However you arrive in São Paulo, by plane, bus or car, it leaves you in little doubt that it is Brazil’s business powerhouse: it is the country’s richest city, the largest city in the southern hemisphere and the 7th biggest city in the world. Miles and miles of favelas and outer neighbourhoods slowly fizzle into a smart, business-like centre that many consider the pride of Brazil.

MASP, the São Paulo Museum of Art, is unmissable on Avenida Paulista. Photo by Ben Tavener.

São Paulo – or Sampa as some locals call it – and its vast, sprawling metropolitan area are home to over 20 million Paulistanos (people from the city), Paulistas (people from the wider São Paulo state), and of course people from every corner of Brazil and the globe.

Whether you are here on business, or you are yearning for a couple of days in a busy NYC-esque megatropolis, this city – often described in shades of “bustling” and “chaotic” – is exciting, invigorating and chock full of things to see and do.

Aside from hustle-bustle, subway chaos and bankers, São Paulo is most definitely a place of culture, history and great cuisine.

Arriving here from Curitiba, we had two days in the city – of course, barely enough to scratch the surface.

We went on a weekend, hitting the museums on the Saturday – when some are free to visit, and spent our Sunday soaking up the historic centre.

A walk down Avenida Paulista – São Paulo’s most famous, seemingly never-ending central street lined with skyscrapers – will give you a sense of the city at large: one minute you walk past the headquarters of a world-class bank, the next you find yourself outside the internationally-recognised São Paulo Museum of Art, MASP (R$15, metrô Trianon-MASP).

São Paulo’s Estação da Luz houses the Museu da Língua Portuguesa. Photo by Ben Tavener.

The building housing MASP is considered a tourist attraction in itself: the Sixties-built concrete and glass gallery sits up on two red lateral beams, which support around 10,000 square metres of both permanent and temporary exhibitions, including Latin America’s biggest collection of Western art.

However, we started with the Jardim da Luz, where you’ll find the Pinacoteca do Estado (metrô Luz, R$6, free on Saturdays), São Paulo’s oldest art museum, which is set in a house built at the turn of the 20th century. The museum is dominated by paintings and sculptures by Brazilian artists.

Next to the Pinacoteca is the idyllic Jardim da Luz park: tall palm-lined avenues, ponds and park benches infused with modern and classical sculptures. Like a lot of the many parks dotted around São Paulo, Jardim da Luz offers a quick breather from the chaos of the city, a place to wander round a green space and hear the birds.

Opposite the park, in its enormous, Colonial-style home – and actually quite similar in style to St Pancras Station in London – is the Portuguese Language Museum (Museu da Língua Portuguesa, R$6, free on Saturdays), which pays homage to the history of the language and its various incarnations around the globe and is a must-see for anyone studying Portuguese or with an interest in languages.

Central, historic São Paulo: The Theatro Municipal, Praça Ramos de Azevedo and the Viaduto do Chá. Photo by Ben Tavener.

After that we headed for the historic centre, working our way from Luz down through to São Bento.

We walked down Avenida Ipiranga down to the Praça da República, and then through to the Theatro Municipal. We then continued over the Viaduto do Chá (noticing the jungle growing out of the top of the Prefeitura (City Hall) building across the street).

This area is full of enormous skyscrapers – home to banks and other financial institutions.

Make sure you leave time (and room in your stomach) for a visit to São Paulo’s historic Mercado Municipal (metrô São Bento), a massive open-plan fruit and meat market, known locally as the Mercadão, and is famous for its friendly fruit sellers – who will treat you to a taste of fruits which you have probably never even seen before.

In fact there was one fruit that even the seller couldn’t name: “We just call it café-com-mel (coffee with honey).” Just be careful if you have any strong allergies to exotic fruits or aversions to intimate physical contact – I had a lychee popped into my mouth without any warning whatsoever!

São Paulo Mercado Municipal, the “Mercadão”, is usually very busy, but is big enough to cope. Samples of fruit are given out constantly, so go hungry! Photo by Ben Tavener.

Round off your trip to the market with a traditional mortadella (hot ham or baloney) sandwich – just join the nearest line of salivating market-goers.

If you have time, head to Avenida 25 de Março, a Mecca for those who want to buy electrical goods on the cheap (much like Ciudad del Este on the Brazil-Paraguay border), or simply to experience the utter chaos of São Paulo most crowded shopping street. Just make sure you keep a close eye on your valuables!

