World Cup Fever – Ecuador vs. France

After nearly 18 months of planning and saving, the day had finally arrive for Kooks and I check off another one of Life’s Bucket List items – attend a World Cup match!  Soccer was the first sport I ever played when my parents signed me up when I was seven-years-old.  Kook’s Dad watches all the major International soccer tournaments, like World Cup and Euro Cup, so his influenced rubbed off on her over the years even though she never played organized soccer before.

As for the World Cup itself, I did not seriously consider going until I met Beetlejuice at the Barrier Reef Sports Bar & Grill in Caye Caulker a few years ago.  Kooks began thinking about going to Brazil after watching the 2010 Final with her Dad when Spain defeated the Netherlands in one of the most memorable finals in World Cup history.  Both of us had the same dream, but neither of us knew each other at the time.

Flash forward to Winter 2011 – a mere nine months after Kooks’ made that decision – and in comes my role in her most ambitious plans to date.  We had just started dating for a couple of weeks, and I had invited her to come out with me and a few friends to watch the home opener for the Toronto FC.  Instead of saying yes or no, she tells me “we should go to the World Cup in Brazil!”  My jaw dropped at that moment.  Enter dead silence for what must have seen like an eternity, but was really only a few seconds.  It was agreed then that we would we do whatever it took to be in Brazil for the World Cup whether we had tickets or not.  Just the atmosphere alone would be worth it for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!

Of course, we did our research to find out how to apply for a Brazilian Visa and World Cup tickets.  Ultimately, we got tickets to Match #42 – France vs. Ecuador!  Not too bad given France’s previous successes in the World Cup!  Kick-off was scheduled for 5pm.  We figured we should give ourselves at least 2 ½ – 3 hours to get there so we could have time to check out the festivities in and around the Stadium.  We left our hostel just past 2pm.  As a ticket holder, we were allowed to ride Rio’s subway system for free!  With an expected attendance of nearly 75,000 fans, the City of Rio offered free public transportation for ticket holders to reduce the traffic chaos near the stadium before and after the event.

French Fans in Rio Subway Tour Group in Packed Rio Subway

Fans En Route to Maracana

 

 

 

 

 

French Fans Heading to Maracana Group with World Cup Tickets in Hand

World Cup Street Performers Interview #1 Fans United

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As we waited for the subway, we began to hear the chants of the French fans gradually get louder and louder as they entered the station.  And so began one of the greatest sports spectacles I have ever seen!  The ride from Copacabana to Maracanã Stadium normally would take about 45 minutes or so with stops included.  It easily doubled on this particular afternoon as stop after stop after stop, both French and Ecuadorian fans alike began to cram in the cars.  I felt like a sardine in a tin can, and have never felt so crowded in before even though I have had more than my fair share of subway rides in New York City, San Francisco, Paris, Toronto, and Vancouver before.  This just further added to the excitement of the match!

At one point, we had to switch lines.  The French fans got off on one side of the platform.  The Ecuadorian fans got off the other side.  The track was literally the divide that separated these two great nations.  I was stoked.  Things were going great up until we arrived at Maracanã Stadium.  It was here that two members in our group – Paul and Tara – realized that they had lost their tickets.  To make matters worse, this particular day was their Wedding anniversary and something they had both made a pact to do four years earlier when they got married!

World Cup Ticket

French Costume #2 Ecuador Fans Interview #2 Maracana Stadium Trini Fans Ecuador Fan #2 French Costume #3

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

French Costume #4

 

 

 

 

 

 

We had to leave our friends behind as Security was asking people to continue toward the stadium.   Kooks and I had to enter Gate D, which was the front of the Stadium.  Normally, the walk from Maracanã Station to Gate D would take about 15 – 20 minutes, but with the amount of people taking the subway today, this actually took us close to an hour.

Along we went with the herd.  I nearly lost Kooks a few times as some people would rudely stop in the middle of the walkway to take photos of Maracanã or signs pointing towards the Stadium.  Once we got past the craziness, my eyes were amazed by the numerous costumes that both French and Ecuadorian fans alike wore to support their respective teams on this sunny June afternoon.  At one point, we must have walked past somewhere around 10 – 12 television cameras all interviewing various fans along the way.

Inside Maracana

As for the Security situation, I have never felt so safe in my life.  In the weeks leading up to the 2014 World Cup, there had been many violent strikes and protests throughout Brazil denouncing the Government for spending billions of dollars on this tournament – money which they believe should have been spent on improving healthcare and education in South America’s most populous country instead.  Both the military and tourism police were out in full force on this epic day while several helicopters hovered above to keep an eye for any suspicious activity going on either in or around the Stadium.  Fortunately, nothing happened on this particular day, so we could breathe a sigh of relief.

