Fond Memories of Brazil 2009: Fortaleza + Jericoacoara

The second installment of my “Fond Memories of Brazil 2009″ series is all about Fortaleza! Okay fine, not so much about Fortaleza as it is about one of the greatest places we’ve ever visited: Jericoacoara.

Paradise Lagoon in Jericoacoara: photo credit Jonathan Hood

Paradise Lagoon in Jericoacoara: photo credit Jonathan Hood

After our interesting Amazon river experience, Aaron and I were eager to get back on the Gringo Trail and relax on a beach. We’re not saying that we deserved a vacation or anything, but being on a crowded hammock boat for an unknown amount of time with minimal food surrounded by people we could hardly communicate with was a bit stressful. Oh, that combined with the fact that some scary witch lady in Belém ripped a necklace off of my neck while I was walking down a busy street in broad daylight. (It was pretty freaky.)

So, yes, relaxing beach time felt necessary. Looking at our map, Fortaleza was the next big beach town south of Belém, so that became our destination by default. But don’t let maps of Brazil fool you. It may look like two destinations are relatively close to each other, but in reality those “short” distances are almost always a 24+ hour bus ride (approximately $80). We opted for a $200 five hour flight instead.

Map credit Rome2rio

Map credit Rome2rio

I think we had originally planned to do a few days in Fortaleza before heading to either Jericoacoara or somewhere south, but it became quickly apparent that the city beaches were not as idyllic as we had hoped. So rather than spending a few days wishing we were somewhere else, we only stayed in Fortaleza one night before starting the trek to Jeri. 

Praia do Mucuripe, Fortaleza: photo credit  Rafael Ramos and David Andrade

Praia do Mucuripe, Fortaleza: photo credit Rafael Ramos and David Andrade

If there’s one thing that you take away from this blog post, if you’re anywhere near Fortaleza GO TO JERICOACOARA! I’ll let Aaron’s email explain how awesome it was:

Q: You landed in Fortaleza and stayed there about six hours before heading North to the small beach town of Jericoacoara. Big cities, small towns, South, North … I have to ask: How do you guys choose your destinations?

A: I gotta say, it´s almost totally random. We have two guidebooks, so those are somewhat useful. A personal recommendation by a fellow traveler goes a long way. Mostly though, we´re doing it on instinct, and it´s amazing we´ve had as much luck as we have.

Basically, we arrived in Fortaleza, and it looked way too much like Belém for our liking. Though no one we knew personally had ever been to Jericoacoara, most people had positive things to say about it, and it was on a list of “Brazil´s Best Beaches” Ilana found online. So that´s it. We were on the bus.

Q: And, when the historians ask, you´ll tell them your trip´s low point was right about here, right?

A: I think so, yeah. The bus trip was billed as five hours, with a sixth hour in some kind of 4 wheel drive vehicle over some sand dunes to the town itself, but after six and a half hours, we were still on the first bus. We try to take direct buses when possible, at least buses that advertise that they make very few stops. At night, this works out okay. During the day, however, “direct bus” means that the driver picks up every person who looks like they could maybe use a lift anywhere. And there are no freeways in Brazil, so we´re constantly passing through towns, slowing for speed bumps and intersections, and literally picking people up, taking them three blocks and then dropping them off. Do these people have tickets? Do they have to pay at all?!?

Honestly, it´s about as much fun as picking up the 38 bus at 6th and Clement and taking it to, I dunno, Fresno.

Then we got on the dune travel vehicle, which looks like part of the ride from Disney´s Safari Adventure, and that thing takes off, bumping around like crazy, and we´re actually going BACK DOWN the road we´d just traveled by bus, and a little bit of my soul died. I thought back on the last two weeks, all the time since we´d entered Brazil, and all I could see was: Mototaxi-Plane-Bus-Taxi-Boat-Taxi-Bus-Bus-Boat-Taxi-Plane-Bus-Disney´s-Safari-Adventure-Vehicle. It was like we´d signed up for some kind of survey course on Modes of Transportation in Brazil, and I wondered if all this traveling was even leading somewhere, if we´d ever get to a place where we wanted to stay …

Q: And the couple in front of you weren´t helping anything, were they?

