We had been wanting to go to Brazil for a long time, especially to witness the craze and see if there was any truth to all the stories we had heard about the infamous Carnaval. I also had lots of images of the rainforest and the mighty Amazon that all put together made the country quite mysterious and fascinating. What we didn't realize is Brazil is huge in terms of geography. Getting from one place to another, especially airfare and that too during Carnaval, was getting very expensive and long. After doing some research, we zeroed in on visiting Rio de Janeiro, Foz do Iguaçu (home to the famous Iguassu Falls), Salvador da Bahia, and Manaus (biggest city in the state of Amazonas and embarkation point to many a rainforest adventures). Salvador didn't live up to its hype for us, though it was a quaint little colonial town that was the entry point for a lot of Africans into the country who were brought in by the Portuguese as slaves.
If we had more time: We would have rather cut our rainforest adventure short to 2-3 days (we spent 4 days 3 nights there) and instead visited the azure oases and white sands within the Lençóis Maranhenses National Park. The next time we come back to Brazil, we would also like to check out Chapada Diamantina National Park, Pantanal (the world's largest wetland), Paraty (the colonial town that's nestled between Sao Paolo and Rio de Janeiro), the archipelago of Fernando de Noronha, and of course Rio de Janeiro. Rio is one of the most beautiful places we've been to in terms of diversity of nature as well as the people!
Prices: At the time, one Brazillian Reais/Real was worth around $0.40. Other than local foods at the hole-in-the-wall places or stalls along the streets, the food was not necessarily cheap. The fresh fruit juices, especially açaí berry smoothies were absolutely delicious and inexpensive! The bottled açaí stuff you get here doesn't even come close to the amazing goodness of the non-preserved real açaí in Brazil! Be prepared for everything to get exponentially expensive during Carnaval time.
Transportation: As mentioned above, you may not realize how huge Brazil is until you start researching transportation options for getting from one city to another. It took a 6-hour flight to get from Manaus (Amazon area) to Rio de Janeiro - the same amount of time it takes to fly coast-to-coast in the US! The best thing to do to avoid super expensive a la carte flight prices is to buy an airpass. We bought the Brazil Air Pass offered by the Brazillian airlines TAM. The idea is you use 1 coupon per leg of your flight, and you pay a certain amount based on how many "coupons" you need. We were visiting 4 places in Brazil, hence we got the first level pass, which allows 1-4 coupons/stops. It's in your best interest to find non-stop flights between the cities you want to go to so you don't have to spend coupons unnecessarily.
However, note that if there's an included stop-over at a city in your flight, then you don't have to spend your coupon over it. For example, we landed from the US into Manaus, then took a flight from Manaus to Rio de Janeiro, which was 1 coupon. However, it stopped at Brasilia en-route for a connecting flight and we didn't have to spend an extra coupon (1 for Manaus-Brasilia, and 1 more for Brasilia-Rio). When you call TAM to buy the air pass, be sure to have decided on which cities you want to visit and are flexible in terms of dates and even the sequence of your visit. We had to change the sequence of our visits to the cities based on the availability of the non-stop flights. It cost us $730 each for the airpass (which was cheaper than what the individual flights would have cost us all summed up!). If you buy the international airfare with TAM as well, you'll get a discount on the Brazil airpass. We only got a partial discount because we had already booked our international flights on Delta, which is a TAM partner.
Within Rio de Janeiro, we either took taxis, trams or the subway/metro to get to places. We took the bus to get to Iguassu Falls and back to our hostel/airport, and we took taxis around in Salvador. In Manaus, we got a package deal for the rainforest adventure which included all transfers, including to/from airport. More about that in just a bit.
Weather/Best time to visit: It was only hot and humid in Manaus (rainforest) when we went. The weather in Rio de Janeiro was actually in the pleasant mid-70's. It was warm (80's) and humid at both Iguassu Falls and Manaus, but not unbearably so. I suppose early winter in North America, which is late spring/early summer in the southern hemisphere, should be a pleasant time to visit Brazil as well.
Also, be sure to not visit Salvador on Ash Wednesday, which is the day after a week long celebration of Carnaval, when the place is almost dead. Everyone's recuperating from the hedonistic festivities and a lot of the popular spots (like churches, etc.) are also closed!
