First Impressions of Rio de Janeiro

It’s been an eventful start to our trip so far! Our plans got sidetracked almost immediately; we were supposed to meet in Rio on Sunday morning, but I arrived in Seattle to a text from Delta informing me my flight into Rio had been delayed by 8 hours. I called customer service and they told me the flight had been rescheduled due to an ash cloud that was approaching Rio from Calbuco volcano in Chile, which has been erupting over the past few days. However, the ash cloud apparently moved out to sea and Emily’s flight on United took off without too much delay. Even my pilot admitted Delta was a little over-cautious canceling a 10 hour flight so far in advance.

As a result, I ended up spending my first night in a hotel in Atlanta and got up early Sunday morning to catch my delayed flight. It definitely could have been worse, but I was annoyed with Delta, who wouldn’t supply hotels to their passengers. When I arrived back at the airport I was surprised to find half of the passengers sleeping on the floors all around the gate. I ended up missing a full day in Rio, but we made the best of it and had a nice dinner outside under the Lapa Arches when I arrived, where we were accompanied by some local musicians. We tried a few Brazilian appetizers, which were all delicious. We had these cassava balls fried with cheese, pumpkin baked with cream, and these meat pastries.

On our first full day in Rio, we decided to go on a walking tour to get acquainted with the city. Rio is absolutely enormous and split into a number of neighborhoods. We were staying near Centro, the oldest part of the city, in Lapa. The Portuguese first arrived in Brazil in 1500 and starting building the city from Centro. Rio de Janeiro literally translates to January River. It’s named because it was “discovered” on January 1st, but it’s a bit of a misnomer because the river the Portuguese were referring to is actually Guanabara Bay (which is also funny because Guanabara means bay in the native language, so the Portuguese accidentally named it “Bay Bay”).

Our tour guide took us all around the city centre, starting at Largo da Carioca, a square near the downtown. We stopped at the famous Confeitaria Colombo bakery for some delicious treats and visited 15th Square, the Imperial Palace, and vibrant Cinelandia, home to the theatro municipal, city hall, and the museum of fine arts. Towards the end of the tour we stopped into Havaianas, Brazils premier flip flop shop, before finishing at Escadaria Selaron, a set of stairs located at the base of Santa Teresa. Rio is located in the mountains and large parts of the city extend up into the hills. The neighborhood of Lapa borders Santa Teresa, which is located along the mountainside near the Corcovado. Escadaria Selaron starts in Lapa and ascends up into Santa Teresa. The steps were made famous by Chilean artist Jorge Selaron, who decorated more than 200 steps with colourful tiles of green, blue, and yellow for the Brazilian flag. The steps are incredible because partway through the project he ran out of money, but instead of asking for grants, he asked for people to donate tiles. The steps are now covered in tiles from all over the world and bring pride to the neighborhood of Santa Teresa.

Escadaria Selaron

Escadaria Selaron

The mountainside neighborhoods are actually an important part of Rio’s class system, which is largely split between the wealthy and the poor. The city originally expanded north from Centro before the wealthy eventually started developing the city in the south zone along the beaches. When slaves were freed in Rio in the mid 1800’s, many of the wealthy kicked them off their properties and with nowhere else to go, they started living in shanty towns up the sides of the mountains. These shanty towns now form Rio’s slums, or favelas, with the exception of Santa Teresa. They’re a defining and important part of the city, but the juxtaposition of the favelas against the beachside resorts really demonstrates Rio’s class disparity.

We had planned to take the tram up the Corcovado to see Christo Redentor in the afternoon, but when we arrived, we were told that it was clouded in at the top. We decided to visit the Jardim Botanico at the base of the mountain instead. Evidently the clouds didn’t stick around too long though because we had a great view of Christo Redentor from the garden. The Jardim was gorgeous and we spent an hour exploring all the different plants and animals we could find (based on its size, I’d call it more of a park than a garden). We saw tons of green macaws flying overhead and a great egret hanging out in the water, but our favourite was a group of tiny little marmosets that we saw jumping around in the trees!

