Hello everyone, and welcome to the first post of what I hope will blossom into a long and enjoyable series!
A little background about me might help put the title of this series and my travel-tales in context. I’m a final year law student from India, who has been fortunate enough to be able to “globetrot” across several countries. While I had traveled to some parts of Asia (Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka), Africa (Egypt) and Europe (London, Paris, Switzerland) with my family before college, I started traveling a lot more after I turned 20, either solo or with friends. I like to think that I’ve mastered the art of traveling on a student budget and packing a large amount of sight-seeing and other activities (read: shopping) into short periods of time, and I hope to convey all my top tips to you in my posts. I’ve also found myself amazed and flabbergasted not only at the beauty of the places I travel to but at my luck – how on earth did I ever get to these far-flung places and experience these incredible things? Hence, the ‘awed’ lawyer!
Since 2016, I’ve been lucky enough to travel to London (twice), Hong Kong, Macao, Vienna, Prague, Bratislava, Edinburgh, Paris, and Amsterdam – maybe I’ll blog about these trips as well someday! Today’s post, however, is going to be about a beautiful three-week trip to Brazil with two friends that I couldn’t have seen coming in my wildest dreams.
PHASE 1: PREPARATION
As soon as we chose Brazil as our destination for April 2018, it dawned on us that this trip would be the opportunity of a lifetime. We wanted to make the most of it by putting extensive research into our transport, accommodation and sight-seeing options. Here’s what we started with:
- Official Country Name: The Federative Republic of Brazil
- Continent: South America
- Ocean: Atlantic Ocean
- Currency: Brazilian Real (BRL, R$)
- Population: ~ 21 crores
- Bus Rate: Flat fare of R$ 3 – 4 (varies according to the city)
- Uber Rate: ~ R$ 3 – 4 per km
- Best Option for Intra-Brazil Travel: Buses, ~ R$ 0.3 per km
- Legal Drinking Age: 18
Top Tip: Booking.com and HostelWorld.com were our absolute saviors when it came to the preparatory phase of our trip. Considering that we were planning to visit each city only for a couple of days, the primary consideration for me was to have our hostels located centrally. Both websites display user reviews and allow you to enter landmarks and choose accommodation within a chosen radius of them. Booking.com also has no prepayment reservations, free cancellation and pay-on-arrival options, which work well for those on a budget. We used Busdud to book our buses for intra-Brazil travel and mostly booked Cometa buses. Be sure to book travel insurance in advance as well!
Other useful travel apps that I relied on during the trip are Google Maps for navigation, Uber for transport, TripAdvisor for food recommendations and Google Translate to overcome the language barrier!
PHASE 2: TOUCHDOWN
Our flight from India (via Doha) landed in São Paulo GRU Airport at roughly 5.30pm, and we instantly made our way to the Terminal Rodoviário do Tietê bus station for our 11.59pm overnight bus to Curitiba.
Top Tip: Don’t purchase an international calling pack from your mobile service provider! Wait till you land in Brazil to purchase a local sim card – I found that several grocery stores were selling plans with sufficient calling minutes and unlimited internet at inexpensive rates.
I also opted to carry a ForEx card loaded with USD, and waited till I landed in Brazil to withdraw Brazilian Reals.
1. Curitiba, Parana (1 night, 2 days)
We arrived at the Estação Rodoviária de Curitiba bus station at 6.00am, and I was instantly taken in by the city’s charm. Curitiba is small and colorful and somehow seems bustling and serene all at the same time.
The first thing I noticed in this city was the shape of the bus stops and the efficiency of the bus system. Curitiba was one of the first Brazilian cities to introduce tube-shaped, disabled-friendly bus stops at the same height as the entrance of the bus.
Once we had checked into the Knock Knock Hostel at Rua Isaias Bevilaqua 262, Merces, we instantly took off to see the city. It was a sunny day with clear skies, ideal for walking. We strolled to downtown Curitiba, passing many colorful buildings with walls hosting striking graffiti.
We soon arrived at a central area with cobblestone streets, entered the Catedral Basilica Menor which is the landmark church in downtown Curitiba, and admired the architecture. On our way to the National Memorial, we came across several other pieces of impressive street art, which lend the city its unique character.
