Marg and Leigh's travels around the world

We are two retired women from New Zealand, busy travelling the world. Our quest is to experience other cultures before they are changed beyond recognition, and see endangered animals and environments before they disappear. We hope you like our blog and enjoy our exploits. We sure have had fun getting here.

Friday, 22 September 2017

Belo Horizonte and Ouro Preto, Brazil

Belo Horizonte

Belo Horizonte city centre
Leaving Salvador, we flew into Belo Horizonte, then caught an airport bus into the city centre.

Arriving at the rodoviária (bus station), we discovered we had an easy walk, with suitcases, to our hotel. 

It was in the main street, and while the surroundings were a bit scruffy, the hotel staff were very welcoming. 

We had just unpacked and relaxing, when we noticed excessively loud noises from a woman in the next room who seemed to be really enjoying herself.

View from our hotel room
Not that we are stalwarts, but it was a bit much.

So after a phone call to reception, we were moved to a higher floor which, much to our enjoyment, had a far superior view.

That afternoon, we did a mammoth walk around Belo Horizonte (Belo).
  
Belo has a population of around 2.5 million (2014) and it is the capital of the region. 


Wide tree-lined boulevards of Belo Horizonte
It is the first planned modern city in Brazil. The city plan was based on Washington DC, with wide tree lined streets radiating out from green rectangles, with plenty of landscaping.

Sounds good….maybe…..but what we noticed, is that it’s like Salvador, with a huge housing discrepancy between the various neighbourhoods of the city.

In Belo, there are whole city blocks that have homeless people sleeping in the streets, the tree-lined streets are full of rubbish, every building has graffiti, and every corner and lamp-post smells like a latrine.

Park - many dozens of homeless people shelter here
Then you cross the road and the tree-lined streets are clean, the architecture great with no graffiti, and there is a totally different feel.

In one large park on the tourist trail, we saw many families enjoying themselves. Their recreation was right next door to homeless people who were sleeping in their makeshift shelters under the park trees and bushes….and there were so many of them!

It seems like the planned city has drawn more people that it can cope with over time, and one result is a high level of unemployment and homelessness.

Ouro Preto

Ouro Preto view
Somewhat stunned by the vast poverty gap evident in Belo, we headed next day to Ouro Preto.

This place used to the capital of the region before Belo was built. 

Ouro Preto means ‘black gold’, as gold was mined here. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Town which is now known for its baroque architecture and pretty cobbled streets. 

It is said to be one of Brazil's best-preserved colonial towns.

Steep Ouro Preto street
We had a great time wandering up and down its very steep streets. 

It was full of very cute, and well maintained houses and shops, and seemed to have a church on every corner.

Only 2 hours from Belo but a different world really. 

There were people everywhere and masses of cars trying to go up and down very skinny streets. Parking was at a premium and we were wondering why this particular Saturday was so popular. A young woman told us that it was a Brazilian holiday weekend.

Ouro  Preto main square
On 7 Sept 1882, Brazil became independent from Portugal, so its Independence Day. We now know why so many streets in Brazil are called Rua 7 de Septembro.

Despite all the people, we had a lovely time wandering around the town before heading back up a rather steep hill to the bus station.

We headed back to Belo Horizonte for a last night before bussing to Rio de Janeiro and our next adventure.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Salvador

After our fabulous trip to the Pantanal, we flew out of Cuiaba at 6 am. We had a brief stop in Brasilia (capital of Brazil), before landing in Salvador, our next stop.

Salvador is in the north-eastern part of Brazil on the Atlantic coast. It is known for its Portuguese colonial architecture, Afro-Brazilian culture, and tropical climate. Its old city centre is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

View from our Salvador apartment
We had booked a one-bedroom apartment on Airbnb, in the beach side area of Barra. Unfortunately, the apartment did not live up to its description on Airbnb in terms of cleanliness and maintenance.

However, it had an incredibly redeeming feature – its fabulous view of the sea, coast, and sunsets. It also had a great view to the street so we had ample opportunity to people-watch.

Salvador is big (4th largest city in Brazil with around 2.9 mil people), so we decided to take a tourist bus to give us an overview of the city.

Marg at the Mercado
Our first stop was the city centre at the Mercado Modelo. This was full of tourist stuff, so we passed through quickly.

