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Birds of Paradise: Brazil’s Iguaçu Falls

The old real estate adage, “location, location, location” couldn’t have been truer for my picture perfect vacation to Brazil’s Belmond Hotel das Cataratas. The only resort with an enviable address inside Iguaçu Falls National Park, the Belmond is the ideal place to absorb the essence of this natural wonder.

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The Belmond from a helicopter – don’t look down!

In this breathtaking oasis, no filters are needed. The bluest sky greets you from above, while your body takes in the freshest air that carries healing ions pouring over from the falls. Standing on the steps of the Belmond lobby, I couldn’t believe how close I was to this marvelous display of nature! Did I even need to check-in to my room, or could I just stay here and stare at this wondrous sight?

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Private dining nook at Belmond Iguaçu – wow!

Eager to relax from my urban adventures in São Paulo, I made my way up to my suite, which I was thrilled to discover had a view of Iguaçu Falls! Enveloped in the most soothing shade of salmon, I sank back into my bed and enjoyed a rejuvenating nap.

Waking from a restful slumber, I was delighted to find my welcome gift from the Belmond staff – a pair of Havaianas in their signature vintage blue. It was like a cue to relax – and I loved the idea of ditching my heels, makeup, and hair curlers for a few days! I slipped on my new sandals and walked over to the pool, loving that everyone at the resort had on the same Havaianas! Wrapping my body in the soothing water set at the perfect temperature, I floated around to the soundtrack of beautiful birds serenading me from afar.

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Belmond, take me away!

I’m not normally a morning person, but there was no way I was going to miss the opportunity to enjoy a private visit up close with the falls. This is one of the best things about the Belmond; you have access to the falls before and after the park has opened to the public, allowing you to avoid the throngs of crowds that flood the scene.

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Serenity at dawn in front of Iguaçu Falls

I woke up well before sunrise because I wanted to get a few shots of the landscape uncluttered and bathed in that perfect light. But what I experienced was much more transformative than a solo photo excursion. Alone and undisturbed for a couple of hours, I cried, laughed, and allowed my soul to heal in the powerful embrace of the falls. This natural hug squeezed every ounce of gratitude that I had inside me as I shouted “thank you” to the sky. Thank you for this opportunity, thank you for everyone who made the trip possible, and thank you for a moment of peace.

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My healing didn’t end at the falls. In fact, this was just the beginning. My hosts from the Iguaçu Convention and Visitors Bureau arranged for me to participate in a tribal ceremony with the Tupi-Guarani Indians, a local indigenous tribe that welcomes visitors to take part in their intimate rituals. Walking through the dark rainforest with my guide, I was met by the warmth of a fire and the soft pulse of a drum, flashing back to when I had last seen a bonfire at my father’s funeral weekend just a few months before.

A powerful healing energy came over me as we all circled around the fire for what seemed like hours. Eventually sitting down to enjoy a traditional meal, the leader and shaman spoke about some of their guiding principles, with words that felt like they were crafted just for me. Grateful that I was able to understand his Portuguese without the assistance of my guide, I focused on every word, not wanting to forget a moment of this incredible experience. Back at my hotel, I journaled about all that had happened in an effort to process this unique encounter. Since no photography was allowed, I depended on the vibrant images in my mind to help me make sense of this once in a lifetime experience.

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One of the guards at Iguaçu’s Bird Park

If you must leave this tropical oasis that is the Belmond, then plan a trip to the Parque das Aves, a bird park that sits right outside the Iguaçu National Park. Parque das Aves is a pioneer of animal conservation, partnering with other organizations that support biodiversity conservation both in Brazil and throughout the world. This family-friendly attraction, which is also the largest bird park in Latin America, offers a behind the scenes tour where you can feed the birds and get up close with nature. I was getting excited as I heard the birds calling from inside!

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Luckily my guide Alex, who was the key to understanding every aspect of Iguaçu, joined me at Parque das Aves. You absolutely cannot go to Iguaçu without him! He is a walking encyclopedia of every biological, botanical, and spiritual aspect of the falls. At every turn, Alex provided insight to each species, the flora and fauna around me, and a sincere awareness of these endangered and vulnerable animals and birds.

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Are you my mommy?