A: Oh lord. No. No they were not. Where to start? Well, they were some kind of nondescipt European, the guy hideously dessicated, like his skin had to be painfully stretched out to cover his face, the girl just homely, doughy, and pale. She was out of his league, just by not being freakishly ugly. And they just made out, hardcore, the entire time. Sloppy, slobbering makeout sessions, even as we traveled over some of the roughest terrain. Honestly, they pretty much destroyed my concept of romantic love forever. If Ilana is ever distant with me for any reason, I assume that she just can´t get the image of these two out of her head. Honestly. Physical intimacy is gross, isn´t it? And so I sat there, sleep-deprived and bouncing against a hard metal seat, and I tried not to look, but of course I couldn´t stop. This was the low point.

Q: And then … Jericoacoara?

A: And then Jericoacoara. And then, all of the sudden, I had nothing to complain about. After 90 minutes traversing huge sand dunes with nothing man-made as far as the eye can see, we came over a dune and there it was, shimmering like a mirage in the night, an impossible collection of everything I wanted a Brazilian beach town to be.

Ah, Jericoacoara: photo credit Jamie McIntyre

Ah, Jericoacoara: photo credit Jamie McIntyre

In Jeri, there are no roads. It is literally built on the sand dunes. Even in the businesses, there are no floors, only sand. Twenty years ago, this was apparently just another fishing village, like Alter Do Chao, with pristine beaches but nothing to do. At some point, though, it became a windsurfing and kitesurfing mecca, and so a town grew up out of nowhere in a three square block area, cheap hostels and restaurants with soft-lit patios and live acoustic music, beach shops and bars and internet cafes. I´m still not sure if it was real. I mean, there are no roads. How did all that stuff get out there? Just the basic building materials … it seems impossible.

We checked into an incredible hostel with wireless internet and free huge breakfasts and air conditioning and an owner who spoke English, and we paid less than half of what we paid to sleep in a hole in Belém. Our neighbors across the hall were x-ray technicians from Seattle, breaking our streak of 11 days without meeting a native English speaker. We went out for huge portions of pineapple shrimp, and I felt truly happy to be traveling for the first time in about a week. This was a place we could stay.

Q: And so this is the part where your story gets a little bit boring, with the sitting on the beach all day and the tropical drinks and whatnot, and you´re so happy and yeah, stop bragging already. Let´s just make a note here of the fact that you spent five days in Jeri, and it was incredible, in the running with Santa Marta for the best experience of the trip. Now let´s get into some of the more interesting, though less important, details. Let´s talk about your new friends from Seattle.

A: There´s no polite way to say this … they got ripped off at every possible turn. When we met them, we were excited, as they had already been in town for a week, and one of them was actually a Brazilian-born guy who spoke fluent Portuguese. They would show us the ropes. Or so we thought. These people … at one point … paid six dollars for a can of Pringles. Yup, Pringles. They told us once of this great cheap pizza place, one that only cost nine dollars per person. We spent the rest of the trip looking, unsuccessfully, for a place that expensive. Couldn´t find one.

The main thing to do in Jeri, if you´re not partaking in some kind of wind sport, is to go on a buggy tour of the dunes, and the lagoons that form between them. An added benefit to these buggy tours is that they can also take you to a nearby ATM, as there isn´t one in Jeri. Our new friends offered to help us negotiate, since they knew the ropes.

“We talked our guy down to R$140. Then an extra R$20 for the trip to the ATM. We got a really good deal.”

We took this with a grain of salt, and decided to sleep on it. The next day at breakfast, a guy came by our hostel and just offered us (with no negotiation at all on our part) to take us on the tour for R$45, and to take us to the ATM for an extra R$5.

I don´t want this to sound like us bragging about our skills at getting deals. We have none. These are just the prices that you are supposed to pay for things. I am honestly at a loss for any explanation of how it was possible for our Seattle friends to get so badly ripped off, over and over again. I am only thankful that it wasn´t us.

Q: So let´s talk about your dune buggy tour.

A: Sounds good. First of all, they pronounce “buggy” as “boogy,” which Ilana thinks is the absolute most adorable thing in the history of the world, and she would never speak to me again if I didn´t reference this some way in the email.

Sand buggy in Jericoacoara: photo credit pcivv

Sand buggy in Jericoacoara: photo credit pcivv

Anyway, so we head out on our buggy tour with our guide and two vacationing Brazilian dudes who thankfully spoke English and were able to translate for us. I have to say a few words about our guide.

