The LBA Latin America awards

As the Latin American leg of the Let’s Be Adventurers world tour draws to a close, now’s the time to reward the best and shame the worst of our discoveries as latter-day conquistadors.

Best night’s sleep

Hostel Lao: Mendoza, Argentina

It’s just got everything. Hot water and decent pressure in the shower, good WiFi, convenient location to get the bus out to wine valleys, friendly and helpful staff, comfy beds, good social area and a nice garden, wine for sale and a great crowd of people. Fabulous place.

Highly commended

El Pueblito: El Bolson, Argentina

El Pueblito hostel, Argentina

A forest fire in the region gave the hostel an ethereal glow but it’s really not spooky, honest!

A beautiful old wooden chalet-style home from home in a stunning valley. It is nestled away from the main road, next to a clean and cool river that’s perfect for an invigorating dip before dinner. They bake incredible bread and the staff are simply wonderful, helpful, friendly, people. Rooms are a bit rustic, but that’s the charm.

‘What a dump’ award for shabbiest hostel

Favela Chic: Foz de Iguacu, Brazil

More favela than chic. The roof leaked so our bags got soaked through during heavy rain. The WiFi didn’t work, the food was garbage and the staff were beyond weird. The fact that there was no-one else there gave the whole place a desolate vibe and the owner tried to charge us twice. Click here for Franki’s amazing TripAdvisor review.

Best end-of-a-hard-day drink

La Vineria: El Chalten

After a long hard slog through the Patagonian mountains, enjoy their huge range of craft beers, a giant wine selection, brilliant music, friendly bar staff and tasteful decor, plus you can see Mount Fitzroy out of the window on a clear day. What’s not to love?

Highly commended

Havana: Cartagena, Colombia

OK, so it’s a Cuban theme bar with its fair share of tourists. But damn it’s fun. Salsa the night away among people who can dance much better than you, weaving around a huge well-stocked bar, to the sounds of a live Cuban band blowing their lungs out. Magica.

Worst hangover

Rio de Janeiro

After a night on the caipirinhas with a Polish pal we made that same night, Rio had us well and truly beaten. Some people talk about feeling like death warmed up. When it’s 40 degrees out, that phrase rings truer than ever. Ouch. Kill us. Kill us now.

Best street art

Valparaiso, Chile

A masterpiece on every flat surface, that’s the beauty of this soulful city.

Valpo, as the locals call it, is legendary for food and drink too. So there is plenty to look at as you reel homewards down its precipitous streets. Check out my blog featuring some of the best of Valpo’s open-air creations.

 

Highly commended

Buenos Aires, Argentina

Take one of the local street art tours and learn about the artists behind the giant, colourful murals found all over the city.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez award for magic realism

Salento, Colombia

Perhaps it ought to be sultry Cartagena, the fictionalised version of which is the backdrop for Love in a Time of Cholera. But for us, Salento was an other-wordly, dreamlike paradise.

Fog rolls through vivid green hills dotted with the world’s tallest palm trees, which look like they belong in a fantasy movie.

Highly commended

Trancoso, Brazil

A twinkly, groovy, tranquil, dingly dell of a beach town, the centrepiece a huge village green surrounded by ramshackle houses daubed in bright colours. At night the whole place is dimly lit with hundreds of lanterns, as overawed tourists and ageing hippies who came here long ago mingle beneath the stars. My sense of surrealism may have been enhanced by the strong muscle relaxants I was taking for a totally knackered back. Oh, the beach is gorgeous as well.

We spent Christmas there and you can read all about how wonderful that was – and see more pictures – here.

Best place to stuff your face

Siete Cocinas: Mendoza, Argentina

It ought to be good because it ain’t cheap. But if you’ve bought your pesos on the blue market, it’s not too bad. The concept is a mix of cuisines from Argentina’s seven regions. The tasting menu was exquisite and we finally achieved our ambition of getting through two bottles of wine with dinner.

Highly commended

Flor de Lis: Guatemala City, Guatemala

Confession time, this establishment is owned by our great friend Harold Caballeros-Arimany (pictured, with his lovely wife Monique) but we didn’t include it only for that reason.

Flor de Lis restaurant

When Franki’s hair was red and mine was plentiful.

Harold and his team of talented chefs have created an amazing degustation menu of genuine high quality, using Guatemalan ingredients in completely novel and delicious ways. A real treat.

Funniest menu translations

La Cevicheria: Cartagena, Colombia

What heart of stone could see “Lovely Wet Lobster Rice” on the menu and not order it.

Highly commended

Nice restaurant whose name we sadly can’t remember: Salvador, Brazil

“Chicken asleep on a bed of spices”. I don’t know how to break it to you guys but the chicken wasn’t just sleeping.

Hairiest moment

Threatened with police in Guatemala

You know you’ve said the wrong thing when a middle-aged woman starts filming you on her phone and says she has called the police. Run. Run really quite fast.