By the time we finally had our tickets scanned and entered the Stadium, it was already 4:15pm.  We had 45 minutes before Opening kickoff, so we decided it was better for us to take our seats rather than check out the nearby Fan Zone, which I was hoping to see.

Algerian Fan

Ecuador Fans #3 Ecuador Flag
Bucket List Item Completed French Fans #2
Opening Ceremonies
Opening Ceremonies #2
French Fans #4 Handshake

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We finally took our seats with about 30 minutes to spare.  The raw emotion pouring out from within us as we realized we had accomplished one of our greatest dreams was indescribable.  We just sat back and admired the biggest sports spectacle we have ever been to.  This was even greater than the Winter Classic!

As for the match itself, Ecuador needed to win by 2 or more goals to advance to the Round of 16.  France had already qualified in their previous match against Switzerland, which we had watched in Bonito a few days earlier.

The first half was clearly dominated by Ecuador as they had their life on the line here.  France had quite a few scoring chances, but just couldn’t seem to put the ball into the net nor find the net for that matter as Ecuador had numerous goal kicks in the first 45 minutes.

Ecuador Prayers French Possession #3 Ecuador Save French Colours Ecuadorian Fans #4 Final Attendance Ecuadorian Save #3 Group E Final Results End of Match

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The second half was not much better.  We are not sure what happened here, but Ecuador seemed to have run out of gas at this point with fewer scoring chances at this point.  France dominated the second half of the match, but not by much.  And just like the problems they had in the first half, the French just couldn’t seem to put the ball on the net or in.  Sadly, the match ended in a 0 – 0 draw, and all I could hear was a unison of boos and jeers by the French fans.  It was just incredible, and not in a good way, either!

Despite the poor performance we saw on the pitch, Kooks and I couldn’t be happier that we attended!  Hands down, going to this World Cup match has been my most memorable travel experience to date.  Sure, I might end up going to another World Cup tournament or two in the future after my encounter with Beetlejuice or with the American woman we sat beside on the plane in Mexico City, but I can’t imagine what I can do or see at this point that will top this experience.  Ever!

What are your biggest dreams that you would love to accomplish?  Is attending the World Cup one of them?

Categories: Brazil, South America | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Visiting Rocinha – Rio’s Largest Favela

Favela tours are increasingly becoming a popular activity while staying in Rio de Janeiro.  The history and cultural significance of these mini-communities go beyond the very essence of just being “slums.”  Rio favelas originated in the late 19th century as former slaves – who had no neither land ownership nor work options – started settlements in these neighbourhoods.  By the 1970s, Rio experienced a large rural exodus.  That exodus combined with the ever-increasing prices for properties in downtown Rio due to a lack of availability, inevitably forced many of these lower to middle class folks to settle in favelas where rent was more affordable, but at the cost of stability and personal safety.

Before we go any further, let me explain here that by no means whatsoever should you visit a favela on your own!  Many of Rio’s favelas are run by drug lords and criminal gangs.  The levels of danger are so extreme here that not even the local police are willing to enter them unless they absolutely must.  Therefore, you should always book a favela tour with a reputable tour company or local guide for your personal safety and protection.

My tour was booked with Be a Local who have been in operation since 2003 and are only one of three recommended favela tour guides in the Lonely Planet.  Be a Local offers daily 3 hour walking tours to Rocinha from 10am – 2pm on weekdays and 12pm – 2pm on weekends for about 65 Reais (or $32.50 US) per person although we paid about 100 Reais ($50 US) simply because we were being charged “World Cup prices.”  You can find out more about Be a Local here.

Be a Local arrived at our hostel around 8am to pick up everyone in our group, except for Kooks.  She decided against the trip as she grew up in the Caribbean and saw similar scenes of poverty throughout Trinidad and Tobago, as well as Barbados.  We stopped by a couple other hotels in the Copacabana and Ipanema Beach areas before we arrived to the top of Rocinha a couple of hours later.

The Artist Shop

Rocinha was selected as it was not only the closest favela to the popular tourist areas of Copacabana and Ipanema, but it is also the largest favela in Rio, and one of the few that have been pacified (i.e. patrolled by police).  We had plenty of opportunity to learn some of the basic history of this favela, as well as to take some amazing scenery shots of downtown Rio from the rooftop of an artist shop that we visited first.

