Last Sunday the day dawned bright, but promises of oncoming cloud cover and an afternoon rain shower had Stefje and I packing our bags and engineering the logistics for the long journey from Punta del Diablo, Uruguay to Florianopolis, Brazil. We shared a taxi to the bus station, where onward travel to the border crossing town of Chuy could be arranged. Chuy (Uruguayan) or Chui (Brazilian) has got to be one of the oddest border towns in the world. With immigration offices a few minutes outside of town on either side, the official border demarcation is actually the town’s main avenue; confusingly, it’s named Avenida Brazil on the Uruguayan side and Avenida Uruguay on the Brazilian side. Huh? Does the city use Uruguayan pesos or Brazilian reales? Depends on who you ask. Is it on Brazilian time or Uruguayan? Depends on what time of year you visit. So is the city considered part of Brazil or Uruguay? We never got to the bottom of it, as we were too busy getting confused at the desolate bus station.
The lone employee, an elderly man with a challenging accent not so politely informed us that despite online records and a couple of confusing signs, the Sunday-only direct bus from Chuy to Florianopolis was at 1:30AM, not 1:30PM. Inside the depressing concrete building with barely any furniture and bathrooms that seemed to serve primarily as a pitstop for drug addicts, Stefje and I tried to keep our wits about us as we analyzed our options. A research session at a cafe yielded only more confusion about the direct bus, so we decided not to risk missing our chance and instead head first to Pelotas, then take an absurdly long night bus onwards to Florianopolis. It was another adventure withdrawing Brazilian money from the ATM, but we hopped on the bus minutes before departure and made it work.
Needless to say, waves of relaxation washed over us as we got stamped for entry into Brazil. Soon the stress dissipated and the giddy excitement returned, because for the first time in 9 months we were heading into a foreign land with a new language. It felt exotic, strange, and utterly wonderful. Onwards, to Brazil!
However, it would take almost 24 more hours before we reached our destination. Through the afternoon our first bus rolled over increasingly tropical landscapes from Chuy to Pelotas. For long stretches of the drive we were hundreds of yards inland yet just a few feet above sea level, making for spectacular views of the calm water of the Atlantic Ocean. Palm trees and sugar cane fields dominated the landscape, making my mouth water in anticipation of those tropical fruits that haven’t graced my mouth since Colombia: passionfruit, pineapple, and papaya.
The bus terminal in Pelotas served as our hub for a four hour layover before the night bus to Florianopolis, as we entertained ourselves by failing miserably at trying to order food in Portuguese. Minutes after the bus lurched away I was passed out, curled up in the reclining seat until the sun began peeking through the Easterly-borne windows. It was a rough re-admissing to the world of developed economies, as the last 10 miles took over an hour to cover.
There’s just one bridge that all traffic headed to Florianopolis must cross, as the city center is the gateway to the island of Santa Catarina, home to 42 beaches and surf-seekers from as far away as Australia, South Africa, and Canada. Yet the primary language is undoubtedly Portuguese, which we had to begin navigating to take two separate local busses 20 kilometers south to Campeche, home to our first hostel on the island.
By the time we arrived it was almost noon and all in all the whole journey ate up more than a day, but we were unbelievably pleased with what greeted us. Floripa Surf Hostel was a collection of rooms laid around an inner courtyard of hammocks and trees, a small and relaxed destination just 200 yards from one of the best surf breaks on the island. Our first trip over the sand dunes less than half a block away lead to ecstatic feelings: the pristine turquoise waters of the ocean lay directly ahead, while behind and on the far Southern tip of the island tropical mountains blanketed in lush jungle foliage added an idyllic feeling to the unbeatable view.
There’s something undeniably perfect about living so close to the refreshing salty waters of the ocean; the atmosphere inspires the surf-oriented crowd into a rhythm of morning surfing, long afternoon naps, and evening runs at perfectly shaped barrels. More of a beach than a town, Campeche is mostly residential buildings with a few restaurants and parking lots staggered along the main stretch. The layout is spread wide and there’s not much to see beyond the supermarket, making it all the more easy to spend the majority of your waking hours at the beach. On our first afternoon we delighted in the prospect of lying in the sun to take in the views, breaking up the monotony of perfection with luxurious dips in the crisp, foamy waves. Immediately upon diving in, the hassle of obtaining a visa and the arduous journey seemed worth it: finally we had arrived in Brazil!
