Brazil Continued: Iguazu Falls, Bonito, and the Pantanal

By Shannon Cronyn

With the back and forth between Ubatuba and the mechanic in Sao Paulo, we determined that to keep to our roughly determined travel schedule we needed to head west. The northeast beaches of Brazil will have to wait for another trip! So we turned toward one of the most famous attractions in all of South America, Iguazu Falls.

A couple of days driving and Masi was feeling okay. But nothing had prepared us for the sudden loud clamor from the engine—our alternator belt had been shredded to pieces and we were unable to drive any further. Luckily, we had a couple of spare belts with us and we headed off again. At our next stop we checked the belt and what do you know, it had twisted itself inside out. These things should last at least 50,000 miles so thinking that this new problem was likely due to some error the mechanics made while changing our alternator in Sao Paulo, we tentatively continued hoping the belt would hold. And of course, number two belt shredded about 50 km outside of Foz do Igauçu leading to us struggling in the dark on the side of the highway to put on the third belt of the day. Thus was our arrival to Foz.

We set up at a wonderful campground outside of town very near to the entrance to the falls. The next day was bright and sunny, perfect weather for visiting the falls. Arriving at the entrance felt very much like arriving at Disneyland. Hundreds of people milling around the ticket windows and lining up for the double decker buses that brought visitors into the park. One windy ride later, we disembarked and caught our first glimpse of the falls and those wily coatis—long-tailed relatives of the raccoon who have learned that the hordes of tourists around the falls are a far easier source of food than hunting for it the forest.

First impressions.

First impressions.

Eager to get up close and personal with the falls, we carefully picked our way down the damp mossy path down to the viewing platforms. Now, the falls straddle the border between Brazil and Argentina so there is some debate as to which side is better and most people try and visit both sides. Since we couldn’t afford to waste the space an extra stamp would take in our passports, we settled with seeing only the Brazilian side. And it did not disappoint. I think you get a much more broad, panoramic view of the falls from the Brazilian side and there is still an opportunity to experience the deafening roar of the Devil’s Throat, where nearly half the falls’ flow plunges more the 350 feet into a U-shaped chasm. We went out to the end of the viewing platform and if it hadn’t been for our rain jackets we would have been soaked to the bone. Now wanting to get dry, we headed up and out, past floating butterflies and rainbows shimmering in the waterfalls’ spray.

Still grinning from our experience of the falls, we settled at a table in the restaurant area to eat our packed lunch. Having read that the coatis are extremely aggressive when food is around (pretty graphic posters of coati bites are featured in the park), we hunched around our meal and kept vigilant watch for the sneaky thieves. It was rather a humorous environment—park rangers ran back and forth with brooms hissing and swatting at the coatis while less vigilant tourists screamed when the boldest coatis scrambled onto their tables to grab burgers and fries literally from their hands. I still think they’re pretty cute.

After our visit to the falls, we stopped in at the bird park across the street. What seemed like a gimmicky tourist trap was actually a remarkably wonderful experience. Parque das Aves is well worth a visit to see hundreds of birds, especially the macaw enclosure where hundreds of bright blue, yellow, and red parrots swoop and squawk right above your head. I’ll let the photos sell the place! 

Back at camp we made plans to move to a hostel in town. Our friend Gareth put us in touch with an American guy named Neill who was staying at the hostel while looking for his own VW bus to buy and fit out for traveling. He spoke Portuguese and knew a lot about Kombis we were told. Well, turns out Danny’s Portuguese and knowledge of Kombi engines was better but Neill is a pretty outstanding guy anyway. We had a fun few days hanging at the hostel talking travel and VWs and making some repairs to the alternator pulley (involving a Woodruff key, world’s smallest auto part) so we wouldn’t keep shredding belts. Neill also took us on a field trip to Paraguay! Technically Americans need a visa for Paraguay, but because Ciudad del Este, one of the most popular free trade zones in South America, sits directly across a bridge from Foz, we were able to walk in and out without getting stamped (deliciously dangerous!). This was where Neill was stocking up on all his tools and gear for his van so we took advantage of the trip and bought a cheap inverter so we could charge electronics in the Kombi. We were briefly tempted to stay longer in Foz and build furniture for Masi alongside Neill and his Kombi but we decided to press on. My birthday was coming up after all and we had a couple of weeks of adventure planned to celebrate.

