About Raf Kiss

Belgian Expat in Brazil since January 2009. Motorcycle and outdoors enthusiast, tour guide, adventure seeker, musician and newbie blogger... Dropped out of school at age 17, had jobs in a saw mill, a car body shop and a few restaurant kitchens, meanwhile studying at night for an accountancy degree, which landed me a job in the Venture Capital industry, administrating venture capital funds... Moved to Brazil to start a new life and explore the biggest country in South America. I love riding bikes, both motor- and mountain bike, swimming, motocross, hiking, trekking, Kayaking, rappel and rock climbing... I also play guitar and harmonica and enjoy reading a book once in a while. I'm also 95% Vegan, don't smoke and not a fan of alcohol, which makes me a lousy Brazilian, but will keep me healthy for a few more years. I hope that through reading my posts, people will be inspired to visit Brazil and discover this magnificent country.

Serra da Canastra: Birthplace of the mighty São Francisco River

The wall of the Serra da Canastra plateau. Up there is the higher part of the Serra.

Just type “Serra da Canastra” into Google and click on “Images” and you will quickly see why I had to go and check this amazing place out.

The Serra da Canastra:

Serra da Canastra situation map (Google Earth)

The Serra da Canastra is a mountain range in the south west of the state of Minas Gerais,located about 250 km (in a straight line) west from the state capital Belo Horizonte. The distances to get there by car are 320 km (from Belo Horizonte), 540 km (from São Paulo) and 725 km (from Rio de Janeiro).

The main reason for creating the environmental protection area (APA) in the Serra da Canastra back in 1972, is that it holds the spring of the São Francisco river (also referred to as “Velho Chico”), one of Brazil’s most important rivers .

The São Francisco river is the longest river flowing entirely on Brazil territory. It starts its almost 3000 km trajectory on the plateau of the Serra da Canastra, and from there, it makes its way to the north eastern region of Brazil, where millions of people depend on the water it brings to the region. It empties in the Atlantic ocean on the border between the states of Sergipe and Alagoas.

One of the dirt roads crossing the lower park area

The park consists of a lower part and a higher part, and a full visit of the area takes 4 or 5 days. If you come by car, make sure it is in decent shape, because some roads, especially the ones leading up to the higher part are pretty steep and rocky. I myself didn’t have any problems with my Defender, but I saw several smaller city cars struggling to ride up the precarious road.

The São Francisco river cascading down from the plateau of the Serra da Canastra. The almost 200m high Casca d’Anta waterfall is one of the Serra’s main attractions

The city of São Roque de Minas located east of the park, is considered the gateway to the Serra da Canastra. From there you can take the road leading up to the higher part of the park.

The route from São Roque de Minas to the high part of the Casca d’ Anta waterfall.

The map above shows the route from São Roque de Minas up the high plateau:

  1. Green: São Roque de Minas – Park entrance (+/- 6 km)
  2. Blue: Park Entrance – Source of the São Francisco River (+/- 6 km)
  3. Pink: final part to the upper part of the Casca d’ Anta waterfall (+/- 22 km)

This trip up the plateau and back to São Roque de Minas takes most part of one day (especially when you get lost somewhere) and you can see that it covers only a small part of the park (green area). The dotted lines are the main dirt roads in the park, which are kind of O.K. to do with a city car, but there are also dozens of smaller roads branching off of these main roads, and those are usually only accessible with a 4×4 vehicle.

The ride up to the entrance of the park is about 6 km and as I mentioned earlier, it’s not a walk in the park for a city car. Once you make it to the park’s entrance, the guards there will search your vehicle for alcohol and tools that can be used to cut vegetation. My Defender has an ax and a shovel mounted on top of the fenders and I had to hand them over to the guards. That way I HAD to come back the same way and could forget about doing a tour and ride back to São Roque via a different way.

The visitor’s center – Serra da Canastra

About 1,5 km inside the park you’ll see the visitor’s center, where you can find a wealth of information about the Serra da Canastra’s history, fauna and flora. You’ll be happy to learn that there are Poemas, maned wolves and other endangered species roaming the area.

You could easily spend half a day browsing all the information available at the visitor’s center, but I had more things to explore, so I hit the road and it was not long before I saw the sign, indicating I had arrived at the place where the São Francisco river has it’s spring.

Sign indicating the place where the Rio são Francisco starts its almost 3000 km to the Atlantic ocean.

The spring itself is not that spectacular. It’s merely a small puddle of crystal clear water the seems to appear from under a bush. Small fish can be seen in the water. Spectacular is knowing that this water is going to travel all the way to the Atlantic Ocean, 3000 km further up north.

Following the main dirt road across the flat, windy landscape for another 22 km brings you to the high part of the Casca d’ Anta waterfall, where the São Francisco takes its first 200 m plunge into the valley of the Serra da Canastra.

Along the way you might get lucky and spot some wildlife, like a deer one of the maned wolves, but don’t get your hopes up too much. I did see this Carcará eagle on top of a termite hill, that was kind enough to sit still and pose for a picture.

