Scary stuff – Fake Phone Kidnapping Scams in Brazil.

Fake phone kidnapping scams are still very common in Brazil, making thousands of victims every year.

Hearing about it is one thing, but when it happens to you, it gets very real and kind of scary

A few days ago the phone rang and I picked up, introducing myself with a simple “alô” (you don’t say your name when you answer the phone in Brazil, I learned that soon after I arrived here). Someone was calling collect, which I thought was kind of strange, but maybe my father in law lost his phone and needed help so I didn’t hang up.

I have to say I wasn’t really prepared for what came next

I heard the voice of a girl on the other end of the line, and she was sobbing… “Pai, está me ouvindo, pai?” (Dad, do you hear me?). The image that I got in my head, was that of someone who just had an awful experience (like a car accident or lost a close family member), possibly in shock, and trying to call their father to talk about what happened… but, in the confusion, dialed the wrong number… which is understandable.

I didn’t answer immediately, and the girl continued: “Pai, sou eu” (Dad, it’s me), and when I (politely) said that I was pretty sure that she had the wrong number because I don’t have a daughter, the call stopped, leaving me with a feeling of: “WTF was that?”

I told my wife about the weird call and she simply said: “Baby, that was a “golpe(scam). WOW… so this was the phone kidnapping scam I heard so much about. Until I actually got one of these calls myself, I always felt like that kind of thing would never work on me, but now I can understand how some people get totally freaked out and end up paying the “kidnappers” serious money, only to find out afterwards that their relative was never really kidnapped.

This kind of scam has been going on in Brazil for many years, and apparently still makes a lot of victims. The fact that Brazil has a high number of real kidnappings makes it all the more believable.

Most of the time, like in my case I guess, the criminals call random numbers, and the sobbing person you hear is often just a recording, while the caller has some kind of “script” that he is working from. They count on the surprise effect, hoping that the person will panic and give away information (like the name of the “victim”) which the criminals then use in the further “negotiations”.

Other cases are more “sophisticated”. The criminals do their homework by “studying” the family they are targeting, to gather information about names and movements. At the right moment, they place a bogus call to the target’s mobile phone, pretending to be from the phone company, requesting the person to turn off their phone for at least an hour because “their phone had been cloned”.

They then call the family of the “victim”, who are made to believe their son/daughter had been kidnapped, and will be killed if they don’t pay within the hour. Since there is no way to call their loved one, have no choice but to pay up.

A lot of these criminals work from inside prisons, where they are not supposed to even have a mobile phone. the money is collected by helpers on the outside.

Have you, or someone you know, ever been victim of something like this? Leave a comment and tell me all about it.

Ouro Preto – 18th century Gold Capital and Cradle of Brazil’s Independence

Few cities in Brazil are as rich in terms of historical, architectural and artistic patrimony as Ouro Preto. This former capital of the state Minas Gerais, formerly called “Vila Rica” (Rich City) had a very important role in the early history of colonial Brazil, and its independence in 1822, when the colony became an empire.

It all began in the late 17th century, when the epic adventure of exploring the interior of Brazil led to the discovery of gold in the region where Ouro Preto would emerge.

The gold rush that followed brought thousands of fortune seekers and adventurersto the region. Various mining settlements were formed, which grew larger and eventually merged in what would become Vila Rica. (1711).

The gold seemed to be in endless supply, and for the colonizer (Portugal) it was a great source of income. No less than 20% (a quinta) of all the gold that originated in and around Vila Rica, but also in all the other regions in the captaincy, went into the treasury of the Portuguese court. On top of the 20%, each mine owner had to pay a fixed amount of gold every year.

The statue of the former revolutionary leader, Joaquin José da Silva Xavier (“Tiradentes”) in the middle of Praça Tiradentes, in the center of Ouro Preto. Tiradentes was executed and had parts of his body exposed along the Estrada Real. In the background to the right of the statue, the former Governor’s Palace, nowadays the School of Mines and Metallurgy .

To control the collection of these taxes, so called “melting houses” (casas de fundição) emerged in Vila Rica, where all the gold had to be taken to be molten into bars bearing the royal seal. The transport of gold in the form of nuggets or dust became prohibited and to prevent smuggling, it also became illegal to open new roads, other than the roads approved by the Court. (Estrada Real)

Vila Rica thus became the financial center of the colony and epicenter of the Estrada Real. Discontentment with the situation led to a first revolt in 1720, which was quickly repressed by the hanging of its leader, Felipe dos Santos. In 1720, Vila Rica also became the capital of the Captaincy of Minas Gerais.