Jardim Botanico

Jardim Botanico

We finished off the day with a huge bowl of Feijoada, Brazil’s national dish. It’s a meat stew cooked with black beans and served with rice. The flavour of the stew was delicious (so was the sausage in the stew), but we were surprised at the huge quantities of meat fat and gristle in the stew, so it wasn’t one of our favourites. Emily’s been eating vegan for the last few months, but she’s taking a break in Brazil. Lucky for me because Brazilians are huge meat lovers!

On our second day we left the city and had a wonderful day hiking in Tijuca National Park, one of Rio’s urban forests. Even though the park is surrounded by Rio, it’s so large that once you enter you feel as though you’ve completely left the city behind. We went into the park with our wonderful guide, Ed, as a party of six. The tour we were doing was called peaks and waterfalls and we started off visiting a few viewpoints and one of the parks many waterfalls. Unfortunately, Rio has been experiencing dryer summers lately and many of the waterfalls have been drying up. Ed was happy that the first waterfall we visited was almost up to it’s normal flow.

We started hiking around 11am and spent about 5 hours in the jungle. We first hiked to Pica da Tijuca, which was thought to be the highest peak in Rio for many years, up until they got GPS and realized that another peak was 6 meters higher. Tijuca is still the most beloved though! We hiked up through the jungle for about 400 meters in elevation until we reached a set of stairs carved into the stone. The steps ascend along the side of the mountain to the peak. They were constructed in the early 1900’s in preparation for a visit from the king of Belgium. The king loved adventure and rock climbing, so they decided to build the steps to show him one of Rio’s best views. However, the king loved rock climbing so much that he was disappointed to see the steps and instead used ropes to climb up the mountainside parallel to the new stairs.

View from the stairs in Tijuca National Park

View from the stairs in Tijuca National Park

We opted to take the steps. It was a pretty steep and scary climb and Ed told us to strictly watch our feet as we went, so when we finally stopped and he told us to turn around, we were privileged to the most amazing view of Rio! We could see the city sprawled out beneath us, with Guanabara bay and the city of Niteroi behind it. We ate our lunch at the top while enjoying the beautiful view. We were literally above the clouds, so the other side of the peak was clouded over when we reached the top. Fortunately, they cleared out just before we left and we had another incredible view of the rolling hills and peaks of Parque da Tijuca, all the way out to the Atlantic Ocean.

After lunch, we hiked down to Tijuco Mirim, the pico’s smaller, but no less impressive, cousin. The rest of the hike took us down around the back of the peak, but we enjoyed it even more than the hike up. The path was much wilder and parts of the trail followed the bare rock of the peak. We saw a few hummingbirds, another marmoset, a snake, and some enormous spiders on the way down. Near the end we stopped at another waterfall; unfortunately it had been reduced to mostly just sprinkles, but it was nice to stand under to cool off.

Hiking down Tijuca Mirim

Hiking down Tijuca Mirim

Even though it’s autumn here, we are finding it pretty hot and humid. But we should count ourselves lucky because we’ve been informed that Rio has two seasons: summer and hell. Temperatures can go into the high 40’s during Rio’s summer. Ed had the perfect surprise for us at the end of the hike, ice cold Antarctica beer, one of Rio’s local beers. A cool beer never tasted so good!

It feels weird to be leaving Rio already since we haven’t done that much yet. We checked out of the hostel this morning and flew to Iguazu Falls for the next few days. I can’t wait to experience the waterfalls tomorrow though and we’ll be back in Rio soon enough!

Unfortunately I wasn’t able to upload any photos to share, but they’ll all make it to Facebook when I get back!

With love from Brazil,


Sister Trip to Brazil

After a slightly overwhelming month that involved a long weekend trip to Ontario, a 10km road race, and studying for and writing my engineering ethics exam, I am ready for a new adventure. So I’m lacing up my hiking boots and strapping on my backpack for my second trip to South America, this time with my sister!

My last trip to South America was to Peru in 2013 and I haven’t been on a trip with Emily since we went to Ireland together in 2011. We make a good travel team because I’m more of a planner/organizer type and she likes to go with the flow, so we balance each other out. The many years of living together have taught us how to tolerate each other’s eccentricities and our sister-sense generally keeps us on the same page. So I’m looking forward to two full weeks with one of my favourite people!

Glendalough, Ireland

Me and Emily in Wicklow County, Ireland

So why Brazil?