I know that the white man´s tourist dollars are not always a good thing. I know that generations of people are now bussing tables and washing dishes instead of doing the noble agrarian (or whatever) work their ancestors did, and that this is probably a bad deal for them. But, for a select few, tourism is the greatest thing to ever happen to them.

Take Marco, our guide on the trail to Machu Picchu. He had a girl in every city we passed through, stayed up partying long after the rest of us had gone to bed, and generally had the time of his life running us up these hills to the city. And then everyone in our group gave him a generous tip, above and beyond his salary.

Take Joel, our English-speaking friend in Leticia. He took us to see local music, which was nice of him, but we paid his cab fare, bought him drinks, and tipped him, too. All for doing what he would have done on a Sunday night anyway.

And take our dune buggy tour guide, whose name I didn´t catch. He spent half a day driving our buggy like a crazy person, rocketing over dunes like it was a roller coaster, taking his turn sandboarding with us, then kicking back playing dominoes with nearby restaurant employees while we hung out at the beach. That is a nice day for anyone. And he made more doing that then I´d make in a long shift waiting tables. Pretty sweet deal.

Q: Wait a minute … sandboarding? That is not a real thing. That is something that ad executives made up for SUV and Jeep commercials. C´mon … sandboarding?!?

A: Oh, it´s real, and it´s awesome. You climb to the top of these huge dunes, strap yourself to a modified snowboard, and carve off the edge of the dune, splash landing in the lagoons at the bottom. I love any sport where you can fall and not get hurt. I could have done this all day. Seriously. I´m thinking about becoming a pro sandboarder. But we had to head back for the sunset.

What sandboarding in Jericoacoara looks like: photo credit Stefano Liboni

What sandboarding in Jericoacoara looks like: photo credit Stefano Liboni

Q: Sunsets are a big deal in Jeri, huh?

A: Sunsets are huge. I mean, I dig sunsets. I never thought I´d say “Sunsets are overrated” in an email, but here we are. These people plan their entire day around the sunset, everyone hikes up to the main huge dune near town, watches the sunset, then comes back and gets drunk at these little beach drink stands set up just to catch the people walking back from viewing the sunset. I mean, it was cool and everything, but we did this once during our time in Jeri, and I feel like that was enough.

Hiking the sand dunes in Jericoacoara: photo credit Marcelino Martins

Hiking the sand dunes in Jericoacoara: photo credit Marcelino Martins

Much more important than sunsets, though, was my discovery of caipirinhas, the national drink of Brazil. They are, by far, the best “national drink” I´ve had on this trip, though Peru´s national drink, the pisco sour, has raw egg in it, so that one wasn´t too hard to beat.

Basically, a caipirinha (I´m sure most of you have had one, but I´m going to explain it anyway) is similar to a margarita, a light, citrus-y drink, only the capirinha is made with a local form of sugar alcohol, which is the single cheapest alcohol known to man. A liter of this stuff (a LITER) sells for a little over $2 US. Also, you can buy this sugar alcohol in cans. For a dollar. Twelve ounces of 80 proof liquor, in handy can form. This has to be the cheapest drunk in the history of the world. And yes, I stashed a few cans in my backpack for my triumphant return to San Francisco.

We bought most of our caipirinhas from a guy named Luiz, who spoke flawless English and claimed to have spent ten years living in Los Angeles, New York, and (weirdly) Madison, Wisconsin. Luiz was a real smooth-talking guy, always telling us that if we dropped his name at restaurants, we´d get free drinks. Of course, we doubted him, but, without fail, at every resturant … “Ahh … LUIZ!” … and free drinks for us. That guy was awesome.

Q: And so, eventually, you had to leave Jeri. Before we get to that, though, do you want to explain why you didn´t see any sea horses?

A: Looking at sea horses is, apparently, one of the main things you do in Jeri, and its a big part of most dune buggy tours. However, regarding these sea horses, someone at the hostel told us the single saddest thing we´d ever heard:

“So they get these sea horses in little tupperware containers, and they bring them over, and you look at them for a while, take pictures or whatever, and then they have to go and, this is very important, they have to put them in the exact same place they found them. You see, sea horses mate for life, and if you put the sea horse back in a different part of the water, and his mate isn´t around, he´ll get disoriented and sad and then he´ll basically die of depression. So it´s important that they put them back in the same spot.”

I don´t know about you, but I couldn´t handle having that on my conscience. We opted against the sea horses.

_____________________

Next up: fond memories of Natal!

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