Wednesday, February 29, 2012

2012, 19th – 29th February: Mérida, Venezuela

2012, 19th – 29th February: Mérida, Venezuela

My second ten days or so in Venezuela were spent in Mérida as well as on excursions which used Mérida as a base. Mérida is located in an Andean valley in the south-west of the country. Since the city is at an elevation of 1600 metres (5250 feet) it is cooler than many other places in Venezuela which gives a welcome break from the heat. Interestingly, the height of the highest mountain in the UK (Ben Nevis in Scotland) is less than this at only 1344 metres (4409 feet). Height-wise, British mountains are mere ´bumps´ compared to the peaks in the mighty Andes range, with even Andean cities at a greater elevation.

For a full set of photos, use the following link to the corresponding set in my Flickr account:

When Ivo, Marije and me arrived in Mérida, speaking to locals revealed that the even though the city is one of the country´s hotspots for celebrating the Carnival weekend in Venezuela, it does not have the colourful street parades seen in, for example, Brazil. It is apparently a rather rowdy and drunken affair. So we decided to give all that a miss and head on a four day guided excursion to Los Llanos the next morning.

Los Llanos: 20th – 23rd February

The tour was led by our guide Pedro and we were joined by a Brazilian traveler Thiago.  Los Llanos (meaning flat land) is located to the east of the Andes. It is a vast flat area of grazing land, wetlands and waterways. To get to the Los Llanos area we drove across the Andes on Routa Transandina via the mountain pass at Laguna Macubají at a height of 3400 metres (11,155 feet). During the descent the other side, the scrubby vegetation at higher altitudes gradually gave way to lush forest as we passed through the Páramo area. Once we left the Andes behind near the city of Barinas the heat and humidity that one normally associates with Venezuela returned. The switch in conditions brought about by the change in altitude achieved in an hour or so of driving was remarkable.

Towards the end of the dry season (now), the vast wetland areas have fewer places still containing water, which concentrates the wildlife into these few spots. This meant that the amount of creatures easily visible throughout our time there was incredible. We saw caimáns (like very small crocodiles), capivaras (like a very large guinea pigs), anacondas (large snakes that live in swamps and kill their prey by crushing them), an ant eater, piraña fish, turtles, dolphins, vultures, egrets and other birds.

The plains are grazed by a type of cattle that was brought over from India in the 1960´s. These cattle are more able to withstand the hot conditions and have a pronounced lump on their backs behind the neck. This stores fat which helps them to get through any times when food is scarce.

We stayed in accommodation provided by a farm located between Quintero and Mantecal near the town of Bruzual. Activities included a boat safari, a jeep safari, riding on horses, fishing, looking for anacondas and a night safari to look for ant eaters. During the middle of the day (12 to 3pm) we rested as it was so hot and humid it sapped one´s energy.

The boat safari delivered creature after creature along the banks of the river (caimáns, capivaras, turtles and numerous birds). We stopped on the banks of a deep section where dolphins were present and did a spot of fishing for piranhas. This involved attaching a chunk of red meat to a hook on the end of a line – no rod required, then pulling hard when they bit. If one trailed the bait through the shallows, it was surrounded by tiny fish (which feed by biting then twisting their bodies to rip off the meat) – and the bait was consumed in a moment. With all those teeth around, swimming in the river was not advised, as any small cut would send all the fish into a biting frenzy. The fish we caught one day made a delicious addition to the evening meal. 



Piraña for Dinner Tonight

During the jeep safari we drove past the many waterways formed in the large ditches dug many years agoto drain grazing land and to provide earth for the elevated tracks required to travel in the area. We saw more caimáns and capivaras, storks, herons, egrets, coro coras (a bright red bird like an egret), many types of vultures and javirús (very large birds that stand about one and a half metres high – though they are still able to fly).

Our guide Pedro and some helpers from the farm searched swamps for anacondas. We found a female near the bank. She had about ten males wrapped around her nether regions – all hoping to be the one who´s genes were passed onto the next generation. The vast difference in size between male and female anacondas was very apparent (the males are much smaller). It was possible for the (quick and brave) experts to separate one of the males and hold him up for us to see before gently releasing him.

