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.

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…

The Magic of Itatiaia National Park – Rio de Janeiro – Brazil.

History

Veu da Noiva (bride’s veil) waterfall in Itatiaia

Itatiaia National Park is the first and so also the oldest National Park of Brazil. It was inaugurated in 1937 and covers almost 30.000 hectares of the larger Environmental Protection Area of the Mantiqueira mountain range.

Getting to the Itatiaia Park from Rio de Janeiro is a +/- 200 km drive via the BR116 (Rio – São Paulo). The distance from São Paulo is about 250 Km. I’m lucky to live in Volta Redonda, which is only 80km from the park.

How to get there?

Coming from Rio de Janeiro, Follow the BR116 (Dutra) and take the exit for Itatiaia, right after the “Graal” restaurant. Follow the indications to the National park and you arrive at the gate… The entrance fee is 11R$ per person (about 7 Usd).

You don’t have pay for the car. They will give you a badge that you need to return upon exiting the park. They want to make sure that everybody is accounted for.

Situation of Itatiaia National Park – Brazil

Once inside the park, you just follow the road, which climbs steadily to an altitude of about 1.100m. After about 4km there’s a visitor’s center/museum, where you can see the history of the creation of the park, old photos and an interesting exposition about all the plants and animals in the park.Interesting, but not surprising, to find out that there are even Pumas (Onça Parda) in these forests.

Near the center, you can stretch your legs for a short 15-20 minute hike, descending to the “Lago azul” Once past the visitor’s center, you can continue following the road until reaching a bridge over the Campo Belo river, which is the end of the line for your car.

Typical trail in Itatiaia. Rocky and sometimes pretty steep, but well maintained and safe.

From that point you can start a few short hikes to see the various waterfalls in the area, or the longer ones (20-30km) into the higher parts of the park.

If you only have a day or afternoon, it’s advisable to do only the short hikes. The longer ones are serious hikes and require equipment, food and water, since you would be spending the night in one of the shelters higher up in the mountains.

We were only there for the day, so we stuck to the “easy” stuff

The trails in the lower part of the park are rocky and sometimes pretty steep, but well maintained and safety equipment is in place. In some parts there are stairways to make the climb easier.

Food.

After seeing the Veu da Noiva and Itaporani waterfalls, and the Piscina da Maromba, it was time for some lunch.Don’t worry if you didn’t bring any food yourself, because the park is home to a restaurant, not far from the parking near the piscina da Maromba.

At 40R$ (about 26 Usd) per person (without drinks and tip of 10%) it is certainly not cheap. Ok, it’s “all you can eat”, but seriously, I can buy veggies for a whole week for that kind of money. Anyways, at least the food was delicious and it is one of the first times that I had 3 courses in a restaurant in Brazil, including dessert.

One  thing I never saw a restaurant doing before, was that after making the tab, the waiter told me that he would write the price INCLUSIVE a 10% markup on the back of the note, and that I was “free to pay that extra 10% if I thought that the service was good”… OK, the service wasn’t bad at all, but this restaurant already charged “tourist” prices, which I found extremely high, so I took the liberty of not paying the extra 10%. I still paid almost double of what a comparable lunch in a “non-touristic” restaurant would cost.

Birds

This little guy came sitting right beside me to have his picture taken. It was one of the most colorful birds around there, and is known in Brazil as “Saira de Sete cores” – Do yo see the seven colors?

The great thing about this restaurant though, wasn’t the food, but the fact that they had a few bird feeders hanging just outside near the deck, and it was a coming and going of the most colorful birds I had ever seen(outside of a zoo that is).

I know that at this point I’m supposed to start proclaiming a list with the names of all the birds I saw there, but I’m everything but an ornithologist, so I can just tell you that I saw various species of hummingbirds (also known as Colibris in Belgium and “Beija-flor” in Brazil), very colorful little birds called “saira de sete cores” (7 colored Saira) and other ones, one of which I’m pretty sure was a woodpecker (in the colors of the Belgian – or German – flag)

It was the first time ever that I tried to take pictures of hummingbirds in flight and I have to tell you… It ain’t easy. These guys are so fast that, by the time your autofocus did its job and you press the button, you end up with a picture of the feeder, but no bird  I probably spent half an hour taking picture after picture, but in the end I did go home with a few decent ones (all lucky shots of course.

