Added 3 September 2006
Day 1: Tuesday, June 6, 2006
Our extra night of rest on Sao Paolo the night before starting the actual tour didn't bring as much rest as I'd hoped, but I'm sure it was much better for Shan to have had the extra down-time before yet another flight. Because of the confusion we had with the hotel shuttle from the airport the previous day, the Hotel Melia gave us a free shuttle back to the airport in the morning. (See pre-tour page if you want all the gory details.) The shuttle is normally free from the airport, but they charge a reasonable fee to take you to the airport.
One of my bigger concerns about the trip was the possibility that something might happen to Chuck and Dave's flight that might cause problems for us. Shan and I had an extra day in Sao Paolo, so if our flight had been late, it wouldn't have been a huge deal. Chuck and Dave were scheduled to arrive in Sao Paolo only a few hours before we were all to fly on to Belo Horizonte. So concern about Chuck and Dave filled my thoughts that morning.
When we got to the airport we found the TAM ticket counter easily and discovered that Brazilians use many bizarre containers for luggage, from large PVC tubes, to simple shrink-wrapped cardboard boxes. We made it to our gate with plenty of time to spare, and soon found Chuck and Dave, who had arrived from the U.S. earlier that morning. Our flight to Belo Horizonte went smoothly, and all we had to do was get our luggage and go find our guide, Fabricio Dorileo. Right behind Chuck and Dave arriving safely, the guide being there to meet us in Belo Horizonte was the final concern I had. When we left the baggage claim area and Fabricio was right there with a simple hand-made sign, my shoulders finally dropped and I knew that all I had to do from that point on was relax and enjoy the ride.
Fabricio introduced us to Marclei Rocha, our driver for the first handful of days of our trip. We would soon discover that while driving in Sao Paolo is not for the easily confused, driving in Belo Horizonte (and the rest of the state of Minas Gerais, is not for the easily scared. Shan and Chuck were a rather frightened by several of the close calls we experienced. For my part, I treated it like an amusement park ride and enjoyed the near misses. The driving was pretty crazy, but I've experienced worse. Cyclists in particular seemed to have a death wish, and were often seen riding blindly across streets and between cars. I even saw a small boy no more than 12 years old hang on to the bumper of a bus as it moved down an extremely busy and dangerous street in Belo Horizonte.
One thing I found interesting was that once in the countryside, if someone was broken down on the side of the road (or more often in the road, since there wasn't much "side" to the side of the road), they would pull up large clumps of grass and lay them in the road behind them to act as safety cones to warn traffic to merge left and go around them.
After several hours of driving, we turned onto a road that was considerably more quiet. It was the road to Santuário do Caraça (Caraça Monastery), our destination for the day. (For you GPS travelers, I was unable to get my GPS to fix a location at the monastery itself, but the following coordinates are from about half a dozen miles away. They'll get you in the neighborhood, at least: Zone 23 - 660756E - 7796605N.) I think everyone, even myself, was glad for the more peaceful conditions. Along the way we saw our first mammal of the trip, a crab-eating fox (Cerdocyon thous). No one was quick enough for a picture though. We saw the santuario first from an overlook on the other side of the valley. I knew immediately that I was going to fall in love with the place. It truly looked like a sanctuary, in every positive sense of the word.
When we reached the Santuário and hit the rock paved streets, it was like crossing a boundary into some other time. I had a feeling that I was going to enjoy the monastery as much as the wildlife. Fabricio checked us all in, then we went to our rooms. Our accommodations were Spartan, as you'd expect from a monastery, but we had a phenomenal view. The room had two single beds and a private bath. The only real problem was the lack of heat. The monastery is pretty high up in the mountains where the temperatures were much cooler than I think any of us expected. The rooms weren't heated, so Shan was pretty cold.
Since it's a good opportunity to get you acquainted with Santuário do Caraça, here are some pictures taken throughout our stay there. I'll sprinkle a few other pictures in later in the report as well.
We had some time before dinner, so after getting settled in to our rooms, we met in front of the church and wandered down to the grounds in front of the church for a little wildlife watching. The view from the monastery is pretty amazing, and as we started spotting birds, we quickly realized that Fabricio would be invaluable with respect to helping us identify everything we were seeing. Chuck told me later that he was concerned about Fabricio's birding knowledge due to his age (he's 20 years old), but his fears were quickly allayed.
We quickly racked up a dozen or so species before we went in to enjoy a dinner made over that wood-burning stove. I think everyone else would disagree, but I felt that overall, the meals we had at Caraça were the best of the entire trip, though I don't discount that perhaps I was infusing the food with my own feelings of general absolute contentment. At any rate, the meals were simple, but hearty.
All our meals were cooked over a wood-burning stove, and all of our hot water came from the same source, piped throughout the monastery. (I'm sure this is why it took a while for the shower to get hot.) As we would discover, everything is heated by the hearth fire. After dinner, we went back to our rooms to collect our gear before meeting at the front of the church. Here, the nightly ritual begins. About 20 years ago, a Father at the monastery started feeding the maned wolves (Chrysocyon brachyurus) on the front steps of the church. Every night, food is put out, and the wolves regularly come to enjoy the free meal. Seeing the maned wolves is one of the main natural attractions of the monastery, and one of the main reasons why we were there too.
The problem this night was that everyone was really tired from the international flights and the journey to Caraça, so as the evening marched on, one by one, people started dropping off to go to bed. None of the others even made it to nine o'clock! Slightly more determined than the rest, I held out until sometime between 9:30 and 10:00 before giving up. Which is exactly what I did. Give up. I had the energy to go on, but doubt had crept into my mind as to whether I actually had a good chance of seeing the wolves. Disappointed, I went to bed. The next morning, I would be disappointed in myself, for according to another guest at the monastery who went out after I went to bed, the wolves arrived about 30 minutes after I went to bed. I vowed not to be so easily discouraged the next night. For the catch with the wolves is that you never know when they will show up, or even IF they'll show up (though my understanding now is that they usually do, eventually).
Species list for the day:
Though I certainly saw more, I didn't really keep track of what we saw today, so only have the crab-eating fox (Cerdocyon thous) and the gecko.