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A (Brazilian) Winter’s Tale

Last night I donned a hoodie and a leather jacket over a long-sleeved shirt and got into a friend’s car in which the heater was blasting. Just a typical Brazilian winter’s night….

[pullquote align=”right”] Most people – myself included – find it hard to reconcile the seemingly antithetical notions of “Brazil” and “winter.” [/pullquote]

Most people – myself included – find it hard to reconcile the seemingly antithetical notions of “Brazil” and “winter.” In the collective imagination, Brazil is synonymous with beaches, bikinis, and sun tans (or burns). As a resident of Salvador, Bahia, for the last 13 years, such imaginings have always dovetailed neatly with my reality.

Having grown up in Canada where temperatures of 0⁰ C (33⁰ degrees) were considered mild, “winter” in Salvador – and in much of the rest of tropical Brazil – has always struck me as a somewhat surreal, and hilarious, concept. In Salvador, people shy away from the beach when the temperature plunges to 25⁰ C (77⁰ F). They complain about the cold when night temperatures dip below 20⁰ C (68⁰ F). And they actually shiver when they recall historically cold winters of years ago when the thermometer hit 18⁰ C (65⁰ F).

As such, it came as no surprise when my Bahian friends implored me to pack roupa de frio (literally “clothes of cold”) upon learning that I was traveling to Diamantina, a town perched in the Serra do Espinhaço mountains, at an altitude of 1,250 meters (4,100 feet) above sea level. I laughed off their concern, reminding them that I grew up in the company of “real” winters, the kinds in which if you didn’t completely dry your hair before venturing out into the polar blasts, individual wet strands would freeze into icicles.

However, when I arrived last week in Diamantina, two days before the official start of the Southern Hemisphere’s winter, the laugh was on me. It turns out that years of suffering through Salvador’s balmy winters have pretty much destroyed my once glacial resistance and Arctic hardiness.

Like much of the Interior of the South-East and South of Brazil, Minas Gerais, experiences bonafide winter with temperatures that can rise above 20⁰ C (68⁰ F) during the day and then plunge below 10 C (50 F) at night.

Such extremes are famously pronounced in the city of São Paulo where it’s said that you can experience symptoms of all four seasons within a single winter’s day. I remember being in Sampa in the winter of 1999 and experiencing nights so cold that I could see my breath. I was staying in the apartment of a friend from Bahia and we spent our time indoors bundled up in bed with a laughably small and ineffective portable heater aimed directly at us (yes, although winter does truly exist in Brazil, central heating does not).

Of course, I’ve never been to the South during the winter, but I’ve seen the national news reports in which (ephemerally thin blankets of) snow covers the high plateau towns of the states of Santa Catarina and Rio Grande do Sul. I’ve also visited tony, faux-Swiss mountain retreats such as Campos de Jordão (São Paulo) and Gramado (Rio Grande do Sul), where well-heeled Brazilians parade around in showy boots, scarves and fur coats, taking time out to gorge on hot chocolate and cheese fondues (although true to my tropical nature, I visited in the off-season, i.e. the height of summer).

Meanwhile, back in Diamantina, I’ve stocked up on tea and have been downloading recipes for winter soups from My home office has taken up temporary residence in bed, beneath the hothouse climate of an eiderdown quilt. Although I can’t work up much enthusiasm for icy beer, I’m thankful for the heat-inducing comfort of fiery local cachaças. I also have to congratulate myself on the foresight I had in bringing (let alone hanging onto) a couple pairs of thermal lumberjack socks purchased 20 years ago at Canadian Tire – who would have thought they’d prove so essential in July of all times, and in Brazil of all places?

Road Trip Travel: Fired Up for the 4th of July

A decorated truck promoting a dance troupe rolls down the parade line.
Fourth of July parade in Cincinnati’s Northside neighborhood.
Creative Commons Attribution licensed photo by Jere Keys,

Despite the ongoing economic doldrums, for 2012, Americans are feeling more upbeat than ever when it comes to planning 4th of July road trips. With gas prices down by 10 to 20 percent from the $4+ per gallon highs they hit in April, more Americans are planning to hit the road, and we’re traveling farther for our fireworks and fun. According to a recent study by the American Automobile Association (AAA), more than 42 million Americans will hit the road to celebrate Independence Day. This number is the biggest ever, and considerably more than any year since the previous peak year, back in 2007.

[pullquote align=”right”]Almost every city and town all over America has some kind of 4th of July celebration, with parades, fairground attractions and plentiful BBQ, but fun as these are, there is no better all-American place to spend the nation’s birthday than in the heartland: Hannibal, Missouri.[/pullquote]Besides the recent drop in fuel prices, another factor has boosted the numbers this year: the fact that the 4th of July falls on a Wednesday means travelers can add the weekend before or after the 4th of July, extending the range of their road trip options without having to take more time off work. The additional time means the average traveler expects to drive nearly 750 miles, 150 miles more than last year.

