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The Best of Brazil by Bike

Jay Jacobson in Brazil

Jay Jacobson in BrazilI spent four weeks cycling in Brazil and Uruguay. Imagine a four week whirlwind tour of the U.S. and Canada which included stops in New York, Niagara Falls, Washington, Miami, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Toronto and Quebec with fifteen cycling days! After all, Brazil is a little bigger than Continental U.S.

I was down there from Oct. 14 to November 10 and it was one of the best trips I have ever taken. The highlight was a spectacular luxury 10 day bike tour organized and operated by Butterfield and Robinson of Toronto.

The tour covered four areas and required air flights between three of them as they were hundreds of miles apart. This sensational bike tour was first class all the way with the best hotels and restaurants available, excellent multilingual experienced guides plus a large well equipped support staff. The weather was near perfect…it never rained during a ride and the temperatures were always in the 70’s and 80’s.

On the B&R tour we rode on 8 days and only averaged about 20 miles daily. Most of these miles was on relatively flat unpaved roads, so we used Brazilian made good quality Caloi mountain bikes. The mileage may seem short but this type of riding takes longer and there were other things to do such as  – laying out –  (or in a hammock) on stunning beaches, often totally deserted, or by magnificent pools surrounded by palm trees, lingering over gourmet restaurant or picnic lunches, a half day schooner cruise, and walking and boating through historic towns.

We also cycled by and walked and rafted around and under a mammoth group of waterfalls (Iguaçu-set in a non-commercialized national park) higher than Niagara, wider than Victoria and more beautiful than either! Three countries (Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay) bordered on the falls. Our hotel rooms had views of the falls.

For the final three days of the bike tour we stayed at one of the most beautiful hotels I’ve ever seen, arguably Brazil’s best – Bahia’s Txai Resort. It is the epitome of a very lush tropical paradise. The rooms had decorative mosquito netting over the beds and semi-outdoor showers adjoining the bathrooms. The public areas of the hotel are certainly worthy of architectural awards.

The ages of the friendly and interesting group members ranged from the 30’s to the 70’s and were from all over the U.S. and Canada. I was the only solo male and there were three solo women. One of them, a young woman from Hong Kong turned out to be my riding partner for four or five days.

In the Brazilian countryside it is unusual to see a female in spandex, let alone an Asian one, so the passing truck drivers frequently gave us a series of approving short horn toots. One of the other solo women, Stephanie, is a New Yorker and I hope she decides to join our club.

The B&R tour convened in Rio de Janeiro and since I had arrived a day early, I had an opportunity to experience upscale Ipanema Beach on a sunny Sunday afternoon. There were wall-to-wall people on the beach, thousands of females clad in dental-floss bikinis and hawkers selling everything and some even carrying around ovens with hot corn.

Using the hotel’s one speed wide tire bike, I cycled just behind and along the beaches on a dedicated paved bike path. On Sundays, half the width of the broad beachside avenue is closed to cars so there also thousands of strollers out there. I also did a few spins (7.2. k each) around a large lake behind Ipanema (Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas). At a bike shop I purchased a cycling jersey with pictures of famous Brazilian sights such as Corcovado and a toucan .

The meals provided by B&R on the bike tour were amazing. We enjoyed the local cuisines of each area, some based on African dishes brought over by the slaves. Tropical fruits (coconuts, mango, papaya, guava, etc) grilled meats (churrasco), fish and seafood, rice and beans and root plants. I also had duck and lobster at several dinners.

There were exotic fruit drinks using coconuts as glasses as well as local beers and excellent South American wines and of course: coffee! We had several excellent picnics on a long minibus ride we were provided with a box lunch meal by the Brazilian equivalent of Dean and DeLuca.

On two evenings our group had a private outdoor barbecues dinner on the grounds of our hotel. At one, we cyclists had our own Brazilian band and a local woman came over to dance with me. In general the cuisine far exceeded my expectations.

