Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Great Things To Do In Brazil – Tandem Hang-Gliding in Rio de Janeiro

One of the most adventurous activities that you can do in Brazil, or anywhere else for that matter, is to take a Tandem Hang-Gliding lesson in Rio de Janeiro that has you taking off from the mountain and landing on the beach.

The flights are done as a first lesson in hang-gliding with a fully qualified instructor with many hours experience of flying in the area and elsewhere around Brazil and the world. Full safety instructions and practice take-offs and landings are done before you are strapped into your equipment. Helmets and safety harness are included for every learner, and videos make part of the instruction as you sign up for your lesson at the west end of Sao Conrado Beach in Rio. This beach is on the other side of the Dois Irmaos (‘Two Brothers’) peaks that can be seen in the background of most photos looking along Ipanema and Leblon Beaches, and in the shadow of the mighty Pedra da Gavea.

The take-off ramp sits near the top of Pedra Bonita, a 696m/2,297ft high mountain set in the Tijuca Forest National Park, and covered with Atlantic Rainforest on its slopes. There is a R$15 entry fee to pay to access the ramp inside the park, and this makes part of the instructions at the bottom of the hill. Once you have signed up, you and your wings will be whisked up through the steep, winding roads of Vila Canoa and into the forest. After you have climbed up the mountain to the ramp at 636m/2,099ft, you will begin the process of jumping off it.

As the instructor finalises the preparations of the wings, you will also be helped with the putting on of your helmet and safety harness, just in case your hands are not working as they should! The spectacular view, way down to the high-rise buildings of Sao Conrado may induce a few nerves at this point. A couple of practice runs at the top of the ramp give you the idea of how to take off and overcome any nerves. It really is quite simple, all you have to do is to run and look to the horizon. Most people can manage that!

The first moment of take off is of course the one that induces most adrenaline as your feet begin to run on fresh air and your stomach drops with the wings. You soon begin to soar high above the forest, circling above the hillside houses Vila Canoa and Sao Conrado, with the Gavea Golf & Country Club below you. Your eagle-eye views take in the spread of the Rocinha Favela, the Avenida Niemeyer leading to Leblon and the Joa Flyover and Tunnels that take traffic around the rocks to Barra da Tijuca.

If the winds are favourable, you can take the controls as you wind slowly downwards, before you head out over the clear Atlantic Ocean, swooping again to gain your landing course. Your final descent comes into the wind on the sands of Praia Pepino, with your legs unharnessed to enable you to run with the hang-glider. One final push and your wings rear up and pull to a stop, with your feet safely on the sand once more.

You will find the smile doesn’t leave your face as you discuss the flight with your friends, and look over the photos and video from the wing-cam with your instructor, who may well also be smiling. Your happiness is their spiritual food as they say.

Even if your first lesson is your only flight, you are guaranteed at leave one very special memory of your time in Brazil after your tandem hang-gliding experience in Rio de Janeiro.

Activity Information: Tandem Hang-Gliding Lessons are limited by the weather of course. Heavy rain, strong winds and low clouds can all mean that flights are not possible at certain times.

Weigh Limit: There is a 95kg/209lb maximum weight limit for the tandem hang-gliding flights in Rio de Janeiro. If conditions are perfect, flights for slightly larger people may be possible.

Age Limit: 16 Years Old is the lower age limit. There is no upper age limit, and we’ve flown with senior citizens approaching their 70th birthdays! If people of advanced years can manage with no fear, then anyone below 40 years old has no excuses at all not to fly!

Great Things To Do In Brazil – Swimming with Amazon River Dolphins

One of the most rewarding activities that you can do in Brazil is to swim with dolphins. Getting so close to such wonderful, friendly aquatic life is a special moment for those who take part, and usually one of the most memorable moments of even the longest visit to Brazil.

