Finding what we didn’t seek in Brazil
We are on a small plane heading north to Porto Seguro. From the air we can see the private beach estancias carefully hidden in all the green. Our second flight takes us farther north to Salvador, the Afro-centric cultural and historical capitol of Bahia state. At 9 that night we are preparing to board our third flight to push even farther north. The airport is full of people. Here day flows into night and night into day, with flights coming and going around the clock. After midnight until 6 in the morning some three dozen flights will depart to destinations all over Brazil. With luck, we hope to be in our pousada in Olinda, another World Heritage Site outside the tropical hell hole of Recife, before midnight.
Recife is the kind of place you want to get behind you as quickly as possible — over-built, over-populated, drenched with crime, and smelling like an open sewer. We speed though the night on a half-hour taxi drive through empty industrial zones and the chemical orange glow of street lights to Olinda. The Recife beach, we learn, is closed, because landfill drove sharks from their natural breeding habitat and now the city has more shark attacks than any other place in Brazil.
We arrive shortly before midnight, only to discover that our 400-year-old pousada that sounded so good in the guide books is just across the street from a bar so crowded that revelers have spilled into the street. The noise sounds like a World Cup soccer match. The pousada itself is dark, dreary, and reeks of the sweet stench of old food (you begin to wonder if the people who write these guide books are on controlled substances or on the take from the places they write about).
Heads spinning, we turn around and wind up in the Recife Palace hotel, a tourist limbo which bills itself as five star, but deserves no more than two. And so to bed in the wee hours. Another two days wasted.
We finally arrive on Fernando da Noronha in the late afternoon of the following day, 300 miles off the northeast tip of Brazil. This is the end of the road in Brazil. Because it is largely national park, it has dodged big-time tourist development and is still one of the last wild places left on earth — part Galapagos, part St. Bart's in the Caribbean, and part Hawaiian Kona Coast. Transportation of choice here is dune buggy. The taxi ride from the airport is a hoot, one hand on the roll bar, the other holding the bag on the roof.
Until recently, the government would allow only about three dozen visitors on the island at any one time, but that precaution has vanished. Every visitor pays a head tax to help support the environment, but the tourism ball is gaining momentum fast. Cruise ships have discovered the island and several regularly scheduled flights from the mainland arrive every day.
Where just a few years ago, there were only a handful of tiny inns, actually private houses, today you can stay in real comfort with a nice view for the same amount you would spend on a good hotel room in New York or London. The island is so heavily booked when we arrive, we wind up moving almost every day for the next six days, starting with Solar dos Ventos, an ecologically sensitive pousada that grows it own fruits and vegetables. Our bungalow has a sweeping view of the beach and bay just down the hill, which is all nature preserve. It doesn't take us long to discover that we share our space with small tree frogs. I wake up the following morning when one lands on my face.
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We are on dirt roads early in our canary yellow dune wheels, snaking our way down bumpy pistes, then hiking to one breathtaking unpopulated beach after another. Lush hillsides and great black rock islets come together where crashing surf sweeps the beaches up and down the coast. On the mainland, beaches at this hour are teeming with millions of people. Beach chairs, cabanas and umbrellas push all the way to the water's edge. But here on the north shore of Noronha there's not a single human — not even a footprint — for miles in any direction. We feel like we are close, very close, to the paradise we have been looking for.
Farther to the west, we stand on a cliff with a team of marine researchers and look down on the Bay of Dolphins, one of the world's great dolphin sanctuaries, where as many as 1,500 dolphins frolic and play every day before setting out at dusk for their nightly feeding excursions around the island. People and boats are forbidden to enter the bay, but we can see family groups and mothers with their babies, and gangs of juveniles hurling themselves out of the water. The entire bay is alive with dolphins.
Scientists and researchers from around the world come here to study the abundantly diverse marine life. In quiet bays of the south coast, harmless sand sharks patrol the turquoise shallows. But big sharks cruise on the cobalt currents offshore. As in the Galapagos Islands 600 miles off the coast of Equador, these sleek lords of the deep sea pose little threat to divers, because marine wildlife is protected and fishing limited strictly to the families who live on the island. So nature is in balance the way it should be, and the big boys have plenty to eat. The biggest boy of all, the 40-foot whale shark, a gentle plankton feeder, can be seen lumbering slowly through the sunny upper reaches of the open ocean just offshore.
For countless thousands of years, huge green turtles have favored the more sheltered empty beaches of the island to lay their eggs, and it is not uncommon to see them around you as you snorkel in the calm coves of the south shore. On one beach, we find a dreadnaughted researcher measuring the carapice of a green turtle that he has captured with his bare hands and muscled to the sand.
The only problem with Noronha is the people. The 3,000 people who live and work here by special government permit, mostly fishermen and workers in the growing tourist industry, put up buildings, and generate trash, garbage and pollution. The government says it is doing what it can to keep the place pristine. But in a world where natural treasures are becoming increasingly rare, the word is out on Noronha. And in just the last few years the island has suddenly become a destination. The day can not be far off when the pressure to ease restrictions and protections will be so great, the dam will burst. The inevitable result will be the same heartbreaking result we've seen almost everywhere we have traveled in the past 20 years.
In just the last couple of years, Brazil has morphed from bargain to bank account buster. Somehow in the two years that we thought about this trip, the worm turned, and the hard truth somehow escaped us. So instead of finding value, we experience constant sticker shock. This has to do with the world economy, balance of payments, sinking dollar, and Brazil's recent manufacturing and export prosperity, among other things. But if Brazil is expensive, Noronha borders on the ludicrously overpriced, even taking into account that it's a small island and hard to get to.
