The heavy rain as I left Belem (city at mouth of the Amazon), Brasil did not last long but thankfully the clouds remained – it was plenty hot enough without the sun. With the sights, sounds and smells of Belem in my head I headed southeast on BR316 to Teresina “the hottest place in Brasil”.
The road had been resurfaced recently belying the comment on my map stating it was “precarious”. The poor condition of roads is a common topic of conversation among Brasilians but with a few exceptions the roads I traveled were pretty good.
Most of the rain forest along the road had long ago been burned away to make pasture for the many cattle ranches but it was still pleasantly green with large shade trees dotting the fields. The good roads seemed to attract donkeys who stubbornly refuse to move for either motorcycles or trucks!
I stopped in Bacabal for the night and indulged my now serious addiction to Brasilian street food while watching the local youth practice the universal activity of “cruising” around the small town square.
I had made a decision back in Bogota to change course and head down the East coast of South America in order to meet Maria in Salvador April 21st for a 2 week “vacation” from my trip. Her work schedule dictated the dates. This meant passing from Columbia through Venezuela and Brasil instead of a West coast route through Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru, Chile, etc. From Teresina it was almost straight run east to the Atlantic coast. Although I would have liked to see the coastal cities of Sao Luis, Fortaleza and Natal – all worthy of a visit - but it would have added thousands of kms to my trip. Brasil is such a huge country – larger than the continental United States – you just can’t see it all.
It was a pleasant three day ride to reach Recife (2044km from Belem) on the Atlantic coast. Lonely Planet described Recife as a large “industrial” city but I found it to be also colourful with some very nice beaches. Nearby Olinda was worth a visit to see its well-preserved and beautiful colonial architecture. It was early Saturday morning, traffic was light so it was easy to cruise around the beach areas and find an ATM that would accept my card. Cash reserves topped up, I headed south along the coast to find a place on the beach.
I managed to navigate my way to a nice beach town called Praia do Frances just south of Maceio and found a Pousada (a bed/breakfast type hotel).
That night was spent listening to the pounding Atlantic surf. It was off-season so the beach was almost empty and there were only a few guests at my pousada, an Italian, and a few Brasilians. One fellow was quite out-going and had an English vocabulary that included only swear words. He would then greet me with a hello and then a stream of curses that he found very amusing!
It wasn’t hard to stay there for 3 nights and I also didn’t want to arrive in Salvador before Maria. It’s a great city (I was there for a week last year) and has nice beaches but I preferred a much smaller and quieter place to rest up.
Traveling alone by motorcycle can be lonely but I have discovered that the lone traveler is much easier for people to approach and strike up a conversation. Add to this the fact that Latin Americans and Brasilians especially are generally a very friendly, out-going and generous bunch. They seem to love to talk - often with great volume and grand gestures. They are very proud of their country (especially their home state) and seemed appreciative that a foreigner wanted to visit.
They also have a great curiosity about other people and are quick to offer help. I benefited from these characteristics. Whether I stopped for gas or a bite to eat I would be quickly approached and asked about my motorcycle and the trip. Soon others in the vicinity (there were always lots of people everywhere in Brasil) would gather around to listen. Since my Portuguese is useless there was a lot of pointing at motorcycle parts and maps. Then the self-appointed spokesperson would tell the others. It was great for me as I enjoyed the human contact. However, other Brasilians have characterized this trait as being unable to mind their own business!
Wanting a change I headed further south through the beautiful port city of Maceio and took the Linha Verde (green line) a newish truck-prohibited highway built to connect the beaches along the coast and develop the area for tourism. I found another quiet beach at Porto do Sauipe. However, it was soon time to head for the Salvador airport to meet Maria.
I arrived early (I didn’t get lost!) and noticed a large Honda motorcycle dealer next to the entrance road, Novotempo Motos. I decided to use the extra time to service the motorcycle. I spent about 3 hours working with a local mechanic who seemed thrilled at the opportunity to work on a strange looking BMW. When we finished I paid for the oil but they refused to accept payment for the mechanic’s labour and sent me off with a “boa viagem” (good trip). How great is that!
After two days with Maria’s nephews in Salvador we sent some of my kit and her luggage by bus to her parent’s home in Vitoria da Conquista (a small city 500km west of Salvador). She then bravely joined me on the bike and we headed off down the coast to take the long ay to Conquista. As we wound our way through heavy Salvador morning traffic an impatient car river pushed into our lane and gave us a good nudge. Fortunately it was raining and the rear tire just slid sideways a bit and we managed to stay upright. There really are some terrible car drivers in this world.
A ferry across “a Bahia de Todos os Santos” (the Bay of All Saints) led us over the trendy beach resort island of Itaparica. We met a fellow biker on the ferry - a teacher who commutes between Salvador and Itaparica.
