Budget Breakdown: Brazil

When traveling, two of the comments I constantly get are: “wow, you must be rich.” Or, “I’d love to travel like that but I don’t have money.” I am far, far from rich and yes, you mostly likely do.

Yes, you can spend boatloads of money. The Marriott and Hilton aren’t cheap. Five star restaurants will hurt the wallet. Flying first class will put you in debt. However, to me, traveling isn’t about these things. To me it is about the sights, meeting the people, and trying the food and drink. This can be done for cheap.

When I was planning my around-the-world trip it was hard to find actual budgets. So I decided to keep track of everything I’ve spent to hopefully help you plan.

Of course, everyone is different. Some are willing to rough it more than others. Some want to spend more on activates than lodging or food or transport, others would switch that order up.

Here is my breakdown of my 56 days in Brazil.

The biggest expenditure was housing. I spent $568 or an average of $10.14 a night. It was quite the mix, I Couchsurfed in four places, stayed in many hostels and even a few nice hotels. In fact, $388 of that came in six days in four-star accommodations. If I really wanted to I could have spent under $300.

Now we get into the food. I am not a foodie. I like to try different things but it is not the focus of my day. I spent $215 on lunch ($3.83 per day), $198 on dinner (S3.53 per day), and $67 on breakfast ($1.19) per day. Overall, I dropped $480 or $8.57 per day. I could have done it for less but at times I broke down and had to get some “western” foods. It is also worth noting that most hostels and hotels include breakfast.

The next biggest expense was tours or tourist activates. I spent $382 or an average of $6.82 per day. Most of that was on my quest to see a jaguar, I dropped $254 on guides but it was worth it to me in the end.

Brazil is a huge country and I had to get around. I took eight bus trips of six hours or more, six were 15 or more. That totaled $310 or $5.53 per day. I took one “VIP” bus but other than that I did this about as cheaply as possible, taking the cheapest buses that the locals rode.

I am a guy who enjoys a cold one. Especially when it’s a beer that I’ve never tried. I spent $172 on beer ($3.07 per day (PD)). This varies a lot per person, maybe you don’t drink at all. Maybe you are an alcoholic. How many beers did I have? The cheapest I found was 50 cents and the most expensive was $2.50.

Those were the major expenses. I also spent $102 ($1.82 PD) on other. That is anything from a lock to a cell phone case to medicine. I also dropped $88 on cabs ($1.57 PD), $67 ($1.19 PD) on gifts for people that helped me, $62 ($1.10 PD) on shuttles, $39 on snacks ($.69 PD), $34 ($.60 PD) on local buses/metro, and $25 on water ($.44 PD).

All told, I spent $2,329 in everyday life or just $41.58 per day. If you break it down, I bet you spend more than that between your rent, car payment, food and recreation in your “regular” life. Think about it.

*Disclaimer: this does not include getting to Brazil or the visa if you are from a country that needs one.

Drama on the Border

Undoubtedly one of the worst parts of traveling is crossing borders; particularly, if you are from the United States. In general, border towns are full of con artists and thieves; it takes one’s full attention to not get taken advantage of. Many times the people working for the government are just as crooked as any two bit hustler on the corner.

Unfortunately, a lot of the poor treatment of Americans is due to how we treat foreigners when they come state side. Being from a money grubbing country is good at times, but travel is not one of them. Many counties in South America have reciprocity visas. This means if their citizens need a visa to enter the USA then citizens of the USA must get a visa to visit their country. The fees are also identical. That greedy whore Uncle Sam charges Brazilians and Bolivians $160 to come to the USA with tons of documentation. It is maddening to see my traveling peers from advanced countries like Germany, England, France, Canada and others just waltz by me with no check of papers or fees charged.

Brazil was no problem, other than the $160 fee, as I sent away for the visa ahead of time. Of course this service cost me another $115, but at least there was no headache or frustration. That was not the case in Bolivia.

I did my research, or so I thought, to make an easy cross overland into Bolivia. However, in the back of my head I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. I’ve had to much trouble at borders over the years to truly expect smooth sailing.

