Ruta 40 Argentina

Driving the Ruta 40: What you need to know before you set off

Join us as we drive from San Carlos de Bariloche to El Calafate… and back again.

Read our other posts HERE:

Argentina’s infamous Route 40 (or just La Cuarenta) runs down the western edge of the country, alongside the Andes. Starting in La Quiaca in the province of Jujuy it runs some 5,000 km (3,107 miles) north to south, finishing in Cabo Virgenes in Santa Cruz province.

With its notoriously poor surfaces – just dirt and gravel in sections – hairpin bends, and endless straight sections buffeted by violent gusts across the deserted steppe, it is considered one of the world’s most epic drives.

Ruta 40 Argentina

Just your standard view from the driving seat

Unfortunately we didn’t have time to do the whole thing but we were determined to sample a hefty chunk of it. We arrived in San Carlos de Bariloche – the gateway to Patagonia – by plane from Buenos Aires and decided to rent a car to travel down to El Calafate. And then, because the one-way drop-off fees were prohibitively expensive, we would drive all the way back making it a round trip, including detours, of 4000 km (2485 miles) over two weeks.

It’s not the kind of trip where you can just hop in the car and set off. Large stretches of Patagonia are completely deserted and we’d heard horror stories of people who broke down hundreds of miles from the nearest town, people who’d spent the night freezing in their cars in the middle of the steppe with no food, people who’d had their tyres blow only to discover their spare was also flat, fuel tanks pierced by sharp gravel un the unpaved roads… I’m not going to lie, a little part of us wasn’t sure we were cut out for it.

Ruta 40 road trip Patagonia

Red wine at the ready as we settle in for a planning sesh

Thanks to some serious research, a couple of precautions and a healthy amount of common sense, we were fine. In fact we had an absolute blast and driving the Ruta 40 remains one of our stand-out experiences of the trip. Of our lives, even. But that’s not to say we didn’t learn things along the way and you do need to be prepared.

Here’s what you need to consider before setting off on a Patagonia Road Trip:

1. What car?

We’d read several accounts that advised against hiring anything but a 4×4 to handle Patagonia’s treacherous roads. Unfortunately this was well out of our budget and so, after a lot of umming and ahhing, we opted for a Ford EcoSport. Even though it’s not a 4×4 (in fact it is very definitely marketed as an “urban car”), it felt sturdier than some of the smaller cars on offer.

Driving Ruta 40 car hire

Getting the feel of left-hand drive

That said, having done the drive I would say you could manage it in a compact car. We saw everything on those roads to gigantic off-roaders to rusty old hatchbacks that looked on the verge of falling apart. If you have the money to spend on a 4×4, go for it, I’m sure it would be great fun. But be assured you don’t have to. The only problem you might encounter is car hire companies refusing you certain cars if you tell them you’re planning to take Ruta 40. As far as we could tell, this is for insurance purposes rather than because they don’t think the car could handle it. We’ll therefore leave it to you to decide whether to tell them where you’re going or not (and whether you take out extra insurance). If you want peace of mind, it’s probably best to go with something bigger than urban hatchback.

The “Ecco-port” as they call the Ford EcoSport in Argentina cost us $125/£80 per day from Hertz.

2. The roads

As of February 2015 (when we did the drive) the stretch of Ruta 40 between Bariloche and Calafate is about 80% paved. The only permanently unpaved section runs for 72 km (44 miles) between Lago Cardiel and the tiny hamlet of Tres Lagos.

This particular stretch is rough and uneven, gravel in places, dirt in others. And, if you do it after rain, as we did on the way down, all this is churned to mud, riddled with water-filled ruts. And… it’s great fun. Honestly! We actually came to enjoy the change and the challenge of driving on ripio (gravel).

Ruta 40 Argentina

Learn to love the ripio and your drive will be a whole lot smoother (not literally, of course)

Seriously though, as long as you drive carefully and don’t hesitate too long in the muddy sections (we saw a campervan having to be dragged out of one particularly nasty puddle), you shouldn’t have too much of a problem.

The other thing to be aware of is that the paved road itself is pretty worn out in places, full of potholes and frayed edges where the desert has begun to devour it. As a result some of these stretches are being re-paved which may mean an unexpected desvio (diversion) onto gravel tracks. We encountered two of these between Esquel and Rio Mayo, the first lasting for about 20km, the second as we came into, and drove out of Rio Mayo itself.

