After living in Chile for 26 years and hearing so many wonderful stories from many people visiting Brasil, and its spectacular beaches, nature, and people it was now finally the time for us to check it out. Estella, Amanda, and I spent our last week of the year in Rio de Janeiro as a vacation within our already traditional vacation in Chile. The following map shows the basic geographic setting of Rio.
We arrived on Christmas late at night and things did not look very promising and Estella was wondering if we had made a wise choice of vacation place. We had to travel to a series of dark and very roughly finished tunnels to go from the International Airport (top-right in the picture) to Barray de Tijuca that is where we stayed (middle-left). This long route that took almost 2 hourspartly due to a huge traffic jam around the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon (right in the middle of Rio) because of the very large attendance to the Ipanema beach on that Holiday. Part of this hassle could have been avoided if I had carried some Brasilian currency to pay the toll for new freeway (that we took the last day) that connects the airport directly with Barra de Tijuca !
Things started to feel better as soon as we arrived at the hotel Sheraton Barra, Hotel & Suites, in Barra de Tijuca, that was excellent, highly recommended. It had a wonderful tropical buffet beakfast included (we tried all sorts of delicious ropical fruits I had never seen before), it's located right on the beach, had 2 squash courts that was a very nice surprice, and 3 swimming pools that were the delight for Amanda who spend lots of time in a 2 foot deep children's pool playing Ariel the litle Mermaid with me, King Triton :-)
Initially we had planned to spend our 6 days in Rio and surrounding areas, but Rio in itself was interesting enough to take all of our time and we got to know it well. We rented a car to get around. A word of caution: my brasilian friend Angelica at work had warned me that people drive very badly in Brazil. I told her, "no problem, I am used to people driving badly because I drove in Chile for many years and I am used to that". I was very wrong!. The driving in Rio is an order of magnitude worse. The red color in a traffic light has a different meaning, "stop if somebody is crossing, otherwise think of it as green"! After a couple of days I got used to it and still had to drive very, very alert all the time. People will cross from any direction, there is no safe lane to be on (I tried all possibilities without luck!) the police is basically non existent, and miracously I did not see any accident. If you are not used to at least a level of bad driving from places such as Chile, Mexico, Greece, or Italy, I would not recommend you rent a car because it can take away some of the fun of the vacation. There are plenty of taxis and the distances are relatively short. For us however, after the first shock it was a bit fun to feel like a native driver... :-)
Out first stop was to the famous and "must see" Pão de Açúcar. Two cable cars lift you 396m (1300ft) above Rio and the Baía de Guanabara (Guanaraba Bay). The first stop provides a wonderful view of Guanabara Bay, and the second provides an outstanding view of all Rio de Janeiro and its impressive geography mixing beaches, city and green mountains. The pictures speak for themselves, it's remarkable.
Another of the symbols of Rio is our second attraction, the 750 m (2,343 feet) Corcovado mountain and its very large (around 70 feet) Christ the Redeemer statue overseeing Rio. To get up there it's part of the fun. There is a traditional looking train that takes you almost all the way to the top going through very steep ridges and crossing through a dense forest that allow you to take also glimpses of the city. Once you arrive to the top a few elevators will bring you to the very top. These elevators were built a few years back to allow the Pope to go all the way up more easily. The Corcovado mountain is part of the Tijuca National Park, which was in 1991 declared by UNESCO biosphere reserve.
It was a warn day and we had to wait for probably hour and a half to take the train that was actually very entertaining (probably 15 minutes ride). Our surprise was significant when we finally got all the way in front of Christ the Redeemer and realized that he was not available for us, a bunch of tourist. Even though we had a reasonable view of Rio, the fog was exactly at our level and could only see his face appear for a few seconds here and there. We had lunch to make some time but unfortunately we did not get a change to see his face. Interestingly enough as soon as we got down the mountain it was totally clear enough to see him from the bottom. Some people may complain about the nature of the events, but I see this just as an open invitation to return to Rio at another time :-)
Angelica also strongly recommended we visited one of her favorites eateries. It called Marius and it's actually composed of two restaurants sitting next to each other, one for Meats and one for Crustaceous. It's located right in front of the beach in Av. Atlántico in Copacabana. We went to the meat one where in addition to having an incredible buffet, the real attraction is the various types of meat that they keep bringing to your table using a sword to serve it to you. This place is known by many as one of the best in Rio, and it's also highly recommended. Do not eat too much that day (or for that matter the days before too!), to really enjoy this place fully.
No doubt that the Sugar Loft and the Corcovado are unmistaken symbols of Brasil, but the real heart of Rio is the spirit of the beach and the people. The beaches are Copacabana (oldest, most traditional and with more popular attendance), Ipanema and Leblon frequented by more "beautiful people" and Barra de Tijuca that is the newer and more exclusive very long beach. Things that call our attention immediately is that along the beach there are people of all ages jogging and riding bicycles all day long, even after midnight. This is partly possible for the wonderful weather. When we were there the maximum was around 28-30C (86-90F), and it would drop in the evening to around 24C (75F). All you need all day long is a t-shirt, shorts, and sandals, even when walking at midnight along the beach. Copacabana has a huge number of volleyball courts all along the beach, one next to each other, and people play all day Volleyball, Soccer, and "Volleyball" with their feet. The beaches are also illuminated enabling to play at any time. In fact many people prefer to play at night when the temperature goes "down". Ipanema was solid pack and is very colorful, full of people, including tents and massage tables right on the beach, people walking around selling all type of beach goods. Just walking the beach is very entertaining and exposes the real spirit of Rio. We heard from a few people that Rio is where people play and have fun. Sao Paulo is where people work to pay the party !
Right in the middle of Rio adjacent to the Lagoon and a few minutes away from Copacabana and Ipanema you can find one of the great tropical botanical gardens in the world. Jardim Botânico do Rio de Janeiro was founded on June 13, 1808 by Dom João VI, who then was prince regent of United Kingdom of Brazil and Portugal. It has various areas, some of them brought from overseas including many flavors of Brazilian species, the central fountain surrounded by royal palm trees, was wrought in England and brought to the park from Lapa in 1905, and a Japanese garden.
To close the trip we could not miss a good folklore show exposing the magic, colors, and sensuality of Brasil. The show included Capoeira, Macumba, and of course Samba and a closing carnival with outstanding customs inviting all of us the tourist to participate.
We flew back to Chile on Dec. 31 even though several people asked us why. The reason for the question is that the New Year celebration in Copacabana is a smaller version of the Carnival of Rio. All people dressing in white descend to the beach to celebrate the arrival of the new year with massive fireworks, music, dancing, etc...brasilian style.We flew back that evening in a very unusual flight. We were around 10 passengers, and 8 people in the crew, a total of under 20 people flying a Boing 767, one of the largest airplanes around. The picture speaks by itself!