A solitary Carcará eagle in the higher part of the Serra da Canastra

By the time the São Francisco reaches the edge of the plateau, it has grown from a small puddle into a full blown river, picking up water along the way. After a short, sometimes difficult hike, you can reach a ledge about 10 m away from the waterfall, from where you have a great view over the lower southern part of of the park. I must say that I hadn’t been very lucky with the weather. It had been overcast or raining most of the time.

Serra da Canastra – View from the top of Casca d’ Anta

And to wrap this post up: here is my VIDEO DEBUT… A far from professional report of the visit of the higher part of the Serra da Canastra National park. Enjoy

Rio de Janeiro to Buzios and back – Motorcycle weekend

Nearly deserted place between Arraial do Cabo and Ponta Negra where we had a Guara-Viton

 

Buzios, Cabo Frio , Saquarema, Arraial do Cabo… places where people from Rio de Janeiro like to go to spend weekends or holidays. My friend Osman, a British/Turkish expat and fellow motorcyclist had been waiting for a long time to try out his Husqvarna 610 and we decided to head out on a weekend trip.Our goal for this trip would be the area east of Rio de Janeiro, also known as “Região dos Lagos” (Region of the lakes). Osman is also an avid diver and wanted to check out some of the diving shops in Arraial do Cabo.

Day 1: Rio de Janeiro – Búzios – Arraial do Cabo

We met on a sunny Saturday morning around 7 am at “posto 9” in Ipanema and since there was almost no traffic we decided to take a small city tour and stop at a few famous spots in Rio de Janeiro before leaving the city.

First stop: Cinelândia with the Teatro Municipal

Second stop: Praia Vermelha and Sugar Loaf

After a brief moment and taking pictures at Cinelândia and Praia Vermelha we set course for the Rio – Niterói bridge, the 13 km long bridge over Guanabara bay, connecting Rio de Janeiro with its sister city Niterói.

In Niterói we took the coastal road because I wanted to take Osman to one of the forts that used to guard the entrance of the bay. I also knew from an earlier trip in 2009 that there was a connection from the fort to the Piratininga lagoon, but when we arrived at the army base, the guard told us that it was no longer possible to get permission to drive through the barracks to Piratininga because the whole area was now only accessible for military personnel.

On the way to the fort we passed the famous MAC museum (museum of contemporary arts), one of Oscar Niemeyer’s creations in Niterói.

The MAC museum in Niterói

We could not take the coastal road to Piratininga so we headed for the “old” main road leading east (the RJ-106) and actually found ourselves a decent section of dirt road before reaching it. Before continuing the long asphalt section to the região dos Lagos, we stopped at an Açaí place and had breakfast.

Most people heading for the Região dos  lagos out of Rio de Janeiro would opt for the BR-101, which is a national highway following the Brazilian coast from the north to the south, but the RJ-106 (a state road), whis is a two-lane road, has less heavy traffic, better scenery and NO pedagio (toll). Ok, here and there the tar could be in better  condition, but for the kind of trip we were on, this was definitely the better choice.

Osman – probably as happy as a pig in shit – on his Husqvarna 610 heading east. The mountains of Rio Bonito already in sight.

After about 2 hours we reached Araruama, and its big lagoon. The lagoon stretches 30 km from east to west and is 12 km wide at its widest point.

Brief photo stop at the Araruama lagoon

From Araruama it was another 60 km to Buzios, where we had lunch at the Buda Beach restaurant, which has great reviews on Tripadvisor.

A great view over the water while having lunch is always a bonus. I think the restaurant included that in their prices 🙂

After lunch we went for a tour around the peninsula. Búzios, also known as “Gringo Paradise, has over 20 different beaches and some awesome viewpoints. We stopped at a few beaches and even did some off-roading to reach one of the more remote viewpoints.

One of the many beaches in Búzios.

 

Off road in Búzios: on the way down from an elevated view point. The rain creates some tricky ruts here and there.

Day 2: Arraial do Cabo – Rio de JaneiroAfter circling the peninsula, we needed to get a move on if we wanted to make it to Arraial do Cabo before dark. The sun sets early in this part of the world. Osman had the name and address of one of the diving shops (PL-divers) and after some looking we found the place. The same people also run a pousada connected to the diving shop, and it had a closed parking for the bikes, so we felt very lucky. The pousada (pousada Suia) was very clean, had good beds and a decent breakfast. Good price – quality.

After a good night’s rest and a tasty breakfast, it was time to load up the bikes and head back to Rio de Janeiro. We were planning on checking out some 4×4 trails that I had never ridden before, and there was a real risk that the road would end somewhere in the middle of nowhere or hit a deep river, forcing us to trackback several kilometers. We wanted to be in Rio before dark so there was no time to loose.

A few km outside of Arraial do Cabo we entered the dunes. This road was familiar to me, but after about 4 km, we took a sidetrack that would take us straight on the beach and that would be the unknown part.

The sidetrack started out pretty firm, but it didn’t take long before the bike started to float from left to right and before long we were looking at a 200m wide white beach. This was what we came here for, so we hit the sand and sure enough the bikes (the riders too) had to work hard to even ride through the loose sand. It was a matter of keep going or get stuck.

Both of us made it through, and once we got closer to the water, the sand was a lot better to ride and for a moment we had a little piece of heaven on earth…


Osman and his Husqvarna on the beach. It doesn’t get a lot better than this.

