Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Belem and Ilha de Algodoal

When I was in Venezuela I thought that instead of going back to Colombia and following all the other Gringos up into Central America, maybe I should keep going east. It seemed more interesting cos no backpackers go that way. I then did some research into the three Guianas (Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana) but they don't do themselves any tourism favours. First, they are all a massive pain the arse to get to and second, they are really expensive. But the more I looked into them the more intrigued I became and the more I wanted to go.

One of the easiest--and I use the term loosely--ways of getting there from Venezuela is to go to Manaus and then take a boat to Belem and/ or another boat to Macapa and then road transport to French Guiana. However, spending >5 days on boring boats, sleeping in a hammock surrounded by about 200 Brazilians also sleeping in hammocks did not appeal to me AT ALL. Boats plus hammocks are right up there with camping and overnight buses in terms of things I hate sleeping in/on. 

This is a standard boat between Manaus and Belem. Hammocks bascially go where you can find a space. It's first in best dressed.

The common arguments among travel bloggers for taking the boat are 1) cost savings. It's pretty cheap considering you get transport and accommodation and sometimes (bad) food all in the one relatively low price. 2) And probably more important (or at least that's how travellers seem to justify all the that time it takes), is you get to experience "Amazon life" and learn how these river communities live and operate. 

Whatever. I've coped this long not knowing.

Thankfully I met an Aussie guy who told me that Suriname Airways flies from Belem to Cayenne in French Guiana several times a week now. Flying from Manaus to Belem to Cayenne sounded like a much better way to make the Guianas happen, even though it would blow my budget completely. But sometimes you need to suck it up and take the financial hit to avoid the trauma of being trapped on a crappy boat!

TAM has two flights a day to Belem from Manaus. A business oriented one at 6am, and another more tourist friendly one at around 3pm. If I’d been more organised in Venezuela, I would have booked the 3pm flight, but now it wasn’t available and that meant getting up at 4am to make the early flight. Joy. But at least I wasn't getting up early for work like all the other poor suckers on the flight. Plus there was free internet at the airport, which is always nice.

Flying over the Amazon was interesting. The river is really wide in places and you can see the destruction of the jungle too along the rivers.

Here is a terrible photo out of the window showing some deforestation.


Belem is an interesting place. I didn't know this til later, but it's actually quite dangerous and features in numerous "top 10 most dangerous cities" lists. I didn't get that feeling from it at all. There is one area down by the market that feels a bit dodgy and I wouldn't go there at night, but everywhere else seemed fine. I walked around heaps and never felt like I was on the verge of being robbed or killed like the internet suggests.

I think these vultures scared me more than people did!

Potential crime and bird issues aside, I think the architecture here is really interesting. Like Manaus, a lot of buildings were constructed during the rubber boom but then became run down. Now there appears to be an urban renewal process going on, cos some look recently restored and really nice.


Then you've got others that look like this. A lot of them actually.

Then you've got mixed ones as well.

One of the unique features here is (bathroom?) tiles on the outside. I like it. In the terraced housing photos, tiles rather than paint give the buildings their colour.

Belem also has a fantastic vegan restaurant, Mae Natureza. I had lunch here everyday cos it was so good. Despite being a por kilo buffet, both the hot and cold items vary each day. It also offers fresh juices and green smoothies and awesome vegan desserts. If you're in Belem, just go there. You won't be disappointed. It also has the best vegan empanadas I’ve had so far in South America. It's a big call I know, but I’ve eaten a lot of them this year so I know what I’m talking about.

While I had great food, the accommodation was average. There's only one hostel so it costs twice as much (R$48) as hostels everywhere else in Brazil since it has no competition. If you really want cheap, there are three hotels which are about half the price. But I physically went and looked at them and trust me, you don’t want to stay in any of them. 

Apart from the price, I also didn't like that someone stole my food from this hostel. I went to make a juice one afternoon and half my pineapple was gone as was part of my dinner I’d bought from Mae Natureza. I was not happy. My fruit ratio was all off in my juice and seriously, who steals someone's lentils? Clearly this is not a communal food! Grr!

I also didn't like that the Pope was in Brazil when I was. There were far too many Catholics wandering around unsupervised for my liking. For example, a bunch of Germans had come over for World Youth Day and to see the Pope and had found their way to this hostel. Instead of going to a church, they decided to take over the top floor lounge for their bible studies one night. This made me and the other non-religious guests very uncomfortable. The hostel should have shut that inappropriate behaviour down! There’s a time and a place eople, and hostels are not it. 

One afternoon I went to Rodrigues Alves Woods. It is an urban park that is basically a mini version of the Amazon Jungle, but in Belem. Why pay hundreds of dollars for a Jungle Tour when you can pay R$2 entry (or R$4.20 including the bus fare) and see all the same stuff? 

