Tuesday, April 30, 2013

A Tale Of Two Cities

Brazil is dominated by its two largest cities: Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. The two are eternal rivals and are as alike as chalk and cheese. Rio is the star of the show, the prima donna, the cool kid on the block; whilst São Paulo is the plain one that does all the work and gets none of the credit. The images of Christ the Redeemer, Sugarloaf rock and the beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana are iconic, conjuring up fantasies of caipirinhas on the beach, suave maestros playing bossa nova into the wee hours, and harems of girls from Ipanema. This is the Brazil people dream of. The only associations people have with São Paulo (if they have any at all) are traffic jams, hordes of busy, unsmiling people and polluted air. Of course there are truths behind these cliches, but also much more.

View of the Guanabara Bay, the older part of Rio, and the unmistakable Pao de Azucar rock on the right.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Brazilian Gems

Brazilwood and then sugar cane may have been the initial sources for Brazil's wealth, but they did not last long: you can't build an economy on a pretty tree and the uptake of sugar cane in the Caribbean was far more successful. To understand Brazil's success you need to head inland from Rio to the hills and mountains of Minas Gerais. Initially all development was along the coast, but soon explorers, the so-called bandeirantes operating out of São Paulo, moved further inland. The initial motivation was to find indigenous slaves, but soon the bandeirantes found that the vast interior was home to unimaginable mineral wealth. The gold deposits in and Ouro Preto were discovered in the late 17th century (they were hard to miss as gold was found in large nuggets in the streams) and soon people were flocking to the region to get a piece of the action.

View of Ouro Preto, once the richest city in the world and the epicentre of the world's largest gold rush that formed the basis of Brazil's wealth.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

More Than Just Samba

Travelling through the northeast has helped shatter two preconceived, stereotypical images of Brazil, of landscape and culture. Brazil is often viewed as being synonymous with the Amazon rainforest and perhaps, for those who have a penchant for nature documentaries, like myself, with vast wetlands like the Pantanal.  But there is far more to it than that. The wetland theme started off well as I left Belem, almost all the way to São Luís, but as soon as my road turned inland, into the heart of the northeast that soon gave way to the dry savannah of the cerrado and the scruby, caatinga forest of the sertão. This vast, dry hinterland is reminiscent of the American wild west, and the small, dusty towns towns that dot the rolling hills need only a couple of gunslingers to complete the picture. This is cattle country and last year's drought was tough, as evidenced by the verges populated by rotting carcases and their attendant flocks of vultures. Lonely escarpments and odd rock formations dot this forgotten landscape, until you finally approach the coast again and sugar cane plantations take over.

Brazil isn't just the Amazon and Pantanal. There are some incredible landscapes, such as the multitude of crystal-clear pools amongst the white coastal sand dunes of Lençóis Maranhenses national park.