We arrived at the bus station with the goal of going south and a vague idea of some of the towns we wanted to visit along the coast. But when we mentioned some of these names to the guy selling us tickets, he didn’t seem to know any of them. “Do you have a map?” I asked. But of course not – why would he? He did, however, manage to pull out a list of towns that the bus does go through, and when we recognized Maragogi on the list and remembered the pictures of its crystal-clear water that we had seen on the internet, we decided to go there.
The bus ride was scenic but uneventful – perhaps too uneventful. The bus would randomly stop and pick people up or drop them off without anyone announcing where we were. There was next to no signage either, so when we got back to the coast and started seeing signs referencing Maragogi, we figured we must be there.
Except that the bus didn’t stop. When it seemed to turn away from the coast and we stopped seeing pousadas (small inns/ bed and breakfasts), we realized frantically that we had missed it. By now, however, there were no more seats left on the bus and people were crowding the aisle, and it took us a while to make it to the front. Sarah asked if we could be let off there, the bus driver practically screeched to a stop, and we got out. In what was pretty much the middle of nowhere, Brazil.
So we started walking. With all of our bags. In the hot sun. In order to cheer ourselves up, we pretended we were training for the Appalachian Trail. (Though if/when we ever do hike it, we’ll probably bring hiking backpacks and boots and leave the duffel bags and flip-flops at home.)
We finally made it to one pousada, faces red and sweaty and looking like the two biggest gringas Maragogi had ever seen. It was way out of our price range, though, so we kept walking, until finally we heard a honk behind us and found ourselves being passed by a old white VW bus. We waved it down and ran to catch up with it.
Vans are an integral part of the transportation system in Rio, so we had ridden them before. They’re often crowded during rush hour, and some people have to awkwardly stand in between the door and the seats. This van, however, was approximately 40 years old, maybe two-thirds the size of a normal van in Rio, and took “crowded” to an extreme. From my position squeezed amongst three large, hot (in terms of temperature and not attractiveness, unfortunately) Brazilian men in the back seat, I could count the van’s every occupant – and at one point there were 19 of us.
While I was marveling at the capacity of the little old van to keep put-putting down the road, dodging potholes and sliding over speed bumps, Sarah was near the front, grilling the guy who takes the money about cheap pousadas. We had originally told him we wanted to go to Maragogi, but he steered us toward São José da Coroa Grande – little did we know that this was because we were actually going in the complete opposite direction of Maragogi.
We were dropped off in the center of the town, a small but bustling fishing village that was probably the least touristy place we could have gone to. We walked around for a bit, still lugging our bags, looking for the mysterious pousadas the van-guy had told us about. People all around us were wearing swimsuits and cangas and walking to and from the beach, which was exactly what we wanted to be doing. So when we finally stumbled upon a colorful building called the “Hospedaria Shalon Mayim,” complete with a Star of David on its sign, I told Sarah that I was counting on her Jewish cred (her dad is Jewish), we practiced our “Baruch atah Adonais,” and we went in.
A young boy was manning the desk. And he had a room for us! Cheap, and complete with a fan! However, without windows. And one of the walls was actually a padlocked garage-door-like contraption that led outdoors. And the tiny TV had an antenna that had to be knocked every once in a while to clear out the fuzziness. But the biggest surprise was probably the “Exclusive Property of the Lord Jesus” sign in the open space outside the rooms. (In retrospect, this should not have been a surprise at all. Why would there be a need to lodge Jews in São José da Coroa Grande?)
We finally made it to the beach and then to seek out some food. Yet somehow the town had none. We found some bread and what turned out to be the worst cake either of us had ever eaten. Our hunger was finally sated, however, when later that evening São José da Coroa Grande turned into a par-tay. We each had a delicious cachorro quente completo – a hot dog with ALL the toppings – and a “Swiss” crêpe (I have no idea how the Swiss really make their crêpes, but these are simply crêpe dough on a stick with a small candy bar melted in the center). We watched little children play in the center square and enjoyed the feeling of being the only gringos in the whole town.
After some unsuccessful searching for internet and a successful morning at the beach the next day, we decided it was time to move on. We found another van, told them we wanted to go to Maragogi, and were surprised to find that the actual town was significantly farther from where we had gotten off the bus the day before. Oops. But once in Maragogi proper (where we were actually happy to find other tourists), finding a pousada was a lot easier. We found a beach-front one with internet (!) and cable TV and a bountiful breakfast for about twice the price of the previous pousada – but it was definitely worth the splurge. I have taken very few more welcome showers than the one I took that night.
We decided that snorkeling was a must. After managing to talk down the price by using our sick bargaining skills on a young boy who soon became our new best friend (i.e. we shared a lot of thumbs-up after we kept good on our promise to tell NO ONE on the boat about the price he had given us), we shipped off to the reef that lines the coast in those parts.
Wow. Snorkeling was pretty awesome, and as I told my brother, I felt like I was living “Planet Earth: Shallow Seas.” The water was clear, the fish were cute and colorful, and it was cool to watch the waves crash against the reef, several kilometers out at sea.
After we returned after sundown and enjoyed several cups of much-needed hot coffee, we set out on a trek that would lead us to our second best friend in Maragogi. The waiter at the one open restaurant that looked like it was for the local folks and not tourists sat us down, mumbled the available dishes in the fastest Portuguese I have ever heard, and then chose for us when we stared at him blankly. We ended up being served carne de sol and some big hunks of mandioca, which is kind of the local equivalent of steak and potatoes. It was good, if a little lacking in excitement (or vegetables).
The next day, after a breakfast for which I have no words (it was that amazing), we decided to explore some of the other towns in the area. We took a van to Japaratinga, home of a beautiful and deserted beach, and asked around for the way to a couple of the other towns we had read about. We wanted to visit a lighthouse and see the manatees, but everyone we asked seemed to be borrowing the Maine saying, “You can’t get there from here.” We decided to set out by ourselves and prove them wrong.
With sunblock breaks every half-hour or so and plenty of water, we walked about six miles through paradise, only coming across a few fishermen and youngsters playing in the water. We thought several times of stealing one of the many fishing boats lying around, or perhaps one of the horses we passed, but we never went through with it. After all, we were still training for the Appalachian Trail.
After finding the mysterious balsa (small ferry) that we had heard about all morning, we arrived in Porto de Pedras and enjoyed the most refreshing coconut water I have ever had. We had made it, but we still needed to climb up the impossibly steep hill to the lighthouse that was had seen from several miles away and used as inspiration for our trek. We ignored the “entrance prohibited” sign though we were unsuccessful in our attempts to break into the lighthouse itself. The view from the hill it was on was beautiful enough for me, though.
The way back was about a million times as efficient: we took moto-taxis! It was the first time I had ever ridden a motorcycle and I was kind of scared to death as I had nothing to hold on to and my driver kept spinning around sandy curves and hugging the curb to avoid speed bumps (though going over the speed bumps when he couldn’t avoid them wasn’t actually any better). I gave up my dream to marry a moto-taxi driver and decided that it might be better if I were the driver myself, as I would have more control. Unfortunately I have no plans to move to the northeast of Brazil to do so, as the heat there almost killed me.
After another dinner at our friend’s restaurant (He chose our meal again for us: fish and salad, this time. And of course more mandioca, which, though unbelievably tasteless, was actually growing on me.) and of course some ice cream, we went to bed, absolutely exhausted but ready for more adventures the next day.
To be continued! One more episode left!