28 December 2011

CYCLING BRAZIL (4) - Recife to Belem

As we cycled out of Recife we spotted a bike shop and had Amanda’s gear cable fixed. I bought a new back tyre for my bike as the old one was wearing a bit thin. Shortly after leaving the busy city of Recife, we arrived in Olinda. The former capital of this state has now been declared a world heritage site, and rightly so! It is a fascinating place with candy-coloured houses along steep slopes. Churches are situated on top of high hills and narrow cobblestoned streets run at odd angles.

17 November - Olinda – Goina - 69 km

We left Olinda along the coastal road and took the ferry boat from Maria Farinha across the river to Nova Cruz. A good paved road took us back to the BR101. The BR101 was much better than expected and came with a good wide shoulder to cycle on. En route to Goina we cycled through Igarassu with its historic centre which had some nice old buildings and churches.

In Goina we settled for the first accommodation we saw, which turned out to be reasonably priced and the room even had an icy cold air-con.

18 November - Goiana – Joao Pessoa - 55 km

The day turned out to be a rather frustrating one. Amanda’s chain broke and we had to push the bikes along for about a kilometre to a little tyre-fixing stall where they could fix it. They hammered and banged and eventually the chain was back on and could at least do the job of getting us to Joao Pessoa.

We battled on at snail’s pace but eventually arrived in Joao Pessoa, a rather miserable looking town. The traffic was heavy and the roads narrow, and I feared for Amanda as she nervously dodged trucks and busses. I know that cycling into a busy city, at peak hour, can be an unnerving affair. There’s very little, however, that one can do but push on until you reach the centre or some kind of accommodation. We pushed on as we wanted to be in the centre in order to find a bike shop. The first place we tried turned out to be a house of ill-repute and the second seemingly full. Our third try was way overpriced but we took it anyway as we had had enough of the day and just wanted to settle down.

Once settled in, I took a walk to the supermercado as Amanda was fed-up with the whole affair. She did not want to walk, cycle or talk. She just flopped down on the bed and I didn’t hear a word from her for the rest of the evening.

19/20 November - Joao Pessoa – Cabo Branco Beach - 9 km

We left our hotel and cycled down to the beach, where we planned to stay for two days. Amanda needed a break from cycling so we found a nice place on the beach and settled in.

The beach volleyball circuit is big in Brazil. They had just arrived in town with their trucks and scaffolding. Stands and courts were being put up in a hurry. Food stalls lined the streets and the band was going ten to a dozen! We were getting caught up in all the festivities and loving it! People were enjoying the beach and flying kites; another brilliant day in Brazil.

We enjoyed our stay, walking on the beach or just sitting outside our pousada (which was right on the beach), and watching all the action going on.

21 November - Carbo Branco Beach – Mamanguape - 83 km

It turned out to be a day of mixed emotions. We left Carbo Branco along the coastal road, with the intention of cycling to Natal along the coast. After 20 km we reached a river which had a barge to ferry us across. We followed a rather cobblestoned road for about 10 km until the road came to an abrupt halt. There was no sign of the road indicated on our map.

We had little option but to head back to the main road. The road was at least scenic, past large palm tree plantations. Along the way we stopped at a tiny roadside stall where the owner fixed fishing nets and sold coconut juice. It was boiling hot and I finished my juice in no time. On leaving, the owner wanted no money! He pointed us to a shortcut, which turned out to be a rather sandy road. The shortcut, however, took 30 km off our route and although slow going, it was still better than cycling the 30 km around. The road ran through sugarcane fields and the flies were out in force, enough to annoy the best natured person. Eventually, I hauled out and donned my mosquito/fly head-net, which made life a bit more bearable.

Back on the main road, we found a good road with a wide shoulder, and we regretted not taking it in the first place. We were 10 km from our destination (and thinking that we were making good time) when Amanda had a flat tyre. In the process of fixing it, I discovered that her derailleur was bent and that it was no wonder that she was having difficulty changing gears. In fact, the whole derailleur was loose as it appeared that the screw holding it to the frame was missing. Too many problems for me to fix (in fact, I know very little about the mechanics of a bike). At least now I know (or think I know, which are two totally different things) why the chain broke in the first place. It must have slipped off the derailleur wheel, and it was bound to happen again. At least we made it to our destination, still in daylight!