The biggest proportion of people making a 4th of July getaway are planning to start their trip on the afternoon of the Friday before the 4th, June 29th. More than half of all travelers are expected to depart over the course of that weekend, but the second biggest cohort will be staying at home until July 3rd, the day before the 4th. No matter when you go, roads around major 4th of July destinations like Philadelphia (where the 4th of July was first celebrated , way back in 1776!), Boston, and Washington DC, location of the National Independence Day Parade, are likely to be extremely congested, so allow plenty of time to get to where you want to be.

Almost every city and town all over America has some kind of 4th of July celebration, with parades, fairground attractions and plentiful BBQ, but fun as these are, there is no better all-American place to spend the nation’s birthday than in the heartland: Hannibal, Missouri. Here in the hometown of writer Mark Twain, two hours north of St Louis, the traditional 4th of July activities and events take place as part of Tom Sawyer Days, a week long festival of fun and games inspired by Twain’s fictional creations. Unique events include raft races on the river, a frog jump, and a fence-painting competition, remembering the scene where Tom Sawyer persuades his friends to do his chores for him and even to pay for the privilege.

Wherever you go, have a happy Independence Day.

The Lineup: Weekly Links

Contrasted ConfinementMacavity Award nominations for 2012 are out, with Anthony Horowitz’s THE HOUSE OF SILK and Duane Swierczynski’s HELL AND GONE up for Best Novel. The Hardie series up for THREE awards at this year’s Bouchercon!

Recent online reviews of Mulholland titles include All Things Horror’s review of Joe R. Lansdale’s EDGE OF DARK WATER, Bookbitch’s review of Nick Santora’s SLIP & FALL, and A Bookworm’s World’s review of Mark Billingham’s THE DEMANDS.

HUNT THE WOLF received a nice trade review from Publishers Weekly that champions the book’s “steady stream of action.” Out now in bookstores everywhere!

Ever had trouble figuring out how Pulp Fiction plays out chronologically? Now you know.

In celebration of the release of The Kings of Cool and the upcoming film release of Savages, the New York Times ran a great profile of Don Winslow highlighting his illustrious writing career and the colorful odd jobs that have been the inspiration for his work.

Triggers Down continues.

The first reviews for The Amazing Spider-Man are out.We personally wish it featured Miles Morales instead of Peter Parker–but there’s always the next reboot!

Pretty amazing how committed the below shows acclaimed genre master Neal Stephenson is to doing for swords what the first-person shooter genre did for firearms. No, seriously. We think.

So did y’all catch the debut trailer for TAKEN 2? What did you think?

Did we missing something sweet? Share it in the comments! We’re always open to suggestions for next week’s post! Get in touch at or DM us on Twitter.

LAN v. Aerolíneas: A Tale of Two Airlines

Staff stand at the Aerolíneas check-in counter.
Aerolíneas at El Calafate airport.
Photo © Wayne Bernhardson.

The Southern Cone’s two major airlines, Aerolíneas Argentinas and Chile’s LAN Airlines, both originated as state-run carriers at a time when virtually every South American country ran its own flagship. In the early days of South American air travel, it was the state that had the resources to purchase planes and operate flights to a network of destinations around each country and overseas.

The history’s a little more complicated than that, but for many decades both airlines operated at greater or lesser, mostly lesser, levels of efficiency, and they often bled money. Once, when I flew on Aerolíneas from Buenos Aires to Miami in early 1981, I don’t think there were more 20 passengers on the entire plane and, though I wasn’t in first class, I was able to stretch out on three seats for a good night’s sleep. Admittedly, this is anecdotal evidence from a single experience, but you can imagine the scale of losses absorbed on one of the most popular international routes.

LAN underwent privatization in late 1989, while Aerolíneas did so a year later, but since then their histories could not be more different. Under its Chilean ownership – which once included current Chilean president Sebastián Piñera – LAN has modernized its fleet, professionalized its services, and expanded its routes (with subsidiaries in Ecuador, Peru, Colombia and Argentina). Most recently, it has merged with Brazil’s TAM to form the LATAM Airlines Group, the tenth-largest system in the world. While retaining their brand names, LAN and TAM together will cover some 150 destinations in 22 countries. They are also partners of the OneWorld Alliance, with extensive codeshares and frequent flyer programs around the globe.

Aerolíneas has moved in the opposite direction. Its privatization failed for a variety of reasons – some of them political rather than economic – and it became was notorious for delays and cancellations under a series of Argentine and foreign owners; at one point, its only foreign destination was Madrid. The company even suffered a bankruptcy in 2003 and, in 2008, the government of the late President Néstor Kirchner expropriated and renationalized it.

