Following our day at the Iguazu Falls, we left Argentina and headed to the imaginatively named Ciudad del Este (City of the East) just across the border in Paraguay. Since the journey also took us briefly took us through Brazil en route, we were in three different countries in less than an hour. And as South America only has twelve countries, I can now twist reality ever so slightly and say that I saw a quarter of the continent in the same afternoon!
One of the main reasons we had for going to Paraguay was simply to say we’d been to one of the continent’s most obscure countries. Frankly, there weren’t that many other reasons to justify the trip. We did visit the impressive Itaipu hydroelectric dam on the Paraguay- Brazil border, so vast that it produces 85% of Paraguay’s energy needs with only two of its twenty turbines (the rest goes to Brazil). We also went to a zoo and saw a waterfall, but by then we were really scraping the barrel!
It’s something of a travel cliché to hear people referring back to their holidays and explaining how the people in this or that country were so nice. In my experiences, most countries have a mix of friendly, helpful people and complete bell ends, the ratio of which generally doesn’t change all that much wherever you go. But in Paraguay, with the exception of one jobsworth from the bell end category we encountered at the bus station, the people we met really were great!
There was one lady who, when we explained we were lost and had no Paraguayan money, not only told us which way to go, but gave us money to take the bus there. One man walked us about a mile from his home to the tourist information centre. Another lady gave us a lift back from the zoo to the city. Perhaps it was because western tourists are such a rarity in Paraguay, but everyone went out of their way to help us whenever we needed it.
And so to Brazil. Our first stop was Sao Paulo, one of the biggest cities on the planet, and second only to Mexico City in the Americas. I’m not entirely sure how I can put into words just how vast it is. When we arrived on the bus, we drove for miles and miles past favelas and the ubiquitous concrete tower blocks until we finally arrived in the centre. I feel as though we spent half our time in the city either walking from place to place, or on the metro, yet in reality we only covered a tiny fraction of the whole city. Looking out from the top of Edificio Italia, Sao Paulo’s tallest skyscraper, we saw how far the city really stretched.
Being largely confined to the centre, I wondered whether what we were seeing of the city was representative of Sao Paulo as a whole. Brazil is notorious for its huge wealth gap, and we all know of the favelas dotted around the city where urban migrants live in poverty. But, while no doubt a significant proportion of Sao Paulo’s population live in such conditions, there was little evidence of it in the city centre- on the contrary, it seemed that the middle classes have even more than in Europe. It all gave me the impression that we were effectively sheltered in a rich little bubble, one with little in common with the rest of the city.
Such issues aside, Sao Paulo was a fun place to be, if rather uncomfortably hot (this at the end of their winter- God knows how the locals survive during the summer!). Besides all the usual tourist attractions, of which there were thankfully plenty, it was just an exciting- if at times stressful- place to be. It had soul- street performers, incredible graffiti, and masses of people snaking through the streets and metro stations, living their lives.
Our subsequent trip to Rio de Janeiro, on the other hand, was something victim of hype. It has a nice long coastline, fantastic mountainous scenery and some impressive old buildings, yet given Rio’s reputation as one of the greatest cities on earth it was always going to be tough for it to live up to the hyperbole. At times it felt distinctly ordinary, especially when compared to what the travel guides promise.
The weather didn’t help. The popular image of clear blue skies and sun kissed beaches is something of a media invention, for Rio is actually quite a rainy city all year round. For most of the time we were there clouds hung low above the city, and rain was never far away. When the sun did come out, though, Rio was a much more pleasant place to be.
A visit to the famous Christ the Redeemer statue may seem like a must do for any visitor to Rio de Janeiro, given its iconic status, but sadly it was just another of South America’s long list of attractions ruined by their own popularity. Granted, the statue was quite a sight close up because of its sheer size, and the views across Rio were impressive, but it was far too crowded to truly appreciate. The site had far exceeded the limit of people it could reasonably accommodate, and In places there was barely space to move. In Rio’s incessant humidity, and with the sun having emerged from its hiding place to torment us, it wasn’t a particularly enjoyable experience.
Of course, it wasn’t all doom and gloom. One pleasant surprise was the amount of historic buildings in the city, many of which dated from Rio’s time as the capital of Brazil (it was for a time the capital of the entire Portuguese Empire, too). My favourite building in the city, though, was the new cathedral, a bizarre pyramid shaped structure built in the seventies which could hardly look less like a church if it tried!
And that concludes todays broadcast. My time in South America is almost up now, and I’m already beginning to wonder how the hell I’m going to get used to life back in boring Britain after the best part of a year on the other side of the world- I’m anticipating some serious post trip blues, so if anyone would like to come along to my house in a jester hat to cheer me up next week, I’d very much appreciate that.
But before this blog is left to gather metaphorical dust in the annals of the internet, I shall return with one more post letting you know how I got in my final destination, North East Brazil, and tie up a few loose ends. Until then, bye bye.