Sunday, September 25, 2011

36 hours from LA finds us deserted in the Amazon

En Route to the Amazon

Good travels are never without much transit and waiting. After 2 long 8 hour flights, a layover in Panama long enough to get our passports stamped, but not long enough to explore, we arrived in Manaus, Brazil.

Manaus was our launching point into the Amazon. Their ATMs refused to give us cash after 9pm, so with no Brazilian Reis on hand, we holed up in our hostel. The next morning we grabbed cash, and were on our way to the Amazon. We had done much research, albeit in a short amount of time, as to what tour company to travel with. We compared prices, preferred the black river with less bugs and less animals and wanted maximum time in the crazy jungle and minimum time in a comfortable lodge. So, we finally settled on Amazon Antionio Jungle Tours ( for 3 nights and 4 days of jungle adventure.

Amazon Day 1

We took to local VIP bus 2 hours to a small town, where we hopped out and onto a motor boat. Cruising 45 minutes on the Urudu river, we only saw a few locals, but otherwise, the Amazon was all ours!

Boating along the Urudu River in the Amazon

Now this is vacation!

Arriving at our Amazon Antonio jungle lodge.

Jane and I had both been rather busy at work, and felt like we barely made it onto our plane in one piece. But here, Jane and I would soon learn the art of chilling with the help of this dock by the river and the tower in the background peering over the Amazon.

We were based out of this lodge and took overnight trips and mini-ventures into the jungle.

Medicinal tree

When we first arrived, our guide took us on a 30 minute medicinal walk. We learned about natural products of the Amazon used to treat different problems. I was all about this since I had just taught a lecture on using native trees to extract taxol, a molecule to cure cancer. Yes, I can't help but think of science wherever I go.

After a jump into the river to cool off, relaxing lunch and another jump into the river (a common theme of our time in the jungle), we were off to sleep in the jungle overnight with our guide and an Austrian couple.

Jane successfully carved her own wooden spoon with a machete.

It was not as easy as it looks. We also made our own plates our of banana leaves. We cooked the food we carried (chicken, sausage and rice) over our campfire and avoided drinking the stream water although our guide insisted it was OK. Good times.

Amazon Day 2
Waking up in my hammock at the crack of dawn.

We slept in hammocks under a tarp. They were actually pretty comfty. The jungle on the other hand was quite loud at night! Thank goodness I came prepared with my earplugs.

Hiking in the forest at 7 am.

We didn't have much luck seeing animals on this hike, but we did see footprints of a jaguar. We weren't sure if we were trying to track the jaguar down, or if the jaguar was trying to track us down. When the guide asked Jane and I what we expected to see in the Amazon, I replied "trees" and Jane replied "birds." We have very realistic expectations.

Climbing up one of the largest trees in this jungle.
You didn't think I could venture into the jungle and NOT try climbing or swinging around, right?

Lunch back at the lodge. A typical meal. We were well-fed indeed.

Paddling through the flooded forest.
We loved being on the water.

Trees in the water in the flooded forest

Piranha fishing!

This was our sole catch of the trip. Without much instruction, Jane and I were trying to devise our strategy based on watching our guide and logic. But in the end, I looked over and exclaimed to Jane, "You look like a madwoman!" Jane yells back, "Well, I think this madwoman got a fish." Indeed she did. I guess there is a method to the madness. Then we jumped into the river for a swim.
Sunset on the river

View from the tower.

Antonio's tower was definitely the best asset to his company. Ingenious. 5 stories high hovering over the Amazon. We wish we could just take this view, fold it up and put it in our bag. Then no matter what craziness we encountered, we could unfold this scenery and just chill.

Spotted: Cayman!
We lucked out. Our guide saw the eyes of this cayman at night, and caught it.

Amazon Day 3

We started off with an early morning hike.

Crazy vines.

We spotted toucans, wild boars and monkeys. Not a bad trek at all!

Me and Jane attempting to do a domestic craft.

Yeah, that did not work out so well. I couldn't figure out how to braid with 4 strands, and Jane couldn't efficiently carve holes into the beads. We couldn't believe that we had to cut our cerveza/fanta/tower time short to do this. At least we modified the bracelets so that we could finish earlier, and get on with the day.

Waiting to descend down the path to the dock.

Hammocks ready. Off to sleep on the beach.

We were determined to catch some more piranhas with our detailed strategy - less chicken bait, fresh chicken, yank like a madwoman. That failed. We caught more logs and tree branches than anything else. We confirmed that our guide had bought fish to cook, and weren't counting on our sub-par fishing skills for food. So we called it quits and went for another swim as the sun set.

Grilled fish for dinner.
Fish number 2 was nothing short of magical. By far our best meal.

I think our guide learned that us crazy girls like to swim and like our fish.

Amazon Day 4

Not a bad view to wake up to.

Our night on the beach surpassed our expectations. Just us and the chatting frogs under the full moon in our hammocks. Such a hidden secret. Everyone should totally do this! We found it much more enjoyable than sleeping in the thick of the jungle.
Pineapple before the storm.

