King of the jungle Travelling Ted Hely takes on monster trucks, lamp posts, and bugs as big as your fist in the wilds of Brazil
I entered Brazil on 26 March, the day after my birthday, and the hangover was more than evident. The previous night had been spent at the Argentinean border town of Iguazu, famous for the biggest waterfalls in the world and its wild party scene. Sharing drinks with me were now good friends Sean (The Cowboy) from Kansas and Cristi the Californian beach babe from LA. We had all met back in Buenos Aires at the world-famous Dakar Motos and agreed to ride through Brazil together since we were all going the same way and we’d already shared some good times together in Argentina.
A week after leaving Buenos Aires we arrived at the border town of Iguazu where we would visit the fantastic waterfalls and say our final goodbyes to Argentina. We found a cabin in a beautiful tropical retreat and spent a wonderful few days taking in the attractions, collecting the Americans’ Visas and partying in town at the many bars… The resulting hangover is probably what led us to having illegal motorcycles for the duration of our time in Brazil. More on that later!
Heads still spinning from a birthday BBQ, We rolled up to the border control office and were confronted with Portuguese for the first time in South America. We had incorrectly assumed that our developing Spanish would get us along just fine in Brazil and just said ‘sim’ and ‘noa’ when asked questions by the bored, grumpy officials. Five minutes later our passports were stamped and off we went. I was a little concerned that they didn’t seem to want to issue us with temporary import papers for the bikes which every other country required but I thought they would obviously know best. With a headache and the taste of Caipirinhas still in my mouth, I just wanted to get moving…
It took about 30 seconds for us to get a taste of warm Brazilian hospitality when a group of bikers from a Moto club heading into Argentina waved us over. They looked rather menacing in full leathers and club colours but in a mix of Spanish, English and terrible Portuguese we shared experiences, swapped stickers and exchanged email addresses. I immediately knew that I was going to love Brazil.
Heading away from town, what was immediately apparent is how tropical, green and luscious Brazil is. It is such a contrast from Argentina, which is mostly dry scrub and Pampa. The roads in South Western Brazil are a rider’s dream, twisting and turning up and down the endless hills and mountains. Waterfalls on the roadside cliffs spray you with their cool water and help to wash off the constant slime from the huge and colourful insects which commit suicide on your visor. With my jacket almost fully unzipped, one giant wasp flew straight into my chest and stung me… the 10 minutes of tight breathing and palpitations which followed taught me that some of Brazil’s bugs had a real mean streak.
Along with the kamikaze wasps, another new danger were the convoys of slow-moving, fume-belching ancient trucks transporting anything from bananas and sugar cane to timber. These arduous vehicles have to be overtaken, and as they travel in convoy, usually three at a time, it’s best just to open your throttle, hold your breath and grit your teeth in the hope that another convoy isn’t coming the other way. Cristi, being the most inexperienced of us all having only learnt to ride a few months earlier, had our hearts in our mouths as she roared past lines of trucks, dodging and diving between vans, cars, and the seemingly endless string of canine road kill on these heavily used roads. With a little luck or maybe natural ability, she always pulled it off though.
Our first stop and proper taste of Brazilian civilization was the lovely town of Plato Blanco. It was probably the nicest place I had been to in a long time. Blessed with beautiful green plazas, modern shops, restaurants and an almost a western choice in the supermarkets, Brazil was the most modern country I had visited in all of South America. To add icing to an already tasty cake, the people I met were always upbeat, smiling and genuinely happy to see us. On the downside, the prices were becoming more western, too, with our shared room costing 30 percent more than in Argentina. Belts would have to be tightened here but not before we had treated ourselves to a fat juicy hamburger and a couple of beers. It’s the only way to see in a new country.
The next day’s riding was going to be a long one as we wanted to make it all the way to the east coast peninsular of Florianopolis where all the surfing beaches are tucked away. A good breakfast of tropical fruits, cold meats and bread and typically great coffee was welcomed. Sandwiches were stealthily stashed away in tank bags along with a few bananas to keep our costs down.