We flew north from Rio to the large inland city, Belo Horizonte. We were driven in two air conditioned minibuses through the historic gold mining area in the state of Minas Gerais and had a guided walking out of an important town.. We cycled on unpaved roads and some cobblestone stretches towards the Atlantic Coast from the city of Tiradentes.

At the charming colonial coastal city of Paraty, we cycled to a port for a chartered schooner cruise and an excellent seafood lunch at an isolated island restaurant. Back in town that evening, the Brazilian music I love could be heard coming from numerous restaurants and bars we passed while strolling on the cobbles.

Our bikes were then trucked north about 800 miles to our final destination, while we flew west 700 miles to Foz do Iguaçu where we had a different set of bikes and met our new local support staff. After some spectacular walking, rafting and biking, on paved roads or trails, we flew northeast about 1500 miles (3 stops/2 planes) and we were reunited with our original bikes at the lush 5 star resort in Bahia state, south of Salvador.

We did some biking on roads along the Cacao Coast in Bahia and two 20 mile rides on beaches over sand recently packed down by the morning’s high tide. The surface had dried but it was very easy to cycle on the packed sand.

We cycled into the surf a little and through some drainage channels, a foot or so deep. In the 20 beach miles, we might have encountered about a dozen beachgoers and a few fisherman who were using primitive unmotorized boats in the ocean. Behind the beach were thousands of palm trees and a few shacks.

Bahia Experience

The state of Bahia was the heart of colonial Brazil and is called  Africa in exile since most of the slaves arrived here bringing cheap labor, their culture and cuisine. The population is still about 80% black. As we were cycling along the roads we came across women carrying heavy loads atop their heads, a typical African scene. It is also the source of my favorite Brazilian music and the home of many of its great musicians.

The bike tour was very expensive. (US$ 8,000 including single supplement – increasing in 2006 to US$ 9,500 including single room) but I decided to splurge on it because I couldn’t find any other bike tour in Brazil and many items were included: all the excellent meals except one dinner with all the wine I could drink, the internal flights, the bikes we used and even the laundry was included at the deluxe hotel we were at for the final three days.

Unlike most other bike tours, both the B&R guides rode with us each day. They rarely had to handle luggage or the bikes and they never had to drive any of the several support vehicles which accompanied the cycling group. They had a large support staff of 2-4 locals who provided these services. Most of the locals were either bike shop employees or members of the local bike clubs. If a cyclist requested   extra miles the guides would arrange for additional loops with support..

There were always plenty of snacks and cold drinks. While we were riding on the beach on a warm day, every couple of miles, a support person would emerge from the palms, handing us frosty bottles of water as we passed.

I was fortunate to be able to use my frequent flier miles for free flights on Varig and United to and from South America. After the B&R trip, I remained in South America for an additional two weeks and visited six additional places in Brazil and Uruguay.

I planned this part of the trip based on advice of Brazilian friends in New York and a NYCC member, Mary who had spent time in Brazil and several guidebooks.

The B&R trip obviously had caused some budgetary pressure so once on my own, I stayed in very comfortable hotels a notch or two below those we used on the bike tour for under $100 a day. When the bike tour ended I flew from Ilhéus to Salvador, the colorful capital of Bahia state, where I looked at this city of old and new contrasts.

Then I took a car an hour or two north of the Atlantic beach resort of Costa do Sauí­pe. I cycled around the complex and along the adequate shoulders of the main road on the Linha Verde, the green route through an ecological preserve.

Getting to Know the Capital

Next on my personal itinerary was a flight to the capital city of Brasí­lia (a non cycling stop for me) which was built from scratch in the middle of the jungle only about 45 years ago.

This was the only non-sunny day on the whole trip but the light rain didn’t affect my inspection of the stunning architecture, art and historical features of this unusual city. I toured the marvelous Ministry of External Affairs a day before President Bush’s visit there on his infamous S.A. trip and the locals had many questions for me about U.S. politics.

