People have often asked me about where the best place might be to take a holiday ‘if you’re disabled’ and up until now I’ve always tried to carefully explain that generally it’s going to depend on the nature of your disability, telling them that the closest thing to a ‘fully’ accessible place/resort I know of is Los Cristianos, Tenerife. Then I went to a city in Brazil that I’d never heard of – Socorro.
Adapted from Able Magazine, Issue #107, September/October 2013.
Socorro is around 130km from Sao Paulo, where I flew into from London. Unlike the metropolis it’s a small city with a population of 36,000. At first glance, it appears to be just another pleasant but ordinary city nestled in a valley but after a short while it becomes obvious that this is a very special place indeed.
In a bizarre coincidence the word ‘Socorro’ means ‘help’ in Portuguese and it seems that this is utterly appropriate. Cities tend to sell themselves on the back of certain trades or attractions or geographical features but Socorro has done something that I’ve never seen before. In a bold move, they’ve positioned themselves as a template for inclusion in Brazil.
Since we drew into town at lunchtime, it seemed sensible that our first stop was Lubeck, a bar that also served food. Although it’s a small place, the landlord had made efforts to make sure that everyone was welcome and had installed accessible toilets. As well as this he makes sure that Braille menus are available and that the tables are designed in such a way that it isn’t difficult for wheelchair users to roll into position.
The landlord also explained that beyond his passion for inclusion, he loved all things British and had done his best to replicate a ‘British pub’ by hanging various football scarves and posters around the place – it felt nice to be home from home.
Another idea that’s bound to catch on is the ‘Lubeck Whisky Club’. I had noticed that one wall was completely filled with small, glass-fronted lockers each containing bottles of Johnny Walker, Jameson’s, Bell’s and other brands of whisky. Lots of them were exactly the same, so why were several bottles of the same type of whisky opened at the same time? The answer was simple; the landlord sells his customer a bottle of whisky that is then stored in their locker. They drop by whenever they feel like it, unlock their locker and have a few drams.
Brazil is a bit warm – making an ice cream parlour akin to an oasis in the desert. Imagine then the best selection in town with a completely open front store and a selection of around 30 different flavours, all made on the premises. Imagine then paying a flat fee for an empty bowl and being given a scoop with which to simply help yourself to the most enticing flavours and sauces, toppings, sprinkly bits, wafers and chocolate cigarillos to jab into your selected sorbets. The Sorveteria do Ademar is a sensory experience that everyone will want to share and the coolness of the parlour itself and the sound of the indoor water feature – yes, really, just adds to general sweetness of the experience.
Christ The Redeemer
Brazil is a largely Catholic country and statues of the Virgin Mary and Christ are not uncommon. The famed Christ The Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro might be the most well known in the world but it isn’t unique in as much there are replicas all over Brazil (and the rest of the world). Socorro has recently refurbished theirs to make it completely accessible, complete with lift to the feet of the statue and a purpose built visitor centre due to open any time soon. For the children of travelling pilgrims there’s a sweet little play park including a swing designed for wheelchair users to roll onto.
Whether you’re religious or not, the statue is impressive and the vista glorious, looking down into the valley and city below.
Campos dos Sonhos
Translating literally, Campos dos Sonhos means ‘Field of Dreams’ and whilst you won’t find a baseball diamond, you’ll be amazed at the range of inclusive activities on offer. The most remarkable aspect of the park is that there is genuinely little separation between activities for able-bodied people and disabled people, meaning that families and groups of friends can all join in together.
Director of the park, Jose Fernandes Franco tells me that last year 20,000 people visited the attraction and out of that number 2,000 people were disabled. The sister organisation, along the river: Parque dos Sonhos received 30,000 and catered for a similar percentage of disabled people.
All disabilities are catered for although the parks’ reputation has seemingly spread most efficiently to groups with wheelchair users amongst them. Of the disabled visitors that check in to the two complexes, people with mobility impairments are the largest group – but visual impairments and autistic spectrum disorders are also very well catered for.