Female Anaconda with Many Males Wrapped Around Her

During the night safari as well as seeing more caimáns (Pedro briefly captured then released one to allow us to see it closely while he explained it´s features), we were lucky enough to see a large ant eater at relatively close range before it ran off. Ant eaters are nighttime creatures and can be difficult to find – hence the use of a search light on the roof of the jeep.

The wide plains of Los Llanos were a good example of man and nature living well together. They were also a peaceful place to be – especially with the daily colourful sunrises and sunsets.

A Late Afternoon Los Llanos Skyline

A Los Llanos Sunset

Los Nevados: 24th – 26th February

In the mountain areas above Mérida are many villages and small towns. The village of Los Nevados (nevados meaning ´snowed on´) at an altitude of 2700 metres (8858 feet) is a picturesque setting for the start of a trek made by me and a guide Jarrett. Jarrett is from Seattle in the USA but has lived in Mérida for some time. He is a well-informed man, so we had many great discussions where we ´put the world to rights´.

The journey from Mérida to Los Nevados was a treat itself. It was made in a jeep as the road soon turned from a tarmac affair into a dusty track, which on many occasions was only just wide enough for the jeep with a steep drop on one side and a rock wall on the other (´hats off´ to the driver).

The posada Herez in Los Nevados had commanding views of the valley of Rio El Morro which we walked down to on the first afternoon.

The Village Los Nevados

Early the next morning we set off to climb up to a pass / col called Alto la Cruz which is at an altitude of 4250 metres (13,944 feet). On the climb up we saw the shrub called Frailejon, which has long soft leaves which have medicinal properties. It grows very slowly, taking around 40 years to reach a height of around two feet. It is particular to this part of South America and only grows above a certain altitude.

Climbing to Alto la Cruz

At the pass we met Pedro in who´s house we would spend the night. We walked down to his house which is at an altitude of 3340 metres (10,958 feet). This elevated position meant that even though we were in Venezuela, the night was very cold (the ground was hard with frost early the next morning). As the accommodation was very basic I was glad to have brought cold weather clothes with me on this trek (justifying lugging them all through hot and sunny Uruguay, Paraguay, Brazil and north-west Venezuela).

Early the next morning, the clouds that had obscured the peaks the previous afternoon had cleared and there were beautiful vistas of Pico Bolívar (Venezuela´s highest peak at 5007 metres (16,427 feet)) and the valley below. We descended to finish our trek in the valley near the village of Mucunutan (at a similar altitude to Mérida) and on the way down there was a noticeable change in vegetation through the warmer lower altitudes, with increasingly lush forest full of ferns.

Early Morning Vista from Pedro´s House with Pico Bolívar in the Background

Early Morning View from Pedro´s House

Journeying from Venezuela to Colombia: 28th & 29th February

Even before embarking on this journey, I had a feeling it would supply a degree of irritation and it sure did. It involved a bus from Mérida to San Cristóbal, another bus to the Venezuelan border town of San Antonio, then a walk across the bridge across the river that divides the two countries and another bus to Cúcuta in Colombia.

The theoretically feasible plan was to do the above and continue to Pamplona (Colombia) another couple of hours further on from Cúcuta (Colombia) - all in one day. Alas, buses on this continent do not always work out as expected. The first bus left Mérida (Venezuela) at 7am, not 6am as I thought. Add to that an hours delay waiting for an accident further up the road to be cleared, plus an overly long refreshment break and random roadworks all meant that I got to San Cristóbal (Venezuela) more than three hours later than expected. If the Lonely Planet guide book was to be believed, I would then reach San Antonio (Venezuelan border town) after the office to buy the exit voucher from would be shut (though in hindsight that information is probably out of date), plus I would cross the border bridge in the dark. I decided to grab a hotel bed near the bus terminal in San Cristóbal - hotel, dump, streets in area, dump. Rip-off merchants everywhere, noise, fumes (Venezuelan fumes are hardcore as all vehicles run rich all the time - try adjusting the carburettor fuel needle for crying out loud).

The next morning I got out of the place as quick as possible and made the border crossing ok - a memorable one walking across the long bridge between the two border posts. After getting ripped-off by a ´taxi´ driver (who upped the stated fare substantially halfway through the journey) - my fault for using an unofficial taxi, I arrived at Cúcuta bus terminal. Another highly unpleasant place - absolutely full of touts and rip-off merchants, a constant barage of the snakes trying to get their teeth into you. Got out of their as soon as possible on a bus to Pamplona. A two hour climb into the low slopes of the Andes to arrive in a very pleasant town. Another bonus is that people here actually engage with you and listen to what you (with an English accent) are trying to say unlike, sadly, many people in Venezuela, though please note that I did meet many nice people while in that country.