Did I mention that our oars also doubled as the prep block for fishing and our meal plates? A crazy storm came. We quickly put up a tarp and slept it out. It is the Amazon afterall.

Visiting the locals.
We saw their house and the maniorca farm that looked suspiciously like cannabis. Hmm...

Dropping off some batteries to the local fisherman.

Professional Chillers

By the end of our 4 days in the Amazon, we were pleasantly surprised at how good we became at chilling. I did not expect so much down time, but apparently because of the heat, nothing happens between 1 and 3:30 every afternoon. No animals are out, so all we did was chill.

Chilling on the dock.
Jumping into the river, our favorite past time.

Chilling in the tower.
It's not easy being professional chillers!

Oh beautiful Amazon.

We definitely had an awesome time in the Amazon. It was hot and humid, but we found relief in the cool water. The nature was beautiful. For the most part, it was just us and the jungle. Jane has decided that she is done with jungle. I probably have at least one more in me. A great relaxing way to start our trip.

Paraty, Isla Grande and Rio de Janiero

Manaus: Back to civilization

The opera house

Manaus was a key city in the early 1900's as it was the gateway into the Amazon and an important supplier of rubber. The opera house above symbolized this wealthy era.

We spent a relaxing evening in Manaus. It was a pleasant city and we got to observe a lot of students and more of local Brazilian life.

En transit again.

We awaited for the public bus to take us to the airport for 3 Reias (~$2). We were on the edge of our seats ready to "look alive" and flag down our bus according to Lonely Planet suggestions. And we waited for 2 hours. Absurd. Alas at 10 pm, we saw a mad rush of people onto the street to catch the last round of public busses. We hopped into a $25 cab ride begrudgingly and still made it early for out 12:30 am flight to Rio. From those two hours, we learned that Brazilian jeans have a lot of bedazzle on the booty.

To Paraty: a colonial town (day 5)

After a red eye flight to Rio, bus ride to the bus station and 4.5 hour bus ride, we arrived in Paraty 16 hours later. With no Pousada (guesthouse) reservations, we walked all around town with all our luggage to choose an accomodation.

The view from our hotel. Definitely a good choice.

Paraty is a nice colonial town with no cars and cobblestone roads.

Boats at the harbor - not taking us to the beaches

Paraty is surrounded by natural beauty. It's suppose to be a great launching point for secluded beaches and rewarding hikes, but unfortunately the weather was not cooperating with us. But we explored anyways.

That darn camera timer and slippery rocks.

A night out on the town.
It was really quiet and peaceful.
Dois caipirinhas

This national drink of Brazil is made with cachaça (sugar cane rum), sugar and lime. These in Paraty were by far the best ones we had in all of Brazil. I probably drank more in this one trip than I did the entire year, which of course was probably still less than 5 drinks.

And the next day we are off again ... (Day 6)

Keeping it real with the local bus: Is this the one to Angra?

After asking around and our last bus fiasco, we ended up seeing not one, but TWO busses to our destination, Angra. Eh? We felt better when we realized that the locals were also confused.

FYI, Spanish does NOT get you very far in Brazil, much to our dismay and misconception. Seeing that we did not have time to pick up Portuguese, we managed to direct our way around this country.

Ilha Grande
(days 6 -8)

We decided to hit up Ilha Grande since it sounded like a lovely, secluded, nature-filled island with only one small village, Vila do Abraao.

Ferry from Angra to Ilha Grande, our destination.

It was very cold, very rough and very wet. We were ever so thankful that we packed our rain jackets. Oh what lifesavers. This is one of the downfalls of traveling off-season.

We arrived as the sun was setting. Ilha Grande is a beautiful enticing island.

Pousada D'Pillel in Vila do Abraao

Walking around the car-less island, we searched for a reasonably priced guesthouse. Alas, we found the perfect place, Hostel D'Pillel for 80 Reais ($50) per night. Sure I had to negotiate a little over a phone to an unknown Brazilian, but it worked out wonderfully. In this process, I thought I was asked if I was Japanese by this Brazilian, but ended up getting a special, secret free boat ride to unknown destinations. Gotta love the language miscommunications.

Eating at the local restaurant, Point Break.

We got to know a few of the locals who recommended this restaurant. We had amazing fish banana, and returned our second night for more fish. We also hung out at the local bar (Che-gato? Che-cat?) with our new found friends. There were post-college guys kickin' it on the island - surfing and working, and definitely into their smart phones! They decided to nickname us Mary Jane and Angelina Jolie because that's logical. And for fun, we communicated in espanol.

Day 7: touring the beaches of Isla Grande

We took our free boat ride to 3 places around the island. We seemed to be the only non-Brazilians, which made our experience all the more enjoyable. At one point on our boat ride, everyone seemed to be taking off their pants to reveal their swimsuit bottoms?! Eh? When getting important instructions, we decided the guide must be saying "Don't make any stupid movements." We learned by watching and fortunately had some nice Brazilian guys translate the essentials for us (ie. don't walk off the cliff).

Beach and hike to the waterfall.