Given São Paulo’s enormous Japanese community, it is hardly surprising that the city is famed for its excellent sushi restaurants: take advantage of a rodízio de sushi, where for a set fee (normally around R$40 at weekends, and a little cheaper during the week) they keep bringing you food until you can eat no more.

Again, make sure you’re really hungry to take full advantage of this wonderful experience!

Metrô Liberdade will lead you to a mishmash of Japanese, Chinese and Korean communities and a vast array of related restaurants. In fact, you might well hear locals telling you that there are only more Japanese people in one city in Tokyo, and that São Paulo is Japan’s second city. You be the judge on that one!

And if you like food, you’ll be utterly spoilt here: locals say there are over 12,000 restaurants, but they quip that 11,000 of those are out of their price range.

São Paulo really is a great place for tourists – and although the rhythm of Rio or the blissful beaches of Bahia or Santa Catarina certainly deserve their prestigious places in tourists’ hearts, this big, bustling, means-business bruiser is definitely worth visiting.

Quito view. Photo by Ben Tavener

A view across Quito on a sunny day. Photo by Ben Tavener.

If the breathtaking flyby as you land in the undulating, mountainous valley speckled with colourful houses doesn’t make you twig, the lack of oxygen in the air as you climb the steep, narrow streets near the Basilica of the National Vow will certainly leave you in no doubt that the Ecuadorian capital, Quito, is the world’s second highest capital city.

View from Quito Basilica over the Old Town and El Panecillo. Photo by Ben Tavener.

View from Quito Basilica over the Old Town and El Panecillo. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Sat in a so-called ‘dry’ valley at over 2,800 metres (9,200ft) above sea level, and also known as La Ciudad de los Cielos (The City of the Heavens), Quito was founded by Spanish Christian invaders in 1534, and barely a day goes by without rain.

As far as tourists are concerned, the main city is split largely into two. First, the Old Town – which is all about old buildings, cathedrals, churches and the enormous statue of the Virgin Mary set up on a small hill in the middle of the valley – El Panecillo.

The Old Town has all the hallmarks of that charming Latin American colonial feel you can also find in places like Salvador in Brazil.

Colourful architecture can be found here in the Old Town, and also dotted around in the favela-esque areas on the steeper parts of the valley (- also reminiscent of Salvador).

The centre of the Old Town, Independence Square is bordered by the country’s main governmental building and the Metropolitan Cathedral and pretty streets that just beg to be wandered up nonchalantly.

The streets are a mixture of old and new: cafés, bakeries and second-hand book shops on one side, and mobile phone shops, fashionable boutiques and fast-food outlets on the other.

The Old Town, Quito, photo by Ben Tavener.

The Old Town, Quito: Colonial colours and the criss-cross of narrow streets are a cheery sight, even on one of Quito’s many rainy days. Photo by Ben Tavener.

The Old Town is wonderful just to walk through – guidebook in hand or left haphazardly on your bedside table.

There is fantastic architecture and a lively street atmosphere with people selling things all over the place – food, jewellery, souvenirs. Quite simply, there’s a real buzz to the place.

Taking a look inside Quito’s Basilica of the National Vow – which was built around the turn of the 20th century – is well worth it. $1 will get you inside, and $2 at the south entrance will get you access to the Basilica towers.

Although the ascent is by very steep, not overly safe-looking ladders, the stunning views of the Quito valley make it totally worth it.

Quito and El Panecillo. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Quito Old Town, leading to the city’s towering silver Virgin Mary statue – known locally as El Panecillo. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Although many guidebooks warn about pickpocketing and bag-slashing, the usual vigilance will probably see you through unscathed – and taking a taxi (they’re really cheap) after dark is always recommended, rather than taking a bus that’s full to bursting – public transport and crowded places is where the opportunists like to strike.

The second part of Quito to which tourists gravitate, to the north of the Old Town and across a number of attractive parks, is the New Town – the city’s Soho: bars, clubs, and chock-full of gringos (Western foreigners), with the Mariscal Sucre region sometimes known by locals as “Gringolandia” for that reason.

If you like partying, this is the place for you. It’s also where many of the hostels and hotels are located, suiting a variety of budgets – from $10 a night to over $150, depending on whether you wish to leave with all your possessions or not. (I opted for a $40 a night option and did.)

