Sunday, March 20, 2011

A Taste of Brazil: A Week in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

It's hard to picture a place until you really go there and experience it. I didn't know what to expect in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, beside what I'd seen in the pictures in books and online, and the information I'd read in guidebooks. So I had a vague sense that Rio was a huge city with a tropical climate, miles and miles of beaches, mountains, rainforests and more. I'd read several areas of the city weren't safe and it was easy to get pick-pocketed, mugged or robbed (however I usually felt quite safe, as police are always around and most areas of the city seemed safe). I knew the Carnaval we would attend would be busy and crowded with lots of people in different costumes, and lots of samba bands. And I knew there were some famous songs written about Copacabana and Ipanema beaches... But all of that just gave me a small sense of what I'd actually experience in Rio.

Monday
Rio de Janeiro really is a beautiful city with a tropical climate, miles of beaches, mountains, rainforests and more. Right away, I noticed the warmth and humidity, especially compared to a very cold climate I live in. On the first day, I noticed the city was green with many tropical palm and coconut trees, other fruit trees, and flowers around.




We wandered around the area of the city our hotel was located after we were settled, trying to find our way with use of my map/directions on my phone. We eventually made our way to a large lake, Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas. It was a bit foggy and misty, but we could still see the lake, with the green hills and mountains around it, and tropical trees all around. Many people ran, biked or walked around the lake, and some rowboats and paddleboats were out on the lake. The lake seemed to get larger as we walked around, as we kept thinking we must be at least halfway around it by now, and we were getting tired... We also kept looking for restaurants we'd read about, but I think they must have been on the other side of the lake, because we never found them. Eventually it began to rain, and we were so tired of walking (especially after traveling all day) and we were hungry, so we took the bus back to our hotel. We ate a Brazilian buffet, where our food was charged by the kilo (how much our plate weighed), and we tried some grilled meats, tropical fruits and other food. Earlier, I also tried an acai smoothie at one of the many juice bars around Rio, where you could order many kinds of fresh fruit juices or smoothies.

Tuesday
In the morning, we took a bus to Cristo Redentor, the statue of Jesus up on the mountain Corcovado, overlooking Rio. We took a tram up the mountain and we could see awesome views of Rio from the top of the mountain. The Cristo Redentor was really impressive (38 meters high) and an amazing work of art. During the week, Cristo Redentor could be seen almost anywhere we went in Rio.



Later, we decided to take a cable car up to the Santa Theresa neighborhood, which I had read was an area where many artists lived, and an area with many old mansions. The cable car took us to the top of the hill in Santa Theresa, and then the cable car line ended. Most people stayed on the cable car and paid the additional fee. We got off and thought we'd explore the neighborhood. The driver seemed to think we were odd.

Soon, as we began to explore, we realized there was not much to see, so we walked for what seemed like miles until we got to the central part of the neighborhood. We were looking for a cafe or restaurant to eat at. Some friends we'd met walked with us. They had read about a Brazilian restaurant somewhere in the  neighborhood, and we found the street it was located on, but we still didn't find the restaurant. We asked for directions from a girl at the gate/door of one of the mansions (the girl was helpful but I couldn't understand any of the Portuguese), from some men at a construction site and from some guys in a truck, and eventually we found the restaurant, Aprazivel.

Aprazivel was definitely the best restaurant I ate at in Rio. It was mostly outdoors, with bamboo roofs, like several huts, over various sections of the restaurant. Our table was in its own "hut," on the second level, and we could see beautiful views of the sea and Rio through the trees around us. The food was excellent; I had duck in a white wine sauce, with petit gateau (a warm chocolate cake with ice cream and hot fudge sauce) and a tropical fruit caipirinha. We sat and enjoyed dinner and conversations as the sun set behind us. Later we met the owner, who explained how she had been running the restaurant for many years and had added on to it over time, and how she really enjoyed it, even though it was a lot of work. Aprazivel was well worth the search and the hike through Santa Theresa to find.


Wednesday
The next day we decided to try to surf. We stopped at one of the surf shops nearby and rented surfboards for the day. I felt like a pro already, walking through the streets and along the Ipanema beach, carrying my long yellow surfboard. I'd never surfed before, and the waves were gigantic. We watched some of the real pros surf and catch the giant waves... Then we decided to move to a calmer beach (Copacabana Beach). The waves were more manageable for a beginner surfer like me, but I still managed to wipe out quite a few times! I flipped in the water a few times, feeling the current of the ocean, getting salt water up my nose and trying to feel for the sand beneath me to push myself back up above water. I eventually got used to balancing on the board, and I'd try again, paddling towards the waves to try to catch a wave. Once I managed to push myself up to my knees on the surfboard and catch the wave briefly. It was fun but exhausting! I mostly rode the waves while lying on the surfboard. I'll have to have much more practice before I can join the real pros on the gigantic waves!

