To paths less trodden...

When I started this blog a few years ago in 2010, I was wrapping up my life in Australia, putting a painful few years where they belonged - behind me - and preparing for some crazy travel adventures and a new life in London. Now I'm older, slightly wiser. There's been more laughter than tears, incredible friendships revived and forged, successes, loss and grief, and a shedload of travel. I should have kept this blog up, but like many good intentions it fell by the wayside as life took over. Well, no time like the present! I hope you enjoy, be inspired, roll your eyes a little. And like I said when I kicked this blog off: "You know it's not going to be boring."





Monday, December 14, 2015

Villa Tunari, Adventures on the Road, The Traveller’s Paradox

Villa Tunari is a town set in the Chapare mountain range.  Wide rivers, lush steaming valleys and the close, looming mountains make this a place of immense beauty.  The town is growing fast in the way that many areas of the third world are now.  Once bypassed by the Cochabamba-Santa Cruz road, the road now thunders straight through it, along with a consistent barrage of trucks and cars and motorbikes.  There is also a newer, smaller road cutting through Parque Machia – the home of Inti Wara Yassi animal refuge where I have been working as a volunteer for the past 3 weeks- right to the coca-growing town of Copacabana 5km away.  Rumours abound about why the Bolivian government built it, but presumably to make the transportation of drugs in and out of the region easier.  However it has had a devastating effect on the park, making animal management is a lot more difficult.


Weather is crazy here this time of year. The thunder rumbles in the distance, like a warning growl from some predatory animal deep in its throat, building momentum as they creep closer. When the storms hit they are non-forgiving – torrential rain, thunder echoing, booming in succession off the surrounding mountains as loudly as if being in a room of cannons firing in succession, the lightening white-blue and intense, waking you up in the middle of the night through drawn curtains, like someone had sneaked a cheeky photo with the flash on whilst you were sleeping.

 

I left Villa Tunari at 6am yesterday.  It was a stunning morning, clear – so the tops of the Chapare mountains were reflecting the rising sun.  I walked to the taxi, braving the bridge with its loud clatter as the huge lorries slam past, inches from you, tearing the breath from your throat and forcing you to turn towards the river with your eyes squeezed shut.  It’s a shared taxi – I needed 4 to get to Santa Cruz – a hatchback stationwagon - and I was sat in the back with my feet dangling over the boot edge, watching Villa Tunari disappear in front of me in a wide vista.  It’s something I’ll never forget – the mountains crowding purple, orange and grey – bruised colours contrasting with the green steaming forest and waking sky of pastel blue, spread out of in front of me like a painting.  The Chapare range is heartbreakingly beautiful, like something dropped from Tolkien, and it was one of those moments that will encapsulate in memory forever, so even in old age it will suddenly pop into my mind like stepping into a snapshot of time – the wind blowing in my face, the smell of the clear morning after the night’s storm but with the occasional waft of diesel, the impossible immensity of the mountains and lushness of the jungle, all of it loaded with promise of adventure, beckoning me to stay, to explore, to experience more.


The second taxi ride was more interesting.  It's not unusual to have 4 people in the open boot with their feet hanging over the edge, 3 in the middle and 2 in the front (not including the driver).  Shoved up in the front next to a young man, I realised that the driver was a wannabe F1 racer, overtaking trucks and cars in the face of oncoming traffic, zipping into narrow gaps then slamming on the brakes inches from a bumper.  The fact that he probably travelled that section of road twenty times a day did not give me comfort.  I had to grip the dodgy passenger door shut with one hand and peeked through my fingers of the other.  I noticed the chap next to me was asleep – asleep! – then I realised he must have deliberately induced himself into a catatonic state to avoid the terror unfolding through the windscreen. Even scarier was that the driver kept his finger on the radio whilst he tried to find a decent channel, the music all so teeth-clenchingly bad that when he found a station playing the Backstreet Boys I almost begged him to leave it on. Most Bolivian music seems to be yelling random names of towns and countries out, drawing out the last syllables: ‘La Paaaaaaaz!’, ‘Cochabambaaaaaaaaaaaa!!!’, ‘Peruuuuuu!!!’ as if the artist were letting everyone know up and coming tour venues.  It’s slightly more melodic than the awful Patagonian music you got on buses when I was here last, which was always up at ear-splitting level, banging out of tinny speakers during the middle of the night, clearly to keep the driver awake whilst he frantically chewed coca leaves and hurtled the bus around the kind of bendy mountain roads that could slide away at any second.  It’s funny how, when you are travelling in these kinds of places, you put your life in the hands of people that probably got up one day, decided that they were going to drive a bus or taxi, and just did just that without taking a test in vehicles that are held together with hope and prayer and on roads that are the most dangerous on the planet, populated by other equally precarious drivers.  It’s all part of the experience, but every time I get home from a trip part of me wonders how I made it back in one piece, and whether one day my luck will run out.

