June 13. We emerged from the fog of a 9-hour overnight flight into the Rio airport, which is large and modern, walked about half a mile (literally – I have a pedometer), and entered a long, slow immigration line serviced by only two agents. The joys of travel. Things were looking up, though, when we breezed through customs and emerged into the real world to find our Overseas Adventure Travel guide, Danna, and four other group members waiting for us. From that point on we were well taken care of with comfortable bus transportation and conversation on the way to our Rio Othon Palace Hotel right on the beach in Copacabana. First impressions of the city: huge, spread out over a large area divided by beautiful peaks and bodies of water, requiring bridges and tunnels that bottleneck the traffic. Even at 11 am the traffic into the city was horrendous. Many people live far away and commute, dealing with this every day. One woman we met who worked as a litter policewoman (fining litterers – yay!) travels three hours each way to work! At least she works only every other day with a 12-hour shift.
From our room on the 11th floor (of 30) we could look down on the beach and see surfers on what I’d estimate to be 8-foot waves, some able to go “tubular” if they caught it just right, others having some spectacular wipeouts. We can also see a newly erected blue box of a building on the beach that will be the press headquarters for the beach events of the Olympics in about two months.
This brings us to a discussion of the state of the city and country right now, summer of 2016. The economy is in a perilous state because of overly generous benefits doled out by Presidents Lula and Roussef but more so because of corruption, with lots of tax money going right into politicians’ pockets. A typical maneuver if to propose a public works project and state its expected cost as $50 million when it can really be done for $10 million, with the extra $40 million going to cronies. Big companies pay bribes to politicians, government deficits are deliberately understated, and now the scam has reached a crisis point where there is not enough money to pay public workers. Meanwhile, the Real has been devalued, and inflation is rampant. We saw several demonstrations as we walked around the city. Our guide was not shy about pulling aside a protestor for a conversation, so we could hear first-hand about their troubles. Some teachers have been without pay for six months. Brazilians are optimistic, though, because finally, top politicians are being jailed for their corruption, and this is a first. It will be interesting to see who is left in government.
Back to our day, we ate very well in Rio, starting with a pay-by-kilo lunch at AipoAipim, with huge selection of salads and main dishes. Some unusual items we liked were the most popular guarana soda (mildly fruity), pineapple tea, manioc, and fried sweetened parsley. Unfortunately, our free time in the afternoon was taken up with trying to call the Bank of America to see why all the ATMs refused to give us cash even after we had informed them about our travel to Brazil. Another adventure in flexibility occurred when the electricity in the hotel was turned off at about 3 pm, so we had to take the stairs from our 11th floor. At least we weren’t on the 30th!
That evening our welcome dinner was at a Churrascaria next to the super-fancy Copacabana Palace Hotel. Brazilian Churrascarias, which we also have in the US, have a large salad bar and unlimited servings of all sorts of meat that are brought to your table on big skewers. Everything was very good, and we were stuffed again,as it looks like we will be for most of the trip.
The next morning we had a huge buffet breakfast, of course, at the hotel and took a quick walk on the beach before gathering with our group. We saw a tai chi class and a couple of interesting birds, brown booby and magnificent frigate bird. The temperature is perfect here in the early winter, about 70 degrees. We are lucky to have a clear morning, because our first stop is the top of Corcovado Mt and the Christ the Redeemer statue that towers over Rio. What a view of the whole city and bay. We were early enough to avoid the crowds, too. The top is reached by a train that travels through the Tijuca rainforest. A must-do in Rio!
This was followed by (surprise!) a buffet lunch with notorious dessert buffet, the Confeituria Colombo. Yum! Then we toured the downtown area by tram and subway, walking through the historic Old City and seeing the Portuguese colonial architecture as well as some modern additions such as the beautiful San Sebastián church that looks like a Mayan temple but with stained glass on four sides. Back at the hotel, several of us chose to go up to the 30th floor and enjoy the view while sitting on the terrace, and Danna invited us to have a LIGHT supper at one of her favorite hangouts, Uno Estrella Guia. It was a little cafe-type place with a live band playing Brazilian samba, bossanova, etc. We shared some chicken bites and black bean soup, just enough. To bed early for a 5 am wake-up!