Praise Be to Boipeba

I don’t care what anyone says.  I defy you not to feel cool arriving somewhere by speedboat.  Sure, your face may be wind-whipped and salt-encrusted.  And, sure, you might have spent most of the hour-long journey from Valenca clenching your jaw due to the many last-second, high-speed turns to avoid the sandbanks.  But cool.  Definitely cool.

Ilha da Boipeba.  A little Bahian island paradise, a few hours south of Salvador.  Described in the guidebooks as “like Morro de Sao Paulo was 20 years ago”.  That appealed to me, because I’m basically like I was 20 years ago.  Immature.  Broke.  Trying to avoid doing any work…

My final beach break.  Last chance to soak up some sun and relax before the long flight home.  Fairly achievable goals, I thought.

And yet…

divino spirito santo

As a (very) lapsed Catholic, my knowledge of holy days is a little sketchy.  So, I didn’t know that they would be celebrating Pentecost, the feast of the holy spirit, during my stay.  I arrived on Friday afternoon to find the town square festooned with multi-coloured streamers, fluttering prettily in the breeze.  On closer inspection I realised they were made of strips of plastic, but the effect was very beautiful.  (As an aside, Brazilians love plastic bags.  Nothing makes them happier in shops than to put only one item in a plastic bag, or preferably, in a bag inside a bag.  Largesse with plastic bags is a point of national pride, I think).


When I went in search of food that evening, I was accosted by a guy with dreadlocks, who insisted on being my companion for the evening.  Our first stop was the church, where they were just getting to the good part of the service.  I stood aside to let the young actors playing the fishermen pass, with their traditional hats, oars and nets.  They rowed and cast their way up the aisle in a way that was wholly in keeping with the island’s traditional fishing past.

Then came the word of the Lord, played by a young actor in priest’s robes, flanked by two other boys who were playing the part of the church, carrying an arch draped in cloth.  The fishermen fell to their knees and cast off their nets, before following the pretend church out of the doors of the actual church, followed by the actual priest and the congregation, who were singing beautiful, moving, but uplifting hymns to a slight samba beat.

I retired, with my companion, “Jackson”, to a nearby restaurant.  Jackson told me he’d been married to a French woman, but that she’d ultimately been too possessive and wouldn’t let him express himself through his passion, capoeira.  He then pointed out a Dutch girl that he’d been in a relationship with and spoke of an Argentinian he’d been involved with a couple of months back.  I was beginning to form a picture of the ecosystem of this island and feel a little bit like conspicuous foreign fish, small pond…

He turned out to be a nice guy, if a little intense.  I’m not sure that my laughter was the correct response to his pronouncement, eyes flickering and hands constantly tugging at his dreads, that he was living a simple, holistic life now.  No more drugs.  No alcohol.  No cigarettes.  Only marijuana…

He explained that I’d picked a great time to visit.  The feast of the holy spirit was a bank holiday, so the whole island would be celebrating, with music in the town square.  I’d already noticed that they pumped music through a PA system attached to electricity poles (like a cool version of the musak rocks that you get in crap theme parks), so I was looking forward to getting a little more musica brasileira in my life.

holy moly

I spent Saturday on the beach, snoozing and watching a hippy dad play a very authentic game of ‘sea monster’ with his young kids.  They seemed to be laughing, but they may have delayed PTSD.

My pousada was only 50m from the main square, so I heard the first band start early evening.  It was a bit louder than I expected, but it was exciting, having this just next door.  I decided to give it till 8, get some food and see what it was all about.  I stepped outside and, naturally, bumped into Jackson.  He took me to a tapioca stand run by friends of his and sat with me whilst I ate (chicken and fried banana – my new staple).  His sister and her kids came passed and he introduced me to them.  I didn’t know the Portuguese for, “I’m just being polite, I’m really not in the slightest bit interested in your brother/uncle”, so I just smiled and said hello.

Jackson was going to a house party and invited me along.  As much as I would typically love to go somewhere with a load of people I don’t know and can’t understand, on this occasion I declined.  I said I was staying for the music.  Which he told me didn’t get going again till 10pm.  So I slunk back to my room and waited.  At 10.01, I ventured out again.  I stood in the field to the right of the stage and tried to look inconspicuous.  I slurped the heck out a caipirinha (gotta keep busy) and watched the townsfolk having fun.

Ultimately, though, there’s only so much fixed-smile swaying you can do.  I was in bed by 11pm.

I think the music stopped sometime around 4.30am…


on the seventh day

Right, so basically “religious festival” in Brazil is synonymous with “all night rave”.  Now, I’m not sure if this is a Vatican-endorsed initiative (South American pope, after all).  But if my formative experience of Catholicism had been like this, I think it’s safe to say I would still be a believer.

The Sabbath.  A day of much needed rest after a sleepless night.  The double-couple retirees staying in my pousada had invited me on a jaunt to Morro de Sao Paulo, a couple of islands away.  But instead it rained all day and all night.  Fat, heavy, curtains of rain.  Non-stop.  Typical bloody bank holiday weekend weather.

typical bank holiday weather

raindrops keep falling…

So I was stuck in my room for the best part of 36 hours.  I braved the deluge only when I got so hungry that I was close to passing out (at least I was horizontal, should that have happened).  And I discovered two things: (1) the music, which was loud outside, was amplified about tenfold inside my room, as the bass reverberated around the walls, and the stage PA competed with the local bars’ soundsystems; and (2) the same four songs were being played over and over again.  And one of them was Gangnam Style.

I couldn’t understand it.  It was clearly different bands, playing different styles of music.  Some samba, some bossanova, some a bit more pop.  This great tradition of Bahian music. But they played the same four songs.  Even sometimes within the same set.  It became a form of torture and I found myself developing Pavlovian responses to certain tunes, particularly the “jiggy jiggy boom” song.

Now, God moves in mysterious ways, but I don’t think even He could be bothered to have come up with such an elaborate plan to show me the error of my ways and get me to repent.  Also, I suspect He was pretty preoccupied with the mortal souls of the grinding girls who were putting the ‘carnal’ into carnaval up on stage.

I was very grateful when rain finally stopped play at 1.30 in the morning and I could fall asleep.  Well, except that I couldn’t quite fall asleep.  Because, for a reason known only to themselves, the owners of my pousada had clad my windows with aluminium foil, inside and out.  And every time the wind blew (which was all night), the tin foil rustled loudly…

older, no wiser

Monday, I was determined to hit the beach, whatever the weather.  Praia de Morere was voted 4th most beautiful beach in Brazil by an influential guide, so that was my destination.  All I knew about getting there was that you have to cross a river, so you need to check the tides.  Check.  There aren’t much in the way of maps of Boipeba.  A few curvy lines on a bit of paper and that’s it.  So I just picked a path and followed it.  10 mins down a deserted track and I hit some monster puddles.  I’m just about to turn back when an old man appears coming from the opposite direction.

