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#38 Iguazu Falls – Water, so much water!

As the world’s largest waterfall-system and prominently located at the border between Brazil and Argentina with Paraguay right next to it, the Iguazu Falls hardly need any introduction. And while Paraguay doesn’t own any of the waterfalls, it is part of the second most remarkable sight in the region: the Itaipú hydroelectric dam and the world’s second largest powerplant. I could pull up Wikipedia now and throw a ton of interesting numbers at you, but I’m sure you, dear reader, are well capable of doing that by yourself.

We stayed four days in Foz do Iguaçu, the Brazilian city named after the falls in the state of Paraná. On our first day we visited Itaipú. Hotels and travel agencies offer tours, all of which are completely over-priced considering that they consist merely of transportation to the powerplant and the on-sight tour which can also be booked directly at the dam. So the two of us just walked to the local bus terminal and caught a bus for about 1 USD each. At the powerplant, we decided to do the extended tour granting us insights into the inner workings of the dam, the machinery and the control rooms. Fun fact: once the tour bus drives through the gates of Itaipú, you are neither in Brazil, nor in Paraguay. Itaipú is a territory shared by both countries but owned by neither of them. It was impressive seeing and experiencing one of mankind’s biggest engineering projects. And although it is right in front of you, it seems impossible to comprehend the complexities of planning, building and running this place.
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part of the dam

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On top of the dam

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turbine shaft – one of 20 units of the powerplant

The next day it was time to start discovering the falls. Once again we took a cheap public bus that took us right to the entrance of Iguaçu National Park on the Brazilian side. The entrance ticket, with different prices for Brazilians, Mercosur nationalities and all the others, includes transportation on the hop-on hop-off buses that take you from the entrance to the final stop at the  falls. Inbetween, you can get off at several points for boat tours and different trails through the forest and along the waterfalls. We got off at the second last stop in order to walk along the water. Dozens of Coatis welcomed us there, eager to snatch some food from a careless tourist. But once we got a first glimpse at the first section of waterfalls, the enthusiasm for the animals dwindled quickly.

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A hell of an outfit!

 

It was brutally hot that day and the piers at the end of the waterfall trail that lead over the water onto a platform mounted right on top of one of the cliffs were a welcome refreshment as the mist of the thundering water all around left you soaking wet within minutes.

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When we first arrived at the park, we bought tickets for the Macuco boat tour. So once we finished the walking part, we took the bus to where the tour started. An electric cart pulling a carriage took us through the tropical forest for about 15 minutes. We walked the rest down to the boat landing. The ride on the rubber boat was a one of a kind experience. We headed upwards against the current, stopping for pictures and then it was time to get a proper shower; the captain maneuvered the boat practically underneath one of the waterfalls and it was hard to breath because of all the water everywhere. Then he gave us a quick break, just to do it once again a minute later. It was short but unforgettable.

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We visited the Argentinean side the day after. This time we arranged a driver because we needed to stop at both borders and it was quite a bit further.
The park on the Argentinean side is much less well taken care of and less organized than was the case in Brazil. But on the other side they have two connecting train routes instead of lame buses, and nothing is cooler than trains.

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In general, the views towards the falls are better on the Brazilian side, but in Argentina you are much closer to the action. The main attraction is Devil’s Throat, a gigantic waterfall that, once you reach it after crossing about one kilometer of river on a pier, just simply takes your breath away.  The amount of water rushing over the cliff right underneath and in front of you is overwhelming. And although there are hundreds of tourist around, there is some humbling solitude in the moment you appreciate this spectacle.

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the pier
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Devil’s Throat

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While less spectacular than Devil’s Throat, the other trails also uncover a beautiful scenery. At one point, Barbara was simply overflowing with the beauty of nature and had to relieve herself.

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On our last day we went over to Ciudad del Este, Paraguay. The city is not known for its sightseeing attractions. There are none. But nevertheless, thousands of people come every day to buy cheap electronics and brand products that are heavily taxed in other countries. The basically inexistent border controls lets people buy absurd amounts and smuggle them back into Brazil. Of course you can also find an infinite number of ilegitimate knock-offs and there are all kinds of shady sales strategies being deployed. Our goal wasn’t to go on a big shopping spree but getting to see a tiny part of another country so easily was too good an opportunity to let go. So there we went,  we hopped into a van, drove across borders without showing a passport at any point. I’m pretty sure that’s not how it’s supposed to work.

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What we ended up buying? Two lipsticks for Barbara and a beard trimmer for me, not exactly what you would call splashing out.
That was the last of Brazil. I hope through our posts you could enjoy a little bit of what we had the pleasure to see and experience during these last three months.
Stay tuned for Argentina.
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#37 Minas Gerais – Tiradentes and Capitólio

Minas Gerais has quite a few astonishing spots, one of which I wrote about in the last post. This time, I’m writing about two more of them: the old colonial town of Tiradentes and Capitólio, a place of immense beauty and blue skies scattered with photo-perfect cotton ball clouds that are so typical for Minas Gerais.

