Tuesday, January 24, 2012

January 23rd – Looking down on Rio

Last time we were in Rio, the whole city was covered in gloomy cloud, so we scarcely saw a glimpse of Christ the Redeemer, looking down from his lofty perch on the Corcovado Mountain. Today, he was visible from the ship, so we rushed up there to join him.

When we got to the funicular station to buy our tickets, we learnt that there was a 2-hour wait to ascend the steep mountainside, but we found an internet cafe close by to call home so time flew by.

As you slowly climb up the Corcovado, the excitement rises, as you get tantalising glimpses of this magnificent city unfolding in front of you. Once at the top, you get your first sight of the statue serenely looking down over the city – there's a real power and calm to the enormous statue. The first time I saw it from afar, the statue looked smaller than I'd expected, but close-up, it was far larger than I'd thought it would be.

On the viewing platform below, it was tourist mayhem as people jostled for position to take the photo of themselves in front of Rio's most famous landmark; but the expanse of the city below soon made us forget the tide of humanity around us. From this vantage point, you get to appreciate that there can't be many cities with a more dramatic setting than this. The volcanic plug of Sugerloaf and the undulating green mountains make for a spectacular backdrop to the skyscrapers, tumbling favelas and white sand beaches that make Rio's cityscape unique.

Even with a few cooling breezes, it was absolutely sweltering up there, so it was time to get out of the heat and head back down to sea level. We popped down to Ipanema where we surveyed the daily show that is Rio beach life. The sight of us wandering around totally covered up, while the locals sunned themselves in the tiniest of tiny bikinis must have made them think we were a little strange.

So, as the sun set behind the mountains and Christ the Redeemer was silhouetted behind Sugarloaf, it was time to leave Rio and Brazil behind, as we set off on a 5 day voyage across the Atlantic to St Helena. A thoroughly enjoyable first leg of the World Cruise was completed – can't wait for the next one.

January 22nd – The Road To Rio

After the sights of yesterday, the mundane task of flying to re-join the ship in Rio was a little bit of a let down. However, the ship had laid on a spectacular mini-Rio Carnaval on deck to welcome us back and re-energise us.

We saw some amazingly energetic dancing, an athletic capoieira show, some ridiculously over-the-top costumes, and some ridiculously skimpy costumes too. How the buxom ladies gyrating furiously didn't fall out of their tiny sequinned costumes was a real wonder.

Normally, these local shows have to work hard to coax the passengers up to dance with them, but the beats were so infectiously energetic that people were rushing up to join in (of course, I had strategically placed my rhythmically-challenged self in a place where it was impossible to be forced to join in).

For 45 minutes, we were transplanted into the chaos and fun-loving mayhem of the Rio Carnaval – I don't think I've got the energy for the full thing.

January 21st – Chasing Rainbows at Iguassu

The falls didn't disappoint – the whole day was just one breathtaking view after another. Every time you thought it couldn't get any better, it did.

We started early and walked from the hotel to explore the views on the Brazilian side. This view would have been worth the trip alone, but when we were told that this was just 17% of the falls that we were seeing, it scarcely seemed possible that they could be so big. As we walked along the paths down to the bottom of the falls, the most commonly used expression was a less-than-imaginative "wow", but words really can't do justice to the enormity and majesty of this natural wonder.

The whole vista seemed like something from a fantasy film, it didn't seem possible that there were this many different thundering waterfalls (over 300 separate falls in the same set-piece), or that they were that tall (80 metres high), or that there was such a high volume of water crashing down in front of us (our guide said that there was 1.6 million gallons of water passing per second).

In the morning sunshine, there were so many colourful rainbows reflected in the spray that gave the falls a magical air; and when we walked down to the observation point at the bottom of the falls, there was even a totally round rainbow – quite unbelievable. As the temperature rose, it was nice to be cooled by the spray blowing across us, although not so easy to keep the camera lens dry – a small price to pay, and pictures can't capture the spectacle either.