I ask him if I’m going the right way and whether it’s navigable.  He smiles a three-toothed grin and says that he’ll personally accompany me to the beach, so that I don’t get stuck.  We talk and walk.  He is very complimentary about my (broken) Portuguese and about English people in general (bad judge of character).  After a further 10 mins, we hit the beautiful Praia de Cueira, all sweeping sand and palm trees.

My friend says he’s enjoying my company so much that he’ll walk me to the next beach.  He’s very pleased that our paths crossed today.  He says this whilst putting his skinny arm around my back to pat my shoulder.

We reached the river crossing, but I decided it was too deep for me to cross easily with my bag.  I said I was going to stay on the beach till the tide went out a little.  My friend said he had to go back into town, where he was heading before he met me.  I smiled and started to thank him for his help.  He took me by the shoulders in a surprisingly strong grip and I turned my cheek towards him.  And before I know what’s what, he’s kissing me full on the mouth and planting gummy smackers all over my face.

I managed to pull away, still muttering “thank you, thank you” as I beat a hasty retreat.  I took my chances with the river crossing, holding my bag high above my head with water up to my chin, and just about avoiding being swept out to sea with the current that was stronger than I expected.

I recounted the story to The Mack that evening.  When he finally stopped laughing, all he said was, “I think it’s time for you to come home now”.  He’s got a point.

Morere - worth being molested by an old man

Morere – worth being molested by an old man

Costa do Cacau: Ilheus and Itacare

I spent a night in Ilheus mainly because I couldn’t face another hour on the bus. But I told myself it was a culture stop to break up the beachfest.  This time, you’ll be pleased to hear, not only did I arrive after 8pm in the dark, but I hadn’t been certain of getting a seat on the bus from Porto Seguro, so I hadn’t booked anywhere to stay.

Things did not look promising in the bus terminal.  D.E.A.D.  I did a quick tour and found a cranky man behind a counter in the little café and, mercifully, he had some computers.  I don’t think my overwrought gratitude did anything to lift his mood, but I at least managed to find somewhere to sleep.  Of course, it was way across the other side of town and cost more in a cab than my 6 hour bus ride, but given that the alternative was playing hobo in the bus station, I wasn’t about to complain.

Naturally, I hadn’t researched much about Ilheus, other than that it was the capital of the cocoa trade, historically.  But I was game for seeing its sights.  The girl on reception laughed uproariously at my suggestion of walking to the town centre, but I made it part way via Praia dos milionares (millionaires’ beach).  Another day, another empty beach…  My only compadres were a pretty dead crab (as in: all dead, but nice to look at) and some shells that just called out for me to turn them into a crap miniature owl sand drawing.

Ilheus is a proper, bustling little city, but I’d tentatively suggest that it only really warrants a couple of hours’ exploring.  The historic town centre is really small and the important buildings (cathedral, presidential palace, theatre etc.) are within 2 minutes’ walk of one another.


To up my culture credentials, I visited the home of the famous Brazilian writer, Jorge Amado, which is now a museum.  It’s a really lovely old colonial townhouse, with wonderful interiors (jacaranda inlaid floors and windows and Portuguese leaded lights).  There were two very friendly and enthusiastic girls giving the guided tours, taking visitors around each room and explaining the significance of them to the writer.  A crying shame then that I barely understood a word they were saying.  And it didn’t help that I’d never even heard of Jorge Amado or read any of his books.  Yep.  Philistine.


Still, I thought I’d made a pretty good show of it, all told.  Nodding sagely and hmmm-ing in all the right places.  Didn’t embarrass myself too much, I thought.

And then I blundered into a downstairs room where a TV crew was filming.  ::Cut::

Bad enough.  And then worse.  Because the TV presenter, a girl so highly polished that it hurt my eyes to look directly at her, pointed her microphone at me and started asking me questions.  Where was I from?  Was I a big fan of Amado’s work?  What did I think of the house?

Well folks, I’d love to tell you that, under pressure, I suddenly discovered a fluency in Portuguese that had previously eluded me…

Ha!  As if.  Nope.  Instead, I stuttered, flushed and mumbled something about it being very interesting.  The presenter nodded encouragingly.  So I repeated that 3 more times.  And when I realised that the cameraman was following me round the room, I found myself adopting studious “how very interesting” poses as I looked at the various objects.

And that’s a wrap.


Itacaré surprised me.  It’s a real little beachy/surfer town and even in off season it has a bit of life to it.  And it’s more touristy than I was expecting.  It has a strip of restaurants and bars (and, randomly, falafel to rival North London’s finest) and shops selling handicrafts and beachwear.  It’s not tacky, just seems more geared up for gringos than other places I’ve visited.  If you’re young and travelling around Brazil, then Itacaré should definitely be on your itinerary – it feels fun and sociable.

It’s got several beaches, all walkable from the town.  To get from one to the next, you just hop over the rocks.  Often, there’s no-one around, so you can have a little bay all to yourself.  My first day there, that’s what I did.  I hopped from Resende to Tiririca to Costa beach.  Costa was empty, so I made myself at home.  Just me, the sea and a rather excellent summer playlist (classic Prince, a bit of Roachford and Maxi Priest).

After a while, I went for a little paddle.  Out of nowhere, a lifeguard appeared.  He explained that the current in Costa was crazy strong, so I shouldn’t swim there.  I promised to stay in the shallows.  He told me his name was Jesús.  Very apt for a lifeguard, I thought.  We chatted a bit.  He spoke reasonable English and I’d already displayed my Portuguese prowess with my knowledge of “sea” and “dangerous”, so conversation was easy.

He told me about a beach a couple along, Sirioco, which was amazing and great for swimming.  He offered to show me if I wanted, since there was no-one on Costa that needed guarding.

As we hiked up a little forest trail behind Recife beach, climbing over a 7ft high locked gate onto a swing bridge high in the trees, I inwardly praised myself for my spirit of adventure.  This is the reason for travelling, I told myself: to be spontaneous and open-minded and meet friendly people.  I felt pumped.


Although I was pretty knackered by the time we descended to the beach, I had to admit:  Sirioco was spectacular.  A little cove with a tangled wild forest backdrop.  It was pretty special, alright.

It was also totally deserted, but for the two of us…

I wasn’t worried.  I was an adventurer.  And besides, I’d been brought here by a lifeguard called Jesus.  When he said that he’d keep an eye on me whilst I swam, I was delighted he took his job so seriously.  My own private beach and my own private lifeguard.  I could get used to this.

He was right.  It was a great place to swim.  Big waves but no drag.  If I went out too far, Jesus whistled me closer to shore.  A real pro.

I came back in to dry off.  Laid out my sarong on the sand, shut my eyes and zoned out.  And it was wonderful.

Until I suddenly felt Jesus’ hands massaging my shoulders…

It was one of those moments where it dawned on me that I might have massively misread the situation.

This is a common enough occurrence for me.  But not normally in such extreme circumstances.