Our first stop after Foz was the small town of Bonito in the southeast part of Mato Grasso do Sul. We had heard amazing things about the area and it absolutely lived up to the hype. Some people might be turned off by the fact that you MUST buy tour packages for all the natural attractions in town ahead of time (they’ll turn you away without a voucher) but we felt that this system was just responsible tourism, ensuring that the beautiful caves and rivers stay pristine for generations to come. We set up our base at a quiet campground outside of town—we were literally the only ones there—and booked up our next few days with excursions. Our first day we drove out to see the Gruta do Lago Azul (the Blue Lake Cave). Since it was late in the day, the cave was pretty dark so the lake wasn't as bright a blue that you see in all the travel brochures. But I love caves and it was cool to hike down into one and imagine what it would be like to swim out into the dark corners of the lake (something we would actually do later in the week in another cave!).

A little dark and grainy but you get the idea. 

A little dark and grainy but you get the idea. 

The following day we woke early for our snorkeling excursion in the Rio da Prata (Silver River). We arrived at the Recanto Ecologico Rio da Prata just in time for the guides to brief our group on the day’s schedule. In a nutshell, put on a wetsuit and snorkel, get in the river, and be amazed by the fish! The Rio da Prata is fed by underwater springs and the water is so full of minerals that it’s one of the most crystal clear rivers in the world. Which makes for excellent fish watching. And there are fish by the hundreds! It was incredible to float down this serene river amidst schools of fish. The amazement just didn't stop. We even spotted a caiman semi-submerged on the bank. He kept to himself though and held still long enough for the whole group to take a look as we swam by. We felt it best not to linger. After about an hour in the water, the clear part of the river meets up with a rather muddy part. Our tour ended there and we returned to the Recanto for a delicious buffet lunch. Our verdict? If you could do only one thing in Bonito, this would be it.

But that didn’t mean we were done. Birthday week adventures continued that afternoon with my first ever ATV ride through muddy jungle trails! Danny and I each got our own (with sturdy helmets of course) and we followed our guide out onto the trail. The couple in front of us preferred to drive at leisurely safari speeds so we had to hang back long enough to give ourselves space to speed through the muddiest bits. That feeling of badassery didn’t last long though—I went too fast into a turn and ended up tipping my ATV over and pinning myself between it and a tree. Those things are heavy! Thanks to my helmet, I came away with just a scratched arm and decided to take it a bit easier the rest of the time.

The next day was to be the grand finale of our Bonito adventures! We were going to fulfill a lifelong dream of mine to abseil down INTO A CAVE! Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve had a weird obsession with caves and cave-like places in general thanks to National Geographic Magazine’s periodic issues on cave systems. Up ‘til now this fascination was fed only by building (awesome) tents at home or scouring the beaches of my childhood for any dark cranny that could conceivably be called a cave. And now, I was actually going to descend into one! And it was going to be HARD, not like those dinky caves with railings and cement that just any old person could explore. How hard, we really had no idea since the training session consisted of ascending and descending a rope from a platform 30 feet above the ground. They made us do it twice to make sure we were fit enough to handle the real thing. Our first suspicion that this so-called training session was less than adequate was when we arrived at the cave entrance. This one was called Abismo Anhumas (the Anhumas ABYSS! EEE!). I’ll pause here to thank my hero of a husband for doing this with me. Bless him, his fear of heights never stops him from doing anything heights-related in the hopes that this type of exposure therapy will work someday. That said, however excited I may have been, he was equally not at all excited and pretty terrified. But he did it for me and I love him for it.

