Thursday, July 29, 2010

Concrete heaven (not the dessert)

Pop quiz, hot shot:  You have a cement mixer, some rebar and 60 seconds to build a beacon for the next millenium.  Waddaya do?  Brasilia.  Most people come through here as a stopover to someplace more interesting (which we’re doing), but we’d read a lot about the architecture and how it was considered the “city of the future” when it was built in the 1960s, so we thought we’d stay for a few days.   We arrived early in the morning in Brasilia after a 17 hour bus ride from Sao Joao del Rei and the city opened its hardtop arms to us.  We quickly realized that one aspect of the future will definitely be little hover cars.  As it is, pedestrians are meant to cross eight-lane highways, pass through darkly lit malls and parking lots, and navigate a coordinate-based, block system of Bauhausian addresses to get to where they’re going.  Google Maps and Lonely Planet were basically useless here and the only time we arrived where we wanted was when we used an antiquated but nonetheless effective mode of transport called the “taxi”.  Still, there were surprisingly beautiful parts of the city as well.  The buildings on the main promenade were simple, clean, and unique and the mathematical precision between them was startling.  We thought we were churched out after Minas Gerais, but the Catedral Metropolitana and the Santuario do Dom Bosco were like nothing we’d ever seen before. 

Another positive thing about being in a modern city after two weeks of mineira cuisine was (we’re sad to admit) McDonald’s.  When we tried to order a cheeseburger (literally  listed as “cheeseburger” on the menu), we each independently received blank stares from the staff until their faces lit up and they punched something into the machine.   Imagine our surprise when our meal came with cheesecake pie.

More pictures here:


Saturday, July 24, 2010

Wake up, it’s 10,000 o’clock

After the disappointment of Caraca, we re-routed our itinerary to visit Sao Joao del Rei and Tiradentes.  I convinced Juan on the new plan based on a vague memory that Tiradentes makes the book 1,000 Places to See Before You Die.  Please don’t disillusion him of this if it turns out not to be true…

We stayed at Pouso Aconchegate (a place a Lonely Planet author clearly recommended without actually staying at) which felt much like I’d imagine staying with a belligerent, slightly senile, relative would feel like.   She’d follow us around in the few hours we weren’t out sightseeing and hound us to turn off the lights and use the bathroom “pronto”.   The beds were basically slats of wood with extraordinarily thin mattresses and every square inch of the place was covered with colorful trinkets and doilies.  We were kept up by parties right outside our window (only “one night party” we were told erroneously upon checking in) and woken up by church bells ringing a thousand times.   Basically, we saw more churches and ate more Miniera food and are sorry we don’t have more to report.

More pictures here:
Sao Joao de Rei/Tiradentes

Friday, July 23, 2010

Age of consent?

On weekends, you can visit the neighboring town of Mariana via “historic train” (really, it’s just a new train constructed to look old in order to lure tourists to pay the R$18 per person to ride it – doh!).   Mariana was basically a less-dramatic version of Ouro Preto – smaller town center, gentler hills, fewer restaurants.  What it had, however, that Ouro Preto lacked, was child weddings (you have to see the pictures to believe it – the girl had a 6 foot train on her dress) and a weird rock band whose lead singer wore what looked suspiciously like a prison jumpsuit.

More pictures here:


Thursday, July 22, 2010

Are we walking in circles?

We’d read a lot about the well-preserved colonial towns in the state of Minas Gerais and after a 7 ½ hour overnight bus ride (thank you Xanax) we can confirm that Ouro Preto deserves at least some of the hype.   Beautiful churches (which all look almost comically identical) sit atop most of the many hills and the cobblestoned streets are full of narrow stores selling anything from local art and jewelry to chocolate covered delicacies and Pao de Queijo (delicious little balls of bread with cheese in them).   We had our first taste of the local “Mineira” food:   fried eggs, slabs of what we think was pork, fragrant white rice, sausage, spinach and a mixture of beans, eggs and something mysterious.  It was absolutely delicious, which came as a complete surprise.

We met, and spent a couple of hours with, a cute couple from Texas at one of the cafes,  which made us realize how little we’ve heard English spoken in the last few weeks.  A fact that both inspires us and often overwhelms us.  And sadly, our somewhat haphazard approach to travel (i.e. little, to no, advance planning) has resulted in our first casualty.  The monastery we were hoping to visit in Caraca, where maned wolves arrive every evening  for a nightly feeding from the priests, is booked out for the next two weeks.  I thought Juan might give up on traveling forever when we discovered this, so we’ve vowed to plan ahead a bit more.