It was rainy season in the Amazon when we went, which proved advantageous to us because the forest floor was flooded and we were able to explore deeper on canoes rather than walking/hiking. It also made for extremely humid conditions with no breeze when you're within the forest - an almost suffocating situation when you're covered with bug spray, sleeping in hammocks stacked next to each other like sardines, with mosquito nets around each hammock. Take a well ventilated rain jacket with you for it can start pouring at any time as well!
Carnaval: The two biggest Carnavals in Brazil are in Rio de Janeiro and Salvador. They're both quite different, and we went to both (kinda), so here's what you need to know for both.
In Rio, there are several Samba schools that compete with each other to be able to present their school's floats in the infamous carnaval parade in the Sambódromo. Sambódromo is actually a street on which the parades go by, but it's become somewhat akin to a stadium now with bleachers built on both sides for audience to view the parades from. Only around 14 Samba schools are chosen to participate in this 2 day long parade which starts at 9pm and ends at around 9am each day. The winning school that has the best theme and dancing and costumes gets the bragging rights till the next year's competition. Each school gets 1 hour 20 minutes to complete the parade down the street, showing their tricks and everything along the way. During the entire time a school is on, if you're in the bleachers sitting with its supporters, they will not sit down till the parade is finished! Brazilians know how to party, albeit on the bleachers! The judges are in the middle section, and of course the seats in those sections are more expensive than those in other sections. We also took the metro to the Sambódromo and walked with the crowd to where the entrances were.
The seats sell out up to a year in advance, and are MUCH cheaper if you know someone local there who can buy them for you. If you don't, like us, then just have a nice dinner the night you want to go, and arrive at the Sambódromo closer to midnight and bargain your way through buying the tickets from scalpers outside. Since the parade has already begun, the scalpers are willing to go lower on their asking price. Be careful, but also confident. I bargained in Spanish, and once we bought the tickets (which is an eletronic card key that you swipe to get through), one of us tried it out to see if it worked. Once it did, I paid the money in full (came out to $115 per person) and the rest of us went through as well without any hiccups!
Above is a picture of Sambódromo's layout. The bleachers are divided into sectors, and the parade starts from Sector 1 and ends at the arch/Sector 13. Sectors 3, 5, and 7 are great for viewing the entire parade. Sector 9 is the tourist section with bilingual guides, which I don't think is worth it because you won't be able to hear them anyway. There's so much noise and dancing around you all the time! We were in Sector 5, across from the judges, so we got to see a lot of the schools' tricks (albeit the back view). We left at around 6am (competition/party was still going on) and found that the wait for taxis was at least 3 hours. We thought of taking the metro back, but found a lone taxi along the road and came back to the hotel in that (he charged us $30, which is 5x more expensive and he knew if we wouldn't pay, somebody else would).
In Salvador, the Carnaval is a lot more "raw". The parades go through actual streets and there are 3 or 4 different circuits. Makeshift bleachers are built on either side of the street and seats are sold to people. If you want to participate *in* the parade, you have to buy a t-shirt representing the group you want to participate with. The t-shirt costs as much as $100-500. The safest place, we were told, was to be within the group, for if you're a spectator outside, unless you're on the bleachers, you are guaranteed to be groped by everybody. There are no huge costumes or floats here - each group just has a big truck with lots of speakers on it. There's a singer who jumps to the top of the truck and starts singing karaoke style as the truck parades down the streets, and its "groupies" follow along behind.
Amazonian Rainforest Adventure: Having gone all the way out there, we were very keen on spending some quality time in the rainforest. After doing some online research, we chose Amazon Riders as the company to go with. We went with their "Anaconda 2" package deal, which was 4 days 3 nights of an all-inclusive adventure. Check out the link for details on what was covered in the package, but the highlights were staying in a jungle lodge (quite rustic, perhaps a 1 or 2 star), meeting other travelers like us, camping in the rainforest on hammocks, exploring the rainforest and listening to the howler monkeys, caiman spotting at night, pink dolphin spotting (they look like flying/swimming pigs!), "harvesting" açaí berries and making + consuming fresh açaí juice, and playing with a wild sloth! They also took great care to cook vegetarian meals first and separately from the non-vegetarian dishes, which was perfect too!