Besides the birds, there were a few other animals we had the honor of spotting. There were squirrels, monkeys, butterflies, some crawling creatures like lizards and centipedes, but unfortunately (or luckily, just the way you look at it) we didn’t see a puma.

All in all, the Itatiaia National park is a great place to visit for anyone who wants to get a feel of the atlantic rainforest. It gives you an idea about what most of the south-east and south of Brazil must have been like before the “smartest species on the planet” started to destroy it.

To conclude, here are some more pictures…

Click any picture to see full size 

The lower part of the Itatiaia National Park

Lago Azul, near the visitors Center – Itatiaia – Rio de Janeiro

Find the three monkeys – Itatiaia – Rio de Janeiro

Overly backlit photo of a monkey – Itatiaia – Rio de Janeiro

Woodpecker (Pique a pau) in the colors of the Belgian flag – Itatiaia – Rio de Janeiro

This little guy came sitting right beside me to have his picture taken. It was one of the most colorful birds around there, and is known in Brazil as “Saira de Sete cores” – Do yo see the seven colors?

Humming birds – Itatiaia National Park – Rio de Janeiro

Feeding birds – Itatiaia National Park – Rio de Janeiro

Feeding birds – Itatiaia National Park – Rio de Janeiro

Colibri – Hummingbird – Beija-flor – Itatiaia National Park – Rio de Janeiro

Piscina da Maromba – Itatiaia National Park – Rio de Janeiro

Butterfly having a sip of water – Itatiaia National Park – Rio de Janeiro

Arriving at the Itaporani waterfall – Itatiaia National Park – Rio de Janeiro

Fernanda and Me at the Itaporani waterfall – Itatiaia National Park – Rio de Janeiro

Red Flowers – Itatiaia National Park – Rio de Janeiro

Typical trail in Itatiaia. Rocky and sometimes pretty steep, but well maintained and safe.

A stairway making the climbing easier – Itatiaia National park – Rio de Janeiro

Veu da Noiva Waterfall – Itatiaia National park – Rio de Janeiro

Veu da Noiva (Bride’s Veil) waterfall – Itatiaia National park – Rio de Janeiro

Want to see even more? Check this set on Flickr (27 Photos)

Ibitipoca State Park – Hiking in the south of Minas Gerais – Brazil.

Last Sunday, I took out a day to go visit the Ibitipoca State Park. With its +/- 1500 hectares, it is probably one of the smallest parks in Brazil, but according to the information I found, it is also the one with the best infrastructurein the state… The greater region where the park is located, is called the “serra da Ibitipoca” and is famous for its quartzite caves, which are said to be very rare, but also for its natural pools, waterfalls, special rock formations, great views and typical fauna and flora. There are two options, both of them involving a 25-30 km of unpaved road, to get to Conceição de Ibitipoca, a small town 3 km from the park entrance, and where you will find pousadas, camping areas, restaurants and souvenir shops. The first option is via the city of Olaría, which is the shortest route, coming from São Paulo. The second option is via Lima Duarte. I checked out both options, and find the road from Lima Duarte to Conceição de Ibitipoca in a much better condition than the one from Olaría. So, coming from São Paulo it is worth doing the extra 16 km to Lima Duarte. Make sure you have a GPS, a good map or a driver who knows the area because signalization is very scarce to non-existent. I also suggest to visit the park in the dry season(April – November), because the rain would surely make it very difficult for ordinary cars to make it to Conceição de Ibitipoca, where you will find you’ll have to do some 25 km of unpaved road, leading from Lima Duarte to the small town of Conceição de Ibitipoca,

History of the park:

Rocky path leading up from the Cachoeira dos Macacos. Good shoes and physical condition recommended…

Conceição de Ibitipoca (the name means “house of stone” in the Tupi language) is one of the oldest towns of Minas Gerais, and like so many other places, was discovered and claimed by the “bandeirantes” (first explorers of Brazil) in search for gold around 1692. It became an official village with the construction of the first church (Igreja Nossa Sra de Conceição) in 1726. If you visit Conceição de Ibitipoca today, it is hard to believe that this tiny village was once one of the most important places in the captaincy of Minas Gerais. When the gold ran out, a lot of people moved away, but in the 1970’s the area was rediscovered by biologists and other scientists for its unique geography and natural treasures. One of the characteristics of the park, is the presence of rare plants and animals, some of which are in danger of extinction. Since 1987, the park has been fitted with a good quality infrastructure (some say the best in the state), and receiving visitors from all over Brazil and the world, becoming ever more famous as a ecotourism destination.

