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Travelogue: Rio de Janeiro

rioI finally got around to blogging my travels to South America. It was an unforgettable 11-day adventure with three of my closest friends that involved eight flights, numerous shuttle buses, cable cars, car rides and boat rides. Because of our limited time we really tried to pack as much into our schedules as possible. We planned a mix of sightseeing and relaxation.

We started our adventure in the famous city of Rio de Janiero. Rio is the second largest city in Brazil and the third largest in Latin America. It is a very vibrant and photogenic city filled with beautiful people, stunning landscapes and brimming with urban art and murals. The culture in Brazil is one of the world’s most varied and diverse, due to being a melting pot of nationalities including indigenous people, descendents of African slaves and European immigrants.

We took an overnight flight from Miami and arrived in Rio bright and early at 6 am. Our hotel offered a free shuttle service and we checked in and grabbed our shuttle to the hotel. When we arrived at the hotel, The Windsor Copa Hotel, our room wasn’t ready, so we took our bags up to the roof top pool area showered and freshened up before beginning our eight hour tour of the city. The views from the hotel were really lovely and I couldn’t wait to see more of Rio’s beauty!

Roof top view at The Windsor Copa Hotel
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Sugar Loaf Mountain
We had arranged a guide/driver we found on the Tours by Locals website. Our guide, Michael, was waiting in lobby for us when we arrived at the hotel. The cloud cover kept us from visiting and seeing Rio’s most famous landmark, Christ the Redeemer. We said a prayer that we’d get to see him before we left. Instead, we drove to Urca and took the cable car up Sugar Loaf Mountain (Pao de Acucar). Still we didn’t get to see Christ, but we were treated to magnificent sweeping views of the expansive bay and the beaches. I had one of the best cups of coffee of my life at the cafe at the top.
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Copacabana Beach
The most visited beach in Rio and the most famous in Brazil. It’s probably what comes to mind when people think of Brazil aside from samba, soccer, carnival and beautiful women. The 60’s style hotels line the avenue along the beach there. Our hotel was only a block from Copacabana beach. We strolled down to the beach and along the iconic sidewalk of Copacabana with it’s black and white swirling mosaic pattern. There’s a bike /running path along the beach and you can get your exercise in like all the fit locals. The beach here is lovely, but it’s public and therefore not peaceful. Peddlers will interrupt your nap every few minutes trying to sell you souvenirs, jewelry and sarongs. There are plenty of supermarkets and things to do in the surrounding neighborhood.  We enjoyed dinner our first evening at a traditional Brazilian steak house (called a Churrascaria). Churrascaria Palace was only a block from the hotel and deemed one of the best in Rio. After a very indulgent and authentically Brazlian dinner of assorted steaks and meats, we walked to the evening market. It takes place in the middle of the median of Avenida Atlântica, the road that parallels the seaside. The market is filled with vendors selling everything from trinkets, art, clothing, bathing suits and even the famous Brazilian flip flops, Havaianas.
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We spent an afternoon in Ipanema. We started with some shopping at the boutiques and had a very long lunch at Gorata de Ipanema Bar (the Girl from Ipanema) that involved numerous rounds of caipirinhas. When in Brazil you must try one, it’s the national drink of Brazil made with cachaça (a sugarcane hard liquor), muddled with lime and brown sugar. They are delicious, but strong, so proceed with caution. After lunch we stumbled down to section of the beach called Post 9 aka Ipanema Beach. The beaches in Rio are divided into segments they call postos where the lifeguard towers are located. It was cool day and we had the beach mostly to ourselves. It was too cloudy to see the tops of the two iconic mountains called the Dois Irmãos (Two Brothers) that rise up at the western end of the beach.
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Rio 16Rio 17DSC_2215Leblon

Leblon is considered the most affluent neighborhood in Rio. It neighbors Ipanema. It’s a peaceful, posh upscale area with quiet beaches and streets lined with chic apartment buildings, boutiques, restaurants. lounges and bars. We didn’t spend too much time here, but stopped at one of the Coconut Water stands here to take in the quiet view. In the hills above Leblon you can see one of Rio’s famous favelas (the Brazilian name for slums), Vidigal. It’s rumored that both David Beckham and Madonna recently purchased homes in Vidigal. Apparently real estate in the favela has quickly skyrocketed due to it’s stunning seaside views. Shacks that were once going for $5k  are now selling for over half a million! Whoah!