We reached the small coastal town of Taperoa that night and a found a very small Pousada with even smaller rooms. The motorcycle was safely parked in the yes- very small restaurant next door although there were still customers seated when I rode up the front steps. Aside from fishing, the other main industry in town was a dende (palm) oil processing plant. It is Dende oil that gives a lot of Bahian food its distinctive taste.
After a second day of riding on twisty roads through lush tropical Atlantic rain forest in balmy temperatures followed by a cold beer and tasty dinner, it was becoming difficult to convince Maria of the hardships of motorcycle travel.
We spent the night in Ilheus, a city beautifully divided by a number of islands and lagoons and the home of the famous Brasilian author Jorge Amado.
Our ride to Conquista the next day was interrupted by a total closure of a main highway by a landslide. We learned of a detour for motorcycles only that would save about 100km. At the entrance a cowboy on horseback confirmed the route and we embarked on a hilly 40km off-road trail through cow pastures and gravel roads that added a little adventure to the day.
I spent just over a week being pampered by Maria’s folks in Conquista including having the broken turn signal mounts on my bike repaired skillfully by her father. I also located a pair of Pirelli MD40s (90/90/21 and 140/70/17) with Pirelli tubes for R$605.00 or about US$300 at Magna Moto Pecas, Avenida Alagoas, 139 in the motocycle dealer area of Conquista. This is about 1/2 the price in Canada. I left reluctantly (although I was gaining too much weight!) and headed south again the 1200km to Rio de Janeiro. I stopped for 2 days in Vassouras, a pretty town in the mountains 100km west of Rio as the lucky guest of my Toronto Brasilian friend Liuz’s parents in their 200 year old home that dates back to the day coffee was the major industry here.
It was with mixed feelings that I left Vassouras and rode towards Rio. I had decided my trip was coming to an end. After over 3 months on the road and 18,500km I was starting to feel a little too detached from my family and home. I still loved the adventure of starting the motorcycle each morning and heading down the road toward the new and unexpected. However, in my next destination, Southern Argentina (Patagonia) it was now almost winter with the risk of snow and freezing temperatures. Also, spring had arrived to my home and garden in Canada – who would do the chores? Finally, Brasil had been such a huge experience that my senses were pretty much overloaded and in need of a rest. I rode straight to the Air Cargo terminal at Rio airport and put my motorcycle on a flight to New York.
Luckily, I had a friend with relatives in Rio de Janeiro. What an amazing city! The geography alone is striking enough with the spectacular combination of mountains, ocean, lagoons and beaches. Add all the pastel colours (why don’t Canadian buildings come in different colours?), heavily treed and clean streets full of people typical of Brasil and it is almost overwhelming.
Anyway there is nothing I can add to what is already known about the “most Brasilian city”. My “carioca” (native of Rio) guide made my 3 days in Rio a great way to finish up my visit. Sharing an apartment with an active Rio family also gave me a rare (for a tourist) if brief insight into life in the city.
You will have noticed a bias for Brasil in my notes – it’s true after 4515km of riding there I love the place and want to see a lot more of it. It’s not all pretty, and it is full of frustrating contradictions. Poverty and crime are real issues. So with mixed feelings I left Rio for an overnight flight to New York City.
Great service by Varig Air Cargo meant I was on my bike by noon and back at home in Mississauga by early afternoon the next day, Saturday, May 12th.
About traveling by motorcycle. Many people have told me it is just too dangerous in their view. Motorcycle and air travel are similar in my mind. You have to respect the laws of physics at all times. Every time I get on a motorcycle, I make myself consider the risks and plan to manage them – I assume that an airline pilot makes the same evaluation – so at the end of every day of safe riding I congratulate myself for what I did right and review the mistakes/lack of attention that increased the risk. I like to be in control of the risks I take. Of course, you can’t control other road users – the biggest threat - but you can do a lot to mitigate them. It is serious business but the rewards far outweigh the risks. I believe bus travel (the only other travel option in Latin America) is much more dangerous.
I hope to continue my journey by returning to Rio and continuing south to Argentina and up the west coast of South America – the best weather there would be in December. Meantime, I’m trying to adjust to Canada. There is so much about this country that is the best in the world – I think we just need to add some colour and diversity to our urban landscape. Those big box shopping centres, local strip malls, and public buildings that all look exactly the same are so boring!
Thank you to all of you who have shown interest and given support to my little journey. I have benefited from the generosity of many people I met on my trip – from their patience with my poor language skills to opening their homes to me. To my family, friends, neighbours and of course Maria for the many favours. I owe you all. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to e-mail me.
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