So the ABYSS. We were in line, shifting uncomfortable in our helmets and harnesses. The couple in front of us asked whether we had seen the hole yet. We hadn’t. So we stepped out of line to walk around the viewing platform to behold a giant gash in the side of the mountain with green ferns and other plants spilling over its sides. In the darkness of the opening you could barely make out two abseilers who had begun their descent and were disappearing into the shadows. We got back in line and made small talk with the couple in front of us—Simon and Gaby. He’s British, she’s Brazilian and when we met them were wrapping up their last vacation in Brazil before moving to NYC! These two deserve their own post really but for now I’ll just say that I’m really glad that I struck up a conversation. Since you descend into the cave in pairs, Simon and Gaby went first. Once they were safely at the bottom, it was our turn.

Let’s just say that this rope climbing business was waaaaaay different in the training gym. Now we were dangling over a dark hole, the safety of the bottom 250 feet down the rope. Here goes nothing. Gripping our descenders, we squeezed and gently fed the rope through as instructed. It was a harrowing trip down. We only had the security of the cave walls for the first bit before we were literally hanging in mid air in the cave opening. Danny had his eyes squeezed tightly shut and I coached us slowly deeper into the darkness of the cave. At last we were grabbed by the guides at the bottom who lowered us to the solid ground of the floating dock. Oh yea, there’s a lake down there. A deep ass one that hides incredible stalagmite cones and the bones of unfortunate animals who have unwittingly stumbled to their deaths. Once on the dock, we changed into our swimsuits and wetsuits for the snorkeling portion of the tour. While we waited for the rest of the group to get ready, I took in my surroundings. The cave was vast. What little light made it in through the hole at the top illuminated fantastic mineral formations and shimmered off the water near the dock. But looking deeper into the cave there were only shadows. Now it was time to get in the water. It was cold and eerie. As we swam further out into the cave, the guide illuminated the cones beneath us and I had the feeling of flying. The tallest cones rose nearly 200 feet from the bottom of the cave floor which wasn’t visible despite the guide’s powerful flashlight. He told us later that the deepest part of the cave is nearly 300 feet deep. Back on the dock we changed into dry clothes and got into an inflatable raft to explore the cave from the water’s surface. Drifting slowly into the dark I imagined I was in the Horcrux cave from Harry Potter. The guide took us around the whole cave talking quietly about the formations and different minerals as our eyes strained to appreciate the weird scenery illuminated only briefly by flashlight. 

At last it was time to leave the same way we came in, on the ropes. We had heard that sometimes the wait at the bottom is very long since it can take up to an hour for some people to ascend. We were prepared with cookies and a thermos of hot water for tea. When our turn came we jokingly asked the guides what the record is for getting up. It’s a minute and half they said. Yeah, no. We did it in just over 30 minutes but man what a 30 minutes it was. A sweaty, grunty, whimpery 30 minutes of raising hands above the head and knees to the chest and then standing up. Over and over and over again. At the top we were cheered by Simon and Gaby who invited us for celebratory drinks. We spent a delightful afternoon together drinking entirely too much and sharing stories and promised that we would visit them in NYC. To date, they are settling in in fantastic fashion (thanks largely to our exhaustive email detailing the best of New York City) and we are supes jealous.

From Bonito, we continued north to the southern Pantanal, the wetlands of Brazil and home to myriad creatures including jaguars, caimans, giant otters, capybaras, macaws, and toucans. Once we left the main highway, we skidded through some muddy sections of dirt road to arrive at the Pantanal Jungle Lodge. My birthday week adventures continued with a three-day tour package that included tours by Jeep and by boat to spot animals in the wild. In the first couple of days we saw a lot of capybaras, caimans, and little green parrots. Occasionally a toucan would appear and a British girl in our group would leap to her feet in the back of Jeep shouting “Toucan!” and pointing. She loved them so much and it was delightful. The giant otters were tougher to spot. Hours on the river and we only saw one briefly as she came out from her nest in the reeds to get a better look at our boat. Apparently the locals are more afraid of the giant otters than caimans or piranha because the otters are incredibly territorial and will fiercely defend their nests from intruders.