Although you can hear the traffic so maybe it's not quite the same. 

Love those jungle trees. 


They also had a bunch of animals in cages and ponds. Some child threw some processed sugar food into a pond and this cool guy came up to investigate. He didn't eat it. Wise.


I like these toucans.

And this blue macaw (I think) is beautiful.

Too bad they live in cages though.

Lots of turtles!

There are also monkeys and some other birds commonly found in the Amazon. I don't know if these animals were rescued and can't be released or just captured and put in cages since everything is in Portuguese. I hope it's the former but suspect it's the latter.

Not far from the hostel is this church with a park that attracts hundreds of small green parrots every evening. I read they start coming in a 5pm to roost, but clearly they are on South American time cos I went at five they didn’t actually get there until six. Then they flew into two big mango trees to apparently chat about their days with their friends. They had a lot to say cos they were very noisy!

Then they do laps of this building before settling down in this tree (which they've stripped bare in places) for the night. 

The sounds are quite amazing since there are so many of them. (Semi) interesting fact: they mate for life. Seems unnecessary.

While I was enjoying the musical performance this woman arrived. I'm not sure if she forgot she had rollers in her hair or she just didn't care.

This is the church. It was built during the rubber boom. I have to say it’s pretty nice especially on the inside. However, a service was going on when I wandered in, so I didn’t take any photos.

Ilha de Algodoal

While researching things to do in Belem, I came across Algodoal Island, a couple of hours away. I really wanted to get out of the hostel in Belem and see something else besides the city. You need to take an early bus to Maruda then a boat. The times for both (so you don't miss the ferry) are here. It's also a good idea to buy your bus tickets the day before you want to travel if you don't want to risk standing for the entire journey.

The internet says the bus takes four hours. The guy at the bus station said it takes three. The internet was right, although if it didn’t stop every five minutes then it probably would only take three. I also think there should a rule that if you live within 5km of the bus station, then you should have to go to the bus station. Stopping 200m up the road after spending 15 minutes in a bus station is bullshit. 

Once out in the countryside, the wealth decreases significantly and you feel like you’re in mainstream South America again. People are walking or cycling on the freeway, there’s rubbish everywhere and places just have a poorer feel to them.

Pretty much everyone has a satellite tv dish with a coke bottle stuck on it. I'm intrigued how that improves reception.

There are also people selling prawns out the front of their houses all the way along but they are not kept on ice. I don't understand how is possible to eat them (not that I would. Gross.) and not get sick? I'm guessing the literal meaning of Aussie expression "off like a bucket of prawns in the sun" does not translate into Portuguese?

Un-iced prawns in the left container.

Back to Algodoal, the ferry is a quite far from the Maruda bus terminal so you basically need a taxi unless you speak Portuguese and can work how to get there and how long the walk would take. Even then, I wouldn't risk missing the boat cos Maruda didn't look that interesting. 

Before I got out of the cab a crazy man started talking to me through the window. Then I bought a juice and he wanted me to sit down with him. I don't even bother with Spanish at times like this. In English, I’m like “No I'm not sitting with you and I don’t speak Portuguese so you’re wasting your time mate”. This time it worked and he left me alone. Sometimes speaking English backfires and they get even more excited, especially if they know a few words.

Near the ferry, I saw a fruit and veg stand and wandered over to it to buy some veggies for dinner tomorrow night (since nothing is open on a Sunday) and emergency food for the island. Pineapples are so good in South America, I can’t stop eating them. I bought one here and ate the whole thing in two sittings later that day. It was so much acid on my tongue it swelled up massively and bled. But it was totally worth it.

I thought the ferry was due to arrive at 2.30pm since that’s what the sign says but then all the guys were trying it usher me onto the boat. I’m like "why, it’s another half hour?" and they are like, “no, no, now”. It was literally pulling out as I jumped on. Still, that was good cos it meant I didn’t have to try and avoid the crazy man again.

Maruda shoreline.

The ferry takes forty minutes. It was the middle of the day and therefore the sun was beating down. The sand was really hot and there are no cars here so you have to walk or take a horse and cart. 

I felt sorry for the horses though so I walked. Plus I didn't have a reservation so I needed to find something. This pousada was the first one I got to and it has a pool. They said it was R$50 ($25) for an ensuite room with fan. That is only $1 more than the rip-off hostel in Belem. Sold! 

Five minutes later I was in the pool. Why didn’t I just go to the beach? Cos I hate going to the beach in the middle of the day. It’s too hot, the sand’s too hot and there’s no shade anywhere so you just get really burnt regardless of how much sunblock you put on. Beaches are for mornings and afternoons. The pool had some shade, which I liked.