Hiking:

The Rio do Salto with on one side the rocky wall

When I went to hike in the park, I had only an afternoon, but to see all the park has to offer, it’s best to take out 4 days. Amongst the principal attractions, there are seven caves, various waterfalls and peaks. The most famous spot is the “Janela do Ceu” (window to heaven), which is located at the north side of the park. It is a challenging 8km hike to get there, but it is definitely worth the effort. . The south side, the side that I was able to explore, holds the so-called “circuito das aguas” (water circuit). A trail leading south from the restaurant, follows the Rio do Salto, that flows through a rocky, canyon-like landscape, with on one side a vertical 20m high wall, that looks like it has been pushed upward in a geological event millions of years ago. Following the river downstream, you come to the “Ponte da Pedra” (bridge of stone), where the river, over time, carved out a huge tunnel in the rock wall. From there it is another steep descent to the “Cachoeira dos macacos” (monkeys waterfall) where a natural pool invites to take a swim in the clear, yet brownish colored water. The color is the result of decaying organic material in the river more upstream.

The Cachoeira dos Macacos (Monkey’s waterfall).This is the last place where the river forms a natural pool, fit for swimming, before exiting the park to the south. As this picture was shot in the driest period of the year, The waterfall would certainly be a lot more spectacular in wetter months. Notice the clear but brownish colored water, which is the result of decaying organic material further upstream of the river.

After a visit to the Cachoeira dos Macacos, it’s back north again following a quite challenging rocky path back up, taking you to the top of the vertical wall on the other side of the river, from where you have a whole different perspective of the river as it cascades down. At a certain point, I saw a sign leading to the “Pico do Pião”, and to the “Lago  dos espelhos”, but to my frustration, I didn’t have enough time to visit these attractions… Days are short in these parts. Even in summertime, It gets dark around 8 pm here. The longer days is one thing I kinda miss about Europe. Anyways, I completed a 10km hike in an afternoon, which was not so bad, considering the fact that there are so many places that invite you to stop and take in the view, slowing you down considerably.

Infrastructure:

The park is full of signs like this one, but they are not always logical: “Gruta dos Coelhos” means “Rabbit’s cave”… so why is there a jaguar on the sign 🙂

As I mentioned before, this is one of the parks with the best infrastructure in the state of Minas Gerais, and I believe it would be very difficult to get lost in this park, firstly because it is not big, but also because of the clear signs placed all over the place. With these signs, the rudimentary map you can get at the visitors center and some basic orientation skills, it is easy sailing (or hiking) through the park. However, a word of caution… There are some places where you can make a nasty fall, and warning signs telling you not to get too close to the edge are only in Portuguese. I’m sure that with a little common sense, you should be able to assess the situation and see when it could be dangerous.

Good to know:

  • Opening hours: 7am – 6pm
  • Price: 15 Brl (10 Usd) per person  / an extra 10 Brl ( 7 Usd) if you want to enter with your car.
  • limited number of visitors applies: on week days: Max 300 visitors allowed in the park at any given time. during weekends or holidays the maximum number is 800. Make sure you get there in time or you might not get in (like me the first time I wanted to visit the park)
  • Some of the trails are quite steep and uneven, so put on good quality hiking shoes. I’m always amazed when I see so many people wearing only flip-flops, or poor quality tennis shoes…
  • Pass by the visitor’s center to get a map and take look at the maquette of the park, to get an idea of the layout of the park and decide where you want to go.

Inside the “Ponte de Pedra”, a natural tunnel carved out by the water over millions of years.

It took me two years and 8 months to finally get to visit this small but beautiful and very valuable piece of Brazilian eco heaven and I will certainly go back there to explore the rest of it.

Morretes: Colonial charm and Atlantic Rainforest at the foot of the Serra do Mar

Being one of the oldest cities in the southern Brazilian state of Paranã, Morretes is a most charming colonial town, tucked away in one of the largest and best preserved areas of Atlantic rainforest of south Brazil.

Just like the rest of Brazil, the region where Morretes was founded in 1721, was initially inhabited by indigenous tribes, like the Guarani and the Carijó, who eventually had to give way to the Portuguese colonizers.