It would be rewarding to be able say that state management has improved on a botched privatization but, apparently, things have gotten worse. Now (mis)managed by political appointees allied with the Peronist youth wing La Cámpora, Aerolíneas remains by most standards an economic and financial catastrophe. In a recent TV program, investigative journalist Jorge Lanata detailed further deterioration under the new regime, which has expanded its personnel even as it has reduced its schedules and continues to hemorrhage losses.

I can’t repeat all Lanata’s findings here, but a couple examples really stand out. The company is presently paying US$565,000 monthly rent for a Jumbo jet, parked at the international airport at Ezeiza, that it cannot return until the lease expires in February of 2014. Its only recent use has been a high-profile trade mission that current president Cristina Fernández led to Angola – a country whose ability to acquire Argentine exports is limited – last month.

Perhaps the most damning stat, though, is that the company fills every one of the 280 seats on its daily Buenos Aires to Madrid route, but that it would have to sell another 40 just to break even. On top of that, only recently has it managed to negotiate codeshare agreements with AirFrance-KLM in Europe and Delta in the United States; for many years, the company had no frequent flyer program, and only recently has it joined the AirFrance-KLM Flying Blue program.

Exploring Ixtapa & Zihuatanejo with Bruce Whipperman

1. Tell us a little about Mexico’s South Seas resort duo: Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo. What makes this region renowned worldwide?

Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo, separated by an easy five-mile drive or bus ride, offer the best of both worlds: fashionable Ixtapa, set on a creamy golden strand, blooms with high-rise luxury, while Zihuatanejo, nestling on a gorgeous half-moon bay, still resembles the rustic fishing village that seekers of paradise on earth discovered a generation ago.

2. What is the climate like in this part of Mexico?

Tropical, with warm summer (75-88 °F highs) with showers; cooler, but balmy and dryer autumn (70-85 °F); delightfully balmy, temperate dry (65-80 °F) winter, warming to a sometimes hot, dry (March-April-May, 80-95 °F) spring.

3. When is the best time of year to visit?

If you prefer lower hotel prices and balmy (not hot) temperatures, choose the less crowded season from October–December 20th and January 6-20th. On the other hand, if you want lots of company and plenty of merrymaking, choose the pre-Christmas to New Year holiday and Semana Santa, the week before and including Easter Sunday (in the latter case, make your hotel reservations six months in advance).

4. What are a few of the various cost-effective accommodation options? Are there all-inclusive resorts available? Do you have recommendations for budget vacation rentals or can’t-miss campsites?

For an extensive choice of budget ($30-40 double low season, September-December 15th and Janurary 6-20th) accommodations, stay in Zihuatanejo. Reserve in advance, by e-mail, especially for weekends. Ixtapa has a number of all-inclusive resorts (such as Hotel Krystal Ixtapa) that offer “packages” (paquetes) ($100 per person, kids half price), especially during low season. Campers use the beachfront (RV or tent) Ixtapa Trailer Park campground, at Playa Linda, north of Ixtapa. A pair of rustic beachfront campgrounds, with parking for RVs and tent spaces, are also available at the south end of Playa La Ropa on Zihuatanejo Bay.

5. What are your best recommendations for free sightseeing or entertainment?

Don’t miss the crocodiles, turtles, and the flock of cream-colored herons, egrets, and pink roseate spoonbills at Playa Linda. While you’re there, enjoy the boat ride for some sun and sand at the intimate beaches of Isla Grande, all a fifteen-minute car or bus ride north of Ixtapa. You can also rent a bike (or ride a your own) via the ciclopista (bike trail) from Ixtapa to the sights and beach at Playa Linda. In Zihuatanejo, be sure to catch a shuttle boat across the bay, to car-free South Playa Las Gatas, for beachfront snorkeling, maybe a scuba lesson, surfing, or a restful afternoon snoozing beneath the palms.

6. Where can someone purchase authentic handcrafted items?

Zihuatanejo’s the place. Follow the self-guided handicrafts tour to Artesanias Tonala, Arte Nopal, Alberto’s silver shop, Galeria Cihuacoatl, Huipiles Mary Kay, El Arte y Tradicion, Ceramicas Tonala, and many more.

7. What are your tips for eating well while on a budget?

Food stalls, open from about 2 p.m., on the east side of downtown, serve the best super budget ($2-3) meals. For scrumptious Mexican style country cuisine go to downtown Zihuatanejo’s best, Tamales y Atoles Any, or budget Cocina Economica Dona Licha.

8. How much time do you need to get a good sense for Mexico’s South Seas?

Whatever time you have, don’t try to do too much so that you return home in need of a vacation. Three or four days, minimum; a week or ten days to let the balmy breeze and the swish of the swaying palms release you from everyday cares.

9. What destinations would you recommend for first-time travelers?

Zihuatanejo for sleeping, food and nightlife, Ixtapa for nightlife and upscale shopping, Playa Linda and Isla Grande for day trips, and maybe Troncones and Barra de Potosi for one-or-two night excursions.

