Rio Baby!! June, 2016
So…..Jeri and I went to Rio de Janeiro. Something a bit different.
This started almost a year ago when American Airlines ran a very brief sale on Business class tickets to Rio. I’m quite the sucker for that type of thing. Add to that we were looking for something interesting to do for our anniversary, well….OK. It didn’t hurt that the horde of frequent flier miles we’d reap from the trip would amount to almost a third of what we’d need to requalify our lofty frequent flier status for 2017. But probably most important was that Rio was a place we hadn’t been and it needed exploring (and it was someplace other than Europe). So out came the badly abused credit card. We’re gonna wear that sucker out eventually.
Now neither of us knew crap about Rio or what there was to do there. Ummm….I guess that’s not fully accurate. We knew it had a Jiant Jesus statue, a big rock that’s supposed to look like a loaf (??) of sugar and something called “the Olympics” that was coming. Oh yeah, and Zika. Zika, Zika, ZIKA!!! And we’re all gonna die! Zika hysteria makes one long for the good old days of Ebola.
We set this up as one of our one week trips. While this may seem short for the money and travel time invested, we’ve found this approach works well for us. It’s short enough so we won’t get stuck in a place we don’t like. If we do like it, we’ll have enough familiarity to return for a longer, more comprehensive visit. We’re tourists, not travelers.
Oh, a note on the pictures…..They aren’t especially comprehensive of the trip. The reason being the weather was really crappy the first couple of days and I lacked picture taking enthusiasm (and I didn’t want to get my camera wet). So the photos tend to be from the latter portions of the trip.
The flight out
Initially booked into Business class, the outbound was LAX to JFK in New York, then a 4+ hour layover, followed by an overnight flight to Rio arriving around 8:30 in the morning. We were actually looking forward to the long, leisurely layover, eating free food in American’s Flagship Lounge and maybe even grabbing a shower.
The LAX – JFK flight was on one of American’s three class A321T aircraft, and I was able to get us upgraded to First class for free. I dunno, maybe I’m getting jaded but I didn’t like it much, despite it being one of American’s premier aircraft. I’m not sure why specifically. Nice seat, with a 1 x 1 configuration, but putting it in a relatively small plane seemed forced. Jeri, who is much more sensible than I, liked it quite a bit.
Things began to go a bit wonky before we even got out of LAX. Bad weather at JFK (in friggin’ June!!) delayed the departure of our flight until the crew timed out, so they had to dig up a new crew. Eventually we pushed back about two hours late and the captain told us weather at JFK was looking “bad”. As we got close to JFK the warning proved true and we had to circle for a while. Our massive layover time was melting away to not so much. We eventually arrived at the gate a little after 8 PM, just a tad later than our scheduled 5:30 PM arrival time. Because of our stupidly long layover time all we were missing out on were showers (not even qualifying as a First World Problem) but many of the others on our flight completely missed their connections.
As it turned out our Rio flight also ended up being around two hours late, not getting out until after midnight. Not sure why, as the aircraft had been at JFK since the prior afternoon. This actually worked to our benefit as our Rio arrival time got pushed back to after 10:30 AM the next morning which meant less time we’d have to kill before we could check in to our hotel. The newly refurbished 777-200 aircraft we were flying on had very nice lie-flat seats so I was able to get maybe 6 hours of sleep on the 10 hour flight.
The outbound journey ended up being a lot more stressful than I had expected, with our flights teetering on the very edge of cancellation as many were that day. And the journey was long, much further than our previous trips to Europe by over a thousand miles. I never really appreciated how far away Rio was.
We eventually spilled out of Rio’s newly refreshed (yay, Olympics!) international airport to find our slightly disgruntled driver waiting, having to deal with our 2+ hour late arrival. The amazingly sucktastic traffic through Rio resulted in our arrival at our hotel almost at Noon. This turned out fantastic, as we could actually check in! Showers for everyone.
As I mentioned, we knew nada about Rio which made figuring out where to stay a challenge. After a lot of Googling and forum reading, we decided on the Ipanema area of Rio and found a highly rated hotel (Ipanema Inn) only a block away from the beach. It wasn’t large or fancy, but it was very clean with excellent staff, good included breakfasts, and not expensive at all. The surrounding area was very upscale and safe, with dozens of restaurants and shops. Eating wasn’t going to be a problem.