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Arcos de Lapa
Arcos da Lapa used to be an aqueduct in the city of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The aqueduct was built in the middle of the 18th century to bring fresh water from the Carioca river to the population of the city. It is an impressive example of colonial architecture and engineering.
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Rio 26DSC_1568Escadaria Selarón (The Selarón Stairway)

The Escadaria Selarón was probably my favorite site in Rio. It was a colorful, charming place that just felt alive. I felt like I was in the heart of Rio with all the energy, people, colors, and music. The steps are the work of the late Chilean-born artist Jorge Selarón who claimed it as “my tribute to the Brazilian people”. He decorated the steps with tiles donated from thousands of travelers from all over the world. It was a labor of love for Selarón who resided in the same house by the steps he lived in when he started the work. To think that one man designed such a moving artistic creation is unbelievable. There are over 250 steps that stretch from Lapa up to the neighborhood of Santa Teresa.
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Christ the Redeemer
On our second day in Rio, our prayers were answered, because the clouds lifted and we were able to get a glimpse of one of the seven wonders of the world the Christ the Redeemer statue. From the top of Corcovado (that’s the name of the mountain the statue rests upon), you can take in the the magnificent expanse of Rio beaches, cityscape, favelas, Guanabara Bay, the lagoon and Sugar Loaf mountain. We arrived first thing in the morning, right at opening and were able to avoid large crowds of people. We had the statue mostly to ourselves for the first 30 minutes or so. As we left, we watched the people lining up to ride the bus up.
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Santa Teresa
Our next stop after the statue was the quaint hillside neighborhood of Santa Teresa. This is one place I wish we had more time to explore. It’s a captivating area filled with a bohemian spirit, cobblestone streets, and aging 19th-century mansions. The area was booming in the 1890’s but fell into neglect when Rio’s slum’s spread into nearby hillsides. Since the 1970’s however, many artists, writers and musician moved into the area and began restoring some of the aging homes. This has breathed new life and creativity into this area. The area is filled with studios and galleries. We visited The Parque das Ruinas, a burned shell of a mansion that once belonged to Brazilian heiress Laurinda Santos Lobo. Her home was a salon for Rio’s artist and intellectuals during the 1920s and 30s. It’s a really cool use of a historic home in disrepair and the sweeping panoramic views of Rio from the rooftop are stunning. The mansion is free to visit and there were no crowds. There is also an art gallery in the basement.
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Rio 43Rio de Janeiro Cathedral
This distinctive-shaped building is a Catholic Cathedral also called the Metropolitan Cathedral of Saint Sebastian it was built between 1964-1979. Architect Edgar de Oliveira based the design on Mayan pyramids in the Yucatan and gave the structure a conical shape. This church is massive in size. Most Brazilians are Catholic — Brazil is the country with the highest number of Catholics in the world. In 2013, Pope Francis spoke here at one of the largest masses ever held.
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Windsor Palace Hotel
I have to be budget conscious when I travel so I chose to stay at the Windsor and I was very happy with it. Rio can be an expensive city to stay in, but this hotel offers an affordable alternative. The location was great, only one block off Av. Atlantico. They offer a free shuttle service to and from the hotel, but you need to book that separately in advance and bring printed vouchers with you when you arrive at the airport. They offer beach towels and umbrellas. There is a small rooftop pool that has a bar and some nice views of the beaches.

Rio Scenarium

On our last night in Rio we made a reservation for dinner at Rio Scenarium. It’s located in the colorful neighborhood of Lapa in an old building that was once an antique shop. The walls are lined with all kinds of funky decor and antiques and it has a kind of a 1950’s feel to it you feel a bit like you’ve been transported back in time. One thing to note, is that since it is a night club they charge a cover and you will need your passport. They also take a picture of you. Don’t ask me, it’s just how the clubs work there. Having the reservation got us a table with a view of the stage and the talented line up of samba bands that played throughout the night. The food was average, but the music was anything but average. Having the table, we were free to sit back and sip caipirhinas while enjoying the music or take to the dance floor. The place was filled with people of all ages and types of people from Brazilians to tourists.

Language Tips

I would suggest learning some basic Portuguese phrases. They came in really handy when we were shopping in the night market.  Write them down and keep them with you. Here are a few phrases I found useful…

Bom dia“Bong jee-ah” – Good morning
Obrigado(a)“O-bree-ga-doo (da)” – Thank you (use the “a” at the end if you are a female)
Quanto custa?“Kwan-toe coo-sta” – How much does it cost?
Com liçensa“Cong lee-sense-ah” – Excuse me
Tchas“Chow” – Goodbye

Safety Tips
I had no issues in Rio while I was there, but I encourage everyone to always be aware of your surroundings. Do not walk alone at night, take a taxi after dark. You can have the restaurant or hotel call you a reputable taxi. Disappoint muggers and carry only what you need (carry a photocopy of your passport instead). Hang out with people who know the city like a guide or local friend. Avoid favelas. Don’t flash your wealth. Keep your expensive camera out of sight until you need to use it or use a smaller less flashy camera. Use common sense.
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