Ruta 40 Argentina

Uh-oh…

When driving on ripio there are two key things to be aware of. Firstly, to avoid skidding on the lose stones, try to stay in the tracks already there. Secondly, watch your speed. Speed limits along these stretches are marked as 40km/h (25mph) but Argentinians pay little attention to speed limits so expect cars to pass you at up to 80km/h (50mph) sending gravel ricocheting in all directions. High speeds increase the risk of both skidding and damage from flying gravel. We found 60km/h (just under 40mph) was about the fastest we felt comfortable going on these sections of road.

3. Potential damage to the car

If you’re researching a trip through Patagonia then like us you’ll have read all sorts of awful stories of burst tyres, cracked windscreens, and pierced fuel tanks. Thankfully we don’t have anything as dramatic to share although we did end up with a whining fan belt after it became embedded with hundreds of tiny stones from the gravelled roads.

When we took it into a garage in Rio Mayo the mechanic disappeared underneath and emerged with a hunk of plastic which he chucked aside saying we didn’t need it. We remain unsure as to what it was but are reasonably convinced that it was protecting the fan belt in some way. It must have got cracked by stones on the ripio, leading to the fan belt getting damaged. To be honest, I’m not sure what we could have done to prevent this. Ultimately it seems like fair wear and tear, particularly on a car that travels this route  a lot. And the car still ran fine which is the important thing!

Driving Ruta 40 Argentina

Behold the mighty Ecco-port: muddy but triumphant

The most oft-cited issue for people driving the Ruta 40 is burst tyres. To be honest, as long as you check the tyre pressure before you set off (and in theory the water levels and the oil although most hire cars will have had a once over between rentals anyway) you’ll probably be okay. Many people advocate taking two spare tyres. We only had one. We didn’t need it (and thank goodness, neither of us was exactly relishing the chance to change our first tyre). Go slowly over the ripio  and take care on the potholed roads, break up the journey into manageable chunks, and you give yourself the best chance of making it through with tyres intact.

Chipped windscreens and scratches from the gravel seem like a more immediate threat but again, drive carefully and you should be fine. We were given a tip when faced with speedy oncoming or overtaking Argentinians and that was to press your palm against the windscreen as they pass. Apparently the pressure helps prevent it cracking if stones hit the windscreen. We did this for about the first twenty minutes and then got bored.

Ruta 40 Argentina

Look on the bright side, it can’t be as bad as this

4. What happens if we break down?

Ok, don’t panic. Yes, Ruta 40 runs through the wilderness, yes there are vast stretches of empty steppe disappearing into the haze, and no, there is no phone signal. But it is not as remote or as untravelled as it once was. Stories that bang on about “not having seen another car for hours” are, in our view, wildly exaggerated. The truth is there are other tourists doing this route and moreover, as the road becomes better, it’s increasingly becoming the thoroughfare of choice for locals. So although there definitely are times where you feel like you’ve got the place to yourself, I think the quietest stretch we had was when we only saw three or four other cars in the space of an hour.

Ruta 40 Argentina

Your view for the next seven hours

In any case, all anyone can really do in this situation is wait and flag somebody down. Everybody on this road knows how remote it is and there is a real feeling of solidarity (people flash their lights to say hello to one another as they pass) so whatever happens, you WILL get help eventually. One piece of advice we read was to bring a blanket or sleeping bag in case you get stranded overnight. To be honest, it seems reasonably unlikely this would be necessary as long as you don’t drive late into the evening. The worst case scenario as far as I can tell would be to abandon the car, hitch a lift to the next town and return with a mechanic either later that day or the next day.

Obviously if you know how to fix the problem yourself and you have the necessary kit, then you’re golden and can continue smugly onto the next point.

5. Food

Fill up the car now because there is not much to eat on the Ruta 40.  Anyone entertaining romantic notions of pulling over for an impromptu lamb barbecue in a delightfully rustic Patagonian village can scrap those now. Plus, when there are still 400km between you and the next town, it isn’t always convenient to wait. Likewise going to the loo. We quickly got comfortable with going by the side of the road. There are no trees or bushes to hide behind but really the only thing likely to see you is a guanaco and I’m pretty sure they don’t care.

Guanacos: Giving zero fucks since 7300 BC

Guanacos: Giving zero fucks since 7300 BC

In the unlikely event that you break down, you definitely do not want to be without provisions so we went for the maximalist approach. We took so much food, we almost didn’t think we’d get through it. In fact at one point we had to turn down hitchhikers because our rear seats were jam-packed with bread rolls, ham, cheese, avocados, tomatoes and cucumber, tinned tuna, crisps, cereal bars, chocolate, fruit…. etc. But get through it we did.

Patagonia road trip

Eating tuna straight from the tin as local cats circle the car (you think I’m joking?)