Rocinha

Rocinha_2

Rocinha_3

 

 

 

 

 

Rocinha_4

Rocinha_5 Rocinha_6

 

 

 

 

 

Blue pails of water dotted the rooftops of the houses below us to provide hot water for the people inhabiting them.  We learn that the average rent for the dilapidated dwellings below us average around 2,000 Reais per month (approx. $1000 US).  When the average person in a favela is barely making 30,000 – 35,000 Reais per year (approx. $15,000 – $17,500 US), you can understand why the residents of Rocinha choose to live here rather than make the daily 2 hour one way commute from the suburbs where housing and safety would be slightly better.

I was enamored with the scenery that lay before my eyes, which prevented me from really paying attention to what our tour guide was saying at the time.  After about 15 – 20 minutes admiring the views, we head downstairs to the artist shop in search of souvenirs to take home with us.  It was quite a feast for our eyes to take it all in.  Many of the paintings displayed various scenes of Rio from all different angles and from all different colours.

Artwork_1 Artwork_2 Artwork_3

 

 

 

 

 

Three pieces of artwork capture my attention.  One was of the Brazilian flag riddled with bullet holes and blood dripping from them.  It was an intriguing social commentary on the corruption and crime that still plagues Brazil.  A stunningly beautiful painting of Christ the Redeemer facing downtown Rio de Janeiro caught my eye next.  It cost 500 Reais (approx. $250 US), but I only had 250 Reais left on me to stretch out for the remaining two days we had left in Brazil.  A black and gold silhouette painting of Christ the Redeemer caught my attention next.

At 200 Reais, I was tempted to get it for Kook’s parents as they are very religious.  When our tour guide reassured us that he would take us to a ATM bank machine at the end of the tour if we did not have enough money on hand to pay for any of the paintings, I bought this silhouette without hesitation and a smaller painting of Rio from the viewpoint of a favela for about 60 Reais ($30 US).  To say you a bought a beautiful painting in Brazil is one thing.  To say you bought it in a favela from the original artist would be another, and I was happy to support these talented people.

Artwork_4 Artwork_5

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About 30 minutes is all that is needed here in the artist shop.  We were about to continue on with the tour when one of our group members decided to bargain for the 500 Reais Christ the Redeemer painting I had my eye on earlier at the last minute.  He spent close to 20 minutes getting the artist down to 265 Reais and decided he wouldn’t budge at 250 Reais (a difference of about $7.50 US) because he was “almost out of money for the rest of the trip.”  He quickly became ostracized from the rest of the group after this act of stupidity.  Why would you waste everyone’s time bargaining when you knew all along that you didn’t have the means to pay for it?  What purpose did this form of showing off really serve for you?

Rocinha Favela Dance Troupe

We proceed down the narrow alleyways of Rocinha as we continue our tour.  The rule is simple – let locals have the right of way while you lean against the wall to your right so they can pass you.  Our group begins to stretch out further and further, so I begin to admire the sights and sounds all around me.

Dance_Troupe Dance_Troupe_2 Dance_Troupe_3 Dance_Troupe_4 Dance_Troup_5 Dance_Troupe_6

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We stop at a small canopy where several young men start playing their musical instruments while the children that surround them because dancing up a storm to entertain us.  The energy and festivity displayed before us over the next few minutes almost made me forget how weird I felt that we were paying them a few Reais to dance for us as if they were like monkeys in a zoo.  Almost made me forget, of course, but I didn’t.

The Bakery Shop

Our tour guide then takes us to a bakery shop so we can pick up some snacks.  At this point, we all start catching on quick that this “favela tour” is increasingly becoming more of a money grab than anything else.  We had already been halfway through the tour, and I would say about 85% of the time we were “encouraged to shop.”

The con of this is quite evident – we are being pushed into spending our money rather than learning about life in the favela as we initially thought that this tour would be about.  The pro, of course, is that the more money tourists spend on these tours, the less likely the locals will turn to a life of crime and the less likely we would be hassled by the local gangs for “protection money.”

Rocinha_7 Rocinha_8 Rocinha_9

 

 

 

 

 

Rocinha_10

Rocinha_12 Rocinha_11

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rocinha_11

Rocinha_13Rocinha_15

 

 

 

 

 

From this point forward, our tour guide stops taking us to more shops and begins telling us the history and significant points of interest of Rocinha.  We become separated and largely spread out as the alleyways become narrower and I get stuck behind two guys carrying a couch down the steep path before us.  I let them go ahead of me not realizing we about to enter an alleyway so narrow for the next 15 – 20 minutes that pedestrians can only walk one way.

At this point, my interest in the tour begins to wane, so I try my best to make the most of the situation.  A friendly lady shouts out at our group, “Hola, Hola!”  I look around for the mysterious voice calling out for me until she tells me to look up where she is standing on her balcony.  I ask if I can take her photo, but she declines.  Taking photos of people in the favelas is difficult to do unless you are willing to paying them a bit of cash or try your best to go stealth.