Hunt the Wolf Q&A with Don Mann and Ralph Pezzullo

Today, HUNT THE WOLF by Don Mann with Ralph Pezzullo officially hits the stands! AJ Garcia of says, “There is never a boring moment. You will literally burn your way through this book in a matter of hours. It’s that good. A+” To commemorate HUNT THE WOLF‘s release, here’s a Q&A with authors Don Mann and Ralph Pezzullo:

Don and Ralph, what has been the difference for you between writing nonfiction and fiction?

Don: We had a tight deadline for Inside SEAL Team Six and had to write it quickly. So Ralph and I came up with a rough outline, then I started sending him tapes describing my experiences and other material. And he worked to blend all of it into a coherent and well-written narrative.

Ralph: In the end Don sent me over 200 tapes. Some were snippets, others were over an hour long. I spent a lot of time transcribing and organizing everything, before I started writing. Then I started drafting chapters and sending them to Don. I’d incorporate Don’s comment and notes, then send the chapters to our editor John Parsley. Working that way we finished the manuscript in two and a half months.

Don: Then came the government review process…..

Ralph: Which was long, frustrating and brutal. But we made it through.

Don: Thanks to our very patient editor.

Ralph: Yes!

How was the process of writing HUNT THE WOLF different?

Don: For one thing, we had more time. Actually HUNT THE WOLF was written before Inside SEAL Team Six.

Ralph: Don contacted me about writing a series of thrillers. I said: Sure! He’s been involved in so many missions and adventures over his career that we have tons of material to work with. I came up with an outline and we worked from that.

How closely is the story in HUNT THE WOLF based on real events?

Don: Very close. I would say that everything described in the book has happened. Maybe not in the same order or under the same circumstances, but I’ve been involved in missions and situations very similar. Continue reading “Hunt the Wolf Q&A with Don Mann and Ralph Pezzullo”

The Story Behind Hunt the Wolf

We kick off our celebration the release of HUNT THE WOLF by Don Mann with Ralph Pezzullo, a Seal Team Six novel now in bookstores across the country, with an article by Pezzullo on the fascinating origin story of the novel. Check back again later as our week-long coverage continues!

In early 2010, I received a call from a fellow mystery-thriller writer named Tom Sawyer. (No joke, it’s his real name.) He said that he wanted to recommend me to a former Navy SEAL who was interested in collaborating with a writer on a series of high-octane thrillers. The guy, he said, claimed to have lots of stories. I said, “Sure, give him my number and ask him to contact me.”

Ten minutes later I got a call from Don Mann. He told me his remarkable story – how he’d transformed himself from a wild hell-raising teenager into a hard-ass Navy SEAL, spent eight years with SEAL Team Six, was deployed on countless covert ops all over the globe, served as a platoon member, assault team member, boat crew leader and advanced training officer. My jawed dropped as I listened. The crazy part was that as he described his tales of combat and other mayhem – firefights, raid, knife fights, decapitations – he did so in a calm, dare-I-say, gentle voice.

The one caveat is that since most of the ops he’d been on as a SEAL were top secret, the only way we could write about them without raising the ire of government censors was as fiction.

I was fascinated. Beyond fascinated. More like totally pumped. It seemed to me that he had enough material for a whole series of exciting SEAL thrillers. Not chest-beating, unbelievable stuff, but interesting stories with fleshed out characters from the perspective of someone who has actually lived them.

I asked Don to send me more about himself – brief descriptions of missions he’d been on, stories from his life, some of the more memorable SEALs he’d served with, his favorite color (only kidding!).

Over the next week and a half my e-mail server was bombarded with material. It’s as though the guy literally turned himself inside out. He told me about his family, his wives, the songs he listened to when he worked out, the mountains he’d climbed, the ultra-marathons he’d competed in, etc. It was a literal (or literary) goldmine of stories, characters and impressions.

Now it was up to me to mold it into something. Inspired by what he’d told me, I wrote a brief treatment about a team of SEALs who enter Pakistan under the cover of mountain climbers on a mission to takeout an al-Qaeda leader. Don said he’d been deployed on several similar missions to Pakistan. We were off to the races!

To say that working with Don is a pleasure is an understatement. He’s amazing! In fact, the nicest, most considerate, appreciative and thoughtful guy you’d ever want to meet. Also, he’s a genuine hero. I’m proud to call him my friend.

Ralph Pezzullo is a New York Times bestselling author and award-winning playwright, screenwriter and journalist. He is also the author of Jawbreaker (with CIA operative Gary Berntsen).

Don Mann (CWO3, USN) is the author of Inside SEAL Team Six and has for the last thirty years been associated with the Navy SEALS as a platoon member, assault team member, boat crew leader, or advanced training officer; and more recently program director preparing civilians to go to BUD/s (SEAL Training). Up until 1998 he was on active duty with SEAL Team 6. Since his retirement, he has deployed to the Middle East on numerous occasions in support of the war on terror. Many of the active duty members of SEAL Team 6 are the same guys he taught how to shoot and conduct ship and aircraft takedowns, and trained in urban, arctic, desert, river, and jungle warfare, as well as Close Quarters Battle and Military Operations in Urban Terrain. He has suffered two broken backs, two pulmonary embolisms, and multiple other broken bones, in training or service. He has twice survived being captured during operations.