The area is perfectly safe during the day, but take taxis at night – even if it’s just a 10-minute walk. Further north of the Mariscal area, you’ll find La Carolina Park, which is perfectly nice in its own right, but also houses Quito’s beautiful Botanical Garden – which at $3.50 is definitely worth a look. Its orchid gardens are sublime – and those in Ecuador for the wildlife might well tick off another few species in this city haven.

A cloudy day at the western edge of the Pichincha volcano, which sits at 4,700m. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Located 25km south of the Equator – giving Ecuador its name, of course – Quito’s 2.5 million-strong population sits next to the Pichincha volcano, or to be more accurate, stratovolcano.

Yes, it’s still active – last erupting in 1999 and showering the city in a small layer of ash. For those you want to get closer to the volcano (who wouldn’t?), in 2005 Quito built the TelefériQo (with a cheesy Q, pinched, of course, from ‘Quito’) – a gondola lift that will take you up to just shy of 4,000 metres above sea level, to the western edge of the Pichincha volcano – the Rucu (“Old Man”) – and least volcanically active part of the volcano.

Another 4km hike will take you up to the rim of the volcano – but a lack of time, and hitting the cloud after about 1.5km, meant we weren’t to conquer it that day. Next time!

Quito TelefériQo, photo by Ben Tavener.

Quito’s TelefériQo takes you up to nearly 4,000 metres above sea level and provides spectacular views across the city valley. Photo by Ben Tavener.

It takes around 3.5 hours at a steady pace, and bearing in mind the reduced oxygen levels, you should be vaguely fit to do it, and I’ve seen a number of warnings not to attempt it on your first or second day in Quito – let yourself acclimatise properly first.

But the view, even from the top of the TelefériQo is absolutely worth the US$8.50 foreigners pay to get up there and back.

The grasslands at the top make up the special high-altitude Páramo habitat – home to some unique species, particularly birds such as plumbeous sierra-finch and stout-billed cinclodes – which can be easily seen on the pathways.

Things to do at the top: sample the extra-oxygen-filled shops; if you’re feeling lazy – take a horse ride up the hill; take a picture with an alpaca; visit the new high-altitude chapel, or perhaps hire and bike and fly back down the hill on two wheels.

To the north of Quito lies the Mitad del Mundo – Quito’s fairground dedicated to its fortunate latitudinal positioning. A mixture of parlour tricks showing water spinning one way to the north and the other to the south of the Equator line (which scientists will tell you is probably faked, as the Coriolis effect doesn’t have that big an influence on the quantity of water used in the fairground’s “experiments”) and a big Equator line monument (which was actually erroneously placed 240m away from the real Equator line) and that’s an hour’s drive both in and out of Quito, and a few dollars, wasted. I didn’t bother.

Much more my bag, and a feasible day trip from Quito (on the list to do next time) is Ecuador’s best-known and second highest volcano, which can be seen on a clear day from Quito itself – Cotopaxi, which stands just shy of 5,900 metres (approx. 19,350 ft) above sea level:

Cotopaxi volcano, as seen from Quito on a clear day

Cotopaxi volcano, as seen from Quito on a clear day. Photo from

By the way, when talking about prices in Ecuador, I’m not translating into US dollars from a local currency.

Ecuador has been using the dollar officially for some time, after it underwent “dollarization” in 2000 following many years of unofficial use and economic turbulence. And that’s not the only good thing for US travellers, they use the same plugs as in the US – and triband mobile phone system.

And with flights from American cities starting from around $500 (as opposed to $2000 from Europe), it’s no wonder that Americans make up the bulk of visitors who come to Quito, Guayaquil – Ecuador’s biggest and more industrial city on the coast, and, of course, to the Galápagos.

Quito is great to visit as a group or alone – you’ll most likely make friends at some point, as friendly, gregarious single travellers aren’t hard to come by.

Santa Cruz Island, Galápagos. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Santa Cruz Island, Galápagos. Photo by Ben Tavener.

In my mind, the Galápagos Islands had always been one of those mystical, far-off places that only biologists and film crews go to to make documentaries. 