The last Brazilian venue was its Southern Island – Santa Catarina – a plethora of exquisite beaches. I faced a difficult decision: how to spend my only day in this splendid area. The choices were a full day tour to see at least a dozen glorious beaches and cities (impossible in a day by bike!) or to bike a small part of it.

I resolved the dilemma by enrolling for the day tour which began at 9, but I took the hotel’s bike out at 6 A.M. (before dawn, but the paved bike path along the coast was well lit) for 20 miles or so. I expected the usual resort island with a few quaint villages was surprised to see medium size cities of 300-400,000 with strips of high rise buildings along the beaches, forming mini Rios.

All through Brazil we saw unusual birds, aardvarks, monkeys, butterflies, plants and seals. Since our previous two trips down there in the 1970’s and 1990’s, the people seem to be happier. None of us had any encounters with or saw evidence of a major crime problem other than gates and barred windows around buildings and homes.

There is a massive lower class, trying to eke out a living on $150-200 a month which seems to be possible in this tropical area with relatively low living costs. There didn’t appear to be any hunger and the level of begging activity seemed to be about the same as New York.

At a distance, the fading pastel colored favelas (mountainside shanty slums) held some charm as an old Italian city, but I think they would lose their appeal quite rapidly had we neared them. Perhaps the poverty and crime which does exist can be indirectly or directly a result of the government’s inability to control corruption and inflation.

Although it wasn’t very far, to get to Puenta del Este, Uruguay from Florianópolis (Floripa ) the airport of Santa Catarina, it took 3 flights plus a 90 minute taxi ride. (Most flights in/out/and many thru Brazil have to go through San Paulo!)

The Uruguayan airline Pluna flight was also an hour late. However when I finally arrived, I quickly decided it was worth it. Puenta del Este is the major resort city of lower South America, most frequented by Argentineans and an excellent biking city.

This lovely town is at the end of a pointy, flat peninsula with a long river’s mouth at one side and the South Atlantic on the other and plenty of biking along the beaches which run along both coasts.

It was equivalent to a nice May day at the Jersey Shore before the hordes of tourists arrive, Since the auto traffic hadn’t yet materialized all of the traffic lights were off. Spent the sunny/low 70’s day checking out (& laying out) on the many beaches. Enjoyed a salad lunch and glass of wine at an outdoors beachfront restaurant.

About 70 or 80 miles to the West further in the mouth of the Rio de la Plata is the capital, Montevideo where half of Uruguay’s 3,000,000 people live. The city has a long waterfront along the river mouth. The width of the river makes it impossible to see anything across it.

Just as in most of the South American cities I visited there is an extensive paved trail along the coast for cycling, walking and running. Across the  Ramblas (wide avenue) are miles of fashionable high rise apartments.

Flat Uruguay seems to be a hotbed of cycling. In the relatively small city of Puenta del Este, there were about 75 cycle club members (no women – ugh!) doing their Sunday morning ride with a motorcycle and sag wagon escort. In Montevideo the prominent velodrome seemed to have equal standing with the  futbol (soccer) stadium

Incidentally of all my bike trips this one had fewer concerns with auto traffic safety factors, because both on the B&R tour and on my own I cycled on mostly dedicated auto-free paths and B&R’s routes were on very quiet roads with extremely light traffic.

At the conclusion of the grueling trip I added up the flights (20 with 25 landings/takeoffs) and eleven hotels (all with pools). This schedule would challenge the itineraries of many business road warriors!. However, I couldn’t point to any of the destinations which could have been omitted.

I needed a few shots for the trip. Anyone headed for a such a tropical destination should consult Travelers’ Health Services (212-230-1020). There were a few insects in one or two places and a couple of the group members had minor stomach discomfort for a day or so.

Precautions should be taken regarding drinking water and food (a minor concern). When planning any trip I consult historical climate data on the Internet or at the library. Lastly I check seasonal hotel rate fluctuations based on school vacation schedules and climate factors.

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