Meanwhile, our guide keeps plowing through the rest of the tour not showing any concern about the people in the back of the line with me.  Some locals begin to ask for change including the guys carrying the couch in front of us.  My interest turns to disgust at this point as I am pissed off at our guide for leaving us behind while at the same time feeling like I am now intruding in these people’s lives.  Maybe Kooks was right.  Maybe going on a favela tour wasn’t such a good idea.

Rocinha_16 Rocinha_17 Rocinha_18

 

 

 

 

Rocinha_19

Rocinha_20 Rocinha_21

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our group meets up further down the alleyway while the couch guys walk past us.  We learn that some of the money that Be a Local collects on these tours goes towards redeveloping a Kindergarten class in the building in front of us.  The children here learn some basic life skills, like gardening, and while we would normally be allowed in to watch this class in action, the Kindergarten was closed due it being a World Cup Match day.  The one thing on this tour that seemed less likely to be a tourist trap and more of a result of our tourism dollars being put to good use in Rocinha, and we are unable to see it.  Dang.

We finally make our way to the bottom of Rocinha.  We cross the street using the pedestrian bridge.  We look up to the top of the hill and are amazed by the amount of ground we had just covered in the past 2 ½ – 3 hours.  I turn around 180 degrees and see the wealth of Rio only a couple of Kilometers in front of us in the form of condos and skyscrapers.  Talk about a complete night-and-day experience.  Ironically, my experience of this favela tour took a complete night-and-day experience, as well.

Rocinha_22 Rocinha_23 Rocinha_24 Rocinha_25 Rocinha_26 Rocinha_27

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

While I was initially gung-ho about going to see a favela, my heart began to sink the further downhill we went and the more we began to see the extreme poverty that these families every single day.  To make matters worse, the asshole in our group – the guy who wasted everyone’s time in the artist shop – kept bugging me to take his portrait at every stop we made from the bottom of the hill to the pedestrian bridge.  He was just so oblivious to the plight of Rocinha that it angered me to know he was treating this tour as more of a side-show rather than a trip in self-reflection.

Do I regret going on this favela tour?  Not one bit, but I am glad that I took the opportunity to do it as I was shocked by the raw emotion it evoked within me.  Would I ever do this again in the future?  Probably not, but I guess it all depends on the situation.  Nick and I had no problem visiting the Mayan village near Punta Gorda as we knew the tourism dollars would go straight to the community.  So unless I am 100% certain my money will be invested into these impoverished communities, then I will think twice about doing this type of tour again.

Rocinha_28 Rocinha_29 Rocinha_30

 

 

 

 

 

How do you feel about favela tours?  Would you go on one?  Please share your comments below.

Categories: Brazil, South America | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

São João Farm – Two Days in the Pantanal

The journey from Bonito to the Pantanal was a long one – 6 hours to be exact.  We left in the wee hours of the morning just before sunrise.  Sleeping the way up to the Pantanal was almost impossible as we were all cramped in a mini-van with very little leg room or space between each seat.  Plus, the speed bumps along the highways of Brazil didn’t make it any easier to dose off.

By the time we got to the outskirts of the Pantanal, we all had to get out of the van and squeeze into an overland jeep truck for the 15 – 20 minute drive up the dirt road to São João Farm, our home for the next two days.  São João Farm is a small farm about an hour into the Pantanal if you are coming from Campo Grande.  The farm is almost completely isolated from society.  With outdoor showers and hammocks for beds, São João brings you back to the basics.

We spent 2 relaxing days here out in the World’s largest wetland with the following highlights:

The Pantanal World Cup    

During our shopping trip to Ciudad de l’Este, Federico bought a soccer ball to bring to São João Farm for a friendly soccer match.  Now that we were finally here, we divided ourselves up into two teams – primarily the tour group versus the ranch workers with a few minor exceptions.  It was around mid-afternoon when we started playing.  You would think that being surrounded by swampland would keep the climate relatively cool, but you would be wrong.

Strong Defence from Michael

Strong Defense from Michael

Federico Controlling the Play

Federico Controlling the Play

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nice Cross

Nice Cross

Near Goal for the Ranchers

Near Goal for the Ranchers

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For the next couple of hours or so, we ran to our hearts content trying to put the ball into a net that must have been one foot high by two feet wide.  For every goal that we scored (which wasn’t very many), the Ranchers would score 3 – 4 unanswered goals in return.

