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10 classic things to do on your first time in Peru

Peru’s fascinating history, excellent cuisine, hiking opportunities and tourism infrastructure make it one of the best countries to visit on your first time in Latin America. But what should you do when you get there? Here are 10 classic things to do when you visit. All of them can be easily be fitted into a three week holiday.

Discover the capital

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While many people skip the capital, those who decide to stay find a cosmopolitan city full of world-class museums, buzzy eateries and excellent nightlife. Wander through the city admiring the striking architecture, people watching from the central plazas and popping into vibrant cafes. By night, the streets are filled with the sounds of Andean and Afro-Latin music. It makes for an excellent introduction to the country. We recommend you stay in the Miraflores (literally translates to ‘Look at the flowers’) district.

Watch condors in Colca Canyon

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An absolute must for wildlife enthusiasts and birders. Head down to Colca Canyon, an impressive canyon which is considerably deeper than the Grand Canyon in the US. If you arrive early, you can observe the huge Amazon condors as they glide on thermals above and below you. They circle overhead surprisingly near.

Fly over the Nazca Lines

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These ancient shapes and markings that have been etched into the desert by an ancient civilisation. The best way to see them is from a small plane. Journeys usually take around 45 minutes and circle the markings from above allowing a perfect aerial view. If you prefer not to fly, some can be seen from a platform, but unsurprisingly, the view is not as good.

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The colourful Santa Catalina convent in Arequipa was only opened to the public in the 1970s, revealing a community sealed away from the world for almost 400 years. It’s an excellent place to while away an afternoon. Nearby, you can also meet Juanita, the well-preserved Inca Ice-Maiden.

Canoe through the Amazon

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Most people think of Brazil when thinking of the Amazon. However, a large chunk of the rainforest sits within Peru. Pristine rainforest inhabited by howler monkeys, sloths, macaws and caiman await. Take a short flight to the steamy port town of Puerto Maldonado and board canoes to head down to one of the many rustic lodges. From here, it’s possible to take walks along the trails, canoe the rivers and scale the canopy towers in such of some of the world’s most fascinating wildlife.

Eat, eat, eat

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Peru has now be recognized as having some of the world’s finest cuisine. It is certainly the most varied within Latin America. When you are by the coast try ceviche, a wonderfully fresh and zingy dish of fresh white fish marinated in citrus juices and chilli. Unsurprisingly, the highlands produce more hearty fare. The brave can try cuy, roasted guinea pig, but there are plenty of other stews and roasted meats for the more squeamish.

Hike the Inca Trail and see Machu Picchu

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Many visit Peru solely to hike the famous Inca Trail. Walk in the footsteps of the Incas along the trail that starts near Cuzco and finishes at Machu Picchu, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The journey takes around 4 days and although challenging, is made possible by the porters who carry your larger things up the steep climb, make camp and cook food. Always ensure that the tour operator you book through has a porter policy and there has been some abuse in the past.

Ride the Andean Explorer train to Puno

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The best way to get from Cuzco to Lake Titicaca is via the Andean Explorer. The train is operated by Belmond (originally the Orient Express) so is luxurious. The ten-hour journey travels through high Andean countryside. During the journey, travellers can enjoy a three course meal and classic 1920s décor and Pullman carriages. There is also an observation carriage which is clad with glass giving the best possible views. Arrive in Puno, the nearest city to the lake.

Take a boat trip over Lake Titicaca

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Lake Titicaca is the highest navigable lake in the world. It will literally take your breath away at over 2 miles above sea level. A hotel near the shores of the lake makes a good base from which to explore. Jump in a boat and head out to the unique floating reed islands of Uros. Here people live and work on what feels like a huge waterbed. The rock island of Taquile is a great place for hiking and is inhabited by a community very different from those on the mainland.

Explore Chan Chan in Taquile

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If time permits, a visit to the archaeological ruins of Chan Chan are well worth the visit north. These ancient remains of the ancient capital of Chumus is vast, the largest pre-Columbian city in South America. A unique insight into life 1,000 year ago.

To start planning your trip to Peru or any place in Latin America contact one of our travel experts on +(0) 207 407 1478 or email us here. Or take a look at our example Peru tours here.

