Monthly Archives: February 2012

It was a long day – not doubt about it. About 15 hours of travelling – from Curitiba, through São Paulo and, as there are no direct flights to Ecuador from Brazil, through the Colombian capital, Bogotá.

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Flying into Quito just after dusk was breathtaking

However, nothing prepares you for flying into the Ecuadorian capital, Quito, which is set in a “dry valley”, 2,800 metres up, and has an long, undulating shape.

It’s a mixture of clearly planned districts, and other areas which are more reminiscent of Rio’s favelas – home to its 2.5 million inhabitants.

So far, it seems like a pretty modern city (for the region) and pretty lively. There seem to be far more Western companies here and in Colombia – like KFC, Dunkin’ Donuts – than in Brazil. Perhaps due to a lack of their own homegrown equivalents, which Brazil has.

Things are pretty cheap: a cab ride just cost me $2 (they use US dollars here) and my accommodation last night – private room with en-suite – cost $20.

Due to its location (near the Equator) and altitude, the place has very predictable weather: normally around 18°C, with about 60% chance of rain. (Right now it’s sunny.) It’s an easy life for a weather forecaster here…

I haven’t seen it yet because of all the cloud, but just beyond Quito is a volcano, or more accurately a “stratovolcano“, by the name of Cotopaxi.

At 5,900m tall, it’s a bit of a monster, and apparently can be easily seen from Quito’s northern suburbs in July. Weather permitting, of course.

Volcano Cotopaxi, near Quito

Volcano Cotopaxi, near Quito

Could’ve fooled me…

OK – so, time to log off for a while. Perhaps a month or so. I’m off to Tandayapa and the mountain cloudforest.

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Today is my last day in Curitiba for the next two months, as tomorrow I’m flying to Ecuador for a stint of volunteer work and South American exploration.

Tandayapa Valley, Ecuador

Tandayapa Valley, Ecuador

You’ve probably spotted, and perhaps even raised an eyebrow at, my fascination with our feathered friends, and this trip will see me well and truly wallowing in birdy goodness.

Tandayapa Bird Lodge, located about 30km northwest of Ecuador’s capital, Quito (as the crow flies), is a purpose-build cloud forest lodge, sat around 6,000ft above sea level – and is something of a Mecca for bird lovers.

Here, I’ll be helping visitors make the most of their stay, and most importantly, making sure they get the right snaps of the nature they travelled so far to get. I also intend to offend the locals with my dead-in-the-water Spanish, and pretend they are instead speaking Quechua.

Despite its small size, Ecuador has the biggest concentration of hummingbirds on the planet, as well as many endemic species.

This should keep me on my toes, as nearly every bird I see will be a first, a ‘lifer’ as us birders call it.

Towards the end of my trip, I’ll be doing so more run-of-the-mill sightseeing – and shall be reporting on Quito – Ecuador’s capital, and the world’s second highest, altitude-wise.

Of course, Ecuador is also where the Galápagos Islands, of Darwin fame, are – only a few hundred miles off the coast. Whether I get to visit these, and Ecuador’s biggest city, Guayaquil – time, and this blog, will tell, and will likely depend directly on how generous visitors’ tips are! (Kidding!)

Anyway, time for some more packing and a last-minute checks online for which plugs they use, if the water’s OK to drink, (wow, just found out they use the US dollar! Handy!) and what the chances are that I’ll be stabbed by anything worse than a hummingbird:

Florianópolis, the city on the island, is the capital of the southern state of Santa Catarina. The stunning, 53km-long island on which the city sits offers over 100 beaches, culture, good food and nearly 300 years of history.  

 

At just a four-five hours’ coach ride from Curitiba, a small distance, by local standards, it had been on my list for too long, and a couple of weeks ago I seized the chance.

Florianópolis from the air

The famous Hercílio Luz Bridge has long been taken out of use, and the island is now connected to the mainland city of São José by a dual carriageway.

It is the gem in South Brazil’s crown, and whether you arrive by air – flying onto the hilly, forested subtropical island, with its lagoons and golden beaches, or by road – crossing over from the continent to the island with Florianópolis town center and Hercílio Luz Bridge as your view, the first time you see the island is breathtaking.

We arrived late, and first thing the next morning we headed for the centre  – with its colourful, Colonial-style buildings, palm trees, energetic street performers and vendors, not to mention the crazy Union Flag-style art deco paving slabs.