In the 1640’s, gold deposits were found in the area and this attracted a growing population of adventurers and miners, most of them coming from São Paulo, but later also followed by immigrants from all over Europe and even Japan.

Today, Morretes is a quiet, laid back town, that enchants its visitors with its beautifully preserved 18th century architecture and the stunning beauty of the Atlantic rainforest that surrounds it in every direction.

Why Visit Morretes?

One of the green squares in the historical center of Morretes

The city itself, but especially the forest, with its many trails, waterfalls and rivers, presents numerous options for anyone looking for total tranquility or an active vacation, practicing various outdoor activities like hiking, kayaking, rafting, mountain-biking or mountaineering…

A very popular “radical sport” is what is locally known as “Bóia cross“. Floating down the river for 6 km in an inflated truck tube. Fun guaranteed!

During a stroll through the historical center, with its colonial houses, historical churches and green squares, you can get a good feel for the 18th and 19th century way of life of the people of Morretes.

The many big mansions suggest that the city must have known a period of great wealth, but when the gold deposits ran out, the population had to fall back on agriculture, cattle farming, trading and handicraft activities.

View of the historical center and the Nhundiaquara river from the Ponte Velha (old bridge)

The tourist industry today provides an extra way for people to make a decent living, but statistics show that about 30 per cent of the city’s population is still poor.

One more attraction of Morretes is the Nhundiaquara River, flowing through the city center. This river, that connects the coastal area to the highlands, once was the only way people had to penetrate inland.

View of some houses near the Nhundiaquara river

The river is navigable for about 12km and offers possibilities for water-sports (like bóia cross). The old bridge (ponte velha – inaugurated in 1912) crossing the river in the city center is also considered a work of art.

At one point, the river spreads out and creates an area with a few natural beacheswhere people can go to swim or relax.

How to get there?

1. BY CAR, MOTORCYCLE, BUS

The gate at the entrance of the “Estrada da Graciosa”

Whether you choose to take your own car or Motorcycle (like me), travel by bus or taking the tourist train, one way or another, you simply have to get through the Serra da Graciosa, which in itself already is a gorgeous trip.

By car (or motorcycle), the “Estrada da Graciosa” (PR410) is the best option. It covers the last 40km from Curitiba to Morretes and makes the 1000m drop from the highlands to practically sea level in just 10km. The steepest section – with obviously the best views – has various places where you can stop and enjoy the scenery, and even do a BBQ.

During the steep descent, the views and smells of the rainforest are sometimes breathtaking, and needless to say that the difference in altitude almost immediately also affects the temperature and humidity. A warning though: beware of the cobblestones, these can get very slippery when wet.

2. BY TRAIN:

Another great option is the tourist train from Curitiba to Paranaguá.

View from the train from Morretes to Curitiba

This railroad connection, some call it one of the most important tourist attractions of the state of Parana, is a remarkable piece of engineering. Its construction started in 1880 and in five years, the builders were able to complete the 110 km of railroad track, including 14 tunnels and 30 bridges.

The man responsible for this great work, was a black Brazilian engineer called Antonio Pereira Rebouças Filho, who wouldn’t have had an easy life, considering the fact that slavery in Brazil was only abolished in 1888, three years after the completion of the railroad.

Tragic detail: the death toll amongst the workers, hired for the job was enormous. 50% of them died during the five year construction period.

That said, the train ride itself is Fantastic! The windows of the train are super wide and you are allowed to open them for maximum enjoyment of the great scenery, the sounds and smells of the forest.(Although during the descent, the brakes of the train make a lot of noise :)) Almost the whole time you’re so close to the forest that you could almost touch it.

Also check out this great video by @canalbrazil

Traveling through the south of Brazil, Morretes is definitely a place to put on your “places to see” list.

Hope you enjoyed this.Any comments welcome

Bananal: São Paulo’s most influential 19th Century City

Bem vindo em Bananal – Welcome to Bananal

Bananal started In 1783, when a small chapel was erected in the rough lands along the Bananal River in the old Captaincy of São Paulo. It became one of the richest and most influential cities of the region during the 19th century “coffee cycle”.