The highlight of that morning was feeding the baby rescues. I giggled as they splashed milk all over me and nipped at my hands, eager to connect with their new visitor. After my private backstage tour was over, I begged to go through the park again – I didn’t want to leave!

On this next round, I spent quite a bit of time at the butterfly aviary witnessing one just coming out of its cocoon. Such a magical moment! With over 800 species of butterflies in this Atlantic Forest, I was mesmerized at the rainbow of colors and patterns. As I watched the Caligo brasiliensis butterflies munch on bananas, Alex shared with me how these butterflies use their owl-like appearance to avoid predators.

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I think he thought I was his twin with my bright yellow shirt!

Walking through the rest of the park, Alex highlighted the conservation efforts at Parque das Aves, specifically the toucans. “They’re not technically endangered, but do get injured a lot because of hunting accidents. The natural breeding that happens here ensures a safety population of this magnificent bird.” He also told me that their eyes can change direction, noting them as a “portal of positive energy”.

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PicadinhoBack at the Belmond, I enjoyed a late lunch of the most artfully prepared picadinho de filé, a dish that my tummy had fond memories of from São Paulo. I pored over videos of my new bird buddies from the morning – truly an unforgettable experience! Walking through the grounds at the resort, I noticed a tree that had a pink lichen – a botanical sign of high air quality based on Alex’s lesson of lichen, fungus, algae, and some of the 2,000 plant species that are here in Iguaçu. I excitedly took in another breath of this healing space. As I collapsed into a hammock, I drifted off to sleep with the lull of sweet birds chirping what sounded like, “Sarah, don’t leave…”

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Do you want to visit this natural oasis? Then fill out the form below!

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Brazil’s History: Plate by Plate

When I took my trip to Iguaçu Falls earlier this year, I expected to see magnificent waterfalls, exotic wildlife, and endless lush forests. Who wouldn’t in this glorious part of Brazil that is considered one of the natural wonders of the world? What I didn’t expect to witness was a culinary tour of Brazil’s history, produced by the talented chef, Fabio Tavera.

“Why don’t we give value to simple things? We think, ‘oh this is from the south, the Amazon, it’s from immigrants’ – Casa do Chef is a response to all of this. We have great food here in Brazil and we need to break it down so people can understand. Understand what’s in our food, understand our people, understand our society.”

 

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Chef Fabio’s intro was merely a hint of what was to come. Having lived, worked, and traveled in Brazil over the past 15 years, I thought I knew a thing or two about Brazilian cuisine. All of that changed as Chef Fabio took the “stage” at his rustic and inviting culinary school called Casa do Chef. “After 16 years working in kitchens, now I am having the opportunity to present Brazilian food in a broader way, relating the historical and anthropological approaches, garnishing this experience with music, which is also my passion. Casa do Chef has been my dream for years.”

And I felt like I had just fallen into a epicurean dream! While my tastebuds were teased with the first dish from the Tupi, Chef Fabio walked us through the dish, dissecting this fish in a history lesson peppered with culinary facts. “The Tupi didn’t use salt at all; you won’t find it in Amazon cuisine. They used peppers and chiles as a preservation mode for meat and fish, and their curing technique is different. Their ritual of smoking is the fusion of the four elements – earth, water, air, and fire.”

 

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Watching Chef Fabio prepare the plates for our first course, I listened intently as he continued to describe the features of this prehistoric fish, pirarucu. “The pirarucu is the biggest scaled fresh water fish in the world. Because the fish scales are so huge, the only way to catch it is in the river during dry season when it gets stuck because of these strong scales. But that’s what makes the meat so good!”

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Dressing the fish with pineapple, roasted peanuts, and honey, Chef Fabio continued – his knowledge the perfect hybrid of TV favorites, History Channel and Food Network! “The Guarani Indians domesticated the pineapple and peanut, here in this area of South America. And when the Portuguese arrived, they noticed that the bees made honey from flowers. At this time in Europe, honey was of very poor quality, so this was one of the first Brazilian exports.”

Chef Fabio recommended starting with a bite of the jambu, an herb from Amazon forest, that has a strong aroma and gets the tongue numb, perfect to eat with this fish that’s been seasoned with fresh chiles – no spices or salt! Enjoying the balanced, smoky flavor, I marveled at how delicious this “sodium-free” dish was – and made a note to integrate some of these healthy techniques when I returned home. Chatting with Chef Fabio as he plated our next course, he shared that Japanese cuisine was one of his favorites because of the beautiful presentation and lightness of flavors. As you read on, you’ll see that same artful influence evident in all of Chef Fabio’s Instagram-worthy presentations.

