. The only price here is the unnerving underfoot squelch and handful of mosquito bites.

Palomino is a small beach town of is about 30 mins drive by bus from the ranch (1.5 hours from Santa Marta) at around km60 on the coast road so we headed up there for a day to see what it was all about. It’s popular with backpackers as the beach front has lots of cheap accommodation and is relatively quiet, but in our humble opinion, even though the beach was nice, it wasn’t worth hanging around there for a few days. I’m sure you will disagree when you see the pics, maybe were just spoiled at this point!

PNN Tayrona:

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At around km30 on the coastal road, you have one of Colombia’s biggest tourist draws that is the ‘beachy’ jungle reserve Tayrona national park. Looking (and sounding) like something out of the TV show Lost, it is a must on any trip to the coast in Colombia. $20US entrance fee gets you access to some fine beaches and the chance to hike into the jungle itself to the ruins of ‘Pueblitos’. Sleeping in hammocks is the main way to stay, but if you’re mental you can sleep in a tent or pay silly money for a place at one of the few hotels in the park. We stayed in a coconut plantation called ‘Don Pedro’ which is near the Arrecifes beach, which was cheap, quiet and had a hilariously moody donkey. There are hundreds of blogs out there detailing how to do Tayrona and what to see there, so we will keep this brief and show you some pretty pictures. You can only safely swim in a couple of spots that have man made wave breakers around coves. The most popular spot in the park(with good reason) is the double coved idyllic spot of Cabo San Juan de la Guía. Two nights in the park was enough for us, but you could spend a few days there exploring all it has to offer. One tip, take your own food, water and bog roll; it ain’t cheap in there and you constantly feel like you are being shaken down for basic items.

 

Costeño Beach & Surf Camp

This place is one of the oldest gringo havens around the coast and is the sister operation to Rancho. At km40 on the highway, a 15 minute walk takes you to the beach front getaway and surf spot. A great spot for a few days of R&R, the beach is beautiful and mostly deserted. They have all kinds of accommodation there from hammocks to fancy rooms, but we opted for a little beach front palapa roofed hut. We lost a few days at this place, sitting in hammocks and waking up to the sight and sound of the sea. Beware of those falling coconuts!

Santa Marta

Santa Marta sea front

Santa Marta sea front

The swelteringly hot town of Santa Marta wins the award for most visited spot on our whole trip. We ventured there five times in total, but only went out to the sea front once. It is the oldest Spanish city in South America dating back to 1525, but not much of its colonial history survives. Still a Saturday night out in the city centre revealed a lively and chaotic place with some great street food and busy bars.

In conclusion…

The Caribbean coast of Colombia has always been there, but it is a relatively new destination for foreign tourists as in the past the area had been a bit ‘FARC-y’ as well as teeming with paramilitaries and narcotrafficantes. Now, it would be a lie to say that there are no longer any worries in the area, but there is no problem for tourists and the roads and hills are full of army and police checkpoints to ensure ‘safety’. As a result, plenty of little Gringo paradises have opened their doors as they take advantage of the increasing tide of tourists and backpackers.

The places we stayed here on the coast are all foreign run and offer some respite from the hard travelling we have experienced on other parts of our trip. Amazing views, cold beer, great food, enthusiastic owners and English spoken is the perfect recipe for getting not much done. The lack of WI-FI connection in these places results in less facebook zombies and more traveller interaction. Ollie tells me this is what backpacking used to be like. Volunteering at all of these places would have been an incredible experience, and one we would have done if we had more time left.

You can’t stop the tide. The proprietors of these little spots we have stayed are the early birds, but there is development. Land is cheap and plentiful, so it is being purchased by developers, foreign and local. Our advice is if you want to go, go now before the landscape changes, and your views are blocked by high-rise all-inclusive resorts!