All of the staff at the park are trained properly for safety reasons, since lots of the activities on offer are physical and of course, knowing that disabled people can be taken ill very suddenly at times. Perhaps it’s the beauty of the surroundings in which they work, but they also happen to be the most cheerful bunch of staff you could ever hope to encounter.
The first activity was a tour of the park that took in some of the ‘non-paying’ guests. The park tractor pulls a wagon (accessible for wheelchairs via a ramp) around the adjacent farm. And everyone gets to throw handfuls of feed to the grateful animals. Apparently the park produces 60% of the food that the guests tuck into – including growing their own rich, smooth coffee on the hillside. (It’s probably best to keep this statistic from the kids as the tractor rolls through the pigsty where large sows gently feed their piglets.) The other animals are slightly more unusual – and include water buffalo and ostriches, all of whom have been taught by rote to eat out of peoples’ hands – if you don’t mind a gentle pecking or a slimy lick.
Horses also play an important part in lots of the activities, perhaps because the park is in some ways, a ranch. This is where you begin to see the depth of inclusion, since the park is equipped with all manner of saddles and special mounting equipment and stations that allow people with varying degrees of ability to get on the horses and enjoy the ride. As you would expect, the horses are all very used to human contact and are placid and plodding.
The same horses are also used to pull carts of varying description that have seats and harnesses, again to suit a variety of users. The horses seem to be a particular favourite amongst children, as are the rabbits in the petting zoo and the chickens and cockerels that just seem to wander around the place as if they own it.
Speaking of which, because the park is in the countryside you’re bound to see some of the other wildlife that includes not only beautiful native bird species and parrots but also small lizards and insects that are a little bigger than you’d expect – but that are all harmless. Look out for the metre high anthills of terracotta coloured soil in the fields surrounding the park.
Another gentle activity suitable for everyone is to take a pedalo around the small lake. This also has adapted seating options.
The accommodation is in cabins with quite sparse dÈcor and utilitarian interiors but plenty of space to roll a wheelchair around or store other equipment in. To this end the floors are all level and tiled and each cabin has a wetroom facility – ideal if you’ve got muddy or wet during the activities. A nice touch is a kennel for assistance animals with a connecting hatch to allow them to be either indoors or outdoors at your convenience. The simplicity and space helps to keep the cabins cool.
Although there’s a fridge and a microwave in the cabins, meals are served in the dining hall where, on most evenings, there’ll be a live band adding a bit of local colour. Each evening is different, from Samba to Jazz and on occasions Jose’s grandfather of 90, takes to the small stage with his violin. Adults can indulge in the favourite local cocktails (made with sugarcane – CachaÁa) and are often amazed at how swiftly their inhibitions escape them.
Parque dos Sonhos
The variety of activities at the nearby Parque dos Sohos is equally impressive. As we arrived, there was a teenager walking along in the canopies of trees on the treetop walking ropes with a park instructor carefully guiding the way. Although he looked deep in concentration, it wasn’t a face filled with fright but more of meeting the challenge. This is the essence of what the parks are all about.
Next up was a dusty and slightly bouncy trek in a park pick-up to the peak of a rocky outcrop 160 metres above the valley floor where the river cuts through. One of the hardest things to say when faced with a challenge is ‘yes’ as was the case here. The zip wire stretches from the peak, down across the river to a landing strip a full kilometre away. Looking out across the valley I could just make out the other instructors that would unclip me from my harness if indeed I got across in one piece.
As well as an ordinary harness, the park has developed a prone harness that sees adventurers lie down and strapped onto a stretcher like device and given a shove away – gravity carries them safely towards their destination.
Having done similar things for Able and never yet regretting leaving my comfort zone for a few minutes, I managed to get trussed up into the harness and clipped to the wire. The fact that there was no turning back was emphasised by a large white arrow painted in the direction of the cliff that I was about to push off from.
In the damp air above the river, adventurers can reach up to 55km/h seated or up to an incredible 90km/h in the prone position. I can certainly say that I didn’t regret my decision as the rushing breeze inflated my shirt as I powered towards the landing strip. The whole ride took about a minute.
What I didn’t realise was that there were also two further ‘sister’ zip wires that took people right down to the valley floor. The pressure of making a decision about an unknown was now lifted and I really enjoyed the two further slides far more than the first.