We had a very good experience with these guys. We had one English speaking guide and another local Brazilian guide who only spoke Portuguese and drank cachaça like it was water! They customize these packages for you, like if you wanted 3 days 2 nights instead, and they're also flexible. We didn't really want to spend another night camping in the rainforest as Nishant got sick, so we came back to the lodge the 3rd night. We paid $250 all inclusive, including a hotel night's stay the 4th night since our flight was on the 5th morning. In retrospect, I think we should have done a 3 day 2 night package and checked out Lençóis Maranhenses National Park in the extra 2.5 days we had!
Cuisine: Brazil is a very big meat eating country. There are churrascarias (Brazilian steak houses) everywhere, providing endless supply of meat selections on gigantic skewers brought to the table. Their national dish seems to be Feijoada, which is a black bean stew with a variety of pig parts. Simple tomato garlic spaghetti is served as a side almost everywhere, along with manioc flour (from the cassava/tapioca root) and a shot of cachaça (sugarcane liquor) to wash it all down. At the hostel we stayed near Iguassu Falls, the hostess made special vegetarian feijoada for my friend and me, which was pretty much like a black bean chili. Brazil has really tasty cheese breads called Pao de Queijo, and even more amazing fresh fruit juices, including soothing coconut water at all beaches! I could have lived off those entirely. It's a sin that the US doesn't have decent fresh fruit juices, and no, Jamba Juice does not even come close! Guarana is another fruit of the Amazons that is supposed to be an energy booster. Needless to say they would find a way to commercialize it in the form of an "energy drink". It tasted alright...quite a bit like the drink 'Inca Cola' from Peru, or Mountain Dew with a slight after-taste.
Salvador had more interesting flavors in its dishes due to the African influence. The dishes used a lot more palm oil and quite a lot of pimento oil (oil with spicy pimento peppers in them). One of my favorite dishes was Acarajé, which is lentils fried in palm oil (a little like larger falafels) cut in half and stuffed with cucumber salad, pimento oil and shrimp. I got the non-shrimp version of course, and was delicious!
If feijoada is their national dish, Caipirinha (pronounced as 'kai-pi-rinya') is their national drink, made out of the ubiquitous cachaça. It is quite refreshing actually :)
Stay: We really wanted to stay at some of the quaint Posadas, or bed and breakfast places, but most of them were booked during Carnaval, and if not, they required a minimum of 7 day stay. Hence we ended up staying at chain hotels. We stayed at a very lovely hostel in Foz do Iguaçu called Hostel Natura. And of course in the Amazon rainforest, we stayed two nights in the jungle lodge, one night under the stars in the rainforest, and one night at a hotel.
Language/People: Portuguese is the language that's widely spoken throughout Brazil, but a majority of them also understand Spanish, which was a great help for us! I could read Portuguese and infer the meaning of phrases, however when I heard the language, it was impossible for me to follow! The people were all quite pleasant. We didn't have any bad encounters with anybody from the wrong side of the neighborhood as we were careful about where we went and went only to well lit areas with a lot of people. That being said, we didn't feel the least bit threatened or scared walking along the beaches of Leblon, Ipanema and Copacabana at night.
And I don't need to tell you that the people in Rio de Janeiro are just as beautiful as the city itself. We got so tired of seeing people with six-pack abs! And to our surprise, Brazilians really like Indians and all things Indian! They even have a soap opera called "Caminho das Indias" (translates to 'The Indian Way/Street') which has Brazilian stars speaking in Portuguese but the plot is entirely like a Bollywood movie! Watch a clip here :) We befriended a Brazilian girl on our way to Brazil and she said I looked like one of the actors on the show! :)
Visa Requirements: It costs $130 for US citizens to obtain a Brazilian visa! The Brazilian consulate in San Francisco was not shy in disclosing the reason, as it was stuck on posters all over their wall: They were just reciprocating the fees US has posed Brazilian citizens to enter the US! It's only $20 for Indian citizens. We got our visas in a week (we dropped off our passports and picked them up a week later).
The highlight of this trip was definitely Rio de Janeiro! But there's still so much to see...we will definitely be back!