By Danny Cronyn
Sad to be leaving the tranquility of Ilha do Mel and the magical B&B we found there, the road called us onward, further north to another favorite from this trip- Ubatuba. Besides being the most Dr. Seussy-named town we’ve stayed in, it gripped us the moment we made it there- which was not without some retrospective fun on the road.
To get to Ubatuba you must, in most cases, drive through Sao Paolo and hopefully not during rush hour. Sao Paolo being a city of 13 million people, and massive in relative size, navigating the outer rings and making it through during morning rush hour is no small feat. As this was Brazil, there were touts selling their wares (selfie sticks and sugar snacks) in the congested morning traffic. The driving wasn’t extraordinarily dangerous, just wicked hectic and luckily we merely glanced off the behemoth and were not going straight into Sao Paolo’s belly just yet.
The road opened up to us as we pressed on north and east past Sao Paolo and onto Ubatuba on the coast. We found a great roadside kilo buffet (dear god we miss kilo buffets) with rice, black beans, fish, hot sauce, sushi…ermagerd so good. We stopped there three times on our way back and forth from Ubatuba, it was that good. Rolling hills on the two-lane highways gave way to more rural one-lane roads and finally to what we call the Ubatuba death road, that descended almost vertically straight down along the cliffs to the pristine beaches below. Imagine a road graded at about 45 degrees, with tight switchbacks every 30-50 meters that were all 180s. The decline + switchback combo was too much for ‘ol Masi as I had to bank, then coast into neutral and brake Brake BRAKE while turning the non-power-steering wheel 180 degrees and pump the gas to avoid stalling the engine. Even with my unparalleled driving skills (9 out of 10 dentists agree), Masi would stall out and I’d have to jump start her again on the fly as coasted down this hair-raising slope. Eventually we made it down, only to find out from locals that everyone avoids this road and there’s a much nicer coastal road (think highway 1 or coastal highway, for west and east coasters) that could’ve taken us into town without the tax on our nerves and brake pads.
But it was all worth it, in the end. In Ubatuba, a sleepy beach town in the off season and a hot spot for Paulistas (Sao Paulo peeps) in the high season, we found yet another home away from home. We navigated to a camping/hostal spot we found on iOverlander that had great reviews, and was conveniently located right across from the beach. Welcoming us into his home at Golfinho Tropical, was our soon-to-be friend Daryl. The main double-door, rustic blue entrance opened up into a courtyard filled with stone mosaics done by Daryl himself, surfboards for visitors to borrow, tiny grassy knolls, beach cruisers, and most cutely a few wildish guineau pigs and bunny rabbits. This being coastal Brazil, the entire bottom floor of the house was built with an open floor plan so it felt like one big family room, with folks watching the impeachment process of Dilma (crazy times!) in the family room, chess being played on the dining room table, and us cooking in the kitchen. Daryl and his wife Denise (pronounced Dee-neeZ-ee because it’s Portuguese) were of South African and Brazilian heritage, respectively. Both their kids, Josh and Jordan spoke with funny Saffa accents in English (isss it?) and in perfect Portuguese- such a great mix and more proof how small and beautiful the world is. We loved Golfinho Tropical, Daryl and Denise and the family right away. We camped out back in their gravely yard, with maracuya vines hanging off the walls and almost complete silence since we were the only ones camped there our entire time (the hostal was busy every weekend though).
“A few days” turned into a few weeks pretty quickly. Breakfast in the morning, followed by a bit of work and lazing about, with a jaunt to one of Ubatuba’s scores of white sand and remote beaches in the afternoon. Some days I helped Daryl out with construction projects around the house, or his wordpress site, then would work out with their oldest on the beach once the sun set. We’d be invited for drinks across the street at a beach bar, to go to a local night fishing hole (Shannon caught a monster fish that fed us all that evening!) with the entire family, or to take their youngest as our fishing tour guide around town…where we first encountered the slippery and poisonous “bagre” fish. We’ll never forget the kindness and fun times of Ubatuba, and we know it wouldn’t have measured at all without our family there, or Denise’s great stories in the morning over pots and pots of coffee. We know one day we’ll be back (well…we did go back only weeks later) once we have a family of our own, just to see them again.