Monday, February 27, 2012

2012, 8th – 18th February: Puerto Colombia, Chichirivichi & Coro, Venezuela

2012, 8th – 18th February: Puerto Colombia, Chichirivichi & Coro, Venezuela

My first ten days in Venezuela were spent along the Caribbean coast in the north west of the country, visiting the small coastal towns of Puerto Colombia and Chichirivichi as well as the city of Coro.

For the photos covering this period of my travels, use the following link to Flickr:

Puerto Colombia: 8th – 11th February

I flew into the capital, Caracas, but given the widespread reputation the city has for crime and violence (even amongst Venezuelans), I elected to steer well clear and arranged an airport pick-up straight to Puerto Colombia. Being a peaceful and picturesque colonial town three hours west of the city it is a world away from Caracas.

Puerto Colombia is on the north coast of Parque Nacional Henri Pittier which includes mountains and beaches. The nearby palm tree-lined beaches are visually stunning because they have the rich blue Caribbean Sea on one side, with the land rising immediately to forest covered mountains on the other – though such a steeply rising land mass does make for some turbulent wave forms, so the beaches are not the best for swimming.

Playa Grande Near Puerto Colombia

I was lucky to meet some great people in the Posada - Stefan and Martina from Sweden and Maria from Germany. I ended up hanging out with them in Puerto Colombia as well as Chichirivichi.

My time in Puerto Colombia was spent on the nearby Playa (beach) Grande, on a boat trip to nearby Playa Valle Seco, and on a walk up a nearby mountain to an abandoned hotel where there were great views down to Puerto Colombia and neighbouring Choroni.

Chichirivichi: 12th – 14th February

Chichirivichi is a small coastal town close to Parque Nacional Morrocoy, a beautiful area of numerous islands, islets, cays and mangrove-lined bays.  With my new friends we spent our days making excursions by fast launch out to many coastal highlights which included Cayo Peraza, Cayo Sombrero, Golfete de Cuare and Cayo Pescadores (where ´cayo´ means small island). The Chicirivichi quay side was awash with men hustling for business on their different launches, so some haggling was required to achieve a reasonable price.

While speeding around the coastal area on the launch or walking on the beaches of the islands we visited, I was presented with a stunning array of colours, from crystal clear water in the shallows over white sands, through aquamarine hues and darker blues over rocks and the deeps. The vistas were completed by more blues in the skies and bordered by mangroves and palms.

Beach on Cayo Sombrero, Parque Nacional Morrocoy

Suffice to say the sea was wonderfully warm and days were passed swimming, resting in the shade of palm trees and wondering which island to visit the next day. The seas were not as rich in sea life as other places in the Caribbean, but there were a range of fish to spot and even a cay with starfish.

Starfish in Parque Nacional Morrocoy

Coro: 15th – 18th February

Coro is a city close to Peninsula de Paraguaná in the north west of the country. While it has a colonial area it cannot claim to be a visual jewel. After all the beautiful dunes I saw in Brazil and the stunning beaches of the Henri Pittier and Morrocy national parks in Venezuela as well as other beaches in Brazil, the coastal areas near to Coro struggled to compete with my visual memories from earlier travels.  A visit to the beach at Adicora on Peninsula de Paraguaná was only a place for a good swimming workout – ah, it seems like I have been spoilt by stunning beaches elsewhere during my travels as I´m getting picky! So some of my most memorable Coro moments were hanging out and cooking with more great people in a pleasant posada and a street parade at the start of Carnival weekend.

Maria from Germany continued travelling with me and just before leaving Chichivirichi we hooked up with Ivo and Marije from Holland and Nando and Fabienne from Switzerland. We all stayed in the same posada. We all wanted a break from the typical fayre found in many Venezuelan eateries which can lean towards the stodgy side of possibilities, which along with regular frying of food leaves one feeling in need of dishes centred on fruit and vegetables. So we all chipped in and ate healthily and heartily for three days.