There are two main possibilities and very different in every way they are too. The first and perhaps the best known is in the Amazon area around Manaus. The Amazon River System is full of freshwater dolphins (full of many things really, including manatees, peacock bass, pacu and dourado as well) which can be seen surfacing at regular points from any Amazon batelao, igarité or gaiola traversing the waterways from Belem to Tabatinga, Boa Vista or Porto Velho.

Being sociable creatures, the dolphins (known locally as the boto, which is a sub-species of dolphin rather than the genus golfinho) tend to travel in family groups with a couple of youngsters swimming with the parents. The females can grow up to 8ft/2.5m long although usually they come in around the same average length as a human, although slightly heavier. These botos do look strikingly different to the dolphins beloved of marine park crowds, with their narrow beaks and bulbous foreheads. The beaks have evolved to find food amongst the narrow gaps between roots and vegetation of the Amazon riverbanks and the igarapé creeks of the flooded forests. One interesting fact about them that can be noticed while they feed is that their vertebrae do not fuse, allowing them to rotate their flexible necks through 180 degrees. They are also very different in colour to other dolphins at times – some of the Amazon River Dolphins are pink. Some are a more usual grey colour, others still a mixture of grey and pink.

In a couple of areas close to Manaus, the Amazon River Dolphins have become accustomed to human contact, and seem to enjoy spending time with their two-legged friends. Of course, this is in no small way down to the fact that they receive fish for their time and trouble, but they have also been known to stay around and play for hours with visitors, even when the fish have long been fed to them. As long as the occasion is supervised by a local wildlife expert, the pure joy of a close encounter with the largest freshwater cetacean in the beautiful surroundings of the Amazon Rainforest could stay with you for a long time.

Of course, not everyone agrees with the visitors and seemingly the friendly dolphins themselves (‘friendly’ as long as you are not fish or crustacean of course) that these kind of visits are beneficial for both sides. This type of semi-captive feeding colony may well bring the dolphins too close to humankind and too accustomed to contact, when not all humans would be so delighted to meet them. The Amazon River Dolphin is listed as an endangered species, with polluted waterways, diminished habitat, fishing and general river traffic in the Amazon area all affecting their population. Amazon folklore tells of the dolphins as mythical creatures, the killing of which brings bad luck. They are also thought to turn into attractive men at night, and impregnate local girls before returning to the river!

Perhaps swimming with Amazon River Dolphins will encourage more care to be taken with them and more conservation projects throughout the whole Amazon River system. While visitors to the Amazon can swim with the local dolphins, the local people have more chance to find work helping this to happen and (similar to the Projeto TAMAR sea-turtle work along the Brazilian coast) this will lead to an increased conscientiousness with regards to this unique creature and its environment. If this were possible, then a swim with an Amazon River Dolphin could be as rewarding for the dolphin population as it is for their humans friends.

Activity Information: Swimming with Amazon River Dolphins is best done as part of a visit to an Amazon Lodge along the shores of the river. The easiest ones to visit are within an hour or three boat or boat and road journey from Manaus. Reputable lodges always include local expert guides with their trips to see the dolphins. 

Great Things To Do In Brazil – Favela Tour

There are other cities in Brazil where you can visit the favelas, but of course Rio de Janeiro has the most famous and most visited favelas. Rio’s mountainous landscape has meant that the steeper slopes were all left empty, even in and around the traditional noble boroughs of Santa Teresa, Laranjeiras and Flamengo close to the city centre. The first favelas sprung up close to the Centro as soldiers who fought in the Canudos campaign in Bahia travelled to the erstwhile capital for the payment and land they had been promised for fighting. While waiting, they settled on the empty hillsides, which reminded the soldiers of those in Bahia that were covered with the favela plant. The favela morro (favela hill) had been a common phrase for them and continued to be in Rio as well.

The word is often translated into English as ‘slum’ or ‘shanty-towns’ although neither are quite the same. The politically correct sections of Brazil now prefer to call these areas ‘comunidades’ (communities), the residents are still prone to call them the ‘morro’, even those that are on the flat lands, while we can still use the term favela without anybody really minding.

