Before you think my title is a bit below the belt, this makes me a sixty year old female traveller experiencing a truly magnificent and highly recommended travel destination. Most people I had spoken to before I embarked on my 6 month South America adventure that have traversed this continent seem to have left Brazil off their itineraries, why is a mystery to me. Is it because it is such a huge country (the 5th largest in the world) and hence a bit daunting, or maybe because it is the only South American country where Spanish is not the official language?
If you want to fly directly from South Africa (my home country) to South America, your choices are very limited. The only carrier is South African Airways and the only route is Johannesburg – São Paulo. I had not given my onward itinerary much thought, but when looking at a map of the continent I thought it would make sense to work my way from São Paulo across to Rio de Janeiro then head north towards one of my bucket list items – the mighty Amazon. I have a thing about slow boats and what better way to experience this colossal body of water than from the deck of one of the many river boats that ply the waters between Belém and Manaus. In Manaus I was hoping to meet up with a young colleague of mine who was volunteering in the remote Amazonian town of Manicoré.
Except for my first three days accommodation in São Paulo and the e-version of Lonely Planet Brazil on my iPad Kindle app, I had no fixed plans and being a by-the-seat-of-my-pants kinda gal I was trusting that the Universe would guide me and that all would fall into place. And it did.
A Local Experience
Throughout my six weeks in Brazil I used Airbnb for accommodation and without exception I only had positive experiences with the hosts I chose to stay with. Travelling for six months on a pretty tight budget mainly due to a very paltry South African Rand I realized that I would have to accept that I had to settle for a cheaper alternative to hotels, but at my age I also did not feel comfortable with shared accommodation and bathrooms offered in hostels, so Airbnb was the perfect solution.
I have a tale of boundless hospitality and generosity to tell of every single one of my hosts, from showing me São Paulo or Manaus, washing my clothes, accompanying me to difficult to get to points of interest, picking me up from the airport after midnight or taking me to catch a boat at 5 in the morning, dancing forro or sharing their meals with me, the list goes on and on. What a wonderful way to get to know Brazil and its people. I will forever be grateful.
Taking The Bus in Brazil
Furthermore, as a result of my tight budget I decided to try and avoid expensive taxis and test my ability of using public transport and what better way to start than just after landing at São Paulo Guarulos Airport. Isn't it strange that before leaving on my epic trip I had frequent moments of self doubt coupled with butterflies and bouts of insomnia whether I was equipped to navigate my way through the big cities or even smaller towns for that matter without resorting to the more convenient taxi. But the minute I arrived at Guarulos I felt completely in control. I collected my luggage and set forth to conquer São Paulo.
I have never been too proud to ask for directions, and even though we were now in foreign language territory, I was directed to the airport bus terminal, caught a bus into the city (I don't think it was the correct one) but a kind lady on the bus gave me further instructions as to which Metro to take, where to transfer to the next line to eventually get off at Ana Rosa station from where I would walk to my destination, and that with a 20 kg wheelie bag and rucksack on my back.
By this stage it was dark, but I felt more than elated when I arrived safely at my destination, albeit a tad exhausted. I had done it. From there on catching metros and buses in São Paulo was a breeze. And an added bonus I learnt about by chance when wanting to purchase a metro ticket, t(he cashier obviously recognized I was no longer a spring chicken), was that public transport in Brazil is free for anyone 60 or older. Being 60 does have its advantages.
With this feeling of confidence I was now ready to tackle Rio de Janeiro's public transport system. I had caught a very comfortable luxury bus from São Paulo to Rio and had received instructions from my Airbnb host as to which bus to catch from the Rodoviário Novo Rio to Copacabana from where, according to Google Maps it should not be too far to walk. I had arrived at just after 4 in the afternoon, but what I had not allowed for was that I was going smack bang into peak hour traffic, and what had looked like such an easy drive on Google maps eventually took more than 2 hours by which stage it was again pitch dark.
As we approached Copacabana I asked the young lass next to me whether she understood English, which of course she did not, but I nonetheless showed her my Google maps screenshot of where I was heading and pointed out my address on the Ladeira Ary Barroso. I was later to find out that Ladeira in Portuguese is a slope, but although I do not understand the language I did gather that she was telling me that it was steep and taking a look at my luggage there was no way I was walking there.
As luck would have it she was getting off at the same bus stop and indicated that I follow her. She headed for a decrepit white VW van and helped me put my luggage in the back. While we were waiting for the van to fill up there was a joint effort to ascertain where I was actually heading because the directions were obviously very vague. Once the driver had sufficient passengers on board and we had all paid our 2.5B$ we headed up a very steep hill. Aha, now I understood what my young helper was trying to tell me. No one walks up this hill, let alone with luggage.