We grossly underestimated how long it would take to reach Florianopolis. The twisting mountain roads really slowed us down and after eight hours of constant riding the sun finally said its goodbyes over the horizon leaving us to ride in the pitch dark in the middle of a rain forest. There are no streetlights here and the twisting mountain roads awash with potholes, ridges and steep cliff drops just added to our anxiety.
This was especially nightmarish for me as I only had a dark tinted helmet visor which when down was akin to wearing sunglasses in the dark. My only option was to ride with it up, leaving my face and eyes exposed to the wind and masses of insects which were attracted to my little Yam’s feeble headlight. For 80 miles I squinted and cursed around the Serra do Mar mountain tops, relying on the headlights of the few cars that were manically trying to get past us. Hair-raising stuff, I can tell you.
We were relieved when we emerged out of the mountain forests into the civilization of Florianopolis in the late evening. We didn’t know what to do or where to go so just followed the signs to the south of the island to where all the best surf beaches should be. Surely there would be plenty of cheap hotels littering the roads? Of course, sod’s law being what it is, we couldn’t find a hotel. After being temporarily locked in between two gates of an unstaffed sex motel (don’t ask) we decided to head back to a small supermarket that we’d passed to ask in there.
Miraculously, there was a local guy on another XT600E parked outside. We didn’t speak any Portuguese and he didn’t speak any English but when he asked us a question in German, Sean replied! What Sean had failed to tell us is that he spent a few years at school in Germany and was pretty fluent. So there we were, One Brit, two Yanks and a Brazilian conversing in German.
Our new friend Hart jumped on his bike and took us to a posada (hostel). Directly on the beach front and only 10 quid a night each for a whole apartment, we were more than happy and wasted no time unpacking the bikes. I love the way these things happen. One moment you’re aimlessly wandering around a strange town expecting to sleep in a bush, and the next moment you’re in a lovely apartment by the beach with a local friend who invites you to a BBQ at his house the next day to introduce you to some English-speaking locals. Result!
After a day exploring the beach and beach front bars, Hart rolled by on his bike to collect us for the BBQ. Although his house was close, it also ended up being on the side of a mountain, up a very steep, rocky, wet track. Getting up there was an adventure in itself for us, but Hart just blasted up at full throttle.
At the top we met Marcelo and Karina and a few other local guys. We ate, we drank, we talked Amazonian politics and we ate some more. Hart’s hospitality was first rate, feasting on flame-grilled beef and the fine local beers. With maybe one or two beers more than I would usually have while riding it was time to leave back down the mountain. Slipping and sliding down the track in the dark, but full of Dutch courage, I was having a great time until I was totally shown up by Marcelo overtaking me, two up on a large TDM900 road bike with slick tyres. Respect!
The next day, we were joined in the apartment by Canadian couple, Peter and Carol who I had met earlier in Argentina and had been communicating with by email. After wrestling their huge old BMW onto the driveway, they asked us how we had got on with obtaining the temporary imports for the bikes as they had had some trouble with theirs. “Errr. What temporary imports?” came our reply.
Without this document, you are pretty much smuggling a vehicle illegally into the country, leaving yourself open to endless fines, risk of confiscation and who knows what else. After reading about Ted Simon’s time in a Brazilian jail, I didn’t fancy it much, although I thought it might make for an interesting story for the grandkids.
Anyway, the sun was shining, and we could hear the waves crashing on the white sandy beach behind us. All this worry about illegal activity could wait for another day. There were Caipirinhas to drink, waves to surf and a beach full of little bars and gorgeous Samba-dancing Brazilian girls to think about. Muito Bom!
Alas, all good things must come to an end, so it was time to head north. Sean had pulled some good contacts out of his bag of tricks. Back in Kansas, he had kept in contact with a Brazilian girl called Patchi who did a foreign exchange at his high school. She was now back in Sao Paulo, working for a charity and married to a great guy, Eduardo. They had insisted we come and stay with them, and who were we to refuse? We put the lack of import paperwork to the back of our minds and just hoped we weren’t stopped by any police that cared. As long as we could get to the Venezuelan border, we were sure we could arrange something or slip through without them noticing. Still, the border was a couple of thousand miles away. A lot could happen before then.