We also took about ten litres of water and a couple of bottles of red wine (well, we are in Argentina). And I’m sure I don’t need to tell you we got through that as well.

6. Petrol

Fill up the car because there is not much gas on the Ruta 40. The best rule is to top up EVERY TIME you see a petrol station, even if you have three quarters of a tank left, because you don’t know how long it’ll be before you see another.

Gobernador Costa

At the beginning of the trip we considered this a long queue. We were wrong.

Yes, even if there’s a queue. We made the mistake of driving on through one town because of the queue for gas only to find an even longer one at the next town.

And never forget that even if a town has a gas station, you always run the risk that it is out of petrol. In Tecka we queued for two hours in a line that went round, not just the block but almost the entire town, before being told that a tanker was on its way from the next city (an hour away) and even after it arrived it would take another hour to refill the pumps and then a further hour to get through everyone in the queue. We still had just under a quarter of a tank left so we made the decision to continue to Esquel, 100km away. We drove at a constant 90km/hr and coasted all the hills to save petrol and thank goodness it worked. We made it with gas to spare but it was an excellent lesson in driving economically.

Here’s where we found petrol stations on the Ruta 40:

  • Bariloche
  • El Bolson
  • Esquel
  • Tecka
  • Gobernador Costa
  • Perito Moreno
  • Los Antiguos
  • Bajo Caracoles
  • Gobernador Gregores
  • El Chalten
  • El Calafate

Apparently there is also one in Rio Mayo but we couldn’t find it.

Bajo Caracoles Argentina

The gas station at Bajo Caracoles, complete with pump attendant

7. Money

Between Esquel and El Calafate the ATMs do not accept foreign cards. I repeat: The cash machines in this 1,160km stretch of Patagonia will not take your card. To withdraw cash here, you have to have an Argentinian current account and corresponding bank card.

In addition, many hotels, supermarkets and restaurants are also unable to take foreign cards because the machines have a problem with the chip in the European “chip and pin” cards (so it’s possible American cards would work, I’m not sure and personally I wouldn’t risk it). This goes for both credit and debit cards.

Rio Mayo Argentina

Even if you can find a cash point in Rio Mayo it probably won’t take your card

Consequently it is vitally important  to make sure you have enough cash to last you the whole way to El Calafate, where there is a cash machine that does the job. We discovered this the hard way and very nearly had to kip in the car for the night. Luckily our hotel owners were the nicest people in the world and let us give them everything we had on us in a mixture of pesos, dollars and euros and then let us off the remaining amount. Even luckier, we had a car full of food and, crucially at that point, wine (see above).

Ruta 40 Patagonia

A much-needed copa de vino after a long day

Now to begin the journey itself! To find out how we broke it up, where we stayed and what we learnt en route, click here:

Driving the Ruta 40: Our Patagonian road trip – Part 1

Driving the Ruta 40: Our Patagonian road trip – Part 2

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tango show buenos aires

Dreams and desires in Buenos Aires

El mundo es mi suelo, el cielo mi techo, Buenos Aires donde cosecho mis anhelos y mis pasiones…

(The world is my floor, the sky my ceiling, Buenos Aires where I reap my desires and my passions…)

– Gotan Project, Mi ConfesiĂłn

We landed in Buenos Aires after dark. The cab sped north towards the city centre, the cluster of lights that an hour earlier we’d craned our necks to squint at from the air, now rushing upon us. First, along the freeway, the street lamps and billboards, then a car park and an apartment block, it’s lit windows vibrant rectangles against a column of black. Then come the residential streets, cafes, bars, shops and supermarkets.

Through net curtains a television flickers while its three viewers chat animatedly over its noise. Fairy lights hang over the door of a bar outside which a girl with a camera is ordering her friends into a line. Through the darkened windows of the closed shops we make out the silhouettes of chairs, bed linen, power tools, shoes, lamps, mannequins.

A glimpse through the window of a restaurant, or bar, or kitchen, or bedroom shows glasses half full, forks mid-air, anecdotes mid-flow, confessions about to be heard and apologies just made, tears being fought back, laughter on the verge of brimming over. The city flies by in a sequence of light and dark, seen and unseen. Like frames from a movie, each scene appears frozen in time.

I love arriving in a city at night. Those snatched moments, lives lit for a fraction of a second before they disappear from my view, seem to be brimming with promise. By day a city seems ordinary, however vibrant and chaotic. Business is carried out, transactions are made, conversations and arguments are had, and the cogs of life, of industry, of society, turn.

