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Rio de Janeiro

Beaches and rainforest-covered mountains alone can make a place into a destination. Couple that to a vibrant diverse city and you get a place that like a celebrity goes just by a single of its names, Rio.

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We began the Brazilian part of our trip in Rio and ended it there. Here is an index to the sections that follow below.
Trip to Rio

While it is a long way from San Francisco to Rio de Janeiro -- the shortest distance of 6,600 miles is some quarter way around the world -- the jet travel makes every distance seem small in this day and age. But not so fast, it is still a long trip from one continent to another. That is if you count North and South Americas as separate continents. Either way, with connections in Lima and Sao Paulo and a shuttle trip from Union City to SFO, it was scheduled to take some 21 hours.

There is always excitement at the beginning of a major trip. Adding to it was Irina's new camera whose manual she spent studying diligently a good part of the nine hours of the flight from SFO to Lima. My entertainment was provided by reading Lonely Planet about our destination. Later, we watched The Motorcycle Diaries, a road trip movie documenting Che Guevara's 1952 trip from Argentina to Peru, which likely launched him on a path from a medical student toward a revolutionary. It is a great movie and features places that we would like to visit or were about to visit shortly.

Most of the revolutionaries in South America have since mellowed out, but a lingering threat of them likely provided us with a great airfare for our trip to Rio and back with a stopover in Lima. The fares dropped significantly some two months ahead of our trip just as a new president was elected in Peru and the world hesitated about possible repercussions for the country's economy and politics...

The arrival in Lima in the middle of the night local time was nothing what I remembered from eleven year before. The terminal had been modernized and there was no sign of Latin American chaos. Following another five hour flight, at least a part of which I dozed off, we landed in Sao Paulo just as my body was aching to continue sleeping. Sao Paulo looked huge and somewhat uninspiring from the air, but before long we were on our plane to Rio.


Pao de Acucar (Sugarloaf Mountain)

After landing and trekking from one terminal to the other with all the luggage, the service was very slow at the Avis counter even though there was only one party in front of us. It seems not very many rent cars upon arriving in Brazil. I was not surprised, having just reread all the warnings against driving in Brazil in the Lonely Planet guide, but it only made my anticipation to get the wheels grow. The lady at the counter made calls, and it seemed almost as if they did not have a car for us. Finally, all the paperwork was signed and they would bring out our car to meet us in front of the terminal.

The car looked a bit Brazilian even though, at the time, I did not quite know what that meant. It had seen a lot of more road and other cars a typical rental in the US would have. All the windows were tinted which would further reinforce the stereotype I got from all the guides about safety. Only later did I learn from Antonini that all cars in Brazil were either black, grey, or white. It was a bit of a stretch on his part. In a sea of cars driven around Rio and Sao Paulo, there were a couple of drops of red. A rare eccentric would drive a yellow car. Our car blended in in its somewhat faded blackness. The insides, like the exterior, had a slightly tired look, something that I would not expect in a car from a premium car rental company in the US. A few more surprises about it were still awaiting us.

As soon as the GPS locked on, we hit the road. Driving in Rio did not take much of an adjustment - the traffic was heavy, yet unexpectedly orderly. Our hotel, Rio Palace Othon, treated us well by sending us to their business reception area on the 33th floor. From their rooftop restaurant, we took in views of the Copacabana beach and, just past its northern edge, the Sugarloaf Mountain was calling to us. It was not far, but it took a good half an hour to drive over there in the rush hour traffic. The sun had just set as a gondola took us to the summit. The views of the city lights waking up from their daytime slumber were amazing. We could see the downtown, the Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon districts in the distance, and high up on Corcovado Mountain, the lit-up statue of Christ the Redeemer. We were in Rio!