As we were given time to look around the city, we caught the Elevador Lacerda, a restored art deco elevator connecting Salvador's sea level commercial area, with its clifftop historic area called Pelourinho. 

The Elevador queue was long but moved quickly as there were two elevators working. 

Elevador Lacerda, taking us up to the old centre
At the top we called into the tourist office and had some fabulous help from a young woman there.

She spent ages on the phone on our behalf, helping us to pay for luggage for our next flight.

Luggage is charged separately to the seat ticket by South American airlines, and it’s much cheaper to pay in advance (it’s twice the rate once at the airport).

That sorted, we continued on our bus trip, planning to come back to the Pelourinho historic centre the next day.

Shops covered in mould - many others were worse
The bus took us through an incredibly diverse range of neighbourhoods from the rich and prosperous, to the favelas (slums) where we saw some very depressing sights. 

Houses and shops were in absolutely terrible condition, and with dampness everywhere.

It was pretty ghastly and we were shocked at how bad the conditions were. There was colour and vibrancy, but heaps of collapsing structures and decaying facades.

Favelas 10 minutes away from expensive yachts
Our bus driver went really fast through one particular area, and we were pleased not to stop there because of the big groups of shouting men.

We continued on and were struck by the huge difference in living conditions when we drove through the different suburbs. Certainly a city of extremes!

We saw many favela areas then within 10 minutes, we drove past lovely marinas with expensive yachts.

At one point, we drove alongside the metro which was raised up between the lanes of traffic.

Some of Salvador's interesting public art
Beneath it was a walkway and cycle way, two lanes going each way to keep everyone away from the traffic. We reckon this approach would work well in Wellington.

We saw some wonderful street art and creative spaces that help give this city its vibe.

By then we had crossed the city and come out on the Atlantic coast where we saw beach after beach after beach - big sandy beaches and quite windy when we were there. There was a walk/cycle way running for many kilometres along the sea front, giving wonderful access to these beaches. About 6 hrs later we were pleased to be home.

Largo do Pelourinho - Salvador's historic centre
The next day we caught a very crowded bus into the historic centre to go exploring. There we saw some amazing colonial buildings, some colourful deco ones, and not so good old ones, all in differing stages of wellbeing.

Having been to Portugal, we could easily identify the Portuguese style architecture.

Salvador was the first colonial capital of Portuguese Brazil and is one of the oldest cities in the Americas (est. 1549). 

Salvador's Pelourinho historic centre
Within a decade, it became the first slave market in the New World, with slaves, mostly from Africa, arriving to work on the sugar plantations. Apparently, the African culture survived better in Brazil than in North America, because Portuguese law prohibited owners from separating slave families, and slaves could buy their freedom.

The city has many squares reached by cobbled hilly streets, crowded with small and large, and often colourful houses and shops.

Salvador's Pelourinho historic centre
We found Salvador people to be incredibly friendly and helpful, but with not much English spoken. Those who do speak English, seemed to really enjoy practicing it on us.

We however, struggled along with our poor version of Portuguese.

We keep lapsing into a mix of Portuguese, Spanish and English: Bom dia (good day in Portuguese); por favor (thank you in Spanish); bye (goodbye in English)!

Marg cracking crab
Meanwhile, back in Barra near our Airbnb, we enjoyed some nice seafood meals, including an amazing crab dish (6 crabs in one dish!).

One night, we were offered a free caipirinha drink to entice us into a restaurant - how could we refuse? A caipirinha is made with the local spirit cachaça, topped up with pounded ice and limes. Very moreish. So we decided to continue with them as our drinks with the meal.

However, we seriously underestimated the potency of cachaça and had a very wobbly stroll home that night - perhaps one less next time!

We enjoyed having our own space for several days at the Airbnb, rather than a hotel. But suddenly, it was time to move on.

So after some lovely down-time, laundry sorted and refreshed, blog updated, and great sightseeing, it was time to move on.

Next stop, Belo Horizonte and Ouro Preto, a UNESCO town.


Tuesday, 12 September 2017

The Pantanal, Brazil

Cuiabá church
Leaving the Iguaçu Falls town of Foz do Iguaçu, we flew northwards to Cuiabá, in the heartlands of Brazil.

Cuiabá (k-wee-a-bar) is a city on the banks of the Cuiabá River (Rio Cuiabá), and the gateway to the northern Pantanal.

