The Museum of Tomorrow in Rio de Janeiro is not a collection of old things, but a cutting-edge collection of scientific ideas and information about where we as a species came from and where we might be heading. I found the most striking aspect, though, was how so many visitors ignored the exhibits in favour of their phones, checking messages, updating their Facebook profiles and posing for selfies. People’s inability to interact with the present and what’s in front of them strikes me as just as alarming as what the future of the planet might have in store for us. Technology has allowed us to capture and record images like never before, but somewhere along the way we seem to be becoming less capable of really looking and seeing.
My three month tour around Chile, Bolivia and Brazil came to an end yesterday and a visit to the brand new Museum of Tomorrow (O Museu do Amanhã) in Rio de Janeiro seemed like an appropriate way to finish. It opened just six months ago and is part of the port revitalisation project. The design by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava and the setting on the waterfront with a view of the Niterói bridge are simply stunning.
Inside you find a sequence of rooms about the cosmos, our planet, our effect on it and the possible futures that might unfold. There are a lot of statistics and information to take in, but inevitably it’s the more interactive displays that get the most attention. I went on a Tuesday which is free, but packed, so it’s not the best day if you want to go and contemplate the future of our planet in peace and quiet.
As for my future, I’m heading back to São Paulo later today to pack up my things after six years living there before returning to the UK for a month. Then in August I’ll be off again on my travels, this time to India for 5 months.
It’s Carnival time again and in Brazil it’s the biggest event in the calendar. Samba schools have been painstakingly building their floats and dancers and musicians have been practising for months. Carnival is the highlight of the year for many people and it starts this weekend and lasts until Ash Wednesday. I live in Bixiga, São Paulo, near the Vai Vai samba school and pretty much every Sunday during the year you can hear them rehearsing. I have got used to falling asleep to the distant sound of beating drums.
Both Rio and São Paulo have huge parade grounds, called sambódromos, where the schools compete and a winner is crowned. The scale of the floats is astonishing and the competition intense. Big names are contracted to design the floats and costumes according to sometimes surreal and grandiose themes. Tickets to the sambódromos are not cheap, but it’s worth going once just to savour the atmosphere.
The sambódromo parades happen over just two days in each city, but the rest of the time you can join a bloco (or street parade) for free and dance or follow the crowd. These are often local community groups and have a great atmosphere.
Salvador has probably the biggest and wildest Carnival of all. Here the parades make their way right through the city streets on two established circuits, one near Campo Grande and the other in the beachside neighbourhood of Barra. Giant trucks with amplified sound called trios elétricos move slowly through the streets pumping out the local music called axé which is very different from the samba of Rio.
You have several choices of how to participate in Carnival in Salvador. The most expensive but safest way is to buy a seat in a camarote (or private box) and watch from above the street. Another way is to buy an abadá (or a kit comprising of a t-shirt or vest) which allows you inside the roped-off section which follows each trio. Another way (free and therefore my favourite) is to follow the trios and dance pipoca style (which means popcorn). You’ll be jumping up and down with all the locals and things can get very crushed.
Wherever you go during Carnival, leave all your valuables at home. Pickpocketing is quite blatant, particularly in Salvador, so do as the locals do and stuff a few notes in your shoe or down your bra – just enough to buy some beers and a caipirinha. It’s not cheap visiting Brazil during Carnival as most hotels will demand a five night package with rates that work out 3 or 4 times the usual amount. However, it is one of the best parties on the planet and not to be missed.
Brazil is not all about the beaches or even the cities. If you want to get off the beaten rack, just head into the interior. In the north you’ll find arid and dramatic scrubland, while in the centre west lies the wild area of Mato Grosso, home to a huge area of wetlands called the Pantanal. A boat trip down the Amazon is an unforgettable experience, but you won’t see many animals as the river is just too wide and the jungle too dense. But the Pantanal has huge open spaces and spotting wildlife is very easy, especially when it’s flooded. The dry season from May to September is the best time to visit though.
Cuiabá in the north and Campo Grande in the south are both good centres from where to start a trip, but I found it easier in Cuiabá and the trip was of a better quality too. The usual package will take you off into the heartland of the swamp, staying at lodges, taking boat trips at dawn and dusk, as well as trekking and horseback riding. The light is beautiful for photography, the sounds of the birds fill the air at sunset and the ochre-red dusty roads provide a stunning contrast with the greenery all around. And then there are the animals: caiman, whose eyes glow red on the riverbanks at night; capybara, the largest rodent in the world; the cute coati and impressive anteaters. The Pantanal is also home to an enormous stork called the tuiuiú, or jaburu.
Further to the south heading towards Paraguay lies Bonito, a small town that has established itself at the forefront of ecotourism in Brazil. There are caves, waterfalls and rivers with astonishingly clear water The highlight is to don a wetsuit and snorkel and allow yourself to be carried by the current downstream observing the extraordinarily coloured fish as you float by. A fun highlight if you don’t mind snakes is to visit the Projeto Jibóia where you can conquer your fears and have a python wrapped round your neck.
Brasilia, the capital of Brazil since 1960, is one of my least favourite places and in my opinion doesn’t really have the feel of the rest of the country. It was designed by Oscar Niemeyer and built very quickly in an attempt to bring jobs and industry to the impoverished interior. The government buildings are intriguing, but it is not a city for walkers and embodies all the faults of modern planned cities. They feel artificial and lack soul.
However, the city does give you access to the Parque Chapada dos Veadeiros which is a natural landscape of waterfalls, canyons and dramatic hills. You can stay in the funky little laidback town of São Jorge, just 2 kilometers from the park entrance. There are some great trails and one of the best is to the Vale da Lua (or Valley of the Moon) where the rivers have sculpted the rocks into bizarre lunar-like shapes.
Minas Gerais is the state which lies just north of São Paulo. It was populated by colonists in search of gold and was named after the mines found here. There are some fabulous old colonial towns here that grew up with the wealth found in the mines like Ouro Prêto and Diamantina. But there are also some spectacular parks and the countryside provides a welcome retreat for many people from all over the south.
The quirky little town of São Thome das Letras, which can be reached from Caxambu, has a reputation as a mystical place where UFOs are rumoured to pass by. The town itself is an amusing hippy hangout, but the surrounding areas are also home to waterfalls and trails.
Brazil has so much variety, but it is a huge country and distances are vast, so it’s best to concentrate on just one area. The south is a good place to start as it has so much to offer, from Rio de Janeiro to Iguassu Falls to the Pantanal.