After this, we got the coach across the Argentine border, to see them from the other side, and to see if the guide was right in telling us they were even more spectacular from that side. He was right – from Argentina, you could see the full massive expanse of waterfalls, although the sheer number of other tourists jostling on the viewing platforms did occasionally threaten to spoil the experience just a little.

We trekked over the walkways to the awesome "Devil's Throat" section – the largest and most breathtakingly violent section of the falls, where an enormous volume of water is funnelled into a thundering, crashing, almost deafening torrent, that you could almost feel as it smashed into the rocks 80 metres below. The plume of spray spewed upwards into a huge cloud that hung over the observation point about twice the height of the falls.
It was a totally exhilarating experience to stand next to such a potent natural force and be drenched by its power – an experience that made you feel tiny by comparison. As we walked back along the river above the falls, you couldn't help be struck by just how peaceful the gentle flow of water was here, just a hundred metres from the utter aquatic mayhem and watery carnage going on below.

Refreshed by lunch, we went on another trek around the falls, to get further perspectives on the full extent of Iguassu. We passed waterfall after cascading waterfall, each one, on its own would have been a major set-piece at any other sight – here they were just minor parts of a mighty ensemble. Those in our party who'd been to the Niagara Falls and Victoria Falls, said that both of them pale by comparison to Iguassu. "After you've seen this, I wouldn't bother going to another waterfall", advised one waterfall afficianado.

As the temperature rose to the late 30s Celsius, you just longed to cool off in the pools at the bottom of the torrents, but instead we settled for the beautiful pool at the hotel and sipped on our refreshing caipirinhas, as we reflected on a fantastic day at one of the world's great natural sights. We'd been drenched by the water and drained by the heat, but it was a day that none of us will forget.

I'm sure that I overuse the word awesome a lot, but Iguassu really does fill you with awe – pure, fantastic sensory overload.

January 20th – Going To Iguassu

After 3 days at sea, my excitement levels were rising after I was asked to escort one of the ship's overland tours to the amazing Iguassu Falls – one of the natural wonders of the world.

So, from Salvador we flew to Rio, and then flew on to Iguassu itself, where we were taken to our lovely hotel, the Hotel Das Cataratas – the only hotel actually within the National Park on the Brazilian side. We were able to view a bit of the falls from the hotel entrance – a tantalising glimpse of what was to come.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

January 16th – The Sight, Sounds and Smells of Belem

After three fairly rocky days at sea, it was nice to see dry land again, as we sailed 80 miles up one of the branches of the mighty Amazon, to the equatorial city of Belem.

Last time we were in Belem it was unbearably hot, but today it was a much more pleasant 23 degrees. What made it cooler, was the constant threat of rain; but, seeing as Belem is reputedly the rainiest city in the world, you always have to be prepared for a rain shower or two here.

After a long tender ride in, struggling against the current, we launched ourselves into the chaotic streets of the city, heading for Belem's main attraction, the famous Ver-o-peso market, full of produce from the Amazon region, and lots of weird and wonderful fish from the river itself.

It's a place that's full of aromas, good and bad – fragrant herbs, rotting rubbish, sizzling meats on the barbeque, stinky fish, sweet fruits, and rancid stenches coming from the mud in the fishing harbour. Then, picking in amongst the foul rubbish washed onto the mud, were hundreds of evil looking black buzzard-like birds, who looked like something out of a horror film – as these demonic birds hopped around malevolently, they looked like they'd be quite happy to feast on the rotting carcass of satan himself.

We headed to the historic fortress which was the very start of the city, when the Portuguese began to build it in 1616. With its 12 feet thick walls and cannons pointing out to the river, this was a powerful statement of intent by the Portuguese, as they staked their claim to the Amazon region. As it was a Monday, the Fort (along with all museums) was meant to be shut, but we managed to sneak in behind a tour group who had arranged a special opening.