From the Brazilian town of Corumba I took a taxi to the border. After waiting in line at the federal police station I got my exit stamp from Brazil without incident. I then walked the couple hundred yards to Bolivia. Once in the immigration office I asked the women how to get a visa. I explained that I don’t speak Spanish and she told me I can’t get a visa if I don’t speak Spanish as no one on staff speaks English.

Surely, I can’t be the only person in history to enter Bolivia without knowing Spanish. I don’t care about language barriers. I got along fine in Brazil without Portuguese. I managed in places like China, Morocco, rural Italy and other places where no one speaks English. So I sat down and tried to collect my thoughts on how I was going to pull this off. I then saw a German guy (who knew Spanish) and asked for his help. He talked with the customs agents and I produced the documents that were needed.

I was required to submit a copy of my passport, a copy of my Yellow Fever vaccination certificate, a plane ticket out of the country, a hotel reservation for my entire stay, two passport photographs, a bank statement, a visa application and $160. I handed over everything and profusely thanked the German guy as he left.

The border guy wasn’t happy with my efforts. He informed me that I need to have a passport photo with a red background. What? I thought it was joke. Who takes pictures with a red background? Is this Russia? Further, my pic was 4×3 cm and he wanted 4×4. I also enlarged my passport copy to make it easier to see, logical, right? No, they wanted the original size. For no reason that I could understand, my bank statement also wasn’t accepted. They now wanted a copy of my credit card, front and back. Even my money wasn’t good enough, one of the $20s I gave them was “wrinkled.”

I struggled not to go postal. I was tempted to just go back to Brazil, but I already got my exit stamp. I feared they would charge me again.

The border agent gave me a temporary pass to go into the town of Quijarro. He told me that when I returned with my documentation he would call the hostel to make sure I had a reservation. Crap! The print out I handed over had already been canceled. I had no idea where or when I was going to be in different cities in Bolivia so making reservations was impossible. I made a booking and then quickly canceled it as not to get charged. If the hostel said I canceled, and the border guard knew I was committing fraud, I would get thrown out on my ear, if not worse.

So I headed into Quijarro where I made copies of my credit card, passport, and Yellow Fever vaccination certificate. I also got new pictures taken, when I walked into the shop a red background was already set up. I still had the issue of the fake reservation to deal with, luckily I found an Internet café and made a new reservation and printed it out (which I canceled the next day).

I trudged back to the border with a fist full of documents. When the border agent put everything on the desk I picked it all up and said I wanted my bank statement and original passport copy back. At the same time I grabbed the passport copy and bank statement I switched the hostel reservations without him noticing. He then disappeared and came back 20 minutes later and said I was good to go!

The whole ordeal took over four hours and cost me an additional $15. Later I met some Americans who crossed at the Peru border and they had to bribe the official an extra $20 but there was no mention of pictures with a red background or bank statement. It is obvious that Bolivia has no real control over its borders. Whatever that particular agent wants, goes.

The Bolivian currency is abbreviated as Bs, never has an abbreviation been more fitting for a country.

On the Trail of Onza (Jaguar)

It started on a dimly lit street outside a bar in Sao Paulo’s Vila Madalena neighborhood. I met a friend of a friend named Edu. I got into the habit of asking the people on the ground about what to do in their country rather than lug around a Lonely Planet. While most people recommend Rio or the beaches of the northeast, Edu told me of jaguars. I, of course, knew there were Jaguars in Brazil but I wasn’t quite sure how to find them.

Edu told me that the Pantanal was home to the largest population of jaguars in the world. The world’s third biggest cat used to roam from Argentina to Arizona but the population has steadily declined over the years. There is only an estimated 15,000 left of which 50%-60% are in the Pantanal. The Pantanal is huge, the world largest tropical wetland, spanning an estimated 75,000 square miles. Edu said that most of the cats were in the north near the city of Cuiaba.