The city’s central district is small – and in a few hours we discovered most of Florianópolis’s charming buildings and squares. The Municipal Market sells a mishmash of local food – particularly seafood and lots of exotic-looking fruit.

After grabbing an açaí with banana and granola, we wandered up to the Metropolitan Cathedral and to Praça XV de Novembro (15 November Square – every city has one for some reason), where the city’s enormous Figueira (fig tree) resides – so big it literally has to be held up by scaffolding.

Florianópolis city centre, photo by Ben Tavener

Florianópolis city centre. Photo by Ben Tavener. Click image for my Florianópolis gallery on Facebook.

The city has a vibrant atmosphere, and if we were lucky enough to see a group of locals practising their capoeira moves: gingas, esquivas and rasteiras.

Although the city is known for having Brazil’s best quality of life (according to the UN’s HDI index), we didn’t want to stay there long as it was oppressively hot and humid in summer: 35°C felt more like 45°C, and soon a trip to the beach was needed.

Getting the bus around the island is easy, if not the speediest way to travel.

An hour’s winding bus ride and you arrive in the centre of the island at the Lagoa da Conceição (“Conception Lagoon”, oh err), next to a small town of the same name.

At 13km long, and over 2km wide in places, the brackish waters of the lagoon are the perfect place for take a boat ride or hire a jet ski.

Cachoeira boat stop, Lagoa da Conceição, photo by Ben Tavener

The Lagoa da Conceição is best nagivated by taxi boat, which dropped us right on a restaurant pier. Photo by Ben Tavener

We hopped on a boat up the western shore of the lagoon – just R$5 each way, which took us past palm tree-covered hills, with the island’s famous sandy dunes in the distance, onto otherwise inaccessible parts of the island.

We passed what seemed to be very exclusive resorts, and after an hour’s sailing along idyllic lagoon shoreline – with kite surfers occasionally racing past the boat, we ended up on a wooden pier which went straight into a restaurant.

The other side, after 10 minutes’ walk or so along a trail, into the subtropical forest, we arrived at a cachoeira (waterfall) that we could swim in. The fresh water was exactly what we needed to cool us down. The area was buzzing with bird and butterflies, and banana and cacao trees (or “chocolate trees” as I often erroneously refer to them) are everywhere.

One of Florianópolis island's many "cachoeiras" (waterfalls) - perfect for a dip, photo by Ben Tavener

One of Florianópolis island’s many “cachoeiras” (waterfalls) – perfect for a dip! Photo by Ben Tavener

But the main reason people come to the island – the Ilha de Santa Catarina – is for its array of clean, safe beaches. The only trouble is finding the one that suits you best.

A car or bus ride from the center gets to the northern part of the island in around 35 minutes.

Here you’ll find the resorts of Jurerê, Ingleses, Canasvieiras, Santinho – home to the Praias do Norte (northern beaches).

Jurerê is home to the island’s élite: affluent Paulistas and Cariocas who have bought their dream summer home here. Don’t be surprised when you see the Ferraris and Lamborghinis passing you by, and a hefty bill in the restaurants and bars.

(I was told by Catarinense that in this part of the island there are bars which are for those who simply never need to check their bank balance – and a table or a sofa at a bar can cost R$1,000. That’s just for sitting there, never mind the price of the cocktails. . . Clearly meant to keep the riff-raff out!)

In the end, we plumped for long stretch of golden sands in the town of Ingleses (literally “Englishmen”), which is more down-to-earth, and a little less painful on the wallet. The beaches there are clean, if a little busy at weekend, but there’s space for everyone. Try a banana boat ride or just splash around in the inviting waters.

Ingleses Beach, Ingleses, Florianópolis island. Photo by Ben Tavener

Ingleses is favoured by families and tourists, but there’s plenty of room for everyone! Photo by Ben Tavener

As we didn’t have all day, we just grabbed a table, and enjoyed a beer with some fries on the beach, and took in some rays, splashed about and admired the views of the surrounding hills and islands.

The Praias do Leste (eastern beaches) offer a mixture of calmer sands – such as Joaquina – to Praia Mole, which is where the surfers head to make the most of the ideal waves.

Swallow-tailed kite

Swallow-tailed kites can be seen soaring on the thermals generated by the island’s mountainous landscape

For those who want to get further off the beaten track – the island offers a number of trails, particularly in the south of the island.

