Florianópolis

After a 12 hour Semi-Leito (half sleeper) bus from São Paulo we arrived in the city of Florianópolis, our last stop in Southern Brazil. Florianópolis is composed of a long, thin island (Ilha de Santa Catarina) with a built-up city centre bridging the mainland in the West, and the popular tourist areas located in the East and North.

To avoid the crowds our first stay was in Campeche, a small beach-side neighbourhood located in the more secluded Southern area of the island. The hostel in Campeche, although a little shabby, had a peaceful family feel and lovely host. However, it was a little quieter than we expected and didn't offer anything to do nearby without catching a bus or two (which were a little time consuming without timetables to check). On the plus side, we were pointed in the direction of some lovely remote beaches.

Highlights of Campeche included visiting Praia do Saquinho beach, reached by a 30 minute walk from Praia da Solidão at the Southern point of the island (with it's own resident beach horse!), and a great Monday night out at the Green Go party with cheap drinks and decent music. There was also a fantastic South African/Brazilian food truck called Chakalaka Street Food around the corner selling amazing burgers, hot dogs and 'crazy potato'.

We had a bit of difficulty getting a ticket to Uruguay (our next destination) as only a few buses ran per week, so consequently we ended up staying an extra 2 nights in Florianópolis. We took advantage of this by moving to the Barra de Lagoa area, a more upbeat part of the island that hosted some the best surfing beaches. We stayed at the Barra Beach Club hostel which was fantastic, with a great location overlooking a small beach, free surfboard rental and a buzzy social scene at the hostel bar during the evenings.

During our stay we realised that Florianópolis is less about sit-down culinary experiences and more about food trucks. In the evenings taco stands, burger trucks, gelato stalls and craft beer vans all congregated in Lagoa da Conceição at the Food Truck Parking Lot, a popup situated next to an empty concrete pool claimed by skaters, making it a perfect social eating and drinking spot. The food was cheap and tasty, and the experience was reminiscent of the food truck scene we were both used to back in London.

During the last few days of our stay we managed to get some good surfing practice in to burn off the calorific street food we'd been eating. We headed to Praia da Barra da Lagoa, a nearby beach that offered both surf lessons and cheap board hire. The waves were small but clean and perfect for beginners, and we enjoyed some easygoing sessions on rented 8ft foam boards.

Although we were initially a little underwhelmed by Florianópolis, after 5 days we understood why it was so popular: a devoted surf and skate culture. The chilled atmosphere, consistent swell and great nightlife makes it the perfect setup for the younger crowds and surfer lifestyle. It was nice to pause from cultural sight-seeing and just enjoy a more easy going pace. We ended our stay with a great night out in Malam club in Lagoa da Conceição with a few others who were staying at the hostel.

24 hours in São Paulo

Although not at the top of our list of places to visit, São Paulo was a convenient stop-gap between Rio State and Uruguay. Having heard mixed reviews about the sprawling concrete jungle (such as traffic and lack of tourist attractions) we had some reservations about what to expect on arrival. We took a 6 hour coach from Paraty in a Catarinense bus with scenic views, aircon and comfortable reclining seats. We zigzagged along the smooth highways soaking up the ocean views on our left and steep green mountains on our right.

After entering São Paulo, we started to get a sense of how massive the city is. Luckily they have an excellent subway that took us straight to our chosen neighbourhood of Vila Madalena. After getting lost when looking for our accommodation, we were helped by a local lady, Katharina, who very kindly walked us to the tranquil Zen Hostel and even invited us to her amazing penthouse apartment for drinks on their roof terrace that evening (which we found very refreshing for a big city). It was lovely to chat with Katharina and her partner Matthias, and they had useful tips for places to eat and drink and offered us some great tasting beers!