The National Memorial is a beautiful, modern space hosting exhibitions and theatre events, and even workshops and classes. We then proceeded to the shopping street which sells a wide range of artificial jewelry, cosmetics, and clothes. For my very first meal in Brazil, I opted for a parmesan beef steak in tomato sauce in a quaint Italian restaurant called Nonna Giovanna.
Being the touristy traveler that I am, I wanted to be sure to see as many Curitiban sights as I possibly could – and what better way to do that then to sit on the upper deck of a Hop On – Hop Off bus! The tours start from right in front of Catedral Basilica Menor, and tickets can be purchased on the spot.
Here are my top three places to ‘hop off’ at:
- Botanical Gardens – A simple Google search of Curitiba will turn up a striking glass structure located in the botanical gardens. With several varieties of colorful flora, these gardens are well worth a visit!
- Free University Reserve – This hidden gem has a stunning forest and rock formation which makes for great photo-ops.
- Parque Tanguá – Watching the sunset from this park is an absolute must-do when in Curitiba. My first feeling of awe in Brazil washed over me while sitting on a bench here, watching the sunset over the forest cover with mist from a nearby fountain splashing my face.
On our second and final day in Curitiba, we decided to visit the famous Oscar Niemeyer Museum of modern art. I’m not the sort of person who understands modern art enough to appreciate it, but the exhibits in this museum struck a chord. I particularly enjoyed the Light = Matter exhibition, the Juliana Stein word exhibit, and the Tony Camargos chromatic exhibit.
After our trip to the museum, we decided to have lunch at Maru Oriental Cuisine, a pay-by-weight buffet featuring fantastic Asian cuisine (10/10 would recommend!). Followed by, of course, ice cream from a cart.
In the evening, we stumbled upon an energetic Hip Hop – Samba – Cha Cha dance class being held at Casa Hoffman in downtown, and I couldn’t have thought of a better way to wrap up my time in Curitiba!
2. Foz do Iguaçu, Parana (1 night, 2 days)
We departed from Estação Rodoviária de Curitiba at 10.45pm and arrived at Rodoviária Internacional de Foz do Iguaçu at 9.20 the next morning. Thank heavens the bus was comfortable! We spent the day in our hostel Che Lagarto, researching the Iguaçu falls as much as we could, not wanting to miss out on any aspect of the natural wonder we were scheduled to witness the next day.
The Iguaçu Falls (Cataratas do Iguaçu) are situated on the Brazil-Argentina border, on the Iguaçu river, and constitute the largest waterfall system in the world. And believe you me, the falls are worth every bit of the hype and more. From the Brazil side, they are accessible through the Parque Nacional do Iguaçu.
The following morning, we took bus number 120 to the Iguaçu Falls and purchased entry tickets for approximately R$ 70. We then hopped onto a bus which travels the length of the national park and stops at the entry to the falls. I was astounded enough at my first sight of the waterfalls, blissfully unaware of the surreal experience that awaited me at the end of a 2km trek.
As the trek progressed, it began to get more and more humid, and the number of mongooses that accosted us kept increasing. When we finally made it to the end of the trail, we noticed a manmade walkway which takes tourists right into the middle of the waterfall system, and that is the vantage point from which we experienced the falls in all their glory.
No number of photographs or videos can do justice to the Iguaçu falls. As I stood on the walkway over the Devil’s Throat getting drenched from the heavy mist, with the loud sounds of the falls echoing in my ears, I knew this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, much like the rest of my trip was going to be.
Top Tip: Be sure to take the elevator up to the gift shop for a stunning view of the falls from a higher angle. You can even see the Argentinian border from there! Also be sure to carry a small towel or a change of clothes when visiting the falls – you will get drenched.
After spending what seemed like several hours admiring the falls and consuming copious amounts of coconut-dulce de leche ice cream (which is a local speciality), we decided to visit the Parque das Aves, a bird park housing exotic species of birds in their natural habitat, right across the road from the entrance to the falls. We spent R$ 45 on the all-access pass. I absolutely loved watching and interacting with so many bright tropical birds (toucans and macaws in particular)! The park is well labeled and provides abundant information about the birds, but I couldn’t help but feel that a guided tour might have been more fun and helpful, especially considering the price of the ticket.