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Sao Paolo airport scenery Picture review Copacabana and Pao de Acucar Copacabana Copacabana and Pao de Acucar Rio
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Flamengo and Downtown Rio Store on Morro de Urca Dusk over Flamengo and downtown Rio Sweet view Spectators Rio!
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Pao de Acucar cable car Rio lights and curves Going down Night Copacabana


Santa Teresa

I watched the sun rise from the balcony. Long below our 32nd floor room, the volume of traffic along the Copacabana beach front was much slower than in the evening. A neigborhood called Santa Teresa and a nearby located tiled staircase, Escaleria de Silaron, caught our attention in our guide. Already the evening before, we found out that the cigarette lighter had no power, making it impossible to recharge the GPS in the car. This was a bit of a nuisance, but rather than taking our car back and wasting our vacation time, we learnt to work around it by recharging overnight and then making the best of the GPS battery which would last about three hours. By complementing it with my phone and its Google maps, the combination would be good enough even on long driving days that lay ahead.

The GPS navigation proved very useful on narrow, hilly, and often one-way streets of the Santa Teresa neigborhood. Our first stop was a historic mansion where we enjoyed great views of the downtown area and Pao de Acucar. After walking around for a bit, we visited an art museum, Museu da Chacara do Ceu. Finally, we explored a central part of the neighborhood and watched the cars of the Santa Teresa Tramways go by. The cars were packed with tourists and with the door free design, they reminded us San Francisco cable cars. In some ways, Rio is a bit like San Francisco, except steeper. The hills are steeper, and so are the contrast of poverty and riches.

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Copacabana sunrise Here comes the sun Copacabana sunrise Morning glow View from Museu da Chacara do Ceu Leaves
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Mexican Flame Bush (Calliandra tweediei) Go this way Art in Museu da Chacara do Ceu Dancers Santa Teresa mansion Santa Teresa tramway
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Santa Teresa tramway Cell phone age Boy


Escadaria Selaron

This one-man made piece of art is a quickly becoming one of Rio's landmarks. It took a while to find too. It is situated on a steep slope and straddles Lapa and Santa Teresa neighborhoods. One way streets and a few street closures seemingly made the surrounding streets into a maze with a no way in, at least for a car. We ended up parking some way above the staircase near a police post and walked down to it. The police presence we found in popular tourist neighborhoods seemed ressassuring given Rio's rough reputation. At the same time, it was interesting to observe bored, texting cops stationed on every other corner, and wonder how much this must cost and how Rio would handle its upcoming monster events of the World Cup and the Olympics.

The staircase of some 250 steps is the work of a Chilean born painter and sculptor, Jorge Selaron. It features tiles from all over the world and also some sections with his trademark pregnant women images.

As we were leaving, a van of a (self-proclaimed) off-the-beaten-path travel agency arrived just above the staircase. Apparently, there was some way to crack the maze, but there is nothing like the sense of adventure that doing or failing to do it alone can bring.:-)

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Stairs Tiles Irina on the stairs Doorway Teenagers Stairlife
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Beer can Colors Brasil, eu te amo Escadaria Selaron Photographer Escadaria Selaron
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Living in favela... Selaron tiles Simpson tile Tiger? Stair history in English Stair history in Portuguese
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Cat Cat Home renovation in progress Police Street stand Bartender Coconuts (cocos)
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Copacabana at night


Copacabana

We stayed right on the Copacabana beach, both just after arriving in Rio and before leaving it. We dined in the neighborhood and sampled food ranging from Brazilian fares to sushi. We walked on the beach late in the evening (in spite of some warnings not to do so, it seemed safe). We drank caipirinha and enjoyed freshly cut cocos (coconuts) at its beach side bars in the evenings. We even shopped an arts market there. For all of the Rio's sights, it was not until our third day there that we hit the beach during the day. It was a beautiful morning and we had a few hours before leaving for Sao Jose dos Campos Embraer facility to meet up with Antonini.

Copacabana Beach with its 4km long strip of sand is one of the most famous beaches in the world. It is popular with both locals and visitors to Rio. It is wide enough in places to fit a soccer field, and it is a great place to people watch. We did a bit of that, splashed around in the waves and relaxed a bit before heading out.

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Rio Othon rooftop pool Chairs with a view Enjoying the 38th floor view Morro de Cantagalo Morro de Cantagalo Clinging to the hillside
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Favela Cantagalo Runners Irina Surf On the beach Beach vendor
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Colorful beach accessories Rio style blanket Beach vendor Brazilian flag Rio towel Coconut spider


Corcovado

The statue of Christ the Redeemer at the top of Corcovado Mountain is a monument that hardly any visitor to Rio can skip. It also happens to be one of the new seven wonders of the world. It is its location that is monumental in the first place. Perched atop of a 2,300ft (700m) tall steep mountain overlooking one of the most spectacular cities in the world, the view from there in itself is incredible. The statue is about 40m (130ft) tall, and serves as a landmark visible from much of the city. That is if it not shrouded in clouds.

