Old cruise poster promoting a slow boat to South America

A slow boat to Brazil’s colonial coast, fabulous cities and glittering beaches brings back memories of the golden age of cruising.

After three relaxing days at sea, we had to admit that our South American sojourn aboard our cruise ship offered something that most cruises didn’t – unhurried pleasure.

Perhaps it was the leisurely pace that would give us 16 days to visit just four ports of call on our way from Fort Lauderdale, Florida to Buenos Aires, Argentina. Or maybe it was the luxury of sleeping in for as long as we wanted on most days instead of getting up at the crack of dawn to catch an early morning shore excursion.

Whatever it was, our slow boat to Buenos Aires seemed more apropos to the golden age of sea travel when a ship was the destination. And much more relaxing than those hectic, “visit a new port every day” type cruises that reduce an ocean liner to ferry status.

Bathsheba in Barbados

We relished the slow pace, and spent our first three days having breakfast on our private veranda, reading good books by the pool, and exploring our ship. And we were familiar with every nook and cranny by the time we reached our first landfall at Bridgetown, Barbados some 1,470 nautical miles southeast of Fort Lauderdale.

The gem of the West Indies, Barbados is nestled between the gentle Caribbean Sea and the rugged Atlantic Ocean near the coast of South America. But “Little England” has always been decidedly British, and “Bajans” are quick to point out that their island had its own Trafalgar Square and statue of Lord Nelson 36 years before England did.

After a brief stop at the island’s famous Mount Gay Rum factory, we headed to Harrison’s Cave where we boarded a tram for a guided tour. This amazing grotto is filled with stalactites and stalagmites, and features a subterranean waterfall. On the way back, we made a brief stop at a rugged stretch of coastline known as Bathsheba, where we watched huge Atlantic rollers break onto the beach and surrounding boulders.

The coast of Fortaleza

Early that evening, we departed Bridgetown under a brisk winter trade wind and hugged the coast of South America for the next three days as we sailed towards the equator. The outdoor temperature continued to soar as we edged past Guyana and Suriname, hitting a steamy 40 degrees Celsius as we reached the equator off the coast of Brazil’s Amazon River.

At noon, our ship marked the crossing with a special ceremony to induct “pollywogs” (passengers sailing the equator for the first time) into the secret society of the “shellbacks.” The party was hosted by King Neptune and his heavily made-up mermaid Ronnie (our librarian), who was carried into the Palm Court lounge on a throne of balloons, his green tail swishing behind him.

Salvador da Bahia in Brazil

The next morning we docked at the resort city of Fortaleza, some 300 km south of the equator on Brazil’s Costa do Sol.  This city of two million people was founded in 1611 near the mouth of the Ceará River, but has lost most of its historical buildings, including the original fortress that gave Fortaleza its name. Today, the city is a mish-mash of high-rise apartments juxtaposed with crumbling, graffiti-covered tenements.

The best thing to do in Fortaleza, besides visiting the stunning beaches to the northwest, is to stroll along Avenida President Kennedy. This stretch of broad sidewalk overlooks the Praia do Meirelles and is filled with street vendors hawking cotton hammocks and leather goods, local craft shops selling lace and hand-made jewelry, and restaurants serving shrimp, lobster and peixada, the local seafood specialty.

Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro

Our ship spent the next day cruising Brazil’s beautiful coastline before arriving at the old colonial town of Salvador da Bahia some 812 nautical miles southwest of Fortaleza. Colonized by the Portugese in 1530, the country’s former capital faces the world’s largest harbour and is perched on a cliff that divides the city into lower and upper sections (Cidade Baixa and Alta).

We began our tour in the Cidade Baxia at the Mercado Modelo (model market) where we watched a group of boys practice Capoeira – a foot-fighting form of martial arts brought over by African slaves from Angola and disguised as dance. Then, we took the art deco-styled Elevador Lacerda up 65 meters to the Cidade Alta above us to visit the city’s ornate churches and stroll through the picturesque quarter of Largo do Pelourinho.

Our cruise ship in Guanabara Bay

Named after the pillories that once occupied its main square, Pelourinho is a charming area filled with wonderfully preserved colonial buildings and meandering cobblestone streets. It’s also home to several candomblé churches, which combine religious traditions from the countries of Western Africa with some aspects of Roman Catholicism.

Two days later, our ship rounded a jagged headland to reveal Rio de Janeiro’s gleaming beaches, majestic peaks, and magnificent bay. “Guanabara Bay exceeds in its magnificence everything the European has seen in his native land,” wrote Charles Darwin upon his visit to Rio in 1823. Indeed, as we sailed into the mammoth bay, it was easy to see how the first Portuguese explorers to Rio in January of 1502 mistook it for a river mouth and named the city Rio de Janeiro (river of January).

Beach in Rio

Today, this pulsating city of more than 6 million people (called cariocas) is wedged between eight gorgeous beaches (including Copacabana and Ipanema) and the hills that surround them. The peaks of Sugarloaf and Corcovado mountains rise over the city like great beacons, with the latter’s famous statue of Christ the Redeemer embracing Rio with giant out-stretched arms.

There are a number of ways to reach Corcovado’s 710-meter summit, but the most interesting is by the cogwheel train from Cosme Velho station. The train ascends the 3.7-km route up the mountain through tropical vegetation to a station 142 steps from the towering base of the 1,145-ton concrete and soapstone statute, which stands 30 meters tall.

After visiting Corcovado (Portuguese for hunchback), we spent the rest of the day sunning at Copacabana and Ipanema beaches, and drinking caipirinha (Brazil’s daquiri-like national drink) at a nearby bar called “A Garota de Ipanema.”  Portuguese for “The Girl from Ipanema,” the Garota is where songwriter Tom Jobim sat and penned his pop classic while watching a pretty carioca girl walk to the beach.

Samba show in Rio

Since our ship was overnighting in Rio, we decided to dine out at a local churrascaria (all you can eat barbecue) called Porcão Ipanema (US$25) before catching a late samba show. The show at the Plataforma Uno was spectacular, with beautifully sculptured bodies exploding onto the stage to the sounds of Brazil’s most exotic music.   The revue ended with the dancers parading through the theatre in a sea of brightly coloured costumes in a tribute to Rio’s Carnival.

With one more relaxing day at sea before we reached Buenos Aries, our South American sojourn was about to end the say way it had begun – with unhurried pleasure.

Featured image – Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro at night

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