I’ve been hemming and hawing about how to introduce my Brazil coverage — how to even begin to sum up six weeks of the most roller-coaster like weeks of travel I’ve ever had! I do promise to get into the deep stuff eventually, but I finally decided to stop procrastinating and start from the beginning, when I was fresh off the plane full of hope and hungry for caipirinhas.
From here forward, I’ll be jumping between my Thailand and Brazil coverage until I wrap up Thailand. Let’s do this!
One motorbike ride, one ferry, one shuttle, four flights over three different itineraries, and one cab ride. Fifty two and a half hours after I shut the door on the apartment I’d lived in for the past seven months in Thailand for the last time, I arrived in front of a new door: my hostel in São Paulo, Brazil.
It was my longest stretch of uninterrupted transit ever. No fun layovers, no leaving the airports. Just one big blur of boarding passes, security checks and baggage claims. It was worth it for the trip I’d waited a decade for.
Though I had six wild weeks in Brazil ahead, in that moment I was only focused on my first stop, the event that had launched this entire adventure: Tomorrowland Brazil. I had strategically landed a few days before the festival in order to give myself time to recover from my long journey and adjust to a new timezone, and also to get settled and do a bit of last minute supply shopping.
São Paulo is the third or fourth most populated city in the world, depending on what ranking you read. Deciding which of the dozens of neighborhoods to stay in can be daunting, though my decision was made simple when I fell in love with the We Design Hostel, a mansion renovated into a hipster dream.
We Design Hostel is in Vila Mariana, a prosperous upper middle class neighborhood that borders Ibirapuera Park, widely regarded as the Central Park of São Paulo. I can’t think of a more welcoming place to crash land after spending more than two days of your life in transit.
My sweet and simple room had a private balcony that was larger than my first Brooklyn apartment and left me longing for a yoga mat — I’d highly recommend they add some patio furniture to take advantage of the beautiful space. The bathroom was shared, which I didn’t mind, and the mattress was absolutely to-die for — though to be fair, my standards were pretty low coming straight from the rock-like beds of Thailand.
In the morning We Design Hostel included a bitchin’ breakfast buffet with scrambled eggs, bacon, homemade cakes and fresh squeezed juices — one of the best I had in Brazil — to be enjoyed on a wraparound patio. A well-stocked kitchen was available to guests and as I was in deep hibernation mode I used it to make a few simple meals rather than go out and socialize.
Other amenities included a relatively busy bar, a tv room, a patio with a ping pong table, a work room with a huge conference-like table, and an English-speaking staff. As with every hostel I’d stay at throughout my time in the country, the guests were primarily Brazilian, though a large contingent — compared to the rest of the hostels I’d eventually stay at, at least — of international guests arrived the night before Tomorrowland.
My first foray out into the big bad world of Brazil was the afternoon after my very early morning arrival at the hostel, when my hunger demanded I go forage for food. Maybe it was the jetlag, maybe it was my slight unease in a completely new corner of the world, maybe it was the relentless warnings that had been drilled into me over how dangerous the country was, but despite considering myself a level-headed, experienced traveler, I mentally and physically prepared for a barrage of pickpockets and muggers as I set out for the market.
I literally grabbed nothing but an empty tote bag, my debit card tucked into my bra, and at the last minute, fearing getting lost, my cell phone hidden in my waistband.
I walked outside, steely-eyed, ready to face whatever desolate City of God-inspired hellscape awaited me… and found myself in pretty much the Park Slope of São Paulo. Trendy craft beer bars, hipsters walking purebred dogs, and moms with designer strollers chatting and snapping away on iPhones way nicer than the one I had hidden in my underwear. Once I stopped laughing at myself for my uncharacteristic paranoia, I realized that this wouldn’t be the last time conventional wisdom about Brazil failed me.
Vila Mariana was laid back and charming, and I cursed not bringing my camera out as I snapped clever murals and adorable storefronts on my iPhone. Unfortunately it was a Monday, when the neighborhood is more or less closed for business, but I had a blast scouring exotic grocery stores and corner shops for supplies for the hostel kitchen.
My second day in São Paulo, I arranged for a tour that would give me a good overview of the city for subsequent visits. After all, my festival partner-in-crime Heather and I would spend a few days recovering there post-Tomorrowland, and I’d have to return to the city at least one more time again to catch my return flight the next month. It can be hard to wrap your head around such a sprawling, enormous city, and I knew just who to turn to for help.