As Jesus was working away at the knots in my shoulders and telling me that he’d spent 18 months in Sao Paulo learning various massage techniques.  I was calculating my chances of survival if I ran for it and wondering if he was even a real lifeguard.  I mean, he was definitely wearing a red and yellow vest.  But I realised I hadn’t noticed what it said on it.  Oh no. Maybe this was some incredibly elaborate ruse to prey on naïve, 35 year old tourists.

Fortunately, Jesus was behind me, so he couldn’t tell that I was frantically scanning for objects to use as weapons.  He must have sensed something though.  “You’re very tense”, he said.  No kidding, strange man who’s touching me.  I took that as my cue.  “Erm, thanks very much, Jesus.  You’re really good at massage, but I’m just not feeling very comfortable”.

Basic positive rejection psychology.  Praise followed by a reasonable, non-specific let down.

Jesus stopped massaging me and didn’t look at all put out.  So then I wondered if I’d got it wrong?  Maybe massage is just like shaking hands in Brazil?  Oh, why was adventuring so hard…?  I decided that I’d over-reacted and that it was just a friendly gesture.

We walked back via a different route.  We reached a waterfall and Jesus said “let’s go for a shower” and started stripping off.  Friendly?  Maybe.  But I think my Great British reserve just kicked in…

Infidelity in Trancoso

The Mack was incredulous when I told him that I was leaving Salvador and travelling a further 15 hours down coast.  “But you’ve just flown a really long way to get there.  Why are you going even further?”.  I spoke to him patiently, like you would to a small, rather stupid, child.  “Brazil is a very big country”, I said, “4th largest if you don’t count Alaska and Hawaii as part of the US.  Everywhere here is far away.”

My longest bus ride.  12 hours overnight.  I consoled myself with the fact that I was saving myself a night’s accommodation.  Even for a skinflint like me, that wasn’t quite consolation enough.  I’d optimistically thought that the bus would be like the one The Mack and I took from Sao Paulo to Rio, where we had little TVs in the seatback, neck support pillows and snack boxes and I had room enough to curl up in my seat.

Not exactly.  The seats did recline pretty far back, but any comfort there was off-set by the fact that the guy next to me had no concept of personal space and spent the entire journey unapologetically sprawled over me.  There was a movie on a screen in the aisle – some terrible rom-com with Uma Thurman.  Did wonders for my Portuguese.  Less so for my neck tendons as I craned to view the subtitles.

The bus dumped me in Porto Seguro at 8am.  Then a taxi ride across town which, for a 4km journey, cost almost as much as the bus and made me very cross.  Then a little ferry across to Arraial.  Then another hour on a local bus to my actual destination, Trancoso.

beach chic

I’d found Trancoso in my new fave online guidebooks, Moon.  I picked it at random, but then it was endorsed by our hosts from Rio, so I took that as a good sign.  I wanted to go on further to Caraiva, which is supposed to be an idyllic paradise lost, but the access is difficult in rainy season and I didn’t fancy getting stranded, what with my travel track record.

Just before I left Salvador, I happened to read in another guidebook that Trancoso is very popular with the fash pack.  Mario Testino and La Moss holiday there regularly, apparently.  That was nearly enough to make me cancel my bus.  One way ticket to poseurville?  No thanks.

my little ponies

my little ponies

But, predictably, I loved it there.  The main hub of the town is the Quadrado, basically a village green, with a pretty church overlooking the sea and little shops, pousadas and restaurants all around the perimeter.  The bastards tapped into everything I like.  Ponies grazing on the grass.  Coloured lanterns in the trees.  Nice restaurants.  Shops filled with beautiful, pointless things.

a sucker for twinkly lights

a sucker for twinkly lights

It’s difficult to describe the vibe.  It’s chi chi but in an understated way (it reminds me of Primrose Hill many, many years ago before it went beyond bleurgh and disappeared up its own arse).  It doesn’t feel wholly Brazilian – probably because so many of the restaurant/shop/pousada owners are Europeans, but it’s still really laid back and, in off season, pretty quiet and sleepy.

natural pools on praia dos nativos

natural pools on praia dos nativos

The beaches are nice, although not as spectacular as some I’ve seen (picky, picky), and it’s tricky to walk the length of the beach because the sand slopes really steeply into the sea, so you look like you have one gammy leg.  However, if you’re lucky, like I was, you’ll find the still-gasping severed head of a barracuda on the beach.  Thrilling!

all washed up

all washed up

If you were to ask me where to come on a coupley beach holiday in Brazil for a couple of weeks, I’d say Trancoso hands down.  It’s sophisticated enough, but not showy.  It’s not too expensive (and downright cheap in off-season – I paid £25/night for a lovely 2-storey bungalow in a pousada with pool and gardens) and you feel at ease there immediately.  Plus, you can fly into Porto Seguro from all the Brazilian international airports, so you don’t need to brave the bus.

even the walkway to the beach is romantic...

even the walkway to the beach is romantic…

It’s very romantic.  Which is great when you’re travelling alone.  There’s nothing quite like going out for dinner à une only to see happy couples and families drinking and laughing together.  Put me right off my food.

Happily, on my last day there, I made a friend.  Romina, who lives in Buenos Aires, but who grew up carioca in Rio, loathes Argentina, and is fiendishly plotting her path back to Brazil for good.  She confessed that she’d been so put off by being the only single person in Trancoso that she’d just stayed in her pousada every night.  It also transpired that her pousada was a bit out of town, down some unsavoury-looking dark lane.  When I made the journey to pick her up that evening, with my flashlight on full beam and twitching at everything that moved, I didn’t blame her one bit for staying put.  I almost suggested calling for a pizza.

holiday fling

We crossed paths with an American/Czech guy who’d been given a trip as a bonus for completing an M&A deal.  Ivan, too, was solo, but didn’t seem as bothered about it.  At least not now that he’d seen Romina…

It’s been a while since I’ve played gooseberry and I probably should have engineered an excuse to leave the two of them together.  But I was damned if I was going to give up English-speaking company.

Especially when Ivan described where he was staying, saying it was like nowhere else he’d ever stayed.  And that with the money his company had paid for it, he could have bought a car in Cleveland, OH, where he lives.  This I had to see for myself, gooseberry or no gooseberry.

falling in love is so easy to do

Um.  I don’t have words to describe Uxua*.  I only have an overwhelming sense in my heart that it is The One.

Through an unassuming stable door into the hallway, where the night guard courteously overlooks the fact that their newest guest has brought back a couple of girls who appear to be salivating.  And straight into wonderland.

Everything was exactly right.  The teal colours used throughout combined with the wood and concrete.  The cracked enamel basins in the public bathroom.  The aquamarine swimming pool.  The magnificently planted and expertly lit garden, which gave each casita space and privacy.

meu amor

meu amor

Uxua’s made up of different residences, some are little houses dotted around the Quadrado, others are built within the gardens of the main pousada.

Ivan was in the Casa da Avore (the treehouse).  It was spectacular.  Swings and loveseats below in the garden.  Wooden stairs up to the living area, with a huge muslin-draped bed, rustic bathroom and terrace with a sofa, hammock and bar.  The full-height veranda doors opened with little wheels travelling along tracks above.  Never have I been somewhere where I felt that everything was exactly as it should be.  I fell head over heels.  And that was before I found out about the private hot tub.