The area of Vila Madalena is located in the West of the city, and boasts very visible bohemian street art, numerous small galleries, lively bars, cafes and some great restaurants. After a delicious all-you-can-eat breakfast at La Da Venda we spent a good few hours strolling around the steep graffiti-clad streets filled with quirky details such as 'guerrilla gardening' on lamp-posts and handpainted signage.

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The most popular street to visit was Beco de Batman, a cobbled alleyway filled top-to-bottom with street art. The brightly painted walls attracted photographers and models alike for an 'urban-feel' fashion shoot. After taking some snaps of our own we visited a few of the independent art galleries that were dotted around the area. 

After a good few hours walking we decided to take a well-earned break at the highly rated Coffee Lab. The place had a very relaxed vibe with an extensive and descriptive menu to please both connoisseurs and novices (ourselves), and we enjoyed a freshly aero-pressed coffee and a mean iced latte with finely chopped dates.

Our bus was leaving at 11.30pm that evening, so we decided to grab a pizza; apparently São Paulo has some of the best pizza in the world due to it's large Italian community. However, as we were about to set off for Carlos Pizza, we were met with the most torrential rain we'd ever experienced. Consequently we had to wade shoeless through a river of fast-flowing water to get to the restaurant! We arrived soaking wet but the whole experience was a lot of fun. We left São Paulo feeling pleasantly surprised after an enjoyable and unexpectedly eventful 24 hours.

Paraty

The Old Town

After catching a boat from Ilha Grande to Angra des Reis, we traveled 2 hours south by local bus to the picturesque town of Paraty. We learnt that the old town was inhabited by Portuguese settlers in the 16th century after the discovery of gold, becoming an intrinsic port between Minas Gerais and Rio de Janerio. The wealth that had once poured into the town was apparent through the stylish, well-built houses and churches typical of the Colonial era. We spent the best part of the day ambling through the colourful cobbled streets soaking up the beautifully adorned houses, horse drawn carts and coffee shops around the historic town centre.

Happy Hammock Hostel

Having heard from a few people that Happy Hammock was a very special hostel, we were pretty excited on the 15 minute boat ride from Paraty. We were taken to a palm-lined pier leading to a gorgeous house set into the hills. Being an eco-hostel and due to it's remote location there was only 2 hours of electricity a day and no wifi (which for us was a blessing). Each night our hosts Patrick and Julia prepared delicious meals for us and the other guests, giving a relaxed and homely vibe to the place. We loved spending lazy evenings on the balcony chatting and drinking with the like-minded guests, swinging in hammocks, paddleboarding and swimming in the crystal clear bay.

Anniversary Meal at Banana da Terra

The penultimate evening fell our 5 year anniversary, so we decided to stay in Paraty and treat ourselves to a dinner date night. We wandered over the large cobbles of the old town where restaurants had lined the streets with tables and had a drink listening to a fantastic guitar trio playing traditional South America music.

We then headed to Banana da Terra, a Brazilian-French fusion restaurant tastefully designed and with an even tastier menu. We'd enjoyed trying the Brazilian food during our trip but it was refreshing to taste traditional dishes with the lighter touch of French gastronomy. From a beautifully soft seafood starter, well-cooked steak and sea bass for mains to a fruity dessert in a league of its own we left extremely happy customers!

Cachoeira Toboga Waterfall

As we were in Paraty the next morning we decided to a catch local bus to the Cachoeira Toboga, a natural waterslide with smooth algae covered rock. It was brilliant fun! The water was lovely and refreshing and the slippery rocks and fast-flowing water provided hours of fun. Equally as entertaining was watching the young local boys take run ups and surf down on their feet. Unsurprisingly, we came nowhere close to anything that impressive!

Ilha Grande

The second stop on our trip was Ilha Grande. Located just three hours south of Rio, and with its plentiful beaches and rainforest hikes, it's no surprise that the island is the favourite holiday destination of Brazilians and tourists alike. For us, it was a much needed time to relax after a hectic, party-filled Carnival. As many others do we stayed in the main town, Vila do Abraão, which although fairly touristy still retained the quaint character of a small fishing town and hosted some great beach-side fish restaurants and bars.

