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Posts Tagged ‘rio de janeiro’

If you are after fun in the sun on the sand, and/or partying into the small hours, I feel sure that Rio is your town. For culture vultures, not so much. And then there is the security situation. I generally felt OK, but I was definitely on high alert for pretty much the whole time, and I took taxis after dinner when elsewhere I would have walked. I was told that being on the beach after dark was an invitation to a mugging, and I figured that the street my hotel was on (just a few blocks inland from Copacabana Beach) was only safe because there was often a police car parked on the corner.

There are good-looking modern buildings around. There are good-looking older buildings, some in need of TLC. There are history and art museums I didn’t get to, but I really don’t have any urge to go back to see them. Even discounting the favelas (and it’s hard to do that), Rio felt grittier than I had expected. I’m surprised that it was chosen for the 2016 Olympics, and I wonder how much improvement there will be before then. I was in Beijing in 2004, when its abysmal squat toilets were already being replaced by sparkling western ones, well ahead of 2008. Will it be possible to put paper down Rio’s toilets by 2016?

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Moving on. I had found the staff at my hotel generally helpful, so I was surprised when one of them made a big deal out of arranging a taxi to take me to the airport. I’d do better to walk to the nearest taxi rank, he said. But his cohort agreed to have one waiting at 7:15 the next morning. I set my tiny, trusty, travel alarm clock for 6:00, and then, for backup tried to set an alarm on my new smart phone. Although it was 23:00 the phone kept saying that my alarm was set for six hours ahead. I concluded I was doing something wrong and went to bed.

Next morning, packed, I went down at 7:00 for a cup of coffee and to check on my taxi. Oh, the companies they used had been fully booked, I’d need to use the taxi rank…. Sure would have been nice if someone had called me. It would have been even nicer if someone had told me about the change to summer time, which I now heard about for the first time. It was actually 8:00 am, not 7:00, and my flight left at 10:00. The last time a time change occurred while I was traveling, in Vienna, the hotel posted notices all over the place. This time no-one even said anything!

I try to avoid traveling on Sundays, but while that would have spared me the time change snafu, it did mean that there was so little traffic my taxi (acquired from the rank by one of the staff) got me to the airport in under half an hour. I was checked in and through security by 9:00. The TAM flight was full, but on time. I retrieved my checked bag, had a word with the helpful woman at the T.I. and joined the small group of backpackers waiting for the bus. Almost everyone else was either traveling in a group or had an expensive car and driver waiting.

Following the T.I.’s instructions, I got off the Brazilian airport bus at the Hotel Bourbon, crossed the road, and settled down to wait for the bus to Puerto Iguazu in Argentina. I was joined by a young German woman, on a round the world trip. She had spent several days visiting the falls, and had been staying at the posh Hotel das Cataratas in the Brazilian national park, a surprise present from a friend. She said that it was a very nice hotel, but you were trapped there after the park closed. It looked nice from the outside, too, unlike the Sheraton in the Argentinian national park, a concrete monstrosity spoiling the view.

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After the bus finally showed up, and reached the border, we were surprised to be handed “re-embarkation” tickets, and to see the bus drive off with its local passengers still on board! I have crossed more land borders than I can remember, but this was the first time my transport hadn’t waited for me. I was not amused, and since it was Sunday the border was moribund and we had a long wait.

The day was cool and overcast, and I was relieved to reach the Pension La Sorgente before the drizzle turned to rain. This was a step up from the Edificio Jucati, with a pool, a good if pricey restaurant, a bar, and hot and cold water for the sink as well as the shower. Unfortunately, the restaurant was closed on Sunday and I had to trek back into town to eat.

Over the next two days I would discover that the Iguazu falls were worth any amount of aggravation….

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So, Thursday was sunny and clear, and I booked a tour to Corcovado for the next day. Of course, Friday turned out to be cloudy. Moral: carpe diem. Since I had paid for the tour, I went anyway.

I am really not a fan of tours. I don’t like all the waiting around, and I make a poor herd animal, although when I opt for a tour I do try. This one wasn’t too bad, we didn’t waste too much time collecting the other people, and our tri-lingual guide was good. We had Brazilians, Argentinians, Chileans, one Norwegian and me, quite a mini United Nations. The Norwegian was scouting upcoming World Cup locations, and had just been to Switzerland and Cyprus.