From 1730 to 1760, Ouro Preto had its period of glory. The gold production was at its highest and the city flourished. Several great artists found their way to Ouro Preto and had a great influence in the further development of the city. Baroque and Rococo churches and other buildings, but also schools and theaters were built. In those days Ouro Preto was one of the most culturally developed cities in Brazil.

An example of how the urban layout of Ouro Preto seems to follow the contours of the landscape

Another advantage that was brought on by the gold mining industry, was that the wealthy citizens of Ouro Preto were able to send their sons to Portugal to study and return as lawyers or doctors.

On the other hand, studying in Europe also exposed these more or less isolated Brazilians to the revolutionary ideas and developments in France and North America.Most of them returned to Brazil with the seeds of revolution and independence planted in their minds.

From 1763 on, it was all downhill. Gold mines ran dry and the owners were no longer able to come up with the taxes for the insatiable Portuguese Court. A conspiracy movement, “Inconfidência Mineira” emerged, aiming at the separation from Portugal and the proclamation of independence.

In 1789, most members of the Inconfidência Mineira movement were arrested and its leader, Joaquin José da Silva Xavier (known as “Tiradentes”) was executed in Ro de Janeiro, his body quartered and the pieces exposed in different cities along the Estrada Realto serve as an example. Tiradentes later became one of Brazil’s most famous historical heroes.

Igreja São Fransico de Assis in the center of Ouro Preto. considered to be one of the “seven wonders of the world of Portuguese origin”

With the independence of Brazil in 1822, Vila Rica’s status was elevated to “Imperial City” and its name was changed to Ouro Preto. All was well until in 1897 Belo Horizonte, which was a brand new city, became the new state capital.

Ouro Preto, regarded by the then elite of Minas Gerais as outdated, nearly became a ghost town when almost 50% of its citizens fled to the new and modern capital.

Ironically, it was exactly this development that greatly favored the preservation of the city’s historical, architectural and natural patrimony, which in 1980 was recognized by UNESCO as world heritage centre.

And what a rich patrimony it is… with its 10 Baroque or Rococo churches and 6 chapels, one more beautifully decorated than the next, but also various museums(including the Aleijadinho museum), the countless houses in colonial style and the mostly originally paved streets Ouro Preto has one of the richest collections of colonial art and architecture in Brazil.

Walking around in the (sometimes very steep) cobblestone streets of the historical center is like taking a trip back in time and I highly recommend it. The fact that all this beauty and grandeur was created in what was clearly one of the most rugged landscapes to be found in this part of Brazil, makes this place even more remarkable.

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Hiking to Pedra Bonita – one of the top 5 viewpoints of Rio de Janeiro.

Floresta da tijuca – the biggest man made urban forest in the world.(as seen from Pedra Bonita

 

If you’re visiting Rio de Janeiro, and need a break from the bustling touristy areas, as well as some fresh air, Pedra Bonita is a place with exceptionally beautiful views of the city of Rio de Janeiro and the Tijuca forest and it only takes an easy 20-30 minute hike.

The start of the trail leading to Pedra Bonita is located right next to the parking space of the hang-gliding ramp of São Conrado, so before or after the hike a visit to the ramp is a definite bonus.

How to get to Pedra Bonita

From Zona Sul (Copacabana, Ipanema…) to the start of the trail is about 18 km (see map below) or 20 km if you take the more scenic coastal road, and depending on the day of the week and the time, it could take some time to get there… so plan accordingly.

Once you arrive at the parking of the hanggliding ramp, go back about 200m to find the entrance to the trail, which is indicated with a sign saying “Trilha da Pedra Bonita”. According to the sign, the average time to complete the trail is 25 minutes, but if you set a good pace, you can do less than that.

The hike

The trail is 1.5 km long and climbs the whole time, taking you from +/- 500 to almost 700m. It is a very easy trail, with steps where the inclination is too high, so it isn’t more difficult than climbing a staircase.

When you get to the top, you have one of the most privileged views of the city of Rio de Janeiro: The tijuca forest, Rocinha (the biggest favela in South America), The beach of São Conrado (where the hanggliders land, Christ the Redeemer, Barra da Tijuca, Pão de Açucar, Pedra da Gávea (another great hike on my bucket list)… all of it is spread out in front of you.

Of course, the best time to enjoy these views, is on a clear day, and as mentioned earlier, while you’re there, why not take advantage of the fact that the hang-gliding ramp is right there… It’s really cool to see the people take off with their gliders or delta wings. Maybe you even get tempted to try it yourself.