Our stay was split across two hostels due to the busy holiday season. The less said about our fist hostel, El Misti, the better (a hot stuffy room which wasn't particularly clean - and pretty big cockroaches!). Our second stay was at Holandes, a beautiful hostel located just a short walk from the town bustle, with our own individual Jungalow (jungle bungalow) surrounded by tranquil rainforest. The area around the hostel had a really peaceful atmosphere, with the odd cat chilling out in the shade.

Hiking is highly recommended at Ilha Grande, so on our second day we decided to walk to the 'Feiticeira' waterfall. It was a fairly steep hour and a half trek through lush rainforest along a stony path. The waterfall itself was small but very refreshing to take a natural shower under after a humid, wet and muddy trek. After a quick swim at the waterfall we walked back in the cool of the afternoon for a lovely beach-side meal at the O Pescador.

The most popular thing to do on Ilha Grande is to visit some of it's many stunning beaches. This became apparent when we took a couple of boat tours around the island. Although the beaches and lagoons were truly beautiful, it was somewhat spoilt by the number of people and boats at each stop. We still had a great time snorkeling, sun bathing and eating freshly grilled fish on the more remote, traditional restaurants on the island.

Our favourite day was spent on Lopez Mendez beach, a beautiful 2km or so stretch of white sand with crystal clear water backed by tall coconut trees. We were able to find a peaceful patch of beach to ourselves, and even catch a few cheeky (but small) waves on rented boards. We stopped off at 'Pouso' beach for a Caipirinha at a great little floating cocktail bar before getting a taxi boat back to Abraão.

Although we found Ilha Grande to be firmly established on the gringo trail, we realised that the island still has enough natural beauty to go round even during the busy summer season, with some great restaurants, bars and a few seclude beaches if you're willing to go a bit further and earlier to find them.

Rio Carnival

After a hot, colorful and eye-opening two weeks in Rio we couldn't have asked for a more fitting end to our stay than Carnival. The 5-day festivities ranged from large and small blocos throughout the day, to the parade at the Sambadrome beating on to the early hours of the morning; it was a great way to experience Rio at it's most vibrant.

Carnival Blocos

One of our first experiences of Carnival was the traditional 'Carmelitas' bloco, held in the Santa Teresa neighbourhood. It was themed around an anecdote about a nun who apparently fled from a nearby church to party during Carnival. It wound through the cobbled streets led by large nun puppets, hanging streamers and spontaneous musicians all moving to one theme tune that didn't seem to get old for the entire procession. We fully enjoyed the bustling atmosphere of the Santa Teresa neighbourhood, and ended up in Bar Do Gomez (Armazém São Thiago) for a few street beers with the locals in the evening.

Our lovely friend Max introduced us to some resident Cariocas who knew Rio well, meaning we were able to experience Carnival (almost) like locals. Lia and Fernando and their friends showed us a great time, hoping from bloco to bloco and fuelling up on beer, Caipirinhas and amazing Brazilian food at Cafe Lamas.

The biggest and most lively bloco we went to was called 'Boi Tolo' (which translates to Foolish Ox), with pounding drums, bright costumes and an incredible atmosphere as the crowds danced through the streets of Gloria and central Rio. It peaked in volume when we travelled under the bridges, with traditional Carnival chants sung loudly by the crowds:

The Sambadrome

The Sambradrome during Rio Carnival was something we'd always wanted to experience. Having booked tickets for Mondays parade we arrived early to get some decent seats in Sector 8 before the 90,000 arena filled close to capacity. The parade itself was a visual feast for the eyes, with large fantastically-themed floats and loud beating music unique to each Samba school. The processions of dancers were equally impressive, with bold yet intricate costumes that helped tell the story of each schools parade through Samba dancing.