Tim & Friends Enjoying ´Home-Cooked´ Food

My final few days in Coro coincided with the start of the Carnival weekend (celebrated throughout South America). One day there was a large street parade which was predominantly for children. Each of the numerous groups had their own themed costumes and many had a percussive band accompanying them. The enthusiasm of the people made for some great photos.

Coro Carnival Exuberance

Coro Carnival Rhythms

Coro Carnival Costume

Venezuelan Food Experiences (So Far)

It is fair to say that Venezuelans like it doughy and fried which likely explains the large number of spare tyres walking around. One food I like is a breakfast item called an arepa. It is a flat circular patty made of maize flour and cooked with a little oil on a hot plate. It is sliced open and filled with many possibilities including shredded beef or chicken or fish. It is funny that if you buy a cheese one, it automatically comes with ham in addition to the cheese (though the ham is not mentioned) – vegetarianism…what on earth is that?!

Venezuelan Currency

One can obtain the Venezuelan currency (Bolivares – abbreviated to Bs) one of two ways; from the banks or from other sources. If you go for the latter, you will achieve an exchange rate that is nearly twice (yes twice) as good, which would almost half the cost of your time in the country.

As a Bolivare is not really worth that much, you end up feeling like a money lender with the amount of notes that end up in your wallet. Also, with the rate at which you dish out twenties when journeying around on buses or shopping for food you think that you´re blowing the budget, but then you remind yourself that 20 Bs is not a lot of money (about £1.80 with exchange rate from other sources).

Venezuelan Petrol Prices

If you are a fellow European, the petrol prices in Venezuela will ´do your head in´. During my time in the country, the cost was a little under 0.1 Bs per litre. When I first saw this price displayed on a pump I had to re-do the sums in my head again and again because I could not believe what I was seeing. To put this price in context, here are some related currency conversions (as of mid-February 2012):

Official exchange rate (at banks etc):  £1.00 = Bs 6.8
Exchange rate from other sources: £1.00 = Bs 11

Petrol price in Venezuela based upon official rate:  1.5 pence per litre
Based upon other exchange rate:  0.9 pence per litre.

So we´re talking in the realms of 1 pence per litre !!!!!

Let us now relate this to the current crude oil price, which is $103 per barrel on WTI basis and $120 per barrel for Brent crude. Using a conservative rate of $100 per barrel this gives $0.63 (£0.40) per litre for crude.

Crude oil will have to have all the other fractions and gunk refined out of it before it becomes petrol. Once this is done, it will be worth a lot more. So when refined petrol is being sold for less than one fortieth of the price of crude, it is clear that President Hugo Chávez is effectively giving it away (maybe to win votes from the less affluent). The 0.1 Bs charged per litre is likely just the markup charged by the petrol station to cover their operating costs.

As a closing remark to sum it all up; so far the cheapest mineral water I have found is Bs 15 for 5 litres (Bs 3 per litre), so petrol at the pump is nominally 30 times cheaper than mineral water in Venezuela!

Venezuelan Cars & Trucks – Fuel Economy

Why might a great many Venezuelans care about the price of petrol? Because what many of them drive drinks the stuff. Around a third of the cars and trucks in Coro are a big lump of metal with an old boat engine in it – not quite, but that´s an indication of the engineering prowess. Most of these metallic hunks are cars from 1960´s, 70´s and 80´s United States of America. When brand new I doubt these metal monoliths on wheels were getting more than 20 miles per gallon, and now in Venezuela in 2012 probably around 6. They all run rich, making for a soupy atmosphere at road junctions. The knackered state of many of them is entertaining, but really, if you´re only paying 1 pence per litre you´re not going to be too bothered if the fuel gauge drops like a whore´s drawers.

Metal Monolith on Wheels in Coro

Venezuelan Cars & Trucks – Sound Systems

It seems that in Venezuela, as a man your wheels and your sound system are right up there as factors in determining where you are in the pecking order. If you have the money to buy a set of wheels other than the hunks of metal on wheels mentioned above, then your next priority is the sound system – it must be loud and coloured lights are even better.

Then it´s off to park at the local hang-out place with your boot open and the bass bins jumping to draw all those pretty women with your pop-samba and latino-pop-funk.