I had opted to visit Corcovado mostly for the views, having decided against going up sugar loaf as soon as I saw the cable car route (my head for heights is not what it was). So, no views at the top, although we did get some glimpses on the way up (if you’re subject to motion sickness take the train) and the clouds cleared long enough for a quick photo of the statue itself.

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Then we drove through some of the favelas on the way to the football stadium. I had already seen some on the way in from the airport – the airport bus took the city streets, stopping at the main bus station and the domestic airport, while the taxis take a faster and less gritty route. It seemed that a new stadium was being built, both for the World Cup and the Opening Ceremonies for the Olympics, and looked to be pretty far along. I can’t help thinking they would do as well to build a new airport.

We were supposed to walk through the Sambodromo, built for the Carnaval parade, but it was closed. We had a pretty good view from the minibus, and it’s hardly exciting when empty. I had thought about attending one of the rehearsals, but they mostly seemed to be on Saturday nights, and I needed to get up early on Sunday.

Next up was the modern cathedral (de Sao Sebastiao), which I thought interesting, but rather brutalist. The St. Mary’s cathedral I saw in San Francisco earlier this year was similar in concept – basically a pyramid with stained glass at the cardinal points – but more delicate in execution. After driving by some of the buildings in Centro, the tour would finish at the sugar loaf. Since I didn’t want to visit sugar loaf, and I did want a better look at the buildings, I had the guide drop me at Cinelandia.

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The National Library and the Municipal Theater were certainly worth a closer look, although I skipped the English language tour of the library in favor of lunch. Walking towards Praca XV de Novembro I found several passageways with cafes and restaurants, mostly buffets. I picked one at random, and had plenty of choice at a very reasonable price. Then I took a look at the rather plain Imperial Palace (not originally imperial), and what Frommers described as a “slice of old Rio”, a cobblestoned passageway, now entirely taken over by cafes, before fetching up at the very touristy, but photo-worthy (and much photographed) Cafe Colombo. Espresso and a walnut tartlet cost as much as lunch.

Having done my sightseeing duty for the day I retired to the J. W. Marriott, conveniently close to my hotel, for an expensive caipirinha, a good view, and some writing time. For dinner I abandoned Frommers’ restaurant recommendations in favor of Lonely Planet, and ate an excellent duck and brie crepe at Le Ble Noir.

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My Saturday tour to Petropolis reminded me, if I needed reminding, why I generally avoid tours. It took an excessively long time to collect all the participants (Brazilian, Argentinian, Chilean and Peruvian), the guide’s English wasn’t great (nor, I was told, was his Spanish), and he started out grumpy, although he improved later. The lunch stop was an expensive, all-you-can eat, poor buffet, and there was an unnecessary shopping op at a chocolate “factory” (we only saw the shop).

On the good side, I really appreciated the scenery, and the old part of town. I quite enjoyed shuffling round the Imperial Palace (“slippers” are required to protect the floors), appreciating the furnishings, the chandeliers and the imperial crown, although the pictures were pretty bad. After lunch we were supposed to wait around while one couple toured the former house of Santos Dumont (Brazil’s claimant to having made the first flight), and then drive to the cathedral. Since I could see the cathedral, past a nice fountain and down a tree-lined avenue, I decided I’d rather walk. The guide was most insistent that I stay with the group, I was more insistent that I was walking. It was a good thing I chose to walk, as there was a series of bridges over a small river on the way, and I got much better photos from them than I would have done at the cathedral itself, plus I got a better look at some interesting buildings. The guide told me he was afraid I would get lost, which seems inconceivable given I could actually see where I was going!

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Besides the scenery, the palace, and Petropolis itself, I enjoyed a lunch time chat with a couple from Buenos Aires (or at least with the female half). She did not seem too pleased with the current president, and certainly not with the new travel restrictions. Apparently you now have to fill in a form to get permission to go abroad, and you are only allotted a limited amount of foreign currency. I can vaguely remember currency restrictions in the UK back in the 70s, but they were considerably more generous and you didn’t need permission to leave the country!