22/24 November - Mamanguape – Natal

We decided to take the bus to Natal where we would be sure to find a place to fix Amanda’s bike. This is not something I like to do, but we had little option. Once we arrived in Natal we still had to limp along to a bike shop. Amanda pushed her bike nearly all the way as she also had no brakes. We fortunately found a very decent bike shop in the centre of town. They fixed the bike as best they could, and we continued on to the beach area where we found reasonable accommodation.

Amanda once again tried to contact her bank in South Africa as she still had no pin number for her new bank card. They assured us they would phone us back in the morning, but nothing happened and we waited another day.

In the meantime, we had our visas extended and now have until 8 January 2012 to get out of the country.

25 November - Natal – Touros - 93 km

Natal is a big and busy town and, in the process of trying to find a smaller road, I think we took a wrong turn somewhere. We landed up (once again) on a dirt road that seemed to go nowhere. After 30 km, eventually, we were on the road we wanted to be on. The rest of the way was perfect: on a good road with a tail wind.

All would have remained perfect if it was not for Amanda getting a flat tyre 4 km from Touros. Not that it’s really a big problem, but more that she always seems to think it’s a major disaster. Touros is a nice little fishing village with a nice square where everyone gathers in the evening to watch the communal TV. Kids were playing ball on the beach while others were nibbling on street food.

26 November - Touros – Joao Camara - 63 km

Before leaving Touros we tried to draw some money, but the bank did not want to spit out any cash. I was rather concerned about it as Amanda still had no bank card. There was nothing we could do but set off down the road and try another bank somewhere else.

We headed inland as the coastal road comes to an end at Touros. It was a terribly hot day, but at least we had a tailwind again. On reaching Joao Camara, we headed for Banco do Brazil. Still, it did not want to give us any money. I was getting increasingly worried. Eventually, we tried one of the other banks and, thankfully, it accepted the card. With a sigh of relief we headed for a pousada as it was already too late to continue cycling.

We found a bargain of a room and even had supper - all at a very reasonable price.

27 November - Joao Camara – Macau - 104 km

We knew it was going to be a long day as I could see nothing on the map between Joao Camara and Macau. We set off with a nice tailwind and things went well - except for Amanda having two flat tyres along the way!

As the sun beat down relentlessly, we cycled past poor and drought-stricken villages. Most inhabitants seemed to have moved away, and I could not believe that I was still in Brazil.

We arrived in Macau: surely the windiest place to date! The wind was howling and sea foam blew across the road like snow. We found a room, took a walk to the busy central square for a bite to eat, and then it was bed time after a long day on the road.

28 November - Macau – Porto do Mangue - 75 km

First thing in the morning we found a bike shop, where they could fix all our punctured tubes (easier than doing it yourself). We had a quick breakfast, and then set off into the wind again. There was no way of getting across the river and we had to cycle 40 km inland and 40 km back to the coast again! What a pain!

I didn’t expect the day to be quite so hard. While the sun baked down on us, we battled on into a strong headwind, pedaling hard but getting nowhere. The drought-stricken area continued as we cycled past dry, barren fields. The wind whipped up dust and old plastic bags, and we saw little except for a few dried out and sun-bleached skeletons along the way. It felt as if the road just went on and on and on! Eventually Amanda gave up: she sat down and was determined to take a bus. There was, however, no such thing, and after a while she got back onto the bike and headed into the wind again.

We finally reached Porto do Mangue and we couldn’t have been happier to be out of the wind and off the bikes. Hats off to Amanda who, despite feeling weak and nauseous, made it all the way!

28 November - Porto do Mangue – Grossos - 54 km

It was another hard and unforgiving day on the road. Conditions were harsh and the sun and wind relentless as we battled on past stark and desert-like scenery. Amanda did not feel well again so we made it a short day. Once we had crossed the river by barge, we arrived in the tiny village of Grossos where we found a pousada and relaxed for the rest of the day.