 

Bolivian life flashing by on the roadside. Bits of shredded plastic bags caught in trees and fences resemble brightly coloured confetti.  Rubbish strewn randomly everywhere.  Should a virus wipe out the human race this would be our sad remnant in the third world, plastic-strewn roadsides and cities – ugly reminders of westernised products in an impoverished country that doesn’t have the resources to dispose or recycle, or the education or forethought to consider it a priority of their day to day life. 

 

Construction is bits of wood, rusted corrugated iron, flapping plastic, ugly brick and concrete, everything mouldy-black and decaying from the relentless tirade of rain, sun and insects.  Houses have no windows, they are literally open to the elements, and everything looks half finished.  The greenery looms, lush and wild and vibrant and alive, ready to pounce and take over the second someone walks away from their domicile. The countryside is dotted with ruins – lumpy shapes in the undergrowth where nature took over where man left off.  Animals tied up to trees, or bits of wood stuck in the ground.  Limping dogs, some angry and threatening – chasing cars and motorbikes - some that look with scared eyes that want to trust but have known too well a raised voice, the smack of a hand or feel of a boot.  Yet it doesn’t stop them dashing across roads in front of traffic, nor becoming smeared lumps of fur and red when their recklessness doesn’t pay off.  I saw way too many furry bodies between Cochabamba and Santa Cruz.  Children run out by the side of the road too in various states of dress, some as young as 4 or 5 clutching naked toddler siblings by the hand, waving or staring in wonder as they catch a glimpse of my blond hair as it speeds past.  Again they stand too close on the sides of the dusty highways, barefooted with Pixar or Disney t-shirts ripped and dirty, the smile of Elsa from Frozen looking more like a rictus-grin than the promise of a happy ending - inches from death on the newly tarmacked super highway with no speed limit and crazy coca-stimulated drivers – another aspect of survival they now have to deal with along with poverty and disease and a minimum working age of 10.  

 

Trucks adorned with incongruous pictures for the Bolivian setting- lions against an alpine backdrop, blonde apple-cheeked children with sparking blue eyes, a Japanese woman with a parasol, Jesus on a white horse!  Things like Richard II plastered across a windscreen.  Children peek out from under tarpaulins of speeding trucks.  Motorbikes carrying 4 or more people, toddlers with no helmets being held under one arm whilst the driver talks on his phone with the other.  Bolivian women, pigtails flying, casually sitting sidesaddle at 60km/h, clutching canvas bags overflowing with mangoes or papaya. 

 


I had the same experience in Borneo this year, horrified at a land of ancient forest that once teemed with life levelled to palm oil plantations and the cruelty of the wild pet trade that is in full force – species on the brink of extinction, live crocodiles being sold enmasse to the Chinese for the handbag trade because they aren’t endangered – the lack of compassion and logic in the face of poverty.  Why is it the lands that have so much also have so little?  I travel to experience all of this, to see all of this.  I sidestep around the harsh reality of these people’s lives, complain and judge when there is lack of modern amenities like fast wi-fi and hot showers on Facebook yet feel saddened by the way the world is becoming horribly generic, cultures and tribal traditions slowly losing their traction as new generations trade them in for mobile phones and scramble to catch up with the modern world.  Feel heartbreak for the animals that are suffering from loss of habitat, wild creatures like monkeys that should never hear the monster trucks that roar through what was once a jungle paradise, their world teetering on the edge of the point of no return, and whether it will vanish quickly, like a whisper into the wind, and we’ll wake up one morning and it will just be gone.  


