A Tropical Feast

On tour with Ayres Adventures in Brazil

The coastal road south of Rio de Janeiro was a breath of salty, beach-encrusted air, particularly when contrasted with the freeway out of town packed with manic Brazilian drivers and trucks belching diesel exhaust. The drive, much like the Brazil we tasted on a nine-day tour, blended the teeming wheels of a highly industrialized nation with the tan-and-turquoise beaches and overwhelmingly green rainforests of a tropical paradise.

My companion, Allison Bayles, and I were aboard a brand-new bright yellow BMW GS1150 riding down the sinuous curves of Brazil's Rio-Santos Highway. The curvaceous road runs along the coastal Serra das Araras mountain range, with verdant rainforest on one side and surf-crashed beaches and picturesque coastal towns on the other.

We lost touch with the tour leaders and were navigating by routes loaded into a Garmin GPS V and a map we bought at a Barnes & Noble in St. Paul, Minnesota, 5500 miles to the north. Finding our way was simple enough, though--we just kept the water to our left. The trick was to find the group we were traveling with. The hot Rio sun baked us mercilessly, and the tour leader, world-class enduro racer Mauricio Fernandes, promised us a swim at a hidden beach that we didn't want to miss. Happily, we spotted a group of BMWs parked at a tiny wooden stand tucked into a nest of palm trees. We stopped to find a trail behind the stand that led down to the beach and our companions--preparing to leave.

"It's too far to hike," I said. "I don't think we have time for our swim."

Allison shot me a look, made a beeline for the trail and said, "I'm going to check it out."

I gave in and followed a few minutes later, making my way down a steep red clay trail crisscrossed with vines and roofed with sinewy trees scented with the dark spicy smell of the rainforest.

The trail emerged at the back step of a tiny house perched above a secluded cove. A fishing boat was anchored nearby, and a family played in the sand to the right. Allison was swimming in the emerald bay to the left.

"The water is HOT," she called out happily.

I changed into my suit and found the salty Atlantic brine as warm as a bath, the sand perfect, the surf nonexistent. For 20 minutes we swam in the calm blue-green waters of a secluded beach we called our own.

This was day three of our ride in Brazil with Ayres Adventures, a tour company started just a few years ago by author, adventure rider and Iron Butt winner Ron Ayres. The company offers a wide variety of motorcycle adventures in South America, North America, New Zealand and South Africa. We were on a nine-day whirlwind "Surf and Turf" tour of the area between Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, the most populous portion of the world's fifth-largest country. The cities are monsters, with 20 million in Sao Paulo and another 10.5 million in Rio. Outside of this region, the vast Amazon jungles and open lands of the pantanal and sertao house only a tiny portion of Brazil's 182 million souls.

This particular tour takes you away from the congestion into the pine-scented mountains north of Sao Paulo, heads a bit farther north to the beaches of Rio for a few days and then back south along the stunning Atlantic coastline. Although the ride does cover some freeway miles, the bulk of the route travels along winding mountain roads.

Our first night was spent in Alphaville, a modern little town about 20 minutes outside of Sao Paulo. After exchanging some money in the nearby mall, we found lunch at a sidewalk cafe. The owner spoke some English and taught us how to say "thank you" in Portuguese while serving us a hot, fresh roast-beef sandwich with homemade sun-dried tomatoes and an incredible crab salad.

In the hotel bar we met two of our companions for the trip: tour guide Tony Black, an experienced international rider with more than 100,000 miles to his credit, and Joe Ruhfus, a South African Ayres tour leader who was on the trip to get a taste of how the company does things. Joe filled us in on his trip to Cataratas del Iguacu, the Brazilian state of Parana's massive cluster of about 300 waterfalls that thunder down from heights of 250 feet. Tony filled us in on riding in Brazil.

"Stop signs," Tony said. "You gotta remember that they are really only a suggestion."

Joe nodded his head slowly in agreement. Tony, in the meantime, was getting warmed up to his topic.

"I mean, whatever you do, don't stop."

"Really?" I said.

"Oh no. They don't expect it. They'll run you right over. Yeah, whatever you do, don't stop. In fact, pretty much all the street signs are just suggestions."

