South America has been high on my wish list for as long as I can remember, and having tailored many bespoke itineraries for my clients over the years, I knew there was only one place to start – Brazil!
Rio – The Marvellous City
We couldn’t see the whole of Brazil in 2 weeks, so decided to focus on the South for this trip. We spent five days at the lovely Miramar Hotel, Copacabana, and our first day touring with a local guide, a great way to get an understanding of a city and its people. The weather was grim on our first day, with grey skies and pouring rain, but despite this, I fell in love with Rio.
We toured the city including the stunning cathedral, walked around quirky Santa Teresa, where we had coffee and my new favourite food pão de queijo (warm bread rolls filled with melted cheese) and ended with lunch at a local Brazilian restaurant where we tried the famous feijoada (meat and bean stew) and our first taste of the national (very potent) drink, cachaça. Fortunately, the weather picked up and we got to spend time on Copacabana Beach and see Rio at her best.
Santa Teresa was a great spot at night, with live bands and crowds dancing Samba in the streets. We went up Corcovado to see the incredible Christ the Redeemer up close, and even took a trip with a local around Rocinha (do not do this on your own), the largest favela in Brazil, where we met the locals, wandered the alleys and had a superb lunch to finish off. Rio was every bit as spectacular as I had imagined, but the biggest surprise to me were the people, who couldn’t have been more warm, friendly and welcoming.
Mighty Iguaçu (and a little bit of Argentina)
With only two nights at Iguaçu Falls (the largest waterfall system in the world), I decided to max out the experience by staying at Belmond Das Cataratas, the only hotel in the Brazilian National Park. We arrived after a short flight from Rio to our stunning falls view room, but the real draw-card here (apart from the gorgeous hotel) is that you have access to the park and falls walkways before it opens to the public at 9am.
We took a walk at 7am and had the place to ourselves – this was a huge highlight - the size and scale of this natural wonder up close and personal was truly breath-taking. We took a boat trip under the falls, which was exhilarating (if a little wet!) and another once in a lifetime experience. On our final day, we visited the Argentinian side of the falls, and spent the day walking the trails for different views and a chance to see the falls from every angle. Dinner at the hotel restaurants was spectacular (especially the Piranha Broth), with the thundering noise of the falls as the soundtrack, it was the perfect end to our trip to Iguaçu.
Pit-stop in São Paulo Our next stop was Paraty on the Emerald Coast, but as we had to fly into São Paulo, I decided to have a local guide collect us at the airport and take us on a 5 hour city tour. I didn’t expect much of São Paulo, as I’ve always heard it described as a concrete jungle, so I was very pleasantly surprised, and in fact, loved it so much I regretted not staying for a couple of nights. It’s a very cosmopolitan city with funky bohemian neighbourhoods, amazing street art, very stylish shops and restaurants and a real feel of urban cool.
It has the most amazing park in the centre which is the last remaining piece of Atlantic Rainforest in the city! As always, there has to be food involved, so our guide took us to the Municipal Market for lunch where we tried local specialities pastel de balcalhau (salt cod pasties) and the delicious sanduíche de mortadela (melted cheese and mountainous meat sandwich), before the scenic 5 hour drive onto Paraty.
Paraty is a gorgeous colonial town on the coast – think cobbled streets, cute shops, wonderful restaurants and lively bars. We stayed in a stunning boutique pousada in the car-free, historical centre. This really is a place to relax, and that’s exactly what we did. We ate fabulous seafood in funky restaurants, and tried another Brazilian speciality moqueca (delicious seafood stew). By now, I had become familiar with Brazil’s national drink, the Caïpirinha, and spent chilled evenings listening to music in the square, sampling the different varieties - Pineapple Caïpirinha being my favourite.
There are numerous boat trips to the outlying islands, but we opted to hire a boat and skipper for the day which was wonderful. We visited several gorgeous beaches, snorkelled and swam in a beautiful bay with turtles, and finished with a fantastic seafood lunch at a great little beach shack – the Calamari was the best I’ve ever tasted! After three days, we were apprehensive about leaving, as surely nowhere else could be as wonderful as Paraty – but the best was yet to come!
Ilha Grande – Paradise Island
Our 90 minute speedboat transfer from Paraty to Ilha Grande was not the relaxing experience I had hoped, the wind whipped up and it was a fairly bouncy ride! Suffice to say, when we landed at Ilha Grande, it was with a sense of relief that I set foot on the jetty! Regardless of how we arrived, nothing could have prepared me for the beauty of this place. An island without cars, or indeed roads, our beautiful pousada occupied a prime spot, and our room had dual aspect balconies with views towards the little beach and fishing village, as well as out to sea. This truly was paradise! We woke to the sound of the ocean and spent our days walking the tracks to deserted beaches, swimming and snorkelling off the jetty, and generally relaxing. Ilha Grande is a hidden gem, and it was with heavy hearts that we left after three days for our 4-hour road trip back to Rio.
Rio – The Finale
Having already stayed in Copacabana, I booked us into the Sofitel on Ipanema Beach for our last two days. I did love Copacabana in its own loud, brash, Brazilian way, but Ipanema was my favourite. We took a Samba lesson before visiting the fabulous Rio Scenario Samba Club in Lapa, which was an awesome night. The weather was fantastic, so we spent our last two days lying on the beach. There is no rest to be had on Rio’s beaches, as there is far too much going on! Crammed in like sardines, Bossa Nova music coming from every corner, people dancing or singing along, football and volleyball games everywhere you look, and beach sellers offering everything from Caïpirinhas and cheese skewers grilled on portable barbecues to bikinis! This is where you come to see Rio in its glory, where the vibe is carefree and the overriding feeling is one of fun! Brazil is intoxicating and addictive, and far exceeded my expectations and I just can’t wait to go back!