Coming from the Northern Hemisphere it still feels a little strange that I should be enjoying summer between the months of December and February. Frankly, given that I from the UK it feels strange to be enjoying summertime at all.
30 degrees at Christmas? Jumping into the sea to celebrate the New Year? What’s that all about?
This time of the year should all be about bleakness: horrific weather; short, dark days (sunset at 3.30pm anyone?); no more holidays until Easter; Celebrity Big Brother, etc.
Remarkably, the only other time I’ve spent Christmas away from the UK was when I was travelling in 2007. My buddy and I headed to the beach in Uruguay anticipating sun we instead found British rain, wind and cloud cover. Bloody typical.
Anyway, summer holidays during (my) winter have become just another life adjustment now. Besides, summer in São Paulo is basically all year round anyway, apart from May which is just thoroughly mild.
So, with my wife on vacation from uni (she’s off from December until the end of February – bloody students), we decided to head down south (though not as far as rainy Uruguay). Here are some things we discovered:
A friend of mine in the UK is dating a Brazilian (I think there’s some sort of Brazilian conspiracy to entrap well-meaning gringos) and as they were over visiting her parents we went and met them in Porto Alegre in Rio Grande do Sul (Brazil’s most Southern state). And, it’s fair to say that despite it only being a two day pit-stop we still managed to experience an intensive introduction into Gaúcho culture.
Gaúcho is a term used to describe the inhabitants of the South American pampas, an area covering parts of Southern Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Chile and Bolivia. Gaúchos themselves are romanticised for their hard-working, horse-rearing, cattle-herding, roam-free, live-off-the-land lifestyles and so it’s no surprise that the word Gaúcho is basically the South American equivalent of cowboy.
However, that doesn’t mean that everyone still goes around with a lasso whilst wearing ponchos, baggy trousers and a cowboy hat – although it would be bloody cool if they did. Nevertheless, Gaúcho traditions remain. For example, a Gaúcho’s diet whilst out on the land traditionally consisted solely of beef and chimarrão (or mate as it’s more widely known outside of Brazil), something that doesn’t seem to have changed much, judging by what we experienced over the weekend.
Chimarrão, for the uninitiated, may at first look a bit more like something you’d might buy in Amsterdam.
However, it’s perfectly legal and actually quite a pleasant if bitter warm drink. It consists of dried erva-mate leaves which are poured into a receptacle called a cuia that is made from a dried and hollowed gourd (fruit). You add warm water, let it brew, add a metal straw called a bomba and then sip away.
Chimarrão is so popular down south that you’ll even seen people walking around with their cuia and a flask of warm water so they can fill it up – and yet people still obsess about us Brits drinking tea!
As for the beef, Southern churrascos (BBQs) are a vegetarian’s hell. I’ve had huge steaks in Argentina before and impressive BBQs in São Paulo, but nothing is comparable to the two meals we had during our stay. The first was at a kind of authentic Gaúcho restaurant which, whilst showing that macho Gaúcho men are also quite good at dancing, also displayed their preference for consuming large quantities of different meat cuts, which are brought to you on a spit as part of a rodizio (all you can eat job).
The following day our very lovely and generous hosts refused to let us leave without offering us a full Gaúcho churrasco.
I subsequently sunk into a meat-induced coma during our coach journey a couple of hours later.
After awakening from our slumber we discovered that our coach had arrived in Blumenau, a traditional German town in the state of Santa Catarina (which lies directly above Rio Grande do Sul).
“German?” I can hear you ponder, “I thought you were in Brazil?”.
Well yes, but…
Whilst the 2010 Brazilian census found that black and ’mixed-race’ peoples had become the majority in Brazil, this national trend far from reflected the demographics of the south where the census provides the following statistics: Rio Grande do Sul – 80.8% White; Santa Catarina – 86.96% White, and; Paraná (the state above SC) 72.68% White.
Well, the people of the south, as well as being known for Gaúcho culture, also have a long history of predominantly European settlement, with a significant proportion of them coming from Germany.
Now before we go any further I would first like to dispel the myth of, “the Germans (Nazis) only went to South America after the Second World War”. False. Whilst, it is well-known that leading Nazis did manage to flee to South America, Germans have migrated to and settled in Brazil since the early 1800s.
And two such places they settled were cities that we visited: Blumenau (founded 1850) and Pomerode (1861).
Pomerode is much smaller than Blumenau, but is said to be the best example of a German settlement in Brazil. Unfortunately, the traditional houses are very dispersed and not particularly easy to reach.
Bluemenau however is a much larger city of about 300,000 people and has everything one would expect of a ‘real’ German town: tall, blond-haired German looking people, German buildings, efficient public services, tidy streets and, most importantly, a purpose built venue called Vila Germanica, which is home to the largest Oktoberfest outside of Germany.
The purpose of my visit however, apart from the novelty of feeling like I was in Europe, was the fact that the area boasts a number of German-inspired breweries including the well-known Eisenbahn brand. After an extensive tasting-session in their brewery bar we left with some of their finest limited editions.
An unexpected surprise
The last stop on our trip was to Florianópolis, an island city that is the capital of Santa Catarina and which is often reported as being one of the must visit places in Brazil. Personally, I’m not sure it’s that amazing and I can think of quite a few other places I’d recommend in Brazil above it. Don’t get me wrong, there are some great beaches, but the centre is so-so and the island seems pretty much choked with people and traffic at this time of year. Also, everyone seemed to be Argentinian.
Anyway, a tip if you visit Floripa.
On our final day we had intended to go to Praia dos Ingleses in the North but got off the bus at the wrong point and ended up at Praia do Santinho instead. No big deal, so we walked down the beach to where there were some rock formations. Seeing that people were on top of the them we climbed up to where there is a viewing point and some preserved rock inscriptions that are estimated to be between 1,000 and 4,000 years old.
Anyway, a little further on from there we found a sign pointing beyond the cliff and indicating that Praia do Moçambique was a 2km walk away. Seeing as we hadn’t even intended to come to Santinho in the first place I thought it might be cool to take in another beach.
“C’mon, it’s only a 2k stroll”, I said slightly disingenuously.
“Yes, but over rocks and on a dirt-track and I’m only wearing my havaianas”, my wife replied.
Anyway, two hours later, in the midday sun, without water and having climbed up and jumped off one boulder after another whilst dodging vultures and huge lizards we finally made it to Praia do Moçambique. I turned the corner first ahead of my wife.
Beautiful, but lacking any kind of civilisation and, most importantly, somewhere where we could get a drink.
“Let me have a look at that map”, my wife snarled.
“Andy, it says here: ‘Moçambique is the longest beach of the island and is completely wild”.
“Hmm yes, I guess we should have looked at that before. Nice though isn’t?” I replied sheepishly.
Which of course, it was. A lovely 12.5km stretch of entirely deserted beach.
In the end, we chose the option of walking down the beach rather than scrabbling back over the rocks. After 6 or 7km we surprisingly found an entrance, at the bottom of which was a bus-stop that took us straight back the way we came, past Santinho and directly to Praia dos Ingleses.
Six hours after we had initially intended to arrive at Ingleses we finally got there.
I paid for the beers.