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On the road . April 2010 . Brazil

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Paudimar Hostelling International [website] Foz do Iguaçu, Brazil, 25-04-10
Definitely worth the sweaty detour

24 km after São José do Norte to Viamão (4 cycle days; 327 km; 598m)

24 km after São José do Norte to 24 km after Bojuru (76km; 68m)
24 km after Bojuru to 26 km after Mostardas (81km; 66m)
26 km after Mostardas to Capão da Porteira (115km; 77m)
Capão da Porteira to Viamão (55km; 387m)

Before we met Rodrigo and Gisele in Santiago, our plan was to enter Uruguay and run along the border with Argentina all the way to Foz do Iguaçu: the massively famous waterfalls featured in the movie The Mission, with a flow capacity equal to three times that of Niagara Falls. As soon as we got to Buenos Aires, we decided to still make our way to the falls, but abandon the first route idea and instead cycle along the coast of Uruguay, into Brazil, in the direction of Porto Alegre and pay a visit to Rodrigo and Gisele.

Travel is not always about a direct path to and from the well frequented sights and wonders, but getting to know people first hand and hear about the culture of a country from their perspective. It's also about adapting to the moment and even though the cycle to Viamão is possibly not as memorable as what we have had before, we couldn't have made a better decision.

The four day cycle is pretty hot and sticky with wind blowing in all directions. The scenery is of either farmland or forest industry. We camp wild the first night in a pine plantation, 24 km after Bojuru (76km; 68m), where we had purchased our daily supplies in a shed converted into a supermarket. It was big and airy and had everything we wanted. It was also ridiculously cheap - as we later find out - compared with supermarkets in more populated townships. I wished we had bought more of the paçoca: hardened blocks of sugary condensed milk with crushed peanuts: awfully sweet, but awfully delicious. Just outside we meet Mr Mosmann, who tells us he is a shoe exporter. We also discover afterwards that he is a very successful business man in this region. His English is excellent in any case.

The ema [Brazilian emu] is abundant, but not as prevalent as the cow population. And where our bovine friends are not grazing, rice is growing. Harvest season means golden hues and plenty of truck and black bird traffic. As we cycle past, the latter take to air in a frenzied flutter of chirps before settling on the next largest tree and swooping the road for excess grain. They are in food heaven.

The next two evenings we camp at two of the numerous Ipiranga Service Stations along this stretch: 26 km after Mostardas (81km; 66m) and at Capão da Porteira (115km; 77m). They both have showers available for use which is a blessing for us and those we meet, after the day's warmth. Smells of lush tropics are moving in fast. I can feel the sweat clamming to my skin. I can see the green intensifying. We are melting in our tent each night.

Thirteen kilometers before Capão da Porteira, we turn left at the t-junction marking the end of BR 101 for us for the moment. We'll meet Brazil's longest rodovia [highway]; running for nearly 4600 kilometres, when we hit the coast again in a few weeks time. Our path since Mostardas has been badly potholed, but this road leading to Porto Alegre delivers no shoulder and makes cycling quite horrifying at times. We see our first plastic houses, where the indigenous people have been forced to live. Children are playing close to traffic as smoke rises from the kitchen fire. Woven handicrafts hang from poles draped with cloth creating makeshift stalls. These people look very poor.

While there might be nothing particularly exciting about the landscape, Brazilians get quite animated about seeing us cycling past: plenty of thumbs up, hopas [hellos] and waves. Obviously, it can't only be because I'm cycling with Dr House.

After a night threatened constantly with little rain showers, we pull out of the surrounding machinery sheds and meet up with the owner of the petrol station, Osvaldo Canquerini. He is proud to tell of his third generation Italian ancestry and showers us with gifts of a little sandwich-bag cooler and a free bottle of petrol for cooking. This sort of treatment we received in Iran and Colombia: two of our favourite countries to cycle in so far, making the first impressions of Brazil pretty damned good. As we cycle further out of town, we notice that the name "Canquerini" is on every business, from the local bakery to the butchers and the colonial [farmers'] produce stores that are everywhere in this region.

Shoulder comes and goes as we make our way to Viamão (55km; 387m), where we shop, get directions from a police officer and cycle out to Rodrigo and Gisele's house. Its about five kilometres out of town. Quite a few ups and downs on the side road and more than necessary, seeing as we are not quite sure where to go.

The Viamão experience
Our arrival is greeted by a barrage of very happy dogs: Nanook - an Alaskan Malamute; Anakin - a Saint Bernard; Cusca Branca - a very jumpy and excitable street dog; and Salamáo with his one eye, very dirty white toy poodle wool and an even more enthused disposition than the other canines. After some time, Gisele comes out beaming with joy too. She is even more delighted when she finds out we are vegetarians. This is the first South American we have met that doesn't eat meat and who is conscience of animal rights at revolutionary levels. Rodrigo goes veggie for the length of our stay too, which he actually enjoys.