Wonder whether in 100, 200, 1000 years, those Chapare mountains will still look as indomitable and mysterious, whether the world they see will have changed beyond recognition with dried up rivers thanks to global warming, shitty sprawling half-built brick towns and a society that struggles with culture identity and a legacy of extinct animal species.  Or whether nature will have reverted itself, the green taking over it all, the forests resonant with the happy singing of Capuchins, rivers thundering over rocks, landslides covering roads and rusting relics of cars and trucks, plastic and non-degradable human waste slowly overlaid by rotting foliage.  Part of me longs for the latter, hypocritical though it may be as I go back to my own cozy concrete jungle next month.  I want to be able to visit these places of beauty and nature in the third world and find them untouched, find them unlike anywhere else on the planet, keep them safe from modern development because I love animals and modernisation is killing them and their habitat.  

 

It’s hard to reconcile this paradox.  I will travel back to these places though, cry inside as I see the development and also feel grateful that now more people have medicine, running water, a roof over their heads, the chance for education and employment.  I can only watch, wait, and do what I can where I can, hence coming back to VillaTunari for a second time, to feel closer to what is really happening in this part of the world, and to experience the bittersweetness of it all, a feeling that lingers long after I am home, sat at my computer screen in cold rainy London with rain sleeting against the windows, dreaming of the Chapare mountains and the happy chatter of monkeys. 

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Cochabamba, Bolivia

I had one afternoon and evening in Cochabamba in the Bolivian Andes, flying in from Sao Paulo over some breath-taking mountains – probably the Chapare range which I would bus through again the next day.  My last memory of it from late 2002 was that it was a small, dusty city, and I transited through the bustling bus station on my way to Villa Tunari.  I remember staring in horror at a jam-packed cage of live guinea-pigs by my feet, which is an Andean dish (hopefully a tradition that is on its way out as I haven't seen any this trip but avoid 'cuy' on any menu in South America), and wondering whether to set them all free.  I would have probably been arrested and the poor animals would no doubt have scurried under the wheels of buses only to be squished to death, so common sense did win out – but at the time I couldn’t wait to get out of there. 


Not so now – fast forward to 2015 and the city is transformed into a modern, buzzing hub.  Surrounded by the Tunari range of mountains meaning there are jaw-dropping views no matter where you look, it is high and dusty.  It has plenty of modern shops and restaurants although an alarming amount of fast food stores, and traditional Bolivian dress is on the way out, replaced by tank tops and daisy-duke cut off shorts.  In fact, considering how conservative Bolivia was when I was last here 13 years ago, the transformation in fashion is remarkable.  Linked no doubt to the digital and mobile age swinging in with force – everyone here is addicted to their phone just like everywhere else on the planet – modesty has been thrown to the wind and the shops are full of teeny tiny outfits and Chinese tack.  Someone told me the Bolivian government has sold out and is in negotiations with the Chinese worth billions for lithium deposits as well as all the goods coming in.  No doubt the Chinese are taking plenty of live wild animals back with them too for the pet trade.


I stayed at Hotel Aranjuez, a gorgeous hotel with tinkling fountains and tiled, leafy verandahs.  It was originally a mansion home and it’s full of old furniture and artworks.  The staff are friendly and wonderful.  The room could have done with a fan and the breakfast was mediocre including strong cold coffee you could have stood a spoon up in, but it’s in a good location and safe to walk around the area.


Just down from the hotel is La Muela Del Diablo restaurant (meaning tooth of the devil), set inside a pretty courtyard and with a decent menu.  Opposite is the palace and I do wish I’d been there when it was open as the grounds looked really pretty and very European. There’s actually a ton of decent restaurants in Cochabamba now – many around the Recoleta (through the arch), but it’s not the food that’s worth going for – it’s the sunsets.  As I strolled through town down to the Cathedral the sky looked like someone had got buckets of pure gold, red and midnight blue paint and splashed them across the canvas of the sky.  The mountains all around gleamed tones of ochre, and Cochambamba’s own Jesu was silhouetted against a sky that was on fire. 

 

There’s quite a lot to see in Cochabamba.  The main Plaza is buzzing with locals, dogs, tourists and a few drug dealers, and gearing up for Xmas. 