I felt privileged to spend time there.  It’s rare for me to find nothing to criticise.  Romina had to catch a bus at 6am to make her flight at 9.  We left sometime around 3.30am, because we couldn’t drag ourselves away (although perhaps for different reasons…).  Ivan took photos of us lounging at his place and emailed them to his friends.  We let him – the man had the ultimate pimp palace – I just felt bad I hadn’t dressed for the occasion.

I, with my deep-rooted Catholic guilt, of course immediately confessed to The Mack that I’d transferred my affections to another.  I explained that it was as if someone had climbed inside my head and created my dream house, where all of my possessions would fit perfectly.

“That’s great, babe”, he said, “speak to the owners.  Tell them that you’ve got a load of stuff in storage that you think would be just perfect for them.  We save on storage costs, and your stuff gets to live in its ideal environment…”

No soul, that man.


*Of course, it turns out that the man behind Uxua, Wilbert Das, was the former creative director of Diesel for 15 years.  So maybe that fash pack connection isn’t all bad.

If I had kids, I’d name them Olinda and Salvador…

I have a theory about travel.  Like all of my theories, this one has been thoroughly researched and is backed up by peer-reviewed watertight statistical analysis.  Or else I just made it up.

My theory says that you will be comfortable in a place within 24 hours of arriving or not at all.  So, if you’re not happy in a place at the end of that 24 hour period (and I’m talking about you, Punta del Este and you, Sao Paulo) then it’s time to get a wriggle on.

24 hours is a good length of time, because no matter what time you arrive, day or night, you have enough time to see some of your surroundings and get your bearings.  Of course, it falls a little short if you’re travelling in one of those terribly dark countries in Scandinavia.  And it probably wouldn’t apply to an Arctic expedition.  But for everything else it definitely works.

Some places though, it only takes twenty-four minutes and you feel you’ve known them forever.

I was not looking for Olinda, Olinda found me…

So it was for me with Olinda.  I arrived in the main square, Praça do Carmo, via the usual three buses and a donkey, late in the afternoon.  I hauled my backpack up the hill – Olinda is steep – I feel they should have municipal stannah lifts installed.  My airbnb hosts weren’t in, so I sat outside their house on a step and said hello to their neighbours, one of whom insisted on beating on their closed shutters with her walking stick, just in case they hadn’t heard me knock.


pretty steep

Olinda is a colonial town, full of winding, cobbled streets and colourful houses.  It hosts what is said to be the best carnaval in Brazil, although my hosts said it has become a bit overrun with tourists in the past few years.

creepy carnival mascots

creepy carnival mascots

The house I stayed in was perched midway up the hill, on the way to the tourist hub around the Alto da Sé.  I was staying with a family, but my room was separate from the main house, up a wrought-iron staircase in the courtyard.  If you looked down from the main viewing platform by the church, you could see straight into my room.  That made me feel special.  Hanging out in my hammock enjoying the breeze, whilst the tourists bumbled about taking photos of my house.  It also meant I had to be careful when coming out of the shower…

my little house behind the blue door

my little house behind the blue door

During the day, I struggled to find another living soul.  If you do your English duty and mad-dog it in the midday sun around the town, you will have the place to yourself.  You will also dehydrate yourself to body-building competition standard and leave a torrent of sweat in your wake.  Fortunately this is a town full to bursting with churches (20+, I think), so sanctuary, spiritual or physical, is never too far away.

Igreja do Carmo

Igreja do Carmo

But come around 5pm, as the heat tampers down and dusk descends, the town starts to stir.  You don’t notice it at first, it’s just a background murmur.  But gradually, you realise that all around you there is a constant percussive beat.  Coming from different directions, sometimes with vocals, sometimes without.  But always the same rhythmic cadence, the sort that hooks onto your heartbeat, quickening it just a little, making it catch.

sun setting over Recife

sun setting over Recife

You don’t realise it, but the beat guides you to dinner.  A little restaurant in a shadier-looking part of town, where the houses are still candy-coloured, but the paint has peeled and laundry hangs ragged in the windows.  And there are young guys lounging in doorways, in a way that at first seems a little gangsta, until you realise they too are there for the music.  Your first encounter with the music makers in the town.  A 5-piece samba band, an advert for old age happiness that SAGA would kill to have in its travel brochures.  Jamming on the restaurant steps.  Purely for the pleasure of it.

I got talking to some guys sat behind me.  They were both musicians, one from Spain, the other Portuguese, both of whom came to Olinda some months ago, for the music, and who have stayed, for the music.  They tell me tonight’s my lucky night if I’m feeling adventurous. Music to my ears.

As standard in Brazil, nothing really gets going till after 11.  So we drink and chat (between us we speak English, Spanish, French and Portuguese) and they tell me that what I’m about to experience will rock my world.  And that I’m to stick close by them.  And not be afraid…

On the way, I’m encouraged to try Axé, a white spirit infused with herbs and spices sold in little bottles from specialist bars.  You add honey to make it drinkable and crushed guarana berries to make you invincible. If only homeopathy had this effect.

Axé murderers

Axé murderers

I feel the music long before we reach it.  It’s like a quant has worked out the perfect formula of beats and sounds to evoke the primordial dance spirits (an algo-rhythm?!).  We edge our way past the bodies and I see a small soundsystem set up, a few drums and some unlikely-looking instruments, a couple of mics.  And people.  Lots and lots of people.  Crammed into a dead-end alley, with beer and axé sellers lining the sides.

This is a Coco night.  And it’s absolutely fucking awesome.

Coco is a style of music, African influenced, hugely percussive but with quite haunting, staccato vocals.  Through the crowd I can just make out that some of the singers are really elderly women.  And that various people step up from the throng to take their turn to sing, like it’s an open mic night.

Coco is also the style of dance.  It moves through the body from the feet, through the waist to the shoulders and head.  The movements are entirely alien to a western body.  You have to be able to feel the music rise from the earth to dance coco and we westerners just don’t have that soil/soul connection.

Combined, the two elements are intoxicating (nothing to do with the caiprinha/beer/axé combination I’ve imbued).  The dancers whirl furiously and the music gets deep inside your head.  It is a mix of African strength and gypsy fever. If I hadn’t been so tired from my travelling, I’d have stayed the distance till 7am.  As it was, I crawled into my new bed at 3am, exhausted, exhilarated and fell asleep to the beat of the drums in the distance.

where your beats at, Bahia?

Everyone that I met elsewhere in Brazil told me the same thing.  Be careful in Salvador de Bahia.  It’s a very dangerous place.  Don’t go out by yourself.  Don’t carry any valuables.

