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Town-hopping to the coast through rural Brazil


Winter in southern Brazil.  The weather at this time of year bears some similarity to that of a British summer.  All over the shop so expect anything.  Perhaps this meteorological roulette has something to do with the Itaipu Dam, a joint venture between Brazil and Paraguay that straddles the boarder and literally cements the two countries together. 

Itaipu Dam

This monstrous feat of engineering sucked up an extraordinary amount of money and spat it out or, indeed, spits it out, in the form of electricity (it provides some 90% of the electrical supply for Paraguay) and, of course, water. Lots of it.  Water, that in its inexorable rise, has destroyed or displaced anything with the misfortune to be in its way, forever changing the face of the landscape and the climate. 

It’s a sweeping statement to say that the Itaipu dam has condemned southern Brazil to frustrating, British style weather but locals in the nearby frontier town of Foz do Igazu do claim changes at a local level.  Starting this particular journey from ‘Foz’, a few days in town does testify to some unruly exchanges between glorious sunshine and depressingly dense gray. 

The town these days somewhat belays its recent history as a wild, anything’s available at the right price, border town facing off with its peers in Argentina and Paraguay.  Anyone looking for that kind of scene would be best advised to cross the river into Paraguay’s Cuidad del Este.  Here in Brazil, the economy generated during the construction of the dam has given rise to some good old prosperity, and for most visitors to the area, Foz offers the best choice for a bit of shut eye before a visit to the nearby Iguazu Falls.

The Itaipu Dam is one of the largest of its kind in the world.  Such a superlative was never going to be left unexploited and so tours to the facility are available.  A short hop on a local bus dropped me out at the Itaipu Dam visitors center.  From here on in things were fairly regimented. For those of us who wanted little more than to have a quick look at the thing, we were taken on a swift bus ride across the dam, making a flirtatious dip into Paraguay before being hurried back into Brazil along the top ridge of this concrete beast.  A visit to the on site museum gave an insight into the nature of the construction of the dam and it’s effects, both positive and negative, on the surrounding area.

I left the Itaipu Dam, drawn to stare out at another body of water, the Atlantic ocean.  I would do so from the shores of Ilha do Mel or rather splendidly in English, Honey Island.

Foz do Iguazu is a long way from a lot of places but if you’ve got the clothes for it, a frigid air-con bus will take you over night and over the plains to the city of Curitiba.

Foresight, a steady economy and a bit of planning will give you a city like Curitiba.  If thats an introduction that doesn’t excite, hold your judgment.  This place is the envy of many a Brazilian seeking respite from the frantic energy and edge of Brazil’s bigger urban areas.  It’s a great place to hang out for a bit.  The center of town, very much alive, day and night, made it easy to slip into the crowds and get a feel for some free time in the city. After cruising one of the uber modern shopping centers, looking at stuff I couldn’t afford, I made a short cut for my hotel through the city park.  The cover of darkness, rather than provide fret and the prospect of a mugging, played host to the cities young lovers, out in force and whiling away the time stuck to each others lips.

South America is not know for it’s rail transport, the bus is king in this part of the world.  But pockets of lines do still run and from Curitiba the Serra Verde Express takes travelers over the Sierra do Mar mountains towards the coast. 

View from the Serra Verde Express

There were few passengers on my early morning journey.  A mix of Brazilians and backpackers all anxious to be on the right side (the right side in this case being the left!) of the carriage for the promised views.  The single gage creaked out of the city, passing small slums that would perhaps disappoint the promoters of Curitiba’s squeaky clean image.  Picking up speed we past some of the cities industrial sites and their ‘Lego Land’ style housing projects before trees eventually took over.   The altitude played host to light mist as the train slowly forced its way through thick forest.  After an hour, our emergence from the trees coincided with a break in the clouds and the train began its decent towards the Atlantic.  It was a great ride.  As we inched our way over ravines and cracks in the mountains, the landscape on our left poured down to the distant plains.  Clouds formations changed with the decent, bullied into position by the mountains and open ocean.  The express made a couple of brief stops to let passengers off at tiny villages.  Mostly hikers wanting to make the rest of the decent on foot.  More switch backs and too many bridges to count, we begin to hit the warmer climes nearer the coast.