Tony went on, and Joe kept nodding sanguinely, and after a couple of drinks and a lot more stories, I found myself a little nervous about riding in Brazilian traffic.

When the others caught up with us, our group headed down the street for dinner at a churrascaria, an establishment best described as an homage to meat. After perusing a vast buffet offering everything from salad and caviar to fresh cheeses and sushi, a parade of white-coated waiters brought freshly cooked meats to our table. Roast pork, grilled sirloin and more were offered up, and a little card on the table showed us which cuts and cooking methods were used.

As the meat parade rolled on, we met the rest of the tour group. The third tour leader, Decio Kerr Oliveira, matched the extensive riding experience of Mauricio and Tony, having ridden motorcycles in the most remote corners of the world, including most of South and Central America, as well as the Arctic Circle.

The final two to complete the cast of characters on the ride were Gabe X and Dean DeValerio, two Michigan guys on a mission to sample all Brazil had to offer. The two had been in Fortaleza for the week prior to the tour, and they filled us in on their trip so far at dinner. Gabe, it turned out, was a bit of a character, and told us stories that would make a merchant marine blush. He later claimed he had "seen the light" in Fortaleza a few nights prior. He joked that he had sworn off his fast lifestyle, and, deep into his fourth caipirinha, was telling us that it was nothing but good deeds for him from now on.

The next day we set out into the low, relatively cool mountains northeast of Sao Paulo and found winding roads dotted with switchback curves as twisted as Gabe's tongue-in-cheek quest to discard his errant ways.

Those lovely roads gave way to our first taste of Brazil's chaotic traffic patterns on the ride into Rio. Just as Tony promised, navigating Brazilian traffic was an exercise in active riding, and it required every ounce of attention we possessed. The closest approximation in the U.S. is lane-splitting in Los Angeles traffic, with cars, semi-trucks and motorcycles using every inch of the road to slip through.

The road through the outskirts of town traveled past some of Rio's favelas, or slums, which made a stronger impression on us than the chaotic freeway traffic. These vast, tightly packed and stacked little brick dwellings cover hillsides with a mass of humanity. The favelas originated when soldiers dumped by the military in the early 1900s took up residence on a Rio hillside, and have since swelled to cover the outskirts of most Brazilian towns.

The number of poor people in Brazil is a bit shocking, with about a quarter of the population living below the poverty line. This was quite evident when we came through the edge of Rio, where the freeway passed through a jumbled mass of hillside favelas, bombed-out shopping malls and industrial areas trimmed with high fences and potholed streets. The scenery changed dramatically when we passed through two tunnels that burrowed under the mountains and burst into the sunshine of the Avenida Borges de Medeiros, a lush boulevard lined with palm trees and stately old buildings along Rio's Rodrigo de Freitas Lake.

A bit farther and we came to the beaches of Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon. Tucked along the mountainsides of Rio, these swaths of sand are headed by giant green-covered lumps of rock and lined with high-rise hotels.

Rio is all about beaches and nightlife. During the day, Copacabana and Ipanema are not so different from any other tropical city beaches in the world. There is the usual array of stands to buy drinks, ice cream and fried food, and you'll find vendors hawking T-shirts, towels and surfing lessons. At night, however, the place begins to show its character. In Brazilian Portuguese, the words for sex and food are often interchangeable. Fome, for example, means both hunger and sexual desire, and comendo translates as either intercourse or eating. Rio epitomizes this blend, with a spicy nightlife of clubs, casinos and beachside cafes overflowing with young men and women living for a day on the beach and a night of feasting. On Copacabana, we found a transvestite Christmas play taking place on the sands. The next morning, Gabe reported finding a live sex show at a place a few blocks off the beach. When Mauricio shot him a quizzical look, Gabe responded, "What? I didn't go."

The following day we got a chance to experience the beauty of Rio from the air by riding a tram to the top of Pao d'Acucar (Sugarloaf) Mountain. From the 1300-foot peak, the tapestry of beaches, mountains and cityscapes that comprise Rio lie at your feet.