When I got out I had a good go at eating that pineapple from earlier. Then I had a siesta, which lasted about four hours. I didn’t realise how tired I was! Although I’m not surprised, since I had very little sleep in Belem because the hostel's air conditioning was far too cold at night for a flimsy sheet, and because of Brazilian women. 

Ok it's rant time.

Brazil is the only country I’ve been in where there are more Brazilians staying in hostels than foreigners. It makes sense. They have a big country with lots to offer and they have money now compared to say 20 years ago so they can afford to travel. Plus they know how things work and speak the language making domestic travel easy. However, they are worst dorm mates ever! They are really noisy and they come in turning the lights on and off throughout the night. No one else does this. Generally people in dorms are quite considerate of people sleeping and will try to be quiet and use a headlamp or torch so they don’t need to switch the light on unless it's really necessary. I don’t know why Brazilian women are the complete opposite. (I haven't shared enough rooms with Brazilian guys to see if they are the same). Plus because they stay up all night, they fucking sleep all day meaning you're then trying to be quiet during the day and keep the light off or curtains closed when you’re getting ready. It’s very frustrating and probably the thing I hate most about being in (female only) dorms in Brazil. And I don’t hate the Brazilians at all, but they bloody well need some lessons in dorm etiquette

End of rant.

After my siesta I went for a walk around the town. It is very small and seems to comprise mostly of pousadas and bars/ restaurants and the beach. The sun was starting to set and it was not so hot now, so walking around was really nice.

Since I had food with me I just ate that for dinner. I was hungry at around 6pm but none of the restaurants seemed to be open so I couldn't buy anything. I’m guessing 6pm is way too early for Brazilians to eat since they like to party hard all night. Being the only non-Brazilian on the island I went to bed early and had the best night’s sleep I’d had in ages. I was not freezing from ridiculous air conditioning, there was no noise (except the fan), and people weren’t constantly turning the lights on and off. As an added bonus, nothing was biting me. I am sick of being food for mozzies/ midges/ sand flies/ fleas/ any other blood sucking creatures (not vampires) over here. For the first time in ages, I went bite free. It was bliss.

The next morning I got up at 6.15am and decided to walk to Princess Beach, voted one of the most beautiful beaches in the world a few years ago. At this time of the day, dogs rule the town. 

This can’t be good.

And this just looks uncomfortable.

You need to pay a guy to row you across a river/ swamp bit is cos you can’t get across otherwise. It costs R$1 so it’s fine. Although if you walk closer to the beach itself, you can walk across if the tide is out. Or you can swim across like this dog.

Then you walk 
around the corner, and voila, Princess Beach. I was expecting to be blown away by its beauty. However, they have built bars and restaurants all up the beach. I think it’s now one of the world's most beautiful beaches ruined by people.

Still, at 7am it was really quite a beautiful place to be. No one was there and I did 30 minutes of beach yoga while watching the sunrise. Some guy walked past to open up his restaurant and gave me the strangest look, like he'd never seen someone doing yoga before.

Then I walked around the point to the next beach. I’m guessing this is what Princess Beach used to look like before the island got electricity (which was not that long ago I believe) and development took over.

Then I went for a swim. The advantage of being here very early on a Sunday morning is you can leave your stuff on the beach (I had a camera, my watch and R$9) and there’s no one around to steal it. The water was beautiful. Really warm so you could stay in for ages, and because it's so early, you're unlikely to get burnt (although I did have sunblock on). And there are all these little fish that swim around you. They are so weird. They have big bug eyes and they look like they swim with their heads out of the water. They just glide along the surface.

Speaking of fish, I don’t know why there are loads of dead ones along the beach.

At 8.30am families started arriving and my 1.5 hours of solitude were over. I headed back to the pousada for breakfast.

By the time I got back, it was starting to get really hot. So after breakfast I went straight into the pool to prove that parents are liars when they say “you can’t go swimming after eating or you’ll drown”. I am pleased to announce that I survived! Plus this pool had the strongest jets I’ve ever encountered. I think I gave myself a free neck, shoulder and back massage for about an hour. It was awesome.

Sadly at around midday it was time to leave and head back to Belem. It took five hours to get back due to political demonstrations on the outskirts of Belem and some flash flooding that screwed up traffic massively. Glad I bought my return ticket yesterday. That's a long time to stand.

I was sitting next to some woman who had a kid on her lap the whole way. At one point, he leaned over me threw rubbish out the bus window. Despite all the rubbish everywhere in South America, it still shocks me when I when I see people littering without giving it a second thought.

Anyway, that was my time in Brazil. Despite coming back primarily as a stepping stone to get to the Guianas, it was nice exploring the Amazon region. I'm also especially glad I found out about, and visited Algodoal. That island was SO relaxing.

Next stop: French Guiana. Oh la la!