Backpacking South America has always been a dream of mine. That dream became a reality when myself and my boyfriend Jack began saving for an epic year journey around South and potentially Central America. We cut costs everywhere, did our research (if anyone is interested in how we saved £ I’ll definitely consider doing another blog?) and saved enough to keep us comfortably traveling for a year at minimum. We knew it was ambitious but the dream was just too exciting.
So first things first. So far backpacking South America as a Brit has been a world apart from traveling Asia. That might sound obvious, but honestly I did expect some parts of being ‘on the road’ in Brazil to be similar everywhere in the world. Be prepared to learn as much Portuguese as possible. English is very scarce outside the big cities – especially if you are going ‘off the beaten track’. Make sure you know some basic phrases and words. In many countries even communicating in your own language to one another combined with sign language usually helps get your point across but so far in Brazil we have really struggled to communicate. Portuguese is a pretty hard language – I’m terrible (I’m terrible at all languages really – the British curse) and pronunciation is totally and utterly different the way it’s written so reading from a menu, map or website so that doesn’t help much either!
TOP TIP: order everything from the menu at least once to see what’s what!
The language barrier can be quite isolating at times – we long to communicate effectively with hostel staff and other travellers often without success! (Oh how I wish I was better at languages!)
Languages aside – so far Brazil has been QUITE the journey.
We arrived at Recife airport knackered after our two flights and layover in Lisbon. The airport was as expected – pretty small, simple yet functional. We grabbed our bags and headed out into the city. We’d already done our research for the local bus route to our hostel and thought we had it nailed. We knew it was 12 stops to the hostel and thought it would be easy to count along. Oh! How we were wrong! Once we were on the bus and paid the 3 real fare for each of us (0.75p) (and safely pushed with our rucksacks through the barriers from the help of the conductor) the bus took off flying past stops and screeching to a halt when someone rang the bell. We thought we would miss the stop and be well on our way into god knows where… A passenger approached me and out came his google maps … this was our first experience of friendly Brazilian locals who proceeded to try and copy the address of our hostel into his phone. He even asked the driver, the conductor and another passenger. Despite his effort to noticed he was actually trying to translate words on his app from Portuguese to well, Portuguese which confused me slightly but we were grateful for his help! Before long Jack noticed the bus stops had numbers and we could count up to ours … HURRAH! The bus screeched to a halt and it was time to get off… Jack moved to the back of the bus and I followed. It was a large step down out the doors and before I knew it the bus was moving off and I was hanging out of the door backpack caught in and just my arms and legs out!!!! My initial reaction was to scream HELP HELP to much amusement from Brazilian onlookers waiting at the bus stop. Welcome to Brazil.
So yeah… don’t go to Recife. There’s really not much there. It’s a built up city with nothing but skyscrapers and apartments. The beach is rather impressive. It’s very wide and golden – but there’s no beach yet atmosphere, you can’t swim in the sea as there’s sharks (yes sharks…) and the overall feel of Recife is pretty dodgy. We couldn’t really find a ‘centre’ as such – just a few overpriced restaurants, loads of shopping centres and no where we fancied going. Cut a long story short – it’s really cheap to fly into Recife from Lisbon so it’s a decent plan. We slept for about 24 hours straight when we were there – and it wasn’t because of the jet lag.
Next stop – Praia de Pipa. Gosh this was a breath of fresh air. We boarded the bus from Recife bus station, changed at Goiana (£16 per person Recife to Goiana – board the bus that goes to Natal) and got the nicknamed ‘dolphin bus’ from behind the blue church that you can’t miss towards the beach -8 Real per person (£2)(taxi drivers will approach you to use them but ignore them and head to the church). We arrived and checked out a few accommodation options – found a lush hotel with a pool for £30 a night. Definitely flashpacking (Flashpack Jack is the new nickname)- but we felt we deserved it! Pipa was amazing. It was like nowhere I’d really been before. It’s like a rich Brazilian’s seaside playground – restaurants, bars and boutique shops that go on and on. Pricey though. The caipirinha’s are good (Two for £2.50) – abit too good (your money just disappears!) The beach is golden and the vibe is great. We found the BEST buffet (churrascsria) – £10 for two people (including two pieces of steak each) and a large beer. Absolute bargain they do charge 3 Real if you don’t finish but that wasn’t a problem as the food was amazing and we were starving. It felt very safe there and laid back lifestyle is SO appealing. We took a walk to ‘Dolphin Bay’ just a 20 min walk from the main beach. It was stunning. Secluded, quiet and wild dolphins jump up out of the water right at the shore ALL day! Pure bliss. Cold beers here are 5 Real each (£1.25) and a rent of two sunbeds is 20 Real (£5) a day. Bargain. If you can be there on a Sunday there is a Uruguayan marching band that plays at around 8pm every week – Pipa is so small you will hear them before you see them it’s definitely worth a watch. We stayed there a whole week and loved every minute.