Highly commended

Running out of money in Patagonia

Patagonia

So…what now?

You have no cash, half a tank of petrol and you are 300 miles from the nearest working cash machine. Time to think laterally.

Catchiest tune

Rebellion by Joe Arroyo

If you spend any time on buses, you’re going to hear a lot of salsa and merengue and it’s going to get pretty tedious pretty quickly. But I just never tire of listening to this musical account of Latin America’s slave trade by Colombia’s Joe Arroyo.

OK, i’m basically obsessed with it. That whimsical piano solo, man…you can watch the whole video here.

 

Worst bus ride

Foz de Iguacu to Sao Paulo, Brazil

20+ gruelling hours. If you have any money at all, fly.

Best bus ride

Bariloche to Mendoza, Argentina

Bus bingo with a bottle of wine as the prize! We didn’t but the sheer novelty cheered us for the 13 hours of sadly bingo-less bus journey that followed. The trip through the Andes is pretty eye-catching too. Thank you Andesmar bus company.

Booze of the World ‘Tippler’s Choice’ award

Ron Zacapa, Guatemala

Repeatedly voted the world’s best rum for a reason. Pure, heartwarming joy in a glass. The original Booze of the World post about it can be found here.

Highly commended

Malbec in Mendoza. So much to choose from, so little time.

So that was the end of our time in Latin America. Now the small matter of a 13-hour flight across the dateline to New Zealand…hasta luego Latinoamerica!

Mount Fitzroy in the background, Franki and Rob

Bye bye to scenes like this…

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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

Booze of the World 4: Brazil

Unlike we reserved Englishmen, the Brazilians don’t need a drop of alcohol to start dancing in the streets. Still, once the caipirinhas are flowing, the party ramps up a notch…

Caipirinha: Where else to start but with Brazil’s most famous poison. Bewilderingly strong and insanely sugary, the main ingredient of this simple cocktail is cachaça, a spirit made from sugar cane. Mix it up with lime and yet more sugar, and you’ve got yourself a Samba party in a glass. The big difference between caipirinhas is the quality of the cachaça. At one end of the scale there’s the eye-wateringly potent stuff you get from street vendors for about 8 reals a pop (about £1.80). Here’s a Peruvian guy we met who set up a little stall in Lapa after someone sold him the cart.
Caipirinha stall in Lapa

We met this guy a few times but i’m damned if I can remember his name…

At the other end of the scale, ‘The Original’, available at the prestigious Skye Bar at the top of the Hotel Unique, will set you back a wallet-busting 38 reals (£8.50), largely because it’s made with the extra premium Cachaca Yaguara.

'The Original' caipirinha at the Skye Bar, Hotel Unique, Sao Paolo

Posh caipirinhas may not be authentic but they’re tudo bem. Tudo bem indeed.

The Skye Bar version (a birthday treat for me) was certainly the smoothest and best tasting. But for value and authenticity, give me the three-in-the-morning street caipirinha in Rio’s party district of Lapa.

Beer: The first thing to know about Brazilian cerveja is that they like it so cold that you can hardly taste it. That’s good news though, as most of it is dishwater. Itaipava, Schin, Devassa, Skol, Bohemia, Antarctica…it wouldn’t come as a surprise to find they were all the same weak product with different branding. Mind you, when it’s 40 degrees and you’re thirsty, flavour has to take a back seat sometimes.

Not all is lost. You can find a great range of craft beers, mostly hailing from the south, which has a substantial population of German descent.

Trouble is, good quality is just as expensive, if not more so, than what you’d find in London or New York. Still, if you’re fed up of the Pisswasser on offer elsewhere you’ll be ready to fork out. My recommendation is the Therezopolis Gold, smooth with a lightly sweet malt finish. Yum.

Therezopolis Gold

Smooth, golden and tasty. And the beer ain’t bad either…

For a huge range of Brazilian and foreign brews, head to the Boteco Carioquinha on Rua Gomes Freire in Lapa. It’ll set you back a bob or two but if you’re splashing out on beer, this is the best place to do it.

Beers at Boteco Carioquinha

Brewdog is just as expensive in Brazil…nice taste of home though

One last thing to know about Brazilian beer is that it tends to be served in two forms. One is Chopp, roughly a half-pint usually with a sizeable head. The other is Longneck, a large bottle of around 500ml, usually served in a cooler to keep it as near to freezing as possible.

Other: Coconuts abound anywhere near the coast, so there’s always the default Latin American beach tipple Cocoloco (see Booze of the World: Central America), a coconut with the top hacked off and some rum mixed with to the delicious nectar inside.

I’m sure the Amazonian regions have some crazy local firewater but we didn’t venture that far.

There is Brazilian wine but, for the most part, stay well away if you value your taste buds. However, over Christmas at the stunningly awesome Capim Santo hotel in the hippy beach town of Trancoso we stumbled upon the Casa Valduga ‘Indentidade’ Gewurztraminer, which was fairly complex, floral but not too sweet and very very drinkable. Wonders never cease.