Cuiaba is nowhere near Sao Paulo, a 35-hour bus ride to be exact. I was in no rush so I planned to work my way there. I stopped in Foz do Iguacu to see Iguaçu Falls and at that hostel there was signs for Pantanal tours, with pictures of Jaguars on them. It wasn’t outside Cuiaba but near Campo Grande. That isn’t what Edu said, but apparently there are jaguars there too. The guy from the tour company told me they see seven or eight per month. So I booked a three-night package, and if you do the math, that gave me a pretty good chance of seeing one.

Once there I asked the other people at the lodge what they had seen. Tons of animals, no jaguars. The Pantanal is one of the premier places in the world to see wildlife of all varieties and while that was cool, I came for one reason. I asked my guide when the last time he saw a jaguar was, he couldn’t remember. The other guide said he saw one 15 days ago. I had been had by the salesman!

I did meet two people who did see jaguars in the north, near Cuiaba. However, the price difference was staggering. A night at the lodge and a day tour in the south was about $53, in the north it was $261 for the same thing. Not to mention another $35 and 15 hours on the bus. After the three day tour was over, I pressed my luck and stayed two more nights. I had a marvelous time, but no jag.

I thought about cutting bait and heading to Bolivia, my next destination. However, I felt quite empty inside. I couldn’t come all this way and not see one. The Northeast Ohio in me wouldn’t let me quit. But I also couldn’t afford the $700-$1,000 for a tour package in the north. Not knowing what awaited me, I pressed on.

Cuiaba turned out to be one of the most dangerous places on earth with the 16th highest murder rate in the world; higher than anyplace in the U.S. Robberies were commonplace, I met a guy who had been robed eight times. My rough plan was to take a bus to the dusty outpost of Pocone and then try to hitchhike the Transpantaneira “Highway” (a 91-mile dirt road with 147 wooden bridges) to Porto Jofre. Once in Porto Jofre I would try to slide into an already existing tour. However, the temperature was hovering near 111 (44 C) and there was no shade on the road. If I didn’t get picked up and ran out of water, I was dead. I don’t think I could carry enough food and water for a 91-mile hike. Not to mention the Transpantaneira is crawling with predators, of the two, four, eight and zero legged variety. There is no cell service. Everyone in Cuiaba told me to scrub this plan, it was too dangerous. It looked like there would be no jaguar after all.

By chance, I met a co-worker of my host. Sandy, a Brazilian born women of Japanese descent, took it upon herself to make sure my dream came true. She burned up the phone lines, calling every tour company she could think of. It really helped to have a Portuguese speaking local person make the calls instead of some damn gringo. After several days, and cost prohibitive offers, she found a guy would take me out for one day for $350. That is a ton of money for me and there was no guarantee I’d see one. If I didn’t, that was it. Game over. I decided to take one more shot.

We left the lodge dark-and-early at 5 a.m. and made it to Porto Jofre by 7. Once on the river, I was grinning from ear-to-ear. I knew this was my best, and last, chance. The best, and safest, way is to see a jaguar is by boat. Remember, these cats grow up to 250 pounds and kill in an ambush style with one skull crushing bite to the head. You’d never see it coming. Not place to be traipsing around in the woods.

It was hotter than hades and there was no shade on the small aluminum boat. It was a clear and sunny day and the air reeked of sunscreen and bug spray. I was locked in, staring at the bank and every tree. As the hours wore on my SPF 50 and enthusiasm began to fade. Eight o’clock, nine, ten, 11, pessimism began to creep in. I wasn’t going to see one. I wasted 12 days budget for nothing. I was sweating profusely just sitting and the bugs were swarming. I was over it. Defeated, by noon, I closed my eyes all together to catch a cat nap, pun intended.

Around 1:30, I heard the crackle of the radio, the boat leapt to life at full throttle. Whatever was said (in Portuguese) caused our captain to slam on the gas. Soon we saw another small boat anchored near the bank. At first, I didn’t see anything and then, there it was. Two jaguars, a male and a female (it is mating season), lying under a tree. They seemed to be embraced, taking it easy in the shade. We sat there for hours, watching. The cats would occasionally look our way but they couldn’t care less that we were there. Eventually, we left them alone, hopefully to make some more jaguars and retuned to our lodge.

It was a long and difficult odyssey to find a jaguar but when I made eye contact with the big male (over 200 pounds) it was all worth it. I’d do it all over again any day.

