So here’s a fun story: I really wanted to go to the Galapagos Islands, and Leana said she would go with me. I was surprised, because she hates animals and a lot of nature. I explained that you get a boat cruise and go between islands to see stuff, assuming she knew that “stuff” meant swimming with marine iguanas and riding prehistoric turtles and singing with blue-footed boobies, which was what I had in mind. But then the dates wouldn’t match up, flights were crazy, and we realized it wouldn’t work out.
Leana was all bummed because she’d been “looking forward to a tropical island vacation.” At which point I turned to her and asked what she knew about the Galapagos Islands. Turns out she knew nothing – she had heard “islands” and “boat” and “cruise” and imagined sipping tropical drinks on exotic beaches. So after I had a good laugh and realized we’d avoided a major disaster, we googled “pretty beaches in Brazil,” found a deal, booked it, and decided on five days at a place called Fernando de Noronha. It was only after we started telling some Brazilian friends about it that we realized we had stumbled upon actual paradise. This volcanic archipelago of islands is a World Heritage site with the top three beaches in Brazil, and the number one voted beach in the world according to TripAdvisor and CondeNast Travel. Brazilian celebrities flock like the salmon of Capistrano. So. Go us!
We had a 4:30am wakeup call, so obviously I started packing around 11pm. Our flight was from GIG to Recife with a tiny layover, and I figured I would get some good sleep on the plane. But then a wee man, about 120 years old, with zero teeth came to my row in an ancient trucker hat, worn shirt and jeans, and two huge bags. It was his first flight ever, and I got to buckle his seatbelt and then tell him that no, he couldn’t ride with his bags on his lap. The rest of the trip, he kept trying to talk to me in toothless, rapid-fire Portuguese, despite my repeated “I am American, I don’t speak Portuguese, I’m sorry.” When he wasn’t tapping me on the arm for something, he was knuckle-deep in his nostrils or playing with the window flap. Sigh. There was also a screaming baby. SCREAMING. For THREE HOURS. It was impressive, really. We finally deplaned in Recife and I wanted to find a massage chair and a cafezinho right away but after a while I was worried because I hadn’t found the old man and had developed feelings of responsibility for him . . . that guy had no idea what was going on but I saw him at the luggage wheel, so Godspeed, little buddy.
We landed, already “oh my gosh, oh my gosh” – ing at the view as we came into sight of the island…and parked at the smallest airport I have ever, EVER been to. We knew from the beginning of the trip we’d landed on the most beautiful island in the world. We got a taxi to our little pousada – a traditional kind of Brazilian B&B or glorified hostel that usually has a big breakfast, friendly hosts, cleaning in the afternoon, but can be very bare bones. Ours was Pousada das Flores, lovely and small and hosted by the sweetest chubby-cheeked man named Abraham. We’d unthinkingly not really eaten food and landed starving during siesta, but wandered until we found a restaurant that served up delish drinks and picanha. Exhausted as we were, we ambled back to our place, stopping by for some cold brewskies at a local stand, before posting up with speakers on the porch. I hunted down Ana, the cook, who arranged a jeep tour for us the next day, and the trip could officially begin!
We woke early Monday morning for an 8am pickup by a very handsome Junior, who pulled up promptly at 8:20 in a bright orange Jeep. We thought we might get him to ourselves for the day (which, by the way, we’d been given no agenda for and had literally no idea what we were doing), but we ended up picking up 7 other people who would be our new friends for the day – Matt – the young Brazilian/American from New Orleans who I think was super excited to talk to people in English, his somewhat newlywed Brazilian cousins Eduardo and Monique, Team Austria – your typical well-traveled, somewhat angry and somewhat judgey Europeans who claimed to be very experienced divers but then stood on top of the coral and got in trouble, and also kept wandering away from the group so we kept saying “oh, where is that Frederick?!”, and then Bruno and Katherine, a verrrrrrrry PDA Brazilian couple who had been drinking since sometime in the am and kept a cooler stocked at every stop. Apparently you can have open containers in Brazil. Or we’re just crazy. I didn’t think drinking while snorkeling in shark-infested water or as you walk along crumbling sea cliffs while taking copious amounts of selfies mixed well, but…..when in Rome.
