Travel

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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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.