Saturday, Dec 18th
Everybody has a picture in their mind of how perfect the Copacabana and Ipanema Beaches of Rio de Janeiro are. Those pictures are all justified. If it rains, however, it's a different story. It rained every day for the first week, making for a pretty dreary arrival in Rio.
On the first sunny day, we jumped at the chance to take a bus tour, with Corcovada the prime point of interest. The bus stopped first at the soccer stadium, where we were allowed to spend fifteen minutes taking pictures of the locked gate; no one was allowed inside. Then we proceeded to the SambaDromo, where we were allowed to watch a video of last year's Carnival parade, wasting more time. Finally we started up the hill to the 100 foot tall statue of Christ, arms outstretched, overlooking the city from a vantage-point some 2000 feet up. It would have been spectacular if clouds hadn't formed while we wasted hours along the way. We pushed our way through a mob of tourists to catch glimpses of Copacabana and Ipanema Beaches through the mist. To make matters worse, the bus which delivered us to this fiasco took almost an hour to pick us up, more than the time we were allowed to spend on the hill. It was, without a doubt, the worst of our city-tour experiences. Skip the tour. Take a taxi to the Corcovado train which goes up the hill. Save your time and your money.
Saturday, December 24th
It's strange to hear Christmas Carols in English when everything else going on around you is in Portuguese. Hotel Plaza Copacabana put up a tree and provided a special buffet for Christmas Eve, but there wasn't any snow to be found, with temperatures over 80 deg F every day. Live musicians played the tune "Garrota de Ipanema" (Girl from Ipanema) for our dancing pleasure.
Saturday, December 25th
Milton Santos, captain of the San Juan 24 sailboat, Good Rhythm, from Newport Beach, in town to visit family for the holidays, invited us to a home-cooked Christmas Dinner at his mother's home. He gave the hotel clerk instructions (in Portuguese) to her house; we merely handed the paper the the cab driver who drove us directly to the door, a thirty minute drive. After dinner, Milton played Brasilian Santa Claus, passing out presents in his swim trunks and t-shirt.
Tuesday, December 28
Mike Baginski, world traveler and Bon Vivant from Newport Beach, arrived just in time for the big party. He brought Marline, a local lady he met at the Blumar Travel agency, who helped us make reservations for all of the celebrations.
Friday, December 31st
Flower stands spring up on New Year's Eve to supply roses and white gladiolas to those wishing to cast them into the ocean as an offering to the Gods, who will grant three wishes. By late afternoon, the beach was covered with flowers which the waves returned, granting the purchaser's wishes.
New Year's Eve is a special time for Brasilians; it means hotels can jack rates up out of sight, require a minimum of three or four nights at the inflated rate, and charge even more astronomical prices for their "Revillion" parties, little more than nice buffets with unlimited booze. Mike and Marline joined us for the 4th floor party at the Meridian hotel. From their balcony, looking out over Avenida Atlantico and Copacabana Beach, one could see all the open spaces rapidly filling with people. By 11:30 PM, it was wall-to-wall people.
The fireworks display at midnight was impressive. Launched from a barge just offshore, the barrage was continuous for twenty minutes. Smoke from the first ten minutes collected so heavily over the beach, it was difficult to see the second half of the show. It was a free show for the 2 million Brasilian animals who herded onto Copacabana Beach. Each one brought at least one bottle of wine or champagne which, when emptied, was left on the sand. By 2:00 AM, it was difficult to walk around the bottles on the beach as we went to throw our flowers.
January 1st, 2005
By 9:00 AM in the morning, the beach was perfectly clean! It must have taken a crew of hundreds to clean it.
Milton invited us back for another dinner at his Mom's house. After a night of hearty partying, the celebration was more subdued than Christmas Dinner.
Sugar Loaf was calling out to us on this fine sunny morning. After breakfast, we got a cab and were on the first cable-car to the top. The view over the beaches, harbor and city, spread out around huge rounded rock formations, was spectacular. Rio clearly has one of the prettiest locations in the world.
Anxious to get out of town for a change, we took a cab to the Rodoviaria Novo Rio bus station for tickets to Buzios, a beach resort about 100 km east of Rio. As our luck would have it, the bus we wanted was fully booked. Waiting for the next departure would keep us in the bus station for over two hours. Fortunately, the next party of three people in line had the same problem and told us what to do. We got on a bus for Cabo Frio, a three-hour ride, covering 90 percent of the distance to where we wanted to go, with the expectation of catching another bus for the last 20 km. The plan was working until the city bus at Cabo Frio saw our large suitcase; without a baggage compartment, they refused to take us. So we stuffed the party of three, the two of us, and all our luggage into a cab and were on our way again. Elsa doesn't take to well to being folded like a pretzel for 45 minutes, so it wasn't long before the cab ride became the "cab-ride from hell", Buzios became the "city from hell", and our hotel, which the cab driver couldn't find, became the "hotel from hell."
Buzios became famous in the sixties when Brigitte Bardot "discovered" the place. The house she stayed is now Pousada da Sol, decorated with pictures of her frolicking on the beach which was much cleaner then. No one has cleaned the beer bottles from it in the last 40 years. The adjacent 15 beaches were cleaner, but the steady drizzle discouraged us from lounging about.
Back in Rio, via a less eventful bus ride, we encamped at the Sol Ipanema Hotel, on the water on Ipanema Beach. In the interest of economy, our room faced another hotel, but the view from the swimming pool on the 15th floor was exceptional, unobstructed from one end of the beach to the other.
Our room lacked central air-conditioning, having a noisy window unit instead, so back we went to the Royal Rio Hotel in Copacabana, which we vacated the week before, due to slamming doors down the hall; that became the lesser of two evils. Their air conditioning was silent.
Yellow Fever innoculation suddenly loomed as an obstacle when we decided to complete our "Save the Whales, Collect the Whole Set" trip and fly to Columbia and Venezuela, countries not already covered by car, returning to Rio for Carnaval.
The bus to the free government innoculation office got us downtown after a number of stops along NS Copacabana. We walked the few blocks remaining. That's where the fun began... First you fill out a short form and put it in your passport. The forms and passports go into a pile, waiting for the data to be entered into a computer. They had two kids typing away, but both of them must have been blind, based on how many mistakes they made. Form after form went into the trash can when the recipient checked it and refused to sign it. We waited for one and a half hours for the paperwork, with only 11 people in front of us. The actual vaccination shots took less than one minute.
Brasil is a nice enough place, but the people will drive you nuts. If they have a conversation going when you walk into their place of business, you can count on it finishing before you get attention. And if the phone rings, you are chopped liver. Getting into a restaurant is easy... there will always be someone at the door to seat you. After that, you're on your own. Forget about a menu. Forget about ordering.
Rio de Janeiro, even more so than Buenos Aires, is a place where you should spend only three days. Take the cable-car to the top of Sugar Loaf Mountain, the train to the top of Corcovada, spend a day on the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema and then get out. After that the apathy of the residents will start to drag you down.
The introduction to the chapter on Brasil in the latest issue of Frommer's Guide to South America goes something like this:
God gave Brasil miles of white, sandy beaches, magnificent dense jungles, the longest rivers and wild-life of amazing diversity.
One of his Angels asked if that wasn't being overly generous.
God replied, "Wait till you see the people I'm going to put there."
Rather than be ignored, we went to a travel agent and got tickets on Avianca to visit Columbia and Venezuela, two countries skipped during our drive, thus finishing our "Save the Whales, Collect the Whole Set" tour of South America.