This beach goes on for 40 km, but we didn’t do the whole distance because riding in this sand, the bikes use a  lot of gas and we weren’t planning on running dry before reaching a gas station.  This meant that at one point we had to get OFF of the beach, which was harder than getting on it, because now we had to ride up through the sand instead of down…

Me on the beach… perfect weather conditions and awesome scenery. What more can a person ask for?

Here’s me trying to get off the beach… riding up… got a lot of sand in my shoes here 🙂

We got off the beach without too much trouble, and circled around, taking a small aspalt road that took us into Saquarema, where we took gas. From there, it was another 60 km, which was about 50/50 asphalt and dirt of the good kind. At Ponta Negra we rode up to the lighthouse, which was another great viewpoint.

The closer we came to Niterói, the beaches gradually became more crowded, until we had to make our way between cars, bikes, bicycles, quads, buggies and pedestrians who were enjoying their Sunday afternoon on the beach.

The dirt road leading from Marica to Itaipuaçú… here we could still open the throttle.

Military police patrolling and keeping a watchful eye. Note the barrel sticking out of the window…

One more section of loose sand before getting back on the asphalt. This is hard labor people 🙂

This concludes the last dirt section of the trip. From here it’s all asphalt back into Rio de Janeiro. But first we had to get over that hill in the background.

In conclusion, here’s our route.

I hope you enjoyed the ride.

Note: This route can also be done with a normal car, except for the beach part in Arraial do Cabo (you can do the 6 km through the dunes though) and the last section of loose sand in Itaipuaçu. even with a 4×4 vehicle, you would have to get on the asphalt sooner than we did because at the end of the beach road in Itaipuaçú there’s only a small bridge over the canal, and cars cannot go there… notice there are no cars in the last picture. that would be your hint that you’re too far. (that is if you would make it through the soft sand :))

Cheers

A Motorcyclist’s Worst Nightmare – Brazil’s Deadly Kite lines.

Kids flying a kite on the road near power lines (Photo: http://noticias.r7.com)

During the dry winter months in Brazil, thousands of kids take to the streets to fly a kite. This seemingly innocent game has proven a deadly nightmarefor many motorcyclists.

A few years ago, I read a book called “The Kite Runner”, by Khaled Hosseini,  a great novel about a boy in Kabul, Afghanistan where “Kite fighting” is a very popular sport. the objective of the game is to cut the line of the opponent’s kite. The guy who cuts the other guy’s line and is able to pick up the falling kite becomes the new owner of this kite.

Kids flying kites and odd looking motorcycles.

My first winter in Brazil (2009), I couldn’t look past the droves of kids and even adults, flying kites (here they are called “Pipa”) very close to the roads and the traffic. When my wife told me that they were trying to cut the other kid’s line and then run after the falling kite, I remembered the book.

Motorcyclist’s protection: anti-cerol antenna, designed to catch and cut kite lines

In fact, it is a serious problem. When kids fly kites near big roads, the lines sometimes end up hanging over the road, posing a deadly risk for passing motorcyclists. (To see some pictures of what the kite line can do, click here. WARNING: VERY GRAPHIC PHOTOS)Another thing I had noticed during my first months in Brazil, was that many motorcycles had a strange-looking antenna on the handlebars. When someone explained to me that this was a protection against kite lines, it all started to make sense. This was no joke.

“Preparing” the lines with a mixture of glue and grinded glass called Cerol, was forbidden years ago, but a new, even more dangerous product became available: the “linha Chilena“.

The linha Chilena is a ready-to-use kite line, especially designed to cut, containing quartz powder and aluminum oxide. The cutting power of this line is five times greater than the traditional cerol, cutting through human flesh like a hot knife through butter.

The problem behind the seemingly innocent game

The statistics don’t lie: Every year there are about 500 accidents with motorcyclists and stray kite lines, 125 of which are fatal.

Motorcyclist wounded by kite line. This one was lucky to have survived. (photo: http://www.portalguaratiba.com.br/)

In an attempt to tackle the problem, authorities have issued a new law last month (may 2012), prohibiting the sale of the linha Chilena. Anyone caught selling it, will face a serious fine and up to 4 years of prison.Aside from the danger for motorcyclists, there are also cases of accidents with youngsters being fatally cut when the line gets tangled around their neck. Other accidents occur when kite lines get stuck in power lines and kids get electrocuted trying to retrieve their toy. Kites also cause power outings when caught in power lines. The small glass particles that are released during the use of this kite line can also cause serious lung problems.

Only in the city of Rio de Janeiro there are over 40.000 kite flying enthusiasts, and as it will be a huge task to keep the linha Chilena off of the streets, I don’t think I’ll remove the ugly antenna from my bike just as yet.

