My Rough Guide: Brazil - Lunch is served: half a dozen piranha fish in soup
Sunday 11 January 1998
Few places on earth come even close to rivalling the Brazilian Pantanal for its ease of access to wildlife. Bigger than France, the Pantanal is one of the biggest inland swamps in the world. Entering the swamp, cars and buses are frequently forced to stop so that alligators and anacondas can cross the track. Seething with wild mammals, piranas and reptiles, wherever you look, there are streams of flying and wading birds - toucans, parrots, red and even the endangered hyacinth macaws, blue herons and tuiuius.
I don't automatically think of Brazil when the issue of favourite hotels comes up. Even so, some fine beach accommodation, classical mansions in the old cities and very pleasant memories of Amazon riverboat trips, swinging for days in a hammock, spring readily to mind. But more idyllic places exist, like the fazenda (ranch) lodge Arara Azul in the Pantanal swamp. Here you can actually roll out of bed, step through the mosquito net door, get into a boat and catch five or six piranha fish for a delicious lunch time soup prepared by the resident cook, if you ask nicely.
Bargain of the trip
An Amazon boat trip from Manaus, in the heart of the world's biggest forest, to Belem, at the mouth of the planet's largest river, is both brilliant value and a surprisingly luxurious experience. For around pounds 50 you can travel thousands of kilometres through dangerous jungle with all your food and lodging free for four or five days. These days the riverboats are clean, serve OK food, and the toilets aren't any worse than those on some trains.
You can't beat the simple, old fashioned Amazon hammock. From about pounds 6 each, they're made in colourful thick cotton and are strong enough for you to swing around in many of the cheaper Amazon hotels and through several British summers. The best place to buy them is wherever you first happen to hit Brazil's great wilderness, be it in the Amazon or the Mato Grosso.
The first time I went to Brasilia I actually looked forward to the visit. Declared capital of Brazil back in 1960 this is a hell of a bleak city. A hideous example of city planning and incompetent social engineering, Brasilia is not a fun place to visit and no one wants to live here either. The government officials, congressmen and academics forced to work in Brasilia all tend to go home, or to beach resorts hundreds of miles away for the weekend. The boredom of the city non-life and the uniformity of the architecture was described by Simone de Beauvoir, visiting in 1963 as "elegant monotony".
Speaking even a little Portuguese can make a visit to Brazil a more rewarding experience. But inevitably the time will come when, early one morning after a bottle of cashassa and a night of party hopping, you'll want to say "estaou de saco cheio" ("I've had it up to here").
I would recommend treating yourself to a main course of lobster in the upmarket Circulo Militar restaurant which overlooks the Amazon river port at Belem. You can watch everything from ocean-going vessels to tiny canoes paddled by kids through the big windows. The service is good and the whole lobster is superb value for about pounds 4. For seconds I would try another local speciality, the "pudim de capuacu" - an exotic jungle fruit which prepared with a little sugar floods the palate with a tropical taste worth feeling guilty for.
Three airlines operate direct flights from Britain to Brazil, but they don't leave much change from pounds 1,000 return. Cheaper fares are offered on flights that go via Amsterdam, Lisbon, Frankfurt or Brussels.
Buses are amazingly good value in Brazil and both vehicles and roads - outside of Amazonia anyway - are newer and in better condition than most of those in the UK. Riverboats are a smooth and relatively inexpensive form of travel, but largely confined to the Amazon and Pantanal. There are one or two train journeys worth making, but all in the south and Minas Gerais. Given the vast distances between places, however, most visitors are more likely to consider the strategic use of Brazil's excellent domestic flight network.
Dilwyn Jenkins wrote 'The Rough Guide to Brazil'. Keep up with the latest developments in travel by subscribing to the free newsletter 'Rough News', published three times yearly. Write to Rough Guides, IoS offer, 1 Mercer Street, London WC2H 9QJ. A free Rough Guide to the first three subscribers each week.
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