Travelogue Brazil 1: Rio de Janeiro

RIO DE JANEIRO

22-27 April 2017

We landed into a rainy Rio with a runway ride so long we thought we might be getting door-to-door service to our hotel!

Among the first to disembark (we were in the first cabin behind Business Class), a hot hoofing to Passport Control had us walking straight up to the counter for a quick stamping and on to collect our luggage… which was already waiting for us on the carousel. Never have we ever!

The chap at the Info desk was very helpful and scoffed at the taxi companies heckling for our business, saying that the bus ride was only 10 minutes longer for a quarter of the fare. Obviously reading our skeptical indecision, he came out from behind the counter and chaperoned us outside to the bus stop where, as further luck would have it, the bus (actually a luxury coach) was already waiting. We welcomed the return to aircon after the handful of steps in the wall of humidity that hit as we left the airport building.

A few minutes later we were off on what turned out to be a 45 or so minute ride along the highway from the airport and then through the docklands on the coastline that winds around to our ultimate destination – Copacabana. 

First impression of Rio is that it’s massive and has more than its fair share of grimy buildings and graffiti. Lots and lots of graffiti, everywhere. First impression of Copacabana is that it’s a holidaymaker paradise; a 4km concave crescent of perfect golden sand with circular take-out shacks and cheerful cafe tables splayed periodically to get fed and watered without ever having to leave the beach. Lined with palm trees on the beach side and towering apartment and hotel blocks on the other and with hawkers peddling hats and crafty jewellery from mats on the promenade, it’s not dissimilar to old world Durban.

The bus dropped us right at our door, at the Orla Copacabana at the very end of the beach, which we’d chosen for its location. With Ipanema Beach a mirrored 4km concave crescent to Copacabana’s, the 2 side-be-side formed a sort of wide “m”; our hotel was on the beachfront just off to the Copacabana side of the middle stalk, with easy access to both  beaches. 

Our hotel was also nice enough. The room had space for little more than the double bed and ergonomically-shrewd en-suite… which was really all we needed. Rooftop pool and fitness centre (with sauna!) and breakfast in the dining room from 6-10.

Dying to get out to See and Do, we did the bare minimum and exchanged jeans for shorts so as to get out to make the most of the setting sun.

Passing the Copacabana Fort, we headed to Ipanema Beach and were soon on the trademark black and white zigzag pattern sidewalk that runs the length of the wide promenade.

The beach was busy; prime time with both daytimers calling it a day and nighttimers coming out to play. With the searing sun starting to cool, the footvolley (hybrid of football and volleyball) players were out in full force on the permanent volleyball courts set up on the beach sand. We sat at one of the many beachside cafés and watched them play, sipping on an ice-cold Itaipava beer (while most around us were enjoying cocktails from straws extending from the inside of fresh coconuts).

Having acquired a local sim card at the airport, we used our sundowners time to start planning the next few days. In among our research, we discovered not one but two Irish pubs in the vicinity so thought it best to tick off the Guinness Index sooner rather than later.

That took us to Shenanigans (2 roads inland from the beach strip). Which had no Guinness, on tap or otherwise! We stayed for a beer (Brahma) to be polite – mostly because you have to check in, where you give your name at the door in return for a barcoded card, which is reconned when you leave to make sure you’ve paid your bill. Very clever.

On our way back towards the beach we passed a very lively local pub/restaurant/café, so decided to try our hand at local fare. First surprise was that beers are served as 600ml bottles, in a wine cooler sort of thing, with caña-style thimble glasses. The menu was quite difficult to navigate, even with the English translations, but we settled on a Bacalhau (cod) balls and a meat pie and a cheese pie to share. All to the dulcet soundtrack of about 30 locals ups-and-downsing to a local football game on the telly. Very festive.

With a long day of travel and our bodies thinking it was 3am, we ambled back to the hotel to get a shouldn’t-be-taken-for-granted 8 hours horizontal in an actual bed!