HUNT THE WOLF is now available in bookstores everywhere.

Sights in Guayaquil, Ecuador’s Largest City

The statue is set in a semi circle of columns topped with flags.
La Rotonda depicts a famous meeting of South America’s two most prominent liberators, José de San Martín and Simón Bolívar. Photo © Athena Lao, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

Guayaquil’s waterfront is the pride of the city and symbol of its redevelopment. In the late 1990s, Mayor León Febres Cordero launched Malecón 2000 (7 a.m. to midnight daily), a hugely ambitious project to completely overhaul the run-down area along the river Guayas. Current mayor Jaime Nebot has continued the work, and the result is an astonishing achievement that has won a United Nations award.

[pullquote align=”right”]The cool breezes off the river and the watchful eye of security guards make Malecón 2000 the most relaxing place to spend time in Guayaquil.[/pullquote]This three-kilometer promenade is by far the biggest attraction in the city, with historic monuments, modern sculptures, museums, botanical gardens, fountains, bridges, children’s play areas, shopping outlets, and restaurants. The cool breezes off the river and the watchful eye of security guards make Malecón 2000 the most relaxing place to spend time in Guayaquil.

The best starting point is La Plaza Cívica at the end of 9 de Octubre. A highlight is La Rotonda, a statue depicting a famous meeting of South America’s two most prominent liberators, José de San Martín and Simón Bolívar. This semicircular statue is Malecón’s most important historical monument and is particularly striking when lit up at night. For light entertainment, stand with a partner at opposite sides of the semicircle and whisper into the pillars to hear your voices carry.

Walk south of La Rotonda past towers dedicated to the four elements. You’ll reach the Guayaquil Yacht Club (free), where there is an attractive three-masted sailboat docked several months of the year. Farther south is the 23-meter Moorish Clock Tower. This is the latest incarnation, built in 1931, of a clock tower that dates back to the 18th century. Just down from the clock tower is the Henry Morgan (afternoon–evening Sun.–Thurs., late-night trips Fri.–Sat., $5), a replica of the famous Welsh pirate’s 17th-century ship. A one-hour trip is a great way to see Guayaquil from the river. South of this is a rather bland shopping mall, selling mainly modern items rather than artisanal wares, but you may enjoy the opportunity to escape the heat. On the other side is an outdoor food court with cheap restaurants serving fast food and seafood specialties. Farther south is the quietest part of Malecón 2000, at Plaza Olmedo, with its contemplative monument of José Joaquín de Olmedo (1780–1847), the first mayor of Guayaquil. Beyond that is La Plaza de la Integraciín and a small artisans market. You can cross the road and enter the Bahía black market, but be careful as it can be a dangerous area.

North of La Rotonda is a large children’s playground and exercise area leading to a beautiful set of botanical gardens with more than 300 species of trees and other plants. This is one of the highlights of Malecón 2000, and it’s worth getting lost in the greenery and forgetting you’re in the middle of the city. Above the gardens are 32 transparent panels with the names of more than 48,000 citizens who contributed to the Malecón 2000 project.

Botanical gardens at Malecón 2000. Photo © Robert Lerich/123rf.
Botanical gardens at Malecón 2000. Photo © Robert Lerich/123rf.

North of the botanical gardens is the Museo Guayaquil en La Historia (tel. 4/256-3078, 10 a.m.–6:30 p.m. daily, $2.50), which tells a fascinating history of the city from prehistoric times to the present in 14 dioramas. It’s one of the few museums in Guayaquil where everything is in English, so it’s worth a visit. Above the museum is one of South America’s only IMAX cinemas, with a 180-degree screen. It’s an interesting but rather disorienting experience.

The north end of Malecón 2000 culminates in the Banco Central’s impressive Museo Antropológico y de Arte Contemporáneo (MAAC, Malecón and Loja, tel. 4/230-9383, 10 a.m.–6 p.m. Tues.–Sat., 10 a.m.–4 p.m. Sun., $1.50, free Sun.), which has an exhibition on ancient history, a huge collection of pre-Columbian ceramics, and a modern art exhibition.

Further information about Malecón 2000 can be obtained from the Fundación Malecón office (Sargento Vargas 116 at Olmedo, tel. 4/252-4530 or 4/252-4211).