Together with Ana Cristina and Fabio which you might already know from our Rio de Janeiro blog-entry, we packed the car with a bag, filled the rest of the trunk with beer bottles and left Rio behind us. We started late and it was clear that we will have to break the nine hour trip into two and sleep somewhere on the road. Once you get out of the urban area, proper accomodation becomes scarce and all that was left at 2 AM in the morning was a more or less cosy love motel close to Barbacena. The bed was surprisingly comfortable and we definitely enjoyed the massage function, but try to style your hair in that mirror!

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In the morning we enjoyed a breakfast anonymously delivered to our room through a hatch. Again we were surprised by the quality and variety of it, although we skipped the cream and drank our coffe black.
Not losing much time, which the hotel would have charged extra on an hourly basis anyway, we continued our journey. We agreed to stop again in  Tiradentes, a charming little city Barbara and I already knew from an earlier trip but loved to visit again. It’s part of the Estrada Real, a set of colonial roads which were built in the late 17th century to transport gold, diamonds and precious metals found in Minas Gerais. Today, you can find dozens of cute cafés, restaurants and local shops around the central square and along the cobblestone streets of the town.

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Arriving at our hotel outside Capitólio, Pousada Rio Turvo, we stocked the fridge with beer and let the rest of the day slide. We had a few days here and were in no rush as the only things to do were relaxing in the Pousada, relaxing next to a waterfall and relaxing on a motorboat.

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Pousada on Rio Turvo

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On the evening of the second day we got visitors: Ana Maria and her husband Luciano from Bom Jardim also booked a night at the same Pousada and spent some time with us. The next day we went on to discover the area a bit more together. Wonderful waterfalls, canyons and lakes can be found all just a short distance apart.

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FLTR: Barbara, Ana Cristina, Fabio, Luciano, Ana Maria, me

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Lago de Furnas

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This is for sure a great place to unwind, take in the beautiful surroundings and relax for a few days with good friends.

The last stop in Brazil that we will post about was Foz do Iguaço, the Iguazu Falls at the borders of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay.

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#36 Minas Gerais – Bom Jardim and Ibitipoca

Barbara and I have both travelled extensively in the state of Minas Gerais on other occasions. This time around, we made two separate trips there; one to Bom Jardim de Minas and the other one to Capitólio.

Barbara, her sister Gabriela and I spent a few days at their mother Helena’s house in Mendes. From there, the four of us made the long and bumpy ride to Bom Jardim de Minas. We got rooms at the small hotel belonging to old family friends. As a teenager, Barbara’s family regularly spent time in and around the town. We visited the old bakery, the remarkable blind aunt Celi and her brother Jaci and we went for hearty food and local Cachaça (the Brazilian firewater made from sugar cane), quite a bit of Cachaça.

Around the small city, there are inumerous hiking trails and waterfalls. We visited a place called Toca and a taller waterfall named Boqueirão that could be reached after about 30 minutes of walking. Their friend Alessandra and her brother Maurilio who is promoting Ecotourism in the area with his agency MD Radical Livre accompanied us to Boqueirão. They haven’t met in many years, so the day was a good opportunity to catch up.

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Toca – the place has seen more water in the past
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Toca
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Boqueirão
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FRTL: Gabriela, Alessandra, Maurilio, Barbara and me
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Boqueirão – recent rain left the water brownish, but still fun to swim up the stream against the current

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I thought that the road to Bom Jardim was rough at times, but it was nothing compared to the way to Parque Ibitipoca where we went the next day. The last 25 kilometres were dirt road with so many holes there was barely any road left. At one point, my passengers had to get out in order for the 1.0 Volkswagen Fox to make it up the steep and destroyed road. We were happy to finally reach the park and stretch out our shaken bodies. The hiking and the landscape around us were beautiful. In two loops, totalling just a little over five kilometres, there were several overlooks, various waterfalls and a few natural pools we could swim in.

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In the evening we organized accommodation in Ipitipoca, the small and charming village just outside the state park. For the next day, we decided to split the group in two: Barbara and her mom would stay in town while Gabriela and I would go to Janela do Céu, or window to the sky. We didn’t want to risk getting into one of the region’s common afternoon storms, so we had an early start, got some supplies from the bakery across the street and managed to enter the park just after it opened at 7 AM. With 18 kilometres of trail in front of us, we didn’t lose much time and started our ascend on the east side of the loop. Janela do Céu is located at the northern end of the park’s territory. The way led us up along a ridge that allowed for unobstructed views to all sides.