But at night the ordinary evaporates in a gentle hum. Then, when the buildings sleep and the world exists in chiaroscuro, that’s when inspiration flickers into life, when hope hangs in the air and anything seems possible.

A new day approaches. What will tomorrow hold?

Buenos Aires sunset

I loved Buenos Aires before I even saw it. Described repetitively and unimaginatively as the Paris of South America, it seemed inevitable. A European-syle city in the heart of Latinoamérica, accessible yet alien, I knew that on a straighforward level, I could feel comfortable there.

Buenos Aires market San Telmo

Grafitti in Buenos Aires

But Buenos Aires is not Europe and it is most definitely not Paris. The grand architecture, the boulevards and plazas, the wine bars and coffee shops are reminiscent but deceptive for beneath it all burns a spirit and identity that is entirely Argentinian. Not only is Buenos Aires unlike any European city I have visited, it is unlike any South American city I have visited.

Buenos Aires architecture

San Telmo flea market

Its history is familiar enough: colonisation, international trade, the growing of power and the subsequent attempts to consolidate this power, attacks from the British and French, independence from Spain, unification, immigration on a grand scale, art, literature, theatre, music and vast economic growth. And all this before the start of the 20th century.

Buenos Aires opera house

La Boca Buenos Aires

In the last 100 years, Buenos Aires’ story has been laced with the dark thread of political conflict. Grand ideologies gave way to sinister levels of control and politicians were hailed as demi-gods even as thousands of former Nazis were escaping justice and setting up home in Argentina.

Buenos Aires is a city that was bombed by its own navy. It’s a city that watched, helpless, as thousands of people vanished, were tortured and murdered under the military junta. Now walking through the vibrant streets, lingering on street corners to chat, one cannot help but be acutely aware that only thirty years ago such liberty seemed impossible.

Palermo, Buenos Aires

La Bombonera

Even now, it’s fair to say the city’s future is not exactly certain. In the week we visited, a Jewish lawyer was found dead of a gunshot wound, just hours before he was due to present evidence against the current government’s role in covering up the 1994 bombing of a Jewish cultural centre. The government claimed it was suicide.

For all its beauty, its culture, its vibrancy and its quality of life, Buenos Aires has a deeply ugly side. And that, for me, is what makes it so much more than just a tourist destination. Buenos Aires is not a fantasy. It is real, it is dark, it is complex and after the sight-seeing is done, there’s still so much more to learn, to understand.

San Telmo, Buenos Aires

La Boca Buenos Aires

La Recoleta Buenos Aires

Try as I might, I can’t shake off the feeling that I have not finished with this city.

Street art in Buenos Aires

Rio de Janeiro skyline

Brazil: The Debrief

What we did and what you can do to…

Eat: Fish

Whether you have it in a traditional spicy moqueca stew, fried with rice on the beach, stuffed into a bolinho, “by the kilo” in one of Brazils excellent buffet eateries, or served up raw in a sushi bar, Brazil is the place to develop a taste for seafood.

Rob went crazy for the late night prawn cupcakes at Belmonte in Rio while Franki loved the moqueca up in Salvador (white fish and prawns stewed in coconut milk and served pretty much everywhere). We tried Sushi at Soho in Salvador and at Azumi in Rio and the latter – thought not cheap – was sensational.

Moqueca Bahia

A note to vegetarians: It’s not easy to avoid meat in Brazil so if you do find yourself existing on side dishes, you can at least take comfort in the fact that the fruit in Brazil is possibly some of the best I’ve had anywhere in the world. In fact, Franki’s pretty sure she developed a pineapple addiction during our stay.

Drink: Caipirinhas

The classic Brazilian cocktail – cachaça, sugar and lime – needs no introduction. Though the hangover you get from consuming that much alcohol alongside that much sugar should probably be mentioned. Nevertheless, they’re delicious and astonishingly easy to put away – see the latest Booze of the World for more!

Special mention: Coconuts

Back home it’s been trendy to drink coconut water for quite some time but it’s taken me until I came to Brazil to really appreciate quite how glorious it can be. Of course it’s a bit different when you’re drinking it straight from the source. On almost every street corner is a kiosk with a cool box full of fresh coconuts. They hack the top off with a machete and hand you a straw. It’s heaven in the heat.

Coconut water in Brazil

Try: Playing football on the beach

Rob was barely able to walk due to back problems so didn’t have the chance to embarrass himself. But Brazilians really do play football on the beach and they are damn good too. One kid scored a goal reminiscent of Gazza v Scotland at Euro 96 and barely celebrated. If an Englishman had scored that in the park he’d never pay for a drink the rest of his life. Joga bonito!