The jaguars are not to be trifled with either. We didn’t see one but it was just as well since the guide was visibly nervous after finding fresh tracks during one of our hikes. One of the best moments was spotting two blue macaws during our river boat tour. We had resigned ourselves to not seeing them since they tend to hang out in an area only reachable on horseback so we were thrilled to see them in a palm tree as we rounded a bend in the river. Another highlight was eating our freshly caught piranha for dinner one night! Those suckers are super easy to catch—turns out all you need is a little fresh cow heart and you’ll have a meal in minutes. They’re also quite delicious. Side note, we fished those piranha out of the very same river we had swum in earlier that day…the guide didn’t tell us about the piranha until after we were done swimming. He sort of shrugged and said they don’t bite unless you’re literally hemorrhaging blood into the water. In the end the only ones being eaten were the piranhas so I guess it worked out all right.

The Pantanal was a perfect culmination to my birthday week. Still high from our near two-week nature immersion, we rumbled on to the Brazilian border town of Corumba to celebrate the actual night of my birthday and to prepare for our crossing into Bolivia. Spoiler alert, it went really well. Until next time!

Last Tango In Buenos Aires And Our Introduction To Brazilian Beaches...And Portuguese!

By Shannon Cronyn

After the near-insanity we had experienced waiting for repairs in General Acha, our sheer glee at being on the road again was palpable. But there we were, late in the afternoon, General Acha and Juan Manuel ever shrinking in our rearview and our beloved friends awaiting us in Buenos Aires. Normally, we don’t ever choose to drive at night for safety reasons but given the hot hot heat of the summertime Argentinian pampa and the promise of beer and ice cream from Brendan and Bridget, we said, f—k it, let’s drive!

The tension of the first kilometers gradually wore off as Masi rumbled happily along and we let ourselves relax at last. Night fell and with it, a cool breeze and some light rain. As we drove, the sky put on a show for us. Nearly 360° of crackling lightning as far as we could see, illuminating cloud formations and sometimes striking the ground in the distance. We both had never seen anything like it. It was a surreal drive if there ever was one. We diligently stopped every 100 km, giving Masi a rest and keeping our fingers crossed that she’d make it the 700 km to Buenos Aires. At nearly 3am, we pulled wearily into a parking spot outside Brendan and Bridget’s Airbnb that we’d be sharing for a couple of weeks. Hugs, smiles, and excited chatter eventually gave way to happy sleep as we settled onto our air mattress.

This was the second time we had been in Buenos Aires this trip and it was like coming home. Having the time for a place to become familiar is one of the greatest blessings of this trip and BA will forever be one of our favorite cities. Over the next couple of weeks the four of us cooked a lot, made twice-daily trips to the ice cream shop (BA has hands down THE BEST ice cream and they know how to pack a cone ‘til it’s nearly falling over), sweated it out at in a Crossfit class, practiced tango in the living room and went to a couple of milongas (tango dances), took a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu class (Brendan’s first, Bridget and I watched), and attempted, unsuccessfully, to find a climbing gym (about the millionth time in South America that the Internet says something is there when it actually isn’t).  We also got to meet up with our good buddy Gareth again! He and his friend Katie were traveling together and the six of us enjoyed some lazy park days complete with Mölkky and Pimms in a thermos, a drumming/percussion dance party (La Bomba de Tiempo—amazing, don’t miss if you’re in BA), and the subsequent dancing in the street with hundreds of other people.

