Saturday, June 13, 2009

Back to Rio de Janeiro!

Getting back to Rio should have been the easiest part of our trip - had not my debit card given up on me!

After a ´Dia dos Namorados´ completely spoiled by the rain we were more than happy to wake up to a lovely warm and sunny day! We had a fast breakfast and went out to finally take some pictures of Paraty - it would have been a shame to leave this pituresque historic city without taking any pictures. Dona Daya the sweet owner of Pousada Daya had let us know that it didn´t make any difference at what time we checked out of the room so we had no hurry to leave. We went to the pier, explored the streets of the historic center, had a cappuccino on a sunny terrasse and I bought a nice painted tile for my bathroom.

Around noon we went back to the pousada to disassemble our bikes, put them in the boxes we got from a local bike shop and buy our return tickets. Until now everything went really smooth. It was no problem to find a bike shop, get the boxes, lend some tools... Flavio´s ´improvising skills´ worked perfectly and I already imagined us back in Recreio, eating acai, enjoying the beach...
When we had tipped our new friends at the bike shop and went back to Dona Daya´s hostel we only had about R$10 left and I went to the ATM to get some more cash. ´No connection could be established´. Same message at the next ATM, at the next, at the next... Thank God we had already paid Dona Daya and the bus company accepted credit cards. But we didn´t dare to buy any provisions for the trip as we had no idea how we would get home from the bus terminal. The road from Paraty to Rio de Janeiro is really nice - passing the beautiful beaches of Paraty, Angra, Mangaratiba... unfortunately we couldn´t really enjoy it, not knowing if we would find a taxi that accepted credit cards and what was wrong with my card. In Tiradentes I had once tried to get money from the ATM and the transaction had obviously been cancelled because it was out of bills - or that was atleast what the guardian of the bank told us. I started worrying if maybe there had been something wrong with the ATM...

When we arrived in Rio we didn´t even have time to look for a taxi - the taxi drivers already jumped on top of us! One of them was especially pushy but seemed efficient and said he would take us to Recreio for R$70. He seemed honest and said he had a big car and accepted cards, so off we went. Actually his ´big car´ was just an ordinary car but we managed to get the two bikes in by inclining the back seats and taking one of the bikes out of its box. He was very pushy and nervous and everything happened really quick. When we and the bikes were finally in the car and ready to go it became clear that the guy hadn´t understood our situation - he thought that we just had a card and needed to get money from the ATM! Of course he didn´t had a credit card reader in his card. After a lot of discussion - he said he understood our situation and was ready to negotiate - we agreed on paying R$30 in gas for him at the station with our credit cards and giving him the last 20USD that for some reason I still had in my backpack from my last trip. When the payment question had been settled we just had to pray to make it to Recreio save and sound - our ´taxista´, bahiano, allover tatooed, obviously gay and very chatty could take it on with any formula 1 pilot! Flavio, who usually likes to chat with everybody didn´t say a word - later on he told me that everytime he said something our driver would get so excited about it that he turned to Flavio, who was in the back next to the bikes and neglected the road in front of him. Thank God we made it to Recreio, paid the crazy driver and made us a cup of the coffee we had bought in Minas right from the producer - que delicia, being back home :-)

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Day 14: Cunha to Paraty

Save the best for last! Unfortunately the weather had other plans for us - it had been raining all night and the view from our pousada´s veranda was all but motivating. If we had liked Cunha a little bit more and had the water in our pousada been just a bit warmer - I guess we would have stayed for one more day to wait for better weather. The last 20km to Paraty are a steep descent on dirt road and have been closed for cars for some time and I was afraid that the rain would make it hard to pass even for bikes! Anyhow, being our last lap we were ´doido´ to arrive in Paraty and decided to give it a try!

When we left our pousada despite the drizzle Cunha looked much friendlier and livelier to us then the day before: the whole place seemed to be up and decorating the streets with colored sawdust, creating a beautifull carpet all around the church. Traveling for nearly two weeks now we had completely forgotten that today was Corpus Christi!

We have had heard from many people that from Cunha on it just goes downhill - which is absolutely not true! After Cunha we faced some of the highest and longest climbs of the Estrada Real. Only when you reach the Sao Paulo - Rio de Janeiro state border, the fun starts! The tarmac stops and blends over into an earth road, which is officialy closed for transit... very promising ;-)

We rolled, slipped, slid down the earth road. Sometimes the road was covered in stones, sometimes the deep mud made it hard to pedal... And sometimes we had to break so hard our hands would hurt! The rain had stopped but it was very cold.