He also works incredibly hard and Gisele spends quite a bit of time in Porto Alegre during the week, so we are left to our own devices in their beautiful home with plenty of cats to entertain: Samanta, Roberto, Marco Antonio, Anja and Loira and all the mod-cons to keep us busy updating the website; planning our next trip; catching up with suppliers and cooking some real home-made meals. Not only does the kitchen stove have six burners but an oven too. Furthermore, the dvd collection which I slowly work my way through, catching up on one of my favourite past-times, has me in raptures. Tall grass, fruit trees, farm animals, birds and tranquility are a perfect description of the surrounding grounds.

Gisele takes us on a grand tour of Porto Alegre, where we meet in Farroupilha Park. First on the itinerary is the Mercado Público [Central Public Market]. Its neoclassical architecture hasn't lost its charm after its one year restoration ending in 1996. It is not only a great place to get to know Brazilian food culture, but excellent for taking colourful photographs as well, since everything is clean and neatly organised. There is also plenty of organic produce on sale as well. Most famous is the ice-cream parlor which is almost as old as the 1869 building.

Second on the list is a photo exhibition at the majestic Centro Cultural Santander, originally a banking headquarters but now a cultural centre and gallery housing a stylish café downstairs in the former bank's vault. The building, currently owned by Banco Santander of Spain, is noted for its ornate wrought iron railings and stained glass ceiling panes.

Afterwards we wander down to Casa de Cultura Mário Quintana [Mario Quintana Culture Centre]: also built in neoclassical style. The Majestic Hotel, no longer in operation was home to Mário Quintana a famous gaúcho poet and is therefore a prominently symbolic building in the history of Porto Alegre. Since refurbishment in 1990, it has grown to become one of the largest cultural centers in Latin America offering movie theatres, exhibition areas and other arts-orientated spaces. If you want a really good view of the city then a trip up to Majestic Café on the top floor is well worth it.

From here we venture riverside to Rio Guaíba and the Usina do Gasômetro, an old 1928 powerplant now used as an arts-complex with cinemas and ample exposition space. It is mid-week, so we missed visiting the Brique da Redenção [Handicraft Fair] full of Latin American crafts and antiques found on Saturdays and Sundays at 5ª Avenida Cente and Parque Farroupilha respectively.

Instead, at the weekend, it's a tour of Chagdud Gonpa a buddhist temple near Três Coroas; and then onto Gramado Zoo, where exotically colourful birds and unusual Brazilian fauna entertain us for a few hours. Ali is completely enchanted with the Maned Wolf, sometimes called a "fox on stilts", which is a perfect description of this red haired black stockinged creature that struts gracefully by using the same-side front and hind feet for each stride. While I'm not really into zoo's, this rather spanking new habitat that opened its doors in September 2008, has about 1500 animals of which many came from illegal captivity or trading. They are motivated to maintaining animal well-being, continue research, education and conservation of native Brazilian animals, especially those species classified endangered. So, I didn't mind so much about seeing cute monkey faces behind wires.

In the evening, we come to rest at Parque da Cachoeira, São Francisco de Paula and after a night in the tent, we take a rather knee bending walk - well for my little legs in any case - over rocks and undergrowth to get to a waterfall the next morning. We meet up with friends Guido and Karin for lunch before returning to Viamão, not without a detour stop at a chocolate caseiro [homemade chocolate] house. These are plastered all over the touristy streets of townships in Gramado. I never knew that South Americans were so crazy about this need-no-excuse-for-any-time-of-day-treat, but they are. And I tell you I'm not complaining either. The shop we stop at in Canela has fresh strawberries covered in white chocolate fondue on a stick as well as - and I'm not kidding - a chocolate salame [chocolate salami] prepared from dark chocolate, broken cookies, butter, and eggs. decadent is that? My teeth are zinging at the thought.

Another week passes very easily. Cats get lots of extra cuddles and attention from us and they in turn come and plop themselves in our laps regularly. Now, with five felines around, that's a major chunk of the day spent on "cat-lapping". I make use of the great kitchen facilities and we all eat well. Ali works on internet and I get a giggle out of editing 2 hours of material about our boat trip from Panama to Colombia down to 15 minutes. Only with Sailing Koala can be seen on our cycle-touring-video-page.