3. São Paulo, São Paulo (2 nights, 3 days)
We chose to take an affordable 2-hour flight from Cataratas International Airport in Iguaçu to GRU Airport in São Paulo on the airline Gol Transportes Aereos since all the buses we could find were expensive and would take 17-20 hours to make the journey.
São Paulo was everything I had imagined it would be – fast, modern, clean but graffiti-laden. The accommodation we opted for here was the WE Hostel Design in Vila Mariana, and I’d highly recommend it! The dorm was small and affordable but comfortable, the common spaces were tastefully done up, the club/bar would come alive with live music every evening, and the breakfast was to die for (the homemade macoca cake, in particular, was delicious).
The highlight of my short stay in São Paulo was a night time walk in the Ibirapuera park, followed by a fantastic double cheeseburger with bacon at Classic Burger Haus and authentic gelato at Le Botteghe di Leonardo. I would also highly recommend a walk down Avenue Paulista, and a budget shopping trip to Bom Retiro in downtown São Paulo!
Top tip: Carry cash if you plan to shop at Bom Retiro since most shops do not accept cards. Try not to stay after the sun sets since the shops close relatively early and the area gets isolated after. It also becomes increasingly difficult to find a cab as the evening progresses.
4. Paraty, Rio de Janeiro (2 nights, 2 days)
Being a water baby, I was supremely excited about the next leg of our trip featuring the beach cities of Paraty and Rio. We departed from Terminal Rodoviário do Tietê in São Paulo at 8.00am, aboard a Reunidas Paulista bus and reached Terminal Rodoviário de Parati at 2.00pm having admired many an ocean view along the way. Once in Paraty, I was instantly mesmerized by its rustic vibe – the colorful houses with large windows and cobblestone streets reflecting sunlight instantly made me feel that 2 days would not nearly be enough in this place.
We made our way to the dock to catch a ferry to our hostel Happy Hammock, located on an island situated a 45-minute ferry ride away. I saw the sun set behind the ocean and mountains that evening, and the familiar feeling of awe gave me butterflies. The hostel is a beautiful property, situated on a beach and featuring a small private pier, and the hosts are kind and generous. We spent the evening sipping caipirinhas, lying on the pier and gazing at the star-studded night sky, swimming with phytoplankton (or trying to, haha) and falling asleep to the sound of waves – if it sounds like a dream, let me assure you it’s the closest I’ve come to live one.
I was determined to wake up before dawn the following morning and watch the sunrise. And boy oh boy Paraty did not disappoint. With my feet dangling off the pier into the chilly water, I watched the sky change from a star-studded black to orange and yellow to purple and finally shades of green and blue.
After breakfast, we proceeded to our much awaited “beach day”, where we planned to laze around and frolic on the beach the entire day (and click NatGeo-esque pictures, of course). This is one of my favorite memories from the entire trip – we trekked 2 km through thick forest cover to Praça Vermelha and had the beach to ourselves for several hours. The day was spent swimming against the backdrop of the blue-green ocean, outlines of mountains and other island formations.
In the evening, we took the ferry back to the mainland and checked into Macabea Hostel. I took the evening to walk around the main market, shopping for souvenirs and occasionally eating sweets off a cart (which seems to be a popular concept in Brazil!).
5. Rio de Janeiro, Rio de Janeiro (3 nights, 4 days)
We pulled up to Avenida Francisco Bicalho, 1, Rio after a four-hour bus journey from Paraty. After checking into the Walk on the Beach hostel in Copacabana, we immediately left to explore the area. Copacabana beach was very dynamic in the evening, with lively restaurants playing loud music and colorful pop-up shops dotting its perimeter.
Top tip: Check out the pop-up shops at Copacabana for some unique beaded jewelry. And when you get hungry, grab some traditional grilled chicken at any of the several restaurants! Quench your thirst with either coconut water or caipirinhas, both of which are sold off carts.
The next day, I decided to visit the beach early in the morning and even though it was a weekday, the beach was packed with locals and tourists alike. The sparkling blue waters and hills in the background made for a very serene atmosphere. I could even see Christ the Redeemer watching over the city, peeking through the tall buildings! All said and done, there is something comforting about having a massive, seemingly omniscient statue watching over the whole city.