Later we found a cafe with excellent cappuccinos topped with whipped cream and cinnamon. Confeitaria Colombo was in the Centro district and looked like a classic old cafe, from the 20s or so. It had a stained glass ceiling, dark wood bar, a huge selection of desserts (tortes, chocolate cakes, fruit tarts and more) and really good cappuccinos. I always enjoy finding interesting cafes when I travel, especially if they have good drinks!

Thursday


We had wanted to go see Pao de Acucar (Sugar Loaf Mountain), a pretty mountain in Rio. We took the bus to it, and we found a hiking path up the first peak of the mountain. We hiked through the forest, past tropical trees and moss-covered rocks, dried creek beds, hanging vines, bamboo trees and more. We heard birds and other animals in the forest as we climbed and hiked. I didn't feel like we were in Rio anymore, it felt like we were really in a big forest. At the top of the first mountain we rested and had drinks and enjoyed a view of Rio. Then we took a cable car to the top of Sugar Loaf Mountain, a steep mountain with rocky cliffs all around it. When we arrived at the top, the fog  had completely engulfed the mountain. Our view was not as great as we'd hoped, but the fog moved some, so I could see areas of the city, ocean, ships, islands, etc.


Friday
I had been looking forward to taking a jeep tour of the Parque Nacional da Tijuca, the rainforest in Rio. I had envisioned hiking through the rainforest and seeing many waterfalls and different animals, but it wasn't quite like that... We waited around our hotel for over an hour for the jeep to pick us up and our tour was much shorter than planned. Eventually our jeep arrived, and we drove through part of  Rio in the open-air jeep, with our guide pointing out sites of interest on the way. The roads were windy in the forest, so I looked straight ahead at the road, to avoid getting motion sickness. We stopped at a few places that had awesome views of Rio. I thought we'd get to hike more or see more animals in the forest, but we didn't really have time to do that. I did see a toucan, which was cool. And a giant spider making a web. And some fish. That's about it. We also saw a few pretty waterfalls. I think if we had known a local to guide us around the forest, it would have been more of an in-depth, true experience of the rainforest. Or maybe I just need to go to the Amazon. I think I'll add that to my list of places to go!


After the tour, we stopped at a pretty beach where several hang-gliders were landing. Several of the hang-gliding operators were talking to tourists, like us, and trying to talk people into going. Somehow, after I asked several questions regarding the safety of hang-gliding and how much experience the instructor had, I was convinced to go hang-gliding. If I would have thought about it too long, I think I would have gotten scared and changed my mind, but I just decided to take the risk and do it. And it was an awesome experience, getting a birds'-eye view of Rio. I could see the forest below us, the ocean, the beaches and scattered islands in front of us, the city around us, Sugar Loaf Mountain and other sites from the air. And it really felt like we were flying, like we were being carried by the air, like birds. The scariest part was running down a wood board off a cliff with my instructor when we started, but once we were in the air it was calm and peaceful. My instructor talked and pointed out interesting sights as we flew.

Saturday/Sunday
Carnaval weekend was busy, with street parties all over the city and samba music heard anywhere we went. The streets were busy with lots of people, in all sorts of costumes, including rainbow mohack wigs, pink tutus, feathery headdresses, superheroes, cartoon characters and more. Everyone danced and sang to the samba bands, having a great time. I enjoyed just watching all the people.

We also relaxed on the beach some during the day. I'd read or write or just watch the ocean, and notice how it stretched as far as I could see, and listen to the waves crashing on the shore. It was very peaceful being by the water.


We also went to an old fort and walked around, seeing all the old buildings and the fort built into the cliff, Forte de Copacabana. We ate lunch at a cafe in the fort, with a great view of Copacabana Beach and Sugar Loaf Mountain. Chocolate shakes and omelets, very good!

One night we went to one of the Carnaval parades, held at night in the Sambodromo, a long building with grandstand seats stretching along each side of a street for several blocks. About 90,000 people fit in the Sambodrome, and it was really crowded. We arrived late (around 11 pm) and stood in the back row of the grandstand. At first, I could only see glimpses of the parade, through small spaces between people, while on my tiptoes (I'm not very tall). But soon we found a spot where we could see the parade well. We stood and watched each section of the parade, and sat on the ground for a few minutes during the breaks. The parade was over 6 hours long, with several samba schools performing, with performers wearing extravagant costumes. Several floats were colorful and large, with different themes for each one, such as movies like Avatar and Harry Potter. Fireworks went off between sections of the parade. I think we stayed and watched the parade for about 5 hours, and then we were so tired we went back to the hotel. I think I had samba music in my head for days afterwards!

Monday
On our last day, we wandered around and shopped near our hotel, and we stopped and had some fresh pineapple juice at one of the cafes along Copacabana beach. Later, we just relaxed at Copacabana beach. It was our last chance to be at one of the beaches in Rio, and it was a beautiful summer day. Relaxing at the beach seemed like exactly the right way for us to end a fun week in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, before flying home later that evening.

1 comment:

Barrett Caldwell said...

Sounds like you hit all the highlights! Totally agree with you from the NatGeo #TNI chat...UNBEATABLE TRIP!