2016 South America Trip – Rio de Janeiro

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To be honest, I was never that really interested in going to Rio or anywhere in Brazil.

Sure, Angela and I had taken a few years of Portuguese classes, but that was because our boss was afraid the Portuguese teacher would leave, so he made all of us English teachers learn the basics of the language in case she left.

But I’d already been to a Portuguese speaking country (Portugal), as well as other South American countries whose cultural interests I thought were more in line with my own. I love Argentina, after all: it’s got tons of grilled beef, the people there love rock music, they stay up super late, and they speak a language that I can already speak.

Brazil, on the other hand, just conjured up images of Samba dancers, nonstop parties, and a language that sounded like Spanish if you took a hard hit to the head. None of those are bad for the average traveler, but I don’t like to dance, I’m not a party animal, and I figured there was really no need to learn Portuguese if I already spoke enough other foreign languages.

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Despite Will’s whiny face, he actually had a good time, and things got much better in Rio.

After only a few hours in the city, though, I had to drastically shift my understanding of Rio, Brazil, and even the language, and all changed for the better. But first we had to get to Rio from Buenos Aires. You’d think that would be easy, since they’re fairly close to one another. But if there’s anything living in Costa Rica for 10 years has taught me, it’s that the motto of most of Latin America seems to be “You’d think that…”

Anyhow, our route from Buenos Aires to Rio de Janeiro was a bit ridiculous. We had a 12-hour layover in Lima, Peru. If you look at a map of South America, you’ll see exactly why that was so ridiculous.

Nevertheless, that was the only option with the free award tickets we’d gotten, so we certainly made the best of it. Since we were traveling in business class, we got access to a great lounge in Peru that even included food, drinks, massage chairs, a shower room, and an area for children. So there were certainly worse ways to spend a layover.

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Will and I did a few hours of this. He loved walking down the moving walkway, but every time it ended he’d start crying since he couldn’t get right back on. It took about 6 turns after he realized we had to go back to the start first.

We also took the opportunity to go to a clinic within the airport, where a doctor checked out Will. She said that he was basically OK, but he just had a cold. And it did seem like his cough was getting better, but we still thought it would be worth getting checked out, especially since the clinic only charged a few dollars.

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Will in the awesome airport lounge in Lima, Peru. He was way more interested in picking up the rocks than in using the free massage chairs.

And he was mellowing out a bit. Perhaps since he’d already ruined his uncle Paul’s 30th birthday (mission accomplished!), he felt he’d gotten that out of his system, and he was behaving better on the plane and in the hotels. As we were very pleased to find out, that trend would generally continue to Rio, where he seemed to have a really good time.

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Our first “Pipoqueiro,” or “popcorn vendor.” We’d read about them in our Portuguese book, but we didn’t really think they existed. We were surprised to see them all over the place! They have sweet or salty popcorn and it’s pretty cheap. This guy was friendly, but he was wondering why I wanted a picture until I explained that he was the first pipoqueiro we’d ever met. Then he just thought we were weird, but still agreed to a picture.

We’d only planned on a few days in Rio (three nights, to be exact) since Paul had said that his experience there hadn’t been so great. But with hindsight, we realized that he’d had a completely different experience, and we kinda regretted not staying longer.

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Rio’s Finest (presumably–I’m not sure what Brazilian cops are like) keep an eye on Ipanema as the sun goes down behind the mountain.

The two biggest differences between Paul’s Rio visit and ours were likely that he was there during Carnival (strike one), and he was also staying quite far outside of the main areas of the city, in Niteroi (strike two). That surely had some advantages, but we didn’t have to deal with either of those elements. Another thing that I believe hurt Paul’s perception of the city was that he hadn’t really learned much Portuguese (strike three). So all in all, the basic elements of our trips were very different.

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Our hotel, a Sheraton in Leblon. You can see the confluence of beach (left), city (center), and mountain (right) all in the same place. It was truly cool.