A thousand kilometres off Ecuador’s Pacific coast, the archipelago – also known as the Colón Islands – is now visited by thousands of tourists each year in search of that unique feeling of being able to walk up to a species of bird or reptile and have it not run away but actually eyeball you right back.

Ever since I was about six or seven, I remember knowing about the islands – seeing something on the TV about giant tortoises, marine iguanas and birds with the name “booby” (the blue-footed boobies are the biggest joke on the island and the inspiration behind a lot of the souvenirs there).

Just 70 individuals of this species of Giant tortoise were rescued by helicopter when the Sierra Negra volcano erupted in 2005. Now, they're mating in captivity on the island to bolster numbers. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Just 70 individuals of this species of Giant tortoise were rescued by helicopter when the Sierra Negra volcano erupted in 2005. Now, they’re mating in captivity on the island to bolster numbers. Photo by Ben Tavener.

But my determination to one day go there was cemented by David Attenborough’s 2008 nature documentary Life in Cold Blood, in which he comes face-to-face with “Lonesome George”, the last of one of the species of Galápagos giant tortoises endemic to just one island – Isla Pinta.

“Lonesome George” is, scientists think, around 100 years old – and still in good health. I saw him last week at the Charles Darwin Research Station – which is on Isla Santa Cruz just outside Puerto Ayora. There is still a $10,000 reward for anyone who finds a female – and there’s still some time left, as experts think this species can live to around 170.

(EDIT: Unfortunately, George has now passed away, and it is with great sadness that scientists record the death of his Pinta subspecies.)

Other species of giant tortoise have suffered, too. On Isla Isabela, the Sierra Negra volcano – which is still very much active, as we witnessed – nearly finished off the local species of giant tortoise when it erupted in 2005.

Seventy individuals were airlifted to safety and a breeding programme is in full swing on the island. Some of them have bright yellow patches on their shell – burn marks from the molten lava spewed from the 10km-wide volcano.

You don’t go to Galápagos for the species count. Ecuador’s 1600 species of bird puts it right up there with the mega biodiverse countries of the world. But that’s very much the mainland.

The geologically young islands – just 3.5 million years – have a small number of species, but many of them are endemic: they can be found nowhere else.

And due to their history and where they are located, they are generally speaking not afraid of humans one bit.

Marine Iguanas. Galápagos. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Marine iguanas can be found basking in the hot Equator sunshine throughout the Galápagos archipelago, and are not remotely frightened of humans. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Take for example the Galápagos-endemic marina iguanas. Any lava outcrop around the islands will undoubtedly have a few of these crawling around. They’re found solely on the beaches, swimming between the crags, and don’t mind when the sea lashes them.

Their counterpart on dry land is the Galápagos land iguana – the true dragon of the islands, and also endemic – along with a Galápagos snake, a scorpion and a range of birds.

In fact, many people interested in birds come to the Galápagos as an extension to the mindbogglingly enormous number of species on the mainland.

The endemic species on the islands include the Galápagos penguin (the most northerly-dwelling in the world), Galápagos mockingbird, Galápagos dove and the rare mangrove finch.

Practically everywhere on the islands you will find a member of the endemic Darwin’s finch family.

They appear to come from a common ancestor – and have developed into fifteen species, identifiable by their body size and beak shape and size. Not true finches, but a Darwin-esque exhibition of evolution. Although he did collect some on his voyage on the Beagle, the attribution comes from the 20th century.

To identify the various members of the Darwin's finch family you must consider its overall size and "jizz", its bill and its location, but they can be tricky to tell apart! Photo by Ben Tavener.

To identify the various members of the Darwin’s finch family you must consider its overall size and “jizz”, its bill and its location, but they can be tricky to tell apart! Photo by Ben Tavener.

The best way to see the Galápagos is by take a boat with a naturalist guide on board – and you must by law take an authorised guide of some description with you.

Not only will they point out and identify (most of the time!) what you’re looking at, but they are all local and know the islands like the back of their hand. They are extremely enthusiastic, and one time in particular highlights this perfectly.

We were in the highlands of Isla Santa Cruz where there is a boggy area in a woods which is fantastic for looking for wild giant tortoises.

We were squelching around in the mud when suddenly, “PACHAY!”

I didn’t have a clue what a “pachay” was, but it turned out it was a rare endemic bird – the Galápagos’ answer to a water rail, the Galápagos crake or Galápagos rail.

