Travel: Nuts about Brazil
South American journeys
Becky Fiederer returns to Brazil with toddler in tow, for another holiday of a lifetime.
I had been to Brazil before. Backpacking some 12 years ago, and again in 2011, this time with my other half, a native of this mesmerising Latin American country.
The first trip was your usual backpacker's tale: around the world in 12 months, on the tightest of shoestrings, cheap hostels, dodgy bus journeys, colourful characters and stories to tell. The second visit was all romantic walks on the beach, sipping cocktails, sunbathing, and leisurely lie-ins.
This time, with a toddler in tow, it was going to be a different story. At two-and-a-half years old, it was time for Isabella to meet her South-American family - my partner, Luiz, is from Espirito Santo, a state in south-eastern Brazil. Around half the size of Ireland, it's considered a tiny state in his homeland.
With the two-week family adventure set for last month, we decided to show Isabella the delights of Rio de Janeiro for three days before taking the one-hour flight to Vitoria, the capital of Espirito Santo, known for its tropical beaches and mountainous nature preserves - we intended to explore both. From there it's a two-hour drive to Luiz's hometown, Venda Nova do Imigrante, high in the jungly mountains.
But first, the cidade maravilhosa, or marvellous city, as Rio is also known. After a long flight, leaving cold and rainy Dublin behind, we land in 35°C heat at lunchtime in Rio, where March means the end of summer. In the taxi on our way to our hotel, we spy Christ the Redeemer, the Art Deco statue of Jesus on top of Corcovada Mountain - one of the new seven wonders of the world (along with Chichen Itza, the Great Wall of China, Machu Picchu, Petra, the Taj Mahal, and the Colosseum).
It's just one of the iconic sights that take your breath away, even on a second visit, as this is for me - Sugarloaf Mountain and famous beaches like Copacabana and Ipanema are just as stunning.
Our base for three nights is the newest outlet of the cheap and cheerful Ibis hotel chain - Ibis Copacabana Posto 5, located just a five-minute walk from that infamous beach. Modern and spotlessly clean, the family room is small but more than adequate for our short stay. After a sleep - one of the best parts of spending 24/7 with a toddler is that everyone can nap during the day, hurray - we take our long-haul-flight-sore white bodies down to Copacabana beach. It's an onslaught on the senses - the heat, the bustling streets, the half-naked toned Brazilian bodies, the white sand under your feet, the crashing waves, beach sellers flogging everything from sarongs to fresh coconuts and ice-cold beer. We sit back and enjoy the view, hiring two sun loungers and a sun umbrella for around 15 reals (less than €4; the rate is per day). Isabella bravely tips her toes into the warm ocean but gets knocked down by a big wave; so for the next three days she prefers to splash around in a small inflatable pool which we hire for her at the beach (haggled down from €4 to €2.50 for the day; it helps if one of you speaks Portuguese).
Later, we grab an early dinner at Stalos Cafe, a mid-range restaurant on one of the side streets off Copacabana, tempted by the unmistakable BBQ smell of classic Brazilian dishes like churrasco - grilled beef, served with chips, rice, salad and the traditional feijao (black beans) - and picanha, a cut of beef very popular in South America; it's made from the tri-tip (also known as rump-cap or rump cover), and very tender.
Luiz and I go for the picanha - we'd been looking forward to it for months - while Isabella tries her best to get through a huge plate of spaghetti bolognese and an ice-cream; no kids portions available. With a beer, a juice, and water for three, the bill comes to R$140 (€35). Not bad when you're from Ireland, but for many Brazilians, dining out is one of life's luxuries they can no longer afford. Latin America's largest economy is experiencing its worst recession in 25 years, struggling to generate jobs amidst high inflation, weak demand for commodities, and a volatile political climate - the country's first female president, Dilma Rousseff, is this weekend facing impeachment, accused of irregularities in the government budget designed to favour her re-election in 2014. Shortly after we fly back to Ireland, some three million Brazilians take to the streets to call for her removal.
Many Brazilians struggle to get by on the minimum wage of R$880 per month- that's just €210 - and I was shocked at the expense of everyday items; a pack of baby wipes in a pharmacy was R$16 - that's €4, compared to typically €1 to €1.50 in Ireland.
With the Summer Olympics taking place here this August, there has been scandal around the government tearing down houses in the city to make way for stadiums, and security has been stepped up in Rio's popular tourist hotspots after robberies were on the up last year. We notice a big police presence at the beaches - and by police presence I mean groups of armed cops with machine guns.