When we landed at the airport, we asked a tourist information person about taxis, and they quickly got us one directly to our hotel. I know that there are cheaper alternatives, but we weren’t looking for cheap. It was about 6 am, and we had a kid in tow, and we just wanted to get to the hotel ASAP. And it wasn’t even that expensive in the end.

Our taxi driver was exceedingly friendly, and he pointed out all of the sights along the way. It quickly became apparent why it’s nicknamed “the marvelous city.” I’ve never seen such a unique combination of city, mountains, and beaches, and it was all crammed together in such an intriguing way. We passed many sights along the way including the big soccer stadium, the lagoon where they’ll hold many Olympic events, the Christ statue, and Copacabana and Ipanema beaches. It was early Sunday morning, and there was hardly any traffic. The city was in Full Charm Mode, and that continued once we got to the hotel.

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The ridiculously beautiful view from the hotel’s top-floor restaurant. We got in really early, so they let us have a free breakfast and then wait in the lounge until our room was ready. Classy place.

I checked in and I noticed a trend that had started with the taxi driver and continued the entire time we were in Rio: if I initiated a conversation in (my broken, crappy) Portuguese, the other person invariably responded in Portuguese, and they hardly dumbed it down or slowed it down for me. I would have thought that might be frustrating, but it was actually a bit thrilling. Even after 10 years of speaking Spanish and living in Costa Rica, people still try to speak English with me when they see the way I’m dressed or learn my name. The same thing happened to me when speaking German in Germany, despite the fact that I lived there for two years and have an Masters Degree in the language. People in both places often say they just want to practice English, and that’s fine although annoying, I suppose, but I didn’t have to deal with any of that in Rio. It was finally my turn to practice.

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Will and I practice our Portuguese with some kid at the kids’ pool. Will’s Portuguese is just about as good as his English or his Spanish. Or his German or Chinese. That’s to say, it’s nearly non-existent. He’s the strong, silent, groaning type.

Anyhow, the hotel was wonderful. We got there a few weeks after Carnival, so the hotel prices were literally less than half they had been when I checked prices during Carnival. I also think that there might have been a “calm after the storm” when it comes to Carnival, because things didn’t seem ridiculously packed anywhere we went.

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Sunset at the hotel pool, which always had at least a few open chairs.

The biggest thing going on when we were in town was a concert by the Rollings Stones. Their crew apparently stayed in our hotel, actually. Late one night I was wheeling Will around in his stroller in the lobby and the elevators, and a few guys got on to the elevator we were in. They said that kids were great, and I saw their badges and asked if they were connected to the band. One guy said he was Keith Richards’ guitar tech, and gave me two picks with the Stones’ logo to give to Will when he was old enough to appreciate them. Pretty cool!

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Angela and Will on the boardwalk between Leblon and Ipanema.

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Angela and a sleeping Will. The streets were closed off because it was Sunday, and I guess that’s what they do on Sundays. It was full of walkers, joggers, and bikers.

The other advantage that we had was that we were staying in Leblon, a pretty safe area of Rio that is very close to some of the nicest (or at least most popular) beaches, but which is also a bit set apart. That meant that the hotel we stayed at had a lot more space than in the main beaches like Ipanema, but it was still only a 15-minute walk on a scenic boardwalk to get to that beach. That space also meant that the hotel had two pools, direct access to a beach, a children’s area, and a lot of nice amenities that are probably less common in hotels in the packed areas of Ipanema or Copacabana. Long story short: Will had a lot more room and things to do to use up his energy.

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The entrance to the beach from our hotel.

We didn’t do a lot of stuff in Rio, but that was fine with us. We had been getting tired of moving around constantly. We basically chose one main activity for each of the days we’d be there, and spent the rest of the time hanging out. We also had access to the hotel’s lounge, which included a delicious breakfast in the morning, and snacks, coffee, and drinks during the rest of the day. So we were pretty set.

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Angela at “A Casa da Feijoada,” possibly eyeing the pigs’ feet.