Some go to fresh-water lagoons and falls, others lead you eventually to secluded beaches.

The one-hour trek to Praia Naufragados will offer visitors a taste of the Mata Atlântica – Brazil’s east-coast tropical forest – ending up on a more secluded beach.

It’s a good place to spot much of the island’s flora and fauna – including the majestic swallow-tailed kites circling in the thermals.

Anyone in the south of Brazil should definitely try to visit Florianópolis – it’s a couple of hours’ flight from Rio or São Paulo, and it’s worth every penny.

For a second, I thought an avian murder was taking place outside my window.

This is Brazil’s endemic plain parakeet (Brotogeris tirica) – or the “rich parakeet” (periquito-rico) as it is known in Portuguese, and it is very common, especially here in the Curitiba and in our bigger neighbour, São Paulo.

They are NOISY. They congregate in groups and fly from food source to food source, squawking their lungs out. But they brighten up my day whenever I see them, particularly this close (thanks to my zoom lens!).

Rio's civil and military police, as well as its firefighters, are now on strike, and 14,000 soldiers are in town to replace them - just days before Carnaval is set to start.

When I was being interviewed on Canadian national news the other week, one of the questions I was asked was whether Rio would suffer a PR disaster as a result of the multiple building collapse which killed at least 17 people in downtown Rio. 

At that point, my thoughts were mainly that Rio could probably manage to shrug this off before the sporting mega-events – the 2014 FIFA World Cup and 2016 Olympics – make it to Brazil. There’s a long time to go, right?

But now more bad news, and for Brazil’s tourism industry, the last few weeks have been the most challenging for years.

In the Bahia state capital, Salvador, a violent stand-off between police officers on strike over pay and conditions, and the army soldiers brought in to replace them, brought chaos to the streets of the city and the wider state, and more worryingly a doubling of the number of murder victims.

It was another piece of bad news Brazil didn’t want plastered around the world’s press, coming just two weeks after the buildings collapse. It raised questions about Brazil’s poor infrastructure and its ability to welcome visitors – let alone holding the sporting mega-events it is hosting in the coming years.

And now there could be worse to come.

Last night 14,000 army troops took to the streets of Rio as the city’s civil and military police went on strike, along with the fire service, over pay and conditions. For Brazil’s most-visited city, the timing couldn’t be worse: next week sees the start of the one event of the year that lures more tourists to Brazil than any other – Carnaval.

Despite reassuring words from Rio’s officials that everything is under control and that “security at Carnaval is guaranteed”, they are anxious. They do not want a repeat of this week’s events in Bahia while nearly five million visitors descend on the city.

The event is undoubtedly the biggest in Rio’s calendar and in Brazil’s shop window – and each year it paralyses the country with its energy, colour and samba vibes. Images of the festival, traditionally held the four days preceding Ash Wednesday, are paraded around the world as the country’s biggest piece of bait for international tourists.

Last year’s Carnaval attracted 4.9 million people to the Cidade Maravilhosa (“Marvellous City”, as the locals call Rio), according to the City Hall, including 400,000 foreigners – generating around R$1.2 billion – around US$740 million – and it’s big business for Brazil’s other cities, too.

The country’s increased presence in the world’s media – including in a number of movies, such as last year’s blockbuster animation Rio – and its ever more confident position on the world political stage all mean the world has never felt closer to Brazil.

And Brazil is investing a lot of money into making sure they still come, whatever the headlines say.

The result is that the country’s tourism industry is thriving; the fact that Brazil’s expanding middle class now have more money in their pockets means Brazil’s fledgling domestic industry is taking off in tandem with its international one.

Industry experts say this is leading to better standards across the board – and a world-class experience for tourists.

And although question marks still hang over parts of the country’s infrastructure, major improvements have been made in terms of security – particularly with Rio’s ongoing reclaiming of the remaining lawless, gang-ruled favelas, a process known as pacificação in Portuguese – mean few travellers have been put off, and most face their trip to Brazil with a sense of adventure.

And it’s this mentality, something that seems to be shared by a lot of tourists coming to Brazil, which keeps the crowds coming, and in growing numbers.

Travellers coming to Brazil are generally aware of what they’re letting themselves in for – and the country’s beaches, food, culture and general energy nearly always manage to trump any stories of Rio’s pickpockets or queues at the airports.