So up the coast we headed with Sao Paulo in our sights. Peter and Carol didn’t fancy Sao Paulo so kept going along the coastline. We all agreed to meet up again in Parati in a few days’ time and head north together to Rio.
We said our goodbyes and off we went. Again, we were spoiled with more stunning tropical rainforests and great riding roads excepting, of course, the monstrous slow-moving wagons. It was surprising how the miles slipped away while riding the rainforest roads. There was always something to catch your attention, be it a rotting donkey in the road or a stunning vista across a mountain. When we stopped for fuel, the pump attendants would always ask of our plans and when we told them we were heading for Sao Paulo and Rio, their eyes would widen and tell us we we’re heading to our deaths. I lost count of the times that these local small town Brazilians warned us of the dangers of these cities. One guy told us that we would be shot on the highway; another told us our bikes would be stolen at traffic lights. The scare mongering was endless.
Patchi and Eduardo had agreed to meet us in a small town outside of Sao Paulo and guide us in, so we didn’t end up getting lost and end up somewhere dangerous. After all the scare stories, this put us on edge again. By the time they arrived, it was dark and we still had a 30-minute ride into the city.
On tenterhooks, we hit the highway, trying to follow their small Ford Fiesta into the city. I don’t think they realised that our enduro bikes didn’t do more than 65mph as we struggled to keep up with them through the busy streets and highways. All the time I was expecting a van door to open up to spray us with machine gun fire or for a gang of machete-wielding madmen to attack us at every traffic light.
I’m sorry to disappoint you all, but we made it back to their apartment with no issues. For the next couple of days we enjoyed a little rest and relaxation in Patchi and Eduardo’s apartment. As Brazilians go, they were pretty wealthy but very down to earth. They drove us around Sao Paulo showing us the Favelas (slums), trendy bars and other attractions. Patchi’s sister adopted us the following day and we were given a first-class tour of Sao Paulo city centre.
Although it’s a commercial city, it is bursting with fantastic architecture, museums, art galleries and cool music venues. Not once did we feel threatened or scared by violence so we did wonder what all the warnings were about. Still, there was no doubt we could have easily gotten into trouble with one wrong turning, especially if we’d ventured out at night.
With our clothes washed and our bellies full it was time to continue up the coast to the picture perfect town of Parati and to meet up with Peter and Carol. Situated on a 1700’s colonial harbour Parati is the place where the Portuguese exported all the gold from. It is very touristic but with good reason. With its small cobbled streets, historic buildings, street art and quaint little shops, it’s hard not to fall in love with the place.
Riding into town I caught sight of Peter in my wing mirror, running down the road behind us. He and carol had perched themselves in a small bar knowing we would have to pass them on our way in; they’d settled themselves in with a few beers for the wait and it seemed rude not to join them. For the next few days we kicked back in this beautiful old town and took the opportunity to service our bikes before the next leg – the road to Rio!
We left Parati early doors so we could get into Rio before dusk. We wanted to find somewhere nice to stay away from the city centre and close to the beaches and we certainly didn’t want to get there at night…
Of all the so-called dodgy places in Brazil that we’d been warned about, Rio was top of the list. That’s the one thing that really surprised me about Brazil. The local people we met on the roads or small towns would never fail to warn us of our certain demise in these cities. I really wondered if they had ever been there themselves. Did they know something we didn’t? Probably!
We got there nice and early as planned and headed to the beachfront town of Ipanema. It’s very close to the world famous Copacabana beach but less touristy and therefore less dangerous (we hoped).
We had a great time in Rio. Many people avoid it due to fear of violence and muggings, which are mostly symptoms of the city’s extreme poverty. Although these sorts of things go on, you really have to go looking for trouble. Rio is one of my favourite cities in the world now and I’m so glad I didn’t miss it. The safest and easiest way to see Rio is to take organised tours arranged by the hostels. We took a day trip to see the famous Christ the Redeemer statue, the carnival sites and Sugar Loaf Mountain. It was truly fabulous and the people are so friendly and fun-loving (like all Brazilians).