Venezuelan Buses – Sound Systems

I get the impression that the local Venezuelan buses are owned by collectives, so they treat them as a personal possession – as such the stereo system is an important accessory.  As a minimum, the panel above the windscreen will be full of tweeters and bass cones. There will also most likely be a pair of hi-fi speakers near the back on the luggage rack and the real men also have a sub-woofer somewhere on the bus too.

Venezuelan Bus Sound System (Speakers on Panel Above Windscreen)

The ticket collector is that plus a DJ and journeys are spent listening to all his bouncing sounds – sometimes it´s really loud. A suited English gent with his newspaper would probably spontaneously combust with indignation in such an environment.

2012, 29th January – 7th February: São Luis, Belém & São Paulo, Brazil

2012, 29th January – 7th February: São Luis, Belém & São Paulo, Brazil

My final days in Brazil were spent in the cities of São Luis, Belém and São Paulo.

For the photos covering this period of my travels, use the following link to Flickr:

São Luis: 29th & 30th January

On my route from Barreirinhas to Belém, I stopped for one night in São Luis. I stayed in the colonial centre. The city did not capture me. The historic area has some character, but the exteriors of many of the buildings are in need of renovation, which takes the edge off the charm of the place. Away from the historic area and into the commercial centre there is little that grabbed my attention.

Belém: 31st January – 2nd February

The mighty Amazon is an iconic world river, so as part of my Brazilian travels I wanted to at least got a feel for the river systems that drain the vast swathe of Brazil. However, I did not fancy a week travelling upstream in a hammock on a (reportedly) very mucky boat to Manaus. So for me, while Belém is not actually on the Amazon river itself, it is close and Belém´s rivers (such as Rio Guamá) offered me an appreciation of a very similar river environment.

The hot and humid city of Belém is bordered by Rio Guamá close to where this river meets Rio Pará. The mouth of the Amazon river is to the north east, the other side of the large island Ilha de Marajó. One day, rather than take one of the very expensive tourist boat trips on the river, I took a public ferry across Rio Guamá to Araparí and back. The importance of river transport in the area was very apparent, with numerous ferries as well as a car transporter and even a floating petrol station. Even though Rio Guamá is small compared to the Amazon (but then most rivers are), it is very wide with dense vegetation along all its banks.

Port at Cidade Velha (Old City) in Belém

The city of Belém starts from the Cidade Velha (Old City) near to the port, which has many historic buildings, a fort, many old churches (Cathedral da Sé is particularly beautiful inside) as well as the bustling Ver-o-Peso market. The streets of nearby Comércio (commercial district) have a chaotic mix of stores, with plenty of hustle and bustle.  After this, the Nazaré district (where my hostel was) is more relaxing with tree-lined avenues.

One afternoon  I took a tour of the Theatro (theatre) da Paz which is very ornate inside. It was built in the 19th Century in the rich days of the rubber boom. The benefactors wanted to emulate the style of European buildings and splashed-out on ornate woodwork, stonework and decorative features.

Central Light in Theatro da Paz, Belém

On my last full day in Belém I went on a canoeing excursion - joining two men from Israel (Guy and Geva) that I met in the hostel. We paddled on a ´small´ river to the north of the city and enjoyed exploring it´s small tributaries. All the banks were lined with mangrove trees and the mud at its edges was home to countless crabs. We finished with a swim in the river and a delicious lunch of local fish. When back in Belém, an açai smoothie was the order of the day. Açai is a berry-like purple Amazonian fruit which tastes more like blueberry than raspberry. It is very popular in Brazil and the smoothies are normally made with something less sharp such as banana or guaraná (another Amazonian fruit) to make the smoothie less tart.

Tim & Friends Canoeing on River North of Belém

São Paulo: 3rd to 7th February

I wanted to travel from Brazil to Venezuela by plane, but my research showed the only way to make the route from Belém to Caracas was to change in a major city. One of the options was to change in São Paulo, which gave me the perfect excuse to stop there a few days and visit my new-found friends Sergio and Mariangela who live there. I met Sergio while travelling in Argentina, while Mariangela is a friend-of-a-friend back home.

I stayed at Sergio´s home with his girlfriend Leomar. Sergio was very kind and arranged some social events for me to join. His very amiable friends made for some fun times, including a party at Sergio´s house with many home-made pizzas (even chocolate and banana or strawberry – obviously without tomato) and a sing-along session with one of his friends on guitar and yours truly on a improvised bongo (old plastic drum).

