Category Archives: Travel

Off the gringo trail

by Mark Robertson*

Ocelot, by Ana Cotta/Flickr

All Panamerican guidebooks about Brazil are sold by the gringo must-sees. They’re great. They orient the traveler/vacationer who’s been long awaiting a new place to explore. In Rio: Christ the Redeemer, Sugar Loaf, Copacabana/Ipanema, the MAC in Niterói, and maybe a heli tour.

The gringo-trail is often maligned by more alternative guides and more snobbish indie-travelers. After four years, we’ve learned to LOVE Latin America ON and OFF the gringo trail (OTG). Why? Perhaps because I am so preternaturally good at getting lost – and being lost – I have a lot to say about the latter.

ON the gringo trail:

  • The heavy hitters are popular for a reason.  You can’t go to the great art-deco Cristo and not feel stirred by the immensity of the early 19th century chef d’oeuvre, while gazing upon the stirring geological masterpiece of Guanabara Bay.

OFF the gringo trail:

  • Getting lost. Part of this is sheer talent. Here are five short tales you’ll not find on the trail:

1.   Deep in the Brazilian tropical savanna (cerrado) lies NEX, a wildcat rehabilitation center. From feral jaguars, to an elegant ocelot, to stealthy pumas, to a deceptively cute Geoffroy’s Cat, the felines come from all over Brazil. Each cat comes with his or her own case of abuse or mistreatment; others, like our friends in Hollywood, are just too dysfunctional in their zoo. Here are the stories of two cats I “met”: Continue reading Off the gringo trail

20 best tips if you are visiting or moving to Brazil


Photo by Carol Garcia, Government of Bahia/ Flickr
Photo by Carol Garcia, Government of Bahia/ Flickr

Diving into another culture is an exercise of patience, curiosity and common sense. If you plan to spend some time in another country, there is a certain attitude that will benefit you – and several no-nos that might cause you embarrassment or trouble. Certain rules are, of course, universal and would be wise no matter what country you visit. Others are very specific to the Brazilian reality.

So, these are a few tips that might help you have a smoother stay – be it for one week or the rest of your life:

  1. Forget the cliches – Americans don’t chew gum all the time. French are not smelly. Swiss people are not boring. Of course, sometimes the cliches apply, but fight against the temptation of expecting all Brazilians to be cheerful sexy soccer-lovers. The country’s huge dimensions favor lots of diversity both in landscape/climate/food/music and human types.
  2. “Non falar portugues” – Most Brazilians speak no English, although many will find miraculous ways of communicating with you. In good hotels and restaurants you will probably find people fluent in this and other foreign languages, but you will have trouble in other environments and will certainly miss good opportunities if you don’t prepare yourself. If you are lucky enough to be fluent in any Latin language, especially Spanish, spend a few days with a good phrase book. Don’t be afraid of speaking your meager Portuguese. Brazilians are very forgiving. And I know from personal experience that those who dare speak poorly end up speaking well.
  3. Sign language – A few gestures can go a long way if you cannot speak Portuguese. The basics: To refuse something, wag your index like a puppy tail. To accept, move your chin towards your chest a couple of times. To ask for the check, make eye contact with the waiter and pretend you are writing on the palm of your hand. But, alert: don’t join the tip of your thumb and your index finger as in “OK”. It looks a lot like the gesture for f…you. Learn a few additional gestures with British daily The Guardian.
  4. Don’t be shy – Interact as much as you can. My husband Lenny is a big fan of riding taxis in Brazil, because they give him the opportunity of having one-in-one interaction with drivers, who can be very entertaining. He always comes back to me with new vocabulary. Also, go to padarias and sit by the counter. I always meet friendly people this away. Another big social venue is the seaside. Bikinis and speedos seem to reduce social distance and enhance cheerfulness. Continue reading 20 best tips if you are visiting or moving to Brazil

Belo Horizonte in 1949

The capital of the state of Minas Gerais, unlike the many colonial sites that represent the best of Brazilian Baroque, was planned in the late 19th century. Today, it has around 2.4 million inhabitants, but in 1949 it had only 200 thousand people, as shown in this interesting American documentary (produced to strengthen Brazil-USA relations). It also presents some images of other cities, such as historic Ouro Preto and Itabira, plus a portrait of “capable and enthusiastic” mayor Juscelino Kubitschek, later the country’s president.