We walked to Ipanema beach a few times, and we went out to dinner at a few restaurants. A highlight was A Casa da Feijoada, a restaurant specializing in feijoada, a traditional Brazilian dish of beans, rice, tons of meat and sausage, kale, orange slices, and a few other tidbits. It even included an appetizer of liquid beans, an aperitif with either passion fruit or lemon, dessert, and coffee. It was pretty great, and the best part was that Will slept in his stroller the whole time!

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A cool way to finish off our meal at “A Casa da Feijoada”: free coffee in a cool Breaking Bad-style coffeemaker called “O Globinho” (“the little globe”). It was really cool and I was tempted to buy one, but at $100 it was too hard to justify even for me, although I can sure justify a lot when it comes to coffee.

On the day before we left we also headed up Corcovado mountain to see the Christ the Redeemer statue that Rio is famous for. It was a really hot day, the road on the bus was curvy, and the peak was absolutely packed with people taking pictures, but it was still worth it. It was a great place with a spectacular view. A highlight was watching planes come in from far in the distance, turn around, and land at the airport. I could also see Sugar Loaf Mountain, another spot that I would have liked to visit, but time and Angela’s dislike of heights put the stops on that for this visit.

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“Bring it on!”

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Angela and Will. And Jesus.

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Will and I. And Jesus.

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Lots and lots of people, and all of them taking selfies (except me).

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A view of the city and the airport, including the bridge to Niteroi.

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Another view from the top. This one includes the lagoon where they’ll do some of the Olympic events, and you can even see our hotel behind the mountain (if you squint).

So all in all, despite the fact we landed in Rio with a very skeptical attitude, we left almost enchanted. The people were very friendly and we never really had any negative experiences (except when I took a wrong turn on a street that led us in the wrong direction right before a downpour). In short, it was just what we needed to semi-rehabilitate the trip and leave a positive impression in our minds as we headed home.

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A view from our room of the hotel grounds and the neighborhood, with Ipanema beach and Corcovado far in the background.

Still, I don’t want to paint a picture that’s too divorced from reality, because there certainly are some downsides to Rio. Before you go, the main thing you hear about is poverty crime poverty crime murder poverty crime. And crime. But we never saw anything nearly approaching that first-hand.

The one thing that you do see, though, are the favelas. They’re basically like slums that climb up the mountains that surround the city; the higher you go, the poorer the place tends to be. We didn’t do any of the “favela tours” that I read about, since it seemed a bit perverse to marvel at the poverty of others. But you could definitely see them. However, even in the photo above, if you zoom in a bit, you’ll see that the houses near to the bottom are pretty normal and even nice, and we saw a guy hanging out in his pool a few times. So the reality is pretty complex, and it’s something we couldn’t ever hope to comprehend in such a short stay. We did take some basic safety precautions, though, like taking taxis after dark and not carrying around a lot of cash, but we never felt unsafe. Actually, we felt a lot safer than we feel when we go to San José, the capital of Costa Rica!

I also know that we were exceedingly lucky to have had the resources to stay where we did. Even though we got the plane tickets for free, the hotel was pricey, even with points, and I know that most families aren’t able to stay in places like that. But having said that, I should also point out that for people from the United States, at least, the miles and points game is open to everyone, and with a bit of work and research, you can find some really great deals.

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The favela next to our hotel at night. You can see the Christ the Redeemer statue is lit up blue in the distance.

Hopefully we can go back to Rio someday, but we’ll just have to see what the future brings. Will even seemed to have a great time. We were surprised how happy he got whenever he heard people speaking Portuguese, and he even tried to copy them–especially if they were shouting to other people! He also ate pretty well and was generally about 500% less of a pain in the butt than he’d been in the other places.

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Will eating “Pão de Queijo,” aka “Cheese Bread,” in the Rio airport.

So all in all, it was a nice end to a very interesting trip. Thanks very much for reading these posts and for checking out the pictures. I hope you enjoyed them!

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