The main observation from our two weeks in Rio was how inclusive Carnival was. Divides in wealth, gender, race and age seemed to totally diminish, bringing everyone in the city closer together; whether in small local blocos or full-blown lavish parades. We really felt that Carnival was the perfect way to end our trip in Rio, and begin our trip around South America.

Rio Redemption — Part 2

Into the favelas

'Rochina,' Rio's largest favela

After visiting three of Rio's many favelas, including the largest (Rochina) and most well-known (Santa Marta) we were able to see the complexity of the political issues of Rio first-hand. Five star hotels and mansions often marked borders between the rich city-dwellers and the favela residents, offering a cruel social contrast both visually and emotionally within various neighbourhoods of the city. Our tour guides we're very informative about the political history of Rio, explaining in detail how the favelas came to be through both racial oppression and geographic circumstances. 

It's a common misconception that all favelas are dangerous, violent, drug-run places solely for the underprivileged. The favelas we visited we're 'pacified' - meaning that the police and governments had taken back control of the area - and were therefore 'safe' to visit. This didn't detract from the very visible problems that the people faced, such as drug abuse, open sewage and lack of other amenities. However, what was clear was the enormous sense of pride the community shared for their homes. Brightly painted walls have been commissioned by artists, colourful tiles and local artwork and hand-written signage filled the streets. We left feeling a sense of admiration for the people who lived there, who against all odds, had managed to build a strong and tightly knitted community both architecturally and socially.

Favela Santa Marta

It was noted by the guides that the pacification of these more popular favelas could be for visual effect, a mask that the government has provided to hide the real problems of less supported favelas in Rio; problems that lie much further afield from the rich southern neighbourhoods that seem all too convenient to 'fix'. Having only been in Rio for two weeks we could only hope to scrape the surface of understanding such complex issues, but walking around the favelas and speaking to locals we began to have a better understanding of what it's like to live inside a pacified favela in Rio.

Hippie Market

Every Sunday the Hippie Market (Feira Hippie) fills the square near General Osório in Ipanema. With various stalls selling colourful and exotic hand-crafted items we loved wandering around looking at the painted ornaments, vibrant rugs and taxidermied pirañas - we only wish that we had enough space in our bags to buy everything!

Bloco on Ilha de Paquetá

We were told by our airbnb host Rafael that there was a 'Bloco' (a Brazilian street party) on a nearby island and that we could join him, although it started 'very early'. After cracking the first beer at 8:30am, followed by possibly the craziest queue we've ever faced, we managed to squeeze onto the boat that took us to Ilha Paqueta in a last-minute gringo costume. Once we arrived we realised that the early morning doesn't seem to prevent the Brazilian crowd from partying, with brass bands and beating drums becoming the center point for the carnage.

Fuelled with plenty of strong Caipirinhas, we managed to keep the dancing going throughout the heat into the evening before getting the boat back to Rio for some final drinks (randomly crashing some wedding shoot!?) and grabbing much needed Brazilian tapas before bed.

Jardim Botânico & Parque Lage

Jardim Botanico is located in the 'Zona Sun' region of Rio, and hosts a wide variety of Brazilian plants and wildlife. Although little underwhelming at first - as some of the areas were relatively barren due to the heat - there were many interesting things to see including giant Amazonian water-lillies in the main lake and tiny Marmoset monkeys jumping though the branches of exotic trees. 

A mile away from the gardens is the more architecturally impressive 'Parque Lage', an estate and public park built in the 1920s. We spent a morning wandering around the intriguing nature-filled subtropical forest that surrounded the mansion before stopping at the picturesque cafe in the central courtyard for a drink. Apparently the Snoop Dog music video 'Beautiful' was filmed here.

Dinner at Quitéria

One of the few things we had booked before leaving the UK, besides the fight, was a meal at Quiteria. It's a smart, upscale restaurant located around the corner from Ipenama beach, allowing us just enough time to see the sun go down before we made our way there. We did feel a little guilty about splashing out in such a lavish place in Rio, but seeing as the meal was a Christmas present (à la Stef!) we thought we'd see what the great reviews were all about.

