Wednesday, July 20, 2011

São Luís: a rant

I returned on Monday (4 days earlier than planned, but I'll get to that) from the small city of São Luís, Maranhão (a UNESCO World Heritage site) and the national park Lençóis (the Portuguese word for "sheets"; picture white bedsheets blowing in the wind, except instead of cotton, they are made of the whitest of sand). The trip has been highly ranked on my Hot List for quite some time, but had been delayed on the grounds of expense and seasonality. Now, though, there were three reasons that it was time to cough up the dough and change my travel style a bit--from 100% mochileira (backpacker) to tour group participant/hotel guest.

1. I expected to adore both places, particularly Lençóis, which I imagined as nothing short of magical.
2. I thought it was the best way to commemorate my birthday, the 4th here in Brazil. And birthday aside, I wanted to do something big before I left.
3. It's the right time of year to go (June-August), just after the rainy season when the lagoons in the desert are full of crystalline rain water, perfect for refreshing dips between sand dune hikes.

Even though it was just a week, I have much to tell and many pictures to share. Unfortunately, the story begins with a negative review of the city of São Luís. The best moments of the first 60 hours, unbeknownst to me at the time, would be sipping Devassa Tropical Lager at Campinas airport waiting to depart. (Meow! Yes, that catty tone is going to remain throughout this post.)

I found many tours online that included airfare, accommodation, ground transport to/from the village of Barreirinhas (the most common base for exploring the national park), as well as day tours of São Luís and Alcântara, and several jeep and boat trips into Lençóis and the surrounding area.

These are freaking expensive.

Ok, that's subjective, but from my position as a solo traveler staying in hotels and paying double occupancy, as well as meals priced to be shared...ouch. With the benefit of hindsight though, next time I would do that--an organized tour start to finish.* As it was, I found that I ended up paying about the same even though I found my own airfare, booked three nights in a hostel in São Luís, and purchased my own 3-day Lençóis tour package with Maranhão Turismo, all with a lot more hassle. Mistake number 1.

Mistake number 2 was staying in the Hostelling International property Solar das Pedras. I avoid HI properties whenever possible because I generally find them to be lacking in character with overly-stoic staff and not-my-kinda-guest. I much prefer independent hostels and the fun-loving, renegade travelers I meet at them. Solar das Pedras was the only hostel in town though, and was much cheaper than my alternatives.

Don't stay there.

  • It was extremely difficult to make a reservation. What should have been a simple, straightforward process was tedious and annoying which involved a series of attempts at completing their online reservation form as well as a handful of follow-up emails. Completely uncoordinated.
  • The staff was unhelpful (if I'm being generous), and downright rude (if I'm being honest). The man and woman who run the place sleep on a mattress behind the check-in counter. Perhaps they don't sleep well and that explains why it is nearly impossible to eke a smile out of them.
  • Forget about receiving any tips on what to see or do, how to get around, or where to find anything: no one speaks a word of English (which, fortunately wasn't a problem for me, but still), nor are there any signs on the wall, covering the basics, to compensate for this fact.
  • Relatedly, no useful and customary information is provided (in any language, whether verbally or with signage; e.g. directions to the bus station, a grocery store, internet café, recommended local restaurant, etc.) even when specifically prompted. I asked the woman, in Portuguese of course, if there was a restaurant or market nearby. She responded, in the flat and unhospitable tone I came to learn was her usual demeanor, "to the right." Umm, ok, a block? Four? On the left side or right? Does this place have a name? What am I looking for, a restaurant or a market? Nada. I asked for clarification and her dead eyes just looked at me as if to say I was pushing my luck. I walked out shaking my head, and never did find anywhere to purchase food--cooked or uncooked--to the right. Not within several blocks, in fact, so it was a good thing I had thrown a few protein bars in my suitcase.
  • Even though I should have known better, the next day, I asked her for directions to the mall (which, incidentally, conveys how much I disliked the city). She muttered "bus terminal". Duh. Could you be more specific? No. Of course you can't.
  • I was eaten alive by ferocious mini-mosquitos at night, which at first I feared were bed bugs. I don't think it's fair to fault a place for the nature that gets in, but it is noteworthy that I didn't experience this elsewhere during the remainder of the trip despite being in far more lush surroundings.
  • The last straw, to which I confess I got a little pissy, was Wednesday morning. I was up, packed, and out of the room at 6:45 because the minibus to Lençóis was due to pick me up at 7am. I set my luggage by the front door--at which point the woman sleeping behind the counter stirs, looks at me, rolls over and goes back to sleep. I sit and wait until 7am, when the included hostel breakfast (sure, we'll call it "breakfast") service is supposed to begin. Dining area still dark and shuttered, I knock on the locked door that leads to the guest and staff kitchens to ask if I can heat up some water for my coffee. Not leaving something as important as my morning caffeine to chance, I was prepared with coffee-in-a-teabag and my own cup in hand. Another woman, who is preparing said breakfast, opens the door a crack and denies me access to the hot water. Oh-no-she-dit-ant! Jump ahead to 7:15, breakfast still not "open" and minibus still not there, and the man-manager returns from the market, wherever that is. I complain to him about not being permitted to get coffee or hot water despite it being well past 7am. The woman-manager gets out of bed and, speaking at him and not at me, dismissively says that my bus won't arrive until 7:45 anyway. I correct her, "no, they said 7am." She relays the message, again directed at him and not me, that my tour company called and changed the pickup time. "Really!? When?!" I indignantly inquire. "Last night while she was at dinner," she responds to the man. Now I was pissed, which I made no attempt to hide. (After all, she had seen me return from dinner [while she was whining her opinions of the evening novela to the television in an empty room, as if it would change the inane plot to do so], and could easily have relayed the message then, not only for its pertinence but for the extra hour of sleep!) He got the door to the kitchen open and I got my coffee, at least.

