Brava, Rio!

A few weekends ago, Tom, Scott, and I flew to Rio for a four-day visit. It was money well spent. We desperately needed to get out of the crush and air of Sao Paulo, and Rio was the perfect antidote.

We flew in Saturday morning (leaving the dogs in our condo, to be cared for by a young friend of ours, Arthur), and took a taxi through the central part of the city, then past the Copacabana and Ipanema beaches to Leblon, where we’d rented an apartment for our stay. (We found out at dinner that Scott had seen a dead body lying at the side of the road just past a wrecked car during our drive in. The body had been draped, but only just, and a policeman was standing beside it, waiting for the ambulance. Bem-vindo a Rio, Scotch.)

The vacation apartment was newly renovated, modern, and gorgeous. It cost R$300 a night for two bedrooms, two baths, a living room and dining room, and a fully-decked out kitchen. I had been looking at single rooms in hotels in the area for the same cost! What a great alternative. The only difficulty was that we had to pay in cash, and we’ve been having trouble with our bank blocking credit card access here in Brazil. It was a headache getting enough cash to pay up front for our stay (paid upon arrival and signing of a contract), but we finally managed to get the remainder that morning.

We gave Scott the master bedroom so he could stretch out on a bed for once (we have a twin for him at our place). Plus, it had a hammock, which was his favorite part of the apartment. The apartment also had large flat-screen TVs in every room, and SKY satellite, so we were able to watch the Olympics in style while we were there.

After getting settled in, we spent the day at Leblon beach, two blocks from the apartment. A gorgeous beach, with its white sands and mountains coming right down to the edge of the water! As Scott and I played in the waves, we grinned from ear to ear every time we looked up and saw the Christ the Redeemer statue on the mountain in the distance. RIO!

I felt a little out of place at the beach, being the only woman in a one-piece bathing suit. Believe me, I shouldn’t have been the only one! We all got an eyeful of enormous, cottage-cheese buns threatening to burst out of the Brazilian thongs they call a swimsuit bottom. But, there were also many gorgeous bodies, men and women alike, so that balanced things out. (Not my photo, but I swear these gals were sitting next to us!..this photo from an article about Brazilian bikinis getting bigger…necessarily)

That night, we went to dinner at Shenanigan’s Bar, which had come recommended to us. It was a fun Irish bar, and we had Guinesses and dinner there, and left before the live music started. Or, tried to leave. Tom’s card wouldn’t work (the bank had blocked it), and I hadn’t brought my wallet, so he had to go back to the apt. to get my credit card. I sent Scott with him, since Tom had had some drinks and I was uneasy about him taking a taxi in Rio alone. So, they left me behind as collateral while they retrieved my card. I sat at the bar and drank water while I watched Olympics dressage. Found out later that Shenanigans is where the Marines go to hit on women! Oddly enough, I was left alone….

(Found out the following week that, somehow, someone had gotten hold of Tom’s credit card number and was taking money out of our account, so the banks are smart to monitor the card use, even if it makes it harder for us.)

Sunday morning it was raining, so the beach was not an option. We visited the Hippy Fair in Ipanema instead, and I have to say it was one of the best street fairs I’ve ever been to. Lots of creative items for sale, and the Brazilian New Orleans street band topped it off.

Monday we took a private tour of the city with Neyla, one of the top guides listed in Trip Advisor. And with good reason. She’s a native, a former flight attendant, and just a gem of a gal.

She picked us up at 9:30, a little later than usual in order to let the rain pass before we headed out. I’ll write about each of the sites in more detail in separate blogs, but she started us out by taking us past the botanical gardens, then up through the rainforest so that we could see the forest and waterfalls en route to the Christ the Redeemer statue. En route, we saw a toucan, capuchin monkeys, and glorious foliage.

Stopped at pullouts for views of the city. This has to be the most spectacular natural beauty in the world, with the bay, the mountains, and the natural cusp beaches. Even the favelas looked beautiful tumbling down the hillsides.

Because it was a Monday, the roads were empty, and there were little or no lines at the sites. We walked right up to the bus that took us up to Christ the Redeemer, and though there were crowds there, it wasn’t too bad. I loved standing by that symbol of Rio and faith. Neyla says that the arms of the statue point to everything that is important to Brazilians: the beach and the soccer stadium. The view from the statue is one in a million.

From the statue, we drove down through Santa Teresa, which is where the cable car used to run. They stopped it nine months ago after an accident in which six people died, and they don’t know whether they’ll ever restart it. Too bad, because I hear it was a fun ride. Today, buses carry people up and down the windy roads on the hill; a terrifying sight when they hurl around a corner on your side of the road! All along the way, we enjoyed the houses and the street art.

We ate lunch at the bottom of Santa Teresa, in a typical Brazilian restaurant, eating typical Brazilian food: rice, french fries, grilled beef, grilled sausages, grilled chicken, and black beans. Delicious, but, as always, very salty, as well. They love their salt and their garlic here!

Next, we visited the Escadaria Selarón, is a set of world-famous steps in Rio. They are the work of Chilean-born artist Jorge Selarón, who claims the steps are his tribute to the people of Brazil. The steps are decorated in red tiles, with accent tiles from places all over the world. That day, Selarón himself was sitting on the stairs, taking pictures with people and proclaiming his art. He looks a bit like a frumpy Salvadore Dali.

Next, we visited the Catholic Cathedral, which was designed to look like a pyramid from the Yucatan Peninsula. It’s right in the middle of downtown, and is fairly uninviting on the outside, but enchanting on the inside, the way they used the stained glass windows for lighting. Next year, World Youth Day will be held in Rio, and I’m sure Pope Benedict XVI will offer Mass at the cathedral. That should be a beautiful event.

Through downtown, we headed for the Sambodromo, the site of the world’s most famous street party, Carnival! It doesn’t look like much on a typical Monday in the winter, but oh, how it rocks in February! We had the opportunity to try on Carnival costumes, but Scott wouldn’t do it, so I declined, though I did so want my picture taken while wearing a fruit hat a la Carmen Miranda!

Next, we drove through the beach towns and finally arrived at the base of Pão de Açúcar (Sugarloaf Mountain), where we saw climbers scaling the rocks, and watched the cable cars ascend to the first mountain and then continue on to the top of the second mountain. We had to wait only about ten minutes, though in the high season, I’m sure that wait is hours. But oh my, it’s worth the wait!

The view from the top of the Pão de Açúcar is simply splendid. (See the photos below.) We were, by the greatest good fortune, there at sunset. We couldn’t have planned our timing any better! I understand that there are many Rio de Janeirans who never get to see the sights from the top. What a lamentable tragedy. They need to see the splendor of their city from the top of the mountain. It’s unforgettable.

Our tour ended with a nighttime drive past the beaches again, as they set up the nightly street market along the Copacabana beach road. Our regret is that we didn’t stop and walk along the market that night. Oh well, next visit.

Tuesday, we spent the day at the beach again, though we couldn’t really swim, since the riptides were too severe. On Saturday, the water had been calm, with great bodysurfing waves. Tuesday, you took your life in your hands if you went deeper than your thighs.

Before leaving, we ate lunch at the Garotta de Ipanema (Girl from Ipanema) Restaurant. What a meal, and what a location! We highly recommend it as a must-visit.

Flew home Tuesday evening, declaring that we would be back at the first opportunity. We all felt rejuvenated and were beginning to understand why people love Brazil. And Rio itself, what a city!