One night we even went clubbing in one of the immensely feared Favelas (the famous slums), where I had one of the best nights ever. Inside the club, everyone was going crazy to the Samba drums with such energetic and vibrant dancing. It was a heaving mass of gorgeous women and smooth dancing men all with massive smiles on their faces and a lust for life. It was a far cry from the UK clubs scene full of ‘chavs’ getting drunk on crap beer and looking for a fight.
After a week of Rio we packed up our steeds and headed further up the coast, stopping off at numerous little beach resorts and the larger towns of Vitoria and Salvador. It was on one of these coastal stretches that my trusty XT started giving me problems. It had been a long hard day and I was having issues with my bike. It kept cutting out and stalling like it was being starved of fuel. I stripped the carb at the side of the road and again in a hotel room but I still couldn’t find the problem. One day it completely cut out on me, so again, out came the tools.
It’s really difficult working on a bike in a petrol station in tropical heat with a limited tool kit. The bike still wouldn’t run so we made the decision to hobble back to the nearest town and find a good workshop. I took my bike to the mechanic and explained the problem in sign language and Spanish (he only spoke Portuguese). He knew exactly what the problem was with the bike and I was up and running again within the hour. It turned out that the fuel in Brazil has 30 percent ethanol in it. This had rotted the inside of my fuel line which had blocked the micro filter in the carburettor. As XT600s are common in Brazil, he knew what the problem was immediately – one of the many bonuses of doing as the locals do when it comes to bike selection.
After a long day of trouble with the bike we finally rolled into the town of Vitoria and found ourselves a hotel. I was really tired and cheesed off at the bike, so I went down to the pool with Sean for a relaxing dip. I walked over to the water and leant on a big brass street lamp which was lighting up the pool area. Two seconds later, I was in the pool with this 500kg metal pole on top of me. As it pinned me to the bottom of the pool it also electrocuted me as it was still wired into the mains. I thought ‘This is it, the end of Ted,’ and what a way to go!
Thankfully after about 10 seconds (but to me felt like 10 minutes) the light shorted out. Still pinned on the bottom of the pool, I managed to wriggle free and drag myself out. I was bleeding badly from deep electric shock lacerations on my foot and lower leg. Sean and a local guy who also saw what happened bandaged me up as best they could while the young girls who worked at the hotel hung around and giggled like it was an everyday event. If this happened in the Western world, I’d be a millionaire with the compensation. The manager showed his compassion by not billing me for the poolside repairs to his lamppost. When we looked to where the post had been fitted, this massive metal pole was only held to the ground by three 50mm wood screws. I couldn’t believe it. Still, that’s just life on the road in South America.
With my wounds cleaned and bandaged up by Sean’s 15kg medical kit (cheaper than health insurance apparently), we could ride on the next day. We had to make it to Belem where we would buy passage for a ferry that would take us on a five-day voyage through the Amazon to Manaus so we could continue our journey north into Venezuela. There were still many miles to cover, though. Brazil is such a huge county. Looking at a map just doesn’t do it justice. The riding days are long and there often isn’t a place to stay between the small dusty towns.
We had to make it to Belem which is on the North East coast of Brazil so it made sense to stick to the coast line. Thankfully, Brazil has one of the most beautiful coastlines in the world. We were spoilt for choice with pristine, paradise beach locations. The riding was glorious. The amazing coast roads spiralled around bays and mountains. We flew up and down the hills, looking out over the Atlantic with the sweet scent of tropical forests in the air which cover the landscape. Absolutely stunning! Even the terrible pot holes, melted tarmac gullies, and crazy truck drivers couldn’t put a downer on these roads. Hell, they added to the experience!
Eventually we made it to Belem and found our way to a hotel that was recommended to us by a local guy called Alex. We’d contacted him through a travel forum and he really came through for us. As he was busy with his own business, Alex had us adopted by a group of local bikers. They took us out for dinner and meets with the gang. One of the guys, Alfredo, even helped us sort our Venezuelan Visas and booking tickets for our five-day ferry down the Amazon. Fantastic! Brazilians can’t do enough for you.