So in my head, I decided it must be like Peckham.  I wouldn’t ordinarily choose to go to Peckham.  Except to Frank’s bar in the summer.  So as long as I stuck to multi-storey car park roof-tops in Salvador, I’d be A-ok.

got to the bottom. found nothing of interest. came back up

got to the bottom. found nothing of interest. came back up

I only stayed in Salvador a couple of nights.  I’d been debating whether to bus down from Olinda to some beautiful beach resorts around Alagoas, but the prices in Praia do Toque were more than I could justify.  So I booked a next day flight from Recife to Salvador.  How spontaneous!  Only when I got to the check-in desk, having queued for ages and with half an hour before my flight left, they didn’t have my reservation.  A problem with payment processing.  Sorry madam, you don’t have a ticket.

I took this news in my stride.  After all, I’ve dealt with far worse (one word: India).  I ran with the check-in guy to the sales desk to buy a replacement ticket, ran back to check-in my bags, ran through security (thank you small, domestic airports for your lack of vigilance) and onto the plane minutes before they shut the doors for take-off.  Standard stuff.

I stayed with a family again, but this time in a room in their house.  I’d forgotten how much I hate staying at other people’s houses, even close friends.  I can’t relax.  This family was so laid back about having guests that they basically left me to it, which made it even worse.  Was I supposed to stay in my room?  Mingle?  They told me to help myself to water and cooking stuff, but then I used up the last of the water without realising and, oh lord, the stress was just too much.  Fortunately, I made friends with their 8 year old son.  We made paper airplanes and I helped him with his homework.  Before I left, he insisted on taking out-of-focus photographs on my phone of every room in their house, so that I could show my friends where I’d stayed.  Cute.

our fleet. Lucas kindly put my fave plane at the front of the shot

our fleet. Lucas kindly put my fave plane at the front of the shot

I think Salvador is one of those places where you need to live to really get the hang of it.  I did the tourist thing, walked around Pelourinho.  It was pretty enough, but a bit sanitised for me.  It reminded me a bit of being in Camden after the refurb.  And conversely, having the armed police on every corner didn’t make me feel safer, just segregated.  I took a bus down to the beach at Barra.  Nice enough, but a bit anywheresville for my taste – I couldn’t get any sense of character.

bahian style in Pelourinho

bahian style in Pelourinho

I much preferred where I was living.  Dois de Julio.  A real neighbourhood.  The same cheek-by-jowl mix of workers, the work-shy, families, artists, hustlers and crazies that you find in any melting-pot city  Where old men blast out the same song on a loop all evening from a stereo rigged up to an amp in the little square and no-one minds.  I’ve been searching for that song ever since.

I ate in a neighbourhood restaurant, Caxixi, where the young waiters wore old-fashioned aprons and took pains to look after the strange gringo girl.  Wrapping up the other half of my food when I couldn’t manage it all and insisting I take it home with me (cue anxiety as asking my hosts if I could use their fridge to store it…!).

I’d like to come back to Salvador.  I want to find the music and dance it’s so famous for.  I want to stay longer and live it a little.  But as I said to The Mack, I’d need to take him along.  It’s not a city for a solo traveller.  You can’t just go get lost in it and take your chances.  Not because it’s so dangerous (I didn’t feel that at all), but because I think it needs two pairs of eyes to uncover its secrets.

Breaking Brazil: Natal to Baia da Traicao

It’s no coincidence that we call people from other countries “aliens”.  There’s always that funny feeling when you visit somewhere new and you realise there are all these millions of people living full, real lives there, and that this place is the centre of their universe, and then you multiply that for all the different places in the world where all of these parallel lives are being lived, and then you stop, because you can’t feel your limbs anymore and you’re doing that darting thing with your eyes like maybe you’ve just caught a glimpse of the meaning of life and your brain is collapsing in on itself with the enormity of it all.

I like being part of an alien race for a while.  There’s something quite liberating about not understanding much of what’s being said around you (or about you).  Probably that’s called ignorance.  But it is blissful.  Most of the time.  Sometimes it’s downright awkward.  More on that later.

basic travel errors

Regular readers of this blog will know that my travel style could best be described as woefully ill-prepared, chaotic and, as a result, costly.  You’ll be pleased to know that not much has changed on this trip.  Two fairly fundamental errors:

1.  I didn’t appreciate quite how vast Brazil is (4th largest country in the world, if you don’t count Alaska and Hawaii with the USA).  Genuinely no idea.  I mean, I thought it was quite big, but that is huge!  So obviously (obviously) it takes ages to get from one place to another.  So it helps if you plan your trip with the time you have.  If you’re there for a few months, you can use the long distance buses, but if, like me, you have about 3.5 weeks, you’re going to need to fly between places and that costs money.  Which brings me to…

2.  The fact that most of the Brazilian airlines (TAM, GOL etc) sell an airpass which gives you a certain number of domestic flights for a reduced price.  Little miss “no pre-planning” here got all excited when I found out about this, sitting in the rented apartment in Rio.  And then crashed and burned when I saw that you have to buy it at the same time you buy your international flight – you can’t get it once you’re in Brazil…  Fail.

Once I’d stopped snivelling at the injustice of it all and taken off my hair shirt, I looked at a map of Brazil (very big country, did you know?) and tried really hard to grasp the distances involved.  And decided that, given that I was flying out of Rio de Janeiro, the furthest north I dared go was the state of Rio Grande do Norte in the North East.

That sorted, I sent The Mack back to dreary London and I flew the next day to Natal.

Praia de Pipa and Tibau do Sul

Praia de Pipa was recently featured as one of Brazil’s best beach resorts in The Guardian.  Kilometres of sand backed by beautiful pink cliffs.  A vibrant beach town with restaurants and bars.  A mini-mecca for surfers and an area of great ecological importance.

You can imagine my utter delight then when it rained pretty solidly for the first two days I was there (out of 3).  And I’m not talking a drizzle.  Full tropical thundery showers, where the rain hurls down in sheets and the clouds look like water bombs.  I made the mistake of looking at the 10 day forecast.  Rain. Only rain.  Forever more.

oh, hello rain. fancy meeting you here

oh, hello rain. fancy meeting you here

Fortunately, I’d just discovered Breaking Bad on (illegal?) download TV.  Only 5 seasons late…  So I watched the whole of season one from the sanctuary of my bungalow and waited for Noah to bring the ark around the front so I could explore.

I made a run for it when there was a gap in the storms (which isn’t easy in flip flops on wet cobbled streets). And was rewarded with seeing a dolphin swimming just 50 metres from shore.  I was tempted to swim out to it, but then God sent the rains again, so I went home.

On the one sunny day I got, I walked for 8 km along the beach from Pipa to Tibau do Sul.  You have to climb over rocks to get from Praia dos Golfinhos to Praia Madeiro, but after that it’s just endless sand and nobody around.

the deserted beach. a Brazilian specialty.

the deserted beach. a Brazilian specialty.

By the time I reached Tibau do Sul, I was scorched, parched and a bit delirious.  So I did what anyone would do, I found a bar overlooking the incredible Guarairas lagoon, ordered a Guarana for a sugar hit and watched the first half of the Real Madrid v. Borussia Dortmund Champions League semi-final.

the view almost made me take my eye of the ball

the view almost made me take my eye of the ball

Baia da Traicao

I have no idea where I heard of Baia da Traicao.  I probably saw the words “sleepy fishing village” in some guidebook and that was it.  Sold.  With hindsight, probably not the most optimal destination at a time when my Portuguese was non-existent. 