We spent the remainder of our arrival day getting settled and exploring the neighborhood and beach. The weather forecast was showing rain for the next couple of days and it was already drizzly and very overcast. We were impressed with how thick the clouds must have been as it was getting really dark by 5 PM. It wasn’t until later that evening we realized what morons we were, managing to forget we were well south of the equator and it was winter. Duh….short days!
First full day – Food (!!!) tour
Jeri had signed us up for a walking food tour she found on Tripadvisor, which would occupy the bulk of the day. Starting at 11 AM gave us lots of time to relax in the morning, then we would have to make our way over to the Lapa district in Rio where the tour would start. I had wanted to take the very nice Metro system, but the nearest station to our hotel was about a half mile away, and it was now raining reasonably well. Crap….time for a cab.
Now I really dislike taking cabs, mainly due to previous unpleasant experiences. I am much more an Uber/Lyft sort of person. However since I didn’t activate my phone service in Rio, Uber was problematic. So we grabbed a cab at the hotel and prepared for the worst. Turned out quite the opposite. Apparently the presence of Uber has forced the cab fleets to significantly improve their service. And the cabs are everywhere. It wasn’t unusual to see half the vehicles at an intersection made up of cabs. Also they are very cheap, at least once one gets used to dividing the seemingly high meter total by three to get the approximate US dollar amount.
The food tour was great, and we wandered around the Lapa district popping into restaurants and sampling dishes. I found I really liked the very popular Brazilian “meal” of a pudding made up of blenderized Acai berries.
Also we discovered Brazilians use tapioca flour as much as other countries use wheat flour, however the unusual properties of tapioca results in a couple of dishes both Jeri and I went nuts for, Pao de Queijo and “tapioca crepes” (AKA beiju).
Pao de Queijo, or “cheese bread” are small balls of what looks like typical baked rolls. However biting into one reveals a chewy, cheesy interior. Little balls of hot, cheesy goodness! They are several steps beyond good, and are wildly popular in Brazil as a snack food. Considering there is only tapioca flour in them, they are gluten free and I’m amazed they haven’t found their way to the US as part of the “gluten free” fad. As an aside, while we were waiting in the AA lounge at the Rio airport for our return flight, the staff kept putting out trays of Pao de Queijo. They never lasted long, as the people in the lounge descended on them like starving vultures. We, of course, managed to get our fair share now that we knew what they were.
The other dish that amazed us were the “tapioca crepes”, or just “tapiocas” and were some sort of weird magic. Tapioca powder was sprinkled into a hot omelet pan, and within 30 seconds it began to sort of foam up (who knew tapioca could do this??). After a minute the cook then flipped the crepe-like thing and started cooking the other side. While that was going on, various fillings were added (cheese, ham, tomatoes, even bananas). It was then folded like an omelet and presented to the customer. Total elapsed time was less than three minutes. It had a texture like really chewy bread, looked sorta like a risen flour tortilla, with the tapioca itself having a neutral flavor. It was really a delivery system for whatever was folded inside. Again, why the hell isn’t this in the US??!
In addition to eating a lot on the tour, we also saw some of the important sights in the area like the Selarón Steps. Selarón was a rather eccentric artist who took up residence in the Lapa district, which was rather poor and ignored at the time. He got the idea that he wanted to tile a very long set of steps in an artistic manner. Since it was a poor area and he was a bit crazy, no one cared. Eventually it became a “thing”, and people from all over the world brought him tiles to add. It contributed greatly to the revitalization of the Lapa distinct (AKA gentrification).
Second full day – Private tour
To get the most out of our time/money, we did something we almost never do. We hired a private tour guide for the day. She was going to drive us to the major sights in Rio, as well as anywhere else we wanted. And now seeing the insanity that is Rio traffic, this seemed to be a most excellent idea. What we didn’t expect was Rio weather.
After a drive along the Copacabana beachfront where Olympic preparations were going on, we reached the base of Sugarloaf where the aerial tram departs and discovered one of the unexpected benefits of using a private driver/guide…..parking seemed to materialize out of nowhere. Our guide would motion to someone seemingly just standing around, and in an apparently full parking lot a space would appear. Our guide was certainly well connected!
Because of the rainy weather, few tourists were headed up the tram. The clouds were low enough that the top of Sugarloaf would sometimes disappear into the clouds. But since it might be our only visit to Rio we thought, “why not?” While the view was only OK, it was interesting to see a tramway that’s been operating since 1912. And it was nicely cold on top.