Ok, moving on from the crappy hostel experience, I thought the city of São Luís was a huge letdown. Yes, there are plenty of examples of colonial architecture though I didn't think they were well-preserved in the least. This street is the absolute best I found in two days of wandering. And what you see is what you get.

Granted, the streets look more charming at night (when you don't see how many of the buildings--such as this entire block save the mauve one on the right--are nothing more than ruinous façades). That is, I was advised, until the wee small hours of a Friday or Saturday night when empty bottles fill the cobblestone lanes and the smell of urine overwhelms the senses.

It's not a clean city. The sidewalks are in terrible condition. Their proud historic center felt as sketchy as it looked. I found myself wondering what on Earth the UNESCO people were thinking when they designated it as a world heritage site. (So much, in fact, that I actually researched the selection criteria when I returned, well, for a few minutes until I got bored.) If the city is receiving preservation funds, it appears those funds are winding up elsewhere.

Here's a charming shot of a home in the middle of this "Heritage Site": a sheet of paper near the doorbell of the small home advertises soda and hot toddies for sale, while the family's undergarments dry on the bars of the street-level front window. Classy.

My adverse reaction to the city created an immediate problem. I had planned to spend six days there after my time in Lençóis and now, there was no way that was going to happen. I frantically researched options to extend my time in Lençóis or to travel to the Delta do Parnaíba in Piauí, to no avail. By the end of my first day in São Luís I had choked up the cash to change my return flight, cutting my trip four days short, and made a reservation for a decent hotel on the beach-side of São Luís (as opposed to the "historical city center" where the hostel was located) for the last two nights.

If you know me personally, you already know that I'm an anti-mall person. Yet I was so uninspired by the town that I ended up whiling away a chunk of Day 2 at a mall, and a crappy mall at that--though purportedly the city's best. Naturally. At least I found some additions to my collection of entertaining signs. First, the Winter 2011 Collection!

Yes, of bathing suits. Such is life on the Equator.

Please remember, however, that swimsuits (trajes de banho) are not appropriate attire in the mall. Well, maybe if you're petite and sporting the famous Brazilian fio dental ("dental floss", a thong bikini) an exception can be made.

Also on the up side, I experimented with the local obsession Guaraná Jesus, the bubble-gum like cola that is a regional staple. Even sweeter than it looks.

Lastly, I had a nice dinner and some beers with a cool traveler I met, Phin. Coincidentally, he's from Tunbridge Wells in Kent, near where I lived in England in 2001--which provided some fun conversation in addition to swapping strange travel tales.

Fortunately, my three days in Lençóis were about to make the disappointment of São Luís totally worthwhile.


[*Travel Tips: Now that I've been to the region, I would recommend doing a tour that begins in Fortaleza and moves along the coast, making stops in Jericoacoara, Delta do Parnaíba, Barreirinhas (Lençóis), and Alcântara, but leaving just one day in São Luís (and Fortaleza too, from what I hear). I do not recommend the tour company I used. Rather I recommend Caetês Turismo--Elinete, my guide on Day 1, was fantastic, or EcoDunas Turismo--I never met Marinete, but according to the pousada staff, she was responsible for the success of Day 1 & 2, and the salvage of Day 3.]