 

Parts of the city still have that colonial feel, particularly around Calle Espana which has a few interesting looking bars, and towards the Cathedral.  You still see indigenous dress, particularly around the market (which is dodgy so I didn't linger), but I thought Cochabamba is a perfect blend of old and modern Bolivia, and a city I wished I’d had more time in.

 
 


As I strolled back to my hotel, I was lucky enough to come across some Caporales dancers.  This is a happy dance which originated (apparently) in La Paz in 1969.  Dancers wear brightly coloured costumes, with bells and hats.  Again it’s incongruous with Bolivian conservatism because the women’s costumes are made up of panties, short mini-skirts, shiny tan tights and high-heeled shoes meaning plenty of bum and leg is showing, but it’s lovely to watch and reminiscent of carnival in Rio as the dancers are in sections, and move slowly down the street, accompanied by live music and plenty of drums.  The origins of the dance are interesting, apparently inspired by the Caporal who was usually a mixed race overseer of African slaves, and wore a hat and boots and held a whip.  The dance apparently is an important part of the cultural identity of Afro-Bolivian ethnic people. It also has religious connotations as the dance is for the Virgin of Socavon (patroness of miners) with the dancer promising the Virgin that they will dance for 3 years of their life.  

 
 

Ilhabela and Sao Paulo, Brazil

Ilhabela

After Rio I headed to the beautiful island of Ilhabela (which I think literally means beautiful island).  This is a very quiet place, busier on weekends when the crowds from Sao Paolo want to escape the dirtiness of the city and sit on a beach.


I caught an overnight bus from Rio with sleeper seats. It makes more sense to do it this way as it saves a night’s accommodation and also means I wasn’t travelling during the day when I could be on a beach instead!

I stayed in Hotel Guanambis which had a beautiful view West towards Sao Sebastiao – the port town where you catch the ferry to the island.  It’s on the very steep hill just up from the fish fountain.  The hotel is clean, the staff are friendly (they don’t speak English however) and the breakfasts are awesome –best yogurt I’ve ever had!  Power-walking up a steep hill a few times a day meant I walked off all the good food.


There’s not an awful lot to do on the island.  I did a day trip to one of the more remote beaches called Castelhanos – it’s within a national park and can only be reached by jeep – but the jeep broke down literally 2km from the park so I ended up walking about 7km before another jeep tour saw me and offered me a ride – good job as it had started raining.  The beach itself is ok – on a sunny day it would be lovely but on a cloudy wet day it was mediocre, given that there are so many mosquitos and sandflies.  Some people rented boards for the day.


There’s some lovely restaurants in town, and it was a 3km walk from where I was staying, easy enough to do.  You can also get the bone-shaking bus which is 3.50 Real (about 80p) and takes 10 mins.  Despite the surf beaches, waterfalls and laid back atmosphere, unlike Ilha Grande, which is closer to Rio and party central for the great unwashed (and has some fantastic short hikes and cheap eating/drinking), there is a distinct lack of backpackers here and most of the visitors are Brazilian.  English is not commonly spoken, but you can get by with basic Spanish.

This was in some ways a period of relaxation for me as I was preparing for Bolivia.  I spent my days running by the beach, swimming and tanning in the stunning pool at the hotel. There’s a lot of fast food restaurants but a decent sushi chain. One night I ate at the Irish pub with one of the Chileans in my hotel (not Irish at all so it’s a bloody cheek really – I had something called Galway salmon which was a fillet doused in packet cheese sauce, salty soggy vegetables and rice), however Mozzarella in Vila is amazing – it’s just down from the church, which is worth a mention in itself for the soulful statue of Jesus outside and it’s pretty white and blue exterior.  The gelato shop opposite is good for dessert.


There’s a few places you can rent pushbikes – there is a decent bike path up to Vila – however after that it's a game of Russian Roulette as the road gets narrow, steep and precarious and cars whiz past on tight bends, blaring their horns, flashing their lights and not slowing one iota.  Quite a few got the finger and some choice words from yours truly as they skimmed past me within inches. At that point I was pushing the bike up and down hills, bashing my legs with the pedal and cursing the fact that I had hired it because after Vila it becomes a liability unless you are an experienced cyclist, which I’m not.  I also quite like life. You can actually get a bus up to the lighthouse on the north west of the island which was my ultimate destination.  There seemed to be some nice little beaches and cute restaurants north of Vila. It would be a good place to have a car or 4 wheel drive.