The Pantanal is the biggest inland wetland in the world. It covers around 200,000 sq km of central Brazil, eastern Bolivia and north-eastern Paraguay. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  

Poconé  street
We had booked a guide to take us on safari there, as we were hoping to spot endangered and rare species of wildlife such as jaguar and giant river otter, and a range of birds unique to these wetlands.

We arrived in Cuiabá the night before the safari was to begin. The next morning, we were picked up very early as we had several hours of driving ahead of us to take us deep into the wetlands. 

Our first stop was in the small town of Poconé for some water and supplies. 


The beginning of the Transpantaneira Road
Poconé marks the beginning of the Transpantaneira Road, a 150 km stretch of isolated dirt road linking Poconé to Porto Jofre – jaguar territory.

As we drove along the Transpantaneira we started spotting lots of birds. We also saw lots of caiman sunning themselves on the banks of waterholes, and lurking among the lily pads.

We passed fazendas (farms) with lots of cattle, and many giant termite mounds. Then suddenly, we had arrived at Pousada Clarinho.


Pantanal entrance with guardians
Here we met up with Carlos, our guide, and a young Spanish couple who would join us.

We had arrived in time for lunch, which consisted of a range of meats, fruits, and salads prepared in the local style.

During lunch there was a bit of a commotion, as a rare marsh deer came to the local waterhole to drink.

After lunch, we set off in a 4 wheel drive ute, for Porto Jofre.

Transpantaneira bridge - one of many 
Our guide, Carlos, sat on a raised seat in the back of the ute looking for wildlife. Time and time again, we screeched to a halt at his signal, to look at animals and birds in the wetland grasses alongside the road.

Driving the Transpantaneira means crossing lots and lots of wooden bridges, built to ensure vehicle access during the wet season. The bridges were in varying degrees of repair but they all seemed to be standing up to the passing traffic. 

Porto Jofre boats on Rio Cuiabá
After several hours we reached the end of the road; Porto Jofre. This settlement consists of a small collection of posadas (guest houses) and boats. It is the gateway to the undeveloped and near pristine, Pantanal Mato-Grossense National Park.

We were staying at Porto Jofre Pousada and Camping. Our room was fairly basic, but it was clean with its own bathroom, and air-conditioning. The last was a necessity as it was extremely hot - high 30's and into the 40's!


L:Hyacinth macaw; Whistling heron; Anhinga.
R:Wattled Jacana; Jabiru storks; Black collared 
hawk
The next morning, the sun was just coming up as we had breakfast, and then it was onto a wee motor boat to head up river.

The bird life was amazing with so many different sounds all around us, some more tuneful than others. Every tree along the river seemed to have an inhabitant or two perched on its branches.

There were ibis, cormorants, storks, herons, curassows, rare macaws, and kingfishers, to name few; an endless range of water birds as well as land birds.

We were told that there is over 550 different species of birds in the Pantanal.

Capybara on a Rio Cuiabá sandbank
Along with the amazing birdlife, we saw lots of wildlife, including Capybaras. These are furry, blunt-nosed creatures about the size of a very large dog. 

They swim very well with the help of webbing at the joints of their feet, and seem to like sitting on sandbanks. They are the largest living rodent in the world. 

We saw individuals, pairs, and a lovely group of females with a whole lot of babies. Very cute!


Caiman on edge of Rio Cuiabá
We also saw lots of caiman which are large aquatic reptiles that live in the river and swamps of Central and South America. They are closely related to alligators and crocodiles (but with a slimmer waistline).

There were so many of them. They were either in stealth mode with just their eyes and snouts poking out of the water, or basking in the sun on the edge of the water. They are called the scavengers of the Pantanal because they eat anything and everything. We even saw one caiman eating another!

Jaguar 1: Cooling off under a tree, Rio Cuiabá 
Quite early in our morning boat trip, word came over the RT that a jaguar had been spotted not far from where we were. We raced to the spot and there it was, lounging in the shadow of a large tree.

So  exciting!

We were able to get great photos while still keeping our distance. Jaguars are great swimmers, so we were pleased not to get too close (about 4 metres away, but in a fast boat).


Jaguar 2: On the riverbank, Rio Cuiabá
During this morning trip we saw two more jaguars, a big one sitting on the river bank, and another moving back into the undergrowth.