Leaving Sugarloaf, our guide took us into the old, central part of Rio, not far from where we had been on the food tour. We stopped at the conical shaped Rio cathedral and had a look inside. Pretty neat.
Our guide told us that traffic patterns have been changing day by day, usually Olympic preparations related. She pointed out several closed streets that had been open only a couple of days earlier. Weirder than that (at least to a reformed traffic engineer), was that directional traffic flow had completely switched on some streets! Our hiring of a guide was looking to be a better investment than we had expected.
We cruised around the central part of Rio looking at the sights as lunch hour arrived and traffic went nuts when our guide made her only misstep. We turned onto a narrow, shop-lined street that had previously served her as short cut…..and stopped. It took us almost an hour to travel one block. Not only were several escape routes from this little bit of Rio hell blocked off, two additional one way streets fed into it! The upside was that we enjoyed looking at all the shops along the street, if only for a bit too long. In hindsight we should have just got out of the car and did some shopping. It wasn’t as if the car was going anywhere.
Once free of the gridlock, we stopped at a famous coffee shop called “Colombo”. As something of a self taught expert on shrines to pastries and baked goods, all I have to say is Wow! It matched anything I’ve seen to date in Italy or France, both in grandeur and, um…..edible content. It turns out Brazilians are pretty damn good bakers and turn out some rather fine desserts.
Since the highlight for many visitors to Rio is a visit to the Jiant Jesus, our guide was very concerned about the weather. She pulled up a real time webcam image on her phone of the statue and told us it was clear at the moment, but could be enveloped in clouds at any time. So what did we want to do?
Given the mist in the air, even if the clouds allowed a view it would have been mediocre. So we told our guide we’d pass on Jiant Jesus and were up for whatever she might suggest as an alternative. Good decision.
She took us around the main Rio stadium, where the Olympic ceremonies will be held, then up through the mountains surrounding Rio, in a circular arc. We stopped at several viewpoints with excellent views of the coast. Sadly, we failed to see a single monkey. Then back down to the coast and towards Ipanema where we arrived around 4:30. Since we had started our day with her at 8 AM, we certainly got our money’s worth.
Third (and last) full day – our own wanderings
We enjoyed not having to get up at a predetermined time and took our leisure at breakfast. Now having the hang of the cheap cabs, we grabbed one and headed off to the botanic gardens a few miles away.
The gardens were highly rated on Tripadvisor and they didn’t disappoint. Aside from being huge, they were nicely laid out and maintained extraordinarily well. One very long path was through a rain forest/jungle environment, complete with waterfalls. Oh yeah, and monkeys. And Toucans. Score!
Leaving the gardens we decided to walk back to the hotel, a couple of miles away. The route was along the shores of a salt water lagoon where some of the Olympic events will be held. The perimeter of the lagoon is around 3 miles or so, and is ringed the entire way with bike and pedestrian trails.
After a lunch of what may have been the best steak I’ve ever had, we decided, “why not, more walking!” We walked along the beach to the Leblon district, adjacent to Ipanema. The waves were becoming huge, and we stopped and watched them crash against the rocks for a while. We then turned a few blocks inland and walked through the upscale residential areas of Leblon. Getting back to Ipanema, we continued on to the rocky point at Arpoador and watched more waves crash. Wave watching is apparently a thing to do in Ipanema.
Walking back to our hotel, along the Ipanema beach, I spotted a couple guys holding what I recognized as high grade RC aircraft controllers and video screens. There be drones around!
Although I could see where the pilot was looking, it took me quite a while to find the damn thing. It was a quadcopter of some sort, way out and up, apparently videoing the breaking surf…..from over the surf. The pilot then moved it above the hotels lining the beach and off to the rocky Aproador point. I say “pilot” because there was a second guy with an identical controller apparently controlling the gimbal-mounted camera beneath the multi rotor. While it looked to be some sort of professional operation, I don’t think it was sanctioned as when they finally landed it, they grabbed it and moved off rather discreetly and nonchalantly. It appeared to be a DJI Inspire Pro, which is a $3,000+ drone. Pretty brave to be flying it over the ocean in the weather conditions of that day.