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The ridge
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funny bird

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Only a short time before reaching our main attraction there are dozens of caves off the main trail. We went on to discover a handful of them. And then we finally reached Janela do Céu, a small pond giving way to a waterfall about 50 metres tall. The water was very cold, but Gabriela and I followed the stream meandering through the tight and steep little canyon for some time. And of course we took a few pictures of this remarkable spot.

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Janela do Céu

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The way down on the western side was long and hot as the sun got stronger. We made it back to town by 2 PM. After lunch we packed up our stuff, loaded the car and drove all the way to uncle Luis’ place in Resende in the state of Rio de Janeiro. To finish off the day we drove to close-by Penedo for dinner at a German Restaurant. A storm came and it was raining heavily. By the time dinner was served there was thunder and lightning. Suddenly, the lights went out and our delicious meal turned into a candlelight dinner. Everything is well that ends well, they say…

Next up: Capitólio

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#35 São Paulo – Family, Friends and Surfing

São Paulo, Brazil’s megacity home to 12 million people. I have learnt to appreciate the good sides of this beast on earlier business trips and was excited to show Barbara, who only had distant childhood memories of the city, some of my favourite places. Because what many people don’t know, is that São Paulo is rich in restaurants of a variety and level only comparable to a few cities around the world. But more importantly, there are friends and family in and around São Paulo that we wanted to visit.

The first time we went there this time, we took a bus from Rio. My friend Carlos had invited us to stay at his home. His beautiful house is located in a quiet residential area known as Jardins and we were welcomed by his lovely girlfriend Katia. The next two days were full of good company, drinks and amazing food.

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Parque Ibirapuera with Katia
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Monumento às Bandeiras
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Lovely dinner at Dalva & Dito
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Breakfast table at Carlos’
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At Aizome we enjoyed some of the best sushi of the city

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We had planned to leave the city behind us on the weekend and head to Itatiba. Instead, Carlos insisted that we accompany them to his Fazenda on the countryside for another two days; An invitation I couldn’t and wouldn’t refuse. He had freshly refurbished and modernized the place. It looked fantastic and the size of the land belonging to it, including enormous soy plantations, corn fields, a forest and a river, is impressive. As an example: It took Carlos and me over an hour to race our quadbikes through the mud around a single soy field.

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Our amazing room
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Carlos showing off his cooking skills
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…the result – delicious

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time to get dirty…

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We had a great time together and Barbara and I are very grateful for his hospitality.

Then we finally made it to Itatiba. It’s a smaller city in São Paulo’s in the countryside that actually doesn’t have a whole lot to show for. But we didn’t come for the sightseeing anyway. We spent a full week with Barbara’s cousin Christiane, her husband Luiz Henrique and the kids relaxing, playing cards and videogames and drinking bizarre amounts of beer and eating way too much. In short: Life at its best.

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Itatiba
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Luiz Augusto going for a Strike

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We didn’t have to sit in the bus for too long until our next stop. We spent two short days in Campinas with Tootsie, Barbara’s cousin from her father’s side and her husband Woody. They are both professors at UNICAMP, which is why we got an interesting tour of the campus after meeting with their son Robin and his girlfriend for lunch. In the evening we headed for a beer at a local place with live music. Thanks for having us Tootsie and Woody!

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Then Barbara headed home to see her mom and friends again. Being so close and having the time is just too good of an opportunity to let go.
I on the other hand, was ready for some surf. My friend Brian still had some days off and he suggested that we stay at their weekend apartment in Riviera de São Lourenço for two weeks. So I took a bus and headed down to Santos on the so-called Litoral Norte de São Paulo where he picked me up. The apartment is part of a beach resort in an enormous condominium. They have pools, saunas, tennis courts, a gym and most importantly: waves!
So for two weeks our only worry was to figure out where to surf the next day and make sure the fridge had food and beer in it. Doable. Not easy, but doable.

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Brian paddling out
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My first attempts to selfie shoot a GoPro video while surfing

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Gabriel Medina’s new project in Maresias

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But even the relaxiest of times come to an end, or probably especially those. By the way, did you see that trailer in the last picture? That is where they make the most awesome Caipirinhas both in size and taste. A single one around 11AM and you’re afternoon program is fixed, or out the window, depending on what you planned.

After that, it was time to meet Barbara again in São Paulo. While our time in Brazil was definitely coming to an end, we still had no clue how to continue our adventure. We got a hotel in the center for four days. And I mean, just because you have stuff to figure out doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy your stay, right? So we went to some of our favourite places and also met up with my dear friend and former co-worker Alessandra who was also in town these days.