Day Tripping at Tijuca Forest – Rio de Janeiro: another day at the office

On the top of Pico da tijuca - Rio de Janeiro

On the top of Pico da Tijuca. Sweating like a horse in almost 40°c temperatures, but no complaining from any of us 🙂

Rio de Janeiro was basking under a perfect summer day and although this time of the year most people come to the Cidade Maravilhosa to enjoy the Carnaval, two Dutch girls asked me to take them for a walk on the green side of Rio de Janeiro… the Tijuca Forest. No need to say I was more than keen… 

I picked the girls (Monique and Annette) up at Rio Hostel in Santa Teresa around 7.30 in the morning and we started the 20 km ride to the Tijuca Forest. Because of the Carnaval festivities, the police had blocked some of the streets around the Sambódromo, where the garbage left by the last “blocos de carnaval” gave the place a deserted look.

Before reaching the parking space from where the hiking trail to the Pico da Tijuca starts, we made a brief stop at the Cascatinha waterfall, considered the most beautiful one of the park.

First stop in the Tijuca Park: The Cascatinha Waterfall

Our first hike for the day was the Pico da Tijuca, a 2,5 km walk to the 1.012m high summit of the highest mountain in the Tijuca Forest. The trail winds through sometimes dense forest, but is very well indicated and maintained. The Pico da Tijuca offers an awesome view of the center and north zones of Rio. On a clear day, like yesterday, it’s possible to see the Serra dos Órgãos with the “Dedo de Deus” (Finger of God) located 50km north of Rio.

Monique and Annette climbing up to the Pico da Tijuca. Jungle trail in the middle of the city.

Almost on the top of Pico da Tijuca, climbing the 117 steps that were carved out of the rock-face to accommodate the Belgian king Albert on his visit in 1921

Next stop before lunch, was the “Vista Chinesa”, which derives its name from the chinese style pavilion where tourists can find some shade while enjoying another privileged view of the marvelous city.

The Chinese “pagoda” style pavilion at the Vista Chinesa viewpoint

The view over Rio de Janeiro from Vista Chinesa with Christ the Redeemer to the left, overlooking the Lagoa Rodrigo Freitas and the morro do Cantagálo in the middle and the Sugar Loaf in the background.

The Vista Chinesa is only one of several viewpoints scattered all across the Tijuca Forest, each one offering another breathtaking view of Rio de Janeiro from a different angle, showcasing some of the city’s most famous attractions like Christ the Redeemer, Sugar Loaf, Lagoa, Dois Irmãos, Pedra da Gávea and Rocinha.

Continuing our tour of the Tijuca Forest, we went on in the direction of the coast, heading for the hanggliding ramp of Sáo Conrado, where you can watch people of all walks of life take the plunge into the lush green scenery of the forest.

Always special to see hang-gliders take off. This is must definitely be the closest thing to being a bird…

Watching the hanggliders do their stuff is something I could do for hours, but we had another hike on our list. The Pedra Bonita trail is only 1.2 km long, considered “medium difficulty” and is one of my favorite spots in Rio.

To our disappointment, the guard at the entrance said that we couldn’t go up because of a kidnapping that had occurred at the Pedra da Gávea. The police were still searching for the kidnappers, who were supposedly armed and hiding somewhere in the forest between Pedra da Gávea and Pedra Bonita.

More people arrived at the entrance who wanted to do the trail. They had heard that the search party had ended and Pedra Bonita would be safe, after which the guard allowed us to go ahead.

Monique and Annette on top of Pedra Bonita. In the background the silhouette of the Pedra Branca massive. Rio’s other (and biggest) Urban forest.

Catching the last rays of a perfect summer’s day on top of pedra bonita with the lagoas of Barra de Tijuca and the sheer endless beach of Recreio das Bandeirantes in the backdrop.

Pedra Bonita was the perfect end to a fantastic day (especially because there was no sign of any kidnappers). As the sun was slowly setting in the west, we sat down for a while on the granite mountain surface, which was still hot from a day of Brazilian sun, and tried to take it all in.

Another Brazilian-Dutch couple joined us and we talked about how Rio de Janeiro was definitely a unique place, which would at least take a year to fully discover.

Giving the Brazilian-Dutch couple a ride to Copacabana, I returned Monique and Annette to their hostel after an 11 hour tour of the Tijuca Forest. I’m sure they will remember this day, at least until the pain in their legs and other body parts has worn off :).

I still had another 120 km ahead of me to get back home, where I arrived around 9 pm but for a day like this I would get out of bed at 4.30 am any day, even on a Sunday. I guess you could say that for me, this was just another day at the office, but people, WHAT an amazing office it is.

Give me a call next time you’re in Rio and I’ll show you around so you can see for yourself.

Spotting Carcará Eagles in the Serra da Mantiqueira preserve – Rio de Janeiro

On the way back from an attempt to hike up the Pedra Selada in the Serra da Mantiqueira and ended up spotting a couple of Carcará eagles.

one of the dirt roads winding through the Serra da Mantiqueira preserve

It looked like it would be a sunny day, and we set out from Volta Redonda around 10.30 and by 11.00 we were already riding through the foothills of the Mantiqueira mountains. When we got to the place where the trail starts, it was totally deserted and that was strange, considering that it was a Saturday in the touristic high season in Brazil. We figured that most people probably were afraid that it would rain. About 1 km into the trail it became clear why there was nobody else there. The trail was totally washed away by a landslide and getting up there would be a challenge that I would have gladly taken on by myself, but I saw in the look on my partner’s face that this hiking trip was ending right there. Disappointed, we went down again, and decided to take the rest of the afternoon to ride a loop through the area and enjoy some of the peace and quiet. At one point, we saw two Carcará eagles on the road, enjoying a meal of some kind. Of course the birds took off when we got too close, but landed in a pine tree nearby, giving me an opportunity to shoot some pictures. [tribulant_slideshow post_id=”24208″]

See the eagles in the pine trees?