Oh, and Juan spent about an hour at dinner one night trying to get a picture of what he considered to be the perfect example of adult braces in Brazil…

More pictures here:
Ouro Preto

Friday, July 16, 2010

Rio de Janeiro

Rio is a city of stunning contrasts.  Favelas (slums) across the street from mansions, steep peaks rising from the sea, beaches five minutes from the rain forest…  Seen from the top of Pao de Acucar, a peak reached via cable car, it might be the most beautiful city I’ve ever seen. 

Danielle and Claudia met us in Rio, where we rented a cute 2-bedroom apartment two blocks from Copacabana beach for the four nights we spent here (surprisingly cheap at only US$90 per night for all four of us).   We spent our first day wandering Copacabana beach (where the dogs wear almost as many clothes as their owners…I suppose that’s not much) and where we watched the World Cup final on a big screen with lots of Brazilians.  We learned that Brazilian men aren’t meant to tan lying on their stomachs lest they want male attention, which means you’ll see a lot of men standing in the sun in order to even out their tans.  

We also went on a tour of the favelas – where our tour guide debunked many myths surrounding Rio’s biggest slums – tried to go Samba dancing in Lapa (not exactly happening on a Monday night, unfortunately), and went drinking with some locals (friends of Danielle from her previous trip through Uruguay).

Needless to say, we’re sad to be leaving Rio this evening.

More pictures here:
Rio de Janeiro

Thursday, July 15, 2010


Attending a futbol match between local teams in the Maracana stadium in Rio officially makes my list of mandatory Rio experiences.  Through some stroke of luck, the famous Maracana stadium, which was supposed to be closed for Olympic renovations already, stayed open long enough for us to see a game between Botafogo and Flamengo -- two local rivals with diehard fans.  The stadium itself is quite a sight -- 200,000 people reportedly filled the stands for Pele's last game -- but it isn't the soccer you come for so much as the fans.

The fans for the different teams are given separate sections, separated by a white "neutral" section.  The true fans go for the "green" section -- where we sat based on the advice of local Flamengo ("Mango") fans.  More than 95% of the people there were wearing their team colors and all seemed to know every chant.  The highlight for us, though, was one particularly overzealous fan in the row in front of us who would wring his hair when Mango made a mistake, cover his eyes like he was holding back tears when they missed a chance to score, slam the bench or stomp his feet when the ref made a bad call and various other overly dramatic gestures.  When Mango managed to score the winning goal, he turned around, threw his arms around a startled Juan and literally swept him off his feet in joy.  I've never seen Juan look more confused and I've never thought trekking through the rain in a foreign city to see a futbol game was more worth it.  Ha!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010


Waking up to the sound of horse-drawn carts on cobblestones has been a nice change from the hustle and bustle of Sao Paulo.  Paraty is a seven-hour bus ride from Sao Paulo and is a beautiful town right on the ocean that has preserved much of its colonial charm.  We stayed at a B&B that served chocolate cake and bright pink, runny yogurt for breakfast.  Kind of fun for the first day, less so on the third....

We went to a couple of dinners where we learned that if someone is playing the guitar or singing you'll likely see an "artistic" charge on your bill, despite their, um, actual artistic abilities.  

We hiked to the Forte Defensor Perpetuo, a fort built in 1703 to defend against pirate raids on the gold passing through Paraty's port.  The highlight, though, was Cachoeira Toboga, a natural waterslide about 10km inland from Paraty.  It didn't look very steep but you gather speed pretty quickly.  Most people played it safe and rode sitting down, this did not include a really chubby Brazilian whose fat rolls allowed him to ride the slide on his stomach and an over-tanned, over-muscled teen who surfed the slide standing up.  Terrifying but very cool.  

More pictures here:


Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The City of Adult Braces

We felt mostly safe in Sao Paulo -- only a pack of geese tried to mug us for bread in Sao Paulo's version of Central Park. We had delicious fresh lime juice from a stall on the street (US$1 for 3 glasses), ordered espresso and cake at a cute cafe where the waitress was really nice in spite of our inability to speak Portuguese ("Eu no falo portugues" is pretty much all I can say with a shrug and a smile), and ate at a churrascaria where the waiter kindly cut the nicest slab of meat from our "bovine" to put on my plate.

We also visited the concrete barrack on red stilts known as "MASP" (the Museu de Arte de Sao Paulo which houses Latin America's most comprehensive collection of western art -- free on Tuesdays, yippee!), visited a few old churches, and felt appropriately snobby drinking out of our travel wine glasses at our hostel (thanks Pete and Amy).

As a whole, however, and despite discovering some wonderful places and people, the city itself seemed overly dusty and underwhelming. As Juan puts it, "I wouldn't put up my hand to live there." A sentiment with which I agree.

Pictures available here:
Sao Paulo