The Pantanal World Cup

The Pantanal World Cup

Watching the Pantanal World Cup

Watching the Pantanal World Cup

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Team GAP Hits the Post

Team GAP Hits the Post

Official Ball of the Pantanal World Cup

Official Ball of the Pantanal World Cup

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I found the climate to be slightly unbearable to keep up even though I had previous experience playing soccer in the jungles of Belize before.  We continued to play until dinner time when the USA vs. Portugal match came on completely missing out on the nature walk that we had paid for that afternoon.

World Cup Match #1:  USA vs. Portugal

It was of great concern to our American friends that we have access to a television in the Pantanal so they could watch Team USA’s second match of the World Cup Round Robin against Portugal.  Having winning their first match of the tournament against Ghana 2 – 1 with Germany defeating Portugal 4 – 0, a win against Portugal would automatically put Team USA into the next round.  A tie would still keep them in contention, although facing Germany in their third and final Round Robin match would make it a very difficult task to accomplish.

Fortunately, São João Farm is equipped with a satellite dish.  Never in my wildest dreams would I have expected something as modern as a satellite dish to be found within the Pantanal, but it just goes to show you how dedicated and soccer-obsessed Brazilians are!

Watching USA vs. Portugal

Watching USA vs. Portugal

World Cup 2014 - USA vs. Portugal

World Cup 2014 – USA vs. Portugal

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What made this match extremely memorable was the friendly banter and trash talking between the Americans in our tour group and the Ranchers.  Quite understandably, the Ranchers supported Portugal given the Portuguese colonial heritage found within Brazil’s history.

Anytime the Ranchers didn’t like a defensive play that Team USA made against Portugal, they would yell out “Penalty!”  Anytime Portugal made a defensive play against Team USA that our American friends found questionable, they would yell out “Penalty!”  In the end, the match was one of the closest and exciting ones in the tournament with Varela scoring literally with seconds to go in extra time to secure a 2 – 2 draw for Portugal.  Our American friends were shocked and disappointed as it now meant the pressure was on for them to defeat Germany, one of the best teams in the World, in their final match of the Opening Round.

The Bonfire

Given that our group of 16 would be sharing a cabin together and sleeping on hammocks, we decided that drinking the night away would help make sleeping in them somewhat bearable during the night.

The Bonfire

The Bonfire

Relaxing by the Bonfire

Relaxing by the Bonfire

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We set up a bonfire a few meters away from our cabin and for the next couple of hours, we drank, shared stories, and stared out into the swamps looking for caiman.  I wasn’t keen on drinking anything myself having wanting to be up early in the morning to enjoy the sunrise.  But, the experience reminded me of my high school days when we would have bush parties on the weekends.

Pantanal Sunrise 

The open windows and lack of curtains in our cabin made it very easy for me to wake up early in the morning.  Although I missed the sunrise by about a half hour, I still had the next 3 hours to walk around São João Farm and take photos.

Red & Green Macaws

Red & Green Macaws

São João Farm Dog

São João Farm Dog

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Herding Horses Through the Swamp

Herding Horses Through the Swamp

Cows Grazing at São João Farm

Cows Grazing at São João Farm

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some of the animals I managed to photograph over the next few hours included Red and Green macaws, the Ranch dog, horses being herded by the Ranchers through the swamps, and cows grazing in the fields nearby our cabin.

Horseback Riding

Following breakfast, we went horseback riding around São João Farm for the next 2 hours.  Riding through various terrain, such as open trails, swamps, and jungle, we had a very laid-back, relaxing ride.

Preparing for Horseback Riding

Preparing for Horseback Riding

Horseback Riding

Horseback Riding

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Blue Macaws

Blue Macaws

Riding Through Swamps

Riding Through Swamps

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It may not have been the most memorable or exciting horseback riding excursion I have ever been on, but it was rewarding nonetheless.  We rode along various terrain, such as swamps, open trails, and jungle, and spotted some Blue macaws and caiman along the way.

Jeep Safari Ride & Wildlife Photography

Following horseback riding, we returned to camp to have some lunch before embarking on a jeep safari down the road to spot wildlife.  It was our second opportunity to spot wildlife in the Pantanal after the nature walk that we skipped the day before to play soccer.  Prior to the jeep ride, I walked around the farm some more taking wildlife photos of red and green macaws, crested caracaras, and monk parakeets just to name a few.

Red & Green Macaw

Red & Green Macaw

Crested Caracara

Crested Caracara

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Monk Parakeet

Monk Parakeet

Toucan

Toucan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Howler Monkey

Howler Monkey

Marsh Deer

Marsh Deer

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some of the animals that we spotted along the jeep safari were a toucan, a Howler monkey, and a Marsh deer.  It is true – there is a high chance of viewing wildlife throughout the Pantanal.  Just make sure to have your eyes and cameras ready!