I had read some raving reviews about the hike up the Two Brothers hill and was eager to do it. We reached the Vidigal area in the early afternoon and hopped on moto-taxis operated by the locals (R$ 10), after which we located the starting point of the trail situated to the left of the Vila Olimpica soccer field. The hike was somewhat of a challenge on the way up since the trail was steep, and it took me 65 minutes to make it all the way to the top. But the breath-taking views peeking through the foliage and the magnificent view of south Carioca made it all worth it. Quite yet another moment of overwhelming awe.
Read more: A Week in Rio de Janeiro for 100 Euro
Top Tip: Make sure you carry sturdy walking shoes for the hike! The trail is steep and slippery in places, and sneakers are your best bet to stay safe and find your footing.
We made it down the hill in 38 minutes and caught an Uber to Ipanema beach just in time to catch the famous sunset, which seemed like a scene straight out of a Harry Potter movie.
The following day, we decided to take a guided tour across Rio. Since the city is home to innumerable spectacles, we thought it best to sign up for a tour to see the best ones. Here’s how we spent the day:
- Christ the Redeemer – The price of the tour included tickets and a tour of this landmark’s history. We saw stunning views of Rio from the top, and even spotted the Two Brothers hills we had hiked to the previous day!
- Estadio Mario Filho – Football is an important part of Rio’s culture and this historical stadium is where it all began.
- Sao Sebastian Metropolitan Cathedral – This cone shaped-cathedral with a capacity of 20,000 people has some stunning stained glass work on the ceiling, brought to life by sunlight seeping in through the structure’s unusual shape.
- Escadaria Selarón (Selarón Steps) – These steps constructed by a Chilean artist as a “tribute to the Brazilian people” look like one giant mosaic, made of thousands of tiles of different colors. Perfect photo-op!
- Sugarloaf Mountain – The cable car to the top of the mountain (and of course, the mountain itself) offers mesmerizing views of the Rio skyline and the boundless ocean.
Top Tip: Most hostels have tie-ups with local tour companies that offer good discounts, be sure to inquire at the reception during check in and reserve a spot in advance – that’s what we did!
Before booking the tour, check the forecast to see if it’s likely to be cloudy at Christ the Redeemer – clouds will block your view! There are websites offering a live stream of the view from the top that you could use for this purpose as well.
Early the next morning, I woke up early to catch my last Brazilian sunrise over Copacabana beach and felt the ocean mist spray my body one last time. When we boarded our flight back to India soon after, I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d ever come back to this tropical paradise 15,000 kilometers from home.
PHASE 3: HINDSIGHT IS ALWAYS 20/20
You know what they say about hindsight! You’ve read my top tips for each destination, but here’s what I would do differently if I had the chance to do it all over again:
- Pack light – always, always pack light. The rule of thumb that works best for me for day outfits is one top for each day of the visit, plus half that number of lowers, and one spare outfit. On a trip that involved visiting five Brazil cities over a span of three weeks, two full suitcases eventually became a pain to lug around (for me, and for my friends!).
- Be sure to check the weather before you leave – I would have carried one more jacket had I known how chilly/ rainy Brazil can get in the early morning and late evening, even in the summer.
- Slather on waterproof sunscreen at all times! I decided to ditch the sunscreen on my “beach day” in Paraty and had to nurse a sunburn for the rest of the trip.
- If you’re an amateur photographer like me who likes to shoot on a phone camera when on holiday, buy a tripod and learn techniques to take pictures of the star-studded night sky. This tip is especially relevant for Paraty!
- Research in advance the places where phone/ internet connectivity is intermittent. Contact your hostel for this information and inform your loved ones before you get there so they don’t take you for missing/ dead when you don’t answer calls for a few days.
- Build up your alcohol tolerance well in advance if you don’t think you can resist caipirinhas being sold off carts! This is Brazil’s national cocktail made of (strong) cachaça, lime, and sugar.
- All opinions are the author’s own. You can hit her up with your travel tales on her Instagram or blog.
- All information in this piece is updated as of April 2018. The author assumes no responsibility for the accuracy of this information afterward.
- Both the writing and pictures in this post are the intellectual property of the author. Please do not use them without permission.