Why is travel more fulfilling than material processions

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Anyone who has travelled will tell you that experiences are more fulfilling than things. But why is this? For many, the thought of having the latest iPhone, a new watch or a car makes them happy. But there is evidence to back up the theory that travelling and experiences will make you happier than material possessions.

Many studies into the subject have been done in the past. One from Cornell University has proved that humans receive more gratification and lasting pleasure from an ‘experience’ than they do from an object. The reason for this is adaptation.

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It’s obvious that wealth brings about happiness, however this is only for a very limited time. Over time, humans become accustomed to money and begin to take what they have as normal instead of a blessing. This works in the same way as processions. Think about it. When you bought that new iPhone, it probably felt good. It’s nice to have nice things. But how do you feel about it now? Most probably, it’s become a normal part of your day, a tool to use.

An interesting survey by Pew Research Centre in 2014 found that, in general, people in many developing countries where reporting an increased level of contentment than from the last study seven years previously. However, in more developed countries like the USA, there was very little or no increase. This also suggests that there is also a curve with money (and therefore processions) vs. happiness. A little more can give you the freedom to do the things you want and have less financial worries, but the more you have the less happiness you receive.

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Memories of experiences work differently. You probably don’t look back on the television you had in the 90s with great fondness, but a trip to Cornwall or Peru or France will have left lasting memories that you will look back on with increasing joy.

“Our experiences are a bigger part of ourselves than our material goods. You can really like your material stuff. You can even think that part of your identity is connected to those things, but nonetheless they remain separate from you. In contrast, your experiences really are part of you. We are the sum total of our experiences.” explains Dr. Thomas Gilovich, a professor of psychology at Cornell University.

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This also goes for negative experiences you may have gone through. Something which may have seemed traumatic at the time, can often be looked back on with rose tinted glasses in the future. Those who travel a lot can often find things which are negative as well as positive. These are things that become part of you and dictate your thinking. No one looks back on a laptop they split coffee on and think it was character building.

Another 50-year study on happiness from Berkeley University found that the emotion comes from social interaction. The study found clear links between meaningful relationships with other humans and happiness. Those who led a more isolated life were less fulfilled. Unfortunately, modern technology like social media doesn’t increase meaningful relationships. There is no substitute to face to face human interactions.

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Travel is a wonderful life experience that helps you build bonds with others. Even if you weren’t together on the same trip, you are much more likely to forge a relationship with someone based on common life experiences than through the things you own. So, what are you waiting for. Forget buying yourself the new tablet computer and book a holiday instead. You won’t regret it.

To visit Latin America contact one of our travel experts on +(0) 207 407 1478 or email us here.

A review of the Mashpi Lodge from one of our guests

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Mashpi. What do you say, when words aren’t enough to describe your feelings and experiences. That is Mashpi. Breathtaking.

We have travelled many places, seen many things, and had some amazing holidays, but nothing touches me in quite the same way as the rain and cloud forests and we will take with us the most wonderful memories. Our guide, Fernando Arias, played no small part in all of this in Mashpi. He saw with the eye what we struggled to see with binoculars! His knowledge of the forest and the incredible ‘finds’ (tiniest of frogs, insects, birds, lizards…….) were beyond belief or imagination. He taught us so much and, along with his cheeky and dry sense of humour, made our time extra special. He also had belief in our abilities – a number of his colleagues doubted we could achieve some of the walks we did, so we could have missed out on some spectacular experiences. We couldn’t have asked for more and we learned so much about the forest and our surroundings. He was no mean hand at taking photos with my iPad either.

We soared into and above the tree canopy, both by sky bike riding and sky gondola, walked a good distance through the forest, climbed down to waterfalls and back, waded along creeks, visited the butterfly observation centre, went to the humming bird ‘station’, where we experienced the most beautiful, iridescent displays as they ‘whooshed’ by us to the feeders, and did a night walk where Fernando proved his vision at night was as good as in the daylight. An incredible and worthwhile experience. Definitely not cheap but it is an exceptional place. Would avoid bank holidays as the atmosphere changes in the hotel when there is an influx of families from Quito, but the grounds are sufficiently large enough to enable you to enjoy your own personal experience in the forest. Another Oscar winning trip organised by David Horwell of Select Latin America U.K.