Football on the beach in Brazil

Buy: Havaianas

Possibly Brazil’s greatest fashion export [can’t be bothered to actually research this so let’s go with it!] Havaianas are the footwear uniform for tourists and locals alike. You can find them everywhere, from supermarkets to shoe shops and of course the ubiquitous Havaianas stores in every town.

They’re comfy, colourful and best of all, you can pick them up for less than R25 (around £5/$8). At prices like that you can have a different pair for every day of the week!

Buying Havaians in Brazil

Do: Buy bus tickets in advance

Time for a public service broadcast: Buying bus tickets in Brazil is annoying. You can’t buy them online unless you’re Brazilian (the booking form requires you to enter your Brazilian social security number) so you have to go the bus station. But the buses tend to book up quite quickly so it’s a good idea to plan ahead and get to the bus station ideally three or four days before you intend to travel. If you have plenty of time this won’t be a problem. If you’re on a tight schedule [check!] and/or you’re travelling during public holidays [check!] you may well find yourself wanting to scream.

Don’t: Bother visiting Christ the Redeemer

He might represent heaven but we can honestly say we found the trip to get up close and personal with one of the world’s most famous statues to be hellish on all fronts. Even without the four hour queue, the heat, or the absolute joke that is the ticket-purchasing system, you’re still talking about a lot of effort simply to stand in front of a statue you’ve seen a billion pictures of and can be admired from one of the many rooftop bars around the city.

Sugarloaf mountain

And once you get up there… oh my gosh. As Rob put it, “Now, admittedly I’m Jewish but I think you would struggle to find less Christian behaviour than I saw up at Corcovado.” Now, prone as he is to acerbic overstatement, he has a point. Everywhere you look is selfishness and narcissism as people literally shove you out of the way, elbowing each other in the ribs to get a selfie with the art deco icon.

Corcovado
Our advice? Skip it.

 

And not forgetting…

The time we stayed in a Brazilian love motel.

These by-the-hour motels gained publicity during the World Cup and led to soaring demand and the opening of  higher end luxury versions. And it turns out they’re pretty good value! You don’t have to rent them by the hour and rooms start at R165 a night (£35/$55) which in Sao Paulo was actually cheaper than some of the double rooms in hostels. Plus how often do you get to stay in a hotel room with a glitter ball?

Lush motel Sao Paulo

Iguacu falls

Iguaçu Falls: Three tips and a load of gratuitous pictures

Visiting the Iguaçu Falls from the Brazilian side is more or less foolproof. Just turn up, go see the Cataratas, and then get the hell out of there. It’s so easy it barely even warrants a blog post but we needed an excuse to show you some of our pictures. So here are our three “Top Tips” for visiting Foz de Iguaçu.

1. Don’t stay longer than you have to

If you’re staying in Foz, you need two days, max. Do the Brazil side in a couple of hours then book a day trip to the Argentinian side (you can visit independently but to be honest it’s worth the money just to avoid the palaver at the border). Foz itself is entirely without touristic appeal. There isn’t even a good restaurant to take the edge off its relentless charmlessness. Get in and get out.

2. Take a raincoat

You WILL get wet. Not only from the spray coming off the falls but if it rains (which it does, a lot) you will get soaked to the skin. We got caught in not one but two serious storms and it really wasn’t much fun. Also, do make sure your electricals are safely stowed in waterproof bags or at least a plastic bag inside your backpack or handbag. If you need further convincing, this is what happened to Franki’s iPhone after a very soggy trip to Garganta del Diablo.

Broken iphone

3. Replace broken gadgets on the cheap

Ciudad del Este, over the border in Paraguay, is a tax-free shopping haven. If you do have an extra day or you’re looking to replace lost or broken electricals, this is the place to go. It’s hot, dirty and hideous but worth it for the cheap deals. On our last day we took a bus to the Free City Of The East, as we dubbed it, and picked up a new backpack for Rob and a new smartphone for Franki (see above).

Thanks for reading. Now here are some pictures of waterfalls…

Iguacu falls Iguacu falls Iguacu falls

Iguacu falls Iguacu falls

 

… and one of a monkey.

iguacu falls

Paraty old town

Beating the heat in Paraty

We arrived in Paraty on January 10th. I wouldn’t recommend it. To be honest I wouldn’t recommend going anywhere in Brazil in January. After a beautiful Christmas and New Year in Trancoso and Salvador, we made our way back to Rio for a few days. And that’s where it started.

Over the course of the week, the mercury crept up. We took needless trips on the metro simply to be somewhere air-conditioned. By the time we left the city, the temperature had hit 40 degrees and the humidity was closing in. Our escape to the countryside did nothing to relieve us. Even the most beautiful places on earth can be rendered ugly when merely venturing outside your hotel feels like being suffocated with a warm, damp flannel.