Piranha Fishing 

Since I ate it in Bonito, I thought it would be a great opportunity to fish for it in the Pantanal.  Piranha fishing is a highly popular activity that you can do here in the wetlands.  All you need is a pole, some string, and bait (pieces of fish in this case).

Preparing the Bait

Preparing the Bait

Waiting for a Bite

Waiting for a Bite

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Waiting Game

The Waiting Game

Matt Waiting for a Bite

Matt Waiting for a Bite

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Definitely the highlight of my stay here in the Pantanal, it felt like we had traveled back in time to a laid-back era before technology consumed our everyday lives.  With the sun beating down on us, we waited patiently for an hour trying our luck at catching one of the biggest predators here in the Pantanal.

The Ol' (Piranha) Fishing Hole

The Ol’ (Piranha) Fishing Hole

Still No Bites

Still No Bites

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Catch of the Day - Lambari

Catch of the Day – Lambari

Piranha Fishing in Rio Negro

Piranha Fishing in Rio Negro

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unfortunately, the rains from the previous weeks completely flooded the Pantanal making the water levels too high to attract any piranhas whatsoever.  The closest we came to catching anything was a Lambari fish.  Nice hook through the eye!

Catching the World Cup Mascot (aka a Yellow Armadillo)

After close to an hour of not catching anything, we opted to head back to the farm to watch the Brazil vs. Cameroon match.  Only minutes away from our fishing hole, our guide’s sharp eyes spotted something in the bush near us.  The driver was told to stop.  It was a yellow armadillo – the same animal used as the official World Cup 2014 mascot.

Yellow Armadillo

Yellow Armadillo

Until that moment, our only “experience” with the yellow armadillo was at various souvenir shops and tourist attractions across Brazil promoting the World Cup.   The driver and our guide got out of the jeep and played a nice game of cat-and-mouse with our mammalian friend.

Finally, the driver managed to grab the armadillo by the tail and yank it out of the bush.  Presenting the armadillo to us, the driver held it by the tail so we could take a few photos.

The yellow armadillo is officially known as a six-banded armadillo because of the six lines – or bands – that are easily visible on its shell.

It’s commonly called a yellow armadillo because of the yellowish hue its skin projects.  The yellow armadillo is found in Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay, and isolated parts of Suriname.

World Cup Match #2:  Brazil vs. Cameroon

Just like the day before, our group and the Ranchers huddled in the restaurant to watch yet another World Cup match.  This time the host nation played against Cameroon.  There was no doubt in our minds who we were cheering for here!  Brazilian pride was within all of us this evening.

Watching the World Cup in the Pantanal

Watching the World Cup in the Pantanal

The Ranchers Getting into the World Cup Spirit

The Ranchers Getting into the World Cup Spirit

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Watching the Brazil vs. Cameroon Match in the Pantanal

Watching the Brazil vs. Cameroon Match in the Pantanal

The Sun Sets on Cameroon's World Cup Dreams

The Sun Sets on Cameroon’s World Cup Dreams

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Much like the Cameroon match we had watched earlier in the week, this contest against Brazil was not even close!  The hosts handily defeated the Cameroonians 4 – 1.  The Ranchers added to the joviality of the situation by banging their hands and shouting out “Brazil, Brazil, Brazil” every time the Samba Kings scored a goal.  It was quite the experience to say the least.

Mate Tea Demonstration

Following the match, Federico gave us a quick demonstration to us on how mate tea is prepared.  It is a popular South American drink usually consumed in Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Southern Brazil.  It is a caffeine-rich infused drink that can be served hot or cold and usually consumed in social settings.  What that means is that the caffeine properties are extracted from the mate leaves via water.  In places like the United Kingdom or North America, tea is typically brewed by placing tea bags into a pot and pouring hot water over them to allow the properties and the flavours of the tea to permeate out from the bag.

Mate Tea Demonstration

Mate Tea Demonstration

Trying Mate Tea for the First Time

Trying Mate Tea for the First Time

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When brewing mate tea, however, a slightly different technique is used.  Instead of tea bags, mate leaves are placed in a cup called a calabash gourd.  You start off by allowing the mate leaves to soak in some cold water for about 2 – 3 minutes to allow the infusion process to begin.  Mate tea is usually served cold, but as we were in the Pantanal and are not able to ingest the impurities of the local water, Federico took no chances here and used hot water instead.  We each took turns sipping the tea from the bombilla, the stainless steel straw that comes with the calabash gourd.  For most of us, this was our first time trying mate tea and we were a bit surprised by the slight buzz we were getting from the highly concentrated caffeine in the drink.

Following this demonstration, we called it a night as we were to be up and ready to leave at 2am.  Tomorrow would be a long transit day from the Pantanal to Rio de Janeiro.  Kooks and I were finally heading to the Marvelous City.