After taking in the view, we were treated to a helicopter ride up to Cristo Redentor, the famous statue of Christ that stands 120 feet above the 2300-foot Corcovado Mountain. Along with caipirinhas, beaches and Carnaval, this giant statue is one of Rio's best-known features and is considered one of the world's modern wonders. The view from this vantage point was nothing less than breathtaking. We flew within a few feet of the statue, with the green of the mountains and the turquoise of the sea broken up by Rio's tall white beach hotels, apartment buildings and offices reaching up toward him.

We left Rio the next morning eager to get out and see the Brazilian coastline, which is somewhat reminiscent of the lovely stretch of U.S. Highway 1 that runs along California's Big Sur coastline. The beaches are more remote, and the small towns have a distinctly Brazilian flair, blending old-world touches like cobblestone streets and classic churches with a smattering of modern glass office buildings and harbors filled with battered fishing boats and giant pleasure cruisers.

One of the most spectacular rides down that coast took place on the Graciosa trail, an old mule route built more than 250 years ago through the mountains above Morretes. The narrow road winds through a lush rainforest, crossing moss-covered bridges tucked underneath arching, vine-draped trees. Much of the road surface is cobblestone, and hydrangea bushes line the edges with lush, thick heads of blue flowers. Small red flowers dot the green edges of the road, resulting in a riot of color and rich, rainforest smells. Riding the road is like passing through a fragrant greenhouse, with stunning views of the mountains and town below appearing when the foliage clears out.

The road comes down from the mountain close to the charming little river town of Morretes. Restaurants and shops line the banks of the rushing Nhundiaquara River, with broad tree- and flower-filled walkways between the river and the town. After eating a local beef dish at one of the town's restaurants, we headed over to the Pousada Ilha do Rio for perhaps the most spectacular night's stay. The hotel is on an island in the Nhundiaquara, and guests cross the river on a suspended bridge to check in. The island is a lush garden of orchids, palms and dozens of other flowering bushes, with small cabanas hiding among the foliage. The cabins have small porches with hammocks out front, and guests are treated to the sounds of the rapids murmuring under a cacophony of bird songs and insect chatter.

That night in our little jungle hotel stands out as a lush memory of a verdant country awash in contradictions and much too big to grasp in only a few days. The machine of industry grinds away at Brazil, and images of the industrialization of paradise abound. A twisted network of 80-foot-tall highway overpasses rises from the jungles, the concrete stained green and brown and the trees seemingly ready to reclaim the edifice of industry for their own. Electric wires line the tops of the fences that surround Sao Paulo's guarded 20-story apartment buildings, and this made as much of an impression on us as the brightly painted farmhouses edging spring-green pastures and the deserted stretches of surf-tossed sand tucked into remote floral-scented coves.

In the end, my Brazil comes back to an afternoon in Rio, to the smell of salty sea breezes and coconut oil wafting from Ipanema. Allison and I were sipping caipirinhas at a beachside stand and watching a group of young Brazilians play volleyball on the sand. The man who sold us the drinks came over to join us for a moment and urged us to try his fresh fish.

"It is so good you will be back here every day to eat it," he said with apparent sincerity. We agreed to order a small plate. The man's moxie matched his culinary skills--the fish was hot, fresh and wonderful with a bit of fresh squeezed lime. We ate and drank and left with the sun going down and the nightlights of Rio coming up. On the way past the little stand I stopped to tell the owner that we enjoyed our time at his place. He was moved enough to explain his take on life in Rio.

"Everyone who comes to my stand will never forget their time here," he said. "What I do helps people make wonderful memories." Brazilians speak of their love for their country as saudade, a term that blends longing, lust and sadness. They also speak of alegria, the lighthearted love of life that makes up the soul of the people.

This fertile, fervent country is a feast for the senses. The feeling of alegria permeates the culture and bursts from the people. While I can't quite say I have come to saudade, my brief taste of Brazil has left me with an appetite for more of what I found in the land of caipirinhas, Brazilian coffee and the Atlantic Coast's hidden beaches.

How To: Brazil

We've all heard stories about traveling in Brazil, and I've been told repeatedly that the cities are not places to go without a guide. After nine days in the country with good guides and three days on our own without guides, we can confidently report that Brazil is safer than the stories suggest.

The bulk of the Ayres tour travels on back roads, which are no different than American stretches of twisty road. The tour leaders set moderate paces, and will adjust if you care to ride slower.

