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Curitiba, Brazil

Curitiba is a fascinating city and a prime example of eco-friendly urban planning done right.

We arrived after one of the most bizarre bus trips we’ve ever taken on our travels (well, at least before we travelled through India). Two hours after leaving Iguaçu Falls, our bus stopped at a checkpoint. Security officials asked everyone off the bus where we were all searched, along with our luggage. We’d noticed a strange vibe when we initially got on the bus: people talking on cell phones and looking around. We chalked it up to being clueless Americans on board. Strangers in a strange land…

As the bus continued, we noticed people began to shuffle around and transfer items out of their bags into other bags. A half hour later, we arrived at a second checkpoint. Again, everyone, and their luggage, was searched. This time, a few people got back on the bus without their bags. After continuing for a couple more hours, we realized the scenery looked familiar. We were heading back to the exact same bus station where we started!

We asked a mother with her young daughter if she spoke English. “Um pouco” (a little), she replied. She told us that it’s common for people to smuggle electronics from Paraguay. When guard catch them, their items are confiscated and the bus must return to the original station to drop off the guilty passengers who are either fined or arrested. 

So… 11 hours later (plus four hours for the round-trip to and from the bus station), we finally arrived in Curitiba. 

We checked into Formule 1, an IKEA-like budget hotel – not very “local,” but great for a clean, quiet night’s rest. The next morning, we enjoyed a complimentary breakfast heading to downtown Curitiba, specifically Rua XV de Novembro (“November 15 Street”).

The lively pedestrian mall got its name from the date of the Proclamation of the Republic when the Brazilian military overthrew the constitutional monarchy. Also known as Rupa das Flores (“Flower Street”), it was one of the first major pedestrian streets in Brazil. Once again, we observed the unmistakable influence of Portugal: intricately designed pavement made out of black and white stones. 

Street performers posed like statues against a backdrop of 20th century neoclassical buildings. We watched as a clown entertained people seated at an outdoor café. He imitated how passerbys walked, or used exaggerated hand gestures to remark on someone’s demeanor. It was entertainment at its purest, simplest form enjoyed by all ages. Except maybe the people he was making fun of – but most were good sports.

Continuing on, we made our way past SESC Liberty Palace, former City Hall turned cultural center. In Tiradentes Plaza, we visited the neo-Gothic Cathedral Basilica Minor of Our Lady of Light. Known simply as Metropolitan Cathedral, it sits on the very location where the city’s first Catholic church was constructed back in 1693. 

One thing we noticed was how lively the squares were – colorful flowers, bubbling fountains and lots of people-watching.

We headed through an underground pedestrian passage to Curitiba’s historic quarter, made up of well-preserved 18th and 19th century buildings of Portuguese and central European design. On Sunday mornings, the area becomes packed with more than a thousand tents for a traditional handicraft fair, fondly known as Curitiba Little Fair

As Brazil’s second largest handicraft fair, artisans and vendors sell a variety of items, from lace doilies and key fobs to  handbags and jewelry. Snacks abound including the ubiquitous Açai na tigela (“açai in the bowl”), a popular Brazilian street “smoothie” made up of bright reddish-purple berries. Nearby, the oddly named “Drooling Horse Fountain” (Cavalo Babão) is a local meeting point and a great place to take a set to watch the market activity.

Curitiba has been named a model “green” city and features over 150 square miles of public park and forest spaces. 

The country’s oldest municipal park is Passeio Público. Inaugurated in 1886, it features the city’s first zoo and a wide array of exotic Brazilian birds in every color imaginable. We watched locals paddleboating on the water and groups of men playing Draughts (Brazilian Checkers). Abundant recycling bins served as reminders of the city’s commitment to eco-friendly practices.

Curitiba’s park system actually serves an ecological function by doubling as a naturalized, stormwater management facility. The system was designed so that in heavy rains, the Iguaçu River spreads into the low-lying area of the parks to create a natural floodplain. 

Additionally, Curitiba has ultra-efficient public transportation, specifically its bus rapid transit system (BRT) with cool, iconic glass-tube bus stops. Compared to other Brazilian cities, Curitiba has 25% lower carbon emissions per capita while serving over 1 million passengers. Eighty percent of locals use the express or direct bus services. We took the bus ourselves and can attest to its ease and efficiency. 

By far, one of the highlights of Curitiba is the Oscar Niemeyer Museum, known as “The Eye.”

Designed by Brazilian architectural master, Oscar Niemeyer, the futuristic-looking museum is one of the largest in the world – larger than the Guggenheim in Bilbao and the Tate Modern in London. It features a vast collection of exhibits related to visual arts, architecture, urban planning and design. 

After spending a few hours there, we took in activities happening outside the museum. The building’s smooth ground floor proved to be the perfect surface for a group of breakdancers trying out new moves. Meanwhile, out in the grassy lawn, high school age kids were suited up and interestingly enough, playing American football.

Rounding out our visit to Curitiba was the Botanical Gardens, just 10 minutes outside the city center by local bus. 

Opened in 1991, it was constructed in the style of French gardens and features a large greenhouse in the center. The area includes the Garden of Sensations, Botanical Museum and Garden of Native Plants. Dotting the landscape were the whimsical monkey puzzle trees, which we first saw in Pucon, Chile

That night, we headed to Casa da Coxhina for a cheap, easy dinner. Coxhina are cone-shaped dough typically filled with shredded chicken, battered and fried. We then headed to the bus station to board our final overnight bus (hallelujah!) in the four months we’d been traveling to South America to our final stop: Rio de Janeiro.

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