Of the estimated five million foreign visitors who came to Brazil last year, Argentina and the US top the list, but a growing number are coming from Europe – particularly from Spain, Italy, Germany, France and the UK – as Brazil becomes more and more accessible to global markets.

Brazil’s now former Cities Minister Mário Negromonte

I’m sure Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff is wondering what she’s done to deserve her cabinet.

Cities Minister Mário Negromonte brings to seven the number of ministers to have resigned since she took office in January 2011, all but one has left shrowded in accusations of taking bribes or being otherwise corrupt, including showing favouritism in the bidding process for public work contracts to a company loyal to their personal or political needs.

They are:

All of the ministers have denied the allegations.

Defence Minister Nelson Jobim also resigned after remarks he made about his colleagues, rather than over accusations of corruption.

Rio building collapse, January 2012

The last thing Rio wants - with two years to go before it hosts the World Cup - is images like this showing up on news channels and in newspapers.

Last week’s multiple-building collapse in downtown Rio was big news around the world. Not unsurprisingly, given Rio will be hosting the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics, and tourists would probably rather their hotel stay in one piece.

Aside from covering it for The Rio Times, I was on Canadian CTV News and BBC radio – trying to put as fair a spin on it as possible, while feeling it was a real pity I wasn’t conveying something more upbeat about Rio.

Yes, it was terrible; no, it wasn’t totally unexpected; yes, Rio will have to put its socks up before these sporting mega-events; no, you can’t expect perfection from a country that’s still developing; yes, the quality of its infrastructure still needs to catch up with the zeros on its bank balance; no, this doesn’t justify the loss of life.

Brazil might be the world’s 6th biggest economy now, but it is still growing and adapting to its new-found wealth – which is still split extremely unfairly among the country’s 205 million-strong population. Yes, the country’s middle class is growing – and at quite a lick – but no one’s kidding themselves that Lula really solved all of Brazil’s woes in eight years in office.

Rio was very lucky, if you can say that, to escape with only seventeen deaths from this building collapse. This area, Cinelândia – Centro, is Rio’s commercial heartland (along with its more recent Barra business district), with Petrobras’ HQ and the Metropolitan Cathedral nearby, and only the fact that it was 8:30pm when the collapse happened meant a higher death toll was avoided. It’s also on Rio’s secondary tourist trail – for those who venture inland from Rio’s stunning beaches in Copacabana and panoramic views from the Christ the Redeemer statue in Corcovado.

Theatro Municipal, Rio Jan 2011, photo by Ben Tavener

The buildings which collapsed were directly behind the 100-year-old Theatro Municipal, photo by Ben Tavener (Jan 2011).

Questions are inevitably being asked as to how three buildings could collapse – one 20 storeys tall, one 10 storeys, and a joining five-storey section – on the same block as the century-old Theatro Municipal (pictured), one of Rio’s most recognisable human-built landmarks.

It’s likely that no one factor was involved here.

Having spoken to a number of industry specialists in the past few days, it seems that, whether or not illegal construction work going on in the 20-storey building triggered the collapse, a good deal of other factors would have helped bring it down.

Yes, constructing buildings quickly and on the cheap – to keep up with Rio’s booming real estate markets and demand for new buildings – means that the workers and material used will not be of best quality. But this is just one factor.

Another is Rio’s tropical climate – temperatures regularly in the high 30Cs, with moist sea air, shifting soils.

Together, buildings age fast – and if new buildings are put up around them, then the land is again shaken and disrupted; add in the metro rumbling underneath and the substandard electric, water and gas infrastructure (which occasionally leads to manhole covers exploding in the streets, and led to a lethal explosion in a restaurant last November) – then you start to see a different pictures than just “they took out the wrong wall and it collapsed”.

However, there can be no denying that Rio needs to take its buildings more seriously. For the sake of its own people as much as its millions of tourists.

The experts tell me building plans are often poor or missing altogether, and engineers are often needed to second-guess how the building was originally put together. And that’s the people who bother finding out. Most just make alterations as they please, without the consent of the relevant authorities – as was the case with the works being carried out on the 20-storey Freedom Building, whose collapse last week killed so many.

Officials rushing to demand tighter regulation and drawing attention to Rio’s more positive sides may have averted Rio’s image being tarnished too severely on this occasion.

But another major PR disaster, with the World Cup and the Olympics looming large on the horizon, might be impossible to avoid.