In the next year or two I hope to see the other two big cats (lion and tiger) in the wild. It would be quite the trifecta, but the first is always special.


Unofficial Ambassador

Never will I be an ambassador, in any official capacity anyway. However, it turns out that when in certain places in the world it is not a job you are appointed to, but a job you inherit. You get the job out of necessity because there is no one else.

I’m not talking about Toronto or London or even Sydney. A fair amount of Americans travel there and the locals can form opinions on our country based on the many interactions they have. However, imagine you’ve never met an American before, or just a few. Where do you get your opinion? The news? TV and movies? No wonder many people don’t like us.

People still bring up George Bush to me on a regular basis. I didn’t vote for Bush, I think he is an imbecilic too. But because I’m American, I get grouped with him. So when traveling off the beaten path I try extra hard to leave a good impression.

In over a month in Brazil I have met a total of three Americans. The sad fact is that most Americans don’t travel and the ones that do are afraid of South America, let’s just be honest. Still, people in Rio probably meet their share of Americans, anywhere else in this huge country, forget it. A small village on a dirt road may very well have never seen an American.

Let me give you an example. I was fishing in a remote part of Brazil, in between Campo Grande and Corumba, about an hour down a dirt road from Buraco Das Piranhas. A place that isn’t on the map. A place that doesn’t have cell service.

On the river I met two Brazilian guys and they asked where I was from. I said the United States. They roared with laughter. I could pick out the words Americano, gringo and puta (bitch) in between their laugher. They bragged about their fishing ability to the guy I was with. I tried not to let it bother me and started fishing. The fish began jumping in the boat. I was averaging about 10 fish an hour. Whenever I looked over at these guys they weren’t catching much.

Soon they ran out of bait and tried to trade cigarettes for some of mine. I wanted to tell them to go fuck themselves, but I didn’t. I refused the cigarettes and gave them half my bait anyway.

By the time I had 24 fish my bucket the bugs were getting bad and it was getting hot so I called it quits. We headed back to camp and there were three maintenance workers painting a fence in the heat of the day. I gave them all my fish. They were both shocked and grateful. They hurriedly started cleaning the fish.

Maybe everyone thinks I’m still a gringo bitch or maybe they have a new view of Americans. I don’t know. But I tried to be an ambassador for my great country and it turns out the white boy can fish.


Quick Hits: Rio and Sao Paulo

-The traffic is interesting. I’ve seen worse drivers in other places but a few things stick out. There a lot of motorcycles and they drive in between the lanes, zipping in and out of traffic. In fact, most of the bikes have modified handlebars to make it easier to slip by. Also, red lights and stop signs are more of suggestions than rules. In Rio, I had a cab driver who just flat out ran the red lights if he didn’t see a car coming. We’re not talking about rolling a stop sign, acceleration, if anything.

-Walking in such big cities has the same vibe as the traffic. There is very little personal space. Occasionally back home you are walking towards someone and you move right and they move the same way, then you move left and they follow leading to an brief awkward dance with a stranger. That has never happened in the history of Brazil. People walk in straight lines and will not stop, if you run into someone, so be it. I had several collisions but kinda enjoyed it, a slow version of football. After you run into someone there is no “excuse me” or anything, just go on with your day.

-I’ve heard from many guys that Brazilian girls are the hottest in the world. That argument can certainly be made. The bodies here are unbelievable, in particular. However, I don’t know if I can declare it a fact. Czech Republic, Turkey, Israel, and the girls in Hawaii don’t take a backseat to anyone. I had several girls approach me in parties or bars (probably due to the gringo factor) but with no ability to speak Portuguese it didn’t go far.

-Much to my delight Brazil loves meat and they do it very well! At some restaurants a server comes to your table with a giant spit of meat (all kinds) and cuts you a piece. This continues with every type a meat you can think of and it is unlimited! I did this several times and it costs about $10. On the street corners guys are grilling kabobs of beef or chicken. I loved grabbing a stick of meat while heading to the metro. The private BBQs are just as good. Brazilians celebrate everything with a BBQ. Going away? Got promoted? Having a baby? Anything? Have a BBQ! I was lucky enough to attend one and it was tremendous. I am not a foodie, but I could eat here the rest of my life.