Sergio, Leomar, Mariangela and friends strengthened the opinion that I had already formed while in Brazil – that Brazilians are nice people.

Mariangela, Tim & Sergio

Saturday, February 11, 2012

2012, 22nd - 28th January: Barreirinhas & Lençois Maranheses, Maranhão, Brazil

2012, 22nd - 28th January: Barreirinhas & Lençois Maranheses, Maranhão, Brazil

I am sad to say that the number of photos available for this exciting part of my travels is rather limited. This is because a computer virus on a PC in an internet café corrupted some of the files on my SD card. Unfortunately, the best photos taken during my time in the centre of the national park (which were the most spectacular and beautiful) are lost.

Those photos that survived can be found by following this link to my Flickr account.

You will see a big chronological gap in the photos, which is the result of the missing files that were corrupted. Hopefully, my descriptions of the places and sights go some way to recreating the images.

The small town of Barreirinhas in the state of Maranhão lies 3-4 hours east of the city of São Luis. Barreirinhas is a convenient base for starting treks in the national park Lençois Maranheses - a vast complex of sand dunes that runs parallel to the coast from Rio Preguiças in the east to Rio Allegro in the west. The national park is known for the numerous water pools that form in the depressions between the dunes after the rainy seasons. Though during my time there all but a handful of pools were dry. While this did mean that the trek was much hotter (no pools to cool off in), it did mean that progress was not impeded by having to wade through the many pools which would be a feature of any trek made in the months after the heavy rains. I made a fourday guided trek (fifth day getting back to Barreirinhas) through the national park. With my guide Alisson we walked between remote settlements where we stayed each night. Two of these were on the edge of the dunes, but two were located in 'oases' in the middle of the vast expanse of sand. I use the term oases because the dunes are not a desert as they do receive heavy seasonal rains, however, during the dry months when virtually all the water pools are dried up it feels like a desert with the settlements the only places where water can be found (via wells).

Day 1: Lagoa Azul to Canto do Atins

We accessed the national park by joining a party of tourists who were being driven by jeep to a pool at the edge of the park called Lagoa Azul (one of te few pools that is present during the dry seasons). The jeep journeyed along sandy tracks as well as making a short river crossing on a tiny flat ferry.

I foolishly brought my hike boots with me which then ended up being an unnecessary weight in my rucksack for five days. As I found out; wearing footwear on the dunes is a little pointless as it would just fill up with sand, so I started my first bare footed trek - see discussion on footwear later in this blog entry.

The colours of the dunes were somewhat subdued on the first day as it rained for much of the time. Being close to the edge of the national park on this route, there was more vegetation present than towards the centre - though it was still sparse. So around some of the dried-up pools there were bushes bearing the odd tiny fruit to nibble on.

The walk to Copo do Atins was fairly short at 4 to 5 hours. The settlement of around eleven dwellings is located close to the shore in the north east of the national park. We stayed in a small pousada who provided a great evening meal of locally caught shrimp, rice, beans and farofa.

The Shore at Copo do Atins

Day 2: Copo do Atins to Baixo Grande

This day was the toughest as it was the longest and the hottest. The walk started by following the beach, before heading away from the coast towards Baixo Grande which is located close to the centre of the national park. Once away from the cooling effect of being close to the sea and as the time approached the hottest part of the day (midday till two), the feeling of walking in a desert-like environment was very apparent. My three litres of water was nowhere near enough for the journey.

As we headed away from the shore, the physical environment gradually changed from relatively flat expanses of sand with some scrubby grasses to progressively larger sand dunes with virtually no vegetation. As the sun moved higher in the sky, the colours of the sand became whiter in its glare. In such a vast area where winds can progress unimpeded, there was a nearly constant breeze or wind which did provide some relief from the sun and ensure that the temperature of the sand was not too hot to walk on in bare feet. In the midst of the wide expanse of hot white dunes I could imagine that a few more hours isolated in such a place would lead to an advancing lethargy and a stumbling progression to a hot stupor full of imaginings of water - 'just give me some water......'.

The Flat Area of Sand Close to the Shore

When descending the large dunes on their leeward sides I sank to halfway up my shins in the soft sand - a good example of why bare feet is best. This sand was sheltered from the cooling effect of the wind and in bare feet it felt really hot - ouch.