Las Peñas and Cerro Santa Ana

The north end of Malecón 2000 connects conveniently with the colorful artistic district of Las Peñas. This is the oldest neighborhood in Guayaquil and has the largest concentration of colonial architecture. Like the waterfront, this area used to be run-down and dangerous but has been completely regenerated in recent years, with freshly painted colonial balconies and security guards. The main draw is the climb up 444 steps past cafés and art galleries. You may work up a sweat, so come early in the morning, or even better, in the early evening, and then stay for a drink in the many alluring bars. At the top is an open-air museum, Museo El Fortín del Santa Ana (free), which has original cannons and replicas of Spanish galleons. There is also a small chapel and lighthouse, which can be climbed for fabulous views over the city, Guayas estuary, and Santay Island to the east.

As well as climbing the hill, you can also walk around to the right of the steps along the cobbled street called Numa Pompilio Llona, named after the Guayaco who wrote Ecuador’s rousing national anthem. There are several art galleries and the city’s most interesting bar, La Paleta.

Puerto Santa Ana

At the northern end of Numa Pompilio Llona, the old district blends into the ultramodern Puerto Santa Ana, the city’s latest grand project. Here, shops, cafés, and luxury apartments line the riverside, and a large marina is currently under construction. There are three museums at the entrance to the riverside walkway. The museum on the ground floor, currently under construction, is dedicated to fútbol (soccer) and specifically to Guayaquil’s two major teams, Barcelona and Emelec. Upstairs, the second floor is divided into two museums.

On the left is Museo de la Música Popular Guayaquileña Julio Jaramillo (tel. 9/553- 1966, 10 a.m.–1 p.m. and 2–5 p.m. Wed.–Sat., free), dedicated to Guayaquil’s most famous musician. The museum tells the story of the development of the city’s music scene in the early 20th century with original gramophones and instruments, and there is a biography of Jaramillo and his broken-hearted songs of love and loss. Julio Jaramillo died of liver cirrhosis at 42, so it’s fitting that next door is a museum dedicated to the history of brewing, Museo Pilsener (tel. 9/553-196610, a.m.–1 p.m. and 2–5 p.m. Wed.–Sat., free). The country’s first and enduringly popular pilsner was actually launched by a Czech immigrant, Francisco Bolek, in 1913.

Parque de las Iguanas (Parque Bolívar)

Guayaquil’s city center has a dearth of colonial architecture, but the area around the cathedral is the most attractive part. The original cathedral was destroyed by fire and rebuilt in 1936. This huge white neo-Gothic structure towers over the west side of Parque Bolívar, better known as Parque de las Iguanas. The centerpiece of the park is an imposing monument of South American liberator Simón Bolívar on horseback, but even Bolívar can’t compete with the sight of dozens of urban iguanas descending from the tall trees to laze around on the grass. Visitors and locals alike flock here to watch these tame lizards, but don’t let their lethargy fool you, as they can run very fast if startled. There’s also a fish pond filled with turtles and a red squirrel, which seems to interest many locals more than the iguanas.

An iguana perching on the back of a park bench.
At the Parque de las Iguanas. Photo © Windell Oskay, licensed Creative Commons Attribution. Read about Windell’s visit to the park and see more photos at Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories.

Museo Municipal

One block southwest of the Parque de las Iguanas is the Museo Municipal (tel. 4/259-9500, Sucre and Chile, 9 a.m.–5 p.m. Tues.–Sat., free). This is one of the oldest museums in Ecuador and probably the best in the city. The Pre-Hispanic room has fossils, including the tooth of a mastodon dating back 10,000 years, plus sculptures from Ecuador’s oldest civilization, the Valdivia, and a huge Manteña funeral urn. In the colonial section, there is a model of colonial Guayaquil and original cannons and muskets. Don’t miss the room of portraits of Ecuadorian presidents upstairs, nicknamed “the room of thieves” by many locals. There are five shrunken heads on display in a closed room upstairs, which can only be viewed on guided tours. Free English tours are recommended because all the exhibitions are in Spanish.

Plaza de la Administración and Vicinity

A few blocks east of Parque de las Iguanas toward the malecón is a pleasant pedestrianized zone around Plaza de la Administración, dominated by the grand buildings of the local government and a monument to Mariscal Sucre. Most impressive is the Renaissance-style Palacio Municipal, whose Corinthian columns support an arched interior passage covered by a glass ceiling. To the north is Museo Nahim Isaias (Pichincha and Clemente Ballén, tel. 4/232-4182, 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Mon.–Fri., 10 a.m.–2:30 p.m. Sat., $1.50), which houses a well-presented collection of colonial paintings, sculptures, and artifacts.

9 de Octubre and Plaza Centenario

Avenida 9 de Octubre carves its way through central Guayaquil from the Malecón del Salado past Parque Centenario to Malecón 2000. It’s an impressive walk, although the traffic and heat can have an impact on the experience. The highlight along 9 de Octubre is Plaza San Francisco, three blocks from the malecón and dominated by the Iglesia San Francisco. Here you can relax by the large fountain and statue of Pedro Carbo.