30 November/1 December - Grossos – Icapui - 46 km

We made the mistake of skipping breakfast and Amanda soon felt tired and was in no mood for going a long distance. Fortunately we had a tailwind and reached Icapui early in the day. Just down the road from the main centre, we found a nice beach with bungalows overlooking the beach. Not a bad place to hang out and recuperate. In fact, it was so nice that we stayed the following day as well. We lazed around and did as little as possible, not even the laundry.

2 December - Icapui – Canto Verde - 65 km (plus 27 km by car)

After a day’s rest and a good breakfast, we were on our bikes again. We tried to get away a bit earlier as, by now, we knew that Amanda does not handle the heat very well. Just a mere 20 km into the ride Amanda’s front hub packed up and we had to flag down a vehicle to give us a lift to the next village. A very friendly, but rather large, guy gave us a lift so there was only space for one of us in the front. Amanda, together with the bikes and bags, got onto the back and had a bit of a windy ride to Aracai. Our driver was kind enough to take us all the way into town, and dropped us right in front of a bike shop.

I couldn’t believe our luck! The bike shop was quite a professional outfit and had no problem fixing Amanda’s bike. We did, however, have to wait in line, as the shop was quite busy. I watched in amazement as villagers arrived with their rusty old bikes in serious need of some TLC, which they got at this friendly bike shop. Each person’s bike was treated with due care. Cleaned and oiled, they were soon off on a much less squeaky bike. Eventually it was our turn and we received the same care.

Although it was already quite late, there was still enough time for us to reach Canto Verde. We were pleasantly surprised to find a tiny fishing village amongst the sand dunes and palm trees. A room on the beach completed the picture and, had it not been for the wind, it would have been paradise.

3 December - Canto Verde – Prainha - 92 km

We woke early but by 08h00 it was already boiling hot. To our delight, we had a strong tailwind again which helped us along. We stopped nearly every 10 km for water but it still felt that we were not drinking enough. Due to the tailwind, we reached our destination fairly early and found ourselves a nice pousada with a swimming pool, where we could relax before heading into the city the following day.

Judging by the number of kitesurfing schools and wind farms, this is obviously a notoriously windy area. For once in my life, I seemed to be heading in the right direction.

4 - 6 December - Prainha – Fortaleza -34 km

We were slow in packing up as we knew it was not far to the city of Fortaleza. We cycled past more sand dunes and wind farms and the area reminded me of the Red Sea coast in Egypt. Fortaleza is a large and busy city with a lovely beachfront. We found a real ‘cheapie’ of a room, close to the beach, which suited us just fine. That evening we walked along the beachfront (which stretches for miles) and nibbled on street food from the multitude of stalls along the way. The beachfront was packed with people rollerblading, skateboarding, running, cycling, you name it! They were out there enjoying the cooler evening air: at 10pm that evening it was a cool 24°C - just perfect!

I found a fantastic bike shop just down the road, bought a new front tyre and had the bike washed and oiled. I hardly recognised my bike when I saw it! We lazed around and did little else but stroll along the beachfront. We handed in our laundry, but as we could only collect it the following day, it gave us another day of rest in Fortaleza.

Soon, however, it was time to leave the concrete jungle and get back on the bikes.

7 December - Fortaleza – Paraipaba - 94 km

The wind can be friend or foe, and today, it was a friend so we sped down the road with an excellent tailwind. The state of Ceara has been very kind to us: mostly flat with a favourable wind – there’s not much more a cyclist can ask for! All along the road we saw signs for a hotel in Paraipaba, as we got closer the signs became more regular, like every km! After seeing so many signs we could not ignore the place and headed straight for the hotel which was situated behind the gas station and next to the bus terminus. The room was cheap, clean and the price included breakfast so no complaints there.

We took a walk to the supermarket and the central square which was beautifully lit up with Christmas decorations. A few street food stalls were sprinkled around the square and people were sitting around having a beer and chatting to their neighbors, which seems to be the thing to do around here.

8 December - Paraipaba – Itarema - 129km

It turned out a long and hot day on the road. We found nothing along the way but roadside stalls and dirt road turn-offs to the beaches. All these place were too far just to turn off and come back again. So we continued on until we reached Itarema.