We continued heading North, this time to Natal. We were unsure of what to expect and to be honest it’s also a no go. Don’t bother going to Natal. There’s not much there. Not much culture. Just a lot of high rise buildings, an ok beach and a pretty cool sand dune. If you like surfing this is the THE place. We had a hilarious first day finding a supermarket … we walked for miles only to find that there was a supermarket just next door disguised as a cafe. This is pretty popular in Brazil – small delicatessen style shops selling groceries and also offer a bakery and ‘weigh your plate’ buffet. Corner shops sell the alcohol and crisps and the huge superstores are outside town down the motorway. We had some nice relaxing days here though… sipping coconuts (just £0.37p a pop) and to be fair we enjoyed watching the surfers for hours on end. We actually got ourselves a full apartment with communal pool here for £25 a night. It couldn’t be faulted at all and it was a saving grace because Natal was pretty boring. There are some famous sand dunes and buggy rides in Natal – they are quite expensive and we’d heard they were better elsewhere so saved ourselves.
We had gone as far North as we could on this trip so boarded our first night bus to Salvador from Natal. We were facing a 22 hour journey ahead of us to reach this fabulous next destination. The buses in Brazil are very impressive. They offer full reclining seats, foot rests, air con and sometimes TVs and Wifi. The long distance buses are actually the same price as an internal flight (providing you book them a couple of weeks in advance). The bus to Salvador was about £40 per person and overall was very pleasant. The bus was pretty quiet, the lights went off at about 12 and we passed out at about 12pm until 7am. We woke up to find the bus was delayed but it stopped for decent buffet lunch before arriving in Salvador about 2pm. Of course you have to deal with feeling abit grim but it goes quickly and you thank the lord it wasn’t a bus without air con or recliners! (Yes I’m looking at you Asia!)
Salvador. Oh Salvador. What an absolute dream. Your mix of culture, heritage and pastel coloured Portuguese colonial buildings is just phenomenal. We arrived and headed to our superb hostel – Hostel Galeria 13 in the downtown historical centre Pelourinho, (£30 private room) it was one of THE best hostels I’ve ever stayed in. The staff were friendly, helpful and engaging and the hostel itself was very sociable. It even offers a FREE Caipirinha hour. Yes you heard right – as many cocktails as you want in ONE hour. You bet we drunk 6 each. We met a bunch of hilarious people there which lead us to a street party. TOP TIP: run away if anyone tries to approach you with white paint … they paint your arms and ask for extortionate amounts of money … I got tricked and ended up paying a fiver!
Anyways there was music in the streets EVERY night in Salvador. After a week the drums actually got annoying. The vibe there is just unreal. Ps, Tuesday night is a BIG night! Who knows why? The restaurants are fab – quite pricey (about £12-£15 a person for a mid range) but are truly delicious. I recommend ZULU. The moqueca was splendid – its similar to a Thai red curry with loads of fish, spices and coconut. The churches are the number one highlight in Salvador. Don’t forget to visit Igreja da Ordem Terceira de Sao Francisco (the exterior is truly stunning) and Convento de Igreja de São Francisco (interior took my breath away) these were both 5 Real per person to enter (£1.25).
However, favelas in Brazil are not confined to the two southern megacities. According to research, in Salvador there are around 100 favelas making up the neighborhoods surrounding the city centre. Precise census figures are hard to obtain but anything from 15 to 25% of the city’s population is thought to live in one of these impoverished communities. We were warned about the dangers in Salvador. The hostels were locked and surrounded by razor wire. The staff warned us not to flash any of our stuff in public as phones will be snatched and clearly stated on the map the NO GO areas. To be honest this stressed me out a lot. I was terrified of accidentally walking into the ‘wrong’ area.
Guess what? We did. Thank god nothing happened to us but we did happen to walk a little too far out of the Historical centre and up a main road. We decided to turn right and head down back to the water front (which was considered safe). Next minute a police military car has rolled up behind us. He is whistling at us and we don’t immediately think he is talking to us… he steps out of the car and starts telling us in Portuguese that it is dangerous to walk down this road and they will snatch our things. (I had briefly taken my phone out of my bag to take a photo at the top of the road which I thought was ok) – this photo is actually below! He looked pretty stressed to be honest. We decide to quickly walk through and hope for the best. As we walk through a few kids start whistling to each other (assuming to make others aware that there are gringos in the area who could be a target) it was pretty terrifying. I felt a cold sweat come over me and clutched onto my bag. No one approached us but in all honesty I knew we weren’t really welcome. In other news the street art down there is really damn good! Lesson learnt.