On week days the train terminates at Morettes, a few miles from the Atlantic.  I disembarked and cut through the small station front to be greeted with a sleepy plaza. It felt good to be off the train and the near tropical warmth was pleasant.  I had no plans to stop here but it seemed a nice place and I felt guilty that my first question at the tourist office was for directions to the bus terminal.  Still, time should be a luxury afforded to the traveler and with that in mind I skipped a couple of buses to have a quick look around.  It was a pretty place, albeit comatose.  In the center of town waiters loitered in full garb outside their respective restaurants giving their best efforts to lure in passers by to try the local dish of barreado, a rich stew of beef, bacon and potatoes.  Its traditional preparation of twenty hours of slow cooking may give an insight into the languid pace at which Morettes seemed to move.  I picked a spot over looking the gentle Rio Nhundiaquara, rambling its way through town, and rested up. 

You need a port when the Atlantic stirs

It was a short bus ride to Paranagua.  Stepping out at the robust terminal was to step out into tropical heat and it felt good.  Paranagua is a place of transit.  Back in the 1800’s it was an important port for southern Brazil (one of the reasons for the construction of the the Serra Verde railway) and although that glory has faded it remains the main point of embarkation for boats to Ilha do Mel.  Not that that says much.  There were only two boats a day and at this time of year tourists were thin on the ground.

I’ve developed a fondness for places like Paranagua and to not stop for a night would’ve been to deny myself one of the best pleasures in travel.  To be alone and calm in those places most travelers hurry through in irritated urgency on their way to the star attractions.  It is the pleasure of prolonged anticipation and the delay of the unknown.

I checked into a basic pousada not far from the waterfront where veteran fishing boats waited patiently for a call to action. Here, the Atlantic ocean that claws at much of Brazil’s coastline with its angry surf, lay placid, tamed by a protective barrier of off-shore islands. A small fair had arrived in town and had set up camp on the grubby sand fronting Paranagua’s large, open plaza.  It was still light and the rides were shut down waiting for night to come.  I enjoyed the similarity of this fair and the one that comes to town back home.  The decorations were the same.  Spray can pictures of huge chested ‘biker’ women that look like Pamela Anderson, garish electric guitars and hideous zombies. 

By night fall I was enjoying dinner at an open air food court at the edge of the plaza, sharing beer and live music with the boisterous locals.  The fair was spinning away behind us.  Young couples  leaned against their cars, smoking their cigarettes, the boyfriends trying not to stare at Pamela Anderson.  I enjoyed the prospect of walking through the quiet streets back to the pousada and ordered another beer.  Prolonged anticipation.

Islha do Mel

It seemed a long wait for the boat to Ilha do Mel the next day.  Passengers were in no hurry to board nor the boat to leave without a full load.  Most of the people on board were islanders who had been in town to stock up on supplies.  The atmosphere on the open air boat was typical of the Brazilian public transport scene.  Strangers or not, everyone set about chatting like reunited friends.  Beer cans were cracked open, cigarettes lit and the sea breezes enjoyed by all.

It hadn’t been hard to spot the other backpackers and after docking at the small island pier, the locals quickly dispersing into the tree line, we found ourselves banded together looking for a place to stay.  It was a sleepy scene.  Winter had brought in a thick blanket of clouds to the island  and as we followed the sandy path into the trees a premature dusk set in.  Between the vegetation beach hut accommodations slept, not expecting much traffic at this time of year.  One collection of huts was awake though, and most travelers to the island had been drawn in by the bubbly and attractive young Brazilian women who were running things.  It seemed rude not to follow suit.

Over previous travels I’ve learned to embrace the ‘beach hut’ scene and it felt good to be involved again.  Padding about through sandy jungle paths in bare feet.  Indulging in the illusion of having cast off my ‘everyday’ trappings.  In the quiet off season, the island not on its guard, I felt like a guilty child sneaking about the grounds of an abandoned building.  Long walks along the exposed coast revealed beaches trying to stand their ground against the aggressive ocean, now untamed. Empty beach huts and simple holiday homes bore silent witness, their windows boarded up.  Closed.  At the end of Praia da Fortaleza the deserted fortress of Nossa Senhora dos Prazeres emerged from the jungle.  Cannons pointed out to the ocean horizon as if awaiting the return of a long retreated enemy.  Staring out at another body of water, the Atlantic ocean.

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