We all sweatily squeezed into the jeep before stopping at a roadside stand to rent “obligatory” equipment if you wanted to snorkel. My first tip for this trip – bring your own snorkel stuff. Then we went down to Baio do Sueste – this was an amazing snorkel spot recovering from its first recorded shark attack! Very exciting! Not actually much for a beach, but we swam practically on top of huge, beautiful turtles, all kinds of fish, lobster and coral. The entire cast of Finding Nemo was out. Why are sea turtles so freaking cool? They’re just so chill, man.
After that it was one beach after another, some hiking to get to other view points, crazy lizards, tailless squirrels, scorching heat, getting in and out of the jeep, dealing with haughty Austrians and buzzed Brazilians who got louder and more affectionate and took more selfies as the day went on. The tour was completely in Portuguese, which Leana and I do pretty well with, but I think we missed some jokes. They sounded pretty sexual, so that’s okay.
The highlight was what has been named the most beautiful beach in the world – Baia do Sancho. First you hike out there, then climb down rock crevices on long ladders, then on 153 stone steps, and then there you are. It’s breathtaking just to stand in the water and look at the scenery. The cliffs and the trees look straight Jurassic Park, the water is lovely and warm, the sand pristine white. Stunning.
We lunched at another spot I’m sure was run by one of our guide’s relatives (everyone’s someone’s tio!). He fetched his adorable diaper-clad daughter and showed her off to us while we sipped well-earned Bohemias from rainbow-colored hammocks that lined the outdoor seating. I ate fish! And liked it! And learned that Pernambuco’s farofa is yellow and comes out of a container like a salt shaker, and I now demand that Rio start to do that, as well. (I am in a serious relationship with farofa, and some scientific evidence suggests over-consumption addles your brain. Sorry in advance.)
The afternoon was Cacimba do Padre, where they have massive surfing competitions, and the waves showed us why – up to 8 meters high, it’s called the Hawaii of Brazil. I made a short video and right afterwards a wave came up and nearly washed away all my things. We drank beers with the friendly drunk Brazilian couple and then climbed back in the jeep to make it to Baldro to watch the sunset with everyone else who was also on a jeep tour. There was a kiosk, live music, food carts, a million selfies, and a truly gorgeous sunset.
The next day we tried to sleep in for a bit, but as our room backs up to the dining room where they are serving breakfast…this was difficult. We finally got ourselves together and decided to explore some of the beaches we hadn’t seen yet. We took off down the cobblestone streets, featuring the palace, old church, the first school building from the island. We’re talking like 400 year old buildings and cannons and the town’s first well, so that was pretty cool.
We ended up trying to hike to a beach, and if you know me, you know my hiking style is to basically be unprepared and get lost with zero provisions. We managed to do not only that, but to also run into a giant herd of cows on this narrow jungle path, forcing us to hide in a grove of trees for half an hour, sweating and giggling.
After that, we finally found a deserted beach and then climbed over a volcanic rock graveyard to make it to Conceiçao Beach where we could rent chairs and umbrellas and have a tiny man deliver cold beers when we waved a hand. We watched surfers and kids playing futebol with flipflops dug into the sand to serve as goal posts, and stayed so long the tide came in under our feet and almost stole our things.
We ran into friends from the tour, did the very Brazilian thing of suggesting we meet up later with zero intention of actually doing so, jumped in the waves, had a Brazilian photo shoot, saw hundreds of spinner dolphins dancing off the coast, and Leana even saw a manta ray swim right by her! We stayed for sunset before going back to change for a lovely dinner at Flamboyant, which had the best fried aipim I have ever tasted, while a very strange and sexual movie played on all the tv screens and friendly cats begged for your food.
And that is the beginning of the best. trip. ever.