A little closer: not one but two Carcará eagles, which is quite rare

And a close up. These are really impressive birds

The Carcará’s meal: an ubfortunate black eared possum (Gambá de orelho preto)

Hope you enjoyed this (i know the last picture wasn’t very tasteful, but that also is part of nature, right?)

My Most Loyal Travel Companions.

Meet my two most loyal travel companions…

On the motorcycle and in the car: my Garmin ZUMO 550

Ever since I arrived in this immense and diverse country called Brazil, I have been relying on two things to find my way to far away places and back home again. I say ‘things” because that’s what they are… I’m talking about the Global Positioning System, commonly referred to as the GPS… 

As the title of this post implies, I am using two of these babies:

  1. On the Motorcycle and in the car: A Garmin Zumo 550
  2. On hikes and mountain bike rides: A Garmin GPSmap 60C

I know, some people swear by paper maps, and I respect that completely, but in this day and age, (unfortunately) “time is money”, and I found out that a GPS is probably THE best tool for someone who wants to discover a country the size of Brazil in one lifetime…

On the mountain bike and on hikes : my Garmin GPSmap 60CSx

Seriously, I wouldn’t know how to even BEGIN to figure out where I would have been right now without these two fine pieces of equipment… I was already using them when I was still living a far less adventurous life back in old Belgium and I was glad to find out that also in Brazil they are preventing me from getting lost (ok, not ALL the time :)) and spending thousands (yes thousands) of extra dollars – Euro’s, whatever on gas.

Another invaluable advantage the GPS has, is that it also provides lots and lots of extra information about your environment.

At any point in time, you not only know your exact location (which is always good) but on top of that, the GPS gives you your speed, direction, altitude, distance to the next turn/exit, ETA (estimated time of arrival) and so on… Good luck with finding all that on a paper map

Hell, my Zumo even has a function to keep track of how much gas you have left in your tank.

Especially when I’m driving my Land Rover Defender, I need the GPS to give me the exact speed, because the original meter of the car is totally incorrect… and speed cameras are being widely used on Brazil’s highways and fines don’t come cheap

What about the Software?

Of course, the GPS device is only half of the setup… you need good map software too, and that’s where I had some issues. The first couple of weeks in Brazil, I was using Garmin’s “City Navigator NT – Brazil” map, but pretty soon, I realized that it was not the best choice…

Inside most cities, there was no problem, but once in the more rural areas… forget it. You can just as well turn the GPS off altogether. I guess I discovered the reason why they call it “CITY navigator”.

Luckily there’s a Brazilian organization called Tracksource, made up of thousands of volunteers all over the country, and on their website you can download accurate, totally free – monthly updated – maps of Brazil, to be used in your Garmin device.

This free map doesn’t only have the correct road info, especially of the ones outsidethe cities, but also contains a ton of dirt roads and hiking trails that cannot be found in the Garmin map, let alone on any paper maps…

A few examples (click on the pictures to enlarge):

1. Tijuca park in Rio de Janeiro: Note the difference between the Garmin map and the Tracksource map

Tijuca park – Garmin Brazil City Navigator map

Tijuca park – Tracksource map

2. Pinheiral (a small neighborhood just outside Volta Redonda): Comparison between Garmin, Tracksource and Google Earth

Pinheiral, according to Garmin City Navigator map

Pinheiral, according to Tracksource map

Pinheiral on google Earth

As you can see, not only does the Rio Paraiba do Sul, one of the biggest rivers in Rio de Janeiro State, seem to stop dead in its tracks, but also the roads on the Garmin map are totally wrong compared to Google Earth. The Tracksource map on the other hand is showing the correct situation. I know this for a fact because I am very familiar with this area…

Nothing bad about Garmin here. Just being realistic. Probably the latest version of “City Navigator” is going to be a lot better, but unless they make their map of Brazil free too, I think I’ll stick with what I know is good. It would be my pleasure to test the new version though (If they send me one for free of course :))

Time for replacement (@Garmin: some sponsoring would be so nice wink – wink…)

No matter how good they were made, my two little companions have had their best time

Extensive use for 7 years caused the buttons on the ZUMO to wear and tear

The worst thing I imagine the unit had to endure, was the crash I had last year when I smashed my motorcycle at 100 km/h into a parked Volkswagen Combi (it was not supposed to be parked there – legal procedure in process :)). I broke my pelvis, my shoulder and a few ribs… The front of the bike was completely destroyed, but amazingly the Zumo worked just fine afterwards…The Zumo has been with me for 7 years now, and has been through a lot… I used it in the coldest, wettest (Europe) and the hottest (Brazil) circumstances, and it NEVER showed any problem… A few times it refused to start up, but that was easily fixed by taking out and putting back the battery…

Only thing is, that in june 2011, I noticed that one of the buttons on the left side had come loose… As you can see in the picture, I used some tape to prevent the button from falling out (and water from getting into the device) and until today it still works just fine.