Our guide and driver were most excited at seeing three jaguars in one trip - as were we!

We also saw some giant river otters. These are endangered animals and we felt very privileged to see them.

An adult can grow to about 1.7 m long. They are very fast in the water, and look so sleek.


Giant river otters, Rio Cuiabá
In fact they are endangered because fur traders hunted them for their sleek velvety pelt.

On our afternoon boat trip we were able to get really close to an extended family coming in and out of their den under the river bank. They were really vocal as they moved about looking at us and wondering if we were a threat.

There was a baby otter that was very curious, and kept swimming toward our boat. However, the adults quickly herded it back to the den.


Sunset over the Rio Cuiabá
In all, we had about seven to eight hours on the river and saw a huge range of creatures.

We were one of a small number of boats going up and down the river, some faster than others, all carrying eager wild life spotters.

Fortunately, it didn't feel crowded as mostly, it was just us enjoying the river and nature.

Our day on the river ended with a spectacular sunset, before we headed back to our posada and dinner.

Marg, on Cuiabá River & ready for spotting
Bags packed and loaded on the ute next morning, we headed back along the Transpantaneira toward our final nights’ accommodation.

Lots more birds, capybara, and caiman were spotted along the way. We also saw rheas (like a small emu), and an armadillo.

We arrived in time for lunch which, like the other meals on safari, consisted of lots meat, rice and salad or vegetables.

The meals were great. They were prepared by the locals in the local way, and in giant servings. We felt we would be waddling by the end of this trip!

Sunrise over the Rio Claro
That evening we went out spotlighting, seeing a very rare marsh deer, and some howler and capuchin monkeys.

The next day we viewed the sunrise from a giant tower above the treetops. The sun was a huge red ball, slowly rising, accompanied by a succession of birds awakening. A spectacular sight and sound.

After breakfast we had another bush walk and then we were on the Claro River (Rio Claro) in a very small boat.

Here we managed to finally spot a toucan flying past. What amazing looking birds.

Marg, looking cool on a hot day
We were pleased to be doing these activities early in the day as by 10 am it was already up to 46 degrees! Too hot for us, but we survived and returned to the pousada as little sweat balls.

On our last day we went out on horseback to see what wildlife we could find. It was extremely hot, but good fun.

We spotted some wild buffaloes and more monkeys but it was so hot, we think the animals were staying in the shade and out of sight.

The time came to head back to Cuiabá and our hotel for the night, before flying to Salvador for the next part of our trip.

We fare-welled our guide, and Spanish travel companions, and prepared ourselves for another early start with a 6 am flight.

We had really enjoyed an unforgettable safari, in the incredible Pantanal.





Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Iguassu Falls - Argentina & Brazil

Argentina - Iguazú Falls

After leaving Paraguay, our bus travelled through a little piece of Brazil without stopping, and 20 minutes later we were at the border between Brazil and Argentina. There was a quick border process, then soon after, we arrived in the buzzy town of Puerto Iguazú. 

Buzzy Puerto Iguazú cafes
We were there because it provides access to the Iguazú Falls (Iguazú [Spanish]; Iguaçu [Portuguese]; Iguassu [English]).

The Falls are the largest waterfall system in the world, and a UNESCO World Heritage site. They are on the Iguazú River which forms the border between Argentina and Brazil. 

We planned to visit both the Argentinean and Brazilian side of the Falls.

Marg outside Hotel 125  in Puerto Iguazú
Our hotel (Hotel 125) was just a convenient short walk down the street from the Puerto Iguazú bus terminus. It had a beautiful and inviting front entry, a great restaurant, and very welcoming staff.

However, the loveliness of the place stopped behind the restaurant. The bedrooms were tiny, in poor condition, with broken taps; and as we discovered in the night, soundproofing was non-existent! Despite that, we enjoyed our stay.

We especially loved the restaurant because we were able to get a meal that included green vegetables, which we hadn’t been able to do in Paraguay.

Iguazú National Park monkeys
Next morning we caught the bus to the Iguazú National Park to see Iguazú Falls (Cataratas del Iguazú).

Wow! What an amazing day we had.

On this, the Argentinean side of the Falls, there are several walking trails, and we aimed to do them all. We walked the Circuito Superior or upper trail first which took about an hour.

One of our first encounters on the trail, was with a group of very cute monkeys.