Tuesday we let the beach lifestyle permeate deeply into our minds and bodies. The instructions for making this happen are simple enough: take off for a morning run on the beach; head down after breakfast for a long walk, exploring the economy and atmosphere of beach life in Brazil; take some time to chill in the hammock; don’t forget to return to the ocean for an afternoon dip and an intense game of paddle board; cap off the evening with some sunset cocktails. Any questions?
Campeche is stationed in the Southern half of the island, so we took the opportunity on Wednesday to explore even further South. 10 sleeveless, sunglass-wearing travelers piled into the hostel’s awesome retro van, skirting along the Eastern shore with ocean views. Floripa, as it’s known, is a crowded area, with roads that aren’t prepared to handle the current flow of traffic, but I was happy to see the road was clear of cars and the beaches down here almost deserted. Our first stop was at a viewpoint that gave us a taste of what was ahead: a long strand of pearly white sand backdropped by a thick forest and protected nature reserve, plus a view of the sloping jungle hillside we were getting primed to climb.
We set off hiking soon after, progressing first through a quiet fisherman’s town, next across a short stretch of isolated beach with just a few remote beach houses, then finally into the forest and up, up, up! Rapidly, our clothes began sticking and our foreheads raining sweat as our feet worked their way over slippery rocks and roots. It was two hours of intense hiking, traversing through mostly untouched tropical rainforest, but occasionally opening up to windswept grasses at the headlands. On this stretch we kept twisting our heads back to take in more views of Campeche and the long line of beautiful beaches.
As spirits began fading and legs began aching, the tables turned and the trek down the mountainside commenced. Morale was understandably buoyed by the mother of all views: our first glimpse of Lagoinha do leste. What a paradise it seemed! Protected by the cradle of a semi-circle of mountains, with a set of dunes in front and not a road in sight, the crescent-shaped beach is one of Mother Nature’s masterful works.
An endless string of head-high waves broke steps from the shoreline, setting off a race to see which overheated hiker could take the first cold lungs. We body surfed the waves and dried out on the beach, kindling a feeling of deep relaxation amidst the solitary environment. Yet more work was still to be done, as the nearest road was still another hour’s walk away and we still had to traverse another steep mountain. Onwards and upwards we went, with the steady stream of sweat returning and the thoughts of cold beer and chocolate ice cream propelling me to the finish. After finding both of those vices and floating luxuriously in the calm waters of the day’s fourth beach, we were all ready to head back after an exhausting and rewarding day.
Yet for Stefje and I the journey wasn’t finished completely, as in the evening we had to switch hostels and shipped North towards Lagoa, the neighborhood that serves as a central hub of Ilha Santa Catarina. In exchange for an increased level of congestion, we were privy to more of the Floripa culture: restaurant and shopping options dominated the pedestrian heavy main drag. In a show of Brazil’s modernity compared to the rest of South America, just a few blocks into our walking exploration we came across a converted parking lot turned into a food truck exhibition. Our mouths watered as Western smells scintillated the nostrils: burritos with guacamole, vegan hamburgers, Italian pizza, and freshly rolled sushi made picking a meal impossible, but iPad credit card readers made everything seem accessible.
Thursday the weather made beaching it inadvisable, as morning showers gave way to overcast skies and an imminent evening downpour. Instead we opted to explore our new home of Lagoa, which improbably rests on a sandbar that bisects the two huge lakes of Ilha Santa Catarina. The placid waters framed by another set of verdant hills make the perfect setting for stand up paddle-boarding or a long walk around the boardwalks along the water’s edge.
Next door to our hostel we started the day off by putting the beachside restaurant “deals” of the island to shame. I ordered the plate of the day for 15 reales ($4) and my eyeballs almost popped out of my skull as the dishes kept on coming: fish stewed in savory shrimp sauce, a side salad of chopped vegetables, a whole plate of rice and a whole crock pot of seasoned beans, and long after I thought the procession was finished, a bowl of french fries.
Stefje didn’t order anything, so we ended up splitting the delicious meal, delighted to find a spot five times cheaper than most other restaurants.