To see the full Trip Advisor review, click here.

Would you like to visit Mashpi Lodge or anywhere else in Latin America? Contact one of our travel experts on +44 (0) 207 407 1478 or email us here.

Latin America’s most colourful festivals

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The world is full of colourful festivals and none come as colourful as those in Latin America. While Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, the world’s largest street party, is perhaps the best known (and for good reason), there are plenty of festivals throughout the continent and throughout the year. Here are 11 of our favourite festivals to look out for.

Carnival

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Carnival is celebrated throughout the towns and villages of Brazil and the rest of Latin America, but the largest and best known is the celebrations in Rio de Janeiro. With millions of people hitting the streets in February, it’s the largest street party in the world. The city hosts over 500,000 foreign tourists who come to enjoy famed parade of colourful dancers and musicians in the sambodrome.

Tango championship

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Buenos Aires plays host to the annual World Tango Championship. This famous dance originated in the 19th century in the nightclubs around the district of River Plate. It’s quickly becoming one of Argentina’s most valued culture exports with more enthusiasm into the tango around the world than ever before. During the festival, every bar, ballroom and milonga throughout the city comes alive with dancers and the sound of tango music. Held in August, it’s one of the best times to visit the city.

Day of the Dead

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Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is often confused with Halloween as the dates are very close. However, the event which is celebrated throughout Mexico stems from an Aztec festival that honours the goddess Michacacihuatl. Mexicans believe that the souls of lost loved ones return to earth on the 2nd November to be with their family once more. Families visit the graves of lost ones to pay their respects and leave food and drink.

Inti Raymi

Another famous festival in Peru which sees thousands of people descend upon Cuzco to take the pilgrimage to the ruins of Sacsayhuaman. The festival lasts for nine days between the winter solstice and the Inca New Year. Inti Raymi means ‘Sun Festival’ in Quechuan, and that is exactly what this festival is about. Honouring the sun god and hoping for the quick return in the darker days as well as a good crop and harvest in the coming months. It’s now the second largest festival in Latin America with well over 200,000 visitors last year.

Qoyllur Rit’i

Q’oyllur Riti is one of the least know and intriguing festivals in the Andes. A combination of Pre-Columbian fertility ceremonies and Catholic processions with colorful dancers and Andean panpipe music make this festival special. The main ceremony is held at the foot of Mount Ausangate. At almost 5,000 metres above sea level, the temperatures plunge to below freezing at night. That doesn’t stop worshippers from turning up to gather at the shrine which is said to be where the infant Christ appeared to a young Indian boy.

Flower festival

August sees the annual flower festival called La Feria de los Flores in Medellin. The colourful fair is attended by visitors from all over the world who eagerly descend upon the ‘City of Eternal Spring’ to see the huge flower festivals, parades, dance performances and theatre. Each year the displays and events get larger and more impressive. The event was original planned for one year in 1957, but was such a success it’s now an annual fixture.

Tapati Rapa Nui festival

Easter Island has few cultural connections with Chile and more with the Polynesian islands that surround it. During Tapati Rapa Nui festival, the ancient ancestral traditions are recreated. These include Takona (body painting), singing competitions, Haka Pei (where people slide down the cliff on a banana tree) and Tau’a Rapa Nui (sports on Rano Raraku volcano). It’s one of the most interesting festivals anywhere in the world as well as being one of the most remote.

Santa Semana

Like Carnival, Santa Semana (Holy Week) has celebrations throughout Latin America (as well as many other parts of the world). One of the most colourful is Antigua in Gautemala. This pretty colonial town comes alive with colour. Intricate designs using petals and coloured sawdust carpet the cobbled streets. These are destroyed by bare-footed, purple-robed men carrying statues of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. Other excellent places to celebrate Santa Semana include Quito in Ecuador and Copacabana in Bolivia.

To visit any of the above festivals or any place in Latin America contact one of our travel experts on +(0) 207 407 1478 or email us here. Alternatively, can view some example tours here.