The basic idea of the favela is communities of illegal housing built on land not owned by the residents. There is nothing much more complex to it than that. Regular construction booms in Rio, Sao Paulo and other big cities have drawn people from the poorer areas of Brazil, generally the north-east, who have moved into existing favelas or created new ones. With no government help, little education, sanitation or medication, the favelas have had to develop their own methods of survival. This included appropriating the city’s water and power supplies, and also communication lines, and led to the favelas having their famous impenetrable muddle of cables and wires, hanging between each post like vines between trees in the thickest parts of the Amazon Jungle.

The favelas were always infamous for the salacious activities going on there, and became far more so once the drugs trade began to flourish in the 1970s and 80s. Millions of reais are made in the major Rio favelas such as Rocinha and the Complexo de Alemao every week, or at least they were until the recent UPP police project to pacify them. Alongside this grow communities just like any other, with organisations for social, religious and sporting bodies. The favelas can be very dangerous of course, but they are still home to many law-abiding citizens too.

The UPP project has left many of them much safer for residents, and a visit to a favela gives you an interesting look at life inside the ultimate Urban Jungle. Brazil is a good place to do this of course, with it being such a musical country, and with people known for their sunny outlook on life, and those Brazilians who live in favelas are no different. With such a bad reputation, it is good for visitors to see that other aspects of favela life exist too. The everyday activities, the shops, the trade, the music, the singing, the boys whistling at the girls, the kite-flying, school kids playing in the streets... or in the schools, depending on when you visit!  

Of course, it is still best to visit with people who know the area personally, and that is where the Favela Tour comes in. There are rules that must be followed to ensure your safety, even with the pacification projects, although even before this, when the favelas were openly controlled by gangs, tourists could still pass through without any trouble at all as long as they behaved within the limits.

This kind of tour is clearly not for everyone, but those who want to take a look at another side of Brazilian life rather than just the classic tourist destinations are in for a fascinating time. Some people believe that this kind of trip is Poverty Tourism, although the tours are educational rather than a vehicle-based visit to take photos of poor people. Most people leave having benefitted from the experience, with the word ‘humbled’ being used quite often, and a general contrast ambiguous in emotions that fits in very well with Brazil, a land of contrasts itself. There are also projects within the favelas that benefit from receiving visitors, with part of the tour fee going towards helping the local schools or clinics.

The Favela Tour gives a surprisingly good view of Brazil and its contradictions in just a few hours, with much of the modern history of the country tied in with the story of its favelas, the wealth gap, the Brazilian jeitinho, and mostly that, despite the harsh living conditions of the Urban Jungle, the people who live in them can still be warm and friendly and very typically Brazilian.

Activity Information: The Favela Tours are open to everybody, although they don’t tend to have so many Brazilian tourists, and many Brazilians will look at you strangely if you tell them that you are going to visit a favela in Rio or Brazil! Guides will always explain what visitors must do and what they must avoid doing along the way in order to ensure safety. Cameras are safe to take along although at times care must be taken on where you point them. Before the UPP project, the better connected local residents did not appreciate photos being taken of them, while now the police involved in the project may not be so happy to make part of your snaps.

USA to Review Tourist Visa for Brazilian Citizens

The USA is making moves to simplify the process for citizens of Brazil visiting the States, so that they receive 90-day Tourist Visas on arrival in the country. This will avoid the lengthy and expensive process of paying to book advance consulate appointments, the interview with the immigration departments of the various consulates, and perhaps lessen the possibility of still being refused entry to the USA on arrival there.

President Barack Obama signed a new executive order with the aim of promoting travel to the USA for citizens of Brazil and Argentina, amongst other countries with growing economies. There may be some delay with implementation of new rules though, due to larger budgets being necessary to provide more staff to deal with applications, and with elections looming this is unlikely to be a priority for Congress.