Getting there was hard enough.  A combi van from Pipa to Goaininha.  Then a chicken road crossing, climbing over the central reservation of the BR-101 to get to the bus stop.  The alien ignorance came in handy here, with all the unlicensed taxis touting for my business.  I’m pretty sure they were telling me that for just a bit more, I could travel in the style and comfort befitting a lady such as myself.  But I was able to laugh it off and repeat the word “onibus” until they gave up.

I got dropped off by the bus at the side of the motorway in Mamanguape (great name).  I felt a bit teary as I wandered into the little town, lost and all alone.  I was just about to ask in a shop for directions to the bus stop when I spied a bus headed for Baia de Traicao and just made it.  It was only as we passed through ever decreasing villages on the hour-long bus ride, that I realised I had very little cash and there was a good chance there was no bank at my destination…  Fail.

for 'sleepy' read 'empty'

for ‘sleepy’ read ’empty’

Where things became a little awkward was pretty much the entire time I spent in BdT.  It’s a time-warp town, surrounded by indigenous villages, so understandably no-one speaks any English.  I smiled a lot.  But I felt rude and self-conscious.

Luckily, a kind ex-Paulista took pity on me when she and her husband saw me lunching alone.  She spoke a mixture of English and Portuguese with me, so I could practise pretending to understand the natives.  She told me I should look up her friends, an Italian couple who did tours of the area.  I promised her I would (lying through my teeth: I had no intention of doing anything of the sort, my plan was to find a quiet corner of the beach and wait out my time).

She clearly sensed my cowardice.  ‘Cos she sent the Italians round to find me instead.  Which was great, except that I didn’t understand what Rosa, the lovely owner of the pousada, was saying to me when she knocked on my door.  So it took a good 5 minutes of absolute incomprehension on my part before I understood that there were people downstairs waiting to see me.  Fail.

Still, once I’d got over that, everything turned out peachy.  Marco picked me up each day in his combi van and we went on an adventure to beautiful lagoons, beaches, a manatee project, indian villages and river sources.  He was an easy guide and I started to relax.

where the peixe-bois (manatees) live.  they were out when I visited

where the peixe-bois (manatees) live. they were out when I visited, but the boat ride was nice. #fail

I got to understand the pace and quirks of BdT.  The fact that the 2 restaurants only open for lunchtime trade.  And if you are a solo traveller, your options are limited to soup and salad.  All the other fish dishes are for two people.  And no, they won’t let you pay for a two person meal, ‘cos you’re only one person.  So you’re stuck with soup. Enjoy!

If you want to eat at night, you’re going to be doing so from a burger van.  The first night, I was so traumatised I could only bring myself to order chips.  It got (marginally) better from there – I braved a bar/resto one night and just about managed to converse with some locals over yet more soup.  It helped when the bar dog ran at a passing woman on a bicycle and she was so terrified she rode straight into a lamppost.  Laughter unites people.

the town square.  where the magic happens.

the town square. where the magic happens.

If you’re a gringo, you stick out like a sore thumb.  Everyone knows who you are within minutes of your arrival.  When I was leaving, I had to make my card payment in the pharmacy (the only working card machine in town).  An old guy was in there, chatting with the owner and anyone else who would listen, drinking a beer at 10am.  He leaned across me and said to Rosa, “ah, she belongs to you, does she?  I’ve seen her in the bars in the square.  I’ve been wondering what she’s doing here. Is she sick?  What’s wrong with her…?”

As I said, pretty awkward.  I just smiled.  And left.

I don't think I would have felt quite as sorry for the littlest hobo if he'd been wandering through places like this...

I don’t think I would have felt quite as sorry for the littlest hobo if he’d been wandering through places like this…

travelling with a fringe and other hang ups

Just before I left London for Buenos Aires, I got a blunt fringe cut into my hair. My hairdresser was worried I’d look too severe. He needn’t have. I look the same as my six year old self, minus the hangover 1970s dungarees and liking for making mud pies and rose petal+water perfume.

However, I’ll admit I hadn’t thought through the logistics of travelling with a fringe…

In the pre-fringe days, I used to wake up every morning resembling Beetlejuice or Edward Sissorhands. Keaton or Depp. I’m more than ok with that. Sure, I looked deranged, but in a cool, off-beat way (I hoped).

Now, with the South American humidity, I’ve gone full Cliff Richard mullet. My fine, rabbit-fur like hair in this weather cannot live up to the hairdressing marketing spiel. It is most definitely not fine. It is thin. And lank. And it looks 3-days-unwashed within a matter of minutes. The four flimsy strands that make up my fringe have decided to pair up, so I look like some two-bit hick from hicksville every time the wind parts it.

everything is alright and uptight…

There’s nothing like travelling solo to reveal your hang ups. The thing is, when you’re travelling with someone, you can always pretend to yourself that, despite obvious signs to the contrary, you are, in fact, an incredibly chilled out, fun, free-spirited individual. And that any problems you encounter must be the other person’s fault.

When it’s just you, it’s a little harder to keep up the pretence. Here are just a few things I have managed to wind myself up over:

Being too skinny in Rio. Yep, for a girl who has spent most of her adult life in the pursuit of svelte, I felt like a freak in Rio, where if you ain’t got curves, you ain’t carioca, my friend. Payback time. Fair enough.

Always arriving places at night. You might think that I’d learn from this one. Arriving alone in a new town at night, when you haven’t the faintest clue where you’re staying, is a bit miserable. And when I say “night”, remember that I’m pretty equatorial here, so I’m talking any time post 5pm. My routine has been thus: get off the bus, concealing all items of value. Find a taxi. Try not to look out of the car window at the scary streets. Get to the pousada. Double lock the door. Hide in my room for about an hour. Psyche myself up to go in search of food. Stick to the closest, best-lit streets, staying alert at all times. Grab whatever food is available. Retreat to safety of room. Get up the next morning to discover I’m in paradise…

Being a foodie skinflint. I don’t like to spend money on food when I’m travelling alone. It seems a waste. But I’ll admit that the three days I spent living on instant noodles, bread rolls and (good) olive oil in Praia de Pipa was maybe a little bit odd.

Going full grunge. When it’s just lil ol’ me, my grooming habits are the first things to go. I figure no-one’s looking at me and if people get close enough to smell me, well that’s their look out. I find myself wearing the same four items of clothing and wondering why it is that I’ve chosen to lug around a whole washbag of toiletries that I clearly have no intention of using. All of which is just fine, until I arrive in a resort that has a bit of life to it. And then I realise it’s all gone a bit Apocalypse Now.