Also, the battery of the Zumo is no longer holding its charge, and needs to be replaced.

The “in” and “out” buttons all worn from extensive use over the years…

Same thing with the handheld 60CSx… I can only imagine what that poor thing has been put through, mounted on the handlebars of my mountain bike. Years of usage left its marks on the buttons, the surface of a couple of which has worn out to the point that they are no longer recognizable. But I guess that is normal wear, and it doesn’t affect the proper functioning…

Apart from the sometimes though weather conditions and the shaking on the mountain bike, this unit also sustained a crash at 80km/h…Again, I was completely messed up (broken heel, Collarbone and 3 ribs), but the GPS was ok…These things can REALLY take a hit.

That is, until a few days ago…

The end of the 60CSx…

One slippery rock, one fall and this is the result…

After passing the crack and reaching the slippery rock face 50 cm lower, I turned back to grab my backpack. My feet slipped on the tilted rock face and I fell face down on my belly… on top of my poor GPS, which I carried on a clip on my belt…Hiking to the top of “Tres Picos” in the Serra da Mantiqueira, I was crossing a rocky section near a waterfall. The area was wet and mossy, and VERY slippery. I had to make my way through a crack in the rocks which was so narrow that I had to remove my backpack to be able to pass.

I got up with a bad feeling… looked at the GPS and saw the cracks in the screen and the information rapidly fading until there was nothing left but a few spots with all the colors of the rainbow… And that was The End of my 60CSx

So now what?

Well, if I want to keep exploring my beloved Brazil, I’m going to need another handheld GPS, but, same as with motorcycles, the prices for a Garmin GPS here in Brazil are almost double of what they are in the US or Europe… (Oh, so you thought Brazil was cheap huh?) and I’m only going to Belgium in July 2012…

On the other hand… I think this article is a great “product review” for Garmin, and so if someone at Garmin reads this and decides I could qualify as a “test guy” for their products, I would be more than happy to oblige… I promise I will test the crap out of the things they send me…

I don’t know about having more of those crashes though…

Cheers

Do You use a GPS?  Do you see it as a Useful Tool or a Necessary Evil?

Pedra Branca, Rio de Janeiro – The World’s Biggest Urban Forest

Areal view of the Pedra Branca State Park, a 125km² section of Atlantic Rainforest in the west zone of Rio de Janeiro (Photo: Rede Globo)

The Pedra Branca Massive is with its 12 hectares of rain forest clad mountains currently the biggest urban forest in the world and one of the best places for experienced hikers in the city of Rio de Janeiro.

“I looked at Mark and said: “Man, sorry, but I did it… I deleted the track…” None of us really panicked, but we both knew that it wasn’t going to be easy to find our way back through this dense wilderness…”

When travel writer and photojournalist Mark Eveleigh asked me if I had some trekking ideas for hikes close to Rio de Janeiro, I first took him on a tour around the Tijuca national park, which has good infrastructure and a few great hikes for everyone’s liking.

So what about Pedra Branca forest?“, was his next question… I had to admit that I hadn’t checked that one out yet, but after some online research, I found out that the park had some very interesting hiking possibilities, the toughest of which is a 8,5 km hike to the “Pico da Pedra Branca”, the highest point of the park, and with 1.025m also the highest point of the entire City of Rio de Janeiro.

I thought that this was a great way to check the place out and as I expected, Mark was totally on board with the idea

The Pedra Branca State Park

Few people know that the city of Rio de Janeiro is home to the two biggest urban forests in the world. The Tijuca Forest used to be the biggest one for a long time, until expansion of the city’s territory led to the annexation of some of the neighborhoods west of the Pedra Branca Massive like Campo Grande and Santa Cruz. From then on, Pedra Branca became the biggest urban forest in the world.

However… Tijuca forest still has the title of biggest man-planted forest.

With its 125 km², Pedra Branca is a section of Atlantic rain forest, almost three times the size of the Tijuca forest. Just like the Tijuca forest it is a rugged, mountainous area with dense tropical vegetation and peaks up to 1025 m. Its “ruggedness” and steep slopes saved this area (as well as about 100.000km² in other areas all over Brazil) from becoming farming or cattle land.

The Hike to Pedra Branca peak…

I had to leave Volta Redonda around 3.30 am and drive about 120 km to pick up Mark at 7.00 am in Ipanema. From Ipanema it is another 40 km to the east entrance of the park in Jacarépagua.

In a cabin at the entrance, there are two guards and you need to register your name and ID and tell them where in the park you are intending to go. When I said that we were going to the Pico da Pedra Branca, the guards looked at us and said that we were sure going to return with scratched up legs. According to them, the trail was very “fechado”, meaning that it was overgrown with vegetation and barely visible at some places.

The Casa Amarela. somewhere halfway up the Pico da Pedra Branca trail (photo: clubedosavontureiros.com)

They also told us that, different from the Tijuca forest, the trails at Pedra Branca have no indications, apart from a few arrows carved in trees. This sounded like it could turn out to be a real adventure hike.