The next weekend, after an enjoyably lazy Saturday, we lunch with friends and then deliver my back bike wheel to Aguiarcycles [Av. Protasio Alves, No 280 sl. | 104 Rio Branco | Porto Alegre RS], since the hub is making weird grinding noises. We then get lost in one of those massive shopping malls, of which this city has several and indicates just how important this activity is to Brazilians. We are learning fast: they like ice cream, chocolate and shopping. Talk about excellent stress management skills!

An animated evening with Rodrigo's family, who make us feel as welcome as hosts have, follows and by the time Monday comes around, we are ready to think about dragging ourselves away from this wonderful retreat just outside Viamão.

Another and hopefully the last bus trip for a long time
Porto Alegre to Foz do Iguaçu (880 odd kilometre bus trip)

Seeing Rodrigo and Gisele off at the bus station is a poignant moment. During our two and a half week stay, we had been made to feel so welcome in their house. Such an openness and tolerance for other people is rare in this world and it was a wonderful gift to us. Not only are we grateful for this, but their generosity was quite humbling. Again, they just accepted us for who we were and allowed us to act naturally in their home. We can't thank them enough and ironically, when it comes time to say goodbye, they are thanking us. Hard to believe isn't it? We both sincerely hope we will get to meet up this amazing couple again one day soon. And that in the future we can return the warm hospitality they extended to us at their home in Viamão.

The bus trip on the other hand is horribly uncomfortable and neither of us sleep well, though I owe part of my nocturnal restlessness to the incredibly strong cup of coffee consumed at the 10.30pm pitstop. We arrive in Foz do Iguaçu around 8.30am the next morning, with a whole day ahead of us. After riding to Campground International, which is a tad too far out of town and everything is on a slope, we head back towards the centre and Paudimar Hostelling International. Unfortunately, by the time we have set up the tent, unpacked, shopped, eaten and had a shower I need to catch up on some shut-eye and little else is accomplished for the rest of the day.

The hostel is really great: well set up and while a double is way over our budget at 80 reais for the room for a night, camping on the grounds is a good deal for Brazilian standards at 17 reais per person, including breakfast. It is the facilities that really make the place so good. Everything separated in different rooms, so even when it gets full, people can spread out to either in the kitchen area, the table tennis and pool table space in the basement, the swimming pool deck, the computer or common room with television or the bar-restaurant. Most importantly, it is kept really clean and the wifi connection is brilliant.

There are a number of attractions to visit here: the Itaipu Dam; the Buddhist temple in California Garden; Parque das Aves [bird park] or you can slip over into Paraguay for some dubious duty-free shopping. More info about all of these options can be found on the official Foz do Iguaçu website. And don't forget that Argentina is really close too. The hostel where we are staying offers "a three country pub crawl" for $US40 per head.

But probably the biggest draw-card is Iguaçu Falls, which after a visit there, I now know why. The 2,700 metre expanse of waterfalls is a breathtaking experience with its flow capacity equal to three times that of Niagara Falls. Due to all the rain we have been having, water is at a maximum and the decision to go on the day we do is a good one. Not only is the surge particularly forceful, but the next day the attraction is closed on both Brazilian and Argentine sides.

In fact, I am so impressed that I want to wait until the weather picks up to visit the Argentinian side too. Ali on the other hand, is not as excited about the idea, nor does he feel visiting the bird park is worth the effort either. Possibly his lack of enthusiasm for further touristy ventures has something to do with the really unsatisfactory tour at Itaipu dam. While it might supply Brazil with 20% and Paraguay with 90% of its electricity and boast being the second largest generator of hydro-electric power in the world, what we see from the top of a double-decker bus is plainly unspectacular. That aside, I think the 20 reais fee is a total ripoff and the film they show you is such a propaganda wonder that I walk out half way through. Not quite as disappointing, but still not worth the one and half hour walk to and from the main highway, is the Buddhist temple. The bird park I mentioned earlier, however is an absolute treat. Humming birds have always been my favourite, but the toucans are so damned cheeky, hanging off anything that dangles from your body, that they almost pip those fast fluttering animals off their number one post.

Eventually Ali agrees to see the falls from across the border too and we embark on the long process of getting ourselves over into Argentina and out to falls. If your hostal, like Paudimar Hostelling International, where we are staying, does an inclusive deal of getting you there, then having them organise all the immigration and transport issues is really worth the money spent. Nonetheless, the impact of the falls from this side is far more striking than we could have imagined. There is so much water and you literally walk on top of the falls. Some of the areas remain closed and the little train ride up to Garganta do Diabo [Devils Throat] isn't running either, but it doesn't stop our visit from being an incredible performance by nature.

The weather starts to get miserable again and after exactly 4 weeks of "no cycling", we drag ourselves away from the interesting and very accommodating town of Foz do Iguaçu to make our way east towards Curitiba.

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