Continue reading Belo Horizonte in 1949

10 best nudist beaches in Brazil

Grumari beach
Abricó beach, in Rio. Photo from Wikipedia

Despite its very wide coast, Brazil has few beaches destined to the practice of naturism. In most beaches, you are expected to keep your bathing suit on (and this includes the ladies’  tops). Topless girls are welcome in some places, but that is not universally practiced, accepted or allowed. Technically, it is still illegal to be naked in public in Brazil, but there is a bill waiting for approval in the Senate that might change that.

So, if you like to sunbathe in your birthday suit, you might have to look for the few isolated spots that offer privacy and total freedom for the practice of naturism. Most of them are regulated by local legislation.

Here is the list of official naturist beaches, organized from Northern to Southern states, in case you intend to vacation “au naturel”:

1 – Tambaba – in the city of Conde, state of Paraíba.With white sands and natural pools, it hosted, in 2008, the International Naturist Conference. Continue reading 10 best nudist beaches in Brazil

Brazilian volcanoes

Trindande and Martim Vaz Archipel

If you ask a Brazilian if his country has any volcanoes, he will answer with a very solid no. He will even tell you a very popular joke about that.

Once upon a time, God was showing an angel around the brand new Earth. “This is Indonesia – they will have tsunamis and volcanoes. And this is the US – they will have hurricanes and earthquakes”, he says. The angel points to Brazil: “what about this country?”. God answers that Brazil will have the best weather of the planet, no volcanoes or earthquakes, a real paradise. The angel scratches his halo and asks: “How come everything is so great there?”, to what God answers: “Just wait to see the people I will put there!”

This joke, told whenever a Brazilian is in a self-deprecating mood, reinforces a stereotype that is only partially true. Check the image I chose to open this post. This is Trindade island, a stone wall of volcanic origin off the coast of Espírito Santo state. It’s cliffs are so steep that only crabs and spiders are able to survive there. Many ships that tried to go there sank and the only safe way to reach it is by helicopter. Trindade is the living proof that even if Brazil is safer than the average, it is not 100% immune to natural catastrophes. Continue reading Brazilian volcanoes

Paradise still unexplored

Rio in the Twilight Zone

Brazil is still very far from fulfilling its touristic potential. Despite its 7,500 kilometers (4,300 miles) of coast, the Amazon rainforest, the Iguaçú Falls and the cultural riches, the country attracts less attention than it deserves. Last year, only 6.5 million tourists landed in the country. It is huge, if you remember that this number was a meager 1.5 million in 1990. On the other hand, it is nothing if you compare it to the tourism influx of Spain, a particularly coveted destination but also a much smaller country. Spain attracted 52 million foreigners last year – lower than its average, thanks to the global crisis.

According to the Brazilian Tourism Ministry, last year 5.3 billion dollars were spent by foreign tourists in Brazil. This industry is responsible for at least 2 million jobs, a number that could triple if we include informal jobs plus bars and restaurants. Again, this may look good, but note that Brazilian tourists spent 10.89 billion dollars abroad in 2010. So, we are better exporters than importers of tourism. Continue reading Paradise still unexplored

São Paulo, 456 candles

Favela do Moinho, a downtown shanty town

Happy anniversary, Sampa.

A few pictures to sum up the highs and lows of my hometown. Plus, images produced in 1929 by Rodolfo Lustig and Adalberto Kemeni, when São Paulo, then the coffee capital of the world, was transitioning into a huge industrial and financial hub. It was also the eve of the so-called Revolução de 30, when its  historical alliance with the state of Minas Gerais collapsed, and São Paulo lost a political battle to define who the next president would be. The main outcome of the conflict was the rise of Getúlio Vargas, that commanded the country for most of the following two decades.

Postscript – I did a lot of reflection after receiving Ray’s comment and seeing, at least partially, his point, decided to remove the homeless boy’s pictures from my original post. I appreciate my readers help. This blog is still trying to find its voice and its right tone. Continue reading São Paulo, 456 candles