Categories: Brazil, South America | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Pantanal – The World’s Largest Wetland System

Imagine a place where all around you is nothing but trees and swamps.  Imagine a place where you have a 95% chance of seeing wildlife in its natural habitat – a percentage higher than what is guaranteed while trekking the Amazon Rainforest.  Imagine a place so massive that it is 10 times larger than Florida’s Everglades.  Unbelievable, right?  I know, but such a place does exist and it is called the Pantanal.

The Pantanal

The Pantanal

What is the Pantanal?

The Pantanal is the world’s largest wetland system covering an area just shy of 200,000 square kilometers (80,000 square miles) located mainly within the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul.  The Pantanal – which gets its name from a Portuguese word meaning “bog” or “wetland” – also extends into Mato Grosso and portions of Bolivia and Paraguay.  Roughly 80% of the Pantanal is submerged under water during the rainy season (November – April).

How Can You Get to the Pantanal?

Getting into the Pantanal is challenging given its vastness, lack of towns, and sparse population.  The only way to visit the Pantanal really is to arrange a tour that will allow you to stay anywhere from a couple of days to a full week.  Campo Grande is the main point of entry to the Pantanal if you are coming in from Mato Grosso do Sul.  You can find several tour companies offering overnight tours here or in Cuiabá if you are coming in from the North via Mato Grosso.  Since Kooks and I went with G Adventures for this trip to Brazil, and we came from the South, our two-day stay was pre-arranged at São João Farm with them. 

São João Farm has a "Kamp Krusty" vibe to it!

São João Farm has a “Kamp Krusty” vibe to it!

When Should You Go to the Pantanal?

The Pantanal can be visited at any time of the year, but the best time to go would be the Dry Season (May – September) when the water has receded a bit and travel within the Pantanal is a bit easier.  Trust me it is not an easy trek into the Pantanal!  From Campo Grande to our ranch stay at São João Farm, our private van driver took almost an hour to get there driving on dirt roads.  In fact, I don’t even recall seeing any paved roads and we were really just on the outskirts of the Pantanal.  Imagine how much more difficult it would be the further in you went during the wet season!

Piranha fishing is a popular activity that you can do within the Pantanal, so try to get here around April or May as those months have the ideal water levels to catch these deadly predators.  Bird watching is best done around June and July.  Jaguars are quite common in the Pantanal the further in you go.  However, we weren’t in far enough in the bush to see any during our two days there, so check with your tour company about when the best time to see them would be!  They are probably the most sought after species for viewing here.

Given the low-lying ground and the fact that you are surrounded by nothing swamps and marshes, it will be noticeably hot during the day and very cool or chilly at night during the Dry Season.

Typical Pantanal Lunch

Typical Pantanal Lunch

What Do I Need to Bring With Me to the Pantanal?

The following items are recommended for the Pantanal:

  • Sunscreen and insect repellent
  • Camera/Camcorder with Universal charger
  • Binoculars
  • Yellow Fever certificate
  • Malaria pills (at your discretion)
  • Hiking pants and jacket
  • Hat and sunglasses
  • Snacks and drinks
  • Some cash (100 Reais should be more than enough for a 2 – 3 day stay)
  • Soap & shampoo
  • Rain jacket and umbrella (if going during the Wet Season)
Bird Watching in the Pantanal

Bird Watching in the Pantanal

Some people may ask if a Yellow fever shot is mandatory when going into the Pantanal due to the presence of mosquitoes surrounding the swamps here.  Officially, it is not required by the Brazilian government, but it would not hurt to get a Yellow fever vaccination, anyways, if you plan to explore other parts of South America, especially Peru where it is required.

The ranch home stays in the Pantanal will have some food and booze available, but most likely on a cash only basis and at marked up rates.  You are best to stock up either in Campo Grande or Cuiabá.  100 Reais was more than enough for Kooks and I during our two-day stay here, but we could have even brought less had we decided to buy some bottles of booze like some of our group did.

What Can I See or Do in the Pantanal?

The Pantanal is a great place to visit for those who enjoy eco-adventure tours.  Some of the most popular activities you can do here include nature walks, bird watching, piranha fishing, horseback riding, driving boats out in the various swamps and lakes, and jaguar spotting.  Animal that can be found here include a variety of species, such as caiman, piranhas, macaws, Marsh deer, toucans, and jaguars.  Make sure to bring a couple of charged camera batteries with you as you will have plenty of opportunities to capture amazing wildlife scenery in the Pantanal.