I had brought my Garmin 60GSx, which is perfect for this kind of situation. I would record our progress, and when in doubt we could just trackback, so even if we wouldn’t be able to find the way to the top (yeah, right…), getting back would never be a problem.

I activated the GPS to start recording, and after a few last pointers from the guards we took off. Pretty soon the trail became confusing. We were supposed to cross the river somewhere, but there were several tracks leading to the river, and none of them seemed to continue on the other side.

After some backtracking, we eventually found the crossing and the trail started to climb steadily from there.To make up for the lost time, we kept going at a fairly fast pace, even uphill.

This was a very different hike than the one in Tijuca National Park. The guards were right. There was no signalization and the trail was quite hard to find sometimes. We had to look for signs like branches that were cut off, that indicated where the trail had been cleared at one point. Also, November is springtime in Brazil, meaning that the vegetation is growing quickly and the trail closes up faster than the people can keep it open.

Another big difference with the pico da Tijuca hike, was that this trail starts almost at sea-level, while the Tijuca trail starts at an altitude of almost 700m. The Tijuca trail is also a lot shorter. So, while Tijuca is a fairly easy 3 km hike on a trail that is well indicated and maintained, covering a difference in altitude of about 350m, the Pedra Branca trail is a 8.5km of dense jungle, with close to no indications climbing about 1000m.

Needless to say that Pedra Branca is not for the average person. You have to be in good physical condition and  If you want to do this hike without a local guide, you better have some experience in finding your way using your orientation skills… as we would find out later that day

Fauna at Pedra Branca: Snakes and stuff…

Making our way through the dense vegetation, we didn’t see a lot of animals, besides birds and butterflies, but we were able to tell there were animals, probably Coatí and Porco do Mato (Peccary) through all the noises we heard all around us… and the animal droppings we found in lots of places along the trail.

At a given moment, I heard a ruffle a few meters in front of me and I saw a green snake slithering from right to left across the trail, disappearing in the thick growth.

These Green snakes (or Cobra Cipó) are considered nonpoisonous, but in reality they posses a strong poison. However,  their non-aggressive nature (they usually flee very quickly) and the fact that the fangs are located in the back of their mouth result in very low accident statistic.

Of course, the Atlantic Rainforest is known to be home to a few other species, like the Jararaca (pit-viper), the coral snake and the Surucucu (Bushmaster) and these guys are really dangerous…

Rattlesnakes (Cascavel) are also found in Brazil, but they live in dryer areas more to the north…

You should always be aware of the fact that, no matter how beautiful the surroundings, there are also some real dangers out there. Always check the place where you’re going to sit, or your boots before putting them on… Spiders, scorpions and ants like to crawl in there…Don’t put your hand in a hole in the ground, be careful when climbing trees etc… with a little caution and common sense you can prevent your great hike from turning into a nightmare in a heartbeat

I guess you can understand that I’m always kind of dumbfounded to see people (usually Brazilians) in flip-flops and beach attire hopping around in these jungle environments.

Ok… so far the Biology class 

Casa Amarela…

The Casa Amarela. somewhere halfway up the Pico da Pedra Branca trail (photo: clubedosavontureiros.com)

There was a guy -apparently living there – with a bunch of dogs. It was not immediately clear what his role was, but I guess he is some kind of caretaker of the Casa Amarela… we chatted for a while, had a few bananas and were on our way again. It was there and then that I realized that I had left my camera in the car… Damn!One of the way-points (actually, the only one), somewhere halfway the trail to the top, is the “Casa Amarela”, a building that was once the main house of a “sitio” called Santa Barbara. (sitio = small farm – bigger than a Chacara, but smaller than a Fazenda). The fact that we arrived there meant that we were on the right track… Yey!

The guy told us that it would be about one more hour walking to the top. He also said that from here the trail would become even steeper… which sounded fine to us. :)

There was a barbed wire fence going up the slope, which made it easy to follow, and after a while we reached the only clearing of the whole trail where you can get a glimpse of the surrounding landscape. This is very much a hike for people who want to enjoy the time in the forest and don’t care so much about the visual aspect.

The only clearing during the 8,5km trail to the Pico da Pedra Branca presenting a photo opportunity (photo: http://www.clubedosavontureiros.com)

We didn’t have a lot of trouble following the trail from the Casa Amarela, but at one point we reached a T-section, where we initially took a left, but quickly realized that this was not the right direction. So we tried the other way, until coming upon a little wattle and daub hut in the forest, surrounded by banana trees.A little further the path started to go down and it continued to do so for quite some time, so after having climbed almost 800m, you go down again, losing 100m, so if you were glad that you “only” had 200m to climb, make that 300m…

We checked out the place to see if there was someone (apart from the donkey that was going about his business of grazing quietly) to ask the way, but the place was deserted. We went back and eventually Mark discovered the trail… We had walked right passed it without even noticing. Another indication of how easy it is to get lost in these forests.