This was the part we were really looking forward to. Getting our bikes onto a decrepit passenger ferry and chugging down the river to the Amazonian capital of Manaus. There are no suitable roads through the Amazon rainforest so this was our only real option. We were told by our ticket agent to get to the port at 10am as our bikes would have to be loaded just when the tide was right so the wooden plank would be level. This was ‘no roll on/ roll off’ ferry. The bikes would be stored on the front deck and we would have to ride them over a 4m rickety wooden plank. One slip or wobble would leave us and our bikes at the bottom of the very deep harbour. I don’t think my travel insurance covered this!
10am turned into 6pm as we waited patiently at the harbour gates. Sweating in the hot sun in all our bike gear with nowhere to sit down we struggled to fight off the boredom. We just wanted to get on board. At last we were given the nod by the half-dozing harbour master and rode up to the boat… Crikey! They weren’t lying about the plank. Luckily there were a few deckhands who gave us a shove for a few dollars but no one was going to stop a bike falling into the harbour if things went wrong. At last, we all made it across with adrenaline pumping and palms sweating. We still had to get them off on the other side though!
Once onboard it was obvious that it was going to be a very cramped ride. Most people were going to sleep in hammocks but fearing for our luggage, we opted for the more expensive cabins. Nothing much to do but play cards, drink too much and look over the side at the endless rainforest and at the river people who paddle their way up and down the water to their little shacks, selling things to the boats and catching donations of food and clothes. If you were really lucky you would get a glimpse of the Amazon dolphins or other crazy big fish. We got meals of rice, beans and chewy beef three times a day… Yuk!
At night we could go up on deck and drink crude cocktails. There was no cover on this old barge so as the ferry chugged down the river at night it was one big light bulb, irresistible to the strangest and largest insects I’ve ever seen. One bug I encountered was so big it cracked my cocktail glass as it smashed into it!
Eventually, we arrived in Manaus and the heavens opened up. It was here that we would say our farewells to Peter and Carol. The ride from Manaus took us north in the direction of the Venezuelan border. This two-day stretch saw us cross over the Equator and also through an indigenous Indian reserve. We were warned not to stop in the Indian reserve as the locals think it’s funny to take pot shots at people who pass through.
While we were riding, weaving in and out of the pot holes, we came across a Colombian guy frantically waving at us to stop. It turned out this guy was riding to Brazil on a bright yellow postal scooter. The poor man had stopped for a pee and broken his key off in the ignition. He was stranded on the road in the Indian reserve. All attempts to free the broken part of the key failed and not wanting to hang around too long for the indigenous folk to get a target-practice session in, we hailed down a passing pick-up truck and wrestled the scooter into the back. The driver agreed to take him out of the reserve to the next town; it’s always good to recharge your karma on the road.
We eventually arrived at the border of Venezuela in the late afternoon. We were pretty nervous about leaving Brazil as we had illegally brought our bikes into the country without the correct paperwork way back at Iguazu. If the Brazilians checked our paperwork, we were liable for big fines and all other kinds of trouble, or possibly even a free meal in the local clink. We stashed our bikes out of sight and, leaving our bike gear behind, we marched into the border control buildings. Luckily, they just stamped our passports, and no one ever asked about the bikes. Phew! And so we bid a fond farewell to Brazil.
‘Travelling’ Ted Hely I’m a 30-year-old average bloke who’s travelled Europe, South America and Africa by motorcycle. When not daydreaming, I can usually be found tinkering with bikes and making cheap wine in my workshop. I’m keen on football, cycling and running, but my main ambition is to avoid growing up for as long as possible and to keep on travelling. I love red meat, red wine, making obscenely large bonfires and the excitement of planning a new trip. I really hate saving up to do them, though.
Californian beach babe Cristi does things her own way. She learnt to ride her XR250 ‘Blanquita’ in Ecuador and let fate carry her rest of the way. Never afraid to play chicken with 30-ton trucks, she showed the boys a thing or two. Always taking notes for her travel book and broadening her expansive overseas portfolio, her fluent Spanish helped us out many a time.
Sean (AKA The Cowboy)
A corn-fed Kansas boy seeking adventure on ‘Beatrice the bumblebee’. His GS100GS brought him all the way from the USA to Buenos Aires before its gearbox and starter motor disintegrated. Thanks to Javier at Dakar Motos, he was fit to ride again to conquer the east coast of South America before heading back to Kansas for marriage, babies and rubbing shoulders with the president. Sean’s easy going outlook, German language skills and shoulder swinging singing make him a great travel buddy.
