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

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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

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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

Rio da Plata – Brazil’s Real Life Aquarium

Before coming to Bonito, I typically associated snorkeling as an activity you either did as part of your stay at an all-inclusive resort or while visiting an island, like Caye Caulker, where snorkeling and scuba diving is a popular activity.  As such, I always associated snorkeling with seeing tropical fish in seawater.  I didn’t realize it was possible to snorkel with tropical fish in fresh river water until I came to Bonito with the primary purpose to snorkel Rio de Plata.

Recanto Ecológico Rio da Prata

Recanto Ecológico Rio da Prata

What is Rio da Prata?

Rio de Prata is a protected river system in Brazil that provides shallow crystal clear water where you can snorkel with tropical fish, like dourado, pacu or catfish.  It is also possible to see caiman, macaws, and snakes either along the river banks or within the nearby area.

Where is Rio da Prata?

Rio de Prata is in Jardim, Brazil, which is about 50 Kilometers southeast of Bonito.  The drive can take just over an hour as the route is a combination of dirt and paved roads.  Having had more than my fair share of overnight bus rides in Brazil, I can honestly say that paved roads in Brazil are nowhere near in the same condition as paved roads in North America, Europe, Japan, Australia or New Zealand.  You need to give yourself at least 1 ½ hours to make sure that you get to Rio de Prata in time for your snorkel excursion.

Driving to Rio da Prata

Driving to Rio da Prata

How Can You Get to Rio da Prata?

The three main cities where it is possible to a day trip to Rio de Prata are Campo Grande, Jardim, and Bonito.

Since I was based in Bonito, here is the route we took:

  • Exit Bonito via road MS 178/MS 382 (you will pass the Convention Center)
  • Take road MS 178 for 50 Km (31 Mi) until you reach BR 267
  • Turn left towards Jardim and drive for a further 2 Km (1 Mi)
  • You will see the sign Recanto Ecológico Rio da Prata

You will also need access to transportation as it is about an hour outside of Bonito like I said earlier.  Since it is required by law to book your trip to Rio de Prata via a tourism agency, transportation should not be an issue for you as the agency should give you transportation to and from Rio de Prata as part of your package.

How Can You Book a Trip to Snorkel in Rio de Prata?

As with many of Brazil’s ecosystems, Rio de Prata is officially protected territory.  Thus, you will have no choice but to book an organized tour to be allowed to snorkel in it.  Recanto Ecológico Rio da Prata is the official name of this private ecosystem reserve, and they list several official tour agencies from Argentina, Brazil, the United Kingdom, and the United States here on their website where you can book a tour.  Our tour was arranged with the wonderful Muito Bonito Turismo as we stayed at their hotel during our two-day stay in Bonito.  I highly recommend them for their Customer service and professionalism!

Group Shot at Rio da Prata

Group Shot at Rio da Prata

What Does the Snorkel Trip Include?

The tour itself is a bit expensive at around $200 Reais ($100 US), but totally worth it!

It lasts for about 4 hours and includes the following:

  • Transportation to and from Rio de Prata via your tour agency
  • Wetsuit, life jacket, boots, snorkel and mask
  • Accident insurance
  • 60 minute guided trek through rainforest as you approach Rio Olha d’Agua
  • Float down Rio Olha d’Agua followed by a float down Rio da Prata to view pacu and dourado
  • Buffet lunch at the end of the trip (drinks not included)

What Should I Bring With Me to Rio da Prata?

Since you will be snorkeling for half a day, a change of clothes and towel is all that you really need.  Do not wear sunscreen or insect repellent as that is banned by Recanto Ecológico Rio da Prata!

Snorkeling in Rio da Prata

Snorkeling in Rio da Prata

Bring a waterproof camera if you have one, but don’t worry if you don’t.  You can rent waterproof cameras Recanto Ecológico Rio da Prata for about $20 US.  You may also want to bring some extra cash with you as you can buy souvenirs here or drinks for lunch as they are not included with your buffet.

When Can I Go Snorkeling?

Recanto Ecológico Rio da Prata is open daily from 7:30am to 5:30pm year round.  However, you need to book your tour in at least one day in advance so they can schedule you a time slot with a group of 10 (tour guide included).

Fish Swimming in Rio da Prata

Fish Swimming in Rio da Prata

Who Can Go Snorkeling?

Anyone 8 years old or above can go snorkeling, although children between the ages of 8 – 12 need to be accompanied by an adult.  Medical restrictions are applied to women more than 5 months pregnant, and anyone with extreme health problems, like diabetes, severe allergies or heart problems or low or high blood pressure, should fill that out on their waiver form so that they receive some extra care and attention from their river guide.

What Other Restrictions are There?

The following are banned on your tour: sunscreen, insect repellent, alcohol consumption, smoking and snacking.

Rio da Plata – Brazil’s Real Life Aquarium

Rio da Plata – Brazil’s Real Life Aquarium

Can I Do Any Other Tours at Rio da Prata?

While river snorkeling is the primary reason most tourists come to Rio da Prata, it is possible to do alternative tours instead, such as horseback riding, scuba diving or bird watching.  An interesting note to point out about the scuba diving tour is that no previous experience or certification is required largely in part that it only lasts for one hour and the depths of the river rarely go deeper than 7 feet.

Does Recanto Ecológico Rio da Prata Have Any Accommodations?

No, they do not.  The ranch is part of a private reserve.  You should make hotel reservations either in Bonito or Jardim if you need to stay in the area over night.

Rio da Prata

Rio da Prata

Overall, I found this trip to be one of the best experiences of my life.  The river water was cool, yet refreshing, and my mind was literally blown away by the hundreds of schools of dourado and pacu that swam by me over the next couple of hours.  At one point, we had to switch entry points in the river where the stream was extremely strong and I nearly smoked my knees on some rocks in the shallow riverbed below.

We also had the opportunity to challenge each other by swimming as close as we could to this natural underwater spring that must have been 12 – 15 feet deep below us.  While it looked easy to do, the buoyancy of our wetsuits made it rather difficult to accomplish.

Touching the Natural Spring

Touching the Natural Spring

Meeting Lenir, a woman from Rio de Janeiro that was part of our group, also added to my experience on this trip.  Although there was an obvious language barrier between us as I spoke no Portuguese and she only knew some basic English, I found it interesting to learn from her that Rio da Prata is a popular tourist attraction mainly within Brazil and Argentina (i.e. very few foreign tourists come here).  We also talked about the traditional Brazilian lunch we had, as well as her vacation plans, and her life in Rio.  I also showed her some of the photos I had taken on my waterproof camera on the river snorkel tour and from our boat ride at Iguaçu Falls.

Lenir - My Brazilian Friend

Lenir – My Brazilian Friend

The ranch at Recanto Ecológico Rio da Prata is also gorgeous and extremely relaxing with several hammocks strewn about for tourists to take a quick nap after lunch.  I could have sat there all day, but alas, our time at Rio da Prata – and Bonito – was coming to an end.  It was time for us to head back to Bonito for one last dinner before the early morning ride to the Pantanal the next day.

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

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