Basilica of the National Shrine of Our Lady of Aparecida

The Basilica of the National Shrine of Our Lady of Aparecida is the holiest site for Catholics in Brazil and much of Latin America, and featured in Pope Francis’s visit to Brazil earlier this year.

See gallery of photos from my trip to Aparecida at the end of the text below.

Located more or less halfway between São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, it is easily accessibly by intercity bus, and is free of charge to visit. The bus from São Paulo’s Tietê bus station is around R$37 and takes between two and 2.5 hours.

The place is often likened to France’s Lourdes, and is a tourist hotspot, seeing as many as 9 million tourists a year. However, we visited on a Wednesday and it wasn’t crowded at all.

At the centre of the Aparecida story and its rise to prominence is a small 18th-century clay statuette of Our Lady of Aparecida, just 40cm tall, which legend has it was found in the 18th century in a nearby river by three fishermen after they invoked the Virgin Mary. They went on to catch a lot of fish.

The fact that it is a dark-skinned Mary is of great importance to some Brazilian Catholics. You can read more of the background of Aparecida here, including about how the statue was destroyed in 1978 and meticulously put back together. A replica of the statue was also publicly vandalised by an Evangelical Protestant on television in 1995.

My first impressions were that it was Catholic Disneyland: you are greeted by a fun fair, a visitor centre, an aquarium, children’s rides and inflated prices for everything from ice cream to the plethora of tacky statuette replicas, crucifixes and other Catholic novelties.

Even when you first get inside the basilica, it feels very new and modern. And it is, of course. The Basilica isn’t even technically finished, after being started in 1955 and inaugurated in 1980 by Pope John Paul II. It isn’t exactly Canterbury Cathedral.

However, once you level with the place – you can see some that quiet church-like dignity. Some of the design is very modern and in-your-face, but parts of it are also subtle and stylish.

It is a very open place – with services ongoing throughout the day. Although I’m not a Catholic, my partner’s mother got stuck right in to one of the services, where audience participation was clearly very much welcomed; she was soon microphone in hand next to the pastor.

It is a peaceful and, thankfully, cool place, given it was nearly 35°C outside.

November sunrise over Cristalino

After a year in the planning, I spent three months in the north of Mato Grosso state working as part of a team guiding ecotourists at the Cristalino Jungle Lodge and Cristalino Private Nature Reserve, part of the southern extreme of the Brazilian Amazon rainforest.

Along with 410 species of birds – including the majestic harpy eagle – I also encountered a host of fantastic mammals, from spider monkeys, caimans and tapirs to anteaters, marmosets and tayras.

The photos in this album are just a taster of the wildlife extravaganza that awaits you in Brazil’s phenomenal rainforest.

The Complexo do Alemão is a string of favelas in Rio’s Zona Norte. It was once considered one of the most dangerous places in the city.

However, a mixture of police “pacification” operations and more investment from the outside – including the installing of a cable car, the Teleférico, that unites many of the Complexo’s favelas – is gradually bringing change to the area.

Tourism is slowly trickling into the area, thanks to the cable car and the greater (although not guaranteed) security now present in the area.

TAM Airbus A330-223. Photo by Flickr CCL/lrargerich.

TAM Airbus A330-223. Photo by Flickr CCL/lrargerich

After months of waiting, I have finally been granted a permanent visa and now have a date for my return to Brazil.

From 10 May I will be living in São Paulo, a city that I’ve visited but never lived in. I will probably be located in the Butantã area, near the city’s world famous university, USP – often ranked the best in Latin America.

I will be continuing as a freelance journalist, with a three-month hiatus later on in 2013, when I will be heading to the southern part of the Amazon, in Mato Grosso state, to work as a wildlife guide at Cristalino Jungle Lodge – an opportunity I just couldn’t pass up, and one you’re going to hear lots more about.

Excitement from international news outlets for Brazil and news there is now growing even faster, with the run-up to the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016. The FIFA Confederations Cup this June will certainly help warm things up.

UPDATE: My new local mobile (cell) phone number in São Paulo will be +55 (0)11 987778890.