SUNDAY – Copacabana 

We awoke to a rainy Rio. This was not on the agenda but, fortunately having checked the weather report before we left, we had our travels brollies so it wasn’t a game-ender.

On the upside, the hotel breakfast was far better than we’d anticipated so, after a leisurely multi-course of yoghurt & fruit, pancakes & bacon and cheeses, cold meats and bread, we were well fuelled to take on the miserable day.

We shimmied past the large cluster who had gathered in a forlorn group under the large awning at the hotel entrance, staring into the rain and at the sea beyond, willing the rain to stop… smug that we had packed our Baltic umbrellas and could brave the elements.

It was more of a drizzle than actual rain and it was clear that it didn’t dampen the locals’ spirit at all. Copacabana has triple car lanes in either direction with the dividing island dotted with petrol pumps. There is then also a dedicated cycle/skate/running lane that is the same width as a car lane, also with the painted line in the middle to regulate movement in either direction.  And the pavement is a good 6 or so metres wide, also with the same distinctive vibrant black and white brick pattern and Ipanema’s. 

Rain or no rain, there were people walking, running, cycling and skating not only on the dedicated areas but also the car lanes closest to the beach were closed off for pedestrian use as well – possibly a Sunday measure to cope with the swells of people that must flock to the beach in good weather. 

There were also swarms of people utilising the numerous beach sports setups; footvolley courts, soccer goalposts, Muscle Beach style permanent gym equipments. And we caught a parade of sorts with a singer belting out what sounded like a Portuguese version of “Heal the World” from a slow-moving stage truck, cavalcaded by hundreds of bikers. Quite a spectacle. 

We ambled along the length of the beach, stopping to take pictures of some of the many fun statues, to grab refreshments and to put brollies up… and then put them away again as the drizzle stopped and started. The fanciest hotels look to be in the middle of the beach while the end of the beach, a section called Leme, appears the most modest, catering for bus loads of locals migrating for a day at the seaside. There is a walkway carved into the rock wall at the end of the beach that protrudes into the sea which homes the local fisherman.

For our walk back, we moved a block in for a difference experience.  We’d no sooner mentioned that we should look for a local soccer jersey for Christian and and pair of Havianas for me than we found a shop on the left for him and the right for me! Another block down and we realised that it was less serendipity and more that we were after local commodities, available almost literally everywhere!

There were also (more) bars and restaurants along the inner road, all quite buzzy and busy; Sunday must be a big day for socialising in Rio.

With the rain starting up again we thought, still being full from breakfast, we’d hunt down The Clover (the other Irish Pub that had come up on our search) to find the elusive Guinness to add to our Index. We found that there was an Irish Pub near to where we were looking, but called The Lucky Screw. No Guinness on tap, but they did have cans so we ordered one anyway. When seeking a second round, the bar lady revealed she only had one can left, which we ordered anyway to share. Good thing too because when we settled the bill, we found to our horror that the Guinness was $R56 a can… ZAR266!!! …making it the most expensive Guinness we’ve had anywhere in the world – a full ZAR110 behind 2nd place, Copenhagen. 

Reeling a bit from the shock, we moved back to the shopping street to find somewhere cheap and cheerful to numb the pain. We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around, pub-hopping as we found places of interest and absorbing Rio’s famous snacking culture in some of the more “authentic” places we tried.

We’d snacked so much in fact that we’d eliminated the need for dinner, so when we’d had our fill of the nightlife, we retired to our hotel to relax, watch telly and order room service. 

Not in the mood for anything fancy or too filling, we ordered from the extensive “Sanduiches” menu (a staple on all Rio menus, from what we’d seen) and I was delighted with my open steak (“contra-filé” which we surmise is sirloin) sandwich, a lightly peppered juicy piece of medium rare steak on a bed of two slices of toast completely hidden beneath a generous layer of melted yellow cheese. We were both pleased to see a half plate of golden fries as the accompaniment as we’d noticed that in all the menus we’d seen over the course of the afternoon, chips are hellishly expensive, averaging ZAR90 a plate, which is the same – or in some cases more – than the burger / sandwich!

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