When I thought it couldn’t get any better, Chef Fabio walked us through his side-by-side comparison of moqueca, one of my favorites! Having been to Bahia, Brazil’s Northeast state known for its gorgeous beaches, I was already aware of the strong African influence in its culture, music, and food.

 

“This mixing of the trade routes with the Portuguese is really evident in what most people know today as moqueca baiana; the mango, lime, and coconut came from India. The cilantro from the Middle East, onions and garlic from the Orient. But what moqueca looked like 600 years ago is here on the left. Fish, urucum, oil from the native Brazilian coconut – babaçu, chili, and of course, no salt.”

Having sampled both, my tastebuds weren’t sure which way to go! I loved the caramelized, simple flavor of the native technique, but I also found the familiarity of the cilantro mingled with the coconut milk delicious. Luckily, I didn’t have to choose!

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Listening to Chef Fabio describe the fusion of foods from all over the world, I thought about the similarities between Brazilian and U.S. culinary history. Both countries had a strong Native Indian food culture that was often aligned with spiritual practices of the tribe. After the arrival of European settlers, much of that history was drastically changed, with many indigineous techniques lost. I felt really grateful to see Chef Fabio reviving some of those techniques here in his cooking school.

 

Next up on the Casa do Chef tasting menu – Carne de Sol, which Chef Fabio said was the perfect dish to highlight the Indian, Portuguese, and African influences. But as he explained, carne de sol is actually a misnomer! Finding out that I spoke Portuguese, Chef Fabio carried on in his native tongue, saying that it’s more of a “de lua, de noite, do vento” because of the aging process. And the description of his homemade clarified butter – well, I’m sure you can imagine how my stomach responded.

“Normally, manteiga de garrafa, or clarified butter, is done the French way – skimming the solids and the clarified butter remains. But this way – a heavy cream is reduced until it’s almost caramalized and solids remain, ending up more like a cheese.” My stomach screamed – “yes, please!”

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Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, Chef Fabio walked us through the rest of this colonial dish. “We use the ancient method of soaking the abóbora, or pumpkin, in limestone for 10 minutes and then cook it in molasses. This is the African influence with the sugar cane grinders and the use of molasses.” The finishing touch? A hollandaise sauce, using that same delicious manteiga de garrafa…OMG!

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And finally, Chef Fabio’s presentation of feijoada. This is one dish that most tourists have tried on their trips to Brazil, and is what most consider Brazil’s national dish. “This food we call ‘Brazilian’ is new, developed in the last 100 years – at most! Through recipes and ingredients, my idea is to demystify feijoada, and enhance some things that we never thought we could.”

Chef Fabio’s history lesson on feijoada was as much a surprise for my Brazilian colleagues as it was for me. “Meat was rare for everyone in those times. The invented story of feijoada being a ‘marginal dish’ with scraps and leftovers that was fed to the slaves is false. All parts of the slaughtered meats were preserved because there was no refrigeration as we have today. So everyone ate the same thing. This notion that the diet of a slave and the main lord was different is a bit of a myth, with the exception of sugar, which was very expensive.”

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After snapping some shots of this tantalizing plate, I finally enjoyed this Brazilian classic, with Chef Fabio’s special touch. “You know feijoada has a Portuguese influence too, but theirs is with white beans; ours with black beans. Here it’s not deconstructed, just presented differently for more texture. And since the concepts have changed in this invented dish, I invented mine”, he said with a sly wink. Savoring each bite, I thought about how American cuisine is also a melding of immigrant influences, and the bevy of restaurants that are in my Los Angeles neighborhood: Mexican, German, Korean, Armenian, Peruvian. A true melting pot!

Nibbling on the most picturesque sampler of Brazilian dessert classics, I looked up to hear Chef Fabio emerge from the kitchen, serenading us with a flute performance. A true Renaissance man! Historian, musician, and talented chef – how lucky I was to have had this enlightening epicurean adventure through Brazil.

To book your visit to Foz do Iguaçu and experience this once in a lifetime opportunity at Casa do Chef, contact me today!

 

 

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