CNIg deferido page, Ben Tavener

“DEFERIDO” (“granted”, not “deferred”) was the magic word I had so long been waiting for. Immigration processes are all transparent and freely accessible online – anyone can see migrants’ applications.

It has finally happened.

After over a year of gathering documents, filling in forms, lawyers, judges and a lot of waiting, I have finally been granted a permanent visa, the Brazilian equivalent of the UK’s “indefinite leave to remain”, in accordance with the now-famous Resolução Normativa 77, a piece of legislation from 2008 that granted “stable partners” a raft of new rights, including the opportunity to bring their partner to Brazil on a temporary or permanent visa, regardless of gender.

The law allows a Brazilian to bring their “stable partner”, i.e. in an união estável (“stable union”) – less than “married”, but with many of the legal rights and safeguards, regardless of gender, into Brazil to live, work and stay.

Full marriage would have made the process much simpler, but we were not ready for that (and gay marriage had not been introduced in any states at that point) and were happy with the união estável solution, which appeared simple. In essence it is, but there have been many unforeseeable hurdles and we have come up against more than our fair share of useless people.

One of the big problems is that an união estável is easy to do – you walk into a cartório (legal registry office), pay R$90 or whatever it was, and you are partners – with many legal rights, including pensions and – now – immigration rights for your partner.

However, the fact that it is easily obtained means that if you wish to bring your partner into the country, you must supplement this união estável with other documents, and in some cases an audience with a judge, to back up the claim you’re asserting that you are a couple – and not just trying to get into Brazil on a “visa of convenience” for work or whatever else.

However, many of these documents have to be of a certain “age” – at least one or two years old. Some of the documents are rather “catch 22”, such as having a joint bank account: we couldn’t open one without me having the appropriate visa. Some of the documents were too big for us – joint mortgages, joint property…

deferido closer, ben tavener

For a number of reasons, mainly incorrect advice from a number of sources (even some official advice was wrong), we did not take out the easier documents – a will, life insurance – at an earliest stage in proceedings, and this demanded a more difficult solution – the legal trump card.

This trump card is an application to the local federal or family court to get a judge to vouch for you as a couple – for this, he or she looks into your relationship – with all the supporting documents (photos, statements, plane tickets, etc.) that you can muster. Then an audience of your friends is called for them to vouch for you, your status as a couple and your reason for wanting a permanent visa.

If the judge is satisfied, you get a document that goes to along with your application. This more or less forces the Immigration Service’s hand.

However, this takes time, and our our first, useless lawyer messed up proceedings in spectacular – initially not even lodging the application for a number of months, and then asking for the wrong document from the judge. In the time, thinking that the application was moving on, I decided not to renew my temporary visa – which could have been renewed for another year – and came back to Brazil after a summer break on a tourist visa.

We then discovered the application still had not been made and forced the lawyer to do his job. Luckily, we soon found a better, specialist lawyer to take over the case.

But the process took a long time: from August 2012 when it was initiated lodged with the judge, we finally got the document we needed in February 2013. By this point, my tourist visa had run out and I was stuck outside Brazil.

With an array of documents, plus our judge-signed trump card, I applied to Brasília and, to give them credit, my application for a permanent visa was authorised in a little over a month, and the word DEFERIDO (“granted”) finally appears on my application – all of which are visible to the public.

Now, once authorisation has reached the Brazilian Consulate in London, I can finally apply for the permanent visa that goes in my passport – for the princely sum of £160 (plus a reciprocal fee of £124).

That is the final step allowing me to return to my life in Brazil – return to a new chapter, as I will be living in São Paulo and not Curitiba.

Please get in touch if you would like information about the specialist lawyer that helped me in my visa authorisation application and court audience.

Natal. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Natal city centre, as seen from Natal’s oldest construction, the Forte dos Reis Magos – Magi King Fortress. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Sun-soaked Natal is a well-oiled machine when it comes to welcoming and entertaining the two million or so Brazilians and foreign visitors who come to holiday here every year.