The others weren’t overly interested, but I knew the worth of this little bird and wading into a bog which ran underneath a tall bush – only to spot a female, a juvenile and then a male (the best-looking as always).

Throughout the islands, you come across a variety of habitats.

Magnificent frigatebirds are by no means endemic to the Galápagos, but they do provide a spectacular display as they trail the cruise boats. That red pouch under the males' beaks inflates like a balloon during breeding season to impress the ladies. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Magnificent frigatebirds are by no means endemic to the Galápagos, but they do provide a spectacular display as they trail the cruise boats. That red pouch under the males’ beaks inflates like a balloon during breeding season to impress the ladies. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Lava outcrops on white-sand beaches where you can find marine iguanas, brightly coloured Sally lightfoot crabs, and shorebirds like marbled godwit and semipalmated plover; rainy, humid highlands home to vermilion flycatchers, Galápagos martin; brackish lagoons where you can find Caribbean flamingo, white-cheeked pintail, black-necked stilt and least sandpiper; and arid, baking-hot drylands – home to the fiery-coloured land iguanas, cactus-fincheszigzag spiders, Queen butterflies and Galápagos mockingbird.

One of my favourite habitats is the mangrove areas – trees stood on stilts in the warm coastal waters. The trees are home to yellow warbler, mangrove finch, brown pelican, egrets and herons, including the beautiful yellow-crowned night-heron.

You can go by dinghy into the mangroves in Galápagos in search of wildlife - such as turtles, sharks and herons. photo by Ben Tavener.

You can go by dinghy into the mangroves in Galápagos in search of wildlife – such as turtles, sharks and herons. photo by Ben Tavener.

But a trip in a dinghy into the mangrove can provide unrivalled views of turtles and sharks – biding their time and reaching adulthood from the safety of the tangled networks of mangrove trees.

Most nature-lovers visiting the islands take a boat to go between the different islands. As you go, you see magnificent and great frigatebirds following in your wake – or even perching on the top wire of your ship.

A variety of tubenoses – like Elliot’s storm petrel – can be seen flying near the ship, with brown noddy and Galápagos shearwater sometimes coming in close.

However, if the air- and land-loving wildlife doesn’t really do it for you – then those just under the waves definitely will.

We snorkelled just twice – but there are plenty of tours that will include snorkelling or scuba diving (for those who know how) every day.

In the two hour-long snorkels, we managed to see green turtle, a 2.5-metre-wide manta ray, white-tipped reef shark and more clownfish, parrot fish, puffer fish and other amazing, vividly-coloured fish that I’ve ever seen in my life.

Sea lion cuts through fish, Galápagos

An endemic Galápagos sea lion cuts through a shoal of fish.

However, one aquatic experience you won’t be forgetting in a while is an encounter with an endemic Galápagos sea lion. Curiosity gets the better of them, and they come right up to you – in our case, circling us and then virtually pressing its nose up again your mask – attracted by the bubbles.

At the very least you should take a waterproof disposable camera (a 27-snap Kodak model will set you back about $20 on the island – mine’s still being developed!). But if you can – try to get yourself a waterproof digital camera, especially if you’re going to be doing a lot of snorkelling.

In contrast with the Galápagos, travelling around mainland Ecuador, once you’ve paid your airfare there, can be done on the cheap. Buses on the mainland will take you from one side of the country to the other for a little over US$10.

However, there’s no real way to do Galápagos on a shoestring – and for good reason.

Firstly, the airfare from Quito is around $500 for foreigners, and then there’s the fact that you have to be with a guide to visit most parts of the National Park – most likely as part of a tour, which also don’t come cheap – and you have to pay $110 to get into the National Park itself ($10 Ingala entry card, and $100 entrance free at the main airport on Baltra Island).

However, I haven’t found a person who’s come back from Galápagos and regretted a penny of what they had spent. Most, myself included, simply wished they had stretched a bit more and booked a longer trip.

Here are few more photos from my trip – which I organised with Tierra Verde on the Yacht Fregata.