-Public displays of affection are another strong suit of Rio and Sao Paulo. No one has ever yelled “get a room” here! People are full on making out, and groping, anywhere and anytime.

-Some of those people making out might not be what they appears. I have never seen so many lady boys as I have here. The funny part is many of them look great! Unless you are really looking, you’d never know. I don’t care either way, do you, I just didn’t expect it.

-The funniest thing about Brazil is the flag. It has “Ordem e Progresso” (Order and Progress) scrawled across it. I haven’t been to Brazil before so I can’t speak to the progress, but I can tell you there is little to no order! When I was told what it said, I literally laughed out loud.

-I have now moved out of the city to Foz do Iguacu and the Pantal. I’ll write about it soon.

Brazil is Football

I ended up staying longer in the city of Rio de Janeiro than I originally planned for one specific reason, which was to attend a pro football (soccer) game. It was definitely was worth it.

I have had the good fortune of attending hundreds of professional sporting events, in many cities, in every sport. That list includes big events such as the Final Four, World Series, UFC title fights, WWE pay-per-views, the Summer Olympics and college football with over 100,000 in attendance. So I think that gives me some credibility when I say that per fan I have never seen people more passionate. This, for a regular season match between two teams that aren’t very good.

In Brazil, fans of opposing teams cannot sit together, or even remotely near each other. Fans of Team A sit in one end zone and fans of Team B sit in the other. They are separated by tall steel fences, cops in riot gear and attack dogs. This isn’t Ohio State v. Michigan, North Carolina v. Duke or Yankees v. Red Sox. These fans will literally kill each other if given the chance. Fans of the visiting team also cannot enter or exit the stadium at the same time. With tensions so high, riots can even break out among supporters of the same team.

There is a section for tourists and others who can watch the game without being in the middle of it. Of course, I didn’t sit there. I hate, in general, guided tours. I wanted to sit with the people and see and feel what they did. The hostel I was staying at offered a tour that included tickets in the neutral area and a ride to and from the game. We were advised to take the tour. Whatever.

I went with a girl I met at the hostel, we took the metro to Maracana Stadium. The stadium itself was a treat: home to two World Cups and it will be the site of the Olympic opening and closing ceremonies next year. When it opened it held 200,000 people making it the biggest in the world, now it holds close to 80,000. Outside of sports, everyone from Pope John Paul II to Guns and Roses to Madonna to the New Kids on the Block to Prince to Paul McCartney to the Backstreet Boys have had events there.

We had to get tickets like everyone else so we stood in a long line. We kept looking at our phones as the minutes ticked till kickoff. We wondered aloud if we would make it in time. While in line, a guy pushes me out of the way and heads towards the front. Incensed, I look behind and see his three buddies doing the same thing. When they got to me I moved over and dropped my shoulder and elbow into the guy to prevent him from passing. I was pissed. I wasn’t going to stand for this. Then the guy looked at me, it was a demonic stare, I quickly backed off and let him pass. I even apologized.

After getting the tickets for 40 reals (the tour was 130) we had to go through security. It was your typical pat down, under the armpits and down to the quads. Then it got weird, the security guard patted down my groin area and continued to actually grab my balls. I was shocked but could do nothing but walk in the stadium. For the record, that is the second time I have had my privates handled by another man (Turkey being the other). How horrible of a job is that? That guy must grab 5,000 dicks a day. Or maybe that was the gringo special?

Once inside I looked for an usher or someone working at the stadium to show us where our seats were. Forget it. We asked another fan, he laughed. Although the ticket had a section, row and seat on it people just sat wherever they wanted. So we did too.

Vasco da Gama (our team) scored quickly and the small crowd erupted. The chants, songs and flag waving was nonstop. Vasco made it 2-0 early in the second half on a PK and closed out Atletico-PR for the shutout win.

Everyone went home happy, including me. Thrilled to see the world’s game played in another country in a historic venue.