Ok, not that ugly.

Paraty Old Town

Paraty (pronounced Para-chee) is a tiny colonial town, four hours down the coast from Rio de Janeiro. It was built in the mid 1500s by Portuguese gold prospectors. They found what they were looking for and set up shop right here between the mountains, the rainforest  and the ocean. Like Cartagena and Salvador, the city centre is a UNESCO World Heritage site and as a result a wander through it’s cobbled streets feels rather like stepping back in time.

Paraty old town

Given the extreme heat, it quickly became clear that our time-travel experience would be more enjoyable under the relative cool of evening. By which I mean 37 degrees as opposed to 40. I had to buy two pairs of shorts (and I do not do shorts) but by that stage I’d have happily walked around in my underwear. Oh wait… this is Brazil, I can walk around in my underwear.

Well, my bikini anyway. And luckily there are plenty of activities in and around Paraty for which swimwear is the only appropriate outfit. First on anyone’s list should be a boat trip around the spectacular bay.

Paraty boat trip

They’re easy enough to find. Just head down to the marina and pick one. We walked past dozens of gorgeous boats, decked out with tropical printed cushions and brightly coloured bunting, until we found the “Moana”. For R50 (£12.50) we were able to take in four different swim stops, including the much-vaunted turtle beach where a colony of sea turtles can occasionally be spotted in the warm, green water.

And when I say “warm”, please know that this isn’t just a case of trite travel copy. As the sun beats down, anyone looking longingly at the glistening waves is in for a surprise. Jumping off the boat is like jumping into a bath as the shallow waters around the islands retain the day’s heat. Still, the breeze is beautiful and the views… yeah, the views were alright.

Paraty harbour

Inland we had more luck cooling off. At Cachoeira do Tobogã you can slide down the natural waterslides created as the river water flows over smooth rocks. Sit at the top and one of the locals will be kind enough to give you a push… that’s if they’re not busy showing off. The boys attract quite a crowd as they perform tricks, sliding down on their feet, flipping into somersaults, and landing in perfect dives at the bottom.

Fearing the broken bones, we retreat upstream where you can swim in the freshwater pools or lie beneath the waterfalls. This is basically Rob’s idea of heaven and I lost him for some time to the gently cascading waters.

Cachoeira do Toboga

From Paraty bus station the bus to Penha costs just R3.40 (85p) and takes half an hour. From Penha it’s a ten minute walk to the waterfalls. Entrance is free and there’s a cafe (read: tourist trap) alongside the pools where you can buy lunch and drinks.

Speaking of food, Paraty has plenty to offer in terms of restaurants. If you can handle the (extra) heat, the pretty courtyard at Thai Brasil on Rua do Comércio is a fantastic place for a fish curry. Our favourite was the slightly pricier Banana da Terra on Rua Doutor Samuel Costa which does classic Brazilian food (get the octopus, it’s delish!). And Rob kindled something of a love affair with Pistache, an ice cream parlour where you pay “by the kilo” although whether or not you eat by the kilo is entirely between you and your coronary arteries.

At the start of the week we had enthusiastically booked ourselves in for a four-hour kayaking trip. It sounded idyllic at the time; an early evening paddle out across the bay and through the mangrove swamps to watch the sun set over the mountains. But after a few days in this sweatbox I have to say we were slightly dreading it. I mean, kayaking is exercise for crying out loud.

In some kind of divine intervention on behalf of our sweat glands, however, the sky clouded over and as we made our way to the beach there was actually – can it be true? – a light breeze. The day was turning dusky and as we paddled our two-man kayak out towards the islands, we were able to catch the occasional silvery flash of fish leaping out of the water. Well, I did. Rob, as the rear oarsman, couldn’t see a damn thing.

Paraty kayaking trip

He fared a bit better in the mangrove swamps where enormous vivid red crabs scuttled about on the muddy banks and across the low branches of the trees, often just inches from our faces. On the way back we stopped on an island, bought up a few years back but abandoned after the owner ran out of cash for his building project. Along with our guide, we ran along the half-finished jetty to the palm-lined pathways where we shook coconuts down from the trees and bashed them against the rocks.

Coconut water

We walked back in the dusky evening light, winding our way through Paraty’s fairytale streets, now alive with light and life. The grand wooden doors leading to shops and restaurants were opened wide and through the latticed windows came the sound of  laughter and music.