Galápagos land iguanas, like this one we found on Isla Santa Cruz, will cower away from the sun under a bush in the midday heat. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Galápagos land iguanas, like this one we found on Isla Santa Cruz, will cower away from the sun under a bush in the midday heat. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Galápagos mockingbirds, endemic to the island, are normally quite curious and will pretty much pose for swooning photographers. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Galápagos mockingbirds, like this one on Santa Cruz island, are endemic to the Galápagos islands. They are normally quite curious and will pretty much pose for swooning photographers. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Brown pelicans are common around the Galápagos. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Brown pelicans are common around the Galápagos. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Galápagos snorkelling, photo by Ben Tavener

If only I knew as much about the fish as I do about the birds! Snorkelling is a must in the Galápagos. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Galápagos sunset. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Galápagos sunset. Photo by Ben Tavener.

So I’ve now been in Ecuador for a month, living at over 1700m, at 0° 0’7″ north of the Equator in the remote village of Tandayapa. Not much by way of communication with the outside world, but a truckload of wildlife.

Plate-billed mountain toucan, photo by Ben Tavener.

This plate-billed mountain toucan is fairly common in the Upper Tandayapa Valley, photo by Ben Tavener. Click on the photo for the rest of my photos from Ecuador.

I’ve been volunteering and guiding for a bird lodge in the village, and I’ve got another four weeks to go in Ecuador.

I’ve been helping out doing whatever is needed to keep me there gratis – including serving the food, guiding guests, lugging suitcases up steep slopes, refilling up hummingbird feeders, and even filling holes in trees with worms to lure in the antpittas.

Of course, it’s not all work, and I get to do a lot of birding. So far, I’ve racked up over 240 species of birds new to me (known as “lifers” in the business) just in the area around Tandayapa and the surrounding including Milpe and Río Silanche.

Bird highlights have included the stunning plate-billed mountain toucan (pictured), Andean cock-of-the-rock, lyre-tailed nightjar, common potoo, and many, many species of hummingbirds.

Photographic highlights of my trip so far – including lots of the birds (sorry!) – can be found here.

After another three weeks or so, I hope to be doing some proper travelling – seeing the capital, Quito, and maybe other parts of the country before I head back to Brazil.

Until then… Hasta luego!

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.

Airlines put a small number of cheap tickets on their websites which they advertise widely in order to attract people to visit them. Most people find they involve too many stopovers, at ridiculous times, and are generally too inconvenient.

Brasília National Congress, photo by Ben Tavener

Brazil’s National Congress – The Senate, on Brasília’s grand central Esplanade. Photo by Ben Tavener.

They then plump for a more expensive, but more humane, option.

However, when TAM Airlines quoted me over £200 less to make my usual 14-hour journey from Curitiba to London into 26 hours, two stopovers, and a seven-hour layover in Brasília, I jumped at the chance.

Mão de vaca (“tight-fisted”, lit. “cow-handed”) though I may occasionally be, the main reason I opted for the flight from hell was the chance to visit Brazil’s capital for the first time.

Brasília is fascinating for many reasons, with its grand, imposing, clever, artistic architecture the clear front-runner – as the photos I took hopefully show.

However, its raison d’être is probably the most interesting aspect. Before it was “made to order” to become Brazil’s new seat of government (for all three levels of it, in fact), the city’s construction had been on the cards for well over a hundred years: the original idea to make the country’s capital somewhere more central than the then capital, coast-riding Rio de Janeiro, had been conceived back in 1827 by one of Emperor Dom Pedro I’s advisors.

The idea was finally etched into the constitution in 1891, but the idea of locating the capital in the centre of Brazil wasn’t defined until 30 years later.

Brasília Cathedral on a stormy day, photo by Ben Tavener

Starkly beautiful inside, Brasília Cathedral shows off its hyperboloid structure on a stormy but baking hot summer’s day. Photo by Ben Tavener.

In 1956 President Juscelino Kubitschek, known as JK to his followers, ordered the construction of Brasília (the city’s airport now bears his name as testament to the fact).

The building was led by architects Lucio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer, well-known internationally for having built many groundbreaking buildings, including the UN Headquarters in New York and several in the Iberian Peninsula (he is – at time of writing – still alive, having recently celebrated his 104th birthday).

Yes, the Brazilians – as per usual – took their time about the deciding phase, but once they were set on the idea, the city rose from the dusty Goiás countryside in the blink of an eye – starting in 1957 and finishing within 3 years and 5 months in April 1960.

The project had created a new capital for Brazil, transferred power from Rio and stimulated the country’s economy by providing work for people from poorer regions, such as the country’s Northeast.

