Where would you go if you had to leave Brazil for a few days due to visa issues, while flights to Europe are bloody expensive, not to mention cumbersome? Santiago! As it turned out, it was the cheapest destination in LatAm and with an 8 hour trip much more enticing than a 30 hour trip to Europe.
The weather in Santiago was not the best. For one because of the cold – it’s winter after all. But more importantly, there has been no rain in recent months leading to an all-time high in air pollution which meant that we didn’t get to see much from the mountain scenery that Santiago is famous for.
Still, we found Santiago to be a very interesting city. Not exactly beautiful, but more a bric-à-brac of houses, streets and neighborhoods, modern, old; without too many traces of urban planning. The city features many soul-less apartment blocks and as we rented flats in two different ones, I can now say that Chilean constructions are just as badly insulated as Brazilian ones. In other words: you can be happy if the windows close properly.
Nevertheless, many of the neighborhoods are quite charmful, featuring parks, museums, pubs and coffee places; thus giving the city its very own flair.
One other thing that was noticeable were the many, large, peaceful stray dogs that behaved as if they were holy cows. Appearing rather well fed, often with sewed jackets – provided by animal activists as we later learned – they were everywhere, either sleeping or chasing cars (never people) and generally acting as if the city belonged to them.
It’s easy to see why the German and Italian settlers who came to Brasil towards the end of the 19th century were drawn to the highlands of Santa Catarina; commonly known as vale europeu – European valley – today.
Unlike the coast, the highlands, which reach from 700 to 1800 meters in altitude, have a cool and rainy climate and even snow in winter; not unsimilar to the country of origin.
Beyond the climate, it is the landscape that reminded me of Southern Germany: timber plantations, onion fields and apple trees, large green fields dotted with cows & chicken and occasional remnants of the Mata Atlantica. Were it not for the occasional palm tree or the less occasional banana plantations, one could almost forget that this is Southern Brazil.
Benefiting from the long Carnival weekend, we escaped any potential festivities by driving first down to Urubiçi, then to the Serra do Rio do Rastro, where we were greeted by absolutely zero visibility at the lookout and a bunch of quatis.
Driving the Serra down one day and up the other, we still got to enjoy a some spectacular sights. Touristically, the vale europeu has lots to offer: from zip-lining over a waterfall, to rafting in the Itaiji-Açu river – one of the best in the entire country it seems – and many, pretty waterfalls.
The only downside was the rather cool & rainy weather in what is supposed to be summer. Though, upon returning to Curitiba, we learned that it had been raining for 5 days continuously…
The Chapada de Guimarães – one hour north of Cuiabá, the capital of Mato Grosso – was the last stop on our journey. However, we made the crucial mistake to go there on the 31st of December.
Apparently, this is the ONE day of the year where everybody wants to go to the little city carrying the same name as the mountain range. While we got to see the top sightseeing attraction our friends had told us to check out,
and visited two minor ones, our plan was to go hiking the next day. Only that finding a place to stay for the night proved to be impossible, and that in a city that seems to have one of the highest ratios of B’n’B per capita.
Even so, nothing remotely within our budget and our expectations. It was kind of fascinating to discover that apparently New Year’s Eve commands double if not the triple of what’s considered an otherwise normal price. At one moment, we found ourselves briefly considering to pay 300 bugs for a room hardly worth a third of that. After a dozen or so stops, it turned out to be cheaper to drive back to Cuiabá, have a fancy dinner and to stay in a nice business hotel.
Coming back two days later, we found out that one hike started just behind a little shop selling local honey & sweets (on km 47 of the Rodovia Emanuel Pinheiro, to be precise), finding ourselves quite unexpectedly in the cidade da pedra – stone city – enjoying some stunning views.
One of the luxuries of traveling is to meet people from all kinds of origins, classes or educational backgrounds. Sometimes that can be challenging, sometimes that can be wonderful.
In all of the Pantanal, we found people to be very kind and helpful. It’s easy to see that life out there is somewhat slower, simpler but often also harder. Still, people were not only very respectful, but also very curious to know more about these two gringos who would share a few days on a boat with them.
They were equally eager to tell us more about their lives out there on the farms, on the boat, or in the city. It sometimes was a glimpse in a different world. A world I would have liked to explore though I’m not sure if I would like to live there.
One thing that stood out as not respectful however, was the way they deal with nature. The only possible explanation for all the waste thrown in the water, is that, maybe, there is just too much of it. Too much green, too much water, too many animals and of course, too many mosquitos. It almost seems as if there was an endless supply. If only that was true.
Eventually, arrive we did. After a change to a smaller motor boat and the stop at an abandoned, mosquito infested hotel, we arrived somewhere around mid-morning in Porto Jofre. What had looked like a minor town on the map turned out to be 3 bungalows and a group of geese, one of which had barely escaped a jacaré attack in the morning.
At least, that’s what the owner of the bungalows told us, along with the information that he was not really open for business. Still, we got lucky. A couple from São Paulo who had been camping in Porto Jofre for two days with the daughter and mother in law, was just packing up their huge SUV.
For once, I’d admit that they actually had the right kind of car. Not only was it perfect for camping, and to deal with the non-asphalted road, it also provided enough space on the loading space to seat two crazy tourists with their luggage.
Thus, we gained a free safari all along the Transpantaneira, seeing Tuiuiu, pantanal deer, more jacaré, more capybaras and Southern screamers. Once we reached Poconé, which turned out to be the kind of city it appeared on the map, we got off at the first decent B’nB, switched on the Air Condition, took a shower and returned, slightly regretful, to the 21st century.
Time loses its importance quickly out there in the Pantanal. People get up with the sunlight, eat, sleep during the worst heat and avoid the late afternoon mosquito swarms. Powered by a Diesel engine, the little boat made its way slowly up the Rio Paraguay and then the Rio Parana. Both are large waterways framed by green, thick covers.
As we learned during the trip, the Pantanal is already filling up in December, due to the rains coming from the Amazonas. While water stands low in the dry months from May till October, it starts raining in November and the chances of seeing animals are consequently decreasing. Still, we saw hundreds of birds, capibaras, jacaré and even one morning huge otters. Everything but the famous onça – jaguars.
I found the boat journey a very peaceful, slow way to travel: nothing to worry about, no pressure to be anywhere at any precise time. An engine failure in the middle of the night, or a steering problem during the day, doesn’t matter. The answer to the question when we would arrive, was “Monday, se deus quiser”.
The freight boats that bring cattle down from the farms to the city, are the same that bring the farm workers, groceries, household appliances up the river. They are rather simple though we didn’t ask too many questions but focussed instead of getting hammocks, mosquito nets, water and some snacks.
The last item proved to be unnecessary as all food was included. By making friends with the ship cook, nicknamed Bolacheiro “big cookie” earlier on, we were sure to have our share.
Despite its small size, the boat had three classes for sleeping – upper deck with wind = 1st class, lower deck, no wind = 2nd class, and the cattle platform = 3rd class – and everybody shared one bathroom. The water from the river was not only used for showering and flushing, but also, as we found out later, for cooking.
All in all, there were 40 people on the boat: Families with small kids on the way to visit the in-laws, farm workers going back after the Christmas break, a nurse working with a 750 head strong community of indigenas further inlands, and a father with his less than enchanted teenage daughter who were going to spend the next month on the farm of the extended family.
Even though I enjoyed every minute of the trip, I can see the point of the teenage daughter. The modern world has not reached most of the farms which often have no electricity, no mobile network and of course, no internet. One month can be very long under such circumstances.