Casa Valduga Gewurztraminer

Try saying Gewurztraminer in a Brazilian accent. Go on, try it!

The verdict

Top tipple: Street caipirinhas. Cheap, authentic and damn effective.

Gourmet’s choice: ‘The Original’ at Sao Paolo’s Skye Bar

Bubbling under: Therezopolis Gold

What to slur drunkenly: Brazilian Portuguese sounds like drunken Spanish anyway, so pretty much anything works. However, ‘tudo bem’ is your all-purpose expression of merry contentment.

Special ‘Actually that’s not too bad’ award: Casa Valduga ‘Identidade’ Brazilian Gewurztraminer.

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

View over Rio de Janeiro

Seven cool things to do in Rio de Janeiro

It won’t come as earth-shattering news that Rio de Janeiro is pretty awesome. Brazil’s beachside metropolis was already high on the list of must-visit cities before the 2014 World Cup but the football bonanza has made Rio hotter than ever.

We’re assuming you already know about Christ the Redeemer, favela tours and Copacabana Beach. So here’s the Let’s Be Adventurers rundown of the best of the rest.

1. Drink street caipirinhas in Lapa – A lot of tourists end up staying in Copacabana or Ipanema but the truth is that neither are particularly interesting, or authentic, when it comes to nightlife. Instead, head to the all-night street party that is Lapa, where Rio’s cool and multicultural kids hang out, listening to live music, flirting outrageously and drinking caipirinhas sold by street vendors. There are cool bars and restaurants here too but most of the action is outside.

Caipirinha stall in Lapa, Rio de Janeiro

2. Take the Metro – If you visit in Brazil’s sweltering summer, chances are it’s 40 degrees outside, you are a sweaty mess and you need a break. So the air-conditioned Metro comes as a blessed relief. Buy a MetroRio card and ride in ice-cool comfort throughout the city. It’s safe, clean, affordable and a great way to check out attractions further afield, such as the world-famous Maracana stadium.

3. Catch some live music – In Lapa, but also further afield, Rio has some great live music. If you’ve spent any time in the rest of Latin America before arriving here, you’ll be sick to the back teeth by now of salsa, cumbia, and Latin love songs by some middle-aged sap moaning about his bloody ‘ corazon’. With its diverse cultural influences, Rio has a more eclectic scene with anything from funk, jazz, rock to tourist-friendly samba all to be found all over town.

4. Stroll around Santa Teresa and the Selaron steps – Just up the hill from Lapa is the artsy and chilled Santa Teresa district, a tranquil spot for a relaxed wander through winding hillside streets, glimpsing views of the city through the gaps between some of Rio’s most attractive houses.

House in Santa Teresa, Rio de Janeiro

From Santa Teresa, walk down the hill to the top of the Escadaria Selaron. These colourfully tiled steps were a gift to the city by Chilean-born artist Jorge Selaron who lived here either side of the millennium , this is an amazing public artwork that you could spend ages exploring. As you descend, you’ll see that it was put together using tiles donated from around the world by admirers of his project. Selaron was found dead on these very steps in 2013, an end befitting Brazil’s potent mix of passion and tragedy.

The Escadaria Selaron

5. Eat prawn cupcakes – Alright, they’re not really called prawn cupcakes. But if you go out drinking in Rio’s bars, you’ll often see waiters circulate with trays full of delicious-looking snacks, such as bolinhos of cod and little cupcakey things with delicious fillings such as prawn or cheese. Or both. Not only are they tasty as hell but at 2am they’re a great way of keeping a lid on your drunkenness. If that’s what you want. Try Belmonte in Lapa or Copacabana for mouth-watering late-night snackage.

Food at Boteco Belmonte, Rio de Janeiro
6. Go for sushi – Not immediately obvious perhaps but Rio enjoys the winning combination of a large Japanese community and all the fish you could shake a stick at. At Azumi in Copacabana, we wolfed down some of the most succulent melt-in-the-mouth sushi of our lives. It isn’t cheap if you really intend to fill your belly but my word it’s tasty.

7. Watch planes take off from Sugar Loaf Mountain – Pao de Acucar, as it’s called in Portuguese, is one of the more obvious spots to visit during your time in Rio. The views of the city are incredible but one of the most mesmerising sights is the aeroplanes taking off and landing at Santos Dumont airport. Watch from above as they speed down the runway – the roar of the engines reaching you a second or two later. As they ascend, they glide past at eye level close enough that you can nearly see the passengers through the windows. Not just for planespotters.

Plane taking off from Santos Dumont airport, Rio de Janeiro
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.

Hippie chillout times in Trancoso

A post shared by Franki Cookney (@frankicookney) on

 

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.

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.

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.

Dream catchers in the breeze…

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