The Top…

This was the only way to get up the boulder and see something of the surrounding landscape… Photo: Mark Eveleigh – thewideangle.com

If you expect an easy overview of the surrounding scenery, you’re in for another surprise. The vegetation is so dense up there, that the only place you can see something is on top of the boulder, and of course there’s no ladder After another 20 minutes of steep climbing and crawling over and under fallen trees and bamboo, we found the top, which is clearly marked with a 3m high boulder that looks like it has been carefully placed there to make this peak a few meters higher than the Pico da Tijuca…

Luckily there’s enough bamboo around and that’s how we were able to get on top of the boulder where Mark could take a few photos.

It just was too easy to be real. Something just HAD to go wrong…

This was probably the moment where I told Mark that I accidently erased all the GPS ‘s data… Photo: Mark Eveleigh – thewideangle.com

During the hike to the top, I had noticed that I hadn’t cleared my previous data in the GPS, so I had no correct idea of the distance that we had already walked. At one point, Mark mentioned to “reset” the data in the GPS once we would reach the top and then the GPS would record the correct distance as we would backtrack down the mountain… mmm… good idea.

I saved the track and cleared the recorded data, but the numbers were still not reset to zero. I thought I had done something wrong and repeated the procedure… this time I saw all zero’s. Ok, we were set and ready to go!!

First, we sat down for about 15 minutes to have lunch (more bananas :)) before setting out to start the descent… which would not be a walk in the park either… Some sections were really steep to climb up, so descending these sections would be a tough cookie on calves, shins and knees.

I wanted to load up the saved track into the GPS to start backtracking, but to my surprise, the track was no longer in the database… WTF?? I checked again, nothing… restarted the GPS… nothing… Ok, this was not very good news. Mark had even said at one point to make sure I would not delete the track, and I had reset the GPS data before with no problems, but somehow I had managed to delete EVERYTHING… Saved tracks, routes, waypoints… the GPS was as empty as the Greek treasury ….

I looked at Mark and said: “Man, sorry, but I did it… I deleted the track…” None of us really panicked, but we both knew that it wasn’t going to be easy to find our way back through this dense wilderness… We sized up the situation and concluded that it should be possible to find “a” way out, considering we still had about 6 hours of daylight left. Plan B would be to spend the night in the small hut that we found earlier… I wasn’t looking forward to plan B, that’s for sure 

Finding the way out of the Pedra Branca forest…

Ok, so the new challenge of the day was to get back down from the mountain in one piece without GPS and only a vague idea of how to go about it… Swell

The first part was easy enough, and soon we were back at the T-section I mentioned earlier… We knew we had to go left here and climb about 100m (in altitude… not distance)  to get back to the clearing. Well, it didn’t work out that way. Somehow we found ourselves coming back to the T-section over and over again… the proverb “running around in circles” suddenly didn’t seem so unreal anymore…

From my online research, I remembered that there were several entrances to the park, and one of them was in Campo Grande. The GPS was still doing a perfect job as map and compass and showing me where we were, and I suggested that the path leading to the left from the T-section might be the one leading to Campo Grande… It was a hunch and the route to Campo Grande was 11,5 km instead of the 8,5 to Jacarépagua, but that would still be better than spending the night in the forest.

This man was on his way home to his chacara in the Pedra Branca forest. He said that we were on the right way out (well, I think that’s what he said) Photo: Mark Eveleigh – http://www.Thewideangle.com

We decided to take that route, although it meant that we didn’t know where (in what kind of neighborhood) in Campo Grande we would end up. Also, from Campo Grande we would have to find transportation back to the car in  Jacarépagua on the other side of the mountains, which would be a 35km bus, van, taxi (whatever) ride… Our plan to get back in Ipanema by 5.00pm went straight down the drain.

This trail was a lot more open, so we had good visibility over the surroundings almost the whole time, which made it easier to navigate. After 1,5 hours we started to see some chacaras, and that was a great thing, because the people living in the chacaras would have to have a road to get to Campo Grande to sell their products.

At a given moment we encountered an old man on a horse making his way up the mountain. I made him stop and asked if we were on the road to Campo Grande… He started saying a lot of things, but because about 95% of his teeth were gone, it wasn’t easy to understand him. We continued on the same trail, which was very tough at some places, making me feel sorry for the horse.

Having a beer and talking to the locals after making it out of the forest… The man next to me is 73 years old, came to Brazil with his father from the island of Madeira when he was 10… Worked in the field his whole life and never learned to read or write.

Eventually the trail turned into a double track road and we ended up in a small bairro of Campo Grande, where we had a cold beer at the first bar we found…

There was a guard at this side of the park as wall, and I asked him to call his colleagues in Jacarépagua to advise them that we were on the other side, but he said that he didn’t have a phone, and even if he would, he didn’t have any contact information of his colleagues. Even though I found that a little strange and very unprofessional, I can’t say I was surprised… After all, this is Brazil, right?

After finishing the beer (which gave me an instant headache – I don’t mix well with alcohol…) we found a bus to take us to the central station in Campo Grande, from where we took a van to Jacarépagua, where we had diner in a very ok restaurant (which I can’t remember the name of) before driving back to Ipanema, where we arrived around 9.30pm…

I checked into the hostel where Mark was staying as well, took a shower, a nap and after a caipirinha on Ipanema beach I went to bed… All in all it had been another fantastic day!!! (right mark? :))

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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