The view from the ´Serra do Mar´ must be great - unfortunately we couldn´t see a thing, the clowds were so low and thick - it looked like we were cycling down a hill that had no end.

After about 10km on the mud-rock-earth road a welcome surprise - the small bar run by Marta and Menininho, serving hot coffee and banana pastels! We ordered two, then another two... I never imagined that greasy pastels, chese, bananas and cinammon could go well together - but they do! Or maybe we were just very hungry... will have to try it again on a less famished day ;-)

About 3km from the pastel bar the tarmac starts again. Flavio´s mood seemed to get better with any km we came closer to Paraty. He started singing the ´going home´ song from Walt Disney´s 7 dwarfs and did little dances on his bike everytime we passed a sign saying ´Paraty´.

It seemed incredible... but we had made it! We had reached our final destination, Paraty! By the time we reached the historic center to take a picture with our last signpost we had already forgotten the steep climb and cold rain of the very same morning and instead of feeling happy that we had made it we felt sad that it was over.

We found the pousada the cowboy from Cunha had recommended to us (Pousada Daya, close to the bus station) it felt good but also a bit sad, to leave the bikes in the yeard and go out on our own to explore the city on foot. I don´t have to mention that the main topic of that evening was the Caminho das Diamantes from Diamantina to Ouro Preto ;-)

Day 13: Cachoeira Paulista to Cunha

Our longest day - 84km! From Cachoeira Paulista to Guarantingueta the road was more or less level and we still felt fresh and motivated when a few km after Guarantingueta the climb started. The Estrada Real follows the tramac for some km, then diverts into an earth road for some while, gets back to the tarmac... But traffic is calm so even on the tarmac you can enjoy the beautiful landscape!

When we left the tarmac for the second time in direction of Paiol, the earth road climbs up to about 1100m. We did pretty well but for the last 50m of altitude we pushed the bikes. My knees and Flavios backside were still suffering from the two long days in Minas. Anyhow the beautiful view from the top of the Serra da Cunha compensated us for the pain and toil and a farmer we met on the way encouraged us that after the peak ´todos os santos ajudam ´ - literally ´all saints help´. And he was right, once you have passed the peak a long descent makes you forget the steep climb. Some more climbs follow but nothing really to worry about. We made it to Cunha just before it got dark - and started to rain.

There are heaps of pousadas but most are a bit out of the center. We finally found one, the ´Estalagem Primavera´. The room was cheerful and clean but the ´dono´, speaking with a strong paulista accent and dressed in flullblown cowboy outfit somehow spoilt the fun. He asked us to pay the R$50 for the two of us even before checking into the room. In my opinion this is unprofessional, unpolite and hints that there is something wrong with the place... and I was right - the water in the shower wouldn´t get any warmer then lukewarm, the rooster (bearing ressemblance to the cowbow in his behaviour) started to crow at around 5am and the breakfast was very poor.

After unpacking our stuff we went out in search of an ´lan house´ and a pizzeria. Cunha seems to close down at sunset - maybe because everybody wakes up at 5am due to the rooster and there is not much to do. We were happy when we found a ´lan house´ that was still open and enjoyed a fairly good pizza. Flavio only kept on complaining about the paulista accent which even for a foreigner is not the most charming one. Another reason for getting to Paraty as soon as possible :-)

Day 12: Itanhandu to Cachoeira Paulista

Getting up, having breakfast, backing our bags, buying provisions... by day 12 this had turned routine and we could have done this in our sleep. Thanks to the description in our book on the Estrada Real it was easy to find the first signpost and we took off in direction of Passa Quatro, where we would meet our CS friend Fabricio.

Passa Quatro - cross four - is a pretty funny name for a place so we did some research and it turned out it was called this by the early bandeirantes as they had to cross the river four times to reach the place. We didn´t have to cross any rivers - but a horrible little village between Itanhandu and Passa Quatro that has an estimated chicken - man ratio of about 400:1. It really stinks and seeing the chicken suffer in their tiny cages, one above the other really made us sick.
So for those of you living in Brazil - avoid those cheap eggs from Itanhandu. Try to get free range or organic ones...

Passa Quatro is a lovely little city. Most of the buildings on main street are historical and the milkman on his horse drawn carriage and helped by a small black boy adds to the colonial athmosphere of the place. We stopped in a bakery across from the bus station (I think it was the only one in Passa Quatro ;-)) and soon Fabricio came to greet us. What a wonderful surprise - in the middle of rural Minas Gerais we found a real ´cosmopolite´ and ´polyglotte´! Fabricio speaks about five languages and it full of energy, jokes, ´esprit´... even though we had just met it was sad to say goodbye and we promised each other to keep in touch and spend more time together in the future.