On the way we stopped to take pictures of the sunset. Looking at them you’d never know that all we wanted to do was get back to our air-conditioned hotel room.

Paraty old town

So long, Paraty. Thanks for a sweaty, sweaty time.

[Customer service update: Turns out best time to go to Paraty is actually April, May, or September]

Paraty kayaking

Salvador in pictures

Sometimes when you’re travelling you get so obsessed with “doing” that you forget to stop and just “be”. With so many sights to see and limited time, it’s easy to find yourself racing through, packing everything in, ticking it all off. But then you arrive in somewhere like Salvador, Brazil, and you’re forced to stop, breathe, and just take it in.

Built on a hill overlooking the ocean, surrounded by spectacular Bahian coastline, and home to some of South America’s oldest colonial buildings, Salvador is undeniably photogenic. But in terms of what there is to do in the city… well, there isn’t much.

Salvador is a place you go simply to soak it up. It’s less about doing than about feeling, seeing, tasting, and hearing. Even the locals are known for their relaxed attitude. It might be the party capital of Brazil but here you’re more likely to see people playing music and dancing in the street in their Havaianas than queuing up outside swanky bars and nightclubs.

We spent a week in the city over New Year and  tried to tap into this laid back attitude. So rather than give you a detailed rundown of what we got up to, we thought we’d simply try to share the vibe…

pelorinho salvador

lacerda salvador

salvador brazil

[For those who like a few facts with their fun, scroll to the bottom for a quick rundown of Salvador’s past and present]

Pelorinho Salvador

salvador brazil

salvador brazil

salvador brazil

Lacerda elevator

salvador brazil

pelorinho salvador

salvador brazil

salvador brazil

Salvador in brief

One of the oldest cities in Latin America, Salvador was Brazil’s first capital city, established in 1549.

It is Brazil’s third largest city after Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro but it suffers from more violent crime than either of them. It is ranked 17th most dangerous city in the world on account of its extreme poverty and gang crime.

Sitting on a peninsula overlooking Todos os Santos Bay on one side and the Atlantic Ocean on the other it quickly became Brazil’s main port and a hub for the sugar and slave trade.

Nowadays it is known as the country’s capital of Afro-Brazilian culture. Of the 2.6 million inhabitants, some 80% have black African ancestry.

In the stage of Bahia, of which Salvador is the capital, 50% of people live in poverty. The average monthly household income in the city is R1,163 (ÂŁ255/$390). 12.7% of inhabitants have no income at all.

Salvador hosts the biggest annual Carnival in the country and holds the record for biggest party in the world.

Construction on a metro system for the city began more than a decade ago. It officially opened in July 2014 but services just five stations, with plans to extend to 15 more. So far it is estimated to have cost more than $1.73bn.

The historic centre of Pelourinho is a UNESCO World Heritage site but it was pretty much a no-go area until 1992 when the local government embarked upon a project called Recovery of Salvador’s Historic Center. The result is that the historic centre is now safe for tourists. The downside is that no locals can afford to live there any more.

Trancoso

Christmas in twinkly Trancoso

When you’re travelling for a year it can be hard to convince the folks back home that you deserve a treat. After all, isn’t every day a treat when you’re on the road, waking up every morning to visit new places and see new things?

Of course the answer is yes. But while backpacking is incredibly enriching for the soul, it is less kind to the body. And after two months of cold showers, communal kitchens and cockroaches it’s fair to say we were looking forward to spending Christmas somewhere a little more salubrious.

We arrive in Trancoso on December 23. It is a notoriously tricky place to get to. You have to take an overnight bus or fly from Rio to Porto Seguro, an entirely charmless resort just up the Bahia coast. From there it’s a ferry and two buses.

However, the night before (and as if to prove my point about the effect of backpacking on the body) Rob had been rendered unexpectedly immobile with excruciating back pain. After an attempt to hobble, wincing, out for dinner had ended, almost literally, in tears, we took the executive decision to fork out for a cab.

Perched on a cliff above miles of golden sand, tiny Trancoso is a slice of chilled out paradise on Latin America’s busiest coastline. After wealthy bohemians from Sao Paulo set up camp here in the 1970s, it quickly became a byword for rustic sophistication.

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Hippie chillout times in Trancoso

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These days Brazilians flock here to spend the festive season in laid back bliss. And not just Brazilians. The week after we were there, Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell descended on the resort and sent the paparazzi into a frenzy as they frolicked on the beach.