Amanda was very tired and in no mood for looking around so we took the first room we found. It was not the best of places, above a restaurant and via a steep and rickety staircase. The room was, however, large and came with a window we could open for fresh air. Not that we needed that much fresh air as there was no ceiling, just the roof tiles and we could watch the night sky through the cracks. The ceiling fan made an almighty noise but we could hardly switch it off, as if we survived the heat, the mosquitos would carry us away.

9 December - Itarema – Acarau - 26 km

Once we were on the road, Amanda claimed that her legs were too lame to cycle after the previous day’s long ride. We found a nice room in Acarau and spent the day lazing around. Amanda still had energy to update the website, as that did not require any leg work.

10-11 December - Acarau – Jijoca de Jericoacoara - Jericoacoara - 49 km (+24 km by jeep)

Had a most unexpected and awesome day. After cycling about 50 km, we arrived in Jijoca de Jericoacoara, where we found jeeps and beach buggies lined up to take people to the nearby nature reserve and the small village of Jericoacoara. Not wanting to miss out, we jumped on a jeep (bikes and all) and headed over the dunes to the coast. Jericoacoara, or just “Jeri” as it’s known, is a rather hard-to-reach place. The only way in and out is by jeep or buggy. The village itself is very much “island-style”, situated in the dunes with sandy streets lined with bars and guesthouses. The area is rather windy and is therefore a famous spot for kite surfing. It’s also one of the few places in Brazil where one can see the sun set over the ocean.

At night the mobile cocktail stands came out, and we sat on the beach watching the sunset, sipping our drinks. The dunes around the village are quite amazing at sunset and, needless to say, I had fun with the camera.

The jeep taking people out to the next village did not run on Sundays (what a great excuse for staying another day). We chilled on the beach and did not complain about staying on.

12 December - Jeri – Chaval - 57 km (+40 km by jeep)

We were ready early morning for our ride out of the park. We were told that the jeep would pick us up at 6h30 but it was 8h00 by the time we left. We had quite an eventful ride as the jeep was packed with people (we counted 20), our bikes, surf boards, luggage and even a huge teddy bear taking up most of the space. We sped along the beach, over dunes and through rivers. Two ferry crossings later, we arrived in Camocim, with Amanda breathing a sigh of relief.

It was still early in the day so we continued on to Chaval, where we found a remote pousada on the banks of a mangrove-lined river.

13 December - Chaval – Parnaiba - 86 km

The scenery changed completely as the dunes disappeared and large rocks appeared next to the road. On leaving for Parnaiba, Amanda spotted a small café where we could have breakfast, seeing that breakfast was not included where we stayed. We had some bread and coffee and set off again with a good tailwind. We reached Parnaiba in good time and found a much larger place than expected. We also found that we had reached the edge of a huge delta. We had a few options, of which cycling around the delta to Sao Luis was one. It was, however, very far, about 600 km, whereas if we could find a boat to the small town of Barreirinhas, it would only be about 250 km to Sao Luis.

We found a nice pousada in Parnaiba and went looking for a boat. Boat trips appeared to be more popular than we expected as there were loads of agents offering delta trips. We organised a boat for the following day to the small and remote village of Tutoia. Once in Tutoia, we would decide what to do next: I did not see any roads on the map but figured that if there are people living there, there surely must be a way out.

14 December - Parnaiba – Tutoia - By boat

We slept late as our boat only left at 13h00 and it was only 10 km away. It was a flat and easy ride to the harbour, where we stocked up with some beers, water and snacks for the trip. The ride was fascinating and we saw more wildlife than expected. The delta was teeming with birds, crabs and even (what looked like) a small crocodile! The most amazing sight was the fish that appear to run on water! We cruised through the mangrove swamps, past small islets, and even spotted a monkey way up in the trees. Eventually we came to some huge dunes where we just had to stop and take some pictures. What a fascinating area. The delta is a huge 2700 sq-km expanse of islands, beaches, lagoons, sand dunes and mangrove swamps and I think we have seen it all.

A few hours later we arrived in Tutoia, where our skipper even walked us to a pousada, not a bad place as it was right on the river. It appeared that we were on a small island but we understood from the locals that we could cycle to the next village and get an aptly named “Toyota” there to take us over the dunes to Barreirinhas.