The Rio Peixe (River of Fish) runs through the centre of the park and lends itself to several activities. White water rafting has also been adapted for disabled people with a secure seat positioned next to the instructor at the back of the boat. The combined crew were given a brief run down of the basics and a few instructional one word commands in Portuguese (that were also acted out so that we understood what they meant).
The raft was certainly larger and sturdier than I had imagined and there was never any jeopardy that it would turn over, particularly since it was now full of people. The journey was a mix of moments of intoxicating intensity as we slipped over rapids and small waterfalls punctuated by genuine pauses where the river simply pulled us gently but firmly downstream towards the next set of rapids.
One particular spot where the river widens was deemed a good spot for a swim and since I had my life jacket on and the clean water looked so inviting I lopped overboard. It was a wonderful feeling given that the afternoon sun was so intense and I also noticed an observer on the far bank – a Capybara (not unlike a beaver to look at and in fact, the world’s largest rodent).
The next day came and a different section of the river was selected for our ‘tubing’ expedition. This is the same sort of idea as white water rafting but done on an inflatable shaped like a doughnut and about the size of a tractor tyre (using nothing more than bare hands as paddles). Again, it was a mixture of relaxation and rush – although it did seem that there were more rocks than water in some parts of the stream.
Again we saw how the instructors kept close to disabled participants and guided them when the river took them in awkward directions.
The days in the adventure parks had been fantastic but tiring. Fortunately, Socorro received a ‘Sanitary Stay’ accreditation in 1945 and the local spa treatment centre is very close by. The Balneary water has medicinal qualities that help with circulation and rejuvenation; add into this your choice of a menu of different medicinal bath salts and you can count on a richly relaxing experience that gently brings people back to their best.
Perhaps it was the refreshing quality of the Balneary waters that began to awaken my appetite. The nearby Rancho Pompeia was the ideal solution. The Rancho is a small farmhouse that doubles up as what we’d call a tearoom in Britain (even though not surprisingly, tea is not on the menu) and a small farm shop selling everything from coffee beans to biscuits. In other words it’s a classic cottage industry.
Certainly the late afternoon spread of cakes and different types of breads was wonderful – the highlight for me was the hot chocolate that stands head and shoulders above any I have ever tasted before. The whole experience was serenaded by the family cockatoo who whistles, what I’m told, is the Brazilian national anthem – fair enough, but he’d be a far more popular pet of he’d learn a few other tunes too.
It wasn’t a surprise that I left the ranch with a bag of their coffee beans. I’m a self-confessed coffee fan and I’m yet to see darker, glossier beans. I suppose it was the freshness, given that our trip coincided with the harvest. Grinding them made the richest, smoothest coffee cup of Joe imaginable.
The city of Socorro has changed with the times. It originated as an area where coffee plantations were the main source of income and then morphed into a centre for textiles. This is still an important part o the local economy although the focus has shifted towards rural tourism.
In recent years the city has really pulled together. Even though, for example, Parque do Sonhos and Campo Do Sonhos are run by different people, they have no problem in sending visitors to each other if they are oversubscribed. Similarly, they’ve clearly worked together on innovations to help their disabled customers. They really can see the bigger picture and this all adds to the genuinely pleasant and relaxed atmosphere around town.
Nothing is off-limits where inclusion is concerned and it seems that the city intends keep going until absolutely everything is set up properly. I was given a sneak preview of the new museum, equipped with lifts and every other convenience. It was a genuine surprise to find out that it was actually housed in the very oldest building in Socorro.
The whole city has pulled together towards becoming an inclusive template. Key official figures, including, Mayor, Andre Bozola and Director of Tourism for Socorro, Acacio Zavanella have steered and encouraged people to make changes that have clearly required investment. It isn’t taking anything away from them when I say that they have, in the process created an opportunity to make those same people money through inclusive tourism. For all the effort they’ve put in, they deserve it.
Is it too much to suggest that the magnificent statue of Jesus seems to stare across the valley with a look of contentment as to what the people of Socorro have achieved? It doesn’t matter what you believe; Socorro is a miraculous place.