7 unique sleeps in Latin America

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Everyone likes unique hotels and South America has no shortage. From the modern glass hotel nestled in the misty cloud forests of Ecuador to the hotel made in entirely from salt in Bolivia, here are 8 of the most unique places to lie your head in Latin America.

Mashpi – ££££

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Mashpi Lodge is relatively new. While other lodges in the misty cloud forests that line the foothills of Andes are more traditional in their build, Maspi has created a super modern cocoon-like glass hotel that seemingly floats in the canopy of the trees. Floor to ceiling windows allow massive amounts of light into the rooms and allow visitors to feel connected to the surrounding forests. Hummingbirds casually fly past, as to toucans and other exotic bird life. There are 1,200 hectares of pristine cloud forest surrounding your modern base.

Palacio de Sal – ££

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Located near Colchani on the eastern side of the vast salt flats in Bolivia, Hotel Palacio de Sal is built entirely out of salt. The walls, the ceilings, the floors you walk on and furniture you sleep on – everything is made from salt from Uyuni. Though that may sound uncomfortable, it is anything but. The hotel has a spa and in the summer you can play a round on the world’s only salt golf course. When you’re having dinner, just don’t ask them to pass the salt!

Elqui Domos – £££

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These dome tents in Chile’s northern Atacama Desert. Born in 2005, the owners created Elqui Domos to allow visitors to observe the grandeur of the skies of the Elqui Valley. The geodesic construction keeps one warm in the winter and cool in the summer. The bed is located in the upper floor, close to the detachable roof which is opened to watch the stars from bed. The popularity of the Elqui Domos has meant expansion, and a few years ago the owners added four more ‘observatory’ domes.

Skylodge – £££

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This is perhaps the most unique hotel we’ve ever come across and one that won’t be for everyone. Hanging from the side of a cliff in Peru’s beautiful Sacred Valley are several clear Perspex capsules called the Skylodge Adventure Suites. To access the pods, visitors must first climb up vertically up almost half a kilometre on iron rungs. Once your reach your home, settle in to what is a surprisingly comfortable space. Your guide will bring you a delicious dinner with wine, and you can look out over the views and starry sky. The following morning you return back to earth on zip line.

727 Fusalage Hotel – ££

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Another unusual hotel, this time in Costa Rica. As the name suggests, this hotel is houses within a vintage 1965 Boeing 727 fuselage, once used to shuttle eager globetrotters around the continent. It’s small, with just two bedrooms in the metal pod that sits overlooking the lush Costa Rican jungle. The owners salvaged the aeroplane from San Jose airport and brought it to the ocean where it sits today. Inside, the plane is decked out in Costa Rican teak panelling from the cocktail all the way to the tail. Each of the bedrooms have a private bath, queen sized bed and ocean view terrace. It’s canopy location is shared with monkeys, toucans and sloths.

Canopy Tower –  £

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This award winning lodge is houses within a tower built by the United States Air Force as a radar in 1965. Nowadays, the Canopy Tower is used more in the defence of local wildlife than anything else. The rooms are simple and clean, but the real magic in the observation deck where visitors are treated to close encounters with toucans, tanagers, hawks and honey creepers. Howler monkeys swing past hurriedly, while sloths hang just a few metres away.  This is a hotel for real wildlife enthusiasts.

Ecocamp – ££

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One of the favourite hotels in Latin America, and for good reason. Ecocamp offers visitors the possibility to stay in very comfortable geodesic domes that resemble igloos in the middle of the spectacular Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia. By day, hike in the wonderful surroundings including the famous W Trek and by night cosy up in your warm dome and watch the stars from the clear panels in the ceiling. The camp also has a dining tent and yoga tent built in the same design.

To start planning your tour to Latin America get in touch with one of our specialists on +44 (0) 207 407 1478 or send us an email here.

Brazilian acarajé recipe

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Flickr: ManoelNetto

These fried pea balls are commonly found on the streets of Brazil’s northern Bahia state. They are also used in religious offerings to the gods in the Candomblé religion. Though these are now thought of as typically Brazilian, they dish was brought by the slaves of West Africa. Still to these day, similar snacks are found in Nigeria, Ghana, Mali, Gambia, Togo and Sierra Leone.