Peter and Carol
Canadian hardcore RTW adventures Peter and Carol are no strangers to life on the road. Their old BMW has more stickers onit than paint and attracts plenty of attention. Friendly and fun like most Canadians, they’re great company and a wealth of knowledge.
2003 Yamaha XT600E
Utterly bombproof and reliable, the XT600E is the perfect overlander’s bike. Air cooled and carburettored, it’s a dream for the roadside mechanic. The Bars were full of gorgeous samba dancing girls.
MUST SEE BRAZIL
Iguazu waterfalls are the biggest in the world and are best viewed from Brazil. Incredible.
The peninsular of Florianopolis is a surfer’s dream. Beach side bars, white pristine beaches and modern facilities if you need them. Head straight out to the beach to one of the cheap hostels.
Rio de Janeiro is awesome. Sugar Loaf Mountain, Christ the Redeemer statue, Copacabana and Ipanema
beaches are all must-sees.
Use coastal roads. If there’s a road next to the coast, it’s a guaranteed stunning ride with fantastic views over bays, mountains and lush forest.
Take the Belem-to-Manaus ferry. This five-day ferry down the Amazon will have you enthralled with the shear size and diversity of Brazil’s forests and rivers while stuck on a boat with the locals for the duration. Take a few books.
Beaches. Brazil has some of the most beautiful beaches and coastline in the world. There are plenty of resorts, cabins or just empty stretches of white sand to enjoy. Bring your Speedos!
NEED TO KNOW BRAZIL
Brazil is the largest country in South America and the fifth biggest country in the world. As the only Portuguese speaking country in Latin America and on the opposite coast to the popular ‘Gringo trail’ hotspots such as Peru and Chile, it is often skipped by South American travelers, which is a great shame as it offers fantastic vistas, architecture, history and, of course, its people. You couldn’t wish to meet a friendlier bunch.
Brazil is mostly tropical so expect high temperatures, humidity and periods of heavy rain, although with a country so big the topography is going to be diverse. There is everything from mountains and highlands to scrubland, savannah and beaches. Brazil also houses some of the biggest rivers including the famous Amazon.
Sadly Brazil has some major environmental issues with cattle ranching, logging, mining, over-fishing and resettling of indigenous people, which is very obvious to the overland traveller. It’s tough not to let the trucks full of exports and fields of cleared forests sicken the heart, so be prepared for equal measures of good and bad while riding Brazil.
TED’S TOP TIPS FOR TRAVELLING BRAZIL
Have provisions for carrying plenty of water. Although available everywhere in bottles, the long distances and poor road conditions could easily see you caught short.
Insect repellant and a mosquito net are a must. Brazil has some BIG bugs and the mosquitoes will drive you crazy at night. Yellow fever and malaria is about, so take precautions.
The fuel in Brazil is 30 percent ethanol. This perishes fuel lines and can clogs carburetors. It also saps power and can affect economy if you’re not prepared for it. Most bikes handle it fine but keep it in mind.
Like anywhere, major cities are a hive of crime. Muggings are common if you don’t use common sense. Don’t dress flash with your cash on show.
Endless lines of slow, belching logging trucks can tempt you into some crazy overtaking. Ride by the philosophy: “It’s better to be late in this world, than early to the next”.
Learn some Portuguese. Brazilians are incredibly friendly and hospitable so being unable to say a few words in their language is very frustrating.
TRANSFORMING MY BIKE
I changed the small stock tank for a23l Acerbis, to get more range.
An SW Motech centre stand makes servicing and tyre changes easier.
A heavy-duty bash plate keeps rocks from damaging the engine cases.
The standard exhaust is heavy and ready to rot. A Quill stainless end can was the cure.
An up rated 550lb rear spring kept the geometry where it should be with the luggage system.
I fitted a Metal Mule luggage system which I ended up regretting midride due to the weight, fragility and cost. I swapped to soft bags half way through my trip for more smiles.
An old Garmin 2610 helped me find my way and a 12V accessory socket was useful for charging batteries and my mobile phone.