Needless to say, upon arriving at the Capim Santo hotel, we feel conspicuous with our grubby backpacks and thrice-worn T-shirts. We needn’t have worried. The place is as relaxed as it is beautiful. Surrounded by leafy gardens, the rooms are housed in individual air conditioned cabins, their interiors a masterclass in laid back luxury. Whitewashed wood and pale tiles appear airy and bright while fresh white linens, sheepskin rugs and patterned bedspreads add texture and warmth. Voluminous mosquito nets hang lazily from the four poster bed and a colourful hammock on the front porch provides a final touch of hippy chic.

capim santo trancoso

We try to play it cool as the staff show us around but inside we’re bursting with excitement: “There’s hot water! And a hairdryer! And air conditioning!”

Outside the hotel room, the shimmering water of the jungle-style pool is enough to produce an audible sigh.

Capim Santo Trancoso

“And this is the way to the Quadrado,” says the manager, pointing to a wooden gate.

The Quadrado is Trancoso’s town square… if you can call it that. The grassy lawn that runs up the edge of the cliff, is more village green than central plaza. A tiny 16th century church built by the Jesuits who founded the original settlement back in 1586. In the afternoons children play games on the grass while bronzed holidaymakers in flowing sarongs and colourful kaftans wend their way back from the beach.

trancoso church

quadrado trancoso

As the sunlight filters down between the leaves and tropical blooms, leaving dappled shadows on the colourful cafes, we feel as though we’ve stumbled into someone else’s good fortune, someone else’s life.

quadrado trancoso

 

Trancoso

But if it looks heavenly by day, by night it is positively magical.

When the sun goes down the paths are laid with flickering tea lights. Around the edges, cafes, shops and restaurants string lanterns from the trees and lay out deck chairs and colourful cushions beneath the boughs. The sound of gentle music floats out from the twinkling bars. As we emerge for the first time from the dirt track that leads from the hotel, it is difficult not to gasp with delight.

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Twinkly Trancoso…

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And then there’s the shops. The tiny boutiques overflow with bohemian style with a Brazilian twist: raw silks, floaty chiffons and the silkiest satins, a riot of tropical shades and prints, and embellished with glittering beads. Even the swimwear has sequins on it which leads me to suspect it’s not actually intended for swimming (a beach party we witness while walking past one of the swankier resorts later in the week confirms this). However, you can forget about buying a souvenir. This is boho chic at its most exclusive and while I’m reasonably convinced I could pull off a sparkly pineapple print thong, I settle instead for a pair of Havaianas, bought for 25 Reais (£5.70/$8.70) in the supermarket down the road.

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Beauty salon in a caravan

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Christmas morning, when it dawns, is a characteristically relaxed affair. At breakfast we join the staff and other guests in wishing each other “Feliz Natal” as we tuck into fresh watermelon and slices of coconut cake. Then it’s time to hit the beach.

The local praia is a ten minute walk (or twenty minute hobble, if you’re Rob) down the hill from the end of the Quadrado, through the mangrove swamps via a small bridge, and onto the sand.

trancoso beach

From this point the beach stretches out as far as the eye can see in either direction, backed by palm trees and punctuated with beach bars and restaurants which, for around R100 (or a minimum spend of the same) will rent you sun loungers and parasols. Given that this is our first time on the beach (apart from a couple of hours in Cartagena) since we started travelling, we are happy to cough up and while away the hours between swimming and sunbathing sipping ice cold beer and watching the locals have a kickabout on the golden sand.

trancoso beach

In the evening we don our occasion wear (ie our cleanest clothes) and head out for Christmas drinks. We agreed weeks ago that we wouldn’t bother with presents, the trip to Trancoso being enough, but at the last minute we’ve decided to exchange small gifts. Giving ourselves a backpackers budget of R30 (£6.80/$10) we have tasked each other to go out and buy a surprise. Wrapped in leaves and toilet roll and sealed with gaffa tape they sit on the table in front of us as we sip our festive caipirinhas. It’s the moment of truth. Rob’s got me a decorated stone trinket box and a silver bangle. I’ve managed to find him a mini percussion instrument made out of a coconut shell.

christmas presents for backpackers

For Christmas dinner we head back to the hotel where the restaurant is excellent. I have the lobster because if I can’t order lobster on Christmas day in Brazil, when can I? Rob goes for sea bass in a creamy nut sauce. We even manage to find a Brazilian white wine to go with it. True, there’s no Christmas pudding on the menu but somehow we manage to make do.

Christmas in Trancoso

Feeling tipsy and giggly we meander our way through the gardens to our little cabin. It’s been a truly magical day. In a few days we’ll be back to drinking cheap beer in sweaty hostels so for now, let’s close the mosquito nets, turn up the AC and finish off this bottle of wine.

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Dream catchers in the breeze…

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