They aren’t joking when they say that Brazil is big. It takes up one third of the continent and we are slowly working our way through it. The drive from Porto Velho to Pocone, the gateway to the northern Pantanal, was around 1500 kms and we did it the way we tackle all our long drives…slowly!
Brazilians don’t have to worry about us appearing on their driveways looking for a place to open our tent. We have discovered “Postos”! These are petrol stations that double as truck stops. They are great. They usually have clean ablutions, generally with showers, a restaurant and a shady out-of-the-way spot for us to camp. We have also discovered prato feito, which is a well-priced plate of food comprising pasta, rice, beans, meat and/or chicken and salad. We have yet to meet a bad one.
Having spent almost 6 months in Spanish speaking countries, arriving in Brazil was a bit of a shock. We must have actually picked up some Spanish along the way because we are now in a position where we are battling to communicate. We’ve tried the usual: speaking English but louder, speaking Spanglish and finally trying “greengrocer”, namely ending each word in -sh. It does work for some words like “chocolatsh” and “tomatsh” but we generally end up getting the same blank look. We’ve bought an English-Portuguese dictionary so things are bound to improve pretty soon!
The scenery en route varied from forests in the indigenous areas to very extensive farmland. The crops seem to range from maize to sorghum to sugarcane, some sunflowers and mostly Brahman cattle were to be seen grazing in the fields.
The Pantanal reminded us a lot of the Los Llanos area in Venezuela. It was brilliant for birds. We camped for a couple of nights at Portal Paraiso, a working cattle and buffalo farm. There was a swimming pool, an elevated viewing deck, great for sundowners, as well as a resident blue and yellow macaw. We had brilliant sightings of hyacinth macaws, greater rheas and black-bellied whistling ducks, not to mention the jaiburu storks, wood storks, roseate spoonbills, bare-faced curassows, rusty-margined guans, caimans …
The Transpantaneira road is 145kms long, coming to an end at Porto Jofre, on the banks of the Rio Cuaiba. It is a dirt road, hell in the wet season, and it crosses no fewer than 120 wooden bridges in varied stages of disrepair. We know – because BW counted them – there and on the way back just to make sure! Animal and bird viewing along the way was pretty special. We saw a couple of different species of monkey, some coatis, a jaguar (yes, only the one!) and a good couple of new bird spots. We tried to see the gigantic water lilies but were unceremoniously chucked out of the Hotel Porto Jofre Pantanal Norte by some officious twit who shouldn’t have chosen the hospitality industry for his day job! Wait until I tell Lonely Planet about him!
We found a stunning campsite on the river bank at Porto Jofre but stayed only one night thanks to the squadrons of mosquitoes flying sorties day and night. We also kept waiting for the generator to stop, but unfortunately it ran throughout the night.
From the Pantanal we headed eastwards, next stop Brasilia via the colonial towns of Goias and Pirenopolis. Both of these towns were pretty interesting. In Goias we camped next to the town spring dating from the 1700s and visited the Museum which housed a cell made entirely from pepper tree wood. In Pirenopolis we stumbled on the festival of Cavalhadas which starts 50 days after Easter and celebrates Charlemagne’s victory over the Moors. Some of the streets are covered in pictures made from coloured sawdust. Masked figures (masquerades) on horseback gallop through town seeing off the devil and others are seen walking with bull-head masks. Very strange.
We had “ummed” and “aahed” about whether or not to include the capital city on our itinerary but now, having been, are very glad we did. There was camping available at the Youth Hostel, well situated only 5 kms from the city centre. It is a very traffic friendly city with ample parking around all the major sights. The guidebooks seem to have a thing about the lack of access for pedestrians but we thought they were pretty well catered for. The city was planned from scratch not all that long ago (late 1950s) and has some very interesting cutting edge architecture. It has a Canberra feel to it, but without the warmth of traditional architecture. We loved the Santuario Dom Bosco which has a chandelier weighing 2.5 tons and walls made from blue Murano glass. It was so beautiful and serene. The main Cathedral, on the other hand, looked a bit like the Victory Park “lemon-squeezer” Catholic Church and, while beautiful inside, was not a peaceful place. Picture tourists on cell-phones, overly loud voices, a souvenir shop and general hubbub – to say nothing of the trinket, curio and ice cream sellers encamped under stunning sculptures of the Apostles outside the church.
After Brasilia we travelled to the town of Ouro Preto. It is home to that fairly uncommon animal called a campsite. We have not seen too many of them recently. It was close to town, well laid out and, other than a German couple in a Toyota camper, deserted. We are fairly high up and, for the first time in quite a while, we’ve had to dig out long trousers, warm tops and shoes and socks for evenings and early mornings. It is winter for us too, you know!
We arrived on a Monday which meant that we missed the weekend crowds but also meant that the places of interest were closed. Luckily Chocolate Ouro Preto was open for coffee and hot chocolate. We wandered the streets, getting our bearings in the very narrow and steep cobbled streets of the town, and, after shopping for provisions, retired to the campsite for schoolwork and housekeeping. We visited the town again when things were open and saw some amazing churches and sculptures. Unfortunately gringos get stung an entry fee for entering some of the churches, no free prayers in this town.