As one would expect, the windward side of the dunes have a gradual slope while the leeward faces fall away steeply. It is on the windward sides and tops of the dunes where the wind carves its magic. As well as all the wave-like ripples that are always present, there are also patches of grains of different densities and colours (browns and charcoals contrasting with the bulk whites and creams). These are distributed into long arcs that form patterns and lines of darker sand 'drawn' onto the vast expanses of pale sand. Sometimes the effects of previous rain showers form the sand into harder patches where the light and dark grains form beautiful sculptured lines, full of peaks and arcs woven into patterns that have recurring features but which are never wholly repeated.

A Large Dried-Up Water Pool in a Depression Between Dunes

Some of the depressions between the dunes had damp earth at the base (a remnant of the dried-up water pools) - enough to support a scattering of rough grasses. I think that the constant shifting of the sands by the winds means that places where pools once resided long enough to nourish a substantial shrub are now a dry pit. As a result, I sometimes came across the blackened stumps of long-dead trees, which provided a striking juxtaposition of colours against the pale dunes.

The Desert-Like Environment On Top of a Vast Dune

We reached the 'oasis' of Baixe Grande at around 2pm. It was a relief because the full heat of the day was scorching and my water had run out. Baixe Grande is a large expanse of shrubs with some palm trees. A handful of families live there which must make for a pretty tough life as it is unsupported by roads or tracks (such features would quickly be buried by sand). After arriving and downing a lot of water, I was asked by the host whether I would like chicken for my evening meal later. I said yes, so shortly after the yard was minus one chicken. The Rio Negro does pass close by the settlement, but it was completely dry when I was there, so all the water was drawn from a well and the shower was just a bucket held above one's head.

After resting away from the afternoon heat, in the evening Alisson and me climbed back onto the dunes near the settlement to see the effects of the low sun, which after having it's light scattered by some sporadic clouds, cast beautiful blue and grey hues over the expanses of sand.

Day 3: Baixe Grande to Geimada dos Britos

A short day of only about three hours walking - the duration was dictated by the distance between the two 'oases' of Baixe Grande and Geimada dos Britos, with the latter being the next place we stayed. At one point I came across some natural sand sculptures, where the wind had carved the sand into shapes that one might expect to see on a potter´s wheel - cylinders with wave-like circumferences.

It was nice to finish the days walking before the heat of the day really kicked-in, and the afternoon was spent in the shade of the roofs of our host's homestead just snoozing and reading. In the late afternoon Alisson and me climbed the dunes near to the 'oasis' and I marvelled at the natural beauty of the place. In the low sunlight, the dunes took on a yellow hue which softened the appearance of their various surfaces. The low light added shade and form to the dunes, casting them into relief and sharpening their edges in pleasing offset straight and diagonal lines. All this was against a backdrop of a rich blue sky. Some black dead tree stumps in one depression helped one to fix a point in space in the midst of such a transient landscape.

Day 4: Geimada dos Britos to Betania

The day's trekking started with the traverse of more dunes, followed by a period walking through scrub land at the edge of the national park. To avoid the peak intensity of the sun we took a long lunch break in the home of a family with father, mother and six children living in a small simple building. They provided coconut water (drunk straight from the coconut) and a lunch of fish, rice and beans. After lunch I passed some time reading a novel on my 'Kindle' (electronic book). For a time I was absorbed in the story unaware of that a group of onlookers had formed behind me. The father and children were fascinated by the e-book.

During our onward walk through the scrub land we were accompanied by the two eldest sons on their bicycles. One of them kindly kept me supplied with various small fruits picked from the bushes along the way. The last part of the day's walk was in the pleasant late afternoon light and was once again across dunes - many of them impressively high, making for fun descents. Some local men happened to be making the same route - but on bicycles. Seeing the guys pedalling across such an unreal landscape tickled my humour and resulted in some entertaining photos.

The finale of the day saw us reach Rio Allegro which was at a low enough level for us to wade across. In the village of Betania we slept in a local bar - an alfresco affair with just a roof covering. A nearby offshoot of the river afforded a refreshing swim. Betania was the first place in four days that was connected to the electrical grid.