Central Guayaquil’s largest square lies in the middle of 9 de Octubre between the two malecóns. The focal point is the Monument to the Heroes of Independence, with four statues representing heroism, justice, patriotism, and history. On the west side is the Casa de la Cultura (tel. 4/230-0500), with an impressive collection of art and archaeology. Farther west toward Malecón del Salado is Museo Presley Norton (9 de Octubre and Carchi, tel. 4/229-3423, 10 a.m.–6 p.m. Mon.–Sat., free). This new museum houses a small exhibition on “Life and customs of the settlers of ancient Ecuador” and is named after a pioneering Ecuadorian archaeologist who died in 1993.

Malecón del Salado and Vicinity

A junior version of Malecón 2000 at the opposite end of 9 de Octubre, Malecón del Salado is named after the tributary of the river Guayas that it straddles. Citizens bathed here in the late 19th century, but it’s too dirty nowadays. The pleasant walkway that undulates up and down bridges makes for a pleasant stroll, however, and if you work up an appetite, there is a cluster of good seafood restaurants at the end. It’s a 20-minute walk straight up 9 de Octubre from Malecón 2000, or take a taxi ($2).

General Cemetery

Guayaquil’s General Cemetery (Julian Coronel and Machala), at the north end of the city center, is one of the most impressive in South America. The contrast is stark between the lavish, decorated mausoleums on the east side and the wooden crosses on the west side where poorer residents have buried their dead illegally. One of the grandest tombs is that of former president Victor Emilio Estrada, who made a pact with the devil, according to legend, and whose spirit haunts the cemetery. Supernatural dangers aside, the cemetery is not very safe. Robberies have been reported, so never come alone or at night, and don’t wander far from the central area.

Parque Histórico

Across the bridge in the wealthy district of Entre Ríos, the eight-hectare Parque Histórico (Entre Ríos, tel. 4/283-3807, 9 a.m.–4:30 p.m. Wed.–Sun., $3 Wed.–Sat., $4.50 Sun.) is definitely worth the trip out of town. The park is divided into three zones: The wildlife zone was created out of the natural mangroves of the Río Daule and provides a snapshot of the Ecuadorian rainforest with 50 species, including deer, wildcats, tapirs, monkeys, sloths, ocelots, tortoises, parrots, toucans, and caimans. The traditions zone depicts rural life in reconstructed haciendas and has boisterous music and comedy shows on weekends. In the urban architecture zone, some of Guayaquil’s lost colonial buildings have been reproduced, and Café 1900 is the ideal place to have a coffee and gaze over the river.

There are buses to Entre Ríos from the terminal, or get a taxi from downtown ($4–5). After visiting the park, it’s worth walking up to the several malls, such as Riocentro and Village Plaza, if you fancy shopping with Guayaquil’s wealthy classes. This is the city’s richest area, nicknamed “Little Miami.”

Going for the Gold

book cover
Photo © Michael Sommers.

“If you want to understand Minas Gerais, read this,” said my boyfriend. He handed me a thick paperback tome on whose front cover an ornate golden crown perched sumptuously above the title: Boa Ventura!: A Corrida do Ouro no Brasil (1697-1810) (“Good Fortune: The Brazilian Gold Rush (1697-1810)”).

I have to (shamefully) confess that I’m a little on the lazy side when it comes to working up the motivation to plow through fat historical epics penned in Portuguese. Yet, at the time, the fact that I was actually in Minas Gerais, and surrounded by the legacy of one of the world’s greatest gold rushes, coupled with the fact that I wanted to impress upon my boyfriend that I was no literary slouch, caused me to open the book and start reading.

From the outset, the saga proved pretty gripping. It helps that author Lucas Figueiredo, a prize-winning journalist from Belo Horizonte, weaves countless juicy historical facts into a narrative that combines larger-than-life figures, operatically tragic (and comic) situations, and non-stop adventure that can’t help but inflame even the most lethargic imaginations.

[pullquote] The book begins in 1876, with the introduction of Dom Luís I, third last king of Portugal. [/pullquote]

The book begins in 1876, with the introduction of Dom Luís I, third last king of Portugal. Desperate to find a stash of wealth to help pay off the monarchy’s eternal debts, the king is plundering through the Royal Treasury in search of hawkable royal riches. In the midst of his search, he uncovers a 20-kilo (44-pound) nugget of gold the size of a melon. The largest chunk of gold ever extracted from Brazil, the nugget is one of the few surviving remainders of the century-long gold rush that, for a while, made Portugal the wealthiest country in the world, and which transformed Brazil from a sparsely populated outpost of 300,000 (in 1697) to a country of 3.6 million (in 1810).

The giant gold nugget provides the symbolic, and spectacular, starting point for Figueiredo’s yarn, which then flashes back to Lisbon in 1495, to the moment when Dom Manuel I has just inherited the Portuguese crown along with the debts of his royal ancestors stretching back 100 years.