Serves: 20 acarajé
Time: 1 hour
Ingredients

Acarajé balls

½ kg onions
½ kg black eyed peas, drained from can
Vegetable oil for frying
Seasoning

Filling

100g cashews
100g peanuts
1 large onion, finely chopped
250g dried prawns
½ kg bread, day old stale bread works best
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 thumb of ginger, finely chopped
1 ltr coconut milk
1 tomato, chopped
1 handful of coriander, finely chopped
Vegetable oil
Seasoning

Method

Take the dried shrimps and soak them in water.

Add the peas, onions and seasoning and blend into a rough paste. Remove and set aside.

Add the shrimps to the blender along with the nuts and bread and wizz for a minute or so.

Heat a little oil in a saucepan and cook off the ginger, garlic, onions until soft, usually around five minutes or so. Add the rest of the ingredient except the coriander and cook for about half an hour, seasoning to taste. At the end, mix in the chopped coriander.

Take a very large saucepan (or turn on a fryer if you have one) and heat oil. Take the pea and onion mix and form into balls. Drop these into the hot oil in batches, cooking for about 5 minutes. Once they are golden brown, remove from the oil and lay on kitchen towel to soak up excess grease and cool a little.

Cut across the centre of each cooked ball and fill with the vatapá mix, some extra chopped tomatoes, some spicy sauce if you have it and coriander. Serve immediately.

How to experience Latin America in London

The Latin American community in London is thriving with an estimating population of around 200,000. This has created a wealth of Latin American culture, food and music in the capital. Don’t have the budget to travel to Latin America? Want a taste of Latin American culture before you travel? Yearning for an empanada or caiprinha? Here’s the best places to experience Latin America without having to travel.

Food & Drink

Ceviche

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Peruvian cuisine has been hailed as one of the world’s finest and there aren’t many places that do it better than Martin Morales’ Ceviche in Soho. Unsurprisingly, this tiny restaurant in the West End serves up some of the best ceviche (white fish marinated in citrus juice) and does a mean pisco sour. Find out more here.

La Bodeguita

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In the heart of the Latin American community in South London lies La Bodeguita in the Elephant & Castle shopping centre. The large restaurant creates simple and hearty Colombian fare. Not a place to vegetarians, the meat heavy menu is often accompanied by Latin American music and cold beer. Find out more here.

Gaucho

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Nowhere in London quite encompasses the food of Latin America quite like Gaucho. This small chain knows how to source, choose and cook a steak and serves it with a range of Latin American crowd pleasers: empanadas, cheesy breads and dulce de leche pancakes. Find out more here.

Tequila Fest

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Tequila is perhaps Latin American’s most iconic drink and is growing in popularity in the UK. While most will remember shots of cheap tequila, some will be unaware of the staggering variety of artisan tequilas and mezcals. The Truman Brewery in the East End’s Brick Lane hosts Tequila Fest where plenty of them can be tried along with mouthwatering Mexican food. Find out more here.

Film & Theatre

London Latin American Film Festival

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Now in its 26th year, this independent film festival was founded by Eva Tarr-Kirkhope and her late husband Tony Kirkhope with the aim of opening up Latin American culture to the capital. Eva kindly covers the cost of the festival meaning screenings are completely free. Find out more here.

Online shopping

Cool Chile

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Love to cook Mexican food? There is not better importer than Cool Chile. Started back in 1993 by Dodie Miller, Cool Chile offers a spectacular array of products direct from Mexico including dried chillies, herbs, masa harina, cacao nibs, achiote and mole. Find out more here.

La Casa de Jack

Europe’s largest importer and distributor of South American chilled and frozen foods and beverages since 2001. Shoppers can buy just about anything Latin America including exotic fruits, pastries and groceries. They also own La Chatica Café in Elephant & Castle. Find out more here.

Music

Cubano

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Nestled down behind Waterloo Station in South London, Cubano is a thriving little Latin American bar serving up sounds of Cuba and Latin America. Throughout the week, the bar hosts live Colombian bands, Argentine guitarists, Cuban salsa and DJs. The bar knows how to make excellent Cuba Libres. Find out more here.