The sun was out on our full day at Ilha Grande. Jane and I plus one other crazy guy ventured into the ocean to snorkel. It was cold, gray and there were no fish so we quickly returned to the boat.

Day 8: One more beach on Ilha Grande

Taking another small boat to another amazing beach - Praia Lopes Mendes

Hanging out on Praia Lopes Mendes
It was actually windy and cold, and relatively secluded.

After boating back to the main port, we rushed back to our Pousada, showered, changed, re-packed and were back on to the port to catch our ferry to the mainland, all within 30 minutes! Even we were surprised with our efficiency.

While we were done with rocky, wet boat rides, we did not want to leave Isla Grande. If this were a long, open trip, Isla Grande is the place where we would get unexpectedly caught at about a week longer than anticipated. We still wonder why don't more people know about this Island or visit it? It's amazing! We already extended our stay a day longer, but alas we had to depart to Rio.

Rio de Janiero

We got a direct transfer called "speed connection!" from Isla Grande to our Pousada in Rio via ferry and bus. It was by far the best spent 65 Reias per person! Practically door-to-door service with minimal confusion and 4.5 hours.

Samba in Lapa!

We arrived at night, rested, then cabbed to Lapa to check out the Saturday night Samba scene. Sorry, no pictures as we did not take a camera, or even our purses or wallets. We hid 100 Reais to last us the night.

It was ever so lively. People spanned all age ranges. Arriving on the early side at 11:30 pm, we were surprised to see a long line at 40 degrees, the recommended club by our Isla Grande friends. We decided to pass and ducked into a smaller club with a live samba band, and more mature crowd. We sat down with a drink and enjoyed the music.

Day 9: Roaming around Rio

After a discussion with our host, Fatima, we were told to avoid Central Rio on Sunday since it was empty and dangerous. We wanted to take a tram to the neighborhood, Santa Theresa. The tram, which usually only has a few occasional deaths, just had a major accident killing 5 people and injuring 27 so it was out of commission.

So, we decided to stroll down the famous Ipanema and Copacabana beaches.

Strolling along the Ipanema beach front.

Eating an unknown item at the local fair.

Amazing unknown meal at the fair. Potatoes and spice!
Jane and I are good at acquiring food even if we don't speak the language.

Pão de Açúcar (Sugar Loaf Mountain)

Two major tourist attractions for splendid views of Rio are Cristo and Sugar Loaf Mountain. Originally we had planned to do both, but when we found out the cost, we decided we could only afford one. Besides, how different could the two views be? We chose Sugar Loaf because it seemed easier to get to.

View of Copacabana from Sugar Loaf Mountain

Jane and me on the smaller of the two loaves.

Cautions! We only bought a limited amount of cash with us each day and no cards for fear of being robbed. We even tried to keep our camera memory card separate from our camera. Call us paranoid, but all travelers we encountered always got robbed in Rio.

It was even more expensive than we thought to go up the loaf (53 Reais = $33!). We didn't budget appropriately, and barely had enough money to grab a cheap dinner and take the bus home!
There's the Cristo! Always our landmark. Taken from Urca.

From Sugar Loaf we walked over to Urca, one of the two safe neighborhoods to be in at night (the other is Leblon, where our Pousada was located). With our limited funds, we ate as many pastels (small appetizers) as we could afford along the water front with the locals and fishermen. Then using the last of our reais, we hopped on the public bus back to our pousada.

Day 10: Our second and final day in Rio and Brazil

We decided to stroll around Central Rio and check out some of the culture and architecture.

Inside the National Library.
We couldn't take a tour because in our cautiousness, we realized we were not carrying any IDs on us.
Acai smoothie with banana

We loved the juices! My fave was acai, which had to be taken with another fruit. We only found these smoothies in Rio and Paraty.

We mostly bussed around everywhere because we could not afford taxis! We only took taxis when our safety would be in clear danger.
Obese person sign on the public bus

A picture of an obese person was next to the handicapped, walking with cane and pregnant signs. Now we know what Brazilians think of being overweight!

Rio in all it's glory.

Rio is a gorgeous city unlike any other. It's interspersed with breath-taking mountains, green foliage and fine beaches. We really enjoyed it and wish we had more time to get to know the city, but alas, we had to catch our (3rd) red-eye flight to go back to our jobs.

Me and Jane chillin' in Rio
(That was our profession in Brazil afterall.)

Cristo at sunset

Jane and I had an amazing time in Brazil. It lived up to our expectations. Our trip was way too short. Both of us are used to much longer travels, but we will take what we can get for now. We crammed as much as we could into our 10-days, but also managed to be professional chillers. We slept in 3 different airplanes, 4 different Pousadas and 3 different places in the Amazon.

We deemed it a successful trip. We experienced nature, colonial town, chill island and big city. We had lots of delicious food, especially fish. We did not get mugged. It was definitely one of the more expensive countries we visited, but it was well-worth it. Our visa is good for 10 years, so who knows .... maybe we will return!

But until then, there is work and many more places to explore. We are already pondering Winter break 2012 ... maybe India or the Middle East?! Stay tuned.