Nao falo portuguese. I’m generally a bit smug about my language abilities. I speak pretty good French, and my Spanish is ok, so I arrogantly assumed that I’d pick up Portuguese quickly. Not so. That bastard child of (to my ears) Russian and Chinese is an absolute horror to learn. I can’t contort my mouth to make the right sounds without miaowing. So I’ve learned 6 mini expressions (3 for “great”, 2 to express “yes, I’ve understood” and one for “perfect”). I use them with abandon in any situation, just changing my facial expression to express either a positive or negative emotion (a bit confusing for the listener sometimes). A couple of them are slang, so I use them when I want to appear cool.

Mozzie killing. I’m level 9 full mosquito paranoia. For good reason. They eat me alive and my body does not react well. I’m still a bit endless-Brit-winter pale, so the bites show up like welts and itch so bad I want to flay my own skin. So between the hours of 5 and 7pm (mozzie o’clock), I barricade myself in my room. All doors and windows locked and the aircon set to arctic. For dinner, I go full burka, leaving just my mouth uncovered for eating purposes. I go to sleep under a mozzie net and hope for the best. And as the next day wears on, I start to feel a little tickle here and there, the tell-tale tingle of fresh bites. And I reapply the deet and the tiger balm and I wonder what the hell’s taking Bill and Melinda Gates so long to eradicate the malaria monsters?

Talking to myself. Talking, laughing, singing. The works. Even sometimes in Portuguese when I’m trying some new words out. Fortunately, I find myself quite entertaining.

Being a girl. This one I should probably be grateful for, given that I’m 35. But it’s tiresome. For the guys out there, repeat after me, in the immortal words of Wyclef Jean: “Just ‘cos she dances loco, that don’t make her a ho, no”. For the non-believers, let me spell it out to you. Yes, I am a girl, travelling alone. And yes, I may be lying on a beach, jigging my head to whatever crap pop playlist I happen to have put together (unsurprisingly, a lot of Usher). No, that does not mean I would like some “company”. I take back what I said earlier about struggling with Portuguese. There are a couple of phrases I learned really quickly thanks to friendly Brazilian men. The order goes like this: “What’s your name?”. “Where are you from?”. “Are you married?”. Nothing short of marriage seems to deter them. However, brandishing a flaming torch helps to keep them at bay.

Unfortunately, It also attracts the mosquitoes…

Marvellously Rio-tous

Anyone who has a vague grasp of geography and who has been following my travels on this blog will realise from the title that I’m skimming over Sao Paulo. No disrespect intended, but it’s a city a bit like London or Barcelona. You really need to know someone there to get the best out of it. We don’t. So we didn’t…

We were only there for 2 days, but we did manage to go on a walking tour downtown. And here it differs from London or Barcelona. Because Paulistas have a habit of knocking down all of their heritage buildings every 50 years or so in favour of more concrete high-rises. So it’s more a tour of what used to be there… Our young, energetic tour guide lost his audience in The Mack almost immediately, when the first buildings of interest he pointed out were 1960s architectural horrors. We ditched the tour an hour in to get lunch and a beard-trim (The Mack, not me). Sorry SP, you lost us.

rio's redeeming feature

rio’s redeeming feature

But Rio is something else. It’s one of those cities that has a tangible flavour. I can’t say what that flavour is, but damn sure it involves a ton of sugar and some cachaca. It’s sweet and sticky and it sends you a little bit crazy.

Some people say that it’s the geography that gives Rio its vibe.  Mountains and beaches and sun and sky.

sugar loaf summit panorama. a little on the wonk due to my abject fear of heights

I’m not sure. That gives a false impression of space and freedom – most Cariocas live in small apartments, lots of people crammed into a building. And you only have to see the physics-defying favelas, coloured boxes stacked precariously on the mountain sides, to know that space is scarce in the city. The outdoor lifestyle is definitely part of it – people like to get out, to socialise, to see and be seen. But they work hard too – Rio ain’t cheap and most seem to have to graft for a living.

No. What defines Rio is an attitude. It’s a conscious, collective commitment to full-life living. Rio, for me, is a city of hustlers. And I mean that in a good way. There’s a sense that you could do anything there. The framework of the city leaves gaps to be exploited. It says “You want to give something a go? Go right ahead. Don’t expect any support, but if you make it work then we’ll celebrate you to kingdom come.” I have it on good authority that it’s the place where global nomads go to settle down, because the people there understand the itch. Everyone in Rio is a little restless.


catedral metropolitan de Sao Sebastio

I loved it. The tiny studio apartment in Lapa that we rented (and our fabulous hosts). The every-Friday night monster street party that makes Notting Hill carnival look like a Hampshire summer fete. The samba bands outside bars in downtown on an average Monday night, attracting hundreds of locals (and a handful of gringos doing embarrassing-dad dancing). Getting your 5-a-day in the form of caipifrutas (avoid passion fruit – maracuja – delicious, but gets stuck in the straw). The strange anti-fashion all-occasion uniform of cheap shorts and flip-flops, contrasted with the country-wide obsession for straight, sleek hair (the ratio of products in any pharmacy are 20% medicines, 78% frizz-taming products and 2% other). The fact that everyone is mixed and more beautiful for it. The dalek-inspired cathedral. The buzzing beaches, even mid-week in Autumn. The hilarity of cariocas’ gym-junkie addiction, made necessary by a diet that consists almost entirely of deep-fried orange foods.

filthy Friday fun under the Lapa arches

filthy Friday fun under the Lapa arches

If you go, then my advice is stay in Lapa or Santa Teresa (Lapa if you’re an urbanite, Sta Teresa if you want a bit of quiet). Real life, not the euro-beach sanitised version you get in Copacabana or Ipanema. Just know that if you arrive in Lapa after dark, you will most likely be scared. It’ll pass by day 3. Don’t think that everyone is out to rob you or kill you. Some might be, but don’t take it personally. Most times guys will just get a little frisking from a group of hard-faced girls – in The Mack’s case, he only had beer in his pockets, so he got the better deal. Drink in local bars – don’t let your girlfriend tell you that you’re not welcome there. Try not to gawp at the working girls – yes they look incredible, but they have a job to do and it’s rude to stare.

I’m sure Rio Scenarium is great at weekends, when the local samba stars are out in force and the queues go round the block. But on a Tuesday night, it resembled a night on a cruise liner – middle aged Swiss physicists, a Joe Pesci-alike dancefloor demon and a pneumatic, second-time-around saucy couple who illustrated why Brazil is renowned for being the plastic surgery capital of the world.

cable cars - so beautiful from the ground

cable cars – so beautiful from the ground

If you do one tourist thing, then the cable car to Sugar Loaf is actually pretty cool (she says, still whimpering). But cut out the bottom bit. Take the trail up Morro de Urca and, like The Mack, as you reach the summit: bare-chested, sweating, cursing and a bit stinky, suddenly find yourself confronted with the tourist masses. Maybe give it a few minutes in the breeze before you get into the cable car…

on the set of El Shining… Uruguay and out

It says a lot about us that The Mack and I decided to ditch a trip to Iguazu Falls and the nature reserves on the Argentine/Brazilian border in favour of a few nights unbridled hedonism in the Uruguayan Ibiza, Punta del Este.

