Rio de Janeiro. Just the name of it conjures up images of an exotic beachfront, surrounded by an iconic landscape and a city filled with fun-loving people. I have wanted to go to Rio since I was very young and heard about a little party they like to call Carnival. Unfortunately Carnival this year is being held in late February, which did not fall during our summer vacation, so Jon and I settled for the next best thing: Rio for New Years.
Actually, when I booked the trip I mainly was interested because I found cheap flights online. We didn´t actually know that New Years in Rio was a big deal, but once we started searching for hotel rooms and found 6 night minimum stays and prices that were 3 to 4 times higher than normal, we realized something was up. A quick Google search revealed that New Years Eve on Copacabana Beach is one of the world´s most well known celebrations. Who knew? Well, apparently the 3 million people that gathered from all over the world to watch the fireworks with us along Atlantic Avenue…. but I think I am getting a little ahead of myself. This blog entry is only supposed to be about the first two days.
Jon and I arrived in Rio on the 27th after a very long van ride from Paraty. Upon arrival, I was a little disappointed by our hotel´s location. For some reason I thought that the Windsor Copa was in between Copacabana and Ipanema beaches, but it turned out to be located on the far end of Copacabana beach, near Leme and Pao de Azucar. I had heard that Ipanema and Leblon beaches to the southwest of Copa were the best places to stay in Rio because they are a little more upscale. I had also heard that Copacabana, despite it´s history as the travel destination of the rich and famous during the 60´s, was actually a little run down and seedy. Well, once Jon and I emerged from our non-beachfront hotel, we learned that the Windsor was actually right behind the luxurious Copacabana Palace and about a two-minute walk from the main stage for the New Years festivities. We never once felt unsafe and it turned out to be a fantastic location for what we were in town for, although it was probably my least favorite neighborhood in the city.
Jon and I began our afternoon thinking we would just take a quick stroll along the beach and find a little place to grab some lunch. Since we thought we would only be out and about for a short while I wore my black Capri pants and a long sleeve shirt in order to keep the sun off of my burns from the sailboat. At first the walk was fun because I was just so amazed that I was actually in Rio and seeing the famous beach that I had dreamed about. Unfortunately, Jon and I realized about 5 minutes into the walk that the sun in Rio is hotter than hot and the humidity is even worse. Within ten minutes we were both drenched in sweat. Also, being that we were wearing the most amount of clothing that anyone has ever donned during the summer in Rio, we stuck out like sore thumbs. I wished I had put on my swimsuit so that I could be a little more naked and fit in with the rest of the crowd. Honestly, I have never seen so much nakedness in my life as I did walking down Atlantic Avenue that day. There were old men in speedos brazenly strolling along the sidewalk with their tennis shoes and socks. There were wrinkly grannies, teenagers, and pregnant ladies in too- small bikinis and floppy hats. There were boys from the favelas playing soccer on the beach. But what I will remember most are the butts. They were everywhere! There were women roller blading with their butts jiggling back and forth, women with perfectly tanned butts ordering juice from the kiosks, and women with dimply, cellulite covered butts making their way into the water; apparently women from all over the world go to Rio just to show off their “ass”ets. Since I have not done a single squat or lunge in over a year and my butt is so white it probably reflects light, I was most definitely NOT tempted to join the crowd.
Anyway, Jon and I were looking for some non-fried food so we ended up walking the whole stretch of beach in the sweltering heat of the midday sun. Apparently beach kiosks only sell fried food, beer, and coconuts with straws in them, and that wasn´t quite what we were looking for. By the time we walked to the end of the beach (1 hour later) both of us were hot, cranky, and extremely hungry. I reluctantly agreed to eat at one of the kiosks and we sat down completely covered in sweat. Luckily we looked up and noticed that there seemed to be a shady area with umbrellas and cafes on the promontory that juts out over the ocean. We decided to give it a shot. What we stumbled upon was the historic fort of Rio de Janeiro and we happily paid the entrance fee in order to find a possibly shady place to eat. It turns out that the cafes in the fort complex serve decent food and have an amazing view of the entire Copacabana beach. Jon and I ordered lots of liquid and finally began to relax while watching the paddle boarders out on the water. It turned out to be a great afternoon. When we were done with lunch it was about 4:30 so we still had a few hours of daylight left. I had read that watching the sunset over Praia Arpoador was something not to be missed. Neither of us wanted to make the long trek back down the beach before sunset, so we decided to press on to Ipanema. We found our way to the other famous beach in Rio and discovered that it was basically a sea of humanity, which would have been more interesting if it were less hot. Jon is not really into crowds, especially on the beach, so I tried to find us a quieter spot on the rock overlooking the beach. Well, the rock may as well have been an oven because it seemed to be absorbing the heat and magnifying it by ten. Also, did I mention that Jon and I had WAY too many clothes on? Well, it turns out that the rock I picked is the most popular place to watch the sunset, so as the hours and minutes SLOWLY ticked by, our viewing platform became extremely crowded. It made for some great people-watching, but Jon and I were both pretty miserable by this time: we were tired of the sun beating down on us and also a bit bored just sitting around waiting for the sun to go down. Finally it did, and it was pretty. We also learned that in Rio it is customary to clap when the sun goes down…. interesting. The long and short of it is: I´m glad we did it and we got some good pictures, but next time I will go closer to sunset and wear my swimsuit, instead of my winter clothes. We ended the day on a good note, however, by dining at the Bahian restaurant Siri Mole and Cia where we had the most delicious fish stew bathed in coconut milk. Amazing! I highly recommend eating at this famous Carioca spot when you are in town and ordering the molluca de peixe. A young couple from New York viewed our dish and decided to order it to great raves, so don´t just take my word for it.