Others said power had been intentionally taken away from the coast quite simply because that is where the people were – and protests and general unpleasantness could be kept at arms length.

Whatever the real reason, no sooner had the tools that constructed the city been laid to rest, than the city was heaped with praise and labelled “a masterpiece of modern urbanism and modern architecture”, and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Brasília from above, aerial shot

From the air, it’s easy to see Brasília’s famous plane-shaped city centre and central Government Esplanade

Knowing all this was outside the airport, I obviously couldn’t sit on my backside for the seven-hour stopover in the city. With my luggage already on its way to London, I was free to jump on the R$2 (70p) taxibus to the centre and get to see the bare bones of the city.

From the air, you can see how the city centre was built in the shape of an aircraft – with the focus of my trip in the “nose” and front sections of “fuselage” of the plane – the Esplanade, which houses the three government buildings, all major ministeries, the main courts and Brasília famous hyperboloid-shaped Cathedral.

After stopping the bus near where the “south wing” meets the “fuselage” – and the Esplanade – I walked through an area where the main banks’ headquarters are located: Banco do Brasil, Caixa, Itaú, etc.

Then, I wandered past the National Library, National Museum and onto arguably the city’s most famous building – Brasília Cathedral. All white – and probably just as well, as the city’s temperature wavers around 27-28°C year round.

Lining the central Esplanade avenue, all the way down to the Senate, Lower House and enormous Brazilian flag, are the main ministeries – including the Palace of Justice and the weirdly-named Itamaraty – the country’s Foreign Office.

In a funny way, it was this building that I wanted to see the most. I’d written about it so many times!

Palácio do Itamaraty - Brazil's Foreign Office, Brasília, Dec 2011 - photo by Ben Tavener

Brazil’s Foreign Office is known by the media and politicians by the Tupi word “Itamaraty”. Photo by Ben Tavener.

The name Itamaraty was transferred with the institution from its original location in Rio, and means “water from the sea of stone” in an extinct language spoken by the indigenous Tupi people.

Walking down further to the Senate – you are constantly struck by the feeling of wandering round in someone’s blown-up architectural model. It’s really invigorating – but nothing in Brasília feels nature.

There are weird and wonderful shapes – sculptures, buildings, monuments – all mixtures of glass, stone, metal, waterfalls, ponds, flames and greenery.

The place does feel very “governmental” – the people walking around are either government workers, protesters or those who’ve bussed themselves in from the city’s poorer suburbs to work in shops or sell refreshments on the streets. All the while I had my camera out and felt generally very safe, as compared with the most guarded feeling I often had in, for example, Rio or Foz do Iguaçu.

Clearly my three or four hours in the centre were not enough to see everything Brasília has to offer, but I think that a day or two is enough to the see most of the interesting things here. If you get the chance – go for it. It’s a truly remarkable, interesting city to ogle at for a couple of hours, and definitely worth the trip in from the airport to the centre if you find yourself there.

But I got the feeling it’s a one timer, and – not to be disrespectful to the Brazilian capital – next time, I’ll probably just pay the extra and fly direct.

View north from Pico Caratuva, photo - Ben Tavener

Stunning view from summit of Pico Caratuva, looking north towards other peaks on the Serra do Mar mountain range (click to see full image)

I remember a few months ago when I was in the Botanical Gardens in Kew, London, seeing a group of tree trunks covered in extra plants and enormous bromeliads which sprouted colourful flowers from the top.

They came with labels like, “Found in Brazil’s Mata Atlântica“. But I didn’t think I would be seeing them in real life that soon.

This weekend a group of intrepid explorers – well, two Brazilians, two Frenchies and a Brit (me) – went to the Serra do Mar mountain range, to the north of Curitiba in Paraná state. Our goal: to climb to the summit of Pico (Peak) Caratuva, the second highest mountain in South Brazil at 1860m – in Brazil’s top 10 highest peaks.

The trails also serves South Brazil’s highest mountain – Pico Paraná (or PP as the locals call it) – which at 1877m also isn’t massively high.

Pico Caratuva and Pico Paraná on Google Earth

Pico Caratuva and Pico Paraná on Google Earth (click to see full image)

However, these mountains are not like the mountains or hills we are used to climbing on holiday in the UK or continental Europe – they are relatively tough and require a good deal of physical energy.