Oh, and the ramp also has a bathroom and a small bar where you can have something to drink…

Here’s a map, showing the route from Copacabana (Zona Sul) to the hanggliding ramp.

Map with the route from Copacabana to the hanggliding ramp

I’ll shut up now, and let you enjoy the view through some of the pictures I took there…

9 day Motorcycle trip on the Estrada Real – Part 2 (days 5 to 9)

This is Part two of a longer post. Go to Part 1 (days 1 to 4)

Day 5: Exploring the area around Diamantina

Today we’re taking a day to see a little more of the region around Diamantina. The guy who does the night watch in our pousada turned out to be a guide as well and he was more than happy to show us around, see a few of the waterfalls and the little village of Biribiri, tucked away in the rugged hills north of Diamantina. After breakfast we took off, five of us in the Land Rover and Alex and me on our bikes…

First stop was the 5m high, concrete, illuminated cross on top of one of the hills (alto da serra) around the city, from where you have a great view over the entire city…

The view from the hill is quite cool… 
The other side wasn’t so bad either…

Looks like everybody was so busy taking pictures of the surrounding views, that we ended up with no picture of the cross itself 

After taking in the views, we went on to the “Caminho dos escravos”, a 9 km long road, paved with big stones, constructed in the first half of the 19th century by slaves. This road connected the fazendas and the diamond mines. Today it is used to do ecological hikes.


On the “caminho dos escravos”… Imagining how hard it must have been for the people who once constructed this road…

Biribiri was next on the list…
It is a small village, about 12 km north of Diamantina, founded in the 19th century near a cloth factory, to house the people that worked there. The factory isn’t working anymore and most of the people left. Only two families remain.

Located in a evnvironmental protection area (Parque ambiental de Biribiri), the small village is an oasis of peace and tranquility and definitely worth a visit. It was very nice meeting Antonio, a local descendant from a slave family, who was very gifted at telling the history of the place.

While we were having lunch in the only restaurant, there was a guy playing violin under a tree at a small distance from us… imagine the atmosphere of the place.

After entering the Biribiri park, where our license plates were registered, we had some 12 km of dirt road ahead to get to Biribiri, and along the way we had the chance to visit two waterfalls…


Cachoeira da sentinela… obviously with a small flow of water due to the dry time of the year…


…which didn’t stop Alex from taking a plunge 


Moving on to the next cachoeira…


An old bridge, leading to the cachoeira das cristais…
Cachoeira das Cristais…
And finally the village of Biribiri… Oasis of peace and tranquility.
We went for another hike to see yet another waterfall, called “escorregador” wich means “slide”
The river bed leading to Biribiri…
Lunch in Biribiri…

After having lunch in the village, we continued our exploration, visiting one more waterfall, and went back to the pousada, where our hostess Beatrice welcomed us with a delicious table full of minas gerais delicacies… no extra charge. I must say our stay at pousada Castelinho was delightful and Beatrice and her staff did everything to make us feel at home… The pousada has a main house and 4 cabins (chalets) but I do recommend to stay at the main house, which is a little more expensive but you feel much more part of the family, which is what pousadas are all about.

Our last night in Diamantina, we went down to the historical center and visited the Museu da diamante and the house of Chica da Silva, which was a very famous figure in Diamantina. A freed slave woman, and very beautiful, she had a relationship with the richest man in Diamantina for about 15 years. The house holds paintings of her, depicting the deadly sins…

After a walk in the historical center, we went to the old market place to get some dinner, and Alex discovered that there was a Vesperata going on… the vesperata is one of Diamantina’s attractions: a open air concert in the middle of the historical center. The orchestra’s musicians are posted in the first floor windows around the square, creating the perfect surround experience…


Unexpectedly, we were able to witness the famous Vesperata in the historic center of Diamantina…

Our Spanish friend José was very happy to be able to witness the Vesperata, because as a matter of fact, I called the day before we arrived in Diamantina, and was told that there wouldn’t be any Vesperata that weekend…

Diamantina was the Norternmost point of our trip, and tomorrow we start riding south again, tracing the “Caminho do Diamante” of the Estrada Real… More dust ahead

Day 6: Diamantina – Conceição do Mato Dentro (+/- 130 km)

Day 6 is about getting to Conceição do Mato Dentro, a small city about 130km south of Diamantina. Despite its size, it has managed to earn the title of “Ecotourism capital of Minas Gerais.To get there we would have to ride the authentic Estrada Real, which in this area is mainly dirt roads and means more dust ahead.Since it was a relatively short riding day, we wanted to get to our destination around noon, to have some time left to go hiking to the highest waterfall in Minas Gerais: the “Tabuleiro” waterfall.The first leg was from Diamantina to Serro, the city where we had lunch 2 days earlier. After that we would pass Alvorado de Minas and a few other small places. Most of the roads would be dirt roads, but, like I mentioned before in this report, here and there we saw the signs that more and more roads are being asphalted.