Barrio Soho

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Using Latin American culture as inspiration, Barrio Soho has been influenced by a variety of cities throughout the continent. Throughout the week, Barrio Soho hosts a variety of Latin American DJs and live music events. Try the Roots Brazil night for excellent Brazilian music, food and cocktails. Find out more here.

Culture

Latinos of London

Latinos in London has been one of London’s premier event listing sources since its inception in 2006. Covering everything  Latin American including entertainment, music, culture, film, literature, education, politics, gastronomy, community & employment. Find out more here.

¡Vamos!

¡Vamos! is one of the best places to discover Latin American, Spanish and Portuguese events in the capital. With detailed listings of exhibitions, films, nightlife, festivals and restaurants throughout London. Particularly good for summer listings. Look out for the ¡Vamos! pocket guide, available for free in Latin venues. Find out more here.

Culture

Canning House

Canning House celebrates Latin American and works tirelessly to promote awareness of the languages, culture and history of Lain America, Spain and Portugal in London. Throughout the year the institution offers a series of lectures by historians, writers and cultural figures as well as language courses. There are membership options available.

To start planning your tour to Latin America get in touch with one of our specialists on +44 (0) 207 407 1478 or send us an email here. Take a look at our tour suggestions here.

Discovering the treasures of Brazil’s ‘Plateau of Diamonds’

A lucky tourist, whilst exploring Brazil’s Chapada Diamantina, found among the rocks a diamond so large that it made him fabulously rich overnight. It’s a story that local guides never tire of relating to visitors of this stunning national park in the Bahia region of northeast Brazil.

Of course, repeated telling over time means that answers to the inevitable questions that the story raises – which tourist? Which year? How rich? And where exactly was this diamond found? – have been conveniently forgotten, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the tale is apocryphal.

In any case, the dream of discovering a potentially priceless gem only makes visiting the beautiful Chapada Diamantina (‘plateau of diamonds’) even more compelling.

In the mid-nineteenth century this mineral rich and landlocked region of Brazil was prized for the elusive diamonds that could be found within the limestone cliffs, mountains and cave systems that define the landscape. The subsequent rise in South Africa’s diamond-mining industry and the increasing scarcity of those found in Brazil saw the abandonment of the Chapada Diamantina by the diamond prospectors who had combed the land in search of fortunes over the previous century and a half.

Today, a popular starting point for adventures in the national park is the pretty and beautifully-preserved nineteenth-century town of Lençóis. The diamond miners may be long gone but Lençóis retains a wonderfully colonial ambience, and among its cobbled streets visitors will find plentiful accommodation to suit all budgets and a handful of excellent al fresco restaurants and bars.

One of the most agreeable introductions to the spectacular Chapada Diamantina begins at the river village of Remanso, a forty-minute drive from Lençóis. Here, it’s possible to canoe along a stretch of the mirror-like Rio San Antonio which courses through the dense, lush vegetation of a thirty-kilometre-square area of freshwater swampland. The Marimbus Wetland, as it’s known, has been favourably described as a ‘mini-Pantanal’; a comparison to Brazil’s famously wildlife-rich UNESCO listed wetland region. Among the creatures you may spot as you paddle amid Marimbus’ reeds and water-lilies are cranes, moorhens and host of other exotic birds. Escaping the Brazilian heat, however, by plunging into the river is inadvisable; the wetlands are also home to caiman and anaconda.

A better option is to stop where the Rio San Antonio meets the Rio Roncador, where the sound of an interconnected series of waterfalls earns the latter its nickname, the ‘snoring river’. Whilst the sand that must be crossed to reach this beautiful oasis might scorch bare feet, the waterfalls and deep pools between them are perfect for swimming, diving and generally freshening up in. Excitingly, they are also situated in the midst of the historic diamond fields. Scrambling over the rocky escarpments that lead to the vast, scrub-covered ‘plateau of diamonds’ whilst scrutinising every rock and crevice in the process is a fun –if generally fruitless –activity, but in an area renowned for its diamonds there’s no harm in a little optimism.

From here, this region of unparalleled Brazilian beauty offers the opportunity to indulge in countless other exhilarating outdoor activities including climbing, trekking, cave exploration and snorkelling, potholing, bird and wildlife spotting and even traversing a lake by zip-wire.