Caiman - Just one of many species to be found in the Pantanal

Caiman – Just one of many species to be found in the Pantanal

So, there you have it, folks.  Some basic info and tips about the Pantanal that you should consider for your trip to Brazil.  The Pantanal was something I was really anticipating ever since I first heard about it on a travel show I watched a few years ago.

Leaving society behind for the next two days was both exciting and terrifying as we had no idea of what to really expect at São João Farm, especially since we were arriving on the same day as the USA vs. Portugal match – an important match for the Americans as either a win or tie would put them in good place to qualify for the Round of 16.  Would we be able to watch this crucial match at the ranch?  There was only one way to find out!

Categories: Brazil, South America | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Casa do João – Bonito’s Best Restaurant!

Our group had one more night in Bonito before making an early morning trek to the Pantanal, the World’s largest wetland system, where we would be staying at a remote ranch for the next two days.  We decided to celebrate our last night in civilization by eating at Casa do João, one of Bonito’s oldest restaurants whose specialty is Traíra, a type of predatory fish found in Brazil.

The History

Casa do João was originally a wooden colonial house in the middle of a large field surrounded by many animals and an orchard of exotic fruits.  It was a popular place for family gatherings and entertaining friends.  As a result, João came up with the idea of opening his home to locals by adding a bar and offering traíra, which is a predatory fish found in the Amazon, and extremely difficult to de-bone.

Casa do João's Main Bar

Casa do João’s Main Bar

As the popularity of the restaurant grew, so too, did the need to expand!  Everything that you see at Casa do João – from the veranda to furniture – is made from recycled wood.  The materials used at this restaurant come from old forest fires, fallen trees, disused corrals, and abandoned houses.  Casa do João is by far the most eco-friendly restaurant that I have ever eaten in.

Today, several of João’s children and friends help run Casa do João.  Many of their positions range anywhere from cooking to hosting to running the souvenir shop next door.

The Location

Casa do João is located a couple of blocks away from the town square of Bonito at Nelson Felicio 664A.  It’s about a 15 – 20 minute walk from Muito Bonito Hotel where we were staying, and not the easiest place to find if you are unfamiliar with the side streets in town.  To get there, you will head down Rua Coronel Pilad Rebuá until you pass Taboa Bar. At the next intersection, you will make a left down Rua Sen. Filinto Müller and keep walking straight for the next two blocks until you pass Rua Vinte e Quatro de Fevereiro.  You will see the sign for Casa do João on your right-hand side.

Busy Night at Casa do João

Busy Night at Casa do João

The Menu

Casa do João is renowned for its fish platters.  If fish doesn’t tickle your fancy, then you can also try their filet mignon or grilled chicken options.  Side dishes include items such as potato wedges, sautéed potatoes, white rice, cheese, and fish sauce.  All of these extra items come with a charge between $5 – $9 Reais ($2.50 – $4.50 US).

You can also order different broths for appetizers, such as soups and salads.  I tried piranha broth, which came with parmesan cheese, spring onions, and croutons, for about $17 Reais ($8.50 US).

Piranha Broth

Piranha Broth

The house specialty is traíra, which is a predatory fish found in the Amazon, and extremely difficult to de-bone.  Of course, I ordered a plate for myself, which comes with rice, fresh salad, traíra pirão (famous fish sauce), and a special home-made sauce for about $30 Reais ($15 US).

Traíra wasn’t originally my first menu choice as I had initially wanted to order some caiman.  But, since caiman were out of season at the time, I opted for traíra instead.  You can also order other exotic fish entrees, such as pirarucu, pacu, tilapia, and pirarara.

Traíra for One

Traíra for One

Dessert options include ice cream, homemade sweets, local fruits, cakes, and mousse.  Drink options range anywhere from liquor to beer to pop to caipirinhas to wine to coffee.

Armazém do João

Armazém do João is the gift shop next to the restaurant.  Here you can find all sorts of handicrafts, artworks, and small trinkets to bring home for souvenirs.  I bought a few fridge magnets myself.  The gift shop is definitely worth a quick visit!

Armazém do João

Armazém do João

Overall, I have to admit that I was very impressed with Casa do João.  From the ambiance to the architecture, this place has a very relaxing, romantic vibe to it.  The portion sizes of their entrees are ridiculously huge, so you get fair value for what you paid for.  My only two minor complaints from dinner was having to wait over a half hour for my piranha broth and not being able to try caiman.  Otherwise, I would recommend checking out Casa do João while you are in Bonito.  The traíra is well worth it!

Casa do João

Casa do João

To book reservations or to learn more about Casa do João, you can visit their website here.  Bon appétit!

Categories: Miscelleneous | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Blog at WordPress.com. The Adventure Journal Theme.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 32 other followers