I liked running alongside the beach in the evenings just as the sun was going down and then watching the sunset.  


I had 3 good days of weather out of 6, and so didn’t get to climb the mountain or see any of the waterfalls - of which there are several and feel like there's a lot I missed out on. Diving is possible –they have a number of shipwrecks around the island dating back from the 1800’s right up until the 1970’s, and there is a board on the bike path to Vila which tells you about them in detail.  In the 1800’s the island was part of the trading route between Europe and Brazil, but the choppy waters around the north and south tip claimed several lives – the boats seem to be mainly carrying post and coffee.  They weren’t going out the weekend I was there unfortunately and with the weather the vis wasn't great.  

This island would be amazing with a large group, however as a solo traveller I found it peaceful, but a bit quiet.  You can find some more Ilhabela pictures on my Flickr page

Sao Paulo

After six days of doing bugger all in Ilhabela, it was off to Sao Paolo for two nights. I have to say I wasn’t excited about this experience, but booked to stay in the Novotel as I knew a) the wifi would be fast and b) it had a decent restaurant in case going out on my lonesome wasn’t an option given all the horror stories I’d heard about SP being one of the murder capitals of the world.  The bus journey over is pretty with stunning rolling hills and jungle.  It takes about 4 hours to reach the outskirts of Sao Paolo which is a depressing sight.  The buildings are concrete, unimaginative and covered – literally covered – in graffiti.  I don’t know how half of it got there as it’s so high they must have had some sort of cherry-picker crane to be able to do it – I kept looking for spotty rebellious teenagers dangling from windows whilst their friends firmly gripped their ankles, spraying their tags upside down!  There’s tons of interesting street art in Rio, but for the most part the stuff you see in SP is just plain, ugly, scrawling. It’s a shame as it’s an urban jungle with very few aesthetics and not much to recommend it.  A link to my Ilhabela album on Flickr is here.

The hotel I stayed in was built in the fifties and several famous people visited including Hollywood elite, The Queen, Marilyn Monroe and Ginger Rogers, not to mention several esteemed politicians and Brazilian stars, and there are some interesting photos in the lobby. 

The next day I walked past the hookers and drug dealers on Avenida Augusta to Avenida Paulista, which is like the Fifth Avenue of SP.  It’s a busy street, chockful of traffic and shopping centres.  If this had been the last stop on my trip my backpack would have been full of cool clothes to go home with but I have enough to carry as it is.  From Paulista I headed to Ibirapuera Park - the equivalent of Central Park if we’re keeping with the NYC theme -  a beautiful piece of green slap bang in the middle of SP.  Here everyone is out running, cycling, working out, walking their dogs and playing with their kids. It’s a large park but easy to walk around in a couple of hours, fabulous people-watching. There’s two big lakes with loads of birds including swans and pretty bridges.  It’s a lovely place to hang out for the day, or if you have a few days, somewhere nice to get your daily dose of exercise.


From here I walked up Avenida Brasil – full of massive mansion homes and media trendy businesses but with a weird absence of any human life so more like an abandoned Stepford Wives movie set where you wonder what is going on behind closed doors - and then cut back up one of the leafy sidestreets – Argentina I think -  and a ridiculously steep hill, back to Paulista.  Avenida 9 de Julio is a pretty street, parallel to Augusta but a world apart. Augusta sums up the term ‘the other side of the tracks’ with aplomb.  9 de Julio is full of cafes and the beautiful people whilst Augusta is full of hookers, graffiti and decidedly dodgy looking characters, many of whom seemed to be talking to themselves.  I ate in a wonderful Italian restaurant, very close to the hotel, called Famiglia Mancini which has a stunning décor, live music, an excellent wine menu and delicious home-made pasta.  It seemed to be jam packed full after 9pm, with a buzzy atmosphere.  It’s no 23 of restaurants in SP on Tripadvisor.


Like Ilhabela, I think SP is somewhere best enjoyed with excellent company and perhaps a local who can show you the hotspots, but 2 days was more than enough for me by myself.  Next stop, Bolivia!