Anyway, long story short, I was dropped off at a hostel further up the hill from where a kind soul phoned the telephone number that I had on record and I was eventually collected by my Airbnb hostess, Vera, and taken to my lodging. The effort was worth it when Vera showed me the spectacular night view on to Copacabana and the lit up statue of Christ the Redeemer from their roof top terrace.
It was only the next day in the light of day that I realized that I had actually booked my accommodation in the “pacified” favela of Babylonia. But not once in my 6 day stay did I ever feel scared or threatened, even when returning late in the evening.
There was a little motorbike taxi rank at the bottom of the Ladeira and after the first day they got to know me when I gave them my 3B$, swung my leg over the pillion seat and asked to be taken up to “Thiagos”.
Getting Around Brazil
After Rio I had all good intentions of making use of long distance buses between my intended destinations of Salvador, Recife and Belém, but not wanting to schlepp all the way out to the bus terminal to book the bus ticket to Salvador I thought I would use a travel agent in Copacabana recommended by Lonely Planet, and they were astounded that I would want to attempt these long distances by bus and tried hard to convince me to take advantage of a very attractive flight package which would cost me less than 500 US$ if I flew 3 legs. I was eventually swayed when they told me it would take as long as 47 hours to get to Belém from Recife, and although I had time, this was a bit beyond my patience threshold.
My patience levels were tested on two further occasions, both travelling by boat on the mighty Amazon. My Airbnb hostess questioned my decision to take the 5 day boat trip from Belém to Manaus when I could fly there in an hour, but as I had mentioned I have a thing for slow boats, and I had visions of watching life on the river from the hammock I had purchased in Salvador for just this purpose, but in hindsight I was very happy that I had chosen the air conditioned cabin option for an additional 150B$ (about 47US$ – the whole trip came to 500B$)) and specially after our rust bucket had engine failure on day 1, and we ended up tied to a big tree on the edge of the Amazon for a whole 24 hours waiting for the defective part to be repaired at the next town 6 hours away. Thank goodness I had downloaded a tome with the very appropriate title “Brazil” by Erroll Lincoln Uys, a very well researched novel about two Brazilian families spanning the entire history of this country. Even though the trip took longer than expected it met every single one of my bucket list expectations.
From Brazil to Colombia
Manaus is a sprawling city of 2 million inhabitants in the middle of the jungle, only accessible by air or boat and one Trans-Amazonian Highway, so when it came to planning my onward passage to Colombia I decided on the “fast” boat, a 36 hour option on a river taxi instead of a further 7 days up the Solimões River to the border town of Tabatinga from where I would cross over to Leticia in Colombia and then fly to Bogota. Suffice to say that after 36 hours stuck on a seat that became even more uncomfortable by the hour with not much opportunity to stretch ones legs (although I did have the best seat on the boat in row 1), I was very relieved when we eventually docked in Tabatinga.
My Time in Brazil
Reflecting back on my 6 weeks in Brazil in which I really only managed to see a very small portion of this huge country, I can truly say that though I only managed to learn moito obrigado and Bom dia, it is a very easy country to explore for a solo female traveller even at my age. It is probably one of the more expensive destinations on this continent, but although I hate to admit to my age, I did use it to my advantage when asking for discounts on entrance fees and using public transport.
This country blew me away with its hospitality and for anyone contemplating visiting South America, do yourself a favour and put it on your itinerary. I promise you, you will not be disappointed.
About Sybille Essmann
After a sheltered upbringing in the fairest Cape I flew the coop straight out of school and headed to Germany for a gap year (completely unheard of in 1972), which eventually ended after 9 years. During the ensuing years I qualified as a nursing sister, but on my return to South Africa I turned my back on that profession and instead put my knowledge of the German language to good use and worked as a tour guide for three years until marriage put a stop to that. With that came another career change into the world of finance, and for 25 years I advised clients as to how best to invest their hard earned money.
After the end of a 20 year marriage I embraced singledom again and with that a whole new world of travel opened up for me. I explored India, Vietnam and Thailand and in my 59th year decided to throw caution to the wind, reverted back to my maiden name, sold my business, rented out my home and set off a solo 8 month bucket list trip which took me to India, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Malaysian Borneo and Nepal. I have come to the realization that I have a restless soul and that life does not end at 60, and as I enter my 3 score, I will be heading to the vast continent of South America and who knows where to after that. Life is a journey and I would love to share it with you.