Enter Dani Ruano, the brains behind Viator’s Arts, Fashion and Architecture Trends Walking Tour of São Paulo, and the creative behind Instagram’s @RealCoolSampa, an account I’d been following avidly in anticipation of this tour. As an artist and a marketing consultant that helps brands keep on the pulse of what’s cool, I felt confident Dani would lead me to the best bars, shops, and urban art in the city.
I arrived early at Aro 27 Bike Café, our meeting point where customers can kick back with a gourmet coffee or tea, or shop for accessories and equipment for urban cycling.
We meandered our way through Pinheiros, stopping to peek in on a secret coding club Dani had recently discovered, a once-dilapidated public square revitalized by a cutting-edge architecture firm, and street art — so much street art!
We stopped for a fresh juice break at Pitico, an outdoor bar main a complex made wholly by shipping containers. Along the way we chatted about everything from Zika (“Why are Americans still talking about Zika?,” Dani wondered) to Instagram, from politics to the infamous São Paulo vs. Rio rivalry (“We are jealous of their beaches, they are jealous of our money,” Dani laughed.)
Our next stop was for a snack at Mercado Municipal de Pinheiros, a bustling market with fresh produce, meat and groceries on the ground floor and small cafes ringing the second level. We headed straight for Motocó Cafe, a casual spin-off of the wildly popular and oft-awarded Brazilian food restaurant Mocotó. We ordered the infamous tapioca squares — dadinhos de tapioca com queijo coalho — and I had my first taste of Guaranajá. What Irn Bru is to Scotland and Coca Cola is to America, Guaranajá is to Brazil.
I was instantly obsessed with both and while I’d have many more Guaranajás ahead throughout my time in Brazil, I never found another tapioca dish that compared to the one at Motocó Cafe. If you want to avoid the lines, high prices and inconvenient location of the original, head to this hidden gem instead!
We walked off our snack heading in the direction of Instituto Tomie Ohtake, a wildly unique piece of architecture housing a theater and rotation of art-filled galleries we quickly glanced through. I made note of dozens of bars and restaurants in the area that I hoped to return to for a longer look.
Slowly, we wound our way towards Vila Madalena (not to be confused with Vila Mariana), one of São Paulo’s hippest neighborhoods and the one I’d be staying in upon my return. Every street seemed bursting with creativity, community and life. I was in love.
Along the way Dani pointed out boutiques and small fashion designers who focus on what she called “slow fashion” — sustainable materials, ethical manufacturing, and thoughtful design. Despite not being much of a shopper, I found Dani’s explanations fascinating.
Finally, as the sun was setting, we made our way to the infamous Beco de Batman street art epicenter. As the light was low and casting strange shadows, I kept my camera in my bag and vowing to come back later for photos, simply enjoying strolling the street at a tourist-free moment and learning about the various artists and their work.
After popping into a few more galleries and shops, we hopped in a cab for the final stop of the evening — downtown. I have to admit that by this point my jetlag had gotten the better of me and I fell fast asleep in the cab. It would be my first taste of São Paulo’s monstrous traffic, as to Dani’s frustration we missed one of the tour stops — a Brazilian dance hall — while gridlocked at an intersection. Exhausted as I was, I didn’t mind, and when I emerged from my nap we were downtown in Roosevelt Square, heart of the city’s theater scene. There was a slight change in mood downtown in the dark and while I fully believed Dani’s assurances that we were more than safe, I kept my camera tucked away and was grateful to be walking with a local rather than alone.
With one last stop at another boutique and a hidden trendy bar for celebratory drinks, we toasted to a fabulous day, and Dani presented me with a gift from the tour company — a beautiful reusable travel tote. Sweet! If you’re heading to São Paulo, I cannot recommend this tour more highly. I felt like I got to see the city like a local, or a tourist lucky enough to be shown around by a hip friend.
Before I knew it, I was packing up for Tomorrowland. In my excitement over exploring a new country, I had made some very ambitious plans for the sixty-ish hours I was going to be in Vila Mariana in addition to the one tour I did make it to. We’re talking yoga classes, runs in Ibirapuera Park, free walking tours, and all kinds of festival preparations.
Clearly, jetlag and travel fatigue had other plans and other than this tour and a few errands I barely left my hostel. But Vila Mariana was the perfect low-key ‘hood for easing into Brazil, and my day with Dani was the perfect introduction to what to explore when I returned — which I couldn’t wait to do!
Stay tuned for Tomorrowland!
I received a media discount for my stay at We Design Hostel and I am a member of the Viator Ambassador initiative and participated in this tour as part of that program.