The menu and wines we're delicious - a solid balance of French-style cuisine with traditional Brazilian ingredients, paired wines from all around South America and exquisite presentation. The restaurant itself felt minimal, almost Scandinavian, which is unusual for Rio, but we loved it. At the end of the meal we got to say hi to the chefs and get a cheeky photo as well!

Sugarloaf Mountain

Sugarloaf mountain was one of the key things we wanted to do in Rio, and leaving it relatively close to the end felt like a nice way to round off our visit. There were two separate cable cars to get to the top. The first stop gave a great view of the mountain, then once at the top the 360° views were arguably more breath-taking than from Corcovado. We aimed to see Rio from as many different perspectives as possible, but seeing it from Sugarloaf mountain confirmed that Rio really is one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

Rio Redemption — Part 1

After a tiring 23 hour journey we finally arrived at our first stop, Rio de janeiro, or 'Cidade Maravilhosa' (The Marvellous City). We were greeted with glorious 33° heat as we made our way to our apartment by coach. Located in the Botafogo district of Rio and situated on the 12th floor of a beach-side apartment block, the flat had great local Brazilian charm. The location was ideal, equidistant between the northern Centro and the southern beaches of Ipanema and Copacobana, making it easy to get to both via the metro a short walk away.

Beach Life

Local cooking 'Queijo de Coalho' (Chargrilled Cheese) on Copacobana

Naturally as brits the first port of call was the beach (and yes, we sunburned in the first 2 hours). The beaches in Rio are just as you'd expect - golden sands, palm trees, and packed with people wearing skimpy beachwear. Once we got a spot the first thing we noticed was the massive amount of 'hawkers' selling you everything from beach sarongs and sunglasses to shrimp-clad skewers ('CAAMMAARROES') or full blocks of grilled cheese, but we actually quite enjoyed the constant flow of sellers wandering through the umbrellas - especially when they offered fresh 'Caipirinha' cocktails.

Cosme Velho & Cristo

We've heard a lot of mixed reviews about the Cristo Redentor due to the 'touristy' nature of the visit. Despite there being a fair amount of people at the top, (complete with ipads and 'selfy sticks' and sporting the 'Christ pose') for us it didn't detract from the experience. Even close up this fairly small statue has an iconic sense of place, and after the visit we were strangely comforted by the peaceful, watchful nature of Cristo Redentor. The train ride there and back through the rainforest of the Corcovado was also a lot of fun, if not a little hot and sticky.

After getting the small train back down the mountain, we were recommended by our host Rafael to visit a small group of neo-colonial houses called 'Largo do Boticário'. We were blown away by the beauty of these old, decrepit buildings. The colours, intricacy of the architecture and contrast of the forest backdrop made for some great shots.

Urca

We ended one of our first nights by talking a stroll along the seafront at Urca to one of the few restaurants near the cove. With views of the docks and kids playing beach football, it felt like there could be worse places to enjoy a Caipirinha and Brazilian steak cooked in front of you. Garota da Urca came well recommended, and although the food was quite simple, it was very tasty, and like most Brazilian food left little room for more than meat.

Santa Teresa & Lapa

We'd heard a lot of stories about mugging in Santa Teresa, especially at quieter times in the week, but we found that being sensible with valuables and sticking to the main street there were no problems at all. A traditional tram takes you right up the hilltop from the city centre through Santa Teresa (after a bit of a queue), giving great views of Rio. Walking back down along the tram route takes you to the 'Escadaria Selarón' tiled steps - a landmark of Rio and popular tourist spot created by late artist Jorge Selarón. Heading down the steps led us to the Lapa neighbourhood where we stumbled into a 'kilo restaurant', a simple canteen style place where you pay by weight.