15 December - Tutoia – Paulino Neves - Barreirinhas - 35 km (+55 km by truck)

We found a good paved road and cycled the 35 km to Paulino Neves. The road comes to an end in Paulino Neves, and converted Toyota trucks ferry people to and from the village along sandy roads. We managed to find a truck to take us and our bikes to Barreirinhas, where we hoped to find a road of sorts again.

It was a rather bumpy ride along a rough track, over sand dunes and past some stunning scenery. My dear sister made such a racket that one would have thought that she had reached her final days. No sooner had we left than she hit the deck, yelling and screaming like a child throwing a tantrum. I stared in utter astonishment at the spectacle. I did not know what to do. Reassuring her that we would be fine, and reminding her that the driver drove this route twice a day, had no impact. Terrified, she clawed onto the seats yelling “Oh nooooooo!” with every sway of the truck! What a performance she gave!

Finally we arrived (alive) in Barreirinhas, looked for a pousada (of which there were plenty as it is the gateway to the national park) and then had some beers to calm Amanda’s nerves. At least it looked like we had passed the rough bits and could continue on by bike to Sao Luis.

What an adventure we have had in the past two days!

16 December - Barreirinhas – Humberto de Campos - 118 km

It was a straight, flat road and there was a tailwind, so we made best use of it and cycled as far as we could. Not that we had many other options as there was nothing between the two towns. Fortunately there were plenty of tiny stalls along the way where we could fill up with water.

We found a nice pousada at the entrance of the town, at a dirt cheap price. The lady running the pousada looked rather stunned that two foreigners wanted to book into her pousada. She swept and dusted for hours before we could occupy the room. Then it was into the village to look for food, amidst many stares and giggles. We managed to find something to eat which we took back to our room so we could eat without being stared at.

17 December - Humberto de Campos – Rosario - 116 km

We ate a small breakfast of coffee and bread rolls and set off again in the direction of Sao Luis. It was another long day on the road as there was nothing but bushes along the way. Not only was it far, but it was boiling hot as well.

On reaching about 95 km, Amanda claimed that she had had enough and soon found a lift for the last few kilometres. She did not have to feel bad about it as, no sooner was I on the road again, a big truck stopped and offered me a lift. In the back were four French cyclists, who were also finding the weather a bit extreme. I politely declined the offer and cycled on to Rosario, where I found Amanda waiting for me.

18-19 December - Rosario - Sao Luis - 74 km

We arrived in the island city of Sao Luis, dead-tired after a long and hot ride into the wind. The road was in terribly bad shape and extremely busy. I hate days like this as they are way too stressful: the shoulder was non-existant and busses, trucks and cars careened down on us like bats out of hell. Amanda found the heat too much for her and took a bus into the city centre. We arranged to meet at Pousada Vitoria which turned out to be a good option. The pousada was well-situated in the historic centre and was also a family home with a nice courtyard and homely knick-knacks scattered around.

We spent the following day doing a whole lot of nothing. We did, however, manage to do our laundry. We also took a walk down to the port to find out what time the boat left for the trip across the bay to Alcantara. The bay is tidal so boats only cross to Alcantara at high tide.

20 December - Sao Luis – Alcantara - By boat

We were told that the boat leaves at 9h00, but when we got to the port the boats were still sitting high and dry. We were told to catch the boat at another port. We jumped on our bikes and raced through the traffic to find the port that we were pointed to. Eventually, and still in time, we found the boat, pushed our bikes across the sand and boarded. The boat eventually left at 10h00 and was still struggling to get through the narrow canal.

The sea was rather rough and my dear sister again gave an award-winning performance! All the crew gathered around to try and calm her down. If you have a fear of water there is just nothing anyone can do or say to ease your fear. To cut a long story short, we eventually arrived safely at the other side.

The small town of Alcantara is quite interesting: built by slaves for the rich, it is now mostly in ruins, but interesting nevertheless. By the time we were done looking around, it was a bit too late to set off again, so we found accommodation on the outskirts of the town.