On day two we wake up refreshed - with a time difference of just three hours, bedtime wasn't too much of a nightmare with the toddler. We take a short taxi ride to another beach just along from Copacabana, Leblon, which has an enclosed children's playground on the sand, known as Baixo Bebê. With the thermometer hitting 38°C by 9.30am, the playground soon proves a bit too hot for Isabella, who cools down again in another inflatable pool and splashes in the warm sea.
On our last evening we walk to Rio's best spot for sunsets, Arpoador, located between Copacabana and Ipanema. Crowds - watched carefully by armed police - gather at the top of the Arpoador rock to watch the sun setting, a rare event on the generally eastward-facing Brazilian coast. The views are stunning and the vibe is relaxed with locals, families and groups of backpackers sitting together.
Back at Copacabana, I sample the Brazilian national drink, caipirinha - cachaca (sugar cane liquor) mixed with sugar, ice, and crushed lime slices. Be warned, more than one could blow your head off.
If you're new to Rio, you must visit Christ the Redeemer and take the cable car up to Sugarloaf Mountain; we had seen both before and didn't fancy dragging a toddler along in the heat.
After another fabulous buffet breakfast in our Ibis hotel, we wave goodbye to Rio and take the short flight to Vitoria, then it's a two-hour car journey to Venda Nova do Imigrante.
Tourism plays an ever-increasing role in Espirito Santo's economy, but most of the visitors are from neighbouring states, rather than foreign countries - so if you decide to visit this part of Brazil, chances are you won't bump into other foreigners, and not many of the locals here speak English.
Along the coast, Guarapari, known for its healing black sand beaches, is a hotspot for visitors - we had a fabulous time on this beach on a previous visit - and inland the big draws are mountain retreats such as Domingos Martins, close to Venda Nova do Imigrante, where we are headed.
The area was mainly colonised by northern Italian immigrants, like Luiz's great-grandparents, and still holds Italian-themed festivals such as the Polenta (maize flour) festival and wine festivals. As I grew up in Germany, I also love to see the traditional German houses and sample the food from my homeland - Germans were among the first colonists to cultivate land away from the coastal zone in this state; the first German settlement, Santa Isabel, was founded in 1844.
During our week's stay with family, we visit the close-by Pedra Azul national park. Pedra Azul means blue rock, and standing at 1,822m, this mountain is very distinctive. Within the park is Fjordland, set up by Norwegian settlers. Surreally, it feels like a piece of Norway in a jungle mountain setting - wooden houses with grass roofs, and beautiful Norwegian Fjord horses.
I recommend doing the horse trek - we had great fun on a child-less previous trip, two hours on horseback taking you to the foot of Pedra Azul. This time round, we enjoy ice-cream and juices at Fjordland's coffee shop, which is very expensive but has stunning views of the mountain, and pet the friendly and well-looked-after horses, to Isabella's delight.
While we miss the beach, Venda Nova has a local outdoor pool and activity centre. It gets crowded at the weekends - Brazilians living in the state's capital Vitoria often head for the mountains, especially to escape the heat in the summer months, when the higher mountain retreats are a few degrees cooler than the sweltering coast.
After a lovely week with the family, where Bella meets umpteen cousins, aunties and uncles, as well as spending precious time with her frail great-grandmother, we spend the last three days by the seaside, in Vitoria, at a friend's apartment complex with a pool.
Vitoria doesn't have much to show from its colonial past; the first thing you notice is the modern industrial port. But the beaches are lovely, the locals, known as capixabas, are warm and friendly, and the city is lively, thanks to its many bars, universities, nightclubs, restaurants and hotels.
The remnants of old Vitoria, built on an island just off the coast, are connected to the mainland via a series of bridges, making a very pretty setting. The coastal cuisine is a big attraction - I love moqueca capixaba, the most famous local dish. Influenced by Native Brazilian cuisine, it's a seafood stew cooked in a traditional clay pan, made with fish, shrimp, crabs, sea crab or lobsters, seasoned with onion, tomatoes, coriander, and chives.
All too soon, two weeks are over and we reluctantly make the long journey back to Ireland. If you are thinking of Brazil for a family holiday, the long-haul flight and the rising prices might put you off - but people are friendly and adore children, the food and the scenery are stunning, and it's a trip everyone in the family is sure to remember.