I get this question all the time when I tell people I’m going to Brazil and I don’t really have a proper answer for it. To be honest, there are not many countries that I wouldn’t love to visit and Brazil is just one of many on my list. The biggest attraction for me is Iguazu Falls, which I’ve wanted to visit since I read about it in a travel memoir, and Emily is particularly interested in visiting the beautiful city of Rio de Janeiro. We considered a few different countries for our sister trip, but since airfare is usually more expensive from Newfoundland (where Emily is currently living), I let her pick our destination.

Our trip to beautiful Brazil starts this weekend! I’m leaving from Vancouver on Saturday morning and Emily is leaving from St. John’s. It’s a full day of flying, so we’ll both arrive in Rio de Janeiro early on Sunday morning. We have two full weeks of adventure planned and as usual, I invite you to come along! I blogged from the road on my last two trips (California and Peru), and I’m hoping to do the same on this trip. Stay tuned for lots of stories and photos! Before we leave, I just want to fill you in on some of the exciting things we have planned.

I usually don’t like to stay in one city for too long, but Rio offers so many incredible attractions that we decided to set up a home base there instead of wandering around the country like nomads (which is what I usually do). We’re spending a few days in the Lapa neighbourhood of Rio when we arrive and are hoping to see the Christ the Redeemer (Christo Redentor) statue, explore the city centre, and spend a day hiking in Tijuca National Park, Rio’s urban forest.

From there, we’re taking a flight to Foz do Iguacu where we plan on spending a few days visiting Iguazu Falls, one of the seven natural wonders of the world! It’s located right on the border between Brazil and Argentina, so we’re planning to hop across the border to see the waterfall from both perspectives. Like I said, this one has been on my bucket list for a while, so I’m really looking forward to it!

Following Iguazu Falls, we’re flying back to Rio for a few more days, but this time we’re going to focus on seeing the south zone of the city. We’re planning on taking the gondola up Sugarloaf Mountain for some awesome views of the city and spending some time exploring Rio’s premier beaches, Copacabana and Ipanema. We’re actually staying just a few blocks away from Copacabana beach and we’re looking forward to taking it easy.

Our second side-trip is going to be to Ilha Grande. Ilha Grande is an island a few hours drive away from Rio that boasts amazing snorkeling and miles of untouched beaches and wilderness. We’re going to take a bus/boat over to the island and do a little bit of hiking combined with some beach lounging. We’ll probably hop on a boat and check out the snorkeling scene while we’re there as well!

Ilha Grande is the last big part of the trip and we’re finishing off with a few more days in Rio. We haven’t quite decided how we’ll spend the time, but we’re hoping to experience more of the Brazilian culture. We definitely want to check out the samba scene and we’ve got our fingers crossed that the timing might be right to catch a soccer game. Otherwise, we’re looking forward to sipping caipirinha’s on the beach!

Skagit Valley Tulip Festival in Washington

Skagit Valley Tulip Festival in Washington

It’s our first trip togther in a while (unless you count a brief trip to Washington State last year), so mostly I’m just looking forward to spending some quality time with my sister. We’ll see how long she puts up with me!

Talk to you soon!


On the Shores of Lake Titicaca

There’s one last blog that I want to write about Peru. The last big location that we visited was Lake Titicaca. I skipped writing about it in favour of Machu Picchu and the Amazon, but it was a pretty great place to visit as well! Lake Titicaca is located on the southwestern side of Peru and shares a border with Bolivia. Approximately 60% of the lake is in Peru and 40% in Bolivia. It’s the largest lake in the world that’s located at such a high altitude (3800 masl). The lake is really diverse and has some of the most interesting and traditional cultures that we discovered while in Peru.

We stayed in Puno City while we visited the lake, but we did take a 2 day trip out into the lake to visit several of the islands. The section of the lake near Puno is actually really shallow and a lot of reeds grow in the area. In most of the bay surrounding Puno, the water is only 7-8 metres deep! The first island that we visited was one of the Uros Islands, which are actually floating reed islands built by the people that live on them. The islands are formed of a floating base layer and the reeds are layered perpendicular to one another until they are high enough that they are out of the water. The islands are then anchored to the bottom of the lake and the Uros People have to make sure to always add new layers of reeds to the island.