I can’t recommend Ubatuba highly enough, remote beaches within reach with cold beer always waiting for you, good food in town, awesome hikes, and some spectacular people. This was also the first place we saw all-you-can eat sushi places that had different prices for men vs. women. Sexist? By definition, yes, but I mean that’s just funny.
Unfortunately and also fortunately, we had to leave Ubatuba so that we could make our way back to Sao Paolo and catch a flight back to Miami for a work contract. We’d be seeing some friends and my parents there, for the first time in nearly a year, and flying business class to do it- so life was pretty good despite having to leave our beach paradise. We had a hot tip on a friendly hostel where we may be able to leave Masi for a few weeks while we were away, so we navigated to the Sampa Hostel in the Vila Madalena in Sao Paolo. Quick note on driving in SP, just don’t do it if you can avoid it.
Sao Paolo (henceforth referred to as “SP” for pure laziness reasons) was developed from old coffee farms, which (shout out to all my coffee farmer readers) are normally built into stepped and steep hills because of coffee bean growth things and stuff. I don’t know, I’m just trying to say SP is hilly as all get-out in places, and when you’re driving a heavy metal box with an underpowered engine and gear box that jumps out of first- it’s not very much fun at all. We finally found the hostel after much ado, and were glad to be welcomed in as new friends by the friendly owner Deborah and another soon-to-be buddy, Gonçalo. We parked up Masi, grabbed huge beers and settled into the friendly backpacker vibe there. We got some great hints from Gonçalo on local spots (chief among them- Coffee Lab in Vila Madalena, sweet jesus that was great coffee), museums (the afro-brasilian museum was amazing- did you know Brazil “imported” 4x the number of slaves the USA did?), and neighborhood music and drinking spots. A few short days there and we were already hooked- we loved Sao Paolo. We’d be back soon, but had a flight to Miami to catch!
Landing in the States was amazing after so much time away on the road, speaking Spanish and Portuguese. But well, this was Miami…so there was still much Spanish being spoken, so we didn’t feel too far away from the road behind us. I got my first haircut in 18 months (just a little trim), had my crap beard coiffed a bit, and even bought some new professional shirts for my work engagement. After the work was done, just four days and we stayed in a super nice five star the entire time, we got to meet up with an old co-worker and friend, Lisa, that had recently relocated to Miami with her husband and newborn. Was great seeing Lisa doing so well, and a special treat for us to just sit for hours and chat over brunch and at her apartment’s palatial pool. We did have to leave though, when our friends from NYC interrupted by actually showing up.
Friends Drew and Roger from NYC flew in just to see us for our short stint. We had a stinky Airbnb in South Beach (the armpit of the armpit of Miami), which worked out just fine as we’re all a bunch of mutants when we’re together. What I did not know though, was that Drew orchestrated a weekend full of other friends that would surprise us that same day, and help us be glad that we were leaving them all- too much partying for us road folk. Shout out to Randy, Sarah, Gio, and Simon for all coming down and making us regret being even loosely considered friends with you. Luckily, we had to leave them because my parents were picking us up to go to a relaxing Key West weekend.
Was excellent seeing my folks, despite feeling severely under the weather, and spending a weekend in Jimmy Buffetland. We rented a cosy AirBnB in Big Pine Key, with our own yard and herd of Key Deer- little cute guys that will bum rush your yard if you leave the gate open (which we did one night and had to herd them all out). We had relaxing meals, drinks out on the town, wine on our porch, long talks, and even did a sunset cruise where we saw a couple propose and got to tell my folks that we’re planning on moving back to Baltimore when we get back. Sorry if anyone didn’t know, but them’s the breaks- we’re Baltimore bound! All in all, most excellent to see them, and heartbreaking to say goodbye as we ventured back to SP. Luckily I have rad ass parents and they’ll be making another visit but in South America next time.
Back to SP, another leg of my work contract and probably the nicest hotel we’ve ever stayed in (the Emiliano), and back to get Masi from the garage we left her in for some “minor” repairs, like replacing the bushings and changing a steering rod. Turns out, none of this was done even remotely correct and leaving the garage we basically turned right back around to have them re-do all the expensive work that was just (reportedly) finished. Ugh.
In chapter two of this post, we finally make it out of SP and speed (very slowly) toward the Pantanal and Bolivian border.