Looking Down to Rio Allegro

Day 5: Britania to Santos Amaro

 This day was mainly concerned with getting back to the town of Barreirinhas. A short three hour walk was all that was required to get from Betania to Santos Amaro where we would take transport back to Barreirinhas. The infrastructure of Santos Amaro struck me as a little strange because while there were some paved roads in the centre of the small town, there are no paved roads connecting it to the 'outside world'. In fact, to get from Santos Amaro to the main road where we could then take further transport back to Barreirinhas, we had to spend two hours travelling 'offroad' by jeep along sandy tracks. The difficulty of readily transporting goods along such a prohibitively slow route likely explains why when I ordered a pizza for lunch in a bar in the town I was told that they could not make me one because 'there is no cheese in Santos Amaro' - i.e. the whole town had run out.

The Dwellings

The buildings in the dunes such as those in Baixe Grande and Geimada dos Britos are simple constructions - just concrete screed as a floor, then trunks of small trees for vertical supports and roof members, with the roof covered with palm leaves - though I did spot some polythene sheeting in the roof so palm leaves are not that good! Sometimes the walls are left open to the breeze, otherwise they are made of thin branches. If you want a fence around the building to keep the chickens and pigs out, then some thin wooden steaks suffice.

I considered that in such a climate where it is never cold, with the worst it throws at you being some heavy seasonal rains, one can easily survive in a very simply constructed dwelling - a far cry from the homes of us British mortgage slaves. If you really want some electricity, you can start-up the generator (if you have one), otherwise you sleep when it gets dark and get up when it is light. Seeing such 'cheaply built' homes, I reflected that the cost of living associated with your home is like the cost of building and operating an aeroplane. The faster you want to fly, the bigger engines you need, but the bigger the engines needs more fuel and you must have wider wings to lift this extra fuel. But then you need a bigger engines still to provide enough thrust to power the bigger plane, for which you need more fuel and so on and so on. In the modern city, the grander your house and the more possessions within it, the more money is required to fuel it all. At the outset you want to go faster, but then you end up running all the time just to keep up enough speed to stop it all falling out of the sky. Seeing people live quite happily on very little (in the analogy, flying a much smaller, slower plane) made me stop to reflect on what one really needs to survive. That said; after such right-on ramblings, such an existence would not work for me back home for two distinct reasons: Most importantly, one could not survive with any degree of good health in such a simple dwelling in the sometimes very cold and wet UK. Furthermore, the lack of stimulation living in such a place would eventually get me down a bit. So I have no desire to sell-up and live in the dunes just yet. Nevertheless, during my travels in northern Brazil I have seen vast numbers of people surviving of what seems to be next to nothing and I am developing a respect for people who can live such lives with grace and a smile.


After seven weeks in Brazil, I can safely say that I have 'gone native' on footwear - which means that I wear flip-flops all the time. Prior to spending an extended period in a hot and often humid country, I considered flip-flops to be rather ineffectual items - good only for a brief excursion from the beach to an ice-cream stall and back. However, while here in Brazil, one does have to consider that there might be something in this whole flip-flop malarky. Well, if you are prepared to get through the early days with red skin between your big toes and the next ones, then you're away on an alfresco foot life. With all the flipping and flopping that goes on, your feet are well ventilated and you (and those nearby) can enjoy a whiff free time. So now I live in the things, spending full days walking around cities, taking planes, going on nights out, with a cheerful flip and a content flop.

So now for the real-man's footwear challenge - the four day bare foot dune trek. As one might expect, the sand dunes contain quite a lot of the stuff, with most of it near your feet. So a dune trek in northern Brazil in lace-up footwear would involve the sensation of walking with your feet in sand bags, plus with the heat and humidity and all, there would be curds and whey swilling around your boots by the end of the day - making a nice cheddar 'n' sand combo in your socks. Your next option is the good old flip-flops, but the trouble is the loose sand is flipped and flopped up into the air and your footwear acts like a pair of sand shovels. So that leaves the hard-core 'going native' option of bare foot trekking. All good until one's poor little, normally protected, heels and pads of toes start to blister. Then the sentence 'oh my ****ing feet' does sound in one's head with some regularity.

Well, apart from taking some brief rest-bites in my flip-flops when my skin really stung, I did complete the trek in bare feet, though I was left with some mighty blisters (see photos) - next stop hot coals? I am left with one question though, in Brazil, is a suit-flip-flop combo considered appropriate attire for business meetings - maybe as long as the flip-flops are black?