Yes, it seems that even back in the day, Portugal had a serious debt problem. In fact, extricating itself from penury was a prime motivating factor in the nation’s decision to undertake its great navigational expeditions. Ultimately, Portuguese dreams of empire were much less focused on establishing colonial settlements in places as far-flung as Macau, Goa, Mozambique and Angola than on encountering riches with which to fill up royal coffers and indulge royal extravagances.

Viewed these priorities, Portugal’s “discovery” of Brazil in 1500 was met with an almost comical lack of enthusiasm by the kingdom’s avaricious authorities and adventurers who, as evidenced by choice documents provided by the author, were singularly unimpressed by the “brutal tropics” with their mosquito-filled rainforests, fierce, flesh-hungry natives, and dismal lack of any notable big ticket treasures.

This prevailing attitude is encapsulated by the experience of Martim Afonso de Sousa, an explorer and childhood friend of Dom João III. Sent to Brazil in 1531 with the joint mission of establishing a colony and uncovering an Eldorado, tales of which had been passed on to early explorers by Indians, Martim Afonso spent two years exploring the colony. During this time, the Spanish uncovered their Eldorado in the form of the Inca Empires of Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia, but the Portuguese, green with envy, had nothing to show for their efforts aside from being decimated by disease and Indians.

After multiple failed treasure hunting expeditions, by 1533, Martim Afonso was thoroughly fed up with Brazil and took off for India where riches were guaranteed. Wanting nothing more to do with the territory gifted to him by the king – encompassing both Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo – Afonso was only too happy to give them away for free, adding that whoever took them off his hands would be doing him “the greatest mercy and greatest honor in the world.”

Nevertheless, fueled by myths of a mountain of gold in the Brazilian interior known as Sabarabuçu, the Portuguese persisted in their fortune seeking. After almost 200 years of false starts and failed expeditions, intrepid (not to mention barefoot) bandeirantes – roving groups of Portuguese, Indians and mestizos from São Paulo who forayed into the interior in search of precious metals and Indians to enslave – finally stumbled across their own Eldorado in the savage mountains that stretched north from Rio de Janeiro up to Bahia. There was so much gold in the area that came to be known as Minas Gerais (General Mines) that the riverbeds glittered and one could pull a plant out of the ground and find gold sprinkled amongst its roots.

Despite the Portuguese Crown’s desire to keep the gold mines a secret, by the early 1700s the cat was out of the bag and the first gold rush of the modern era was on. Hundreds of thousands of fortune seekers left Portugal’s other colonies not to mention Portugal itself (so many farms were being abandoned that the king had to pass a law prohibiting farmers from moving to Brazil at the risk of the country going hungry). Meanwhile, in Brazil’s coastal settlements, everyone from sailors and soldiers to plantation owners and priests abandoned their lives and land (not to mention their ships and fortresses) for the interior, spurred on by dreams of fabulous fortunes.

Many early fortune seekers did indeed strike it rich. Many others died trying, often of starvation. In their lust for instant wealth, most adventurers ignored the fact that while Minas Gerais was filled with gold, food was in very short supply. As a result savvy merchants often made more of a killing than miners blinded by dollar signs. A cow that cost 10 grams of gold in Salvador, for example, would be sold to desperately hungry miners for 359 grams (an amount of gold obtained by one man working an average of 1 year and 9 months in the mines).

Some of the gold was used to finance the construction of burgeoning mining towns such as Ouro Preto, Mariana, São João del Rei, Tiradentes, and Diamantina, whose streets were lined with stately palaces and sumptuous baroque churches. However, the bulk of it was sent off to Portugal where the royals went to town; in the case of many Portuguese monarchs, the expression “shop ‘til you drop” can be taken quite literally.

Ironically, while 80 percent of all the gold mined in Brazil found its way to Europe, the majority of it didn’t end up in Portugal. No sooner would ships from Brazil anchor in Lisbon when collectors would start to swarm. In truth, much of the gold in the ships’ holds went to acquit foreign debts, fund extravagant building projects (which made use of the most expensive imported artists and materials of the day), and pay for ostentatious commemorative events intended to put other European courts to shame. (Figueiredo’s detailed descriptions of kings’ and queens’ shopping sprees are one of the high points of the book). Ultimately, the majority of Brazil’s gold ended up in the coffers of Portugal’s major ally and trading partner, England, which instead of blowing it on frivolities, used it to fund the Industrial Revolution.

As for Brazil, while the gold rush didn’t make the colony rich, it did result in the exploration, consolidation, and creation of the modern nation that exists today. By the end of the book, I didn’t just understand Minas Gerais a lot better, but Brazil itself (not to mention Portugal).

Published in 2011, Boa Ventura! lacks an English-language edition. However, those with a decent knowledge of Portuguese will find the short chapters in unencumbered, lively prose, supplemented by ample notes and illustrative graphics, a pleasure to read, not to mention a gold mine of information.

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