The road from Diamantina to Serro…

When I passed here in August 2010, this was still an authentic dirt road. As you can see, the nxt time we will pass here it will be a new, good quality asphalt road.


Arriving in Conceição do Mato Dentro…


Taking gas…


We arrived in Conceição do Mato Dentro around lunch time, so we found this typical “mineiro” restaurant…


Another table shot.


The riding was over, but we weren’t done for the day. Our pousada was located close to the entrance of the “Parque Estadual Serra do Intendente”, where we could do a hike to the Cachoeira do Tabuleiro. It was not the easiest of hikes, with a very steep and at times slippery section to get down to the river that leads up to the waterfall.


The waterfall in the distance… As expected, here also, there was a ridiculously small amount of water. In the rainy season, it looks like this:


I need to come back when the fall looks like this… must be awesome to rappel off of this one.


Once down at the river, it’s another few kms to the 18m deep “poço” (pont) at the foot of the fall…


No way to ride a bike here… Any bike


As I said… Ridiculously small amount of water… The almost 300m high wall was an impressive sight though. Alex, Maryel and myself went in for a swim (that usually was just a few seconds, due to the low temperature of the water :)).


After our hike, a well deserved relaxing moment at the pousada.

Day 7: Conceição do Mato Dentro – Ouro Preto (250 km – 140 km unpaved)

Today we ride to Ouro Preto, the city that was once called “Vila Rica” (Rich city) due to the fact that it was the place where all the taxes were collected. The gold and diamonds, coming from the north (Diamantina), but also from the surrounding area, had to pass through Ouro Preto in order to be melted and converted into bars that carried the seal of the Portuguese Court.

A tax of 20% (um Quinta – one fifth) of all the gold that passed here was taken and went straight to the Royal family.

Apart from the “Quinta” there was a fixed tax (+/- 1000 kg of gold) for the posession of a mine. Once the mines started to run dry, the owners of the mines were no longer able to pay these taxes and most of them lost their posessions. Around that time, Brazil was being kept kind of a secret to the rest of the world, but on the other hand, the sons of the richest land owners in Brazil were sent to Portugal to study, and that is where they learned about how things were changing, especially in France and the United States.

Many of them returned after their studies with ideas of an independent Brazil, and that is how Minas Gerais became the center of a movement for the independency of Brazil.


Here too, many roadworks to eventually put a layer of asphalt on the dirt roads…


Sometimes, passing these sections was a bit of a challenge… Seriously, it was harder than it seems in the picture…


Places like this, where you can fill your water bottle next to a small chapel are likely to disappear or at least lose some oif their charm…


This farmer will have a harder time taking his animals from one place to another when more cars will pas here at higher speeds…


For the time being, there are still lots of roads with beautiful viewpoints.


There used to be a bridge here, but it was burnt, The jeep would never be able to pass here, forcing us to make a detour, discovering a few great 4×4 roads…


Here, we were getting close to Itambé do mato dentro.


We finally arrived in Mariana, another historical city, about 15 km east of Ouro Preto.


It was Sunday, and the central square was the scene of a lot of musical activity…


And then there was Ouro Preto… Enjoy the following pictures of this beautiful city… This building is the Museu da inconfidência. The “inconfidência Mineira” was the movement, led by “Tiradentes” for the independence of Brazil.


Praça Tiradentes… With the statue of the Brazilian hero


One of the many beautifully decorated churches.


Another Church..


And another…


Steep cobblestone roads… And another church…


A small Artisan market, principally selling soapstone artifacts…

Day 8: Ouro Preto – Ibitipoca (+/- 250 km)

Today’s ride is going to be a breeze… only 250 km and only the last 20 km will be unpaved…
Leaving Ouro Preto, we stopped at the local artisan market, where they sell primarily artifacts in soapstone… It opens at 7.00 am, which I thought was pretty unusual … Anyways.

From Ouro Preto, we made our way up to the BR040, which is known to be a dangerous road, due to the sometimes poor condition and the heavy traffic. Once on the 040, we rode about 70 km further south to Barbacena, which was the only section of “major highway” we did during this trip…


Quick stop at one of the “Pão de Queijo” places on the BR040

In Barbacena, we had to find our way through the city to get on the MG338, leading south west for about 62 km, to Santa Rita de Ibitipoca, where the asphalt runs out. The last 20 km to Conceição de Ibitipoca was unpaved, but nothing too difficult to ride.


