A little over a year ago I visited skyscanner.com. I had a look at flights to Uruguay only to realize that they would last 30 hours, and I always had to transfer in Brazil. I had quit my job recently and intended to make the most of my upcoming travels. In my head I had a romantic image of Uruguay, Brazil however equaled favela. But I didn’t want to sit in airplanes forever, so I decided to fly to Brazil anyway. It couldn’t be that bad after all, because Brazil is also beautiful, sunny, warm, and the city I was flying to, the most southern state-capital Porto Alegre, had beautiful beaches at the Atlantic.
Eight weeks later I stepped off the plane and came to a couple of interesting realizations. It was clouded and cold, rainy even. And the days after that I had a hard time accepting that Porto Alegre did not have beautiful beaches, and was not at the coast, but near some lagoon with filthy water. As you can see, I didn’t really prepare.
Later, I stepped up the stairs, into the bus, after more or less understanding from the muscled bus driver that I was entering the right one. He would tell me when to get off. Still, I had downloaded the map of Porto Alegre to my phone. Not entirely sure the bus driver had understood me, nor I him, I had Google Maps to help me out. The sunset I could not see was happening and my cool bus driver did his best to hit the gas a hard as possible. I quickly learned that was normal.
The following 10 days I stayed with two different people that I met through couchsurfing. However agonizing the realization that Porto Alegre was nothing of what I expected, the people I met were all equally amazing. Nobody had issues with my vegan lifestyle, and they were happy with me cooking for them. This is also the best tip I can give, cook for yourself and people around you. The sacolão (fruit and vegetable store), will have everything you need, at a very good price. Today 1 euro equals 4.4 brazilian reas more or less, and usually you can get a kilo of bananas for 2 reas. Great prices that come with some cost. Brazil is one of the biggest pesticide users in the world and uses 4 types that are prohibited in Europe. Organic food is up and coming but not that available yet, and very expensive in comparison. Make sure you wash your produce well and skin it if possible.
I cooked mostly myself, but I still took the opportunity to try a couple of the abundant vegan restaurants available in Porto Alegre. This together with the parks, and the amazing people was what I liked most. Otherwise I learned to take a look over my shoulder every now and then, to not take out my phone at random in public, and that it is actually nice that a homeless person starts peeing on the sidewalk after I passed by.
During my stay I tried a bunch of (vegan) restaurants. At Estômago Cafe Vegano you can enjoy Vegan Pastel, Homemade Pizza with Mushrooms or a variety of chickpea and bean burgers. At Liverpool Restaurante (vegan options) and Espaço Vegano you can opt on a buffet livre, eat as much as you want, paying between 15-20 reas. But, if you could only go to one restaurant, go to Mantra Gastronomia e Arte. This upscale lunch place serves Indian food, all vegan, in a beautiful light environment. For around 25 reas you get a three-course meal where they will bring you another serving of your entree if you feel like it. The meals taste amazing, look great, and the staff is super attentive. I went here a couple of times and would not blame you if you only went there. Even when you stay for a week.
Far from starving I decided that I would not travel to Uruguay as I initially intended. I was finally away from northern Europe where I experienced enough rain. I would follow the sun. I took the bus into the mountains of Rio Grande do Sul, the state of which Porto Alegre is the capital. Half sleeping in the bus for a couple of hours with a rainy transfer in between (I had to wait for the sun a bit more), I got off in Cambara do Sul. I walked over a couple of unpaved roads glancing at my google maps every now and then. It would be hard to get lost in this small town which earns most of its money from tourism passing by to visit the nearby canyons. After a 10-minute walk I arrived at a glass and wooden front that said Cape Town Hostel. I stayed in a spotless 6 bed dorm with comfortable wooden bunk beds.
It was too late to pay a visit to one of the two nearby canyons so I walked down a couple of unpaved roads again, passing by houses that all had gotten their last paint job a while ago. And somehow there was more often than not a broken car standing in front of them. After an hour or so I arrived at a farm with a plate up front saying Cachoeira Tio França (Uncle France Waterfall) . The gate was closed. I hopped over and continued up the lawn. I called out for somebody to hear me, only to be responded by no less than 7 dogs running up to me. They kept barking and didn’t look happy at all with my presence. Every step I set forward was answered with more barking, more teeth, and I could not help but wondering what would happen if these teeth went into my tiny calves.
Walking backwards, I managed to get over the gate. With my heartbeat hammering in my throat and the dogs still viciously circling around me, I decided to continue a little further on. For another hour or so I was followed by some of the dogs. It turned out they just didn’t like me entering their property, now they were quite keen on my company. I climbed up a hill, because there’s this thing inside me that always wants to go up when there is the opportunity. After conquering the dry sand and the thorny bushes, I enjoyed the view of green fields and forests for a while. Later, when I finally closed the glass door of the hostel I had to leave the last-dog-standing in front of it. It turns out that happens more often.
Last dog standingThe canyons are between half an hour and an hour drive from Cambara do Sul. Tourist agencies are happy to provide you with transfers and tours. You will have to pay for this though. I was lucky to get a ride with a Brazilian couple that stayed in the same hostel. We drove down to Fortaleza Canyon two days in row with their VW combi. The first day it was so clouded we couldn’t see more than 20 meters ahead. Still I arrived back at the hostel with a heatstroke. I decided that I needed to sweat it out. I got under my blanket but couldn’t sleep. More and more stuff started to look weird on the inside of my eyes, breathing became harder, and I started hallucinating. A light blinked on in my head and I headed into the shower and turned it to its coldest. After I laid down with a frozen bottle of water in my neck. That was better, stuff started to be normal again.