21 December - Alcantara – Bequimao - 84 km

We left Alcantara on our last and final stretch to Belem. The road cut slightly inland so we were leaving the coast until we reached Belem. The road was fairly hilly but at least the tailwind was still with us. The scenery became more lush and green, and we even had some rain along the way. The cloud cover we had for most of the day was more to Amanda’s liking and she cycled strong all day.

We reached Bequimo in good time, found a “hotel” for a fraction of the price we had paid the previous night; we even had our own separate rooms! That night we ate at our hotel and the food was surprisingly good, considering it was dirt cheap.

22 December - Bequimao – Santa Helena - 94 km

I slept well and Amanda had to wake me up in the morning for breakfast. We were soon on our way again and fortunately there was still some cloud cover. The little villages along the way were becoming more and more “wild-west” in style, and the countryside more and more watery. We even spotted some water buffalo along the way.

The road was not fantastic, but we managed all right. The traffic seemed more careful of cyclists, which was good as from time to time the shoulder disappeared altogether.

23 December - Santa Helena – Gov. Nunes Freire - 74 km

It was a windy day on the road and I was off like a rocket, partly due to a strong tailwind and partly due to our staple of rice and beans. The road was fairly flat, providing for easy riding, but poorly-maintained with potholes the size of small craters! It did however act as a very effective speed control as cars and truck snaked along the road to try and avoid the worst of it.

Amanda decided to take a bus as she was not feeling well. On arriving at Gov. Nunes Freire, I looked around but could not find her anywhere. I became increasingly worried as there continued to be no sign of her. I booked into a visible hotel and hoped that she would spot it on her way in.

Amanda soon arrived on the back of a pick-up truck. Apparently she had not been able to find a bus in Santa Helena, so she set off by herself for about 40 km until she flagged down a lift along the road. She looked chuffed with herself, despite still not feeling 100%.

24 December - Gov. Nunes Freire – Boa Vista do Gurupi - 72 km

Amanda was feeling really ill and decided to take the bus. We could not figure out what was wrong with her but it was clear that she could not cycle. We asked around and found a little bus stop where she could wait. I set off down the road, which was dead quiet and a pleasure to cycle.

I soon reached the small village of Boa Vista do Gurupi, where I saw Amanda waiting at a little restaurant. The restaurant also had some rooms at the back and we took one so she could lie down and sleep. I was really worried about her as I had no idea what was wrong with her. We discussed the situation and decided to take the bus to Belem the following day so she could see a doctor and where we, hopefully, could find a more comfortable place for her to rest.

25 December - Boa Vista do Gurupi – Belem - By bus

I had my doubts about getting a bus on Christmas day, but we only waited an hour or so. We loaded our bikes and bags onto the bus and no sooner found ourselves in Belem. It was a bit of an anti-climax to reach Belem by bus, but there was not much else to be done. On offloading our bikes from the bus, we found Amanda’s derailleur had been completely bent, and we had to push our bikes to a nearby hostel.

The hostel was full so we treated ourselves and booked into a very fancy hotel just behind the hostel. I must also mention that the hotel had a special on for the following two days, with the result that it ended up not costing much more than the hostel.

26-27 December - Belem

The Amazon has two seasons: rainy and dry. This is the rainy season so we can expect daily rain. This is also the end of Amanda’s cycle journey as from here we will take a boat to Manaus, from where she will fly back to SA. Belem turned out to be not as “wild-west” as we had expected, in fact, it’s quite a modern city with lovely parks and a population of 1,5 million. The Amazon River is rather unimpressive: just a wide, wide muddy river.

I headed straight for the busy port and the local market to find out if there was anything interesting to see there, and I found more than enough herbs to cure just about any ailment one could imagine.

After our two day stay in the fancy hotel, we relocated to the hostel. The hostel was an old Rubber-Baron mansion: a stunning place with lovely wooden floors, 4-m high ceilings and crystal chandeliers (but still totally over priced for a hostel).

We looked for a bike shop to fix Amanda’s bike but could not find any. We did however book ourselves on a boat to Manaus. Although we could have found a boat for half the price, we decided on the more expensive boat as we hoped that Amanda (with her fear of water) would feel safer on a “smarter type” of boat. On checking the boat out on the internet, Amanda did not find the boat to her liking. The following day we headed back to the boat office and upgraded our tickets to a much larger boat.