It says even more about us that we turned up in Punta del Este to find that we’d well and truly missed the party.

The plan seemed foolproof and awesome.  By boat from Argentina to Uruguay then up the beautiful coast to Brazil.  For The Mack, it meant 3 countries in 3 weeks.  For me, a nice little sojourn before the Brazilian main event.

Buenos Aires to Colonia


catholic upbringing

A hop over on the ferry from Buenos Aires to Colonia for a spot of lunch.  Pretty little colonial town (clue’s in the name). Coloured houses round a cobbled square, old jalopies with foliage dotted about the place, that kind of thing.  Just the right side of Disney in the sunshine.

Except that by the time we’d got off the ferry, found the tourist office, then found the bus terminal, booked our onward bus and dumped our luggage, we only had 2 hours to eat it and beat it.  Still, what we saw looked cute enough.  Even if all of the people in the town looked to be from the same family.  Very distinctive features, Uruguayans.  I think it’s the straight noses.

Colonia to Montevideo

We’d been told that the bus journey from Colonia to Montevideo was around 2.5 – 3 hours.  What they hadn’t told us was how unbelievably comfy the bus seats were.  Like they’d been woven from our most beautiful dreams, to gently cradle and cosset us.  Not only that, but the buses have wi-fi.  And they run on time.  And the staff is incredibly helpful and courteous.  The word that sprang to mind was “agreeable”. Uruguayans are just very agreeable people.  We think we figured out why, but more on that later.

What we hadn’t factored on was the bus stopping everywhere on route to pick up passengers.  Mainly in lay-by’s where there didn’t seem to be a single building within 5 miles.  And you’d be able to spot it.  Uruguay is very flat (probably).  And very rural.  All the shops we passed en route were selling tractors or farm implements.

We had seats assigned to us on our ticket.  But there was someone in mine when we got on the bus and there were plenty of other seats, so we did that very British thing of just taking the seats in front rather than trying to make a fuss in a foreign language.  Which was fine.  Right up until a young couple got on at about the 24th lay-by and told us we were in their seats.  So we got up, ready to recover our rightful seats.  Only to see that they were now occupied by a fast asleep guy and a woman with a sleeping toddler in her arms.

But it was ok.  We stood, figuring we only had about a half hour left of the journey.  Chalking it up to experience.  And then I made the mistake of thinking out loud to The Mack that maybe we’d screwed up and this wasn’t a direct bus, given the number of stops it was making.  By now it was 8pm.  We were hungry, crotchety and standing.  I didn’t have a ready guesstimate of how long it would take.  I wasn’t an expert on the arterial roads of Uruguay and how this affected journey times.  I should have kept my mouth shut.  I was saved when we rolled in to Montevideo 45 minutes later.

We’d only planned to stay one night in Monte.  We weren’t convinced of its merits when we did our pitiful research.  I think we were right.  However, our hotel was adorable.  The Hotel Palacio.  Just off the main square and staffed by spritely septuagenarians.  The Mack was expecting a s***hole.  What we got was a spruced up turn of the century room with great big bathroom and a huge terrace overlooking the city.  Not bad for £30.  And a lovely old man who spent 10 minutes showing me how to work the cable TV (there were 2 on buttons and an up and down programme selector involved… and he had bifocals).

view from the terrace

view from the terrace

We tried to have a night out in Monte.  We’d heard that it got a bit lively on a Saturday night.  It certainly had a strip of pubs/bars to rival even the ropiest UK town.  After careful deliberation (based on the severity of the look of horror on my face), we picked one that had “Pony” in its name.  It didn’t disappoint.  All you need to know about it was that our drink of choice was Long Island Iced Teas.  And the covers band started with a Bon Jovi ballad.  It was all we could do to drag ourselves away.

Montevideo to Punta del Este

The Mack was quite excited about hitting Punta.  He’d been allowed to choose the hotel for this one and we’d upped the budget so that we could do a bit of pimpin’ in Punta. We’d booked 2 nights, so that we’d have plenty of time to recover from a big night on the razz.

I’d checked where the hotel was before we left Monte.  I knew that it was a bit out of town, and I’d mentioned it to The Mack before we booked it, but he said he was fine with it.  Perfect mix of detox and retox.

When we arrived at the bus station at P del E, I asked the lady at the info point to show me on a map where our hotel was.  But she couldn’t.  Because her map didn’t cover a large enough area.  Because we’d booked into a hotel about 15km away in the next resort.  Literally miles away from the action.

So you see Punta del Este on the right.  And the arrow on the left.  Well look above the arrow and you'll see a lake in the middle of nowhere.  That's us.

So you see Punta del Este bottom centre. And the arrow on the left. Well look above the arrow and you’ll see a lake in the middle of nowhere. That’s us.

You think that was a disappointment…  Fortunately, it didn’t matter so much when we walked into the town to find a cab only to discover that it was empty apart from some tumbleweed blowing down the main street. Apparently, party season in Punta del Este stops at Easter.  Who knew?  Clearly not us.

Ok, no problem.  So what?  We get to spend a couple of days in a lovely golf and spa resort on the banks of a lake.  Tennis courts, bike rides, swimming pools, the works.

lady of the lake

lady of the lake

Oh.  And one other thing.  It’s deserted.  Most of the lights are switched off in the common areas.  They’ve drained the jacuzzi and turned off the sauna. You’re paying over £80/night to stay in a mausoleum.  The rigidly bored girl on the front desk tells you they’ve upgraded you to a lake-view room.  You realise it’s so they can better keep an eye on you and they only have to hoover one corridor.



We tried to escape on some rented bikes.  After an hour’s cycle of pedalling past weird thatched cottages, swearing, reattaching our chains every third revolution and a knackering hill climb, we saw Punta del Este still miles out of reach.  We cycled back, dejected and resigned to our gilded cage.  Pimpin’ it weren’t.

El Bungalow.  Honest to God.

El Bungalow. Honest to God.

We had a hushed dinner in an all-but-empty restaurant.  The food was good, but it came at a price.  I had no idea tedium could be so costly.  We marvelled at the fact that the mixers in the mini bar cost the same as the spirits.  So we just made stronger drinks.  We slept.  A lot.  And our dreams were a montage of The Shining and Cocoon.

the no-reservations policy had somewhat backfired...

the no-reservations policy had somewhat backfired…

We pondered on Uruguay.  Its political and economic stability, compared to its better-known neighbours.  It’s cleanliness and organisation.  The agreeableness of its people.  And we realised, it can be all of those things because… THERE’S NO-ONE IN IT.

So we decided to cut our losses.  No adventuring in search of people in ever remoter fishing villages up the coast, as originally planned.  Nope.  You won’t find anyone there.  We spent a heart-breaking amount of cash on a next-day flight to Sao Paulo.  But when we paid almost the same again in a taxi from the resort to the bus station at Punta del Este, we knew we’d made the right decision.  And I vowed never to let The Mack choose anything, ever again.