Uros Floating Reed Island

Uros Floating Reed Island

It was incredibly unique and different than anything I’ve ever seen before. The people living on the islands survive mostly on tourism, so we took a boat ride in a reed boat around a few of the islands in order to support their livelihoods. There are still many people who live on the islands, however it is a lot of work to maintain the islands and more and more children are leaving when they grow up. It’s an interesting way to live and it was a bit bizarre to see a lot of modern technology on the island as well. Many of the reed houses had solar panels, which provided them with electricity, and satellite dishes. Although, many of the islands have also been completely abandoned in more recent years.

The second island that we visited was Amantani Island. Amantani is a completely natural island which also survives primarily on tourism. On Amantani, you will not find any hostels, hotels, or restaurants. Amantani is in the business of providing an authentic family experience to tourists. We stayed in Amantani overnight with a local family. Most families have an extra room in their homes for tourists and they cook all their meals. Our host family was really nice and had four children between the ages of 5 and 16. Their second eldest daughter took us around for most of the day since it was a saturday and she wasn’t in school.

Our host family

Our host family harvesting oka in Amantani

We ate a delicious lunch and supper with our host family and spent some time in the afternoon working with them as they harvested oka, a small vegetable that’s very common on the island. Our tour group also went on a short hike in the late afternoon to the top of the island to watch the sun set. It was actually a pretty large island and in order to get to the top we had ascend 400 metres in elevation. This was before our Salkantay hike, so I had a hard time with it of course, but I made it to the top in time to watch the sun set over the Lake!

In the morning we left Amantani behind and visited our third and final island, Taquile. I didn’t find the scenery on Taquile much different than Amantani, but it had one of the most unique cultures. The people who live on Taquile Island are known to be the best weavers. Everyone learns to weave and it is essential to learn to be a good weaver. One of the most important possessions for men in Taquile is their hats. Every boy and man must weave a traditional hat for themselves. The hats all looked the same to me, red on the bottom with some detailed design around it, and pure white on the top with a large colourful tassle. The white part of the hat folds over and can hang down on either side of your head.

Taquille Island

Taquile Island

If you look more closely at the hats though, there’s a lot that you can learn from them. Each hat is actually different, the detailed design on the bottom of each hat tells the history of your family, so if you ever lose your hat, you don’t really need to worry about it because someone is bound to find it and know to return it to you. However, the reason it’s so important to be able to weave a good hat is that a good hat is a symbol of a good, hard worker, whereas a bad hat might indicate that you are not a dedicated or hard worker. So women are on the lookout for men with good hats. It was also interesting to learn that the way a boy or man wears his hat is also very important. Married men have different hats than unmarried men, but it’s important to wear your hat the right way if you’re unmarried. If you wear your hat with the pom in the back, it means you are happily single. If you wear it with the pom on your right, it means you’re in a relationship, whereas if you wear it with the pom on your left, it means you’re looking for love. Definitely an interesting way to share your relationship status….

Traditional hats

Traditional hats in Taquile

Women must also become good weavers as well; one of their most important tasks is weaving a belt for their husband before they are married. Everyone survives on agriculture and pretty much all labour is done manually, so it’s important to have a good belt to protect your back. A woman must weave the first work belt for her husband and it is common for part of the belt to actually be woven using some of her hair. There’s a lot of interesting dynamics with how men and women interact in Taquile and my first thought was that it was a bit dated. For example, women are expected to walk 5 paces behind their husbands if they’re out together. However, our guide talked about how traditional gender roles have been changing and how women have recently started getting involved in island politics and voting.

It was a very interesting culture to learn about, however, as with the Uros Islands, it’s a culture that is quickly dying. Teenagers have less of a desire to continue their parents way of life and are anxious to move to Puno to attend university. This change is only accelerated by tourism, which can be equal parts good and equal parts bad. Tourism certainly supports local livelihoods and provides families with more security and opportunity, but it also introduces a traditional culture to a different way of living. Children are exposed to cameras, ipods, tablets, and phones and are starting to desire a different life. I’m glad we got to learn a little bit about their culture though as I’m sure it will continue to change more and more.

Anyways, I hope you all enjoyed my little mini-series on Peru! I’m not sure what I’ll write about next, I’m hoping to do some traveling around Newfoundland over the summer and might be making a trip up to Ontario. Let me know if there’s anything you’d like to hear about. Hope to see you over the summer!