Brazil part one: A short nature detour before heading back to the mats

After a few months on the road, we finally reached the motherland of BJJ. Even though we loved our time in beautiful Cuzco, Peru, after several weeks struggling in the high altitude and thin, chilly air we were dying to reach Brazil and breathe deep the warm, oxygen-rich ocean breeze and bask in the sun by the beach.

Our entry point was Foz do Iguazu, the incredibly immense waterfalls that exist at the border of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay. I had gotten really sick the night before flying out of Peru, so unfortunately my first welcome into the country was a bit less pleasant than I had dreamed. Even more so because Alessia had accidentally booked accommodation on the Argentinian side of the border, not the Brazilian side like we had planned, and we had only noticed the day before arriving (you had one job!). We decided to make the most of it and see the falls from Argentinian side – which turned out to be lucky for us as they offer much more impressive views where you can get right into the mouth of the falls. Words cannot describe how epic they are.

We crossed into Brazil the next day (it was a relatively pain free process to cross the border from Argentina to Brazil by taxi/uber) and I instantly felt like everyone I saw walking down the street had a BJJ t-shirt or massive cauliflower ears. Or it was just my imagination but whatever. We didn’t really have any plans other than making our way to Rio to spend a month in one place and training intensively, but at our hotel in Foz do Iguazu we met a guy promoting tours to the Pantanal region. The Pantanal is an immense tropical wetland renowned for its wildlife – we’d heard that if you want to see animals, you don’t go to the Amazon, you go to the Pantanal. With Alessia and I both being weird animal lovers, we signed on immediately and the next day took a 24 hour bus ride which was surprisingly comfy but still disgustingly long and tiring.

We stayed for 4 nights at Pousada Santa Clara, a privately owned lodge in the Pantanal where we did daily trips by foot, car and boat into the wilderness to see the local wildlife like Caymans, Capybara, piranha, all sorts of birds and our favorite – the local bush pigs who were everywhere (not very exotic, I know). While we didn’t see as much as we would have liked, those were a few very peaceful days for us to just relax in nature and have some delicious local food. Being in the middle of nowhere, we weren’t able to train so instead we focused on yoga practice (well mostly Alessia, while I watched from a nearby hammock surrounded by various animals like I was their god).

After the Pantanal, we couldn’t leave the region without seeing Bonito – an aquatic wonderland where we went swimming with huge fish, jumping off waterfalls in Estancia Mimosa and snorkeling along the Rio da Prata in the bluest, crystal clear water we had ever seen. Again we had showed up without booking anything and it happened to be a Brazilian holiday, but we got lucky and were able to do everything we wanted to do. It turned out there was a BJJ gym right around the corner from our hostel but being the holidays it was closed. 7 days without Jiu Jitsu, we were starting to feel a bit uneasy.

When we were back in grey London planning our trip to South America, we had imagined spending countless days at the beach working on our tan after training. Now, several months into our trip in South America, we could count the number of days spent at the beach on two hands. So by now we were unsurprisingly very keen to get some time for sun, sand and surf – so our next stop was Ilhabela where we could hopefully also get some training in.

Ilhabela is a small island off the coast of São Paulo, famous for its pristine beaches and natural beauty. It’s a popular getaway for well-off Paulistas and so was a little out of our price range, but we decided to splurge a little. We rented an Airbnb on the north western coast of the island in a small town called Viana. As we hadn’t trained for a week and a half we were dying to get back onto the mats, and luckily for us there were a few gyms on the island. We ended up training several days at a school run by a super friendly black belt named Jefferson Viana. We learnt some cool new tricks (both gi and no-gi) and had some great rounds with his friendly team. Their gym is inside a hotel resort with a killer pool and a view of the sea nearby – Jumping off one of the piers near the school for a refreshing dip after training, we finally felt like we were in Brazil. We also spent our time exploring the various beaches and waterfalls on the island (although coming from Bonito and Iguazu Falls, it was a little harder to impress us after that!).

After a lovely week in Ilhabela, we took yet another bus to São Paulo, the biggest city in Brazil. We were staying at the house of Marcelo, a friend and teammate from back in London who travels back and forth between Brazil and the U.K. He wasn’t in the country when we were there unfortunately, but he kindly allowed us to stay at his house which he shared with his instructor in São Paulo, Marcio Catenacci, a NS Brotherhood black belt under Murilo Santana. Marcio was an awesome guy who was always full of energy and enthusiasm, constantly working whether providing functional fighting personal training classes to some of São Paulo’s rich and famous, or teaching at his gym in Bodytech.

Bodytech was one of the most incredible facilities we had ever seen – it was like a city itself with a full sized Olympic swimming pool, tennis courts and a luxurious spa area with sauna, hot pools and a jacuzzi. Not to mention the mat area was large and pristine. Marcio’s team were all super friendly and welcoming, and his classes were full of interesting drills and great sparring. Many of the classes were focused around sweeping options from Single-Leg-X which fit into both our games nicely.

We also spent a lot of time training at the NS Brotherhood headquarters in Aclimacao. On our first day there, we ran into Leandro Lo as he was on his way out. Alessia may have gone into shock and turned into a teenage groupie for a few moments, she may have even drooled a little (she’s a bit of a fan). Unfortunately we didn’t get the chance to share the mat with Lo as he was headed to Finland for ADCC (sorry Alessia!). Instead we had several classes with Alemao (Wellington Luis) who was an incredible teacher and showed us several nice moves and concepts – from pulling guard, to elevator sweeps, lapel techniques and some very useful tricks to get the second hook in from the back.

Sparring at NS Brotherhood was always very high-level and competitive, but still friendly and everyone was welcoming. Alemao would expect you to warm up by yourself before class and would jump right into the techniques. He would usually show 2/3 techniques per class and would give you plenty of time to drill the techniques (about 8 minutes straight per person) which we found super helpful as it lets you really feel out the technique thoroughly. He would also personally pair people up for rounds (something which seems common here in Brazil but we weren’t so used to), which meant we got to roll with a great variety of people in each class, from white belts to black belts, but all roughly the same weight.

Alessia also found a great yoga studio nearby; so every morning she would wake up super early to go to class, then we would head to training at either Bodytech or NS Brotherhood headquarters in Aclimacao, and then again at night time. It was pretty exhausting, and in between we would nap or try explore some of the city, but São Paulo is HUGE. You need to take cabs or public transport everywhere if you don’t have a car. It has amazing options for food but a lot of them were a bit out of our budget, so we took advantage of having a kitchen to cook as much as possible and save a bit of money.

The best part about Marcelo’s place was the fully matted living room – I couldn’t imagine living without one of these now. Every day Alessia and I would just spend some time drilling, trying out new techniques or sparring, and sometimes Marcio would come and show us some cool moves and give some advice.

Marcelo came back from London on our last day in São Paulo, so we were able to hang out a bit and get one last session in on the mats at Bodytech. We were really grateful for the place to stay and for His and Marcio’s help in getting used to São Paulo, as well as all the great training we were exposed to.

We left São Paulo wishing we had spent more time there, as there were so many other incredibly gyms we would have liked to try out as well: Demian Maia’s, Alliance, Cicero Costha etc. But we had booked a month’s accommodation in Rio to train already and were committed to that. We’d love to come back and spend a couple more weeks in São Paulo before we get kicked out of Brazil though (visas etc), so stay tuned.

Next stop, one month living and training in Rio!

Marcus and Alessia