Early adopters, listen up! You've got about five years to get to Brazil before the crowds descend on the 2016 Summer Olympics. The Rio Olympics is the first ever in South America.
In other words, the getting's ripe to bone up on a country that's soon to be on the tip of everyone's tongue. And while Rio, its beaches, babes and brazen Carnival have always been a tourism magnet, Brazil is a huge country with four time zones, a big chunk of Amazon jungle and a new state that's not even 25-years-old.
The Tocantins (Portuguese for toucan's beak) became a state in 1988 and unlike most of Brazil's states that capital in colonial cities, this new kid on the block has a capital that two decades ago was nothing but pristine Savannah. Not only does Palmas, the gleaming new capital, have a giant hydroelectric dam that provides electricity to a large swath of this large country, but it also happens to be a popular rendezvous spot for Brazilian ecotourists. I recently had the privilege of taking a week-long safari in Jalapao, an amazing region just 150 miles from Palmas.
If the name Jalapao sounds vaguely familiar, it's because Season 18 of Survivor was filmed in entirety at the very safari camp where I bunked beneath cashew and mangaba trees. With a comfy tent complete with mattressed-cot, I had to question the "reality" of the term "Survivor." Hot showers, shaded campsite powered by solar generators and titillating meals could vie with any Hilton.
Korubo Safaris (named after an indigenous tribe undiscovered until 10 years ago) runs the safari camp on Novo Rio, a still drinkable river where guests kayak, swim and paddle around in inner tubes after exciting days tracking jaguars, panthers, monkeys and birds you only see on a cereal box. Yet to be discovered by Americans, Korubo mainly draws affluent travelers from Rio and Sao Paulo, all of whom know rudimentary English but had no real reason to use it except to occasionally humor the clueless American. Let's just say if it had been "Survivor," I'd have been the first voted off "the island."
That's not to say the Brazilians weren't welcoming. They bent over backwards to include me in daily activities from hikes through the flat-topped Chapada Mountains to game treks in our open-air, double-decker jeeps. Using halting English, they even asked me polite questions, chief among them being "What is a single girl doing this far from home?"
The only real problem is the jokes went right over my non-Portuguese-speaking head and most of the time I felt like a geeky second grader not allowed to participate in the non-stop joie de vivre so common with carefree Brazilians. At dinner, fabulous feasts from local produce, I mostly smiled and continuously bugged the one German to translate the name of the many fresh juices offered with each meal.
On the daily safaris, the Brazilians (and the one weird American) snapped photos of wildlife, got sprayed by towering waterfalls, swam in springs surrounded by banana trees and bought handicrafts woven from capim dourado, a rare golden grass that grows only in the Tocantins.
But for me, the best experience was the last night of the seven-day safari. After singing Beatles songs at the top of our lungs (some things transcend borders) as we bumped along the rutted trail, we hiked to the top of the Jalapao Dunes, famous for eerily changing color each night as the sun bids adieu.
Finally getting up the courage, my fellow safari-ites asked if they could borrow my by-now familiar khaki hat. It seems every single one of them, some of whom I'd only nodded and smiled at for the first six days, wanted to have their picture snapped with this popular photo prop. Who knew my ratty hat (they called it a chapeu) would wedge open the door that all my inept "bom dias" and "obrigadas" failed to budge?
I smile as I think back to that amazing week in the Brazilian outback, happy to know that in computers all over Sao Paulo and Rio are downloaded photos of my safari chapeu on the heads of my glorious traveling companions, still probably wondering "Who was that weird American?"
For more information on a truly one-of-a-kind safari, click here.