Iguazú National Park coatis
We also came across a family of coatis. These are small mammals related to the racoon, and they are everywhere in the National Park. While they don’t seem to be afraid of humans, they are wild. There are signs throughout the Park suggesting they not be patted or fed.

The Park was not crowded and everyone just followed the well-defined and signed trails at a steady pace, toward the noise of the waterfalls.


View from Iguazú Falls Circuito Superior trail 
As we walked on, we came across little lookouts to show you the first waterfalls, or salto's as they are called.

The further we walked, the better the view, until we were looking out along a string of massive waterfalls.

The power and amount of water was amazing. 

We were completely blown away by the sheer size of them.

Iguazú Falls, La Garganta del Diablo
Having completed that circuit we caught a cute little train up to the Garganta station and walked out on raised walkways on the Garganta del Diablo Trail (Devil’s Throat).

After quite a  walk, we finally got to the actual seething maelstrom of water that gives La Garganta del Diablo its name and could understand why it was called that.

There was just so much power in this heaving mass of water it was almost beyond belief!

Iguazú Falls from the Circuito Inferior trail
We caught the little train back down to the lower station and decided we had enough energy left to do the last trail, called the Circuito Inferior or Lower Trail.

This trail went down below some more thundering falls that were just as spectacular as the earlier ones.

After a great day, we walked back to the park entrance and tiredly caught our bus back to town.

We were going to Brazil next to see the Falls from the other side.

Brazil - Iguaçu Falls

The next morning we caught a bus to take us over the border into Brazil. We weren’t sure whether the bus driver would wait while we were stamped out of one country and into the other.

He did wait going out of Argentina but when we had to disembark with our luggage and get stamped into Brazil, he didn’t! So we waited for the next bus with a bunch of other folk, then eventually gave up and decided to take a taxi.

Tres Fronteras monument and our excited taxi driver
While we were near the border we decided to visit Tres Fronteras. This is the landmarked border between Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil - the three borders.

We negotiated with the taxi driver to take us there for a quick look en-route to our hotel. 

He was rather lovely and we made sure he came into the Tres Fronteras centre with us as it seemed he had not been there before.


Tres Fronteras
He was really excited and phoned his wife on a video call to say where he was, and to show her who he was with - people from New Zealand! 

Lots of squeals and happy sounds on the other end of the phone – quite a lovely moment.

We soon arrived at our hotel, which was rather cute and in much better condition than the last one.



Itaipu Dam
Luckily our room was ready early so after settling in, we headed off to visit the Itaipu Binacional Dam by local bus.

On the way there, we ran into an impressive thunder storm and we hadn't bought our raincoats or a jacket. So we bought a white plastic raincoat each at the information centre. Not sexy but they did the job.

The Itaipu Dam project has been designated as one of the seven wonders of the modern world. 

It’s jointly owned by Paraguay and Brazil, and while it is not as big as the massive 3-Gorges dam that we have visited in China, it apparently has the capacity to produce a lot more power.

Iguaçu Falls / Cataratas do Iguaçu
The next day after a leisurely start, we caught the local bus to the Iguaçu Falls (Cataratas do Iguaçu).

The Brazilian side of the Falls was very well organized with double-decker shuttle buses transporting people from the entrance, to the short walkway and lookouts.

The walkway took us right down under a big fall. The spray was lovely and cooling as the day was hot and sticky.
  
Iguaçu Falls boardwalk
Out on the boardwalk, the view was spectacular and you looked downward and over to the main body of the Falls.

We were glad that we had gone to the Argentinian side first as they really were quite spectacular, giving a sense of the immensity of the Falls.

The Brazilian side was also great, giving more of a full-frontal view.



Grey Crowned Crane, Parque das Aves
We had finished our visit after a couple of hours so we walked 500 m across the road to the Parque das Aves.

This park consists of a huge number of colourful birds, most unique to Brazil.

They were in either massive cages, or in the open surrounding forest.

About half of the birds, sadly, had been rescued from injury and trafficking, with the rest hatched at the park.



Toucan, Parque das Aves
The park was well laid out in a circular fashion and we saw so many birds up really close and even had some beautiful toucans on the path right in front of us. 

It was Amazing!

With another fabulous day behind us, we prepared to catch our flight to Cuiaba to visit the famous Pantanal.