One night we wind up down a muddy back road in a flea-bag pousada crawling with ants, a backed-up septic, barking dogs in the trash-strewn lawn, and a room so small you can hardly get into bed. For this, they want 400 reis, or about $200. We quickly learn that only a handful of pousadas offer a view or any real comfort. Half of them are reasonably priced, but they are all booked. The five nicest cost at least three times as much (unless you are with a tour or book well in advance). So of course we wind up spending a small fortune for the privilege of hopping from one to another. We go out of our way to avoid Maravilha, which markets itself to travel writers as the best place to stay. It's way overrated and overpriced. The food is arguably the worst on the island, and they ask twice what you would expect to pay a night for comparable lodging anywhere else.
Even here in one of the world's most beautiful places, we find no Americans, not even Europeans. Beside the crazy prices, we think there is another reason. As we move from place to place, we meet lots of Brazilian families, mostly from Sao Paulo, the commercial, banking, educational and industrial center of the country. The topic of conversation always seems to drift back to the same topic: the extraordinary level of lawlessness and violence in Brazil.
A family tells how a gun-wielding gang commandeered their entire apartment complex, terrorizing men, women and children, and plundered each apartment individually. The father, a lawyer, has been robbed three times.
Another family talks about how they lost two cars to hijackers.
Virtually everyone we speak to has been robbed at least once, usually twice.
The police don't seem to be much help, and in fact are widely believed to be part of the problem. Two brothers tell us how cops stopped their car on the main road from Sao Paulo to Rio (where we have just traveled ourselves), claimed they had insufficient documentation, took them to a local jail, threatened them with prison and a lengthy trial, and didn't release the boys until they handed over all their vacation cash, about $800.
Noronha may be one of the safest places in all Brazil. Petty theft is a problem, but violent crime and major theft are almost unknown. Ironically, most of the year-round residents are descendants of inmates from the penal colony that existed here until the first part of the 20th century. Not surprisingly for a gene pool that has never been off the island, a lot of the locals look alike.
The morning sun is already baking the hills and toasting the beaches when we swim out to the turtles. We see our first giant just 100 yards off the beach. Moments later several other 200 pounders drift into view. One playfully curious juvenile, a mere 100 pounds, draws close and appears to make deliberate eye contact. When we stroke his carapice, he wheels toward us and we beat a retreat, not sure whether he wants to get another pat or reproach us with a nip to let us know he doesn't take kindly to contact.
Later, we chance upon a real-life Robinson Crusoe, a craggy-faced Scot who washed up on Noronha 20 years ago, long before pousadas or hotels or tourist infrastructure of any kind. George Mortimer came to study the theory that dolphins have a calming and physically healing affect on ailing humans. For years he swam with the dolphins, in time getting to know many of them individually. The sick and debilitated came to George, and George took them out to meet the dolphins and the word went out that something wonderful was happening on Noronha. That is, until one day a few years ago when an organization of academic researchers bearing Ph.Ds showed up and announced that George had no business messing about with dolphins without a proper degree. They persuaded the government to establish an official policy limiting legal access to the dolphins strictly to themselves. So George and all the people who had come to rely on him and his dolphins were left on the beach, where George remains to this day.
For beach fanatics, Noronha is a real paradise of eye-popping hideaways. One treasure in particular, Praia do Leao, Lion Beach, is actually two long, sugary confections on the quiet south shore blessed with deliciously warm waters that round an island and collide gently off a sandy point. It's love at first sight.
Two days in a row, we drive our dunie a mile down a dirt road, then hike a few hundred yards down a coastal hill with a picnic lunch, then walk another half mile up the empty sands to plant our scarlet umbrella and settle down to watch the surf dance.
Yellow-footed boobies show up to grab scraps from lunch, waiting patiently at our feet and wheeling around us by the dozens as we hurl bread pieces to the sky. We soak in the sea until late in the day, getting back for a swim in the pool just before dark.
Mornings we spend on Conception Beach, on the north side, where big breaks rolling in from the Atlantic attract surfers. Conception is crowned at one end by Morro do Pico, Castle Peak, a gargantuan landmark lava fang that thrusts itself a quarter mile into the sky. To walk alone on empty Conception flanked by the roar of the marching surf on one hand and the impassive majesty of Pinnacle Rock on the other, in the full glare of an uncompromising tropical sun, is to feel entirely human in the most invigorating, yet humble sense of the word.
The toughest part of leaving Noronha is saying good-bye to Conception and Lion Beaches and our yellow-foot buddies, the boobies.
Back in stifling Recife, we try for half a day to book passage to the Amazon, but the flight legs are complex and numerous, and we can't find a single seat available on any plane. Once again, we pay the price for spontaneity and independence.
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We leave Brazil the way we found it, in the thick of noisy airport crowds, and much the wiser since our arrival 40 days ago. Much of what we found we did not seek. All that we did not like was more than offset by the happy surprises we uncovered. But the question of whether we have discovered the paradise we were looking for remains unanswered and unresolved. Our greatest regret is that we never made it to the Amazon.
I find I can't recommend Brazil to anyone, at least in summer. And for all its special magic, because of the costs and crime, I would likely steer them away the rest of the year, as well.
Perhaps we will discover everything we are looking for in our next destination, Argentina.
This is the final part of this series. Previous installments can be found at DarienTimes.com, under the Travel section.
Mr. Toogood of Darien is an author and former television journalist. His latest book is "The Articulate Executive in Action — How The Best Leaders Get Things Done."