Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Feathers and Food - Carnival alternatives in Rio

Ok, so you're in Rio de Janeiro, and you've missed Carnival. You still want to experience the music and see the costumes, but without spending days and nights sitting on a concrete stadium bleacher surrounded by crowds and a giant party. Out of season, but are you out of luck? What to do?

Well, depending on the time of year, it could be worthwhile to visit a Samba school. I didn't do that, as I was in Rio only a week or two after Carnival, and the schools were just re-forming and classes re-grouping to begin preparation for next year's celebration. So there wouldn't be all that much in the way of performance going on. But that's a link worth following anyway.

Any time of year, however, there is an excellent option at the Plataforma Theater in Leblon. There are many websites, reviews, and youtube links which refer to this venue/show, so Search away. Or if you'd rather just take it from me, here are the details:

Plataforma I
Rua Adalberto Ferreira, 32
Leblon Rio de Janeiro
Phone: 2274-4022

In researching links for this article, I discovered many are of the opinion that this folklore show is just a big tourist trap. Well, I am of the opinion that shows attract tourists with good reason, and nothing about this show had me feeling trapped. In fact, quite the contrary, it had me dancing for weeks following!

I didn't have dinner there, but that is an option. I just went for the show. What a show it was! Amazing mulata dancers, Capoeira (a mixture or martial arts and dance), and of course Samba, accompanied by a cultural journey of Brazilian music....and live singers! The grand finale is a parade of colorful feathered Canival costumes, and apparently this particular show is the venue for the winners of the 2009 Carnival Schools Samba Contest. The Samba Schools are judged in the following categories:

* Samba Song
* Harmony
* Flow and Spirit
* Theme of the Year
* Overall Impression
* Floats and Props
* Costumes
* Vanguard Group
* The Flag Bearer

They all looked pretty fantastic. Here's a slideshow of some favorite costumes:

And of course, what blog about a Samba Show would be complete without a video clip, just to give you an idea of the rhythm, energy, and pulse of the evening!

And before I abandon the subject of Carnival, I feel compelled to share a link to some pictures of the real deal, Carnival in action, by my good friend, great photographer, and Brazil enthusiast, Mark Whitley. Take a browse around his website to see more travel and people pictures from Brazil - for years his images have inspired me and fed my dreams to visit this colorful country!

As for dinner, well, Rio is full of excellent dining options. ZUKA is my choice to mention here, because the food presentation was a Carnival in itself. Don't panic that the website is only in Portuguese - the staff speak and understand english, and the menu is bi-lingual, but it is anything but a "tourist menu"! The food looked as good as it tasted, so of course, I'll finish my short review in pictures instead of words:

Friday, March 20, 2009

Portraying the Pantanal

What is the Pantanal exactly? My local guide in Brasilia, who has never been, thinks it is part of the Amazon with thick rainforest and lots of rain. Is it the jungle? No. Is it even part of the Amazon? Not exactly. The name "Pantanal" comes from the Portuguese word pântano meaning wetland, bog, marsh or swamp. The Pantanal of Brazil is it's own ecosystem entirely, and makes for the largest wetlands in the world.
So here it is the end of the rainy season, and the Pantanal should be flooded, right? I prepare for muddy roads, puddle filled trails, fording knee-deep through muck, getting soaked, all that. Another year, perhaps. But not this year. The rainy season of 2008/2009 so far has been the driest on recent record in the Pantanal. The roads are dusty, not even a puddle; the air is scorching hot, no raincloud or raindrop in sight.

The water level is so low that our lodge, which is supposed to look out over flooded plain and wetlands, instead looks out over dry brush, not even a waterhole to be found. The climate is changing all over the world, and quite notably for the animals of the Pantanal.

The Pantanal adventure begins with the drive to the remote Cordilheira Lodge at the Caiman Ecological Reserve. The first sighting is a good one - the Capybara, the largest rodent on the planet. Awfully cute for a rodent. Especially when the whole family appears, adults and little ones, splashing in and out of the cooling waters of a river.

And just a few feet away, what's that? Caiman?!! Yep. Interestingly enough, caiman and capybara co-exist peacefully. Caimans just aren't interested in expending any energy to chase down a big furry rodent. Instead, they can get a delicious seafood meal by just sitting in the cool water with their jaws open as the water flows over the rocks. They are not drinking. They are simply waiting for a fish to come tumbling into their mouths and snap, how easy is that? I've yet to see a caiman without a smile. They all wear a big ear to ear grin in fact. What's to complain about? Here they are living in the protected wilderness of the Caiman Ecological Reserve, in the heart of the Pantanal - best life to be had for these reptiles!