In Passa Quatro we found a signpost but it was not easy to tell, in which direction it was pointing. We asked around and it seemed to be the easiest way to just follow the railroad tracks. Steam train ´Maria fumaca´ (literally Smoke Maria) only leaves on certain days of the weeks so we had the tracks all for ourselves.

Day 11: Sao Lourenço to Itanhandu

Day 10: Cruzilia to São Lourenço

After two long days we decided to take it slowly for a day and just bike about 50km. Our stop for the night would be São Lourenço. We left the Estrada Real for about 20km and took the tarmac directly to Caxambu.

The charming city of Caxambu is renowned by its waterpark, ´Parque das Aguas´, which has twelve sources of mineral water flowing 24 hours a day. The legend says that Princess Isabel cured herself from infertility with the mineral water of Caxambu and one of the sources now bears her name. We decided that if this water is able to knock you up, maybe its wiser to forgo the park ;-)

Caxambu is touristic in a very sweet and oldfashioned way: there´s a litte sight-seeing train, a teleferico, old ladies are selling souvenirs in front of the waterpark... Very rare in Brazil, Caxambu even has a pedestrian zone and some sidewalk cafés! We enjoyed some açai and fruit salad on the sunny sidewalk, had a look into the park from the outside and then followed the Estrada Real to São Lourenço.

When getting closer to São Lourenço many cars with bikes on the roof passed us by. They waved, shouted, gave us the thumbs up and hooted... we were happy to see so many fellow bikers and waved back, excitedly! When we arrived in São Lourenço we found out why they had greeted us to enthusiastically - that they there had been an international mountain bike competition and those guys must have thought that we were the last ones to arrive and wanted to support us! We got some more thumbs up on the way to the center, were we settled down in a calm hotel and enjoyed some great soup in the restaurant ´Ki bom´, which even had a poster at the door saying ´Welcoming all bikers´. I guess it was meant for the participants of the mountain bike race - but we loved it anyway :-)

Day 9: Carrancas to Cruzilia

Cruzilia, God bless your lanchonetes, bakeries and mercadinhos! We could not have been happier had we arrived in Manhattan or downtown London!

Day 9 was definately the hardest day we had cycled so far. Still tired from the day before we left Carrancas in the direction of Cachoeira Zilda. Our map showed a dot for Traituba in about 30km distance and the next one for Cruzilia in another 35km. Our initial destination of course was Cruzilia but we were sure to find some rest and food in Traituba. The day was sunny and hot and my knees where hurting from pushing up our heavy bikes on the steep ascent on the Serra de Carrancas. I tried to convince Flavio that it would be so much nicer to spend the night in Traituba, enjoy the sunshine, get some rest - and continue well rested and full of energy on the next day. I bundled my energies with in my mind Traituba being our destination and arrived there - only to find out that Traituba was just a historic fazenda, that some years ago had been a hotel and restaurant but now had been closed for some time. A couple of ladies were looking after it but unfortunately couldn´t prepare or sell us any food. Had we had more food with us we would have camped there but having just a sack of tangerines that we had bought from some kids on the way, we descided that we had to get to Cruzilia somehow. The ladies of the fazenda Traituba filled up our bottles with ice cold water and we prepared ourselves for the longest 35km of our lives.

If someone had offered us a lift - we would have accepted it! Actually we tried to get a lift from a pick-up, but it didn´t stop - and we cycled on, cursing the ignorant driver. About 15km from Cruzilia quite a couple of trucks and pick-ups passed by but by now we somehow had overcome our fatigue and found back our pride.

When suddenly the dirt track ended and we where on the tarmac we couldn´t believe we made it! Flavio invaded the first lanchonete, ate up all ´salgados´ that where left from the day and boosted his blod sugar by incorporating two chocolate bars. Next stop was at a bakery and finally we found our well deserved soft bed in the ´Hotel Central´, right in front of the church. The hotel serves as restaurant, corner shop and meeting point and is run by a sweet and welcoming family. Cruzilia is a much more lively little city than Carrancas and we where perfectly happy with everything it had to offer. Expecting to camp in the middle of nowhere with just a sack of tangerines makes Cruzilia look like the most distinguished and hip place to be ;-)