The small, winding MG-338, from Barbacena to Santa Rita de Ibitipoca.


In Santa Rita de Ibitipoca Evandro’s GPS and mine were not on the same page… which had already happened a few times before… This time mine was correct 


These things are very common in the rural dirt roads… they are called “Mata Burro” (Donkey Killer) and are used to keep cattle from wandering off. apparently, cows and other farm animals are afraid to cross one of these… this one was a very easy one, but sometimes the space between two beams is bigger than the width of our tires… The thing to do is to cross them diagonally… that is , if you see them in time. I don’t have to draw a picture of what would happen when your front wheel gets caught in one, right? 

We arrived in Conceição de Ibitipoca around noon, as expected, and were planning to have another afternoon hike in the park, but we heard from the local people that the park closes on Mondays… bummer.


The first restaurant we tried in Ibitipoca was closed… only opens during weekends and “Feriados” (holidays)


But we managed to find some food anyway…


After lunch, we checked in at the pousada (Canela de Ema) and since the park wasn’t open, everybody had a free afternoon…

The park was not the only thing that was closed… The mall, where they have a LAN house (internet café) wasn’t open either… I love these small, remote places, but you need to take the good with the bad… Since there is no bank in town, people need to have a “day off” to drive down to Lima Duarte (about 25 km of unpaved road) to go and do their bank stuff…

So, the only thing resembling a LAN house that I could find, was a prehistoric PC in the back room of a clothing store. The screen image disappeared every 30 seconds and the lady had told me that I had to give it a good whack to bring the image back… that seemed to work, but also some of the keys on the keyboard weren’t coming back up after pushing them… All in all an interesting internet experience.

Meanwhile, Alex and Evandro were having a good time at the pool of a hotel near our pousada, and José, our Spanish friend apparently found a few hiking trails a little outside of the town center and had a great afternoon walk…


Alex and Evandro made a few new friends here … They are called “Mico Estrela” or “Black ear tufted Marmosets” and are pretty much endemic for this part of Brazil – Basically the State of Minas Gerais.

Here too, there were not a lot of options when it came to having dinner… the only restaurant/pizzeria that was open, had very good food though…

Oh… and Ibitipoca has a marvelous sunset… Check it out

Final Day: Back to Volta Redonda…

Normally, we would ride to Rio de Janeiro on day 9, and back to Volta Redonda on day 10, but for practical reasons, our Spanish friend José decided that it would be better to ride to Volta Redonda on day 9, and take him to Rio de Janeiro with the jeep on the same day. This way he has one extra day in Rio de Janeiro before flying back to Spain…


It was a fantastic morning in Ibitipoca. Evandro and I were up very early to see the sun appear over the horizon.


The breakfast at Pousada Canela de Ema was one of the best of the entire trip, especially in combination with the location and the view you have from the dining room windows…


Getting ready for the last leg of the trip to Volta Redonda…

Leaving Conceição de Ibitipoca, we had to do a last section of unpaved road of about 25 km in order to get to the BR-267 in Lima Duarte, where we took gas…

We took the BR-267 direction west until Bom Jardim de Minas, and from there it was further south to Santa Rita de Jacutinga and Santa Isabel do Rio Preto, from where it was only about 50 more km’s to get to Volta Redonda…


Somewhere on the road between Bom Jarim de Minas and Santa Rita de Jacutinga… This region is called “As montanhas Mágicas” (The magic mountains…)


I remember this being a dirt road back in 2009… Here too, more and more roads are getting a blacktop coating…

In Volta Redonda, we had lunch and Alex and me took off to Rio de Janeiro with the jeep, to drop off José at his hotel… the hotel was in the historical center of Rio, in Cinelândia, where Obama held a speech when he last visited Brazil (at least I think the speech was PLANNED there)


Riding on the “Elevado da Perimetral” one of the busiest access roads to the center of Rio… after 9 days of relatively easy and tranquile traffic, this is a very unpleasant change of scenery 


Passing the port area, we spotted a docked submarine… I didn’t know Brazil had these… Pretty fancy chopper in the foreground too if you ask me…


After dropping off José in one of the most hectic traffic situations I have ever seen in Rio de Janeiro, Alex and me headed back to Volta Redonda… Alex would be back in a few days to see the Metallica concert…

Thus ends yet another trip through one of the most important historical regions of Brazil… Thanks for sticking with me through this long post… I hope you enjoyed reading it and get inspired to come and ride in Brazil yourself.

Safe travels.