At last arriving at Cordilheira Lodge, I settle in to laze through the afternoon heat from my porch. The forest edge is nearby, and I spot a creature making it's way from the tree line across the cut grasses and straight toward the compound. I jump from my hammock and grab my camera, excited to capture another wild mammal of the Pantanal so quickly and easily! Turns out, the exotic creature in my eyes is an everyday nuisance to the Lodge staff - a pesky scavenger on par with a possum or a raccoon back home. But of course, I recognize it now - remembering the Coati in Costa Rica which bravely stole a snack sack from the zipline rest area. Still, this is a wild animal, and living in the wilds of the Pantanal, and it certainly posed nicely....
The feathered wildlife sightings in the Pantanal are far more rewarding for both guides and visitors. In any season, the Pantanal is a bird lover's paradise. Here are just a few favorites:

Toco Toucan, Yellow Headed Caracara, Burrowing Owl

Greater Rhea, Great Black Hawk, Jabiru Stork

Perhaps the Pantanal is best known as prime habitat for the Hyacinth Macaw. A visit to the rescue/rehab center doesn't guarantee a sighting. In fact, only the empty nest box stood as evidence of their existence. But when you least expect it, there it is. In the wild. And it is beautiful. THEY are beautiful. To watch these gorgeous Macaws in their native habitat is utterly amazing, and the true highlight of a visit to the Pantanal!

That's great and all, but what about the jaguar? I never saw it, but it more than likely saw me. They are quite rare to catch a glimpse of - the guide had only seen one four times in the past five years at the Pantanal. But the other guides told an interesting story about the jaguar and politics. Apparently, the jaguar is a big fan of Obama, as it chose to make an appearance on Election Night 2008.
A group of Americans were staying at the Lodge, and glued to the satellite tv to watch the election coverage on November 4. When it came time for the safari outing, only a Danish couple broke away from the media to get out in nature. And guess what. Only the Danish couple was graced with the sighting of a jaguar. They missed a few hours of Obama and McCain on tv, but they saw a jaguar in the wild, they watched it, they took pictures, and everyone else missed it. So the Danish couple, along with everyone else, still get 4 years of watching the media cover Obama. But everyone else, unlike the Danish couple, missed a once in a lifetime opportunity to see a jaguar in the wild. So the lesson is this: given the prospect of choosing between two once in a lifetime events, go for the one that CNN doesn't cover!
But there are other mammals to be discovered in the Pantanal, such as the Howler Monkey, and the Crab-Eating Fox.

By the way, for those of you who winced at my earlier post about all the mosquitos in the Pantanal, let me just say that the joy of watching wildlife in the wild, zooming in on a Savannah Hawk in perfect light, or getting video of caimans gliding with capybaras in the rivers, well, moments like these make it all worthwhile. Yes, it's incredibly buggy, but the bites go away....the memories last a lifetime.
That's it from the Pantanal. For more captivating images of the Pantanal lodges and wildlife in the wild, visit Mira Terra Images.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Brasilia: A study in composition

When it comes to capital cities of the world, few compare to the wonder of Brasilia. For those of you who didn´t have a Brazilian roommate in college, Brasilia is in fact the capital of Brazil - not Sao Paulo (the financial capital), or Rio (the glamour capital). It was built entirely from scratch in 40 months, out on a plateau in the middle of nowhere, when then President Juscelino Kubitschek ordered it´s construction there in order to bring population to that region of the country. Inaugurated in 1960, today Brasilia is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The city was planned by Lucio Costa and his close friend, Oscar Niemeyer, who was the princial architect of Brasilia. I am convinced this guy would have made an incredible photographer, as every structure demands an eye for composition, and every vantage proves the city to be incredibly photogenic.
Brasilia makes a perfect entry point for visitors to Brazil - it is a modern city and a good place to leisurely immerse oneself into Brazilian life. All the hotels are centrally located, with shopping and banks nearby; the avenues are long and wide; and there is no escaping iconic landmarks - the city is composed of a great concentration. It takes only a glance at these images to recognize the traits of a modern planned city, built circa 1950´s, and to appreciate the imagination and inspiration that went into it´s planning and architecture.

As I am using a public computer, I don´t have ability to edit and caption the images, but I will update this when I am back home so that you know what you are looking at!
As for the best restaurant in Brasilia, well, I am certain I found it. Though it lacks it´s own website, Patu Anu is an absolute must for a fine dining experience, great ambiance, location, and the food exceeds expectation. There was no problem ordering special requests and modifying menu items for vegetarians. It is worth the remote access, and my insider´s tip is that you prepare to wait as long for the check as for the meal - request it when you order dessert, and save that last drink to enjoy conversation and company while your bill is being prepared!

Friday, March 06, 2009

Overheated is an understatement!

I´ve arrived in the Pantanal at last. Even though it´s the rainy season, this year has been different - the climate is changing here too. Not much rain, but that doesn´t stop the mosquitos! They tell me the mossies are light this year, but in less than 12 hours here I´ve already been mauled from head to toe, never mind the deet, my blood is too sweet!
But just as intense is the heat. The rising sun at 5:30 am brings heat and light of midday. My laptop just couldn´t take the heat and now refuses to turn on. I don´t blame it! As for backing up photos, not to worry - I always carry a back up drive and an ipod, so the pics will come, but for now I must paint a picture with words.
For the moment, I need only two to describe my experience in the Pantanal: overheated, and overeated! Stay tuned!