In city traffic, caution and alertness are necessary. Traffic signs--and laws, for that matter--are really not considered. Cars pass on the right, the left and in the middle of the road. Vehicles are squeezed into impossibly tight openings, and posted speed limits are widely ignored.

One of the most disconcerting things is the fact that Brazilian drivers expect to use any open space you leave. If you ride in the right or left of your lane, a car will most likely creep into the space next to you.

The good news is that despite the occasionally chaotic conditions, Brazilians are poster children for active driving. If they know you are coming through, they will move over quickly to make space. Bikes can squeeze between trucks and cars with the toot of a horn.

I would say that riding in the city is for experienced riders only--the Rio and Sao Paulo freeways are not a place for beginning riders looking for an easy cruise. If you possess solid skills on your bike, just be sure to stay alert, use your horn liberally, and you will be fine. I would suggest the MSF advanced course as a good primer for riders who don't have solid experience in freeway traffic.

One of the slickest things provided by the Ayres tour company is a great little book that lays out the ride day by day and offers helpful tips about money, paperwork, traffic and all you need to prepare for the trip. Read the guide thoroughly before you go, and be sure to bring it with you on the tour.

The Ayres tour offers the option of riding with passengers. This is a great opportunity to share an incredible ride with someone special, and is an experience I'd recommend. Passengers should be prepared for six to eight hours in the saddle on the longer days, and should be comfortable with the driver's skills and experience. The GS1150 would definitely be a better choice for two. Communicators would be a good addition as well. I normally like the nonverbal interplay of two-up riding, but driving in a foreign country is a place where it would be nice to be able to talk a bit about the passing sights.

Tourist Visa & Passport
You'll need a passport and a tourist visa to travel in Brazil. Be sure to get your passport several months in advance, as processing a passport can take three to four weeks. You'll need another couple of weeks to get the tourist visa. You can either travel to a Brazilian consulate and apply for the visa in person, or you can use one of the many visa services. We obtained ours in person to avoid the $75 to $100 charge for the services. After taking four trips to the Brazilian Consulate in Chicago to get the application right, I'd recommend using a service. The services are efficient, will help you get all the proper paperwork in order and will probably save you time.

The Brazilian language is Portuguese, which is maddeningly similar to Spanish. I was able to communicate with most people using my limited Spanish. When you are traveling with the tour group, this isn't an issue, as most of the guides speak Portuguese.

The exchange rate in December 2003 was approximately three reals to one U.S. dollar, which means meals and accommodations are dirt-cheap. Gas, electronics and vehicles are still expensive, even with the attractive exchange rate. The best way to get a good exchange rate is to use a credit card or a cash card to get currency. Bear in mind that not all cash machines will work with American cards. We had spotty luck getting cash, and had trouble finding any bank machine that would take my card in a Sao Paulo neighborhood. We'd suggest carrying at least 300 reals in cash and a credit card.

The Ayres guides have done an excellent job of finding safe accommodations, and you are extremely secure with the tour group. Just take care if you go out on your own in Rio, and you will be fine.

This lemur monkey was one of the few animals we spotted on the trip. It was living atop Sugarloaf Mountain in Rio.
The hotel near Morretes is on an island, and guests have to cross this suspended bridge to get in.
The streets of Paraty are lined with rocks hauled over as ballast for cargo ships that came to Brazil from Lisbon in the 1600s. The town has been designated a historic site, and is preserved.
Gabe bought this helmet from an artist in Fortaleza. Snell approval is, at best, dubious.
This little beach was hidden down a path off of one of the rest stops a few hours south of Rio. Don't miss this stop--the water is warm and the setting beyond idyllic. This platter piled high with a three-pound lobster and an assortment of other seafood was one of the culinary high points of the trip.
Allison, Gabe, Decio, Tony, and Joe. Missing from picture above is the author, and tour leader Mauricio.
Fruit stands dot nearly every highway we traveled. Bananas are the most popular offering, with Caldo de Cana a close second.
Sunrise on Leblon beach, just a few minutes stroll off of Ipanema.
Vendors are everywhere in Brazil, and they even set up lawn chairs on busy freeways. This guy is selling little biscuits. We sampled some of these in Morretes and decided the little crisps tasted like packing peanuts.