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When I left the Edificio Jucati, in search of a very late lunch, I was too focussed to properly appreciate the park in front of the building. Later, I would notice the black and white wave mosaic on the circling pavement, just like those in Lisbon, albeit dustier and less even, the game court, the children’s playground, the chess tables (more used for card games) and the big concrete fountain. I would see other, similar, parks scattered round Copacabana.

Instead, I located the three places recommended by the young woman who had checked me in. One sandwich/hamburger joint and two small buffet places. I am no fan of buffets, but starvation was setting in. Even though Copacabana is surely prime tourist territory, the cafe I picked seemed more of a local place. Unlike the all-you-can-eat buffets helping fuel the obesity epidemic in the US, here I paid by weight. Although the food was merely edible, it was remarkably cheap. Afterwards I walked down to the beach.

As I have written before, I am not a beach person. I no longer want to sun bathe, but nor do I want to slather on sunscreen. I prefer to swim in a pool, and I hate getting sand everywhere. Happily, Rio’s beaches come with promenades – more black and white mosaics – and I could watch the waves and the action without hitting the sand. Actually, there wasn’t much action. On a cool, overcast afternoon I saw more dog-walkers than bikini-wearers.

Eventually I picked a kiosk, one with a bigger buffer against traffic noise than some, and ordered a caipirinha. Now I rarely drink cocktails, being a confirmed wine aficionado, but I was surprised to really enjoy this one. I would learn that not all caipirinhas are created equal. The first, at Praia Skol, was great. The second, at Praia Skol 360, was too strong. The third, which I am drinking as I write this, at the J. W. Marriott, is too weak, despite costing about twice as much. (It’s even cooler, and windier, this afternoon: I opted to enjoy the drink, and the view, indoors.)

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Given the weather the day I arrived, I was surprised to wake up to brilliant sunshine. Brilliant, HOT, sunshine – I could feel the heat through the window. Of course, I should have headed up Corcovado, but access seemed a bit involved and I signed up for a tour the next day. In hopes of shade I set off instead for the Jardim Botanico. I took the metro – clean and easy – two stops to Botafogo, where I switched to “above ground metro bus” (with AC, unlike the regular city buses).

I am fond of botanical gardens, despite having a black, not green, thumb and this one did not disappoint (although the one I saw in Kandy last year was even better, and I have yet to find one to equal Kew) but it didn’t take long before I had to break out the umbrella/sunshade. I admired the signature palm avenues, the lakes, the bamboo (always love bamboo) but it seemed too early in the year for orchids and roses.

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I had met a helpful local lady outside the garden, and after walking me to the nearest entrance, she recommended a place called Bibi for lunch – very healthy food, she said. So, after taking a look at the pretty Lagao Rodrigo de Freitas, I followed her directions, only to find Bibi to be both very full, and open to the decidedly hot weather. I passed, and eventually tracked down a Frommer’s recommendation: the Atelier Culinario, inside a bookshop. The night before I had been disappointed by another Frommer’s pick, Arab (the fairly new Babylon, in Raleigh, does infinitely better Middle Eastern food) and again, the food was nothing special, although the ambience was fine and the AC divine. (OK, so I should stick to Fodors!)

Then I did the metro and bus combo in reverse to take a look at Ipanema. Everything I had read said that Ipanema was more upmarket than Copacabana, but I really didn’t find it so, aside from a number of newish apartment blocks, barricaded behind metal fences. I visited the Museu Amsterdam Sauer, inside a jewelry shop, as I always enjoy looking at gems and minerals, and had a nice chat with the sales lady (after she realized I wasn’t buying).

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This night was churrascaria – more than you can eat meat – night, and I abandoned Frommers to follow my hotel’s recommendation of Carretao. The result was cheaper, and much better, than Arab. The beef and sausages were excellent. and I discovered a taste for manioc. I even found sushi on the salad bar.

Safety note: After reading the paranoid American guidebooks (the British Foreign Office website was less alarmist), I set out the first day with just a small shoulder bag, with the strap worn across my body. The next morning I went back to my usual small(ish) backpack – I needed my umbrella/sunshade, a water bottle, my camera, one if not two guidebooks, a map, an energy bar…. That lot just won’t fit in a small handbag! I did wear it in front on the metro, but I’ve done that on a number of metros.

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