The next day turned out to be clear so we decided to take the cable car up to Mollo de Urca and Pao de Azucar. I had been told to go up there for sunset since the view over the city is said to be amazing at dusk, but I was worried that the weather would change and that the mountain would be covered in clouds, the way it had been the evening before. Luckily we beat the rush of the crowds and did not have to wait too long in line before being whisked into one of the cable cars. I was soooo excited! I love fun and unique methods of transportation and I was really looking forward to getting to the top of the rocks. Luckily it turned out to be worth the hype. The views looking back on the city were phenomenal. The city of Rio is truly beautiful. Let me clarify: as Jon contends, the city itself is not beautiful because the architecture is very bland and concrete, but the natural scenery surrounding it makes the city truly magnificent. From high above on the mountains we spotted the beaches, the lake, the statue of Christ, the national forest, and the favelas. I could have looked out at that view all afternoon. The views were so magnificent, in fact, that Jon and I almost shelled out 500 dollars for a 12 minute helicopter ride to get a closer view of Cristo de Redentor and snap the iconic picture of Jesus with his arms wide, embracing the entire city of Rio. Luckily, one of us emerged from our “I Love Rio” trance and realized that the flight broke down to roughly 50 dollars a minute, and so we decided to save the helicopter for our next trip.
Instead we took a quick walk around the neighborhood of Urca at the bottom of the mountain and declared it to be a lovely place to live. The views of the marina were not bad either. For lunch we headed back to Copa and ate at a local Italian eatery, La Trattoria. It wasn´t gourmet, but you could tell that the food was made with love. After lunch it was time for our afternoon siesta in our air-conditioned hotel room. Both of us decided to avoid the heat of the afternoon and only go out in the morning and evening. For the evening, I had planned a trip over to the Santa Tereza neighborhood up on a hill on the opposite side of the city from the famous beaches. Santa Tereza is kind of the artistic neighborhood and many people say you need to be careful there, but Jon and I quickly fell in love with the place. We loved the colorful homes, the jovial atmosphere on the streets, and the views overlooking the city. Santa Tereza used to be reached by a historic streetcar, but apparently 6 people died on the trolley recently, so it was shut. But Jon and I enjoyed our walk around the top of the hill and especially enjoyed the views from the Parque das Ruinas. I had already chosen our restaurant for dinner earlier in the day and had made reservations for 8:30. We couldn´t decide between two restaurants; Espirito Santa or Tereze, both of which were written up in the guidebook for their food and for their views. In the end we got to experience both, because we happened upon the Hotel Santa Tereza (the location of the latter restaurant) and stopped in their scenic bar to watch the sun go down over the hill and also to have some delicious tropical drinks. It is here that I will state for the record, that a caiparinha can be both one of the most delicious drinks you will ever have, or also, the most disgusting. I had a delicious mango martini to start off with and Jon ordered a Bloody Mary. Then we were having so much fun that we decided to order strawberry caiparinhas. They were terrible! Cachaça has a very strong taste that the strawberries did not mask at all. I felt like I was taking shots of rubbing alcohol… Ugh! But, since Jon and I had planned to have an evening out in Lapa after dinner, I figured the extra drink couldn´t hurt.
We had a really nice evening at Espirito Santa where we sampled Amazonian fare and enjoyed the ambiance of the back patio of the restaurant. For the second night in a row we happened to be seated next to an American couple who asked us what we were ordering. Immediately upon hearing the woman´s accent, I said I was from Houston, instead of my usual introduction, which is California. “Well that´s funny, “ she said. “We´re from Houston too!” And then we learned that they had lived in Hong Kong and Japan so we got to chatting about life as an ex-pat. Which somehow turned into her revealing that she and her husband had gone to Kinkaid, but were probably the only democrats in all of Texas. (Except for my family, of course). It was a fun conversation and I mention it because the only people Jon and I befriended on the trip were a wealthy retired couple from Houston. Maybe that says something about us…
I had been dead-set on going to Lapa after dinner to experience Rio nightlife, but once we arrived there, we discovered we had not brought enough cash and that neither of us really felt like going out. So instead, we walked down the street and admired all the young people having fun and wished we were not such old farts. After a stroll down the row of bars, we decided to take a taxi and head home instead. (Don´t Judge!) Going out is never as fun with just the two of you as it is with a group. If I went back with another couple or just the girls, I´m sure I would enjoy it, but Jon and I just weren´t really in the mood. Plus, it also meant we could wake up early and enjoy the next day without being hung-over or tired. So unfortunately I never did make it to a samba club in Rio (shameful…) but I did experience Rio nightlife at its finest a few nights later. Stay tuned for the next episode!