I spent another night in Cambara but decided to leave thereafter. I only visited Cânion Fortelaza, twice, but the weather made it impossible to see it in full. The other canyon, Cânion Itaimbezinho, I decided to let be for this visit.
The next morning, I got up early to take the bus. One last time down the unpaved roads, between the broken cars, down to the bus station. It was a holiday, I forgot which, but the lady at the bus station had assured me the day before that there would be a bus leaving at 0800. Of course, it didn’t. I arrived at a closed bus station, with no bus passing by. Wise lesson: on holidays nobody works in Brazil.
I made up my mind and walked to the edge of town. I positioned my backpack against the wall of a bus stop and stuck up my thumb. One car passed by, another 15 minutes later, and another 10 minutes later. There wasn’t a lot of traffic in this tiny town. 10 minutes later I got lucky. A man in his sixties picked me up and drove me all the way to a crossing between provincial roads. I managed to communicate in broken porteñol (Portuguese and Spanish). We had a great talk, I just forgot about what.
I got out of the car, walked to the other side and threw my backpack in the high grass. I positioned myself behind a road sign so I would remain in the shadow. That heatstroke was still in the back of my mind. After a couple of cars raced by, one stopped. I got in a silver sedan with a man in his sixties, wearing glasses, and with grey hair. Just like the one before, it was just that this one drove like the cool bus driver from Porto Alegre, on steroids. The result was, that I arrived in Torres before the bus, if it would have driven. He dropped me off at my hostel, Tribos Livres, even though he had to go 20 minutes out of his way.
The owners were already awaiting me. Apparently, they had just opened their hostel, and I was one of the first guests. They put a bunch of sea containers together and had constructed their home, and the hostel in them. I found it very creative, but I was wondering how comfortable my 10-bed dorm would be if it were full.
I decided to go to the beach nearby. I was in the most southern part of Torres. A city on the border between the states of Rio Grande do Sul and Santa Catarina. This city has approximately 40.000 inhabitants but in the summer the amount rises up to 300.000. A hotspot for Uruguayans and Argentinians because it is the closest real beach town for them. It was cold and windy at the beach. There was one family, they had parked their car at the beach and positioned themselves so that it would provide cover from the wind. The kids were playing and happy. The mother stuck out her hand with a banana after I walked by dripping cold water. I have this thing, when I see water I need to go in, no matter how cold it is.
The next day I decided to visit Itapava State Park. It was a 40-minute walk from the hostel. When I entered the park there was no way to get of the road. Eventually I entered a grass clearing where there was a small building. A man in uniform with a gun in its holster came out. I managed to understand that I needed a guide to go in. The guide was not there though, if I could come back tomorrow. Sure.
I went back to the paved road and decided to walk to the center of Torres. I realized on the way it was quite a walk, so I put my thumb up again. I kept walking in the meantime, but it didn’t take long before a small, broken car stopped. Where I was going? To Torres, get in then! Off I went with two guys my age. They spoke English, quite good even! Not common in Brazil. They told me they were on their way to the beach of Torres to work on one of the two guys’ thesis. They were marine biology students and he was investigating a bird, the Piri Piri, in its natural habitat. Since I had no clue what to do and I liked the guys, I asked if I could join. I ended up spending the whole afternoon with them, helping a little, and walking with them through the dunes, spotting the birds. That was quite heavy and the alarm sounded. Heatstroke alert, one of the guys noticed and returned to the car with me beforehand.
The day after I returned to the building in the grass clearing at the entrance of Itapava State Park. I got picked up by two men in a huge SUV. The driver spoke easily, the other looked like he had been shooting a whole lot of steroids into his veins recently, he was also carrying a gun. They said the park would not be that interesting for me. So, we went to Morro da Guarita, this beautiful rock formation is surrounded by cliffs and a beautiful beach. On our? way, I was looking out of the window and suddenly saw something in the corner of my eye. Stuttering, muttering, to figure out how to say – are there whales here? – they understood anyway. Baleias Franca (Right Whales), a whole bunch of them passing by. I saw two mothers and a child, one of them with the father swimming in the back. Amazing, how magnificent these animals. A couple of days later I would spot a whole lot of dolphins right off the coast as well.
A day later I was picked up by the parents of a friend of my first couchsurfing host his girlfriend. Yes, really, the parents of a friend, of the girlfriend of my couchsurfing host. They offered me to stay with them. Their apartment was beautiful and right at the beach. They had a family gathering coming up. Typically, this was accompanied by a Brazilian Barbecue. A Brazilian barbecue consists out of meat, meat, and meat. If you are lucky there is some salad, or some fries. I made sweet potato fries, some zucchini and a whole bunch of hummus. I ate a delicious meal, however most of the carnivores denied my food politely. They could barely move after their meal, and still had to down some ice cream.
There is little to do in Torres but the beach. It largely depends on the weather therefore if you are going to have a good time or not. Or you should enjoy, like me, watching the wales and dolphins when it’s cold. Otherwise, there are a couple of surf spots and off the coast there is Ilha dos Lobos. There are regular boat tours which allow for See Lion spotting, and if you are lucky you will be closer to the whales and dolphins swimming by. I tried to go 3 times in one day, but there were too little people for the boat to leave.