This is the first of a three-part series about a South American vacation.
Is it possible to fall in love with a city? Yes, it happened when I first saw San Francisco. Now, over 50 years later, I’m infatuated with another city: Rio de Janeiro, often called the “City of Superlatives” – and our first stop on a three-week South American vacation my wife and I enjoyed this past Christmas season.
Our arrival in Rio was part of a game of tag with the Silver Wind, one of four ships operated by upscale Silversea Cruises. The line, currently celebrating its 10th anniversary, has been a consistent winner in the best small ships category of prestigious competitions staged by Condé Nast Traveler and Travel + Leisure magazines.
Our plan to board the Silver Wind on an eight-day Rio-Buenos Aires cruise was thwarted when we learned the ship, which preceded us to Rio by just four days, was fully booked. Undaunted, we went to Rio on our own, then flew to Buenos Aires, where we would join the Silver Wind on a 17-day, four-nation “fire and ice” journey of 4,010 miles. We would sail down the east coast of South America, around Cape Horn and up the west coast to Valparaiso.
Rio likes to bill itself as “incomparable.” Certainly it is a modern, world-class metropolis, the “City of the Samba,” with 6 million inhabitants who call themselves “cariocas.” They say it in Portuguese, because Brazil is the only South American nation where Portuguese is the main language.
Overlooking the city and its harbor are the ubiquitous Statue of Christ the Redeemer, arms outstretched, atop 2,330-foot Corcovado Mountain; and 1,130-foot Sugar Loaf.
We reached the famed statue by cog railway that climbed through Tijuca, 8,000 acres of vegetated density that is the world’s largest rain forest. Until recently, people with physical handicaps had to stop several hundred feet short of the statue.
However, a seven-story elevator and two banks of escalators were completed last year, making the full ascent to the statue and the spectacular view easy for everyone.
A cable car line that’s been in operation since 1912 took us to Sugar Loaf’s granite peak.
The five-mile oceanfront property – the most expensive, most photographed part of the city – extends from Sugar Loaf to the Sheraton Rio.
You’ll want to bring your camera to Corcovado and Sugar Loaf, as well as to Rio’s two most famous beaches, Copacabana and Ipanema. A word of caution: Keep your camera and valuables hidden. Try to join a group tour. There is crime in Rio, as in most North American cities. It pays to be cautious.
If you encounter a problem, contact DEAT (Delegation of Attention to Tourists). DEAT is a special police unit that’s open around the clock.
Brazil’s seasons are the reverse of ours. It was summertime in December, so the beaches were crowded, especially Copacabana and Ipanema. The latter, of course, was the inspiration for the bossa nova classic, “The Girl From Ipanema,” first recorded in 1962. Tom Jobin International Airport is named for the composer. The lyricist, Vinicius de Morais, wrote the words at a local restaurant, Garota de Ipanema, which still stands on a street named for him.
The original “Girl From Ipanema” is now nearly 60, lives in nearby Sao Paulo and makes occasional visits to Rio.
Rio is a city of rags and riches. Before reaching the luxurious oceanfront properties, we passed some of the city’s notorious slums. They’re called “favelas,” and they are home to one-third of Rio’s population.
The biggest event here is Carnival, held each year during the four days prior to Ash Wednesday. Celebrities who have attended this spectacular event include Bill Clinton, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ricky Martin and Robert De Niro.
Brazilians are late diners, and in Rio, it’s not unusual to have dinner at 9 or 10 p.m. Since we were on a tight “early to bed, early to rise” schedule, we had our main meal mid-day. One day it was at Confeitaria Colombo, a famous international restaurant dating back to 1894. It’s in Old Rio, an area teeming with pedestrians on narrow streets and warnings about pickpockets and thieves.
Brazil’s national dish is “feijoada,” a rice and bean stew made with beef or pork and garnished with a toasted manioc flour called “farinha.” Its national drink, “cachaca,” is a sugar cane rum concoction that is the world’s third most popular distilled beverage.
We logged some 30 hours on American Airlines between the U.S. and South America and a TAM Brazilian Airlines flight from Rio to Buenos Aires. By cashing in some frequent flyer miles and purchasing additional miles, we were upgraded to business and first class for a fraction of the regular cost.
Heretofore, to enter Brazil you needed a visa with your U.S. passport. Now you may also be fingerprinted and photographed as you clear immigration procedures. That’s the Brazilian response to a similar ruling put into effect at 115 U.S. airports early in January for most visiting tourists. Getting a visa may take a couple of weeks. The way to start is with a call to a visa service organization such as Zierer.
Was our stay in Rio the start of another romance, as with San Francisco some 50 years ago? Hardly – life and times have changed. Would we welcome a return visit to this exciting city with its own color and spirit? You bet.
For more information, call the Brazilian Tourism Office, 1-(800) 727-2945; Silversea Cruises, 1-(877) 215-9986; America Airlines, 1-(800) 433-7300; TAM Brazilian Airlines, 1-(888) 235-9826; Sheraton Rio Hotel & Towers, 1-(800) 325-3535; Zierer Visa Service, 1-(866) 788-1100.
Bob Richelson is a frequent contributor to The Union’s travel page.
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