It is hard to miss its symbolism. Jesus Christ, often portrayed in his final moments of suffering nailed to a cross, is shown here in a similar and yet so different pose. His arms are outstretched in an all encompassing love. It is this message and the celebration of goodness that emanates from this piece of art that even a most non-religious person should find appealing.

Arriving from Parati, we decided to take advantage of the good weather and drove up the mountain, or at least as far as one can go. There would not be nearly enough parking at the top so visitors, whether they come by car or a tramway, are shuttled the last mile or so of the way. Up on top, it was time to take a few goofy photos, and just plain enjoy the views.

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Recycling Christ the Redeemer and me Irina and Cristo Irina and her halo Irina and Cristo
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Finding trouble Cristo and I Posing Irina and Christ reflection Corcovado view
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Ominous scene Branch obscured Cristo Cristo after the sunset Irina and her reflection Coco
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Copacabana from Rio Othon


Teresopolis

It was our last full day in Rio and Brazil for that matter. There was still plenty to see around Rio or just relaxing on the beach would have been fun, but being a restless guy who likes mountains, I voted for a different program instead - a day trip to a mountainous region around Teresopolis, some two hours from Rio by car. The main draw for me was Serra dos Orgaos, a national park that features stunning rock spires, such as Dedo de Deus (Finger of God), rising from surrounding rainforests. It seemed to be a great day for mountain views, but because of construction slowdowns, the Finger was already obscured by the clouds when we started the climb on Hwy 116 toward Teresopolis. The scenery was impressive nevertheless. After passing Teresopolis, at almost 1000m above sea level the highest city in the state, we continued some of the way toward Nova Friburgo, enjoying an agricultural landscape and views of the drier side of the mountains. The clouds and fog were dense on the way back down from Teresopolis, slowing the traffic to a crawl. I wondered what the winding highway would look like in heavy rain... It did not take long to look up a story about a deadly flooding earlier in the year.

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VW Beetle - Old age Hwy 116 and Serra dos Orgaos Irina and our rental GM Astra Cowhide Moo Traffic on Hwy 116
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Atlantic rainforest Traffic on Hwy 116 Big climb Hwy 116 and Serra dos Orgaos Farming under the mountains Lettuce
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Horse drawn cart Fuzzy flowers Horses and mountains Horses and mountains Horse duo
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Football Brazilian style


Ipanema

Ipanema is Copacabana's wealthier sister. It is separated by Arpoador from Copacabana to the northeast and abruptly terminated by an imposing mountain, Dois Irmaos (Two Brothers), on its west end in the neighborhood of Leblon. It was our last day in Rio and a stop on the Ipanema beach seemed like a fitting end to our stay. It was a Saturday and the beaches were a lot busier with locals than they were on weekdays. Some played soccer, some played volleyball, but I found a couple of nets where they played a cross of these two most entertaining. It is called footvolley and originated on the Copacabana Beach in the 60s when soccer was banned on the beach.

It was a beautiful morning and it would have been nice to hang around, but it was time to go to the airport to return our car, catch our flight to Sao Paulo, and the connection to Lima. At the Sao Paulo airport, I bought what must have been the world's most expensive McDonald's sandwich. Leaving the country through the immigration checkpoint, Irina did not get held or fined for losing her immigration card - we were off to our next destination, Cuzco.

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Sunrise over Copacabana Copacabana Copacabana lines from above Wide Copacabana view Roof life Copacabana roofs
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Us and the elevators Street vendor Beach chairs Irina Uruguay flag over Ipanema
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Ipanema Beach and Dois Irmaos (Two Brothers) Footvolley header Ipanema footvolley Footvolley Stretch Cocos
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Ipanema sidewalk squiggles Water delivery Beachfront stand Americana at a price McDonald's staff Snappy
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World's most expensive Big&Tasty


Last updated: June 12, 2012
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