Sadly, without the other museums being open, our plans for the day were slightly ruined – this isn't a city that you want to wander at random, for fear of ending up in a dodgy area and becoming another victim of Belem street crime. So, we stuck to the busy shopping streets, where underneath the tacky shops and urban decay, you could see that this once would have been a very grand city 100 years ago. I wonder if Belem will ever clean up its act and re-capture those glory days?

January 15th – Crossing The Line

On our way down to Belem in Brazil, today we have crossed the equator, which means more festivities on deck and bizarre punishments meted out by King Neptune and his assistants. So, various passengers and crew were covered in whipped cream, tomato sauce and sausages, and made to kiss dead fishes – this is what passes for daily life when you're at sea.

Friday, January 13, 2012

January 12th – Barbados

After the British arrived on Barbados in the 17th century, most of the island's dense forest was cleared to make way for sugar cane plantations; so there's little of the island's original environment left. What has survived is mostly crammed into the narrow limestone gulleys that criss-cross the islands.

So, today (whilst Tracy visited "The Concorde Experience"), I visited probably the most fertile and best preserved gulley, the Welchman Hall Gulley – a narrow strip of lush vegetation and tropical trees, enclosed within vertical limestone cliffs. The whole place was teeming with life – creepy millipedes, skittish vervet monkeys, huge termite mounds – you got the impression that if you just dropped a seed on the soil, within days it would sprout into a full-grown tree.

Of course, what makes Barbados so incredibly fertile, is its warm tropical air and plentiful rain – so we experienced quite a lot of "liquid sunshine" as we drove around the island in our open-air jeep. Fortunately, a very potent rum punch helped keep the dampness away and meant that the conversation on the way back was much more animated than it had been on the way there.

Luckily, in the evening it stayed dry, so we had a wonderfully enjoyable deck party. Aside from all the delicious food served at the barbeque, there was some excellent local entertainment that came onboard - a toe-tapping steel band, lively calypso dancers, and some fantastically energetic stilt walkers. These guys could dance better balanced 12 feet in the air, than most people can on the ground.

What a great send off from the Caribbean, before we head down to Brazil.

January 11th – Above Dominica’s Rainforest

On the beautifully unspoilt island of Dominica, the thing to do is to get out of town and visit the island's lush rainforest. So, today I joined a trip that would give us a different perspective on this – from above.

We drove up into the steep green mountains that characterise the centre of the island, and went to the "Rainforest Aerial Tram" experience. Here we climbed into our tram, (basically a glorified suspended shopping trolley with seats), and were silently carried up into the canopy that clung to the side of the mountain slopes. Each tram had a guide who explained how the rainforest functioned, and pointed out the different plantlife in this incredibly fertile environment.

Our trip was all very gentle and sedate, but once we reached the top, I stupidly volunteered to do some zip lining with a few of the more adventurous passengers – a journey which would take us back down the mountain, a hell of a lot quicker than we went up it. As we had our safety briefing and got into our harnesses and helmets, the tension began to rise – not helped by the guide repeatedly whispering to me, "you're going to scream like a girl!".

I bravely managed not to scream on the first two rides, but the third and last zip line (helpfully called "The Fear Factor"), was over a wide open canyon on a line that was over 400 feet above the valley floor. This is probably as close a feeling to flying as you can get, as you pick up speed and hurtle across the canyon, trying not to look down too much. It all passed in a blur, so it was difficult to take in what was happening, but helpfully they had a photographer at the bottom to capture the moment.

It's hard to believe it from the picture, which makes me look like I'm just hanging there sedately, but this was the point when I'd reached top speed (a terminal velocity that felt like it really could be terminal if I didn't stop soon). The high-octane adventurer angle isn't helped by the fact that I was also forced to wear a lovely green hair net under my helmet, which did take some of the macho gloss off the picture.

Anyway, it was all great fun, and a fantastic way to see Dominica's greatest asset – it's superbly unspoilt natural beauty.