As always with such changes, the bottom line is the dollar. Brazilians visit the USA as tourists in large numbers and spend more money per capita than any other nation as they spend small fortunes on consumer goods such as clothes and electronic goods. This amounted to US$5.9 billion in 2010, and with such large sums involved, the USA is keen to capture even more of the Brazilian travel market and make it as easy as possible for Brazilians to visit and spend money.

This good news is not yet guaranteed but hopefully it will also mean an eventual change in the Visa Rules for citizens of the USA who want to visit Brazil.

The reciprocal visa system in Brazil is used as a tit-for-tat response to countries which insist on prior organisation for Brazilians. With a strengthening economy and an emerging middle class, Brazilians now travel abroad in ever greater numbers. Hopefully other countries will also want to attract Brazilian tourists and introduce a visa exemption for them, resulting in citizens from Canada, Australia, India and Singapore amongst others being issued 90-Day Tourist Visas on arrival in Brazil. The more countries that are on the Visa Waiver list along with those from the European Union, Mercosul, South Africa, Namibia, Malaysia, Thailand and New Zealand amongst others, the easier life will be for all of us involved in the Brazilian Tourist Industry as well as those people wishing to visit Brazil.

We can only hope!

Great Things to do in Brazil – Amazon Opera Festival

Amazon Opera Festival Details Announced

The XVI Amazon Opera Festival will take place in May 2012 at the Teatro Amazonas in Manaus.  The program includes performances of Lulu by Alban Berg; The Puritans from Vicenzo Bellini; The Tosca Concerto by Giacomo Puccini; and The Magic Flute from Mozart.

The XVI Amazon Opera Festival will take place in April & May 2012 at the Teatro Amazonas in Manaus. The program includes performances of Lulu by Alban Berg; The Puritans from Vicenzo Bellini; The Tosca Concerto by Giacomo Puccini; and The Magic Flute from Mozart.

2012 Program:
Friday 20 April - Lulu
Sunday 22 April - Lulu
Tuesday 24 April - The Puritans
Friday 27 April - The Puritans
Saturday 28 April - Lulu
Sunday 29 April - The Puritans
Thursday 2 May - A Flavour of Regional Opera (with the Amazon Choir, a Violin Orchestra and Folkloric Dance - Free Entrance)
Sunday 6 May - Tosca
Saturday 12 May - Tosca
Sunday 13 May - The Magic Flute
Tuesday 15 May - The Magic Flute
Wednesday 16 May - Stabat Mater from Pergolesie and Requiem from Mozart/Lichtenthal (with the Camara Orchestra and Amazonas Dance Troop - Free Entrance)
Thursday 17 May - The Magic Flute

All performances begin at 8:00pm, except for those on Sunday which begin at 7:00pm.

The festival takes place, of course, in the Teatro Amazonas, the opera house at the heart of the Amazon Rainforest. This amazing building was built at the height of the late 19
th Century Rubber Boom, when Manaus was described as ‘one of the gaudiest cities in the world’ as rubber barons competed for extravagance. Some grand houses still exist, but the theatre with its imports of Italian marble, Scottish wrought iron, French furniture and Venetian chandeliers is the grandest of them all. There are parts from the Amazon too, with hard wood and a rubber entrance road made from local materials. The road was made out of rubber so that the wooden wheels of late arriving carriages would not disprupt the performances! Now you may think that incorporating a Late Arrivals Feature into the design of the building says something about Brazil and its relaxed attitude to promptness, but we couldn't possibly comment!

The paving outside in the praça is also a representation of the Meeting of the Waters, and the design was copied for the paving of Copacabana Beach in Rio. The Meeting of the Waters is the natural phenomenon which occurs when the two huge tributaries of the Amazon, the Rio Negro and the Rio Solimoes, meet but don't mix for miles in the centre of the river. Differences in temperature, density and flow speed due to different nutrients in the water mean that the two sides only run into each other further down what from here to the sea, 1,500km away, is now known as the mighty Amazon River.