On Saturday, the 28th and headed off to catch my bus to Sao Paolo. This megaopolis has something like 20 million people and maybe upwards of 26 million. No one’s really sure. But, everyone was clear – be careful in Sao Paolo. I arrived at the bus station and jumped on the metro which had a stop close to my hotel. I packed light and left the heavy bags behind. The weather was really cold, wet and windy. So, I hung close to the hotel.
On Sunday, the weather improved somewhat. It was at least dry and sunny. But, the wind and cold made for a chilly day. I only planned to stay 2 days in Sao Paolo so I headed out on foot to see some of the sights around. I stayed on Avenida Paulista which borders the very tony, Jardims barrio. Along Paulista is the MASP (Museu de Arte de Sao Paolo) museum which contains several works of the European greats. There were two special exhibits of Toulouse Lautrec and, surprisingly, Darwin. Actually, it was art from the period that Darwin spent in Brazil. The museum was small but delightful. I especially enjoyed the Darwin exhibit because the works were of the Brazilian coastlines, including Rio, painted around early 1830s. I moved on along Paulista to check out an exhibit called, “Memoria Do Futuro”, aka Memory of the Future, at the Itaú Cultural Museum. This was a very cool interactive, virtual exhibit that blew my mind. I’ve never played with my art like this. My time in Sao Paolo was short and I was fine with that. Maybe with better weather I would’ve explored more. But, was happy to spend a good deal of my time in a cool bookstore cafe I found close to my hotel. I have to say, I never felt unsafe in Sao Paolo. Of course, I stayed in fairly nice neighborhoods.
On Tuesday, I got up early, jumped on the metro and caught my bus to Rio. With all the issues Brazil is having with its internal flight system, I was happy to take the bus. Plus, it only cost me $85 to go from Piracicaba-Sao Paolo-Rio-Campinas-Piracicaba. And, the buses are actually pretty nice, especially the long-haul buses. And, for a few bucks more, you can ride in seats that almost recline fully (which of course I did).
Anyway, when I left Sao Paolo, it was about 8 degrees C/46 degrees F. When I got to Rio, it was in the mid-20s or upper 70s F. I headed to my hotel which was in the center of town, not on the beaches. I wanted to save a few bucks so I stayed offshore. Wednesday I blocked off to deal with a payment issue for my hostel in Bariloche, Argentina. The hostel required a 50% deposit and I was having trouble getting money sent from Brazil to Argentina. Sao Paolo is the financial capital of the southern hemisphere and I couldn’t get money out of it. Western Union in Brazil was completely useless. Unfortunately, I had the same issues in Rio so I sent a nice note to the woman at the hostel and hoped for the best.
I did manage to walk around Copacabana beach and have lunch on the beach. With the school break over and the Pan-American games having concluded, Rio was fairly quiet. But, the beach was beautiful. The highway runs between the hotels and the beach. But, on the other side is white sand and blue-green waters waiting for you to indulge. There were a fair amount of people out. But, the area could definitely handle more people. For all the warnings I had received about walking along the beach, I never felt unsafe.
Thursday I struck out on the town. I had my list of things I wanted to see. I got into a private care service waiting outside my hotel. When the driver heard what I wanted, he agreed to take me around to everything on the list. We agreed on a price of $75 and off we went.
The first stop was Pão de Açúcar or Sugarloaf Mountain. I jumped on the teleferico to get up. There was an intermediate stop where we changed cars and eventually went up to Sugarloaf. The view of Rio was stunning. The day was clear, sunny with no clouds and the pollution tucked behind the far mountains that surround the city. Rio looked like a mix between Cape Town, Honolulu, Miami. And, that still doesn’t capture the beauty that Rio possesses. I can see why this has been a popular destination for decades.
After descending we headed off to an unexpected find in the city guides – the Carmen Miranda museum. I knew she was from South America, but never realized she was Brazilian (Portuguese by birth). I was a little surprised at how modest the museum was. Given her larger than life personality (and headgear adorned with fruit, flowers or feathers, I expected something much more, well, flamboyant. But, there was a nice, if small, collection of her outfits and a small video of her greatest hits. So, after feeling the “Chica Chica Bun Chic” vibe, we moved on.
Next up, was one of the New 7 Wonders of the World, the Christ Redeemer statue. One of the best parts of this was the drive up to the statue. The entrance is on a large mountain behind the city. On the way up you pass through a mix of old, tony neighborhoods and favelas (the poor neighborhoods of Rio). The houses were built right into the mountainside similar to what you would find in northern California in Sausalito but markedly different architecture. Big beautiful trees and a lush landscape bordered the road as we ascended the mountain. We parked and had to take a shuttle bus to the top. We could’ve walked the 2-3 kms, but it was really steep and the bus was cheap.
We got to the top with swarms of people crowded around the statue. The view was equally amazing as from Sugarloaf. I got my picture in front of the statue with my arms extended out like Christ…because I am soooo saintly. Anyway, I grabbed a quick bite and enjoyed the view of Rio from above. The site was amazing, but I have to say that Easter Island is much more impressive and should have been named a 7 Wonder if Christ the Redeemer won. But, I suspect that Christ the Redeemer is better known and more frequently visited.
Finally, we headed off to the Botanical Gardens. I hate gardening myself. But, I do appreciate the work of others. The gardens were huge and very impressive. I believe they were started in the early 1800s. Some of the large trees date back to then. I was struck by the number of species from all over the world. So many places restrict the import of foreign species. And, I would think that in Brazil’s climate, almost anything would grow. Maybe the gardens are controlled well enough to prevent the foreign species from pollenating where they shouldn’t. Anyway, it was one of the most impressive gardens I’ve ever seen.
It was late in the afternoon and I still had 2 things to see. One would be impossible to see. But, the other, the cathedral, was right next to the hotel. So, we stopped off at the cathedral for a couple of quick pics and I was dropped off at the hotel. I was exhausted and stayed in for the evening.
The next day, I slept in too late and missed my tour to one of the local favelas (or slums). I was really interested to see this side of Rio. But, nature kept me in bed. So, when I did arise, I headed off to Impanema beach. I found a great sushi place then walked around the beach. This beach had even more beautiful people on it than Copacabana and the beach wasn’t bad either. I haven’t seen that many bodies that belonged in speedos since my last trip to South Beach. And most of these guys were straight.
I camped out for a while on a large rock that separates Impanema and Copacabana beaches. I sat next to a guy from Valencia, Spain. It was great to speak to someone who I could communicate with easily. I think being around Portuguese for a while has actually helped my Spanish. Now when my brain hears Spanish, it is processing it much more naturally than before. A big part of it is just time and practice. But, I also think that my brain is so happy it doesn’t have to work as hard as it does when I’m trying to communicate with a Portuguese speaker, that it’s flowing much more naturally. Who knows. My time in Rio was great. And, this is a place I would love to come back to – especially at Carnaval time in February.
On Saturday, I took the bus back to Piracicaba via Campinas. That night, Helo invited the family over and a few friends for a sendoff meal with me. I really got to know these people. And, they adopted me as one of their own immediately. After 4 months on the road, it was nice to have a place surrounded by friendly faces. I now have an adopted Brazilian family to add to my international adopted families.
On Sunday, I was up early to go to Sao Paolo to catch my plane to Argentina. I thought I had flown into and would be flying out of the airport that had the crash a few weeks ago. But, I found out that the airport with the crash was only the domestic airport, not the international. So, with a sigh of relief, I boarded my flight and headed off to ski country – Bariloche, Argentina.
Originally Published August 9, 2007