Continuing in the tour around Lagoa, we discovered an awesome screen printing shop with retro t-shirts and posters, tried our first taste of Brazil’s specialty, acai bowls, and I even got most of my hair and beard chopped off for the first time in a year and a half. Feeling a few years younger, Stefje and I walked that evening to La Casa de Noca, Floripa’s hottest spot for local live music. A six piece band led by an illustrious clarinetist enthralled us and the rest of the dancing crowd, throwing down funky jams with latin spice until long past midnight.
Friday early morning cloud cover couldn’t dissuade us from getting back to the ocean, so we navigated our way to Mole beach, on the East coast of the island. A single road draped by jungle scenery on either side was the entryway to the sandy paradise, populated mostly by surfer bros and chicks hauling surfboards into the ferocious waters. The current here was tumultuous at best, as a steep beach line transformed rapidly into waist and then neck high frothy waters.
Just ten minutes in the water felt like a round of toking in a prizefight; “swimming” was out of the question, but attempting to hold your ground while waves delivered body blows from all sides was fun enough for me.
It was cloudy, it rained, it was cloudy again, but then finally the sky beyond the hills began to clear up and we made our way North along the shore until coming upon a rock formation that separated Mole from the next beach. It was a scene of serene relaxation and drop-dead gorgeous natural beauty. By climbing out to the rocky point, we could feel the wind across our cheeks, smell the salt spraying into our noses, and see the whole panorama of paradise open up in front of us.
Back towards Mole, surfer heads popped up out of the waves like a line of sea otters, everyone craning their necks in search of the next perfect barrel.
The blue sky was a revelation, offering a different perspective on this beach and leaving us extremely grateful for the opportunity to explore it to the fullest. But it was only clear for two hours, so that by the time we made it back to the bus stop dark clouds were imposing and soon enough a torrential downpour struck, leaving us trapped in town for two hours.
Saturday we had our sights set on another neighborhood, so we hauled everything North five kilometers to Barra da Lagoa. The tiny beach town that kept on growing, this neighborhood isn’t more than five square blocks, but it opens up onto a curved inlet beach more than six kilometers long. Arriving on a sunny Saturday threw us for a loop: pedestrians and families abounded, parking was next to impossible, and every single table at the oceanfront restaurants was packed to the gills.
We managed to find our next hostel and escaped the madness by settling in at the friendly confines of the Barra Beach Club. From the front desk the view was divine: we were perched on a hillside taking in the long stretch of white sand in the distance, with our own tiny swimming cover right below.
When it comes to amenities, the Barra Beach Club spares no expense. A plethora of hammocks, daily organized parties and activities, free surfboard rentals, and a free evening cocktail make the place feel more like a resort than a hostel. We spent our first afternoon enjoying the spectacular weather by indulging in the beach bum lifestyle: a long walk towards the undeveloped stretch of beach yielded a less-chaotic scene and the cycle of swimming, tanning, reading, and relaxing never gets old for me.
Barra Beach’s calm break and friendly current make it one of the best on the island for beginner surfers, so we had a great time watching the first-timers wipe out over and over again before finally getting two feet up on the board. Our proximity to the town yielded plenty of creature comforts as well. Along the popular beachfront push carts made wide tire tracks, hawking beach accessories, fruity cocktails, smoothies, sausage sandwiches, and corn on the cob.
In the early evening the wind picked up and we retreated to the comforts of the beach club, posting up in hammocks and drinking coconuts in a perfectly relaxed setting.
Sunday it was the best weather we had seen yet on the island: clear skies and a hot sun turned the beaches and boardwalks into sole-burning surfaces. After a morning run on the beach and a long and delicious breakfast overlooking the ocean, Stefje and I set off to explore the beach from a different perspective. Using a rented board as our mode of transport, we pushed in on one side of the beach and lazily let the current drag us along. Slowly but surely we entered the surfing zone, staying above the break to avoid getting thrashed and taking in the 360 degree panorama of paradise.
Barra da Lagoa was our home for the next few days as we refused to deal with the public bus system unnecessarily and instead kept our minds and bodies relaxed. Even when thunderous rain came down or the mosquitos attacked, everything seemed perfect: we were in paradise and nothing could override that.