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Rio!

I’ve been to Rio before in 2012, during Carnival.  This trip was an in-betweener to have a few days in the sun, on the beach, before heading South to Ilhabela and Sao Paolo and finally to Bolivia.

On a recommendation I stayed at the Marina Palace hotel, which is in Leblon.  This area of Rio is on the beach, West of Ipanema.  My room was on the 23rd floor, facing East to Ipanema, with a stunning view of the lagoon, and the Christos.  For those who haven’t been to Rio, it has these odd little mountains that look like donkey’s ears, covered in greenery, that surround the city. The Christos (which is surprisingly smaller than it looks on TV) sits on one of them, Sugarloaf is another.  Favelas cling higgledy piggledy to the hillsides, alongside beautiful old Portuguese architecture, crumbling churches, and a mix of modern highrises and ugly. 60’s/70’s towerblocks. 

The Botanical Gardens (Jardim Botanico)

If you aren’t happy enough to sit on the beach looking at the beautiful people, there are plenty of other things to do in Rio.  I did the Christo and Sugarloaf last time I was there, so this time I wanted something different. For a haven of tranquility try the botanical gardens, an easy walk from Leblon.  Large and lush, towering palm-lined avenues meander off, ending in gushing Grecian fountains, roman arches, stoic statues, meandering brooks and small waterfalls, a Japanese garden and greenhouses full of bright coloured orchids.  Apart from the odd large group of chattering, giggly schoolchildren, the people who visit here are as much spellbound by the serenity, as for the beauty.  It is No 5 of top attractions in Rio according to Trip Advisor.




The Lagoon

Follow the avenue, left out of the gardens, down to the lagoon.  This is great for joggers, with a circumference of around 9-10km, and with plenty of wading birds to look at, and a statue of an archer on a rock which is pretty, Ipanema to one side and the hills at the back of Copacabana on the other.  You can also get good views of the Christos on a clear day.  You can’t swim in the lagoon – not that you’d want to – it looked pretty disgusting.  There is a bar at one end where you could probably get a decent sunset view, but it looked shut when I was there.  It’s fairly close to some very creepy plastic swans and ducks which I assume are pedalos used when the weather is more conducive to being on the lagoon.


Santa Teres and Parque das Ruinas

Santa Teresa is on the hillside near Lapa, and full of steep cobbled streets, a tram car, a museum and some decent restaurants.  It was once the cultural and artistic centre of Rio, full of huge mansions perched on the precarious cobbled streets, and named after the convent of Santa Teresa which still stands, which was built in the 1700’s. You can also visit the coloured steps (Escadaria Selaron), and Parque das Ruinas, which I would put on a must-see list without hesitation.  At the centre of this cultural site are the remains of a mansion – once the opulent home of a politician and his ward who hosted lavish parties attended by Rio’s artistic and intellectual elite- which has been converted into haven for modern art. Open to the elements – steel, glass and plastic complementing the crumbling bricks, it commands sweeping 360 degree views of nearly all of Rio, and it is free and blissfully empty of jabbering busloads of tourists.  Visit on a clear day, so you can see the tops of the mountains including the Christo, and you won’t be disappointed.  The house has a decent coffee shop on the deck, a photography exhibition underneath, and hosts live concerts. 

If you are walking in Santa Teresa you will need good shoes and be able to climb up and down steep hills.  You can get the Metro to Gloria and hike up the hill which will take about 15-20 mins, but there’s amazing views so you can stop for a justified breather/photo op, or get a taxi if you can find one.  There weren’t many tourists walking around when I was there, and whilst I felt safe if you are there during peak tourist season, you would need to watch your stuff.