As the summer days rolled by, we became painfully aware we would have to say goodbye to Brendan and Bridget for the third and final time. They were selling their beloved Pepe to another traveling couple and getting on a plane home to South Africa and then Australia where they’d be setting up their new post-living-in-a-van life. There were more tears of course and promises to meet up again either on their continent or on ours. But first, it was me who had to say goodbye. My sister and her husband just had their first baby, a beautiful girl named Evanna, and I had planned months prior to fly home to Southern California for the birth. She arrived early, little scamp, but the trip had been booked and I was excited to meet my first niece and spend time with my family. Of course Danny and I never learn that we don’t do well apart and it was a heart wrenching goodbye at the bus station. And so for the next two and a half weeks, I was in California and Danny was working hard on a consulting contract in Buenos Aires teaching Latin American marketing execs how to be better at their jobs. It was a bittersweet and difficult period, one that we don’t intend to repeat (even though we do a few months later, told you we never learn). I returned to Buenos Aires at last and we both wanted nothing more than to savor our first moments back together and above all get our butts back on the road. Groceries bought, gas in the tank, and eager to make tracks, we started off, this time to a new country and a new language. Yep—Brazil!

Three long driving days, three gas-station nights, and one smooth border crossing later, we arrived in a small beachside town on the Southern coast of Brazil called Garopaba. The American couple we met at Sergio’s in Trevelin had recommended it to us and after weeks of the dusty Argentinian pampa and the humid summer heat of Buenos Aires, we were thrilled to find a campground where the sound of the waves would lull us to sleep at night. In between sleeping late, strolling the beach, and discovering our first taste of fresh Brazilian sushi and yes, even an American burger joint started by an actual American, Garopaba was exactly what we needed. A few days later we had to get on the road north to meet up with another great friend who would be meeting us in Florianopolis.

It was a short drive from Garopaba to Florianopolis, or Floripa as Brazilians call it. We pulled into the tiny airport and there he was—dapper as ever with his side swept hair and stylish travel duffel, Tall Paul! It was our first friend visit since Sean came to see us in Buenos Aires months ago and we were stoked to show him a good time. We had booked an Airbnb for a week and truly we were all most happy when we were sitting around together, eating, drinking, and playing guitar in the hammocks outside. Gareth and Katie made an appearance as well and there more than a couple nights spent sipping caipirinhas (thank you Gareth!) and singing into the wee hours of the morning. We even had a Disney sing along—it was epic, mainly thanks to my having had more than a half a caipirinha and Paul’s princely singing voice. Floripa also has dozens of stunning beaches so we spent a few days exploring them, most notably Praia Lagoinha do Leste. About 90 minutes of hiking up and down over a mountain and we arrived on a pristine white sand beach that was blessedly devoid of both tourists and touts. It was a perfect day and we didn’t even mind that much that we had to hike back because the fishing boats taking people back to town were full.  We filled our remaining time together with good food, great laughs, and even a bit of skateboard watching (the 80’s empty pool skateboarding trend is alive and well in this part of Brazil). Soon we had to hop in Masi and drive north to Curitiba so Paul could catch his flight home. We spent one night in a two-star hotel in the city center (bad idea, nothing going on except nefarious characters loitering on street corners) and the next morning managed to squeeze in a visit to the lovely botanical garden before heading to the airport. (Shout out to Paul for being so awesome and coming so far to pay us visit. We miss you buddy!)

Then it was just us two again. Still beaming from the adventures of the past week, we stocked up on food and drove a little outside of town to a super tranquil campground where we planned to hole up for a week. Danny had some work to do for consulting clients and actually ended up giving a livestream presentation inside the van during a hailstorm! Ice percussion be damned, he pulled it off because he’s just that good. So it was a productive and relaxing week. Being low season, there was nearly no one there and we spent a couple days swimming in what felt like our own private pool. The only negative (and this didn’t make itself known until weeks later) were these tiny little black flies called borrachudos. Their bites draw blood but don’t start to itch until days later. Not knowing any better, I scratched them. Turns out this makes them a million times worse and I ended up with scaly, weeping patches of skin around all my bites that didn’t go away for weeks. So yeah. Avoid those suckers at all costs and don’t scratch! Danny also noticed that in the dish-cleaning area of the camp, in the ceiling above the sinks, we had an additional friend- the Brazilian Wandering Spider, aka, the most venomous spider in the world. It was scary enough being bigger than the size of your hand, venomous, and striped and furry…but added a next-level horror factor when one night we found a literal trail of blood dripping from its ceiling hole, likely from a frog it killed and dragged up there.