Like the diamonds that may still lurk hidden in the ancient rock strata beneath its surface, Brazil’s Chapada Diamantina is just itching waiting to be discovered and the unique experiences and memories it offers are treasures worth more than any precious stone.

When to go

There is never a truly bad time to visit the Chapada Diamantina, although rainfall –in the form of heavy rain showers – is most common from November to early March. From April to July things become gradually drier and warmer and this is possibly the best time to visit unless you can tolerate the potentially blistering heat that may arrive in August to December’s ‘dry season’.

To start planning your tour to Chapada Diamantina and the rest of Brazil get in touch with one of our specialists on +44 (0) 207 407 1478 or send us an email here. Take a look at our tour suggestions in Brazil here.

Discovering Ilha Grande, Brazil’s big island

Flickr: Waxy Dan

Flickr: Waxy Dan

Just a few hours away from Rio de Janeiro off the southern coast of Brazil is one of the country’s most beautiful hidden gems – Ilha Grande or literally, the Big Island.

Despite its proximity to the chaotic and frenetic Rio de Janeiro, Ilha Grande is a paradisaical haven of lush rainforest, pristine beaches and lazy afternoons. Weighing in at around 200km2, the island certainly lives up to its name if travelling by foot; and due to a ban on motor vehicles on the island, that is really the only way to explore its beauty and biodiversity.

The island is packed full of scenic hikes and luxuriously tranquil beaches, ranging from gentle strolls to more intense uphill battles. Most treks take anywhere between an hour and the best part of a day to visit, and some of the attractions on offer include the Candido Mendes penal institute, a disused prison that housed up to 1,000 prisoners between 1932 and 1994, and several impressive waterfalls and natural lagoons, including the stunning Cachoeira da Feiticeira (Witches Waterfall).

Flickr: Miguel Angel

Flickr: Miguel Angel

However, most of the people who come to Ilha Grande are lured by its impeccable beaches. Praia de Lopes Mendes, a three-hour leisurely hike from the main port, is a beautifully elongated beach with unblemished white sand that crunches underfoot like packed snow and a gentle sloping decline into the ocean. Elsewhere, Praia de Feticiceira offers great opportunities to go snorkelling and see colourful exotic sea life just beneath the waves.

As well as snorkelling, scuba-diving and surfing, Ilha Grande is also a popular destination for mountain-biking and wildlife. The rainforest here is home to a variety of species, including howler monkeys, sloths, geckos and myriad bird species. At certain times of the year Magellanic penguins and southern right whales can also be spotted off the island’s coast.

Back at Vila do Abraão, the island’s main port and village, there are enough amenities to keep consumers happy. The majority of bars, restaurants, hotels, hostels, souvenir shops and tour companies are based here; yet for all that, the village retains a naturally laid-back vibe which will tempt many travellers to stay longer than they had anticipated. As well as a ban on motor cars, there are also no ATMs; and although many of the restaurants and hotels do accept card, not all of them do, so it is a good idea to withdraw as much paper currency as you expect to spend during your stay. The village is also awash with stray dogs, who, although homeless, are looked after by the local community which ensures they are in good shape, well fed and happy.

Those seeking nightlife on the island should look no further than the twin pairing of adjacent hostels, Che Lagarto and Aquario. These alternate themed barbecue and disco nights and a beachside campfire sing-a-long is never far away. On weekends, the beachfront of Vila do Abraão is dominated by live musicians; and anyone who experiences a local live performance of Sergio Mendes 1966 classic ‘Mas Que Nada’ on the beach, caipirinha in hand, will not forget it any time soon.

Flickr: Denis Kandle

Flickr: Denis Kandle

How to get there

Getting to the island is fairly simple. Boats and ferry leave from the connecting towns of Angra dos Reis or Mangaratiba; and although their schedule can be a little limited, especially during off season, there are usually several fishing boats which will take you across for a discounted fee and a more authentic experience.

To start planning your tour of Rio de Janeiro and Brazil get in touch with one of our specialists on +44 (0) 207 407 1478 or send us an email here. Take a look at our tour suggestions in Brazil here.

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