Last partial day
Since we had to leave for the airport at 3 PM, we didn’t do a lot. We mostly lounged around the hotel and went walkabout on the beach and local neighborhoods. We stumbled upon a street market where several vendors were making tapioca crepes. Considerable time was spent studying the technique and figuring how to do it at home. Our drive to the airport was remarkably uneventful, but the traffic in the opposite direction was just plain stopped. Yep, time to leave and we were headed the right way.
The flights home were also uneventful, with an overnight flight back to JFK for a 6 AM arrival. After a few hours in the Flagship Lounge (showers and free, all you can eat bacon!!) we again flew upgraded First class on an A321T back to LAX for a late morning arrival, so, you know….nice. In contrast to our outbound leg, we landed at LAX a full 45 minutes ahead of schedule so maybe this stuff all averages out.
Random Rio thoughts
Seeing the Olympic preparations and hearing the local’s assessment of it all was interesting. The people we spoke with all were skeptical it would be finished in time. And looking at all the crazy construction, as an engineer, I couldn’t help but feel the same. But I also know, as an expert procrastinator myself, that people can often just pull stuff out of their asses at the last moment and make it all work. And I think that’s what will happen with the Olympics. To everyone’s amazement, it will just all work.
Jeri and I were really tripped up by the Portuguese language. It’s like every fourth word we would hear was recognizable to us as Spanish, but the rest was gibberish. It was like Bizarro Spanish to us! Reading was better, since the words often looked similar to Spanish or even Italian words we knew and we could put together meaning that way. But hearing those same words……we were done. That said, most locals we interacted with spoke some English so it all worked out. But Jeri and I do like to have some of the language down wherever we visit, and we found Portuguese very frustrating.
Fresh juice bars (Sucos) were everywhere and a very big deal to Brazilians. While it can be argued than even juice packs a huge wallop of sugar, the Brazilians view them as very healthy, and thus partake freely.
The parts of Rio we visited were all very walkable and pedestrian oriented. Sidewalks were fairly wide (and clean!) and the walkways along the beachfront were huge. While the streets are very crazy with traffic, signalized intersections were everywhere and almost all had readily visible pedestrian crossing displays. There are many large cities in Europe that seem to lack this. Combine the walkability with the plentiful, cheap cabs, and the Metro system, and Rio appears to be a very easy city to get around in.
The beaches were nothing short of amazing. Huge, clean (Olympics related?) and with free access they were fantastic. And I say that as someone who’s not really a beach person.
The city of Rio, when viewed for any elevated point, looks surreal. The mixture of modern high rises, lagoons and beaches, dramatic rock outcrops with a jungle background, make it all appear as some CGI effect in a sci-fi flick. It’s hard to accept it’s all real.
Zika, hysterically reported on in the US, seemed a complete non-issue. Now I happen to hate mosquitoes myself, but only swatted a few away from my face in the course of the entire trip. And that includes visits to the jungle and a very wet botanic garden. Jeri seems to be popular with the more sneaky breeds of mosquitoes and managed to get two bites. So maybe she’ll Zika out, but likely not. My sense was that the threat of getting hit by a car while walking around Rio was MUCH greater than Zika. We Americans do like to find things to worry about, don’t we?
We were surprised at how California-like Rio was in smoking, fitness and dress. We hardly saw anyone smoking, and it seemed even less prevalent than in California. This may have been a manifestation of the emphasis which the locals apparently place upon fitness. There were running and bike trails everywhere, and workout equipment being used in most parks. We saw a great many runners out, even in temperatures that would have knocked us on our butts. Lastly, everyone dressed casual! We were finally someplace where we weren’t the bummy dressed tourists! Sure, there were a few professional types in suits, but you got the sense they were to be pitied, that they dressed that way only because they were forced to. It was a very pleasant environment!
And as a closing note, it turns out the main Rio airport (GIG) is nowhere near anyplace you want to go. While the airport itself is really nice and sparkly (having been completely refreshed and overhauled for the Olympics), it’s a long drive through likely nasty traffic to get to any place you’re staying and there’s no Metro connection. Plan accordingly.
Overall, Jeri and I really enjoyed Rio. That said, I’m not sure we’d go back. It’s a very long (and usually expensive) trip to get there from the west coast of the US. Since for us Europe is much closer, and there are some many places there we haven’t visited, we’d likely head there rather than revisit Rio. But if someone forced me to go I certainly wouldn’t complain too loudly. After all, it’s the land of Pao de Queijo (notwithstanding Jeri has already figured out how to make them at home!!)