Curitiba is a on a high plateau surrounded by lush green forest that descends to the coast. Our next stop was to drive down the mountain to a tiny beach town called Pontal do Sul to catch a ferry to Ilha do Mel (Honey Island). We had heard this place was a “can’t-miss” in the Curitiba area and we wholeheartedly agree. With Masi safely parked in a campground for a couple days we hoisted our packs and boarded the ferry. Ilha do Mel is 93% nature preserve and no cars are allowed on the island. There are no roads, only a network of sandy trails that wind through lush forest and emerge onto white sand beaches. We were taken by it’s magic as soon as we stepped off the boat. We hadn’t booked anything in advance since there are dozens of pousadas and hostels on the island so we set off to explore and find something we liked. After about an hour of stopping in to places and finding that they were closed for the season (we were there in low season) or much too expensive for what you got (when $10 dollars a night sounds expensive, just imagine the state of affairs), we were directed by a fully booked hotel to check out Pousada de Charme. The moment we walked through the gate we felt like we had entered paradise. The owner Claudio beckoned us enthusiastically in, which was a welcome change from our reception at the other pousadas where we were treated more like intrusive bothers rather than potential customers. This place was beautiful, unique, and obviously pricier than the other options on the island. But after chatting with Claudio for a few minutes we were sold. Sometimes you just have that feeling you know? Turns out Claudio and his wife Vaninha turned their family plot of land into this luxury bed and breakfast a few years back. Their warmth, attention to detail, and fabulous food (made by Vaninha, a Cordon Bleu-trained chef) all add up to an experience that you want to have again and again. At one point Danny and I looked at each other and we both agreed that this was a place that we would happily come back to, hopefully with family and friends. So we settled in to our cozy bungalow (with the most comfortable bed we had slept in since our own in NYC) then were met by Vaninha who brought us our happy hour snack—delicate spring rolls in rice paper and a local fruit sangria in a pitcher. We took it out to the private deck overlooking the beach and sat quietly for a while soaking it all in as the setting sun recast the lighthouse in shades of pink and orange.

The next day we woke to an unbelievable breakfast spread of fresh fruits, yogurt, bread, cheese, and a made to order smoothie and omelette. After breakfast we took a walk along the beach to a Portuguese fort that was finished in 1769 and has since been restored for tourists. The views from the battlements atop the mountain above the fort were also stunning. That afternoon, we asked Claudio and Vaninha if they had any time to talk with us about their life and how they created their bed and breakfast. We told them we’d like to build something similar someday and when we happen across a place that fits our vision or aesthetic we have to know how it came to be. They graciously sat with us for the rest of the day (even missing their boat back to the mainland to keep talking) and told us all about their life and the vision and process for creating Pousada do Charme. We found we agreed with much of what they said and left the conversation feeling full of ideas and energy about the future. As people, Claudio and Vaninha are that rare couple we felt we wanted to emulate, in their passion for life, for each other, and their family. It was a special couple of days and we hope we’ll cross paths again someday.

The next morning we checked out of our room to hike the rest of the island. Our path took us through forest and out onto beach a couple of times until we reached the southern end of the island and the Enchanted Cave. The cave was, well, a cave, though the hike was what made the visit worth it. We had lunch in the second of only two villages on the island and caught the last ferry back to the mainland where we camped for the night. The next day we started off early to our next destination and also the most fun to say…Ubatuba! We’ll pick it up next time with Sao Paulo rush hour traffic and why Brazil is really good at grading their roads. Not.