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Buenos Aires to Rio: From your eyes.

Added 20 Jun 2012
Buenos Aires to Rio: From your eyes.

We often post blogs from Explore staff, but when we received this detailed review from one of our customers, Clair Wood, about her recent trip to Brazil, we loved it so much we couldn't resist publishing it.

It’s a trip and a half, this one. My first time in South America offered a stupendous introduction.

We kicked off with a couple of days in Buenos Aires. A stately city with columns, squares, boulevards and statues galore but a turbulent history and lots of politically unanswered questions. We supped hot chocolate and churros in the Cafe Tortoni, the centuries old cafe frequented by the city’s literary greats, we walked the streets – remember to look up! – snapping buildings like tourists, we marvelled at the colours of La Boca, we sat round, we ate steak and drank too much exquisite red wine and we marvelled our way through a tango show.

Plenty people told me that Buenos Aires was just like Paris. I disagreed. It’s just as elegant and just as grand but a difficult economy means its weathered less well and the streets are etched with the signs of the political unrest bubbling just underneath the surface. I was reading Eduardo Sacheri’s The Secret in Their Eyes as we left BA on the overnight bus (and it got me through the 17 hours very comfortably!). The novel gives you a cracking sense of the city in the 1970s, torn between hope and disenchantment.

From Buenos Aires to Puerto Iguassu. The bus is great. Reclining seats, they serve you dinner on an airline style tray, they play you a movie, you sleep. And sleep. But it is seventeen hours. Take a toothbrush as you hop off the bus at the other end and it’s more or less straight into the beautifully leg-stretching National Park containing the Argentinian view of the Falls. You’ll have a favourite side. This was mine. They’re pretty stunning.

The next day and you wander down to the Brazilian side of the Falls for a much closer encounter. Pacamacs galore, lots of spray, boat rides into the thick of it if you want them. A tourist melee and we were there in May so just about off-season and a slightly unsatisfying grey sky arching over the waterfalls. But another stunning view.

A few of our party took the helicopter ride over the Falls and vowed it was spectacular. I seized the chance when we left the National Park to dash into a handily located Bird Park, replete with toucans, scarlet ibi, herons, humming birds, all sorts of exoticness.  Even a parrot that spoke Spanish! If you’re any sort of wildlife lover, it was a great opportunity to see a lot of these species properly up close.

A day on the bus gets you from Iguassu to Curitiba. Which is home to the beginning of reportedly Brazil’s most spectacular rail journey. Unfortunately, the train was broken the day that we arrived. So I can’t comment either way, but it’s a very pretty little place. We hopped off at the Museu Oscar Niemeyer, a modern art museum that houses a collection of Brazilian works but is as interesting for the concrete curvy building as the art it contains. We were lucky enough to bump into a theatre festival on the way home, filled with vibrant energy and simmering excitement that seems characteristic of this country.

Another long drive on the bus but you forgive it because it takes you Paraty. A gorgeous sleepy little town. Dozy streets, trailing flowers clinging to the sides of tiny colourful houses, a tiny town square that was a stop off point for all the town’s gossips and round the corner, the proper grand plaza that unfolded in front of the church and was decked with tiny stalls. For we were lucky enough to arrive on the eve of the festival of what we suspect was Pentecost as the town was festooned with hand-crafted posters of doves. We got an exceedingly obliging procession on the Sunday afternoon. The town’s men playing assorted brass instruments flanking a collection of small children who looked to be dressed as torreadors but surely can’t have been. We then followed on the town’s church’s priests and entire congregation, incense and all. A rare spectacle.

The bus journeys became significantly briefer from here on in, to everyone’s relief. Ilha Grande, all 365 islands of it, is only a couple of hours north. You hop on a ferry for an hour and a half. And then you’re in not quite the land that time forgot but certainly a place with a very different sense of time. The sun sets inconsiderately quickly at this time of year. It’s sunk into the sea, dropping remarkably quickly, in about half an hour. So even the most impatient onlooker can manage a teatime sunset with a tub of ice-cream (measured out by weight – dangerous!) on the little jetty that looks out across the bay and the closest scattering of islands. It is beautiful. Oh, and make your guide take you to Cafe do Mar. It’s a tiny beachside bar that serves food too on certain days. Exquisite caipirinhas (try the passion fruit one), Fish barbeques (yum!) and you can squish your toes into the sand as you sup them as the waves lap onto the shore and the stars twinkle overhead. Magic. 

A couple of very laid back days there and then we shake ourselves down and set sail for Rio. Our hotel is just off Copacabana beach so I defy you to spend the couple of days you have there without the showgirl song dancing around your head. Copacabana is as showy as you’d hope. It boasts a sort of flashy tawdry charm. Ipanema, just round the corner (who knew?), is a more stylish sister. But the jaw-dropping thing about Rio is its setting. Scattered with hills, flanked with a whole bunch of beaches, boasting a huge natural lagoon right in the centre that serves as a magnet for walkers, runners, cyclists, bladers, it’s a city for anyone that loves the outdoors. A Miami style playground but with a giant dollop of South American mischief.

You’ll obviously have to trek up Corcovado and see Christ the Redeemer. Ana Maria’s walking tour – though conducted at an enthusiastic trot! – gave us a superb sense of how the city was put together. We were lucky enough to catch a performance of Haydn’s Creation at the stunningly designed National Theatre on our night ‘off’. But I lost my heart to a samba club (they call it a Pavilhao da Cultura) called the Rio Scenarium. You’ve probably travelled much more than me but I can, with some confidence, suggest that it’s unlikely that you’ll have ever been anywhere like it in your life.

All in, a stunning trip. We were lucky enough to have a lovely group. Our tour guide, Ana Maria, was super efficient. She didn’t lose anyone and got us everywhere we needed to be on time and without undue fuss. We were warned about the risk of mugging but were lucky enough to experience nothing of the kind. I’d recommend that you don’t take traveller’s cheques. They’re pretty fiddly to change, not everywhere takes them and you don’t get the greatest exchange rates for them. I was totally underdressed as I didn’t expect a brisk 13 degrees for most of Buenos Aires though it got sunnier as we went further north. The hotels were mostly fairly basic but all perfectly clean, all with towels, all with soap. The private buses were a real treat but the public bus was a proper adventure. The only thing that caught most people unprepared was the sheer quantity of bus travel, mostly concentrated in the first week. But the tour itinerary makes no secret of it. I used it as sleep catch up time and it suited me just fine but there were a few grumbles.

If you’re not the greatest fan of bus travel, this overland itinerary over a vast land mass might not be for you. Otherwise, grab the chance in a heartbeat"

Clair travelled on our Buenos Aires to Rio tour, take a look and experience all this for yourself.