The valley of the Paraíba River has always been one of the main travel routes in Colonial Brazil, for the transport of gold and diamonds from the mines in Minas Gerais to the port town of Paraty, from where everything was shipped to Rio de Janeiro and further to Portugal. Towards the end of the 17th century, small villages emerged all along this gold and diamond route, providing lodging for travelers and drovers.

In 1708, a new route, that connected the mines in Minas Gerais directly to Rio de Janeiro, was opened. This new road (known as “caminho novo”) was not only less precarious, but also reduced the travel time to Rio de Janeiro from three months, to only one month. Because of the opening of this new road, the small villages in the Paraíba Valley lost their reason of existence and almost disappeared, but thanks to the cattle trade, coming from Rio Grande do Sul, to supply the mining region, the valley again became an obligatory passage.

In 1770, the road connecting Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo was completed, and to populate the region along this road, Sesmarias (grants) were given to people who were engaged in the construction of the road. This is how a man called Joao Barbosa Camargo and his wife, became the owners of the Sesmaria of the Bananal River, and the city of Bananal was born.

One of Bnanal’s most important townhouses – former city getaway of one of the rich 19th century Coffee Barons

During the first decades, the agricultural activity in the region was predominantly subsistence farming (Growth of crops only for consumption by the farm family), but the situation started to change with the arrival of the coffee culture, with its much bigger farms, fuelled by slave labor.The name Bananal is believed to be derived from the indigenous word “Banani” which means “with lots of curves” referring to how the Bananal River makes its way across the landscape. Another explanation of the name refers to the many banana plantations that existed in the region.

The profits from the coffee trade were used to buy more slaves and expand the farms up to the point that the fazenda homes had become large estates surrounded by workshops, senzala’s (slave quarters) and a coffee terrace (large open space to dry the coffee).

Around 1840, Bananal had become the second largest coffee producer in the province of São Paulo and a lot of the richest farmers of the Paraíba valley were concentrated in the region around the city. These farmers began to refine their way of life and the fazenda’s main houses were transformed into palaces, decorated with imported furniture and frescoes of European painters on the walls. They also started to use slaves in domestic service.

one of the top attractions in Bananal: the metal train station, imported from Belgium as a sort of building package, which was very revolutionary in that time.

The “coffee barons” of Bananal formed the elite of the Empire, and with their money deposited in banks in London, they extended loans to the emperor to finance the war in Paraguay. They also financed the construction of a railway that passed through most of the fazendas and went all the way to Barra Mansa in the Province of Rio de Janeiro.Since 1822, Brazil was no longer a colony of Portugal, and the influence of the presence of the emperor in Rio de Janeiro made that the farmers, who were also given noble titles, started to adopt the way of life of the French court. They erected luxurious houses in the city to spend time during festivities or between harvests. At one point, Bananal even had two orchestras, consisting of slaves, specialized in European opera music.

For some time, the city had its own currency, and one of the most powerful landowners in the city, Vallim Manoel de Aguiar, had when he died in 1878, only in public debt bonds, almost 1% of all paper money issued in Brazil.

But the prosperity based on the “green gold” didn’t last very long. Towards the end of the 19th century, the land began to show signs of exhaustion and the opening of another railway (Santos-Jundiaí) facilitated the flow of products from further inland to the coast, allowing the expansion of coffee plantations in western Sao Paulo.

This is said to be one of the most beautiful architectural “ensembles” of Bananal, consisting of three early 19th century townhouses, facing Pedro Ramos square

In the 1950’s, the region suffered yet another setback: the construction of the “Via Dutra” highway from Sao Paulo to Rio de Janeiro. This new highway replaced and deactivated the old “Estrada dos tropeiros” passing through Bananal, Arreias, Silveiras and São José do Barreiro, which became almost like ghost towns. (According to the writer Monteiro Lobato, who lived in Areias and witnessed the decline of the region)The final blow came with the abolition of slavery in 1888. The children of the landowners could not keep the wealth inherited from their parents and pastures for cattle took the place of coffee. The power, influence and wealth of the families of Bananal and the rest of the valley, was forever lost and all that remains are memories of this glorious period.

Today, Bananal is becoming more and more a touristic hotspot, attracting tourists from all over the world, not only to learn about its history, whose testimonies are the beautiful townhouses in the city and the many preserved and restored coffee farms in the region, but also to enjoy the natural beauty of the Serra da Bocaina (Bocaina mountains), holding the largest Atlantic rainforest reserve of Brazil.