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Chef at Ohka doing his magic

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Amazing Churrasco at Barbacoa
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São Paulo skyline
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Sky Bar at Hotel Unique

Besides having a great time in the city, we managed to plan the next stage of our trip; Argentina, NYC and then Vietnam. But first, there are one or two more stops in Brazil that we will post about.

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#34 Rio de Janeiro – Christmas, New Year and Carnival

Now, before we dive into Brazil, where we would stay until the end of March 2017, I should point out the following: As we were travelling around and staying in both Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo several times, the Brazil posts will be organized by destinations, rather than chronologically.

I arrived in Rio on December 23rd, and while Christmas was just a few hours away, it was not what I was most looking forward to. After two months, I would finally see Barbara again!
Reunited, we spent a lovely Christmas with a ton of family at Barbara’s cousin Ana Cristina’s house where we practically lived throughout our repeated stays in Rio de Janeiro. There was music, a lightshow(!), a Secret Santa was organized, an actual Santa visited the children of the condominium riding on top of a pick-up and of course there was  a truckload of food. Quite different from European Christmas festivities, but a great party nevertheless.

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Secret Santa

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Santa in da House

The following days until New Year’s Eve can basically be summarized in three words: heat, barbecue and beer. With 38 – 42°C during the day, all physical activity that goes beyond lifting a glass of cold beer becomes incredibly exhausting and appears completely pointless. But even though I have been to Rio many times before, there is always stuff to be discovered. This time on the bucket list was getting to the top of Morro dos dois irmãos which offers great views over the city. So Fábio, Barbara’s lovely sister Gaby and I made our way to the trail which starts at the northeast end of a Favela called Vidigal. This community has been pacified and can nowadays be considered as relatively safe. The trail itself is quite steep and has several viewpoints along the way. It was so incredibly hot that day that it was impossible to drink water as fast as it left your body through your pores. But worse than the heat was the fact that the top was completely covered in clouds. Zero visibility. I was lucky enough to be around for quite some time, so I came back on my own a second time about two weeks later; and it was just beautiful to sit on the top and appreciate these incredible views of Rio de Janeiro.

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Cidade Maravilhosa

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Rocinha from the top – Biggest favela in Rio de Janeiro
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First attempt in the clouds

Then came New Year’s Eve, number two of the big events in Rio. The place to be on New Year’s Eve for gringos like me is Copacabana. Literally millions of people, many of which are traditionally dressed in white, and fireworks that illuminate the beach and the surrounding hills. Just don’t forget to hold on tight to your cell phone if you are keen on keeping it.

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Happy 2017!

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New Year’s Eve preparation

And then at the end of February, after intermezzos in the states of São Paulo, Minas Gerais, Santa Catarina and Paraná which you will read about in other posts, it was time for one of tbe biggest parties on the planet: Carnival in Rio de Janeiro. There are basically two different kinds of events: The famous and televised parade in Rio’s Sambodromo for which the best samba-schools of the city practice for most of the year and the so-called Blocos which are the central part of the common street celebrations. Some say the parade isn’t the “real” carnival, others are of the opinion that the Blocos are two crowded and dangerous. In my view, you simply have to do both.
Barbara experienced many carnivals already, so she thought it would be fair for me to have a chance and do this on my own. So Fábio, Matheus and I hit the streets and participated in Blocos in Copacabana, Ipanema, Botafogo and Barra da Tijuca. In Copacabana I once again met my friend Hejko. With his facial hair still uncut since I first met him in Alaska he was already past Reinhold Messner and going full Chewbacca.
On Sunday, February 26th 2017, was the day I finally got to be in Sapucaí, also known as the Sambódromo. The parade was as spectacular and flashy as always. Although we didn’t have the best seats, it was still amazing to witness Rio’s carnival in its full grandeur.
For safety reasons we didn’t bring cameras, so there are not many pictures of these days, but at least I got one or two.

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Hejko AKA Chewbacca and me
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Metro Party
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Maybe next time we take part in the parade…

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But there were some other opportunities in and around Rio de Janeiro to snap some pictures. Here they are…

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Churrasquinho in Jacarépagua
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Local Cachaça distillery at a farm outside Mendes, RJ

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Grandmother-in-law celebrating her 90th birthday with smokes and booze – the recipe for a healthy lifestyle
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Family lunch at Aki Ki Nois Fica in Mendes, RJ

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Meeting a friend in Rio
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Folia de Reis in Mendes, RJ
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Some good Rodizio in Fogo de Chão

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Visiting the oldest coffee house in Rio – Cafeteria Colombo

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Barbecue in Bangú at the place of a friend’s friend

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Next up is goint to be São Paulo and surroundings. We had a great time in the region meeting several friends and also family. Be sure to check it out! Abraços e até logo!