The mountain range stretches the length of south Brazil – running inland parallel to the Atlantic coast and makes up part of the Mata Atlântica – which although translates as “Atlantic Forest”, at the point where we were climbing was a mix of jungle and dense woodland.

First things first as we arrive at the farm hut where you register yourself for the climb (in case you get lost): whistle – check, torch – check. Without these you will not be allowed to climb – most accidents on the mountain are caused by straying from the group and not having these.

I was (un-)reliably informed I would be the first Brit to attempt Caratuva. (I doubt it – and I forgot my flag, anyway…)

EDIT: OK, I misheard the guy. He said I was the first Brit that week. I’m still proud(!)

To conquer these peaks you need to trek through thick forest and jungle, knowing that poisonous snakes and spiders are in the vicinity.

Climbing Caratuva - photo by Ben Tavener

A helping hand was sometimes needed on the jungle ascent

The journey to the top of Caratuva would take us about 3-4 hours, and divided roughly into three stages. Once we’d got through the initial ascent, through mangled woodland and some swampier areas, you reach a small plateau which has stunning low-level views of the surrounding jungle. This gives some respite before the final leg – main climb to the summit.

Urubus – local vultures – circle around on the thermals with their long finger-like primary feathers splayed out, gliding eerily around each other. The noise of the different animals and birds doesn’t leave you in any doubt where you are.

Meeting only a few fellow mountain climbers on the way who gave varying estimates on how long this last leg to the top would take, we knew we had just two hours to complete the final, arduous ascent before we would have to turn back.

Passing a sign (Left to Caratuva, Right to Pico Paraná – which takes a 12-hour hike to scale, with many camping overnight up on the mountain), we knew we’d passed the point of no-return.

First twisting and turning through the mangled vegetation of enormous trees with equally enormous roots, bamboo stalks and exotic flowers – the first, less steep part of the jungle ascent was a chance to get used to mental challenge of having to think about every single place you put your foot, and which branch you will next grasp to maintain your balance or to pull yourself up.

In parts you have to clamber over vast boulders to get to the next part of the trail, which runs parallel to a mountain stream which we took water from to drink.

But this also means that the trail can be wet, and of course jungle areas are lush and green for a reason: being at cloud level means the area is used to a lot of rain.

Bromeliads on Pico Caratuva, photo by Ben Tavener

Bromeliads on Pico Caratuva (click for full image)

We were lucky on our day and the sun was punching through the canopy: temperatures of 27°C meant the trail – which is not overly well-trodden – was not overrun with water or too muddy (but your hiking boots will need a clean afterwards!).

As you continue through the jungle ascent, there are parts where your arms become as important, if not more so, than your legs. Looking ahead for two suitably-located branches to grab onto was the name of the game – literally pulling or swinging yourself up in places.

When you reach easier parts, you can feel your heartbeat reducing from pounding thumps to a more relaxed rhythm.

After the bulk of the long, sweaty climb is behind you, suddenly you start catching glimpses of how high you are – the sunlight breaks more and more frequently through the jungle canopy and then all of a sudden, you reach the final few metres of the trek – the open, low-lying vegetation of the summit.

A few more metres clambering up through the rocky outcrops and a communications mast signals you have reach the top.

The view, over neighbouring Pico Paraná and the surrounding Serra do Mar peaks mean the climb has been worth it.

Now we had just a little time to take in the stunning views, grab a bite to eat and swig some water, before the descent back to base camp began.

Pico Caratuva Summit, photo Ben Tavener

We made it! The Pico Caratuva summit overlooks its slightly bigger neighbour Pico Paraná

Today the weather took a turn for the better, following several days in an Antarctic-dominated cold snap – so we decided to head out to Curitiba’s Zoológico do Parque Iguaçu.

It’s free to get in and a pretty decent size, situated a fair way to the south of Curitiba in an area called Alto Boqueirão.

There was a nice range of animals – monkeys, giraffes, toucans, lions, zebras, springboks, terrapins, parrots, llamas, bears… all of which looked well fed, which was good to see. Always reassuring – and, I think, a sign of the state of the country.

And the hordes of kids there seemed to be having a great day-out – besides the animals, there were clowns and candy floss to be enjoyed.

For a selection of photos from the trip, click the inflating ostrich below: