Saturday, December 31, 2011

Brazil (Rio de Janeiro, Manaus-Amazon)

Brazil was our first rendezvous with South America. We decided to explore the jungles of Amazon and the city of Rio de Janeiro in December 2011. 

Our brief itinerary:

Day 1: Fly in to Rio de Janeiro. Fly to Manaus. Overnight in Manaus.
Day 2: Amazon tour pick up in the morning.  Tour Day 1. Overnight in the lodge.
Day 3: Tour Day 2. Overnight in the lodge.
Day 4: Tour Day 3. Overnight in the lodge.
Day 5: Transfer to Manaus airport. Fly to Rio de Janeiro.
Day 6: Sightseeing in Rio. Overnight in Rio.
Day 7: Sightseeing in Rio. Overnight in Rio.
Day 8: Day at the beach. New Year's Eve at the beach.
Day 9: Fly out.

When to go?

We chose December because it was summers in Rio plus the New Year's eve at the Copacabana beach was very enticing, so we picked December. It gets cold in Rio during the winter months, but Amazon region has only two seasons, rainy and dry! December was a rainy month, but we used to get brief showers during the afternoon and it didn't affect our plans or our sightseeing. In fact the showers made the weather all the more pleasant.
Or you can choose to go in February and enjoy the Carnival in the streets of Rio de Janeiro!

Where to fly?

We picked Rio as the only tickets available at that time were to Rio. We booked our flight to Manaus from Rio the same day we were supposed to land in Rio and that was a huge mistake. By the time we reached our hotel in Manaus, we had been traveling for 36 hours! 
So, if you intend to fly to Rio, you will have two airport choices, GIG (bigger airport, but a little outside the city) or SDU (smaller airport, but closer to city center).
If you intend to fly to Manaus, your only choice is Manaus airport (MAO). Many international flight do fly directly to the Manaus airport. Do not miss the scenic view when you are about to land in Manaus. The Amazon forest is so dense, it looks like Broccoli! ;)



We stayed overnight in Manaus. We stayed at the Do Largo Hotel. I wouldn't recommend it. But it was one of the better options available at that time. We arrived on Christmas Eve. There were not many vegetarian options around and most of the places were closed. Plus, sign language isn't very helpful while trying to convey "no meat" to Portuguese speaking people. There was Taj Mahal Continetal Hotel that we could see from out hotel room. We hoped we would find some Indian food options there, but they were just a hotel, with no restaurant options!
After we managed to eat something from our packed travel snacks, we took a stroll in the neighborhood. We went to Teatro Amazonas (Opera House) which was fully decorated for the Christmas celebrations the next day. Took some pictures and went back to our hotel. We were jet lagged and exhausted. So we crashed hoping for a better adventure in the Amazon forest the next day!

Amazon Tour

We booked our Amazon tour with Brazil Nuts Tours. Of course you need to be with a jungle expert in the Amazon, even if you have been an avid NatGeo fan! Brazil Nuts tour operators were very helpful and I went back and forth quite a few times to get a desired itinerary. I would recommend them! We stayed at Eco Lodge and did quite a few things in a group of 12. Here are the details:

Eco Lodge
Eco Lodge: We were transferred by a car to the banks of River Negro. Then we were transferred to Eco Lodge, a lodge on the banks of the river Negro inside the forest on a boat. The lodge was pretty good and it added to our jungle experience. There was no internet, no cell phone connection, which is mostly good while on a vacation :) They had a beautiful pet parrot which gave us company in the lounge.
Being vegetarian was not an issue here. There used to be fried rice, baked potatoes, veggies and desserts for us. I could save my snacks and trail bars for Rio. 

Meeting of the rivers
Meeting of the rivers: We left early in the morning, that would be 9 am, on a boat, to see Meeting of the Rivers. Briefly speaking, two rivers, Rio Negro and Rio Solimoes, flow side by side for about 6kms. These rivers have different properties, color of the water, temperature, speed, so the phenomenon is quite marvelous!

Monkey forest: We visited monkey forest for an hour or so in the afternoon. We got a chance to pet them and feed them mangoes :) Later we had lunch at a near by restaurant in the jungle where I could hold a sloth. Such a cutie.

Holding a caiman
Alligator spotting at night: This was the most fun activity of our trip. At around 10 pm, we left on our boat and after reaching one of the nearby banks of the river, stayed put. Our guide had a flashlight and he used it to spot alligators. The eyes of alligators look bright red when you flash light on them in the dark.
After our guide spotted one such baby alligator, he captured it and I got to hold an alligator! I still can't believe I did it. Alligator was later released to the waters unharmed.

Meeting the locals: We met Mr Tomas's family who have been living in the jungle for generations. Here he showed us how they extract rubber from trees and process it. He told us many stories about living in the jungle and offered us some Brazil Nuts to eat. They are quite close to coconut in texture in taste.

Lily Pads, Alligators and Anaconda: We took a half day trip to see lots of beautiful Lily pads and alligators living in the waters. Our guide fed these alligators some raw meet and it was fun to see the alligators jumping out of water to catch it. Then, we made a stop to see a local boy who "owns" an Anaconda. We held it and it reminded me of the snake charmers in India. I never tried holding a cobra in India, but I just had to do it here.

Fishing fun: Our boat of 12 left for a fishing expedition one evening. Goal was to fish a Piranha. They are small, but deadly. River Negro is full of Piranhas. Our guide gave us some basic fishing tips and we all got our own fishing rods and hooks and baits and we sat down hoping to catch a Piranha. Well, the fish always managed to defeat me and I lost my bait without being able to actually fish a fish! But someone in our group did manage to catch one and we were all excited. Took pictures and before it died, we released it to the waters again. What kind souls! ;)
Snakey Wakey
Bird watching tour: We left for an early morning, 6 am bird watching tour. I carried my binoculars and we did spot quite a few birds!

Hiking in the jungle: This was another fun activity. We hiked in the dense forest with two guides. We spotted a venomous snake, which our guide captured for us to show us his fangs and also a few venomous spiders.

Our amazon warrior!
Spider we caught on our jungle trek

Rio de Janeiro

Where to Stay?

It is very important to pick a safe area in Rio. Crime rate is pretty high and you need to be careful especially since you need to walk down to the metro stations. We really wanted a place closer to the Copacabana beach, but nothing was available, hence we settled for Windsor Guanabara. It was a pretty good choice and metro station was a short walk away. You could also rent an apartment or a condo for a few days.

What to eat?

Finding veggie food was very tough. We survived on some spring rolls from a Chinese place very close to the Copacabana beach. Other options were Cheese Pizza, french fries and lots of fresh coconut water from the beach stalls. One interesting fact: Potato is called "batata", so we survived on batata fritas!
Do not miss the ice cream-fruit salad available at some place. It is absolutely delicious. 

What to see?

Being touristy at Christ Redeemer
Cristo Redentor: Christ Redeemer is the main attraction of Rio. It is one of the wonders of the modern world. It is magnanimous, but well, I wasn't that impressed. The views from the top are breathtaking. You'll a get to see Sugar Loaf mountain, Copacabana beach and also a view of Maracana football stadium, where FIFA world cup is scheduled in 2014. Getting to the top of the mountain isn't very hard. A small train takes you to the top of the mountain. You need to buy your round trip ticket at the base station. This will be helpful for tickets and to get there.

Sugar Loaf: It is another attraction in Rio that offers beautiful views. The name sounds interesting, right? Read more about it. It consists of two cable car rides up to the top and offers panoramic views of Rio. Another helpful guide to get there.

Rio Scenarium: I wanted to listen to some lively peppy music and we heard Rio Scenarium was one of the best clubs around. It was absolutely wonderful and the live music was so dance-worthy!  The club itself was very unique with antiques displayed all over the walls.

Fun time at the beach
Copacabana Beach: One of the best beaches in the world, with warm Atlantic waters. The beach is almost 2.5 miles(4km) long and is very very popular. So, it is crowded and fun. You'll see many youngsters playing beach volley ball and a lot of food stalls y the each side. We spent about half a day at the beach. 
New Year's eve at the Copacabana beach is one in a lifetime experience and the best New Year Eve celebrations I have ever witnessed. As is the tradition, everyone dresses in white clothes. So did we and went around 6 pm to reserve our spot. They are not kidding when they say they have 1 million people on the beach. I have never been in a more crowded area before. Well, we wanted to be closer towards one end of the beach, so we got a good place, not very close to the beach, but with a decent view of the fireworks. If you like DisneyLand fireworks, the ones here are just more grand and perfectly in sync and along the entire 4 km coastline. You'll be spellbound :) One more thing, the metro tickets for New Year's eve get sold out like a day or two in advance. If you plan on taking metro after the fireworks, you should arrange for tickets timely. Cabs are twice or thrice the regular price that night!
Happy New Year

What more I got to say?

  • Ipanema beach is another beach in Rio that is quite popular and being less crowded might work better for some people
  • Public transport is super convenient. Just make sure you don't get off the metro is shady areas, and you'll be fine.
  • Take regular touristy precautions that you would in any big city.
  • Iguazu falls is another things to put on your list if you have time. We planned to save it for later.
  • Yellow fever vaccination is mandatory while visiting Brazil.
  • Be careful of the mosquitoes in Amazon. We didn't have many issues as we used mosquito repellents with at least 33% DEET and had all our clothes dipped in Permethrin solution.