The place comes with adventures of all sizes for the whole family to enjoy, all centred round the area’s blissful beaches and stunning sand dunes.

The capital city of Rio Grande do Norte state in Brazil’s northeast region, Brazilians have made Natal a holiday and, along with Fernando de Noronha, a honeymoon destination that is pretty hard to rival elsewhere in the country. Sure, you’ll see the Cariocas, Paulistas and Italians with their designer sunglasses mincing around, but they soon just melt into Natal’s beautiful backdrop.

Named Natal (“Christmas”) after its foundation on 25 December 1599, the references to the Three Wise Men and wandering stars seem a bit out of place in the 30°C heat for someone from Europe or the States.

Although this is a place you could easily come to for a week or two’s paddling in the sea, feasting on sumptuous seafood and fresh coconut water, and then stretching out in a hammock, Natal – dubbed A Cidade das Dunas, the City of the Dunes – has plenty for those looking for adventure.

Dune buggies on the beach around Genipabu, north of Natal. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Sand buggies whisk you away from urban life to Natal’s famous dunes and lagoons, starting here in glorious Genipabu. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Dune buggying is almost certainly going to be one of your first ports of call, and is a must-do for anyone visiting the city to get an understanding of the area’s fascinating sand dune and lagoon systems.

Typically starting in Natal’s upmarket Ponta Negra district – home to an slew of hotels, pousadas and restaurants – the buggy tour takes you through Natal and over the Potengi River and on to the main dune area, starting with Genipabu.

Once you leave the road and start speeding over the dunes, you might be asked whether you want the bugueiro (buggy driver) to drive com emoção (“with emotion”) with fast twists and turns and seemingly near-vertical drops down the dunes, or sem emoção (“without emotion”) for the more faint-of-heart.

Ski-bunda. Eskibunda. Esquibunda. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Ski-bunda (eski-, esqui-bunda) means throwing yourself down a sand dune on a toboggan into a lagoon. Very refreshing it was, too! Photo by Ben Tavener.

The buggies travel over the dunes, between a number of lagoons, along various beaches and through small villages (nearly always avoiding the roads) to a range of unmissable Kodak moments.

However, after the thrills come the spills: ski-bunda – literally “skiing on your bum” – which entails tobogganing down the sand dune from a height straight into the cool, dark waters of a lagoon below. It’s really fun – and the rickety motor-mounted bench contraption that zooms you back up the dune is an experience in itself.

But it’s nothing compared to aero-bunda – literally “aero-bum” – starts off up at the top of a much higher dune, get into a sling which is attached to a zipwire, and then, traditionally with arms extended like the wings of a bird, splashdown into the lagoon.

Aero-bunda. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Splashdown! Aero-bunda is well worth the R$10. Photo by Ben Tavener.

You’re then ferried back to terra firma and a similar motorised bench contraption whizzes you back up the dune.

Both are perfect for cooling off after racing around the sun-baked dunes and will set you back about R$10 a go, and a team of photographers will be waiting to capture your slash-landing.

Yes, these places are designed to take your money off you – and drinks and snacks are available everywhere for a slightly bumped-up price. It sounds touristy – and it is to an extent, but it’s enjoyable nonetheless.

After the high-octane stuff, you will be taken to a beach restaurant for lunch with plenty of time for a dip in the sea, before being whisked along the beaches back to Natal.

The dune buggying trip will most likely take you around the extraordinarily beautiful Genipabu. Photo by Ben Tavener.

The dune buggying trip will most likely take you around the extraordinarily beautiful Genipabu. Photo by Ben Tavener.

The buggies fit up to four people, plus the licensed driver, and you should always try to negotiate the price. A day’s dune buggying should cost you around R$75-80 (around US$40) each, but be prepared to haggle and walk away if you don’t get the right price…

One thing should be very clear. Natal does not lack dune buggies.

Travel agencies in Natal always have buggy days-out available – most leaving at between 8am and 9am – but people might come up to you on the street to offer their services. Make sure they’re licensed, if you can, and try to haggle a price – if you can fit the buggy, your chances are obviously much better.

See my video on sand buggying, ski- and aero-bunda.

