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Photograph by Shannon Stowell

Brazil for the Cultural Adventurer…

City of God is one of the roughest movies I’ve ever seen. It’s a drama about teenagers growing up in the slums of Rio de Janeiro. Before I went to Brazil this was one of the few reference points I had, and though somewhat intrepid as a traveler, I was apprehensive. However, we cannot know a place from one source. It was time to dive in.

A group of nine friends and I started a beautiful coastal drive from Rio de Janeiro in a van—our Brazilian and Venezuelan guides regaling us with stories about the region and what we’d be doing the next few days. Night one found us at Ilha de Toque Toque, an eco-lodge on the coast, just in time for a fabulous dinner by candlelight. The husband-wife team and their lovely children made the luxurious rooms balance well with the feeling that somehow you were at home.

The next morning we left early to get to the town of Paraty, an amazing 17th century Portuguese engineering feat that set the city just right on the tide line so that the incoming and outgoing daily flows cleaned the streets of donkey stuff, garbage, and the like. And the streets are curved just enough so that there’s no clear line of sight all the way down. This was to make it impossible for marauders to fire volleys straight down the street at defenders (ahhhhh pirates—always causing trouble). The town was not reachable by car until the 1950s and retains an ancient feel with its old cobblestones and strict rules governing architecture. Paraty is a pleasure just to see.

Day two found us in sea kayaks, paddling for three hours towards a bay called Saco do Mamanguá. Along the way the guides showed us starfish (by diving down and bringing them back up). As we rounded a point to get to the bay where we’d finish the day’s paddle, we spied five local boys standing on a stretch of sand that had soccer goals on either end. They stared. We stared back. We looked at each other and said “Let’s challenge them!” Someone said, “We’re gonna get our asses kicked!”

And challenge we did. Despite having two Brazilians and a Venezuelan on our team (and one sub), we did end up losing two of these deep-sand games to one win. But we posed appropriately with the boys, with them standing and the losing team (that would be us) all on one knee, laughing at the great exchange we just had.

Back in the kayaks, we paddled through the late afternoon to the beach of Mamangua Ecolodge, a beautiful, quiet eco-resort that can only be reached by human power. The quiet of the cove, the lack of roads or airports made the place absolutely magical, with a green-furred knob of a mountain rising up on the opposite side of the bay.

Time for dinner and, because it’s Brazil, also samba. Five local musicians began playing and our guides directed us through body-moving samba and forro. Most of us went barefoot and enjoyed caiparinhas while the music kept chakka-chakka-ing late into the dark. The resort was lovingly Spartan, with just a single bulb to light your room at night. When the sun goes down and the music stops, it feels right to just drift into the darkness and sleep deeply – especially after getting a good thrashing on the futbol field.

The next two days were spent exploring the area via kayaks, visiting a local artisan who used to fell giant trees and turn them into one-piece canoes. We stood under waterfalls, hiked, and just stared out at sea and up into the green hills that gently shoot up from the bays.

Modern adventure travel can be a broad term, and sometimes a bit of adventure in the city is in order. How can you skip Rio de Janeiro when in proximity? Our guide, Denise, was superb in taking us to the local dance spots. We danced the night away and I was struck by the fact that there was a time that my only image of Rio was from the movie City of God and what a terrifying picture it painted.

Our time in Rio included staying in an art-filled boutique hotel on the top of a hill, where at breakfast on the veranda you watch the helicopters ferrying the ultra rich and important from building to building, drinking in the reality of a city of 18 million people. And the adventure continued in a place called Projeto Morrinho, a place that defies reality and seeks to crush stereotypes. It’s a favela, the dreaded Brazilian slum that no gringo should ever find him or herself inside. Our tour operator had an agreement with the locals who provided us with a resident guide.

He and his friends were all around age 25 and in their early teens. They decided they did not want to pursue the life of violence and crime that so many did around them. So they created a mini city. Like any kids would with Legos, these boys built with bricks, concrete blocks, scrap from construction sites, and yes, even real Legos. They created a world where the violence was real, but only acted out by their player pieces. A role-playing game, as it were, that substituted for real life. And they still play it as young adults. It’s tempting to think that there is a little craziness going on until it dawns on you that this is precisely why this favela is safe. While prostitution, drug deals, murders, and more play out in the miniature, the real-life people have a neighborhood that is so safe there is a hotel for foreigners. It had just opened up, and since it is placed on the steep hillsides of the slum, the view is a million-dollar penthouse view over Rio de Janeiro, all for the equivalent of about US $25/night. And the locals take care of you. We were on our last day, so we couldn’t stay, but it felt welcoming, safe and a little otherworldly…..

Many modern travelers merely skim the surface of a place, a sin of which I’m also guilty. But seeing the Brazil that our guides know and love made the tour an incredible experience. They only took us to places they understood, loved, and had permission to do so—and in the mix allowed spontaneous joy to have its way. It was the perfect mix of friendship, food, adventures—both city and urban—and it drove the love of Brazil deep into us.
Tour operator: Cia Eco