Our second night bus took us from Salvador to Porto Seguro. We enjoyed a decent Big Mac in the dodgy Salvador bus station before we boarded but I also found a supermarket which was actually a Walmart surprise surprise!! I got decent crackers there. (Ahh memories!) The bus was a grumpy one – we booked our tickets (about £45 each) and ended up with the ones next to the toilet which was noisy and disruptive… (thank you to Jack for taking the one nearest to the actual bog) we arrived in Porto Seguro… we got stung for a taxi (£5 for a 5 min journey) to the ‘balsa’ which is the ferry port. We jumped on the ferry across the water to Arriral D’Ajuda. (Roughly £2.50 each). Arriral was very similar to Praia de Pipa. Another rich Brazilian’s holiday zone with boutique restaurants and hotels… but either way we LOVED it. There was free street music every night and also a restaurant owned by an English bloke with a suspicious Northern accent! You can’t go wrong! We stayed at a first hotel for £30 a night including a splendid breakfast (with homemade yoghurt!) and then moved to another hostel with a pool for £25 a night. The food and beach was excellent and some great bars. Paolo’s Pizza is one of he best pizza’s I’ve ever had and also the number one rated on Tripadvisor! We had one big night out here – which to cut a long story short ended up with us doing dance offs with a crowd (as always), me splitting my dress right up the bum and ripping my toenail off. Drinks were about £3.00 for a small beer even in the most ‘happening club’ Morocha. We also decided to run away at the end from our new found friends in a drunk and disorderly escape route…
This coastal area of Brazil is where the Portguese first discovered the country – and where the very first churches and convents stand. One of these quaint churches Igreja de Nossa Senhora d’Ajuda stands in Arriral D’Ajuda. It’s bright yellow and is adorable. We took a day trip to Trancoso from here (about 1 hour £3 per person each way) which was breathtaking – white fluffy sand and cool turquoise lagoons. Also much less touristy.
Our week four in Brazil took us to the incredible remote village of Caraíva. We took a bus from Porto Seguro which took about 3 hours… in all honesty it felt like 6… there are no proper roads that connect Caraíva with the outside world and the actual village is cut off from the mainland by a river. The dirt track was bumpy and hot – but an absolute bargain at 37 Real for 2- £4.60 per person. Upon arrival you jump into a canoe to the village entrance (£2.50 for two people and luggage). My knees completely went on the canoe and I nearly went in backwards into the lake with my backpack!
In Caraíva a rare slow and precious pace of life thrives there. They didn’t even have electricity until 2007. Sand roads & horse & carts line the streets. There are no cars at all. There is a real easygoing atmosphere & miles of incredible untouched and completely secluded beaches. But don’t expect everything to move at a normal pace – it is sometimes a little TOO laid back. Shops and restaurants are shut whenever they feel like – they’re not interested in making extra money from tourists or making sure they’re open for the ‘lunchtime’ rush. Make sure you’re prepared to wait until 3pm before you can eat or buy anything anywhere! Don’t forget to bring some snacks and cash too – supermarkets are three times the price than back in Porto Seguro and there are no cash points. The place has a real charm though. The people are just delightful. We stayed at a new Hostel – Canoa Hostel & Suites which I cannot recommend enough (£22 a night private room) simple but with great facilities. It’s run by a lovely English speaking guy called Paolo and had only been open for 20 days when we arrived. He is planning to build a bar there and I am sure it will only get better whilst still holding onto its charm. We were told Paolo that people are not used to having ‘gringos’ in the village and the locals aren’t keen on the village turning into a touristy place – he was right we certainly weren’t made to feel unwelcome but we also weren’t welcomed with open arms. They want to keep it untouched and local – keep prices down and not necessarily encourage international tourism. They like their lives here and are scared of it turning into a place like those in Asia. I can completely understand this. A week was more than enough for us. A week without knowing what time anything is open can get annoying for a (hungry) city girl like myself! Also walking through sand constantly for a week can be draining (good for toning the legs though) and you are NEVER clean! Prepared to be covered in sand and dirt for the duration of your stay! (Wow i sound so old now!)
After our adventure in Caraíva we found ourselves back on the bumpy bus towards Port Seguro. Porto is massively underrated – yes it’s pretty tacky and cheesy but it’s a good time. There’s street music and dancing vibes non stop. Cheap and cheerful food too! Give it a day to reveal its charm.
So overall, a rocky road from Recife to Caraíva. Beaches, beaches and a few more beaches mixed in with a whole lot of beer (and maybe a few too many caipirinhas).
We’re hitting Rio Janeiro next, now what will that bucketlist have in store?