Ferrying dune buggies across a river near Genipabu. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Dune buggies can deal with little rivers, but sometimes need a helping hand from a puntsman – here crossing a river near Genipabu. Photo by Ben Tavener.

The beaches around Natal are extraordinarily beautiful – and daytrips to villages, such as Gringo favorite Pipa, are easy to find and book in Natal.

One of these goes to Maracajaú, a village to the north of Natal, which offers trips to go snorkelling and scuba-diving around the coral reefs a few miles out to sea.

Snorkelling on Maracajaú coral reef, north of Natal. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Snorkelling on the coral reefs is a fantastic opportunity for the whole family to get up close and personal with fish and rays. Photo by Ben Tavener. See my video.

These generally cost around R$50 per person, and are well worth it. Don’t worry your camera isn’t waterproof (although taking one is a great idea if you can), underwater photographers are on standby to make your coral reef adventure a memorable one.

Lots of restaurants in the area serve great seafood – including serra (frigate-tuna) and various prawn/shrimp dishes.

Don’t leave Natal without trying a rodízio de camarão (where they serve a number of prawn/shrimp-based dishes for a set price – normally around R$50 each) and having that quintessential picture taken in front of the famous Morro do Careca dune in the city’s upmarket Ponta Negra region.

Although precautions should always be taken, Natal is Brazil’s safest capital city and has a good reputation among tourists.

Natal is famous for its cashew nuts. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Natal is famous for its cashew nuts, of which there are more incarnations than you were probably aware. Photo by Ben Tavener.

You can always find bargains in this city, so it is always worth shopping around, particularly with days-out, restaurants and if you want to buy local cashew nuts – after all, a small village outside Natal, which is easy to visit, has the world’s biggest cashew tree!

What looks like an entire park is, in fact, one big mess of roots and branches all stemming from one trunk.

Also nicknamed A Cidade do Sol, The City of Sun, Natal enjoys hot weather throughout the year, with daily temperatures rarely dipping far below 30°C, but as the city juts out, it is blessed with a cooling Atlantic breeze.

Frigate-tuna, "serra" with prawn/shrimp garnish. Restaurant in Maracajaú, north of Natal. Photo by Ben Tavener.

This beautifully-grilled serra or frigate-tuna came garnished with prawns/shrimps, potatoes and rice and served two, costing R$40 (£12, $20). Photo by Ben Tavener.

As with all tropical regions, the area has a rainy season – normally March through July, although locals say these showers are usually short and sharp.

Flights to Natal’s Augusto Severo International Airport are available from most major airports in Brazil, including Rio and São Paulo, although some will involve a layover in Salvador.

We found that prices varied wildly (we saw between R$450 and R$1200+), so pick your dates carefully and be ready to take advantage of special deals from the airlines.

Caatinga parakeet or Cactus parakeet. Photo by Ben Tavener.

These beautiful Caatinga (or Cactus) parakeets can be found in the city. Photo by Ben Tavener

"Mico" tamarins in and around Natal. Photo by Ben Tavener.

These “mico” tamarins can be found in and around Natal, and you can pose with one at one of the stops on the dune buggying day-out. Photo by Ben Tavener.

As part of our trip to Natal, Rio Grande do Norte in Brazil’s blissfully beach-packed northeast region, we went snorkelling on a coral reef.

The reef is located some 7km out in the Atlantic Ocean off the seaside town of Maracajaú. Using our new GoPro Hero 2 camera, capable of filming up to 60m below the surface, we filmed what we could – despite the sea being very choppy and quite bubbly!

Music – Under the Sea by Bena Lobo.

Natal in Rio Grande do Norte state in north-east Brazil is the City of Sun.

Surrounded by dunes, it makes an excellent location for sand buggying “com emoção” (which should translate as “fast and furious”) around the sandy hills, where you can zipwire into a cool lagoon or just relax and drink some coconut water.

In this video we travel from Genipabu (Jenipabu) to Jacumã via nine beaches and four lagoons.

A full blog on the trip is coming soon.

Music – various forró songs from the region.