Beaches and Restaurants

Leblon is well suited for walks along the beachfront during the day and the late afternoons catching the sun on the roof deck of the hotel by the pool, and the stunning views and sunsets West of Leblon.  Ipanema beach is, in my opinion, a lot nicer than Copacabana.  It is quieter, the sand is whiter and it has lovely views out to little islands dotted off the coast and two donkey eared mountains to the West.  There are always volleyball games and surfers to watch.  People here are really happy.  One thing I noticed this time around is that everyone exercises – it doesn’t matter what shape or age you are.  Walking, running, cycling, skateboarding, or working out among the many free exercise stations (for want of a better word) which line the beach at regular intervals, where you can do sit ups, pull ups and various weights –exercise is a 24/7 activity in Brazil.  After the sun goes down the beach comes alive with bootcamps and runners.  Tanned naked flesh – rippling and rolling in equal measure – is everywhere.  It’s a great place to feel comfortable in your own skin.  In Brazil the body is something to be on display, nobody is self-conscious.  Luckily for the Brazilians even average people are incredibly gorgeous compared to many other cultures, and walking up and down Ipanema you feel the sense of pride and confidence people have in themselves.

Weirdly the beachfronts don’t have many restaurants or shops, and in Leblon – which is a fairly affluent area - you have to go one or two streets back. Like most big cities now there are plenty of chain stores, and in fact Brazil is very expensive.  Even a cheap meal will set you back £8.  Go a little more upmarket, and meals are the same as in a nice restaurant in London.  They add sales tax onto everything so the price you see isn’t the price you pay.  None of the places I ate were amazingly spectacular, but if you are looking for a decent salad there is a good vegetarian restaurant in Leblon on Ferreira Street although I’m not sure of the name – it’s near Rota 66.  Balada Mix does a shitake burger which wasn’t that bad, and they have a fairly varied menu including meat dishes and their Ipanema restaurant has a pretty patio and serves ice cold beer. If you want to eat on the beach itself there are small stalls where you can get burgers, sandwiches and cold drinks, with umbrellas and plastic chairs, and they all stay open really late – you can mingle with locals here and it has more of a ‘getting into the Rio vibe’, plus a fab place to people watch. The back streets throng with people at night, all sitting outside eating and drinking, so you are spoiled for choice – best to ask a local depending on what you like.  Cobacabana has more restaurants facing the beachfront and they all tend to offer the same fare and cater to the tourist trade a little more, and most of the waiters speak English – which is a rarity.  I have encountered very few English speakers so I’ve been limping along with my weak Spanish.






Lapa

The only other suburb went to for dinner was Lapa, which has a New Orleans feel, with shuttered buildings, street graffiti, lots of street music and bars – it’s the hip place to be.  You can get the Metro to Cinelandia, come out of the station and walk straight until you see the Arcos de Lapa – an aqueduct build in 1723 - and go right.  Be careful in this area of Lapa – my friend had a stone thrown at her when we were here for carnival in 2012, and there are a lot of drug addicts. Most of the restaurants and bars are on Mem de Sá. Unfortunately it is not pedestrianised so the street is clogged with smelly cars and buses, which detracts from the ambience and just adds to the noise levels.  I opted for a pizza restaurant on the main drag which was upstairs, which had views of the street.  There is a hugely popular restaurant just as you come under the arches with lots of chairs outside where they serve small plates of food similar to tapas.  It’s hard to get a table outside due to the popularity, but it’s right next to a really busy road and opposite a garage which put me off completely – I don’t like exhausts blowing over my food!

Safety and Traffic!

This is a major drawback with Rio – the traffic is intense all the time. It takes ages to cross roads.  Much like London in 2012, the locals are dreading the Olympics, and there is little in the way of positive buzz or marketing.  Security in Rio is crazy strict, I was thrown out of a bank for answering my phone by a stone faced guard wearing Kevlar who wouldn’t then let me back in and it was the only bank within a long walk where I could withdraw cash using my UK debit card.  You have to put your bag into a locker and have your mobiles scanned. 
I never for one minute thought I was safe, I kept my valuables either locked in the safe in the hotel or close to hand, and I never came out with much cash.  Quite a few people told me that assaults on tourists were very common, which is what we got told during the carnival.  It’s easy to see why Rio residents aren’t looking forward to even more tourists arriving in 2016 – one taxi driver told me that it was bad enough during the World Cup but at least games were spread out.  They are also about to face the hottest summer on record, and there’s a lot of roadworks and building going on in a desperate attempt to get the city ready for the onslaught. 

Safety issues aside, Rio is a fascinating city – easy to explore by bus, Metro or tours.  Just be careful and watch your stuff, but be prepared to get drawn into the beach life and joie de vivre of a vibrant, modern city.